A Singapore debate stirs New York University

A New York University alumni friend of mine told me about a controversy brewing at his alma mater. It stems from a larger controversy, far away on the small island nation of Singapore. Dr. Thio Li-Ann, law professor at the National University of Singapore, has been appointed as a visiting scholar on human rights to NYU’s law school beginning this fall.

But Thio’s track-record on human rights is in question.

This Week: Singapore in the news

When I lived in Singapore I stayed in Bukit Timah, on the west of the island near a large nature reserve and beneath the city-state’s tallest peak, which is not the grandest mountain at just over 530 ft. Bukit Timah is just south of the bridge that crosses into the Malaysian border town of Johor Bahru, in the southern Malaysian state of Johor. At the end of February, 2008, soldiers combed this area and security along the border was tightened in an effort to catch terrorism suspect, Mas Selamat, who had escaped a maximum security prison from an unbarred window in a restroom. Fliers of Selamat with a mustache, without a mustache, every detail of what he was wearing, his alleged limp, his favorite meal (ok, that last one is from an interpretation by Singapore’s most famous satirists) — one by one, the government released more and more details and asked for vigilance.

The big news this week is that Selamat was captured in early April, over one year after his escape. Authorities believe that Selamat, who had been held without charges under Singapore’s Internal Security Act since his first capture in 2006, is  the leader of the Singapore arm of Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, which is responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings and an alleged plot to attack Singapore’s Changi Airport. News of his arrest came out last week, withheld, say Malayasian officals, to allow for continued investigation into the JI network. According to Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng, Selamat escaped across the Johor Strait on an improvised flotation device; weaknesses in border security, say Singapore authorities, will be addressed. Perhaps now is a good time to revisit another mr brown show classic, Blame It on Somebody (or perhaps the remix, or the follow-up episode Just Can’t Quit). For a good explanation of the whole story, read the account from AFP.

From FP Passport via International Economy via vesseltracker.com, global trade is taking a hit, and Singapore, the “world’s busiest port for container traffic” according to International Economy, is feeling the pain. Compared to last year, traffic in Singapore dropped almost 20 percent in January and February, 2009. See the short but striking report (and a really startling graphic) on a PDF from International Economy. Other indicators of Singapore’s financial predicament are the central banks’s move to devalue Singapore dollars and Singapore Airline’s move to give people $1 hotel stays.

And not related to Singapore at all, an Asia Pacific Arts story is getting a lot of buzz in the Los Angeles neck-of-the-woods. I’ll let the headline sell it: Hot Asian Actors Hollywood Doesn’t Yet Realize It Needs.

queuing for movies

They all said the Pusan International Film Festival is the premiere festival in Asia. I’m no Asia film scholar, but it certainly is a big deal here. I’ve never seen teenagers wake up so early to get movie tickets before.

On the third day of the festival, we also woke up early to get tickets to some shows we wanted to watch. My friend Brian Hu is fully accredited and can get tickets one day ahead of time. I, as an Asia Pacific Arts photographer, am not.

Last night I attempted to reserve tickets for shows today. The interesting thing about this festival is that it really is designed for Koreans here to see Korean films and international films with Korean subtitles that they would ordinarily never have access to. If you are a Korean resident you can buy tickets online, at ATM machines and in banks. It’s wonderful to see all the excitement – the festival is visible in one way or another all over the city.

sell_out_thumbail147x200.gifA foreigner, however, needs to queue up. They sell tickets in person only on the day the movie is showing, and the tickets sell out fast. I got in line just after 9 a.m. and by the time I reached the counter at 10:45, more than half the films showing today were sold out. I did manage to get a ticket to the Malaysian film Sell Out! by Yeo Joon Han, which I am really looking forward to. Considering I was tasked with teaching students in Singapore to be creative (no joke), it will be interesting to see Yeo’s lampooning of how corporate interests wreak havoc on creative industries.

I also picked up a ticket to 63 Years On, a documentary by Kim Dong-won about Korean comfort women (sex slaves in World War II) and how their lives are now. I’ve crossed paths with this topic so many times before that the film caught my eye and I thought I’d take a look.

