Ushers and carpenters

Alex Au
Yawning Bread
22 August 2003

I have it on fairly good authority that the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) made an approach to a French restauranteur in Singapore who has good connections to the entertainment scene in France, about using his contacts to bring the Moulin Rouge cabaret show to Singapore. And while he’s at it, how about helping the STB bring in the Chippendales as well?

The restauranteur said he couldn’t help them with the Chippendales – they’re an American outfit — but he could assist with the Moulin Rouge. However, he asked, do you know they display their breasts?

That shouldn’t be a problem, the guys from STB said.

The friend who told me the story cast it as an example of how Singapore was opening up. But I heard it quite differently. I heard in that story how Singapore was NOT changing.

It sounded to me exactly like the old days: bulldoze an industrial estate, go out and scour the world for foreign investments. Dangle any number of tax exemptions (now censorship exemptions) to entice them to our shores, and hope that they will bring export earnings (now tourist dollars) to Singapore, and we can boast of more economic progress!

It’s the same attitude. The foreign investor is king and saviour. And the role of Singaporeans is to work dutifully for them. In the old days, the small home-grown manufacturer and businessman got short shrift. Today, our home-grown arts groups and entertainment entrepreneurs are still bound up in red tape and inflexible rules.

Recently, The Necessary Stage (TNS) put up a production called Mardi Gras. In the original concept, after an hour or so of camp and comedy, the production was supposed to turn serious. Twenty real gay and lesbian persons would come onto the stage and speak truthfully of how they saw their place in Singapore. It would be a production both hilarious and thought-provoking.

Despite much to-ing and fro-ing, the authorities refused to permit such an ending. And with that, a bit more of our own local creativity and ennthusiasm was killed off.

In the absence of our own home-grown theatre and entertainment, we beg the Moulin Rouge and Chippendales to come over. Then we hope we can get planeloads of free-spending Japanese and Taiwanese to shower us with money, much of which goes off to France or America, to pay for their talent.

But wait a minute, if the market is Taiwan or Japan, why should the shows come here? Do we seriously think that our censorship policies are looser than in those countries? Who are we kidding? Isn’t it the same problem as with manufacturing industries lured into Singapore to serve other markets? As soon as the other countries open up, the investors move their plants over there.

The solution shouldn’t be one of begging foreign shows to come to Singapore. It should be one of nurturing our own, so that it is anchored here. Singaporeans shouldn’t be just the seat ushers and the stage carpenters for the Moulin Rouge and the Chippendales. We should be the choreographers, the music composers, the stage designers, and yes, the striptease artistes, in shows uniquely our own.

But it will never happen if we never question our paradigms.

For example, I have observed a difference in censorship of films depicting homosexuality, depending on whether the film depicts a Western or Asian society. There tends to be a bit more leeway if its the ‘degenerate West’ being shown. If it’s a Chinese character shown to be gay, censorship tends to be stricter, almost paranoid.

I have long wondered whether the censors are themselves aware of their bias. Regardless, it seems entirely in keeping with the streak of racism that many of us have observed in Singapore. Asians, especially the Chinese, must have their image defended as good and pure. Westerners, not to speak of others, can go to the dogs.

Now the racism can come in handy. Foreign breasts can hang out. But banish the thought that morally upright Singaporeans will be high-kicking showgirls or catwalk hunks letting customers stuff dollar bills into their g-strings.

At the end of the day, we’ll be the ones poorer for it, in more ways than one.

If we truly want a vibrant place, it we truly want our own home-grown champions, we must sweep away, not just the regulations, but the mindsets. We must learn to revel in subversive ideas, for it is these that have the edginess and the craziness to rip away our comfort zones, pump life into this place and drive our infamous sterility out of Singapore.