Month: November 2011

This is home. Truly?

A long time ago, I used to attend dance classes at the National Theatre. Each time my father drove me there he would point out the red-brick facade of the building, and say that he owned part of it. Even though I already knew the answer, this conversation was a routine performance that each somehow felt the other expected, and so I would dutifully ask why he said that.

“Because,” he would reply triumphantly, “I paid for one of those bricks.”

I played around the front steps of the National Theatre while waiting for my father to pick me up after class each Saturday, loving the way the pointed sharpness of the brick structures contrasted with the roundness of the fountain in front of it, and the garden that to my little girl’s eyes seemed to stretch away infinitely into the distance.

The National Theatre was supposed to be a symbol of the nation, with its design incorporating references to the Singapore flag. It was also one of the places where the construction of Singapore as a multiracial nation was first enacted, through ethnic cultural performances.

They tore down the National Theatre in 1986.

The National Library at Stamford Road was a place where I spent many happy hours browsing among books that smelled like they had a history behind them. Starting out with the Children’s Section and then progressing to the General Section on the first floor, I eventually visited the Reference Section most frequently when I was in secondary school and junior college. The building was beautifully placed, made of warm red brick, and visited by a steady stream of people who loved to read. I don’t know if my father ‘owned’ part of that building too, but I associate that building with my budding independence. No one drove me there in the years of my most intensive use of the resources it contained. I went by bus or train.

They tore down the National Library in 2004.

The Bukit Brown cemetery is slated to be cleared for a new dual four-lane road. People in the Rochor area are losing their homes for a new expressway. There has been much unhappiness expressed over these issues. The government line, faithfully reported in and backed up by the mainstream media, is that we must be pragmatic. No one likes change. But we are a land-scarce country, and it is not as though there are no solutions. The cemetery is going to gain a new lease of life in the virtual world. Rochor residents are getting new flats in Kallang. What, our efficient but clueless technocrats are wondering, is everyone whining about?

One letter writer in TODAY puts it very well when he says that “communities take many years to grow, and cannot simply be transplanted from one built environment to another”. Philip Holden suggests a refreshing new framework that the government can use, one in which heritage conservation does not have to clash with efficient land use.

It is hard to call a place home when every square inch you invested your memories into gets swept away in the rhetoric of zoning policies and national development. How do you create an identity of citizenship that is rooted in a nation when there is no physical part of the nation to root it to? I have often thought of Singapore as Legoland. Buildings are easily erected, and just as easily dismantled. Citizens are like those little Lego people whom you can fix in place so that they seem rooted. But then with just a little force you can tug them out of the positions you assigned them and plant them somewhere else.

Real people don’t go so easily. Real people need a sense of community. We are social beings who need to build connections with each other. In so many years of civic and citizenship education, National Day Rally speeches, articles by local journalists in the mainstream media and other platforms for the dissemination of national messages, we are told that we must build a sense of loyalty to the nation. This is our home, we are told. We must build communities that are multiracial.

Yet the moment we go past the carefully crafted performances of citizenship represented by events such as Chingay and Racial Harmony Day, and actually start putting down roots in our physical spaces that intertwine with the roots of those around us, we are told that in the name of progress, it is time to uproot and move. Apparently the only sense of citizen identity we are allowed is one that is modular.

We are home-hungry. Community-hungry. And dare I say – dialogue-hungry. It’s not just about the decisions that are made, but the way in which they are made. In my next blog post, I have a story to tell about a group of people who tried to save their community, lost the fight, but emerged from the experience with new insights about the need to change the way in which citizens and the state engage each other.

(Photo of National Theatre is from here, National Library from here, and Legoland from here)

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Unexpected opportunities

Here we go again. Something is rotten in the state of Singapore? Let’s tweak it through the education system so that we can avoid delving into the root causes. Citizenship education in Singapore has always been an overt mechanism for training docile bodies. To some extent that is the case for every country. The moment we talk about teaching children to be ‘good citizens’ there is already an agenda imposed on the young, and through them, on society as a whole. I don’t think anyone would argue that we should leave citizenship education to serendipity and wishful thinking. It’s a complicated world with complicated problems that need complicated solutions. The difference between us here in Singapore and other countries that take the lead in citizenship education is that we don’t question the embedded assumptions in our programmes. Citizenship education is a phrase that has two constructs in it, and each has a lot more to it than meets the eye.

