As one comes to Singapore for the first time, one feels the intense feeling of landscape and social order, a flowing urbanity based on the premise of convenience – the epitomy of user friendliness. As Lev Manovich noted on a recent conversation, when you come to Singapore you feel like you are in the 21st unlike Europe where you feel like you are somewhere in the past. Historical layering here is scant and the de-texturization of the buildings by its glass and granite buildings makes up for a rather grey city, compared to the whimsical color combinations in the few remaining shop-houses left over from colonial times.
Singapore, in many ways, is like Cuba (where I lived briefly in 1998) where the brutalist architecture of independence coexists with previous styles which carry with them forgotten histories of slowly disappearing remnants of colonial times. In a way, Singapore is the embodiment of the Corbusian dream clad in American corporate post-modernism, and is hyperfunctionalistic at best.The people and customs lend it an Asian flavor in the midst of a pseudo-Western lifestyle.
The Need for Creative Disobedience
This is a utopian recession-free tropical island of extraordinary wealth based on Confucian values and a legacy of Victorianism, a seemingly perfect combination of responsible administration and social conservatism. People are polite, expedient and performance-driven, affluent, consumerist, brand-aware and obsessed by eating. Extremely landscaped and relatively advertising-free, (if compared to neon glitzy cluttered Hong Kong) there is no such thing as a ‘vague terrain’ all over the island. Public space is there to be used, not to be occupied. Every corner is landscaped, every corner is manicured to perfection.
Despite its many virtues, young Singaporeans, my students, feel bored. Young people with all possible opportunities in life who feel stifled in a system that pressures them to excel at all costs. My task is to educate these youngsters in an art school, where normally they are supposed to not be normatised, to experiment with different ways of expressing themselves, to struggle in finding their own voice.
But once they get out of school and face the real world, will their success-obsessed society understand this new individual called the ‘creative worker’? Will people readily embrace and support what these young people want and ought to do in terms of expressing their own creativity? How will the current limitations on freedom of expression, of the press and censorship cope with this emerging class of creative people who want to live and stay in Singapore?It is true that in the 4 years I have been living here, the laws concerning media have relaxed a bit and it looks like it will get more and more tolerant int he future. But the young still feel stifled, as I see everyday.
This scenario is completely different from anything I have encountered. I come from two cultures who highly value creativity and even hail it as their greatest features. To gain creative autonomy in a place like this, one needs to rise above these limitations, hopefully critically, at the risk of living in a perfect city which will always remain somewhat dull, with no great monuments, no great figures – everything flattened somewhere in the middle.
Singaporeans may respond to my Western concerns with a simple answer: “we’re happy. are you happy?”
(…)to become a great centre for the arts and culture, like New York or London, Singapore needs unbridled freedom of speech and expression, and some tolerance for the creative messiness that accompanies it. It is freedom of speech in all its manifestations that enables a nation to generate an abiding grand narrative or a myth that binds its people. Today Singapore is a very neat, prosperous and liveable city. It is free from civic violence but its civic life is dull. The city-state has no great heroes. It has no grand story to tell the world.