Spitting in the wind

April 14, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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(Interview with Qian Xi on Sintercom)

Teng Qian Xi is a writer and politics addict. She graduated from the Hwa Chong Humanities Scheme in 2001 and is currently waiting to enter university. She was one of 15 overall winners of the Simon Elvin Young Poet of the Year Awards (organised by the Poetry Society in UK) in 2000 and 2001; she was the first non-British winner of this award. Her poetry has been published in Singapore and overseas. She has translated several of her poems for Chuang Xin Shi Kan, a local Chinese-language poetry magazine, and is also a regular reviewer for BigO magazine. Some of her photographs will be featured in May 2002 in the 2ndrule (http://www.the2ndrule.com), a monthly e-zine with local writing and artwork.

The Gifted Education Programme (GEP), the Humanities Scheme, Singaporean education in general – what are your views on all these, with the perspective of one who has gone/is going through it?

Well of course our system is f-ing elitist. Even though obviously I know very little about non-brand-name schools and polytechnics etc., I think this is a pretty valid comment. Every education system discriminates between different abilities, to some extent, but the thing about Singapore is that there are many more channels of transmission for certain mindsets. Lots of reasons for this – first of all this place is so small and densely populated. And there’s the immigrant drive for material security, so people learn to play the game quickly and become quite happy to be accomplices of the system. Plus the paternalistic government creates a strong need for validation from external authorities, so somehow most people end up thinking the same things are important, like a prestigious school. In a way its a pragmatic choice – if you have a government that’s eugenics-crazy and makes it a point to concentrate more resources in the better schools without thinking about the long-term consequences, its unreasonable not to expect people not to claw their way to the best schools, and for the people who are in the brand-name places to think they’re the chosen ones. One of the many reasons why I don’t like the GEP setup at all is that it gives kids a sense of entitlement and self-importance from a very young age. Besides destroying a sense of perspective for a lot of them, GEP also conceals the fact that it takes a lot more than good grades and a great track record to make you the best leaders of the country, or the best in anything.

This makes it hard for people who don’t have much exposure to different measurements of success outside of the school environment – whether they “make it” or not, they’re likely to end up having a very limited idea of what there is to want out of life besides all As, a decent track record and an affluent life. And the pressure was really immense in RGS – it was difficult to survive with your sense of self intact if you weren’t good at something, anything and you wanted to be. Personally I found it difficult to cope until poetry came along, and I was more than happy to get out of RGS. I dont think I really got much out of the GEP other than a few lit and history teachers who did give us some exposure to things, and a few close friends. Apparently the primary school curriculum for GEP was quite interesting; what I found quite ironic was that it was quite similar to the kind of stuff everyone did in the school I went to when I lived in Australia. But as far as I can remember, the syllabus in RGS GEP was only marginally different from the non-GEP syllabus, and from sec 3 onwards everything was geared towards the O-levels anyway.

I was happier in the Hwa Chong Humanities Scheme partly because it was so different from secondary school, and also it just happened that at that stage in my development it was the right place for me. As elitist as the whole Humanities Scheme structure is, I think the Hwa Chong Humanities Programme gives the best education you can get in Singapore – there is so much more opportunity for discussion and intellectual exploration. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent after lessons discussing stuff with my tutors, talking to them about the stuff I’ve read or the things we discussed in class and so on. I mean, after I finished reading Comet in our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History, I ended up lending it to some of them! Time, understanding and literally unforgettable conversations – those are what my tutors gave me, and for these I am still very very grateful.

I think what’s necessary in our education system is a much wider definition of achievement and ability, to get rid of the unspoken stigmas or automatic mental re-shufflings when people tell you what school they’re from or even what job they have, and just talk to them instead. It’s not that these things are completely irrelevant, because sometimes they are indicators, but I mean, George Bush went to Yale, so…

In the past year you have been interviewed several times for your opinions and comments. Why do you think the press got interested in the things you’re saying?

