I used to have a lot of respect for Prof Boey Khim Cheng. He is a very talented poet and I’ve been moved by his essays on how the system in Singapore dehumanises people. True to his beliefs, Prof Boey migrated to Australia some years ago. I felt proud of him then, but now, for pragmatic reasons, he’s back. In the preface or afterword of the latest edition of his book Between Stations, Boey admitted to his hypocrisy.
Let’s go back a little. As a postgraduate student, Boey was perturbed by the system at NUS. As a police officer, he saw of the inhuman side of “rehabilitation”. He complained about Singapore as any writer/poet with a conscience would. Now that he’s back, he went on to be a part of the system he used to decry. I’m afraid I have to agree with his confession.
A friend of mine who used to be a big fan of Li Ao told me how he tore up his books after discovering that Li was a hypocrite. I’m glad I only bought one of Boey’s books or it would have been a big mess on the floor of my room.
I’m just kidding. The book is still on my shelf, but the disappointment is very real. Now let’s take a look at another poet who has an inclination like the young Boey Khim Cheng, only much stronger. He is none other than Alfian Sa’at. You can read all about Minister Ong Ye Kung’s parliamentary speech here.
It’s quite embarrassing that we have an Education minister who doesn’t know how to read poetry, but that does not seem to be a very serious concern with a people who have lost their reading habit since a long time ago. While members in the arts scene have come out in support of Mr Alfian Sa’at, I have no doubt that Mr Ong’s claim that many members of the public supported YNC’s decision is true. Mr Ong’s interpretation is closer to that of the shallow general public.
As Prof Tommy Koh observed, we have a very simple populace here. People just want to get on their hamster wheels every morning and run. They hate it when the train breaks down. They also hate it when there’s an argument, a debate or discussion that disrupts their routine. For Alfian Sa’at, the average Singaporean considers him a troublemaker and would shudder at the thought of dissent and protest. Where’s the hamster wheel? Where’s the rice bowl? Where’s the shelter? Where are all the turnkey projects, model answers, fuss-free packages?
Prof Tommy Koh:
We should not demonise Alfian Sa’at. He is one of our most talented playwrights. I regard him as a loving critic of Singapore. He is not anti- Singapore. I admire very much his plays, Cooling Off Day and Hotel. It is of course true that some his writings are critical of Singapore. But, freedom of speech means the right to agree with the government as well as the right to disagree. I feel that I should defend him at this moment when he must feel discouraged and worried and friendless.
Was Alfian being unpatriotic or anti-Singapore? So what is patriotism? What is considered patriotic and what is considered unpatriotic? I find Chinese intellectual Zi Zhong Jun’s speech below to be very enlightening.
For those who are unfamiliar with her, you can find Prof Zi Zhong Jun’s biography here. Below are the main points she made in her speech.
A lecturer from the National Southwest Associated University once said, “If you don’t read Chinese history, you won’t know how great China was. If you don’t read Western history, you won’t know how backward China is.”
In the 1940s, patriotism was pretty straightforward. Students quit school to fight Japanese occupation. Nobody would doubt that that was an act of patriotism. Businessmen showed their patriotism by donating to the resistance. Students chose subjects to study based on what the country needed most at that point in time.
But debates on patriotic and unpatriotic behaviour began way before that. For instance, during the Xinhai Revolution, were the people fighting to protect the Qing Dynasty the patriots? Was Sun Yat Sen a patriot or a traitor? What about the terrorizing Boxer Rebellion? They fought against Westerners who were taking advantage of China and stepping all over the rights and dignity of the Chinese people. The Boxers also burned shops that sold Western goods and killed Chinese Christians. Qing officials were divided on what to do about the Boxers. Traditionally, such movements were always suppressed. One group wanted them put down. However, another group felt that they could make use of the Boxers to flush out the foreign devils. Who was right? Who was more patriotic? Were the Boxers patriots? Were they terrorists who brought the empire to its knees?
