[DiaS'pura was an afternoon where famous Singaporean including Singapore Ambassador to US Prof Chan, filmmakers Colin Goh & Woo Yen Yen, poet Alfian Saat discussed issues about Singapore and a night where Penn students staged an original musical production on Singaporeans studying overseas (written by Caleb and Joshua Yap).]

The night before: Francis Seow
The night before DiaS'pura, I ran into Francis Seow - Singaporeans living in Boston meeting for the first time in Philadelphia. Despite having grown up in a media scape "enthralled" (his word for enslaved) by the PAP, I understood him as an intelligent, patriotic Singaporean who chose idealism over money.

"Very socialist" was his response when I told him my name. After what he has been through, he has developed a certain mindset that PAP would happily categorize as anti-PAP. While I applaud his courage, I lament the waste of his talent - I'm not sure if acting like martyrs, him and Chee Soon Juan, really move us forward. To be fair, not that they really had the luxury of choices.

Opening speaker: Prof Janice Bellace - Founding President of Singapore Management University
Prof Bellace spoke of a realization that dawned on her while she was President at SMU - that Singaporeans of my generation think so differently from our parents.

First keynote: Prof Chan Heng Chee - Singapore Ambassador to the United States
Prof Chan immediately proved Prof Bellace's point when she failed to connect to a young, well-traveled audience charmed by America's school of democracy. She tried to drive some points across with much force: Singapore's "culture of competence," immediately followed by our vulnerability, why we shouldn't be unnecessarily apologetic to our SEA neighbors for our success, how well-regarded Singapore is in some countries, how marketable we are as Singaporeans. She spoke of Singaporeans' first right as "the right to education" while free speech ranks much lower.

I understand her position, her job to speak in those ways, and since it was the second time I heard her speak, I wasn't expecting her to say something controversial. But even when she clearly exceeded her allocated speech time, she insisted on answering questions. That really struck me as a certain type of desperation, as if she was trying to inoculate us against the later alternative speakers of the day.

When I photographed her holding one of the gifts presented to her in appreciation, a ClubSG t-shirt that monographed the merlion logo on an image of the Love sculpture, I heard her comment "Very nice colors!" She failed to uncode the meaning of the t-shirt, just as youths today must baffle her: what message are we young, well-traveled Singaporeans sending, and how can we blame her generation for not understanding us?

Panel discussion: Yian Huang, Woo Yen Yen, Alfian Saat, Jing - Pursuing your passions
Prof Chan left, much to the disappointment of Yian and Alfian, who both felt the need to refute many of her points, but felt less than gracious "sniping behind her back." In response to some 6.5million-is-great comments Prof Chan had, Alfian showed a clip of his recent play "Homesick" that dealt with issues like the inferior treatment of Singaporeans in Singapore.

The panel was a dramatic switch to a anti-establishment, very raw and casual tone, like a conversation between old friends. Photographer Yian Huang joked that a Singaporean is defined as someone who thinks too much about what it means to be Singaporean. All in attendance were pretty much guilty as charged.

The panelists related very personal biographies of how they were consultant turned photographer, PhD turned filmmaker, doctor-to-be (re)turned poet. It is unfair to say that creative arts is the path of passion, but for my ibanking obsessed peers it was an appropriate counterweight.

During the Q&A, a pediatrician in her early 40s caused much of the crowd to turn and look her as she made her "statement, it's not really a question." She was almost in tears, and she pointed to her old father-in-law and young son, both also in attendance, and talked about responsibilities over pursuit of self-expression and selfish happiness. Yian and Jing both started asking her if she was happy and loved her job, and if she would consider that being happy herself as the basis
for happiness for her family. While the three spoke from their hearts, Yen Yen stepped in as the most understanding person by telling the pediatrician she was brave to choose what she did. Yen Yen herself was a part-time professor, in order to support her family, but turned out to be a great complement to her filmmaking.

When discussing the issue of being based in New York/Paris versus based in Singapore, I identified most with Yen Yen's answer - being in Singapore just makes me too angry and bitter, and that too many things have gone wrong. From a distance here in the US, it's actually easier to think of ways to make contributions back home.

Second keynote: Francis Seow
His mental capabilities seem to have deteriorated (although I have no basis for comparison), but it's probably on par with MM Lee's today. Controversial from sentence one to the end, he related anecdotes exposing the truth of Singapore, frequently making references to his book and the troubles he had publishing it (because of the Singapore government). I don't doubt Singapore did many things to block his books, but I feel very much the way...as Yen Yen said of Martyn See's Singapore Rebel, that she didn't think it was a well-made film but she thinks Martyn is usually a good director and she understood why he filmed it. If I can blend what Francis Seow says together with what the thought-police Singapore media churns out, then perhaps the product will strike me as closer to truth. I feel he's exaggerates as much as ST does, and it's hard for me to stomach.

Viewing him as an integral character in Singapore's history, as a Singaporean, I thank him for his contributions and I'm sorry it turned out this way.

Panel discussion 2: Colin Goh, Djinn, Li-Anne Huang - Singapore Film and Identity
Djinn showed a clip of his movie Perth that had the audience roaring in laughter. It was a kopitiam scene where Lim Kay Tong and another actor had a dialog loaded with Singlish expletives. Colin applauded that as progress in the Singapore film, recalling his absurdly censored scenes in "TalkingCock: The Movie."

I believe culture, film, media play roles that the government cannot and should not dream of controlling too much. No Singapore identity can take root if we attempt to make everyone speak Queen's/American/ChannelNewsAsia English. The speakers touched on topics like that, and also their difficulties in making commercially viable Singapore movies.

Musical Sing City!
A Joshua and Caleb Yap Production
I once attended a Sheares Hall musical production, where they staged Dick Lee's "Remix." That scarred me somewhat, because it really is difficult find people who can sing AND dance AND act. I entered this musical being a skeptic. Not that this musical was perfect, but the songs customized lyrics, the heartfelt-ness of the acting/singing helped very much. The microphones were very annoying, switching on-and-off at whim and sometimes I couldn't hear their singing, but in spite of all these, the musical succeeded on reaching the audience. Many people in the audience cried at one song or another (mostly girls). Sometimes over-the-top acting and overly cheesy lyrics get to people, and I must admit I felt goosebumps at some points.

The musical cramps all the possible overseas singaporean students issues into a compact package - long-distance relationships, GPAs versus risk-taking, scholarships versus parents sponsored, uncommunicative, demanding but actually very loving fathers, clustering of Singaporeans (or any group) abroad etc

Better for you to check out the website with free downloads of Sing City songs

More on DiaS'pura


Anonymous said...


Do you mind elaborating on what Prof Janice Bellace said wrt how differently we think as opposed to our parents?

It's always good to have an outsider's view.


fabianlua said...

Hi kh
from what I remember, she talked about the more pragmatic, economics before democracy mindset of our parents and for us, a more restless generation wanting change. She hoped we would take positive lessons at american universities, help america for a couple of years, and eventually bring the knowledge home to build a better place.

I would be happy to give you more details, but that's about as much as I dare to say I remember of her opening speech - I didn't get to write stuff during the event 'cos I was an "official" photographer. Then the details starting slipping away because after DiaS'pura I spent a week backpacking in Mexico and then came back to uni to rush problem sets and presentations.

However, since I know the organizer who videotaped the entire event, I'll find out if he intends to post clips/transcripts of the event.

Thanks for your comment and interest.

Anonymous said...

Hi fabian:

Ahh... But if Papa says no, then one may have to start wondering about the definition of 'better'...

What can we do?