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Home » Sarah Weiss – Preliminary Thoughts on Race, Space, Nostalgia and Performance in Singapore

Sarah Weiss – Preliminary Thoughts on Race, Space, Nostalgia and Performance in Singapore

Draft ONLY- Definitely not for citation without the permission of the author!!

Sarah Weiss

In the first month after my arrival in Singapore in August 2013, I attended three concerts in the 1600-seat Concert Hall at the Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay.

Like Lincoln Center in New York, the Hong Kong Cultural Center, or the Sydney Opera House, the Esplanade is composed of striking architecture in a prime downtown city location. It is equipped with multiple performance venues of different sizes and presentation capabilities and hosts a mix of genres and styles performed by international and local artists. These sites are all among the iconic images for their host cities. While the acoustic qualities and sight lines of the various venues may be debated and critiqued, the halls and the public areas that make up these performance complexes are invariably elegant and prestigious. To perform at one of the venues confers a certain positive valuation to the performers and their endeavor, especially if the group does not usually perform in places with such international, high-end connections.  The spaces are, however, deracinated – sophisticated, austere, and grandiose, but culturally blank. This characteristic is generally desirable in that it allows performers from anywhere to create an affect for the hall when they use it, to claim the space through the process of their presentation. If these spaces are intentionally sterile to some degree, the good ones are not lifeless.[1]  The halls lend their interiors to the performers to do with them what they want, but still provide a distant, (mostly) non-judgmental observation of the performances that go on within them.[2]

The first event I attended was a performance by the City Chinese Orchestra on 18 August entitled, “A Southern Breeze: Music of the Min Nan Chinese” and featured performances of folk and classical music from the Hokkien-speaking diaspora of Southern Fujian, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia in particular Singapore. The second was on 30 August entitled, “Sayang disayang: Kartina Dahari” and celebrated the life and music of one of the most famous Malaysian/Singaporean singers from the 60s and 70s, the Keroncong diva Kartina Dahari. The last was a concert on 4 September entitled, “Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music 10th Anniversary Celebration Concert” and featured the musicians of the first Western Art Music conservatory in Singapore, the visiting American conductor Robert Spano, and the pianist Thomas Hecht who leads one of the piano studios in the Conservatory. Each of these concerts was professionally performed at a high level for an appreciative crowd that filled the house to overflowing.

As I looked around the audience attending each concert, I realized that the seats were filled by markedly distinct groups. It was primarily people of various Chinese heritages who attended “A Southern Breeze.” They were a mixture of all ages, friends and family of the young orchestra members, with a smattering of the seats occupied by government ministers and other invited special guests. The performance included a narrator who spoke in both Mandarin and English, although the songs were primarily sung in Hokkien – the local language of many of the seafaring groups from Southern China and Taiwan that gradually populated Singapore and other areas in Southeast Asia from the fourteenth century onwards (Miksic 2000:198-99).[3] The audience for the Kartina Dahari event was populated by elegant and colorfully clad Malay men and women, predominantly wearing gender-appropriate Muslim head coverings, with some people of Chinese heritage interspersed. There were few people under the age of the thirty in the room, except some of the performers in the 42-person, accompanying orchestra. The narration and performer communications with the audience were all in Malay as were the songs, although an occasional Chinese or English word was included in the lyrics. There was no attempt to include non-Malay-speaking audience members, if there were any in the room. The audience was a mixture of Caucasian, Chinese, Malay, South Asian and others for the Yong Siew Toh anniversary event. Many in the audience were conservatory students under the age of twenty-five and their supportive, local family members filled a good portion of the seats. The rest of the audience was populated by young families and older couples.

It is possible that I was the only person in any of the audiences to attend more than one of these concerts. A speaker of Indonesian which is close enough to Malay for me to be able to follow the narration at the Kartina Dahari event, I was able to follow the action at all the concerts since the Mandarin texts in “A Southern Breeze” were translated into English.  However, at two of the concerts my whiteness was marked and noted by the people sitting around me, as well as the ushers and ticket sellers many of who looked quizzically at me and then smiled indulgently. It is clear that the demographic groups at which these three concerts were aimed were not at all the same.[4]

Each of the performances I attended could have occurred in a different location in Singapore.  Yet, they were all presented in the same space at the Esplanade. What is it about the impersonal spaces at the Esplanade that reaches across Singaporean ethnic, racial, and interest groups and entices them to perform and gather there? Is it the prestige of performing in a venue with international connections? Is there some kind of more complex Singaporean-ness of the location that draws local performers to it?

