Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art by Alain Badiou

1. Art is not the sublime descent of the infinite into the finite abjection of the body and sexuality. It is the production of an infinite subjective series through the finite means of a material subtraction.

2. Art cannot merely be the expression of a particularity (be it ethnic or personal). Art is the impersonal production of a truth that is addressed to everyone.

3. Art is the process of a truth, and this truth is always the truth of the sensible or sensual, the sensible as sensible. This means: the transformation of the sensible into a happening of the Idea.

4. There is necessarily a plurality of arts, and however we may imagine the ways in which the arts might intersect there is no imaginable way of totalizing this plurality.

5. Every art develops from an impure form, and the progressive purification of this impurity shapes the history both of a particular artistic truth and of its exhaustion.

6. The subject of an artistic truth is the set of the works which compose it.

7. This composition is an infinite configuration, which, in our own contemporary artistic context, is a generic totality.

8. The real of art is ideal impurity conceived through the immanent process of its purification. In other words, the raw material of art is determined by the contingent inception of a form. Art is the secondary formalization of the advent of a hitherto formless form.

9. The only maxim of contemporary art is not to be imperial. This also means: it does not have to be democratic, if democracy implies conformity with the imperial idea of political liberty.

10. Non-imperial art is necessarily abstract art, in this sense : it abstracts itself from all particularity, and formalizes this gesture of abstraction.

11. The abstraction of non-imperial art is not concerned with any particular public or audience. Non-imperial art is related to a kind of aristocratic-proletarian ethic : Alone, it does what it says, without distinguishing between kinds of people.

12. Non-imperial art must be as rigorous as a mathematical demonstration, as surprising as an ambush in the night, and as elevated as a star.

13. Today art can only be made from the starting point of that which, as far as Empire is concerned, doesn’t exist. Through its abstraction, art renders this inexistence visible. This is what governs the formal principle of every art : the effort to render visible to everyone that which for Empire (and so by extension for everyone, though from a different point of view), doesn’t exist.

14. Since it is sure of its ability to control the entire domain of the visible and the audible via the laws governing commercial circulation and democratic communication, Empire no longer censures anything. All art, and all thought, is ruined when we accept this permission to consume, to communicate and to enjoy. We should become the pitiless censors of ourselves.

15. It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent.

(This first attempt of translation is by Peter Hallward.) 

The full transcript of the Badiou’s talk on his fifteen theses on contemporary art will be published in the Spring issue, lacanian ink 23. In Lacanian Ink: Alain Badiou — Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art


Manifesto for the Arts: Why it’s Needed

The Russian people have thought more deeply and urgently about art and its place in life than probably  any one else on the planet, over the last two centuries. The time is nigh  for Singaporeans to forge a new relationship, a new engagement with arts and culture. One that is determined and directed by us – the people. If there’s even an iota of truth in this we need the Manifesto for the Arts. 
“The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.” (Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”, 12)

“The world does not treat us unkindly or forget us in the midst of solitude …”

“The world does not treat us unkindly or forget us

in the midst of solitude …”[1]

By T. Sasitharan

It takes a supreme effort of imagination and will to think of one’s own imprisonment, without trial and often in solitary confinement, as a time of “solitude” and reflection.

The title of this essay celebrates the soaring imagination and the indomitable will of one artist who dominated the Singapore theatre scene in the 1980s. It is the first line of a poem that the late Kuo Pao Kun wrote on a card he made for his wife, Goh Lay Kuan, during Lunar New Year in 1977. Pao Kun had been detained under the Internal Security Act the year before and would eventually spend 4 years and 7 months incarcerated by the state.

More than imagination and will, it takes an immense benevolence and an unbridled faith in humanity to transform an experience of such terrible bitterness into the picture of beauty, which is the poem. This, precisely, is the work and the responsibility of the artist.

Pao Kun’s release from prison in 1980 and his immediate return to doing exactly what he was doing before he was imprisoned – making theatre and art – was the single most important reason the ‘80s were such a significant and scintillating decade in the history of Singapore English language theatre. In effect the whole enterprise of English language theatre was reborn in the 1980s as artistic practice; our very own artistic practice, capable of holding up a mirror to ourselves. Singaporeans took ownership of Theatre as art in the 1980s. It was no longer merely a form of cultural production.

A new generation of practitioners became conscious of the potential of English language theatre as art, becoming alive to the need for theatre to both shape and reflect the conscience of the young nation. Prior to the ‘80s this sensibility was almost entirely the sole preserve of people working in the Chinese language theatre in Singapore. Inevitably it was limited by language to Chinese speaking audiences.

The ‘80s are a watershed decade for English language theatre in at least two senses. First it was a time of awakening and reflection for practitioners; of the recognition of a new confidence and frenetic even febrile activity. It was also a time when theatre for first time, using the English language, could reach across linguistic boundaries and create new audiences. There was nothing like it before the 1980s and there has not been anything like it since.

Bear in mind that the English language theatre scene in the ’80s existed is a totally different social, economic and political context than today. The ecology and reality of making theatre then was significantly more dependent on and driven by the will of individual artists rather than on state-led infrastructural support and cultural policy.

The period under review predates the establishment of the National Arts Council, the Esplanade and all of the other producing and presenting capabilities that are available to theatre artists now. Even the seminal Report Of The Advisory Council On Culture And The Arts, chaired by Mr. Ong Teng Cheong, which effectively laid the foundation for the sector’s development here, came out only in April 1989.

However, Kuo Pao Kun’s release from internment coincided with a time when the economy, despite a recession, was growing in both size and strength. Singapore’s early bet on taking the capitalist high road to growth and development was beginning to pay off. Innovation, productivity and training were the bywords then as the nation sought to climb out of the pool of regional poverty and up the economic value chain. Moving away from menial, labour-intensive industries to high-tech, higher value-add economic activities.

The winds of change were also blowing through the political scene in Singapore. The People’s Action Party’s seemingly implacable, 15-year monopoly of power in parliament ceased in 1981 when Mr. J.B. Jeyaretnam of the Workers’ Party of Singapore won the Anson constituency by-election. This was followed in 1984 by yet another parliamentary breach; Mr. Chiam See Tong of the Singapore Democratic Party was elected MP for Potong Pasir constituency. The tenor and mechanics of government began to change as a result of the introduction of Group Representation Constituencies (GRC), Government Parliamentary Committees (GPC) and the expectation of leadership succession when Mr. Lee Kuan Yew would have to leave the office of Prime Minister.

Although it was a time of change and uncertainty, there was also new confidence in the air. Perhaps it was the confidence of the parvenu. The traumas of birth and the new beginnings of nationhood had receded enough for us to be able to look forward with a good measure of assurance and optimism. English language theatre practitioners, in particular, sensing the new spirit of the times, seized the day and opted to revitalize the art form.

The lingering ghosts of aversion towards “local” or “homegrown” English plays which had haunted the scene throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, born of a postcolonial “cultural cringe” were firmly and finally laid to rest. A new breed of theatre artists, like Ong Keng Sen, Ivan Heng, Alvin Tan, Haresh Sharma, William Teo, Kok Heng Leun and Ellangovan were commited to both working and learning. They relished the possibility of discovering new and distinct Singaporean stage voices and presences.

To this end, if no ready script or finished writing was at hand, these artists were prepared to workshop or devise new texts. The result was a shift away from the writerly and the literary towards a more presentational, corporeal and gestural performance idiom.

Inspired principally by the practice of Kuo Pao Kun, actors, directors and even playwrights here were alive and open to the creative potential of para-theatrical disciplines like Taiji and Yoga and traditional Asian theatre forms like Bejing Opera and Randai. These new methods of working and crafting were evident in several seminal performances in the 1980s including Three Children (directed by the late Krishen Jit and Ong Keng Sen), Over The Wall (Ivan Heng), Medea (the late William Teo) and Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree and Mama Looking for Her Cat (Kuo Pao Kun).

Even though emerging English language theatre makers of the ‘80s were more alive and open to new forms of theatricality and new idioms of performativity, synthesizing disparate elements from the panoply of world theatre, they also were always receptive to new writing from Singapore playwrights. There was never an about face away from writing.

Alvin Tan’s collaborations with Haresh Sharma, for instance, which would find full fruition only in1990s, undoubtedly started in the ‘80s. The phenomenal success Stella Kon’s Emily Of Emerald Hill, directed by Max Le Blond for the 1985 Drama Festival, and its subsequent invitation to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, served to cement the literary legitimacy and theatrical viability the Singaporean play in English.

Although Kuo Pao Kun’s directorial efforts and his teaching work, more than anyone else’s in Singapore theatre, was instrumental in provoking awareness of the inherent disjunctions in theatre between the dynamics of performance and the written text, between the word and its playing as it were, his work as playwright moved in the opposite direction, inscribing the plural intricacies of world theatre performativity into local drama. This embrace of diversity and difference is a characteristic of Pao Kun’s writing. Already evident in his early mono-dramas of the ‘80s, The Coffin is Too Big For The Hole and No Parking On Odd Days, it achieved fuller flowering in the 1990s with Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral and The Spirits Play.

It was in the ‘80s, mainly due to the influence of Kuo Pao Kun, that practitioneers of Singapore theatre in English began facing up to the responsibility being artists. As a result, over the last 30 years, theatre, more than literature, the visual arts or any other single art form, has become inordinately significant to the critical discourse on identity/ies in Singapore.

The processes of articulating, expressing and critiquing notions and representations of “who we are as a people”, “who I am as a person” “what are the values or beliefs that animate me/us” are essential in a milieu as complex and as dynamic as Singapore’s. Dealing with a wide range of human and personal issues from politics, race and LGBTQ life to love, aging and education the theatre has been a site for enquiry, provocation and intervention.

Before the advent of social media platforms, theatre enabled and empowered the most active public intellectual space here for the airing of citizen and community-interest issues. This was so especially of those issues that were critical of conservative norms, controversial or politically progressive. Singapore theatre gave voice to the voiceless, validated the consciousness of minorities and stood for the conscience of the people. The fact that it was a critical voice of reason for marginalised minorities, albeit briefly before social media took over, may be traced to the “coming together” that happened in the 1980s. There was a conscious and and conscientious congealing of quite different and disparate resources, perspectives, approaches and startegies of making and watching theatre in the multicultural, polyglotal improbability that was Singapore.

As he was so pivotal in making the moment when Singapore theatre started asking the fundamental questions, Kuo Pao Kun should have the last word:

“This is why sometimes things happen and I want to ask, “Who are you and where are you coming from?” “What is your stake in this action?” “You may be very hot today but tomorrow I don’t see you anymore.” “How can I work with you?” “Do you stake your interests in your actions?” Two weeks later, I don’t see this person anymore. I think that is to me, essence of my dilemma. I think this is common to probably all artists in Singapore. Maybe this statement is too absolute to make, but how does one create a sense of self in this huge system? When you talk about the whole capitalist system, I simply don’t know how to deal with it. Does anybody know how to deal with that? I don’t think I can create an alternative to that before I begin to make sense of myself and the kind of art I intend to do. This is the biggest problem. It is as real as walking the next step. If I don’t think about making the next step and ask questions of such fundamental significance, I just can’t deal with the government in any way. I don’t have the strength or energy because I haven’t done my own work. I just respond to what they do to me.”[2]

This essay was commissioned for The Studios: fifty, an Esplanade Presents programme.

[1] Document from Web site: Welcome to Kuo Pao Kun Foundation

Kuo Pao Kun wrote the poem in Chinese on a Lunar New card he made while under detention for Goh Lay Kuan in 1977. It was translated to English by Teo Han Wue and Kwok Kian Woon in 2001.

[2] Excerpt from forum transcript, “Protest, Provocation, Process” (21 January 2001, The Necessary Stage) in Focas: Forum on Contemporary Art & Society No. 2, July 2001, pp104-105.

A Manisfesto for The Arts

Town Hall on Manisfesto for The Arts

March 17, Sunday, 2-4pm

Emily Hill, 11, Upper Wilkie Road, Singapore 228120.


Dear members of the arts community,


The National Conversation [Our Singapore Conversation (OSC)] that has been going on consigns the arts to the periphery of Singapore society and life – that is, if it discusses the arts at all. A group of us from the arts community feel that, despite some deep misgivings about the conversation, from the motive behind it to its processes and outcomes so far, we need to make some sort of intervention to focus attention on what we think is really important. To keep silent is to be deemed irrelevant.


To this end, we have drawn up a draft Manifesto for the Arts, a document that outlines the principles and values that we think are not just important to the arts but also to Singapore, not just relevant to the National Conversation but also for the long term. Please see below.


More work and discussion needs to be done on the draft. Hence, we are calling a town hall meeting of all artists at the above date and time to dispute, support or generally discuss the Manifesto.


Arts NMP Janice Koh also has arranged a discussion to be organised by the National Conversation Secretariat to take place on April 13, 9am to 2pm (venue to be finalised).


Besides artists, other people in the creative area will also be invited.  We hope that the Manifesto will be the basis, or at least a starting point, for this conversation. At the event, you are of course free to bring up any issue, including questioning the National Conversation itself.


We hope to see on at the town hall!




Terence Chong

Janice Koh

Kok Heng Leun

Kuo Jian Hong

Jasmine  Ng

Sasitharan Thirunalan

Alvin Tan

Tan Tarn How

Audrey Wong

Tay Tong




A Manifesto for the Arts


(I) Intro


Basic material needs such as food, housing and security are important, but they are not theultimate aim in life. Human endeavour is about achieving a rich, emotional, intellectual and spiritual life. Hence what matter most are not material things, but the love of our family and friends, freedom to pursue knowledge and other goals, and culture and the arts.


Culture, of which the Arts is its highest expression, gives meaning to all our endeavour. It reflects who we are, how we see the world, and how the world sees us.


(II) The Manifesto


1.     Do not attempt to define Art.


Art has no necessary and sufficient. What is artistically necessary and sufficient for one community may not be for another. 

2.     Art unifies and divides. 


Art draws us together and reveals universal truths. However, Art can also unveil differences and contradictions. We should not just celebrate the former while demonising the latter. Art provides the canvas on which our diversity can be expressed and encountered, and our differences debated and appreciated. It is this process of conflict and contest of ideas that offers us alternatives.


3.     Art is about possibilities.


Art allows us to examine our way of life, to make sense of it and to question, and to transform ourselves.  It allows us to imagine new possibilities and to evolve or even re-make our culture.


Art-making requires independent thinking, freedom of expression, risk-taking and experimentation. Art has no enemies except ignorance and prejudice. 



4.     Art can be challenged but not censored.


Everyone has a right to be delighted by, indifferent to or repulsed by to Art. But no one has the right to deny another the right to decide for his or herself.



5.     Art is political


Art comes from and speaks to life. It therefore should inform all aspects of policy and politics that affect our way of life. Art enables perspectives and offers alternatives, keeps us uncertain and doubtful to our benefit, and warns

us of the hazards of moral certainty.


Art is the seat of the aesthetic experience, but it is also part of our human engagement with landscape, architecture, ritual and many other social and cultural activities.




Jihad Misharawi and the Madness in Gaza

November 15, 2012 “The Washington Post” – The front page photo on Thursday’s Washington Post tells, in a single frame, a very personal story from Wednesday’s Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip. Jihad Misharawi, a BBC Arabic journalist who lives in Gaza, carries the body of his 11-month old son, Omar, through al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City.


I Singaporean

I … Singaporean

For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life …
Can I see another’s woe, and not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief, and not seek for kind relief?
— William Blake

The government has been prepossessed with the notion of turning Singapore into a Global City for quite a while now. Our new “becoming”, as it were, is clearly a national development priority. So much so in fact that becoming a Global City has turned into something of a national obsession. In a city-state that is so finely structured and centrally managed, where some believe even the roadside trees are numbered and the presence of the government is both pervasive and persuasive, it is perhaps inevitable that we should be so obsessed.. You see, nothing ensures obsequiousness in a people like good old-fashioned national obsessions.

There is an inexorable logic to the selection of the model upon which Singapore’s economic growth and national development are predicated. Our economy is modeled after a particularly virulent strain of capitalism; a form of über-capitalism which is far more reliant on consumerism and an appetite for materialism — a rabid proclivity to spend — than common-or-garden variety capitalism. For it is only with the frenetic pace of über-capitalism that the government has any hope of sustaining the stratospheric rates of economic growth necessary to placate people’s material appetites and secure its own position, power and dominance in Singapore.

And so it begins; the unholy, interminable race to scramble up and higher the constantly extending, slippery value-chain of instrumentalist economics. This endless scrambling upwards, always ordered but nonetheless unseemly, has been the staff and stuff of Singaporean life, indelibly imprinted in our collective subconscious, since our bith, the birth of the Republic in 1965.

As so often happens in these circumstances, with so many government-inspired obsessions in Singapore, the prize of becoming a Global City has now become something of a national fetish.

We are all of us familiar with this transmutation wherein what ought to be a matter of our choice, an option for the people , an elective economic model , is seized upon by the state and turned into absolute imperative; reducing and ultimately condemning all life in Singapore to the treadmill of teleology.

This is the uniquely Singaporean brand of nationalism; born of a dumbstruck populace, morally de-centered and rendered emotionally off-kilter through the incessant and tempestuous batterings of an all-consuming economy primed to perform at a feverish and, ultimately, impossible pitch.

As such, Singapore is in a state of perpetual prepossession, overcome, enervated by the withering absolute that is the economy. Stupid. Our lot as Singaporeans is one of perpetual anticipation and edginess, vulnerability and dis-ease. It is a feeling familiar to us all, a consequence of being in long, endless queues, all our lives.

Singaporean lives, punctuated by acts of queuing, from pre-school classrooms and school canteens to hawker-centers, MRT Stations and 4-D counters, are measured out by bouts of delirious anticipation.

We the citizens of Singapore pledge ourselves to wait quietly in line; in interminable lines, so as to cash-in on the promissory note of a bigger, better and brighter economy.

• • •

And so it has come to pass that becoming a Global City has become our manifest destiny. It is now almost inevitable that we will become that brilliant, gleaming, pinnacle on the pile of all the world’s cities. What is more, If the rankings and the league tables and the surveys are to be believed, we are well on our way to being in the Alpha ++ league of cities.

This is, as such things tend to be here, almost, a fiat accompli. Singapore is now, after all, the location of choice for such epitomes of human civilization, culture and cultivation as the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition (2011), The Martha Stewart Show and The Amazing Race. It appears, by any measure that matters to the government, we have arrived.

But what does it really mean to be a Global City? Surely it must mean more than vaulting towers and palaces, more than worldly power and influence and more than wealth and mere material gain, more, surely, than being the undisputed location of choice for the next Bollywood or Hollywood blockbuster or F1 Grand Prix?

If we, as Singaporeans, must aspire to belong to a Global City, to aspire at all; to aspire now, at this particular juncture of human history, to be a Global City must mean more than merely aspiring to be a good city? It must mean we must aspire to greatness … to be a great city.

Perhaps a Persepolis, Rome, Karakorum, London, Berlin, New York? What do all those great cities have in common? They proffered their populations, in some small shape, way or form, the possibility of a transcendence. They engendered the means for their people, their citizens, to get above and beyond the vexatious flux of both the immediate and the material.

A truly great Global City must, necessarily, be the site where the prerogatives and the encumbrances, the rights and the responsibilities, of what it is to be a citizen of that city are conceived, contested and eventually congealed. It must be the location where the identity of the citizen is formed and solidified; where the various, disparate, different and plural aspects of the personality and the self are fused and ordered, and where the fragments of the individual, private self that defy such an assay may, conclusively and finally, be subordinated to the common, public identity that is entailed by the notion of “citizenship”.

This indeed is the alchemy of national consensus, the transformation that a truly Global City, a truly great city, enables in its citizens. This is the ultimate gift of the Global City to its people.

It follows, therefore, that a true Global City must possess a highly refined and acute sense of genius loci — spirit of place. Put another way, a great city must necessarily be a site where the souls of its citizens are forged; “soul” that is qua ontology, as an existential category of the self, rather than qua theology — that is, implying or concerning the Deity.

The bond between the city and an individual who is a citizen of it is radically umbilical. Therein lies the root of the “rootedness” that moors the self to a place and why so many people yearn to belong to some particular city or other. It is precisely because the bond is so radical that there is identification with a specific place; the radicality of this identification is the basis and bedrock of the claim that some particular city is “my home”.

