Source: Time Out Singapore / United Nations

Playwright Alfian Sa’at “a loving critic” of S’pore, freedom of speech includes right to disagree with govt: Veteran diplomat Tommy Koh

Local playwright Alfian Sa’at is “a loving critic of Singapore” and “one of our most talented playwrights”, said veteran diplomat Tommy Koh.

In a Facebook post on Tue (8 Oct), Prof Koh stressed that Alfian “is not anti-Singapore”, adding that freedom of speech should not only be limited to views that concur with the establishment, but also those that are contrary to the government.

“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,” he added.

Prof Koh’s comments came in light of Education Minister Ong Ye Kung’s comments in Parliament on Mon (7 Oct).

In delivering his speech on the cancellation of the Yale-NUS programme and guiding principles for educational institutions in Singapore, Ong quoted part of Alfian’s poem “Singapore You Are Not My Country”, which was written over two decades ago in 1998, to give Parliament “a flavour of his thinking”.

Quoting Alfian’s poem, Ong read:

“Singapore, I assert you are not a country at all,
Do not raise your voice against me, I am not afraid of your anthem”

Later part of the poem says:

“…how can you call yourself a country,
you terrible hallucination of highways and cranes and condominiums
ten minutes’ drive from the MRT?”

“This is a poem, and we might concede some artistic licence. But Mr Alfian Sa’at continues this attitude consistently in his activism,” Ong alleged.

Commenters thanked Prof Koh for defending Alfian and the freedom of expression, with one commenter saying that Singapore must not “descend” to the level of “totalitarian states” where “their artists and Nobel Laureates are exiled and jailed”:

Cherian George, a Singaporean professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Communication, also chimed in to thank Prof Koh for “providing moral guideposts” in commenting on the matter, and urged “Singaporeans on all sides of the political spectrum” to “appreciate” the veteran diplomat’s message:

One commenter argued that while Alfian is a “talented playwright”, it is unwise to mix the arts with politics, to which another commenter replied that it was not Alfian’s fault that his own work from “decades ago” is being quoted by others in a political context now:

Another commenter criticised Ong’s act of using Alfian’s literary work to “arrive at an obviously incorrect point”:

In his speech in Parliament yesterday, Ong also argued that the playwright’s activism is apparent in his apology to Malaysians “on behalf of the Singapore Government” following the arrest of Malaysians who “protested illegally” at the Merlion Park in 2013.

“After the 2018 Malaysian General Election, he praised the “new Malaysia”, juxtaposed it favourably against Singapore, and dismissed the fear of “chaos in the streets, clashes with riot police, traffic at a standstill”,” Ong further claimed.

Ong did not quote line from poem in full, line in poem suggest fear of a “patriotic love” and the need to protect oneself “from loving something too much”: Playwright Alfian Sa’at

Alfian himself clarified the matter in a Facebook post yesterday (7 Oct), in response to a query from a reporter regarding Ong’s speech in Parliament.

The poet highlighted that Education Minister did not quote the poem in full, in which it originally appears as seen below:

Do not raise your voice against me,
I am not afraid of your anthem
although the lyrics are still bleeding from
the bark of my sapless heart.

Alfian explained that the context in which the line “I am not afraid of your anthem” appears “makes clear that I have grown up with the anthem as a Singaporean, that it bleeds from my heart, and that in spite of saying ‘I am not afraid of your anthem’ (bravado) I am actually afraid of hearing it and having it rouse patriotic feelings in me”.

“And I am afraid of this patriotic love because it is so involuntarily, it comes from a primordial and irresistible place from deep inside.

“I am afraid of these volcanic feelings because I want to protect myself from loving something too much,” Alfian said.

“Just stopping on the word ‘anthem’ might suggest that I am somehow rejecting symbols of the state,” he added.

Commenting on another quoted line, in which Alfian draws an image of the “terrible hallucination of highways and cranes and condominiums / ten minutes’ drive from the MRT” in Singapore, Alfian said that it is “a fair critique of relentless development and destruction of built heritage that has made many Singaporeans feel unmoored from their surroundings”.

“I believe a country needs to be more than the sum of its construction projects and prime real estate,” he added.

In response to Ong’s claim that Alfian is persistent in carrying “this attitude consistently in his activism”, Alfian said that he is “not exactly sure what he means”.

“First of all, I’m not an activist. I consider myself primarily a writer and a playwright.

“And secondly, the activists I know are motivated by love. Not hatred. And that love—for social justice, for the marginalised, for the poor, for the weak—is what has often led them to do things often at great personal cost.

“Whether it be less time spent with their family, or sacrificing a career in a better-paying job, or even the risk of being blacklisted by authorities,” he said.

Ong’s reference to Alfian’s poem “a mistake”, especially at a “pivotal moment of Singapore’s nation building”: Veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon

Tay Kheng Soon, veteran architect and adjunct professor at the National University of Singapore’s School of Architecture, said that he has personally dealt with Ong, found him to be “a good guy”, and admires his “honesty and activism”.

However, Tay opined that the Education Minister’s act of quoting part of Alfian’s poem “for what ever corporate reasons” was “a mistake”, especially at a “pivotal moment of Singapore’s nation building”.

“We are in crisis. Crisis is opportunity. Opportunity to nib in the bud tender shoots or to farm the garden of discontent for many flowers to bloom. It is always easier to flatten the soil but create a wasteland instead,” he said, alluding to the potential repercussions of suppressing dissenting voices in a particular society or country.

“When I read that collection of poems many years ago I was struck by the many powerful insights Alfian has in that volume. His is the tiny voice of his generation that want a Singapore they can jive with,” Tay added.

One commenter suggested that both Alfian and Ong are thrust into an unfortunate predicament as a result of Yale-NUS administration making a “mess of the situation”:

Another commenter opined that there is “nothing subversive” and anarchic about Alfian’s poems, contrary to how pro-establishment factions often paint them, and that they merely present “a different vision of Singapore”.

Said vision of Singapore, the commenter argued, is different from “a zoo like environment” purportedly desired by Ong and the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) where everything is “sanitized” and “filtered”:

One commenter offered his counter-argument to Tay’s narrative of Ong being a “good guy” who had made the “mistake” of putting down Alfian’s work: