By Joel Tan
Singapore residents have made notable complainers over the years, in what may, along with eating, be described as the nation’s favourite past-time.
Over the weekend, however, an interesting twist on this seemingly harmless activity has arisen - the local police have made it clear that foreigners are not allowed to complain in Singapore.
What might have been a light-hearted few days of fussed-up performance was turned into bitterness for a group of singers known as The Complaints Choir. A community arts project initiated in Birmingham, UK by Finns Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, the Complaints Choir is an open-invite group that gets people to, you got it, complain, through song, about life in their countries.
Since its UK debut, the project has gained popularity around the world, and Complaints Choirs from Helsinki, Melbourne, Jerusalem and several other countries have sprung up since 2006.
Banned in Singapore
Singapore’s very own Complaints Choir, organized as part of the Singapore M1 Fringe Festival, was due to perform in various public venues like Vivo City, the Esplanade Waterfront and the Speakers’ Corner over the weekend, but had its plans hampered by the Singapore Police.
The group, made up mainly of Singaporeans, was told that it would not be allowed to perform unless members of the choir who were foreigners were told to step out- this included a handful of singers and the choir’s conductor, a Malaysian. Initially only a requirement for their Speakers’ Corner performance (only Singapore citizens may perform at the venue), this was later extended to all of the group’s public performances.
When interviewed, a member of the group said that the restriction was because of the “local context” of the group’s song, a musical setting of various complaints. The Choir has since cancelled all public performances, a move that has, according to the organizers on the project’s website, caused all their “prejudices against Singapore to be affirmed”.
Apart from why the police lacks a fair bit of good humour, the question that begs to be asked is what possible subversion a bunch of singing expatriates could have been up to; and what on earth is so criminal about a bunch of foreigners discoursing on issues with a “local context”?
"Singapore's politics are reserved for Singaporeans"
The police’s logic leaves much to guesswork, the easiest of which is the current stance that foreigners should not attempt to mess around with local issues. This incident calls up memories of the Douglas Sanders fiasco in August 2007 where a guest speaker was denied the license to deliver a lecture on the law and sexual orientation in Asia, this on grounds that the event was “contrary to public interest”.
I do not suppose we could cite the exact same reasoning in this situation, but here is a snippet that proves to be a little more revealing.
“Singapore's politics are reserved for Singaporeans. As visitors to our country, foreigners should not abuse their privilege by interfering in our domestic politics.”- a statement from the Ministry of Home affairs regarding the refusal to admit two foreign speakers invited to speak at a forum on ministerial pay increases in April 2007.
The sentiment is clear- foreigners should not attempt any discourse on local affairs. It seems this xenophobia has trickled down to the level of a scarily innocuous little glee club project.
A quick review of the lyrics shows nothing out of the ordinary - the usual complaints about un-civil society, education and life in general- it is nothing that has not been said before, and more virulently, at that. It seems that, however, when these lyrics are sung by foreigners, some magic in the air causes them to become the tools of sedition, and we shall all quake for fear of public (dis)interest.
The stupidity of the restrictions is most succinctly pointed out by the aggrieved organisers on their highly public website : “removing the foreigners from the performance does not change the song at all”.
Police - from law enforcers to curators of art
What is also quite worrying is the police’s immediate association, here, between art and politics. The event was not designed to be a political rally - its performance at the Speakers’ Corner was likely planned for symbolic rather than functional reasons. Why the police felt it had a need to intervene in this situation is completely beyond me - it seems the police have gone from being enforcers of peace to curators of art. Instead of seeing the event as, really, what it was - essentially a piece of socially conscious performance art - the police decided to take it heads on as public speaking of a political nature.
Even as a piece of art, the lyrics of the song, according to members of the group, had been approved by the MDA - it seems even these usually stringent filters are not enough for Singaporeans. Clearly having foreigners in a performance turns it from mere art into politicking.
I make no assumptions about the foreigners in question, I do not know them nor do I know how long they have been in Singapore. The sentiment behind this issue, however, one that foreigners should not take part in any public complaining about local affairs, seems oddly hypocritical considering our foreign talent drive. It seems now that while we may encourage foreigners to live and work here, and contribute to our burgeoning economy, they may not take part in any public singing that totters about a “local context”. How very, very capitalistic of us - we appreciate your work but that’s about it.
Perhaps it is unfair to read the actions of the police in such a large, expansive way. I have my doubts that xenophobia was on their minds when they came up with their odd conditions for the Complaints Choir.
What is more likely is a simple chain-of-command affair: get rid of any potential sensitivities before someone higher up on the ladder of neuroticism catches wind of it. Do we blame them, really? Given how anything can offend in this country, the police’s simplistic solution was simply a knee-jerk reaction to the perceived problem: how would Singaporeans react to a handful of foreigners complaining about Singapore?
It is something we have to ask ourselves. Is it really that big a deal? Do not the conditions that bug all of us bug those who live, but might not have been born, here? Are we going to be so ridiculously exclusive as to say that birth-right determines bitch-right? And on a higher level, would not foreign, potentially more objective input on local affairs serve a greater purpose than the highly partisan noise we hear all the time?
I find it ironic that our government leaders, particularly the Minister Mentor, find it fit to comment on the affairs of other countries, but that the act of returning the favour often finds itself unwelcome and most spitefully turned away.
This issue will likely attract bad press from onlookers, both locally and abroad, and far be it for me to say that whatever noise they stir up, it will be far worse than a little bit of complaining.
In the meantime, foreigners be warned: complain at your own risk, we cannot guarantee your sanity.
About the author: Joel “is currently a national serviceman awaiting release and the start of the rest of his life.” Joel also writes on his personal blog, The Daily Backtrack, here.
Read also theonlinecitizen's report on the incident.