Perched on the bank of the Singapore River as it flows into the top end of the humanely enhanced water catchment area that is Marina Bay,[5] the Esplanade constructs itself as the heart of Singapore’s performing arts world. Through hosting local cultural festivals and performance, earnestly and visibly working hard to appeal all the ethnic, race, age, and interest groups on Singapore equally, all while being the conduit for Singapore’s significant engagement with international arts and culture, the venue fully engages its mission to be Singapore’s #1 Arts Destination. But like the constructed and controlled water body that flanks it, is the cultural agenda of the Esplanade too manicured? Sitting amidst the different, non-intersecting audience groups, I wondered about what was clearly intended to be an inclusive and open approach to the celebration of performing arts from all the primary ethnic groups of Singapore in the context of world arts but was instead “separate but equal” in practice.

Two things strike me as a newcomer to Singapore. The first is how often people – Singaporeans of all stripes and people of other nationalities – announce that Singapore has no real culture. They say that while there are international musics and performances of all sorts galore and each of the ethnic groups has its own music, there is nothing that is really from Singapore.

For example, in a You Tube video excerpted from his 30th anniversary concert in 2004, Dick Lee – a talented Singaporean singer, composer of songs and musicals, play-write, and painter – introduces the last song of the evening saying that he cannot go without singing one particular tune. He says it is, “sort of like a national song. It uses a folk song. Sadly, it uses a Malaysian folk song.” He laughs awkwardly and covers his mouth with his hand looking askance over his shoulder suggesting that it is an embarrassing secret he shares with the audience. He continues, “We [meaning Singaporeans] don’t have any folksongs, you see. When I started out, my quest was to create the folksongs for our future generations.” [6] If you are not familiar with the regionally much-lauded Lee, one way to imagine him is as a cross between American artists Tony Bennett and Stephen Sondheim – a performer and composer of songs and musicals who is also a visual artist, highly recognized and persistently mainstream but not ever the “it” performer of any particular moment. Lee may be coming close to attaining his goal of creating Singaporean folk songs. Two of Lee’s songs were previously chosen as National Day theme songs – “Home” from 1998 and “We Will Get There” from 2002. They are now generally known by Singaporeans. This is not at all the case for every song chosen to represent National Day.[7]

The second is the prominence of nostalgia, which can be defined here as a palpable longing for the sweetness of past times in Singapore. Nostalgia is, of course, common in many places around the world.[8] Even a casual search reaching back only two or three years in the New Times electronic version reveals hundreds of articles featuring nostalgia for something or other. What may be distinctive in the Singaporean context is that while the nostalgia described by Singaporeans is often for things that they have lost in their own lifetimes, these losses are rarely caused by out-of-the-ordinary life experiences like involuntary migration, natural disaster, or major political upheaval. Instead the experience of loss is associated with what is described as a usual but extremely rapid pace of change in Singapore. There is a dramatically shortened sense of longue durée here. For instance, after a rehearsal gathering one evening in September 2013, the members of a music ensemble that I now practice with regularly suggested heading down to Al Amaan Restaurant at the southern end of Clementi Road near the University.  Although I live in the neighborhood, I had not yet discovered it. Several members of the group waxed eloquent about the quality of the food and, more particularly, the fact that the establishment had been around for more than fifteen years! One of the group recounted earnestly that he had been going there since he was a young teenager and he was now turning thirty. Still very new to Singapore at the time, I asked him if fifteen years was a long time for a restaurant to last in Singapore. The young man looked at me with a smile, suddenly aware of both the truth of what he had said and the perspective that an outsider might have on it, and said with mild irony, “it’s forever here.” Whether fifteen years is actually a long duration for a Singaporean eating establishment to be open is almost irrelevant. What is interesting is the perception. Taking my two newcomer impressions together one could possibly imagine that Singaporeans feel they are not tethered in their world that somehow they have evolved as a society that has no past but that they are also cascading forward on the crest of a “progress and development tsunami,” a wave that simultaneously obliterates their present and their past as they strive toward a hyper-planned, internationalist future without local affect.  This last sentence is certainly a dramatic, over-interpretation. But it is a logical, if extreme, end point to a thought process that begins with trying to understanding Singaporean nostalgia for a culture that, theoretically, never existed, assuming that we accept the assertion that there is nothing that is indigenously Singaporean.

