I was a schoolteacher for a time. The hours were long and the work was grueling. But I enjoyed every moment of it. The students – for it was always about the students – had made the job possible. In many ways, they made me possible. It was, as the cliché goes, the most wonderful time of my life.
I still keep in touch with some of them. And lately – it must be that time of the year again – they were asking me about what subjects to take in JC, in university. The sad thing is, they were constantly evaluating their choices in view of a ‘future career’. Thus, their subjects had to be ‘relevant’, ‘useful’. For some of them, their parents forbade them to even consider the Polytechnic. I thought it ludicrous, and felt a little rueful. They were basing their education on appearances, on an imagined future job that might well change, that they might not be interested in, or that might not even exist by then. Were they planning for a future life of frustrations and regrets?
It is not wrong – a career and a future are important considerations. But it is sad – they are only sixteen. And it can turn cruel when, without their realizing, their future becomes futile. By then it might be too late – living out a life not one to call their own, dreaming of someone else's dreams.
And so it was a nice surprise to hear PM Lee telling students at the recent NTU forum to ‘dare to dream’, to ‘surprise yourself with what you achieve and create a better future for all of us.’ It was surprising not because such things even needed to be told – and told to university students. It was surprising for its familiar echo of what he had said in 2004: during his first National Day Rally speech, PM Lee urged a freer Singapore. ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom’ were those promising words.
In the ensuing five years, we have had ample opportunities to admire how our garden city has bloomed: the New Media has a new lasso, the Films Act gained some sophistication, the Public Order Act transforms one into an illegal assembly, and T-shirts with marsupial prints are roundly sent to jail. And these blooms merely skim the soil of the more sturdy trunks and deeper roots of control, censorship, and surveillance. I must have repeated these examples too many times. But some things simply never change.
We are not actually an apathetic people. At the cusp of our independence, in the fifties and sixties, Singapore was a hotbed of social, commercial, and political activities. The women were active in politics; community and entrepreneurial spirit were sustained by the countless merchants in their shops, hawkers by their stalls, and peddlers on the streets. The kampungs were little paradise for kids. They were a home for all. Artists, poets, singers and painters were all dreaming up their various different reality. Singapore looked like a proper city then; authentic, lively, and inspiring. So where have all the flowers gone?
It is not that our children do not dream, for to dream is only human. It is what happens to their dreaming as we put them through the State’s dehumanizing system, through those indoctrination camps pretending to be schools, where cold, economistic rationalism reigns supreme, must reign supreme. It is this same system that renders politics into mere administration, citizens into populations, into collective waged labour, and art and dreams in the state’s own image: cold, economistic, utilitarian. It is not the absence of revolution and tumult that there’s a dearth of political leaders. It is this illiberal, dehumanizing system that douses political fire. All our fire.
A few years ago, when Singapore decided to be a 'renaissance city', its methods were predictable: it conjured a Renaissance Masterplan. And dotted throughout the edict were words like: hardware, software, systematic introduction, documentation, upgrade, benchmarking, baselines, multiplier effect.
But these are not the noble names of art. They are not the phrases of inspiration, passion, and the singular vision. They are the language of civil servants and technocrats, the meaningless jargon of econometrics.
And yet and yet, in Singapore, art cannot be a wildflower. One ‘must be realistic’, intones the Straits Times: ‘If you do not plan on becoming a concert soloist, there are enough job opportunities in the arts and arts-related fields. As Singapore gears up to be a creative hub, the number of jobs in the creative industry can only grow.’
Can one plan on becoming a concert soloist? And so art becomes a ‘job opportunity’ in a country ‘geared up’ for art. Art as an investment. Art to enrich the State (now a ‘creative hub’). This is how the state dreams its dreams – the hubbub in a technocracy, the fallacies, the diktats (the fantasia of dictators). And so let a hundred artists bloom.
But Art is not an investment. It cannot be geared up. Art refuses dictation.
Like dreams, it is free. It has to be.