In the coming days, I’m hoping to catch a few more documentaries, and some films from Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Tan Chee Wee, head of the Signapore Film Commission, gave brief opening statements at the beginning of an event adjacent to the festival, Asia Policy Plus, a two-day conference about film policies in the region. He speaks again tomorrow, so I’ll learn more about how films in Singapore are funded. Today, Tan talked about a bit about a funding scheme for new directors to make their first feature-length films. It seems that the Commission will take a large role in “nurturing” these films — and I hope to clarify exactly what that means. Brian is focusing on Taiwan and Hong Kong films and we’ll both be writing some short reviews for Asia Pacific Arts.

random updates: writing about Singapore, teaching in Cambodia and watching movies in Korea

I had a little bit of an epiphany about my writing life in Singapore a while ago. And I promised I would write more about the country where I live. So, a few months later, I am true to my word and am posting for Global Voices. Will work my way up to longer, reported writing.

I’m also not giving up just yet on my goal to get at least a few of my students reading more. I’m writing for them at npReads. Students, colleagues — if you’re reading this, I’d love for you to contribute and build the site after my fellowship ends.

Next next weekend, I’ll be attending a bar camp in Phnom Phen. I’d like to teach a news writing topic — perhaps about upsidedown triangles or a spiced up lead drill of some sort. Any suggestions or requests? Mostly, I am very excited to meet new people and get to know Cambodia a bit.

In the first week of October, I’ll be off to the Pusan Internation Film Festival with my friend and trusted film maniac Brian Hu. I’ll take some photos and do some writing and try to see as many beautiful people as possible. And get a taste for Korea.

Then it’s off to Los Angeles, home of tacos and burritos and In ‘n Out burgers. And my family too.

Orientalism or chinoiserie?

turandot300.jpg
Marketing material for the 1926 Milan premeire of Turandot on the left, and for the 2008 Singapore staging on the right.

Like most people, I don’t know where I first heard the famous aria Nessun Dorma of Puccini’s Turandot. But my interest in the opera has certainly been revived several times recently.

Maybe it was Pavarotti’s triumphant (if staged) performance of the aria at the 2006 Torino Olympics. Or maybe it was the recent Beijing staging of the opera, with a new ending that revisited Puccini’s version of a Chinese folk song instead of recapitulating Nessun Dorma.

Both of these revivals, for me, took place (via YouTube and podcasts) in Singapore. It’s an interesting vantage point, to see how an Italian opera set in “legendary China” — Peking more specifically — is interpreted in Asia. Some criticize Puccini’s work at worst as Orientalist, and more diplomatically as chinoiserie. So when I read that the Singapore Lyric Opera is staging a production at the Esplanade, I bought a seat (back, center) to see how they would interpret it.

While the quality of the music was not awe-inspiring (though, Nessun Dorma takes my breath away under almost any circumstance), the staging was interesting and rich. Along with the simple but grand sets, came sometimes grammatically awkward English translations on two side screens, as well as Chinese translations below. The audience laughed heartily at the wise-cracking ministers, Ping, Pong and Pang, and other elements of the show most often criticized as stereotypical.

China had banned Turandot for 70 years. Its brutal title character, a steely princess who has her suitors beheaded for not answering riddles correctly, was not an ideal heroine. The opera was, however, an inaugural piece for the Beijing National Center for the Performing Arts, with its new ending by a Chinese composer. Puccini died before completing the opera and the most commonly staged ending is by his contemporary, Franco Alfano.

It’s interesting that the Hong Kong-born director of Singapore’s production, Lo King-man, has also endeavored to localize the opera by adjusting for Chinese sensibilities, though he sticks with Alfano’s version of the end. “For us Chinese, to see it being set in the Qing Dynasty [1644-1911], we lose that exotic and remote and fairy-tale and legendary feeling that some time there could have been such a woman like this,” he told Time Out Singapore. Lo took a darker approach, using bronze metallic colors and simple, peasant costumes for the chorus, instead of the flashy Qing and Ming Dynasty costumes and sets of more famous stagings of the opera. It was meant to look older than the Qing Dyanasty, Lo said.

These kinds of adaptations create cultural webs — Italians interpreting Chinese, then Chinese interpreting Italians interpreting Chinese — that say a lot about how cultures get appropriated and reappropriated, by the West, East and every multinational production (such as Singapore’s) in between.

the other self-censorship story

st-072908.jpg

The front page of the Sunday Times (the Sunday edition of the Straits Times) on July 20 had a big graphic about a really sensational story of two “warring” bloggers. One is suing the other for defamation.

Here’s a follow-up that’s free on the Straits Times website.

No, I have not fallen into the black hole of tabloids news from the trenches of online celebrities. I just wanted to give you a bit of background to the opinion piece the Straits Times ran yesterday:

Ignorance may not always be bliss

By Ang Peng Hwa

The lawsuit between two of Singapore’s top bloggers is alarming. It
may spill over into the larger blogging community and could even
backfire on the two involved.

Given that no writer or editor can be free of errors all the time,
defamation suits can and do crop up. But, often, those between a media
organisation and an individual can be settled quietly.

It is, however, quite another matter altogether when one content
producer sues another. This may set a precedent with far-reaching
consequences.

The law is a two-edged sword: It can cut the wielder too. To avoid
being sued, would Singapore blogs have to be sanitised by lawyers? If
so, how edgy can they be? And what appeal would they have if they
aren’t edgy?

This particular libel suit may lead to self-censorship. In which case, the biggest losers would be the biggest bloggers.


(via AsiaMedia)

Reading this opinion piece, I wonder if such a frank critique of the use of defamation suits has been made about Singapore’s most famous defamation suits. Do politicians have the same rights to lose in suing each other?

If there are some locally published articles or opinion pieces on the topic of how defamation works (or doesn’t work) in Singapore, please do comment and leave links.

the scales of justice

I haven’t written much about Singapore. As I approach my last few months here, I’m starting to ask myself why.

Perhaps it’s because I live here — sometimes it’s easier to observe things when you are a complete outsider. That doesn’t seem satisfactory though. I’m a curious and inquisitive person by nature, wherever I am. I remember as a kid one Christmas, while all my sisters were getting toys and clothes, my uncle bought me a really fat, hardcover, Costco-esque book called “The Big Book of Tell Me Why” — he said maybe it would be better to consult the book, then to ask so many questions to the adults.

So, as much as I try to gloss it over, the reason I don’t write about Singapore is pretty clear. While I know the risks are actually quite minimal, I just don’t want to deal with the hassle of people here finding out that I’m writing about Singapore politics. Reading that last sentence again, I realize it sounds absurd, but that’s how this little island really operates. People self-censor to make their lives easier.

But why? What are the risks involved? There’s of course livelihood issues. Employers tend to not be so happy about their employees being outspoken on political issues. They subtly nudge their employees to focus on art and culture and economics so as not to risk their company’s reputations.

But there is also a judicial question. This country is famous for its efficient and fair court system, which is a big reason why so many businesses feel comfortable setting up shop on the island. They know that they will get a fair shake if something goes wrong.

But since the Far Eastern Economic Review was kicked out in 2006, and subsequently sued for defamation (here’s a nice summary and introduction to the issues by Columbia’s journalism school), there have been questions about how the judiciary in Singapore operates. It’s important to read the essay that created the stir (PDF), as well as some of the explanations for the suit (scroll down to the question about FEER near the end).

And now, with the defamation suit against Chee Soo Juan in full swing, those questions are coming back. The International Bar Association listed their concerns (PDF) about, among other things, defamation suits and their use in Singapore’s courts.  Here’s the Straits Times take, a view from Australia, a Wall Street Journal opinion, and a piece from The Economist. You can also get lost in the black hole of Singapore Rebel’s court transcripts for first-hand information, editorialized introductions to each blog entry aside.

What does this have to do with my hesitation to blog about Singapore? Well, nothing. And everything. When everyone around you self-censors — they whisper certain names, cut lines out of scripts, report heavily on certain speeches but not others — it’s hard not to think that they have real reasons for doing so. Not many people want to bring trouble on themselves for voicing an opinion, or even just reporting on others’ opinions. And after a while, even if I don’t know what can get me into trouble and what cannot, I just make a habit of not publishing certain things.

I don’t think this entry is objectionable — I have not taken a position on these issues and all of ten people read my blog. But I will reread it three times before I hit the publish button anyway.

ways to cross a border

These are kids in Myanmar, also known as Burma. They live in a town called Tachilek, on the border of Thailand. I met them in a mosque — a very small mosque on a sidestreet in the town. There is a lot of dispute about the position and treatment of Muslims in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country. I was happy to meet these boys — the one in the middle was particularly funny, meditating like a Buddhist monk but holding a slingshot in his hand. I don’t think they get many visitors.

meditation

I had planned to visit Yangon (Rangoon) with my friend Anil Kalhan in the second weekend of May, which was incidentally the weekend of the country’s constitutional referendum. Not surprisingly (though, I have to say, I was still a bit surprised) the Myanmar Embassy in Singapore closed its visa section for a few days about a month before our weekend sojourn. And then for the week after that. And the next week too, which was when Cyclone Nargis hit. When we finally got to the visa counter (on now my fourth visit to the embassy) we were told that a visa could not be ready until Monday, the Monday that we were supposed to return to Singapore.

So, our Yangon trip didn’t work out. Not to be deterred, we decided to take the back door to Burma. We went to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. We wandered around the city and met some people there who told us a lot about what was happening across the border in Burma. Then we went by bus to Mae Sai, the border town on the Thai side and our gateway to a country neither of us had ever seen but were very curious about.

Crossing the border by foot was a strange experience. It should have been a bigger deal than it was. You cross through Thai security, walk on a short bridge over the Sai River, are greeted by a large photo of junta leader Than Shwe, pay 500 baht (we tried to pay US$10, but they didn’t like that our bills had doggy ears), and voila! Myanmar. (Myanmar without our passports, that is. They hold on to them until you return.)

Tachilek and Mae Sai sit inside the Golden Triangle, the area where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet. It’s a place notorious for opium production, hilltribes and the spread of HIV. Not too pretty. But it’s also a place glossed over for tourists — these “dangerous” places have capitalized on their reputations in many ways. So too has Tachilek. The three-wheel taxi drivers have a little route they all follow, showing half-day tourists from Thailand Shan temples, Chinese-style temples and the beauty of the valley where Tachilek rests. Indeed, it is a beautiful country, but one that is conspicuously void of newspapers. Many buildings have satellite dishes, but the televisions we saw were tuned to WWF wrestling from across the border. One week after Cycle Nargis hit, our guide still thought only a few thousand had been killed.

So we wandered around, seeing all the things that all the curious onlookers see and trying to ask questions in between, It is certainly a strange place and one where you don’t speak too loudly, or walk past a polling booth twice, or take photos of referendum posters out in the open. Our guide made that abundantly clear to us. He also made it clear that people in Tachilek didn’t feel that their vote in the referendum was secret — so many voted “yes” to satisfy local leaders. So I took what photos I could — I’m afraid I couldn’t properly capture Tachilek, though.

sweet revenge

kabuki

This weekend I got my first full-length taste of kabuki and, boy, was it delicious.

This form of Japanese theater is fantastic and fascinating to watch — for its dramatic acting, stylized makeup and simple, effectual music — but it’s even better when you have some sense of what people are saying. Lucky for me, the Cathay Cineplex in Singapore was hosting the Cinema-Kabuki Festival. The beauty of theater at the movies is that I could see subtitled, film versions of two plays.

One was the beautiful Kyokanoko Musume Ninin Dodoji. The other was the brilliantly funny Noda Version Togitatsu no Utare.

One of the best ways to learn about a genre is to see a parody of a genre. Togitatsu was so well done that, even through translations of puns, I laughed to the point of tears several times. Like Om Shanti Om is to Bollywood, Togitatsu is a really interesting introduction to kabuki. It’s an ode to an art form that artfully pokes fun at itself. With modern dance moves. Think West Side Story. If you get a chance to see this production, don’t miss it.

this is what they think

Traveling around Southeast Asia is a joy. The variety of the people, the familiar things that are somehow different, the mixes of cultures — it really makes every turn a surprise. It’s fun also to tell people that I live in Singapore. I can relate to Singapore this way: it’s kind of the odd little sister with her head in the clouds. Her older siblings kind of laugh at her, but (I’m sure) envy her a bit too.

That said, my friend picked up a magazine in the Philippines and found this little set of advertisements.

absolut-singapore.jpg