Since that first month of performances witnessed in the culturally unaligned space that is the Concert Hall at the Esplande, I have been collecting Singaporean impressions about nostalgia and Singaporean performance culture. My data has been collected in several ways. Most recently I have constructed an anonymous survey offered on line through SurveyMonkey. I announced the survey on the Facebook pages of several of groups focused on Singaporean culture in general as well as those particularly interested, nostalgically and otherwise, in Singapore’s history.[9] I am still collecting responses at the rate of about one or two a day. The other is less formal, but also documented, and actually provided intellectual grist for the questions on the more formal survey. Multiple taxi rides around the city have afforded me with a captive, and often eager, set of interlocutors on Singaporean culture. With the extra time accruing on their meters, at least 20 taxi cab drivers have responded to my queries about Singaporean culture. Of varying political, socio-economic, ethnic, and educational backgrounds, they represent a broad cross-section of Singaporean society. Nearly all of them volunteered Singlish as truly Singaporean. Singlish is the English-based creole spoken in Singapore. The English is mixed with Malay, Hokkien, Teochew, and Tamil words and grammatical structures and other loan words from contemporary British and American English through television and film.[10] There are several levels of Singlish speech and people who speak different home languages use their own mixtures when communicating in Singglish. Some of the respondents to my survey stated that Singlish was decidedly Singaporean but that they found themselves comfortable speaking Singlish only to people with whom they grew up and not with new people they had met as adults. In addition, since 2000 the government has started yearly Speak Good English campaigns (PM Goh Chok Tong’s “Speak Well. Be Understood” program was the first initiative) and the construction of Singlish as déclassé (but not un-Singaporean) has been confirmed by government policy.  While Singlish is rated as Singaporean by everyone who has been queried, its value and use are not universal. This does not take away the pleasure many Singaporeans derive from speaking Singlish with one another and talking about it with interested foreigners, however. It may in fact add an element of resistance and independence that augments the pleasures of simply using the language.

The other cultural product that regularly appeared on the lists of taxicab drivers and my survey were the Hawker Centre phenomenon and Singaporean food culture itself. Hawker centres are like food courts positioned in covered spaces that are open to the outside from which cooked foods of many different varieties and cultures are sold and eaten. They are often near wet markets (fruit, flowers, meat, poultry, fish, vegetables) and were developed in the 1950s and 60s in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia in response to the rapid rise of the urban population in varyingly successful attempts to control culinary hygiene. The food at particular hawker’s centres is a common topic among Singaporeans. People have favorite stalls and argue with one another about which one is best. People will travel clear across the island to have a meal from their most favored site for some noodle or tofu or chili crab dish. Once the food arrives, they may well stop and take a picture of the dish and themselves with it prior to eating. There are many food writers who devote time to reviewing Singapore Hawker Centre food.[11]

It is interesting to note that many of the stalls in any hawker center will sell food combinations that cannot be found commonly anywhere. For instance, char siu rice is a kind of barbecued pork, much sweeter than the dish sold as char siu pork in many other places in the world. The sweet char siu pork in Singapore is served, not with the usual steamed, green-leafy vegetable of some sort seasoned with garlic and soy (although one can ask for it), but with some achar, a sweet-pickled vegetable (usually cucumber and carrot or cabbage) garnish common in various guises to the cuisines of Indonesia and Malaysia. Or the dish fish-head curry which features a thick South Indian curry paste in which has been cooked a fish head, a Chinese delicacy. Curry seasoning and coconut gravies are associated with South India and the ritualized eating of a fish head from cheeks to eyes is a Chinese tradition. The dish is served in both Chinese and Indian restaurants in Singapore. There are many other gradations of culinary fusion available on the dining tables of Singapore.

Char Siu Rice and Fish Head Curry are perhaps best viewed as successful hybrids, new creations formed in the merging of different culinary traditions in a new context and to the taste of several palates.  Of course, these received, perhaps “original” culinary traditions themselves are likely to have been hybrids at one point in their histories, but those stories are part of another tale.[12]  In tasting Singaporean food it is possible to talk about where the Indian, Malay, or Chinese elements begin and end, but the gustatory experience is a unified delight unless one is insistent on dissecting the hybrid product.[13] Similarly, Singlish is a linguistic hybrid that feels unified and complete to the speakers, some of whom pay attention to the etymologies of their vocabularies and grammatical sources, and most of whom don’t. That these hybrid cultural productions are the ones that are identified as particularly Singaporean is significant.

Where are the Singaporean performance genres that are hybrid?

Tommy Koh is an international lawyer and Ambassador-at-Large for the Singapore Government, special advisor to the Institute of Policy Studies and a member of SG50, a group coordinating plans for Singpore’s 50th National Day celebrations in 2015.  In mid-September the Singapore Straits Times invited Koh to write an opinion piece on Singaporean identity. Published on 13 September, Koh outlines seven elements that mark Koh himself as a Singaporean.[14]

  1. Koh is born in and feels irrevocably bonded to Singapore, but he points out one can feel these emotions whether or not one was born in Singapore, noting that one of the founding fathers of Singapore, S. Rajaratnam said that being a Singaporean was a personal conviction not a condition of one’s birth.
  2. Having close friends who are not of the same ethnic or racial group is noted by Koh as a key aspect of being Singaporean.
  3. Respecting all faiths without question whether or not one has a religion oneself is identified as resting deep in the genes of Singaporean.
  4. Singaporeans believe in meritocracy and are hardworking, reliable, and law-abiding. He notes that Singaporean’s did better than most places in the world with the Reader’s Digest wallet test in which wallets are “lost” around and the number of wallets returned to their owners and the state of the contents is documented. Singapore scored a 7/10 wallets returned intact.
  5. Singaporeans speak English in their own way, not Singlish, but with a distinctive Singaporean accent. Koh claims never to have lost his accent despite living overseas for twenty years.
  6. Love of hawker food and a taste for the many different ethnic cuisines offered on the island.  He cites friends of Singaporean Chinese heritage who love Indian food, and Singaporean Indians who love Malay food, Malays who love European food, etc.
  7. A love of the island and its unique physical features and its weather as well as a desire to preserve, conserve, and enhance both the natural and the built areas and history of the island for the community of a place is located its shared memories. In particular, Koh cites the efforts to restore and preserve neighborhoods, noting with sadness that his own primary school was demolished and his has high school moved twice, but that his law school, happily, has returned to its original home at Bukit Timah.

Koh’s final point references the rapid turnover of the urban environment that has been characteristic of Singapore over the last three decades. Whole neighborhoods have been moved from their HDB flats[15] and their original buildings renovated beyond recognition or even cleared. While residents are always moved either temporarily and returned or compensated and moved permanently, the feeling that “one can’t go home again” either because home has been knocked down or changed irrevocably is a common one.  In response to the survey question of whether they thought that nostalgia was more prevalent in Singapore than elsewhere, one respondent wrote,

Perhaps. The almost total destruction of kampongs, villages and farms commencing in the 1950s and continuing today coupled with relocations, sometimes more than once when older HDB projects are demolished, has obliterated the notion of grandparents’ home thus there is nowhere to go back to.

Another noted,

Bcos the change is visible and have direct effect on one’s life, in a single generation.

Most others agreed that this experience was clearly something Singaporeans experienced as a whole but they thought it might be the same in other large cities around the world or that it was because of the shortness of Singapore’s history.

Discussion and debate of government policy regarding housing, history, individual advancement, planned societies in general, not to mention hidden agendas regarding internal cultural hierarchies and many other contentious issues could all be started based on Koh’s list. Koh is following government policy even if his points are couched in his personal experiences. For the purposes of this essay, however, I am keen to focus the way in which Koh talks about race and ethnicity. Note that Koh suggests religious tolerance is embedded in a Singaporean’s genes and also that people have friends, colleagues of different races and ethnicities who enjoy eating the food of these different cultures. There is no rhetoric about those ethnicities being joined eventually into one culture or people attending and participating the religious events of their friends who practice different religions. Singaporean cultural identity is not that of a melting pot but of discrete separations that are carefully, respectfully, and with affection observed and preserved. Cultural mixture is not identified as the preferred outcome of the interactions of the races, ethnicities and cultures in Singapore. As Norman Vasu points out, “[T]he national narrative portrays Singapore as a racially and religiously divided society where harmony prevails owing to the actions of a determined and neutral government” (Vasu 2012: 736).  As has been pointed out by many others, the division of the communities into Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other (CMIO) vigorously ignores the multiplicity of language and culture differences inside those groups, but confers the responsibility of identifying and confirming the representation of the larger groups in all things on the island to the government itself (Ibid). Many have written and analyzed aspects of the multiracial policies of the Singaporean government. [16]  There is much debate about its continued relevance in the present or even its sustainability in the future as Singaporeans face increasing population trending towards trending towards six million and above in the near future.[17]