The first paper that interviewed me last year was Project Eyeball; this was after the opening of the Creative Arts Programme (CAP) last year. That was when I made my big “faux pas” and announced, ”I wanted to read a subversive poem about the Speak Mandarin Campaign, but this will have to do” before reading another poem that was approved by the organisers. They wanted to ask me for the usual feedback on CAP, plus some stuff about my winning the Simon Elvin prize in 2000. Then I told them about not being allowed to read “Casualties of the Efficient World”, and they got hold of it and gave it much more coverage than I expected. I guess it was weird to have an 18-year-old commenting on the PAP’s language policy, not to mention being censored for it, even though I still don’t think the poem was particularly “subversive” in any real sense. With the later interviews, the stuff I said isn’t that different from what’s said by people like Dr Chee, or the stuff on the alternative political websites like Sintercom and Think Centre. But coming from an ex-GEP 18-year-old humanities scholar who could benefit even more from the system if she kept her mouth shut and went on winning poetry prizes… In Singapore I expect it is odd to have a teenager criticising the government to the press as if she has nothing to lose. If I were 28 it wouldn’t receive half as much attention, there’s not really any freak-show value in that.

So why are you speaking out?

I’m speaking out because not doing so would be subscribing to the kind of rather extreme pragmatism that reinforces the system, and as far as I humanly can I will refuse to be an accomplice of the system. Ethically this gets quite complicated, e.g. how fine is the distinction between taking a government position and taking money from the government to study overseas, are you a bad person if you betray your beliefs for your family? And so on. I don’t think I have the answers to the ethics of opposing a system that surrounds you at every corner either – I am just acting as if there are no OB markers.

Also I’ve been told that saying all this stuff won’t change anything, so why bother? Yes of course you have to consider the effects of your actions, whether it was just a superfluous gesture. I don’t believe in making superfluous and personally damaging gestures – if you have a point to make and you’re calling for action, then go ahead and risk. If it’s just ranting, why bother? I realised this after reading Vaclav Havel; about his open letter to the Czech president titled “Dear Dr Husak”, Havel writes: “I was mainly interested in whether the text… radiated a certain sense of exhortation, of urgency… I wondered if it didn’t just summarize things that were notoriously familiar to everyone, and if in some ways it didn’t distort reality. In short, I wondered if I wasn’t just spitting in the wind.” This became quite a personal issue recently, when out of the blue, I got a call from the New Paper asking me to write a 500-word response to Tan Soo Khoon’s question about why Singaporeans, especially younger Singaporeans, are cynical about the political process. At first I was quite irritated by the stupidity of this reiterated question, because the reasons are quite obvious really. So I wrote a very emotive and rhetorical piece that I don’t really think was bad writing, but all it did was –summarise things as they were– (read “I (want to) live in a country”). But after reading Havel I decided that since I had some media space, I’d rather say something that was more of –a call to action– (read “Why I am cynical about Singapore’s political process”). I also found out the New Paper has a big circulation, so I don’t want to just confirm or create pessimistic viewpoints.

Of course, another thing is I don’t think I had / have anything to lose. After all, I’m pretty powerless – it takes MUCH more than one vocal young woman to threaten national security! I’m sure the government knows that activists aren’t just fighting injustice etc., but also the aspects of modern mass culture and urban life that make it difficult to get Singaporeans out on the streets pushing for greater government transparency, a free press and so on. In other countries it’s easier because the collective consciousness is slightly more sensitised, I guess, or corporate control of the media is not noticed or it’s treated as a norm. That’s the main difference – in Singapore media manipulation and other injustices are a bit more obviously due to the ruling party. I mean, would the government ever publish a list of all the Lee dynasty, MPs, former senior government officials, former senior military commanders etc who hold extremely lucrative positions in GLCs? Go to Singapore Window to find 20 pages of tables. While I’m at it, there’s an excellent paper on the PAP’s crisis-management techniques at the Asian Studies Institute site.