I am reminded of the story of three Singaporean boys – Cheng Yu, Keegan, and Wen Yi. Two promising pianists and a passionate actor. They were boys who dreamt, even if tentatively:
When Cheng Yu was thirteen, he won the first prize and the Marion S. Gray Outstanding Musician Award at the prestigious Bartok-Kabalevsky International Piano Competition in America. That was in 1998. Ten years later, he ended up a medical student at NUS. Couldn’t he have gone on to become a pianist of acclaim, and be alive in his dreams? No. Cheng Yu’s father had threatened to ‘become a beggar’ if he continued to study music.
Not only do we ourselves stop dreaming, we stop our loved ones from dreaming too.
Then there is Keegan. Like Cheng Yu, Keegan had also won the Marion S. Gray Outstanding Musician Award – the second Singaporean to do so. Like Cheng Yu, he also wanted to study music. But no, This time it was the State. He had to complete his full-time National Service first. ‘I tried to practise while in NS but there was hardly any time,’ Keegan said. ‘I felt quite bad about it initially; there is regret. But never mind, I have learnt to move on.’ When Keegan completes his NS, he will switch to business studies. But never mind. He has learnt the language of reality, of pragmatism. The lingua franca of Singapore.
They all have, because they must. Their respective fathers insisted on that. Nafa's lost boys, as the media termed them. Father's missing sons. Except, they're still here, in captivity, kept by other people's dreams.
Except for one. The one who got away and never came back:
Wen Yi was a fifteen year-old student. He wanted to switch his CCA from track-and-field to drama. But his parents objected to it. Sports medals count, because they can be counted. Theatre and drama can't.
When passion meets pragmatism, the choice can be hard to bear.
So Wen Yi enacted, in real life, from his original script, his ‘final act of rebellion’. Like a good artist, the day before, he had sent out his invite, and the play had to go on: ‘Will you as a friend accompany me on this day?’
And from the eleventh-floor bedroom window of his home, he turned to brave his invisible audience.
Wen Yi reminded me of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
… Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
Except for Wen Yi, it was no dream, there was no awakening, and there was no more restoring of amends.
Wen Yi stands atop his window ledge and falls away.
They say art mirrors reality. Doesn't it?
Some of us wonder why Wen Yi ended his life over such a seemingly small matter. We wonder why Cheng Yu and Keegan couldn't cut a compromise, or resume their pursuits afterwards. But after what?
For some others, they wonder why, in Singapore, dreams are made out to be a small matter, that dreams have to relentlessly be haunted by reality. And whose reality is it?
So we shake our heads and slant our glances. A life is gone, and perhaps, we all know why.
Perhaps in Singapore, it is better not to dream.
There is this marvelous song by Faye Wong, called 开到荼蘼 [kāi dào tú mí]. It is sung with incredible panache and voice, the lyrics are exquisite and steeped in the Buddhist philosophy of transcendence. Near the song’s end, it describes how a resplendent promise made by a loved one can send one’s heart a fluttering, just like how a flower blooms. But inevitably, just like every flower, every blossom – that very apex of beauty and hope – is also when that flower meets its death. 心花怒放 | 却开到荼蘼. Let a hundred flowers bloom indeed.
When we wonder, where have all the flowers gone – the musicians, artists, writers – it's not hard to find them. Beneath the swathes of engineers and accountants, doctors and lawyers, there are those piles of abandoned hopes and deserted dreams. Occasionally, a wistful soul might catch a momentary glimpse of that other life. The life that might have been, but now hidden in the shade or withered on the vine. And in the end, they themselves, too, like those detritus of dreams, would be buried under, in someone else’s happiness, prosperity, and eventually be forgotten, as if none of them had ever lived.
My advice to my former students was simple (but what else can I say?): Look around you, look at the adults, at your own parents. Working in their jobs, living out a daily drudgery, dreaming of another life. So why not wake up to that other life that you dream about?
Wouldn’t they then be more worldly-wise, more dreamful? More fluent in laughter, in passion, in love? Wouldn’t they be happier then, however their future might turn out?
But perhaps even that is too much to ask. Too idealistic. Not practical, not pragmatic. Dream on, we like to say. This is why PM Lee’s dare to dream is revealing in itself. Against the reality of Singapore, it sounds almost like a taunt: to sleep, perchance to dream, but only if you dare. For those who do, the awakening is often rude; it is the bright daylight of Singapore. And for that they are fortunate. Because for some others, their dreams disperse without the consolation of morning.
Article first appeared in The Online Citizen.