The non-mixture of racial identities in Singapore has been aided enormously by the language policies developed in the late 1970s and 1980s and continued through to the present. Beyond the concern about speaking English in a way that was understandable to the world’s English-speaking community, the Singaporean government also worried about the ability of the Chinese in Singapore to be relevant to the rest of the Chinese-speaking world. It is likely they were also concerned about the preservation of the Chineseness of Singaporean society because speakers of the many different Chinese dialects habitually spoke English to one another, if they did not share a dialect. In the context of the Mandarinization of Mainland China, it is not surprising that diasporic Chinese would also develop these concerns.[18] But the policy had unexpected ramifications in terms of Singaporean cultural politics and development.[19] In a personal communication, Deputy Prime Minister of Finance Shanmugaratnam agreed that the Speak Mandarin campaign had had the effect of creating a monolithic Chinese presence out of what had once been a myriad of smaller ethnic groups. While dissolving the boundaries between Chinese ethnicities, those between the majority Chinese and the rest of the ethnic groups in Singapore may well have been bolstered. With the active devaluing of Singlish as a mode of appropriate communication between ethnic and racial groups, one of the primary generators of Singaporean shared culture was slowed.

All of this is relevant to the search for Singaporean performing arts and the powerful presence of nostalgia in Singapore in the following ways.

(moving into outline form at this point in the draft.)

-Most traditional performance such as various Chinese opera traditions or Malay wayang and any number of local song traditions tend to be performed in one language and usually without translation for speakers of other languages unless they are performed in non-traditional venues.

-Singlish is rarely used as the primary language in film or theatre work, although English has been and is occasionally mixed with Singlish (get examples from William Petersen 2001, Theatre and the Politics of Culture in Contemporary Singapore)

-English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil tend to be used in contemporary stage and film work although the films of Eric Khoo and others are can be in dialect and not Mandarin, often representing the dialect only speaking world of the rarely seen lives of Singapore’s poor and never enfranchised.

-Food culture is a natural location for sharing cultures as the investment is only momentary. More investment of time, personal engagement and cultural knowledge is required for the sharing of cultural expression of either contemporary or traditional forms.

-Yet Singaporeans wax nostalgic for life in the kampong, where everyone was poor and culture was easy to share. In response to the question, “What does nostalgia mean in the context of Singaporean culture?” people said:

The loss of being able to celebrate the festivals in the homes of other races, the cross cultural dances like the Joget, Chinese wayangs where all races can view the stage performances in open air theaters, community events where all races stage various musical and dance items in community Centres and in schools.

A simpler, less crowded time without highrise housing which allowed more individual entepreneurism and home based income generating enterprises, from sandal making to bicycle based satay or freshly killed chicken and eggs. Much is prepackaged now.

Familiar landmarks, unpretentious living, friendly neighbours, community spirit…

Back in the 50s to 60s. Less urban, more traditional.

Sadness. This is because the “Culture” is Dead today. This was caused by the various “campaigns” the government came up with.Today there is a big “Confusion” when the term Culture in brought up.

When asked to make a list of performing arts that they associate with Singapore respondents said the following:

Chinese operas /wayangs, Line dancings, Chinese, Indian & Malay folk dances, Bhangras

Dance: Joget Theater: Chinese wayang Film: PM Ramlee’s movies, Pontianak series Music: angklong

Local musicians/groups performing for local audiences (as opposed to record label artists with regional/intl audience) See this performance by local group Budak Pantai http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UIu7EoUL9pw This is a Hokkien song popular in Taiwan and Singapore, but the way they interpreted it is so Singaporean. Multilingualism isn’t a gimmick here, it comes naturally.

Lion dance for Chinese. Malay dance. Indian dance. Local musicals which only locals can understand. We have dialects mixed with Malay or Mandarin in an English sentence.