Five of the officials who pestered Dowager Cixi to protect the embassies and put down the Boxer Rebellion were branded as traitors 汉奸 and executed. Fortunately for China, there was another group of officials like Li Hong Zhang and Liu Kun Yi (in southern China and technically out of Peking’s reach) who agreed with the five martyrs and organised protection forces for the foreigners – on condition that they told their governments not to invade China. But the Eight Nation Alliance arrived and attacked northern China, sparing much of the South like Guangdong and Fujian. They colluded with foreign forces, but were Li Hong Zhang and Liu Kun Yi patriots or traitors? Prof Zi thinks they were patriots. So what if they worked with foreign forces? They saved the southern provinces.
Chinese people can also be foolishly nostalgic about imperial times. When an American reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese fighter on 1 April 2001 off the coast of Hainan Island, sending the latter plunging into the South China Sea, many Chinese people visiting the terracotta army in Xi An got very emotional, believing that if China were as powerful as Qin at that time, they would not have endured the humiliation. Prof Zi questioned. Who do you want to be in Qin times? Scholars were tortured and books were burned. Ordinary citizens were not allowed to have public gatherings. On the streets, everyone looked at everyone else with suspicion. Be the prime minister? He was executed. The artisans who built the tomb? They were buried alive. Would you support such a regime and be called a patriot? Or would you fight it and risk being called a traitor?
When is a country prosperous? Is it enough to occupy a great expanse of land? Is it enough to have a powerful army? Patriotic programmes often depict a great leader, but what about the common people? When a country is considered rich, does the wealth lie with the government’s finances or the people? 是政府财政富，还是老百姓富？
Hitler’s Germany was very prosperous and powerful. Patriotism was key in the country’s rapid development. With lightning speed, Germany successfully invaded Europe and much of Russia. But without democracy, rule of law, equality and justice, it could not last. Likewise, imperial Japan rode on the wave of patriotism to make the small country able to conquer almost half of the world. What did the kamikaze pilots achieve by crashing their planes into Pearl Harbour? They attracted two atomic bombs.
We can’t change our country of birth, but theoretically, we can change it if we find things that ought to be changed. Sadly, much sacrifice is often involved. Prof Zi believes that intellectuals are the most patriotic people in the country. I’m not sure about that because I personally know more than a few intellectuals who “patriotically” toe the government’s line. They are like moss on rocks, quite happy to be stuck and immobile as long as there’s nourishment.
Globalisation has added a new dimension to our interpretation of patriotism. People can vote with their feet. They can pretend to hate America but move all their funds over there. But there are also intellectuals who would have done the world a great disservice if they had not moved out of China. Yang Zhen Ning 杨振宁 certainly couldn’t have won the Nobel Prize if he had remained in China. The martyrs of the past will no longer exist. If their passions and beliefs endanger their lives, they just move to where it’s safe.
Americans tend to be very keen on changing their country for the better. There is a deluge of criticisms in the US media on a daily basis, in sharp contrast with the tightly controlled media in China where the objective is obviously to maintain a kind of social harmony and stability, but activists are often simplistically branded as unpatriotic troublemakers influenced by Western imperialism.
Before the last US elections, many intellectuals swore that they would leave America if Trump won. Well, Trump won and they all stayed, mainly because even as President, Trump has no authority to stop these critics from vilifying him. On the other hand, if the Trump critics are somehow suppressed, then they would certainly have left America.
Frankly, outside of his Facebook page, I don’t see that many people supporting Alfian Sa’at. People only respect economists and businessmen, not writers and poets who don’t add “value” to the sacred economy. Many people, including our educators and intellectuals, cannot distinguish between party and state. Anyone who criticises the party and policies are conveniently and unfairly labelled as unpatriotic. Contrary to what some believe, talking against the system is neither easy nor cheap. It entails some risk and sacrifice. What have the silent “patriots” sacrificed for the country? Is it out of love or the lack of it that makes them so apathetic? Ultimately, it’s not about whether we need our writers and poets. It’s about whether we deserve them.