Let’s look at citizenship first. Who is a citizen? Someone who holds citizenship? Of course. But then that sounds fairly value-neutral, no? How do we come to talking about a ‘good’ citizen? Where do the defining qualities of good citizenship come from? I would argue they come from the political system. Democracy is not a monolithic concept. There is no one single model of democracy. But before we can talk about citizenship we need to have rigorous public debate on what our political model is. Clearly we are in a state of flux. There is a system that we have been running on that seems to be under question now, if recent General Election results and the rash of politically engaged activity on online social media sites is anything to go by. Studies concluding that people need education about what constitutes the role of the President, for example, are not really helpful because they hide the fact that the amorphous nature of the President’s duties fits in perfectly with other exigency-based political mechanisms. In fact I am inclined to view the study results as proof that people are redefining what they want the President to do. That people are posting on Twitter and Facebook is not a question of venting frustration and spreading cowboy-town modes of interaction. There is a real and large-scale attempt going on to figure out what we want from our political system. My point is that until we sort out these issues, or at least acknowledge that we can have an environment in which these debates are the norm rather than some educational lacuna that needs to be plugged through indoctrination, we cannot really make any meaningful inroads into citizenship education.

And then there is education. So many debates about what education is, how much it can really achieve, by what criterion it can be measured, to what extent the ideal outcomes can be equally assured for all… But in the area of citizenship education, I think the key question is how much can the school actually do? Imposing a set of values is all very well, but what can the school do when conditions outside school are so different? There will no doubt be an attempt to teach ‘critical thinking’ that uncritically accepts the top-down values and the ideology they fit in with. But this will be set against the backdrop of rising doubt in wider society about the very nature of the political system, an increasing spirit of questioning, and greater confidence in political engagement that may not always be conveniently contained within the discursive limits set by the government and enforced by the mainstream media. The school actually risks marginalising itself in the lives of the young people it is supposed to be equipping for the future.

This is where the unexpected opportunities lie. With the understanding that we cannot neglect our young while all this debate is going on, I think it’s important to teach them to be a part of this flurry of engagement. Let’s not hide the very constructive chaos we have going on around us under the cloak of accusations of bigotry and discrimination. Our school children do not spend all their time poking fun at foreigners. If at all there is any racial undercurrent in their repartee, it is probably rooted in the very real differences between them and their fellow Singaporeans. I have written in a previous post that diversity has not been tackled in our education system. We don’t talk about race, religion, gender or sexuality (to name a few) outside the Pollyanna framework of meritocracy. The diversity among Singaporeans is rhetorically flattened out, with the result that Singaporean-ness becomes an imagined monolith which is then implicated in constructions of anti-foreigner discourse.

We now have an opportunity to really contemplate our political model. We have an opportunity to draw more people into such discussions. I disagree that quantitative studies tell the whole story, or even that they are the most valid pieces of the puzzle. Statistics tell the story someone wants them to tell. They are important, but not sufficient, especially when they are used to shore up dominant arguments that may in the long term be detrimental to the progress of a society. We have an opportunity to view citizenship education as opening up possibilities for active engagement rather than closing an ideological loop. The opportunities we have now are not at the implementation level. What is exciting about the trends we are witnessing is that the opportunities are at the conceptual level. Our biggest opportunity in citizenship education now is to introduce the concept of diversity, not in an instrumental paradigm that feeds into the need to get Singaporeans to unquestioningly accept government policies, but in a paradigm of social justice that delinks ethics and values from the political system (which is not the same thing as depoliticising them), however it happens to be currently configured.

I have no neat quote or witty saying with which to tie up this post. I’d rather leave it open and unfinished for now, an analogy for the work-in-progress that is citizenship education.

A Room of One’s Own

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  ~ Virginia Woolf

This does not have to be a big room.

It can be no more than a broom cupboard as long as there is light and air, and a space for books, pens, paper, computer…the digital and non-digital paraphernalia of writing. There must be a place to sit and contemplate. A chair, at the very least. A desk? Maybe. But that is optional and depends on one’s proclivity. A physical space, inviolate.

But it cannot be only a room.

What makes it a space where writing can take place? Solitude, above all. No woman is an island, but every woman needs an island every now and then. There must be social acceptance of her private space that renders not only the room, but her exclusive occupancy of it legitimate and worthy of protection. The door is not always open, she is not always welcoming. It is a selfish space. But cannot be judged because of this. It is a deservedly selfish space. This room cannot be only a room, but a socially constructed space. It is a space where she is as much a woman inside of it as she is outside of it, in the world of husbands and children and other obligations.

And perhaps it need not even be a room.

When there is no physical facility the space is internal. A free space in the mind of the woman who claims it. A retreat into deep thought and detachment that can be maintained even when external demands on attention are ceaseless and insistent. Inviolate? Yes, to the extent that she allows it to be so. Legitimate? Only in her eyes. Waiting for external legitimation is perhaps a waste of time, and irrelevant. This room of her own is portable, mobile, virtual, but no less real.

Yes, Virginia, a woman does need money and a room of her own. But she also needs love to feed her dreams.