Songs about our national history, traditional music from ethnic groups of Malay, Chinese and Indian.

specific genres from each language, many different kinds of chinese opera, Kartina Duhari, chinese orchestra

These answers suggest that that which is longed for is the more fluid cultural mixture that prevailed in the past. Never a melting-pot, unified approach to cultural production but a context in which people of different ethnicities encountered (on the street in their neighborhoods) and were able to appreciate the art forms of others.  This surely was not without an awareness of cultural difference on the parts of all concerned, but now, as was evident in the performances I witnessed at the Esplanade, people don’t have the opportunity to “bump into” the cultural presentations of other ethnic groups except in the manufactured and carefully curated representations of multi-culturalism in national day events.

There is some sense that race relations have also changed amongst the people who responded to the survey. In response to the question, “What is the nature of race relations in Singapore?” people said:

Mostly harmonious, S’poreans will come together to help others regardless of race, language & religion. Demonstrated in many past events – Chinese businessman paying for the education of Malay pupils, etc.

In the early 1960s there were some degree of “suspicion” between the various races.Then in the 1970s and 1980s there was a “natural” integration taking place among the different races here.Things were really good and there was a sign that there will be a natural integration among the many races here.People were slowly “feeling” that they were “Singaporeans”.BUT THEN IT ENDED! The government came up with what they termed as “MOTHER TONGUES” The people were told that Malays were to speak the Malay Language, the Indians were to speak Tamil and the Chinese, Mandarin.This caused problems among the Chinese and Indians because there were many different “Dialects” among the Chinese and the Indians.Many Indians actually did not speak Tamil and many Chinese did not speak Mandarin.Never mind the confusion caused among the Indians and Chinese this Campaign made the people more “conscious” of their Race and the “Unity” among the various races that was slowy happening ended.The authorities will never admit this and I can actually be arrested for saying these things to you

The different races tolerate, but do not accept each other because there are little honest conversations about race and racism.

At the macro level, it is very managed. The goal is integration, and the means is through public policies like housing quota. It’s debatable whether this approach of clearly-defined races (as opposed to racially-blind multiculturalism) actually promotes integration, or hinders it. At the micro level, you’ll find variation. While extreme racism is very rare, you do find people carrying stereotypes and biases towards people of other races. Most of the time, people are respectful and tolerant and you’ll also find people who have close friends of other races.

Amicable. Tolerant. Respectful. Harmonious.

There is insufficiency of honest and straightforward discussion about it, too many euphemisms and often unspoken but (bordering on) hostile attitudes towards each other shielded by tolerance and not inter-cultural respect.

This complicated mix suggests that race is very much an issue for contemporary Singaporeans and that the papering over of racial difference attempted by the government has been ineffective at best and given policy in the last 30 years, perhaps detrimental.  But then again changing socio-economic levels and the increase of wealth in some sections of society also had an effect. In a question asking about change in racial relationships,

People are now more “conscious” of their individual Race due to the “Speak Your Mother Tongue” Campaign.They do not feel “United” and therefore the “Concept” of being a Singaporean is gone froever.Things were going well “naturally”.The authorities should have left things alone and not “interfere” with the natural process of things.It is a pity.

The Chinese Malay Indian Others model was a death knell for racial relations in that different ethnic dialect groups (e.g. Hainanese, Bugis) were subsumed into an artificial whole, and measures were put in place (e.g HDB compulsory racial breakdown) to create a veneer of racial harmony

Race relations haven’t changed much between the “original” Singaporeans – locally born descendants of earlier (pre-Independence) migrants. The major change in recent years will be the influx of migrants from other areas, most noticeably from China. Culturally (in all aspects) they are different from the local Chinese, and given their large numbers, they tend to form enclaves rather than integrate

More immigrants causing the locals to be unhappy.

In addition to an increasing awareness of the possible problems that immigration may cause for the nation, there is a sense that race relations have changed for the worse or at best stayed in the same state of happy harmoniousness.  There is little sense that racialism is decreasing.

When asked if there are any performance genres or traditions that might appeal to more than one cultural group in Singapore people responded in the following way:

Pop bands have been popular across all ages and races even though they emulate western music. Do some research on Talent Time, a 1960s TV talent show.

No.