This bond, its radicality, and the identification that it engenders with a city or another is why, when called upon, some people, will give their lives for it. As history proven time and again, people will die to protect their homes.

The desire for this bonding is sometimes so urgent, so palpable it could be manifested as pure aspiration. Consider its invocation by United States president John F Kennedy on 26 June 1963 when, at the height of the Cold War he said in Berlin:

“Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was
Civis Romanus Sum. Today, in the world of freedom,
the proudest boast is Ich bin ein Berliner.”

The need for such bonding could be so intense, so immensely overwhelming, it might be asserted or assumed even when citizenship is explicitly denied and only subject-hood is proffered. As in the case of Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s dedication to his novel The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951):

“To the memory of the British Empire in India,
Which conferred subjecthood upon us,
But withheld citizenship.
To which yet every one of us threw out the challenge:

‘Civis Britannicus Sum’

Because all that was good and living within us
Was made, shaped and quickened
By the same British rule.”

• • •

In unpacking the meaning of Singapore for Singaporeans, in terms of the notions of home, of our deep need and desire to belong to and identify with a city — this forge of our soul, this genius loci … “because all that [is] good and living within us / Was made, shaped and quickened [here]” — we discover, remarkably, a bond uniquely more binding, more compact and more intense and forceful, compared to equivalent relationships of other cities and their citizens.

The uniqueness of being Singaporean, arises not because Singapore is somehow exceptional, but because of Singapore’s preposterously small size.

You see, in Singapore’s case, in our case, our city is all that is the case. There is nothing more; no larger hinterland to speak of, no urban / rural difference, no bigger country or countryside. No ameliorations whatsoever to geography, either physical or mental, are available to us.

There is no calibrating frame reference or comforting context afforded by territoriality; no other enabling circumstances or conditions of materiality and no significant temporal distance or separation wherein our city may be conceived or imagined or enacted; swathed, contained, lighted in space and time as scene and setting. There simply is no theatre wherein to play out the performance of Singapore’s nationality.

Singapore is all there is for us; at once, city-state-nation. It is all, for Singaporeans.

This apparent wholeness is without doubt a remarkable confabulation. And there is a brute inescapability about its improbable morphology. Singapore’s existence, its very being, is about as far removed from any notion of the “natural” as it is possible to imagine; it is a purely willed whole, an artifice of determination.

This of course is completely at odds with the usual state of these things; the way states are “supposed to be”. Singapore is in fact positively “unnatural”.

More than two centuries of slow, deliberate and directed progress separated the conception of the sovereign state with permanent borders and territory ( read Treaty of Westphalia,1648), from the only idea of nationhood which is singularly relevant to us today as Singaporeans. The only idea of nationhood relevant to the Singapore of today, that aspires to be a great and truly Global City: Is the notion of nationhood as a moral and existential formation, a “spiritual principle” centered as it were in a “soul”; the idea of nation articulated by Ernest Renan (What is a Nation? 1882):

“A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which
in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual
principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is
the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories;
the other is the present-day consent, the desire to live
together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage
that one has received in an undivided form.” …

“A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted
by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past
and of those that one is prepared to make in the future.
It presupposes a past; it is summarized, however, in the
present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly
expressed desire to continue a common life.” …

“Man is a slave neither of his race nor his language, nor
of his religion, nor of the course of rivers nor the direction
taken by mountain chains. A large aggregate of men,
healthy in mind and warm of heart, creates the kind of
moral conscience which we call a nation. So long as this
moral consciousness gives proof of its strength by the
sacrifices which demand the abdication of the individual
to the advantage of the community, it is legitimate and has
the right to exist.” [my emphasis]

In Europe, the process of conjoining the notion of the sovereign state with that of the nation was torn to shreds and nearly destroyed beyond repair by two catastrophic world wars over the ensuing 50 years. It bears pointing out that any claim to legitimacy Singapore might have as a sovereign state is less than 50 years old and any notions Singaporeans may harbour of being a nation is at least as long a time away — in a mist-filled, optimistic future. The process of Singapore’s “ensouling”, of forming a soul, however, has already begun in earnest; of that, there is absolutely no doubt.