I am not sure if ‘the noose’ is counted as a certain genre. My family, from my dad (aged 65) to my younger brother (age 21) enjoys the show immensely. A lot of jack neo films are well recieved. In fact, anything that actually portrays small bits and pieces of habits or rituals that Singaporeans recgonises is generally well received.

Some local Bands. I can name a few. The Thunderbirds, The Quest are some good examples.They sang in English and have composed their own music.They appealed to almost all the races here and they sang in English.This is of course in the 1960s and 1970s.They definately appealed to more than one age group.

Football and elections are both performances to me.

We used to have an ok multi racial soccer team that enjoys support from everyone.

Gurmit Singh appeals to everyone. Jack Neo movies are very representative of Singapore, but is intended for and appeals to the local Chinese more. On the other hand, an old movie called Army Daze (an adaptation from a play of the same name) represented and appealed to all races. This is in contrast to Jack Neo’s recent From Ah Boys to Men, which many felt was too Chinese-oriented

drama performance groups are popular among everybody (e.g. wild rice, etc.) but dance performance groups are not so well known

These responses suggest that there is nothing that might be constructed as traditionally Singaporean except the pleasure of sharing the knowledge of  the different performance types in one’s kampong or local community. That pleasure and the apparent (possibly just reconstructed from a historical distance) ease of inter-racial communications is something that is missed.

One thing that is striking is that for all the emphasis on racial harmony and nostalgic interest in the racial harmony and community of 1950s and 60s Singapore, not one of the survey respondents mentioned peranakan culture and the decidedly hybrid performance genre of Bangsawan, performed in Malay the lingua franca of the land at that point, but telling stories of many different cultures and performed by mixed race troupes funded by Malay speaking, probably dialect maintaining, Chinese heritage businessmen.  http://bukitbrown.com/main/?p=3101

-Explain Peranakan culture and use Daniel Goh (2008) explores the move from the pluralism of the pre-colonial period to the multi-culturalism of the post-colonial and contemporary period.

Outline preliminary conclusions and list questions that remain to be answered by further research and those that likely will not have answers to be outlined: Place, Race, Nostalgia and Performance. In particular,  return to the nature of the performances at the Esplanade and talking about one or two pieces, future directions for this particular research. Need to round up with the role of neutral performance spaces.

Coda

The Al Amaan restaurant mentioned previously caters to many different tongues as well.  Here is an image of one page of their menu.

menu weiss

Although identified by their geographical locations, the dishes are all made in the same kitchen by the same cooks. This is readily apparent when one samples different dishes.

If the colonial racial policies had not been imposed and then continued through independence, who knows what kind of culture Singapore might have developed?  History cannot be rewritten.  However, the particular kind of mixture that is currently found in Singapore is represented in the intersections between this menu and the taste of the dishes they serve.  In his seventh point, Tommy Koh has identified cultural and historical preservation as something that should be embraced by the Singaporeans.  Some people think fifteen years is a long time for a restaurant to last in Singapore. Perhaps the gustatory cultural mixture hidden beneath the specific geographic designations of the dishes is a sign of things to come

The premiere of Alfian Sa’at’s play Kakak Kau Punya Laki or You Sister has a Husband happened in December 2013. In the context of exploring responses to terrorism, traditionalism and contemporary life for urban Malays, Sa’at presented a deeply Singaporean play that could and would speak to people of any ethnic extraction who wanted to see it because of the presence of excellent super titles in English. At the performance I attended (once again at the Esplanade but in a different hall), my husband and I were the only non-ethnic Malays in the sell-out audience of 220.

_______________________________________

As yet, incomplete bibliography of references cited:

Benjamin, Geoffrey 1976 The Cultural Logic of Singapore’s” Multiracialism” pp67-85

Chua B.H. 2003 Multiracialism in Singapore: an instrument of social control Race and 
Class Vol.44(3) pp58-77

Chua B.H. 2005 Taking Group Rights Seriously: Multiracialism in Singapore Working Pa- per124, Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University

Moore, R.Q. 2000 Multiracialism and Meritocracy: Singapore’s Approach to Race and In- equality Review of Social Economy Vol. 63 (3) pp339-360

Rahim, L.Z.2004 Dilema Singapura: peminggiran politik dan pelajaran masyarakat Melayu Oxford University Press

Vasu, 2012

Zhou, Minglang (ed.) Language Policy in the People’s Republic of China: Theory and Practice Since 1949. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004


[1] As is the case in international airports around the world, once one perceives this imagined state of tabula rasa, one becomes attuned to the particularities of each specimen, and one develops preferences.

[2] This sense of being observed has the effect of separating the presentation from its usual context and distancing it from the performers themselves. The space created by these minute distances can be filled with awareness of other, perhaps more famous, performers who have presented on the same stage. Whether the comparisons that arise inspire or diminish, they bring an awareness to the act of performing that a presentation in one’s more usual performance space may fail to invoke.

[3] “Chinese Ceramics and Local Cultural Statements in Fourteen-Century Southeast Asia” by John Miksic in Studies in Southeast Asian Art: Essays in Honor of Stanley J. O’Connor, edited by Stanley J. O’Connor and Nora Taylor. Ithaca: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 194-216.

[4] Perhaps the distinctive natures of the audiences for these individual events might be similar to that found at many concerts in comparable performance venues in around the world such as Lincoln Center in New York, the Hong Kong Cultural Centre or the Sydney Opera House.  At these venues not every performance appeals to all the people who might be likely to afford to attend events in those locations.

[5] The Marina Barrage is a tidal blocking system that allows for the control of water in and out of the bay, simultaneously preventing flooding and creating another freshwater reservoir for water-needy, land-strapped, ever-growing Singapore. The Marina Barrage has won several top international environmental prizes, and it is rapidly becoming an icon of contemporary, forward-planning Singapore. http://www.pub.gov.sg/marina/Pages/default.aspx

[6] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHyEKDB910w (accessed 20 December 2013)

[7] Whether a folksong can be newly composed is a topic for another conversation. My short answer is yes. One need only consult the American and Australia folk revivals for examples.

[8] See Boym 2001 for an extended study of the development of the concept through history and a look at its manifestation through the Soviet era. There are many other studies that could be listed.

[9] Need description of the survey and the respondents age/race etc. number.

[10] See Deterding, David (2007). Singapore English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press for description, history, and pronunciation.  The Wikipedia article is particularly detailed and excellent http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singlish.

[12] Stross 1999 on hybridity cycles.

[13] Weiss (in press, expected 2014).

[14] Whether this focus on Koh’s personal experiences is an effort not to impose his own criteria on other Singaporeans or to suggest by example that these are the only ways to be Singaporean is open for interpretation.  For the purposes of this essay, this debate is irrelevant.

[15] HDB flats are Housing Development Board flats – government-built housing units, some of which are rented through the government agencies and some of which are available for extendable, 99-year lease/purchase. The buildings in each HDB neighborhood are similar, although the neighborhoods are differentiated from one antoher, and the buildings are numbered, in the order in which they have been built, across the island. Each neighborhood has some retail locations available on the first floors and they are usually built near or contain markets and schools so that living in the communities is reasonably convenient and they are self-contained. The scheme was originally created in the 1950s in an attempt to provide housing for the rapidly increasing and urbanizing population. The apartments in any given neighborhood are distributed proportionally to families from different ethnic and racial groups and the neighborhoods are meant to have proportional representation of poor and rich, professional and working class people. The rise private housing in the last twenty years has changed the proportions significantly, allowing the wealthy to move away from these planned-living neighborhoods. But the ethos of living together with people from all walks of life is still highly valued by the government and many people, although I have seen the occasional cringe from some people when they announce that they live in the HDB flats.  The SERS, Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme, is the government plan for renovating HDB flats that is responsible these displacements.

[16] Benjamin, Geoffrey  (1976); Chua, Beng Huat (2003, 2005); Rahim, Lily (2004); Moore, R. Quinn (2000) among many others.

[17] If CMIO will not work for controlling the population anymore, it is possible the government will resort of fear of foreigners and the way they necessarily change the cultural landscape. Intimations of fear about foreigners waft through the papers and blogs on Singaporean culture already, witness the commentary on the Little India fracas in December 2013. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_Little_India_riot and https://www.facebook.com/notes/donald-lows-fc/some-reflections-on-the-little-india-riot/691001610933816 for just two of many.

[18] See Zhou, Minglang (ed.) 2004 for perspectives and history of language policy in China since 1949.

[19] See Bokhorst-Heng, Wendy (1999) Teo, Peter (2004) in particular, among many others.

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