We are neither a large aggregate nor a large-solidarity. We have no rich common heritage; any richness of heritage we might possess is born of deep differences and diversity and plurality, the very antitheses of a commonality.

But we do possess a legacy of memories of a past compactly lived; feelings of pride and strength born of the ordinary, everyday sufferings and sacrifices that Singaporeans of every ilk, creed, colour and class made, and continue to make, in the continuous struggle to just get by. To be; Singaporean.

This struggle to be; the simple, unadorned act of just getting by, played out all around us a million times a day by countless, faceless folk over the last 50 years is the signification of our consent for a continued common life. Our lives are the vessels of our “expressed desire” and our sacrifice of the personal and the individual for the good of the whole and the weal of the commons.

It is precisely in the everyday struggle of the people to be, the quotidian “health of mind” and “warmth of heart”, the ceaseless faith and industry of the ordinary Singaporean, that our collective moral conscience lives. This is the aforesaid “ensouling”; the incipient quickening of the moral and spiritual principle mingled with a lived experience, which will, in the fullness of time, become our soul. This all it is: An existential essence, life; our lives, lived at once individually and collectively.

This is the very thing-process that the Irishman James Joyce so beautifully celebrated in his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and encapsulated in:

“Welcome, O life!
I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of
experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the
uncreated conscience of my race.”

Singaporean lives, our encounter with the reality of experience, could bear a far better telling than they have been accorded thus far.

The people of Singapore deserve an honest telling, one that is as far removed from being propaganda or advertising as is humanly and creatively possible. Singaporeans deserve a beautiful telling guided by our incipient moral sensibility and by the reality of life about us rather than what we have — ugly, unwieldy narratives tainted by the provisional pettiness and partisanship of party political processes skewed by the overweening presence of a single, puffed-up, tiresomely dominant political party.

Singaporeans deserve better. This is a truth both our government and our citizens (the artists, in particular) should heed in equal measure.

• • •

On the 25th September 2009, the last day of the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies’ (IFACCA) 4th World Summit on Arts and Culture in Johannesburg, South Africa, I had the singular pleasure of meeting Justice Albie Sachs, a judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. He was appointed to the court by none other than Nelson Mandela himself.

Justice Sachs, who opposed apartheid, had lost his right arm and an eye to a bomb placed in his car in 1988 by South African state security agents. He is, clearly, a man who knows a thing or two about what it means to the struggle for freedom and justice, about fighting for the right and the oppressed, about dying for one’s home; about the soul of men and of nations.

“Hello”, I said extending my left-hand, “I’m from Singapore.” He took my hand, smiled, fixed me by his one good eye and said, “Ah … you have everything except a soul.”

He might as well have slapped me in the face or kicked me in the gut. I was winded; but managed a grimaced smile before the hurt finally flooded through me. Why was I hurt? Because this man, this exceptional judge, was spot-on in his assessment of us, as Singaporeans. By almost every possible estimation we do have everything, and yet by some honest estimations we are soulless.

I wish I had told him then that some Singaporeans knew their country lacked a soul. But that they also knew full well that the souls of nations are made by great labour and by great faith and great sacrifice. And that we, as a people, in the millions of the moments of our shared lives and in a myriad of uncountable ways, have already started on the long trek towards building a soul for our beloved country.

One day, we too as a people, will gain the voice to speak to truth to power, stand up in the defense of the freedoms of all our fellow men and women, bear witness and breakdown the illegitimate controls of the state on the people’s legitimate rights of protest and dissent and assembly, defend free speech and expression and speak on behalf of the powerless, the poor, the oppressed and the weak.

On that day we will all, as a people, be able to openly acknowledge that some who had walked ahead of us, like Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, Kuo Pao Kun, Chia Thye Poh, Lim Hock Siew, Vincent Cheng, Teo Soh Lung and many others, who had the courage of their convictions and suffered bitterly for holding such convictions and having such courage, served too, and sacrificed more than most in the shaping of Singapore’s soul.

We may not all of us live to see that day. But I am certain our children will, and that will do just fine.