What do you think is the significance of what you have said?

From all the things people have said to me the main significance seems to lie in the fact that I’m speaking out at all, not so much what I have to say. It’s the fact that an 18-year-old girl who’s been gone through the “elite” educational programmes and might need a government scholarship is not only thinking about something like local politics and society, but is also being openly critical – especially in the light of the perception that teenagers are apathetic. Well I think most of them are, actually, so I can see myself as being treated as the token dissenter or something. Whatever happens, I will continue speaking out and I’m not thinking about toning down. I expect people in different circumstances have to consider practicalities more than me, because I don’t have to liase with the government in any way, but I’d like to continue using my position to speak up, at least for now. That’s actually a reason why I don’t think I’m worthy of being featured with other real activists on Sintercom, actually – I’ve not really risked anything!

Once you said in an interview, tongue-in-cheek, that you thought girls were “vapid”. How much of that was in jest, and have your views changed since then?

I’m not sure I got the impression that girls are vapid because the women I know are generally less interested in thinking about issues and less willing to talk about them, or it’s just that a lot of the men I know are much more willing to discuss these issues. It’s one of those unfair sweeping statements, and after all maybe it’s just that the majority of young people are consumerist / materialistic / uninterested in debate nowadays. The women’s magazines aren’t much of a cause for optimism either, because they seem to be entirely based on the image of women as irrational shoe addicts. Of course I’m exaggerating a little, but it’s scary that I’m only exaggerating a little.

How have people reacted to the things you’ve said? After all, you’ve been quite critical of many people whom you have to interact with – your peers, local writers, Dana Lam of AWARE….

Okay I do feel bad about the comment I made about Dana when Today interviewed me – I don’t change my essential point, i.e. that she was overly cautious and afraid, but Today ended up making me look like I was being critical for the sake of it, whereas in the actual interview I’d actually brought up the limitations AWARE faced, which are the limitations of any Singapore activist really. I think Dana’s cool, she’s done quite a bit and AWARE is doing good work. I guess I expected a lot more from her and that might not have been fair. Regarding the things I’ve said about local writers, I’ve been told some people rather took issue with what I said, though my friend refused to name names =). This was the same friend who advised me to think more long-term when I said things; my reply was that one of my assumptions was that everyone would forget what I say by the next day; another is that I’d never get any media space again so I may as well speak my mind! As for my peers (i.e. schoolmates), I don’t know how many of them have actually read my interviews. I usually don’t discuss things with people from school; my friends are mostly from outside my peer group. Which is a problem, because I ask myself who I’m saying all this for if I start out assuming my peers are totally uninterested. I still don’t know how to answer that question.

Of course I’ve also had a lot of positive responses from people – Dana, for example, and Dr Chee. It’s been great to have people contact me saying the stuff I said meant something or it resonated with them in some way; I have made several friends as a result. That’s the best thing about all this – making contact with people who care about this country too.

What is your perspective on the arts/literature scene in Singapore?

I see the main problem with the arts scene as the instinctive trust / preference of foreign cultural products. It’s a very post-colonial mindset which hasn’t exactly been discouraged by the government until it realised a so-called vibrant arts scene could attract tourists and *gasp* was actually necessary for national development! But they’re still looking to import a lot of culture instead of giving more aid and resources to local groups – that’s why they blew their money on the Esplanade. I don’t really know enough about specific genres to give profound comments though. I mean, I think there’s a lot of good stuff being done in theatre, and they seem to be getting more audiences. And I really like The Necessary Stage’s community-oriented ethos. I don’t know very much about the visual arts scene, but there are interesting groups like Plastique Kinetic Worms – they did a really cool installation along South Bridge Road in Chinatown; of course the Substation Gallery has a lot of interesting stuff. And I’m starting to hear more about Singapore film, what with Gourmet Baby being one of the opening films for this year’s Film Fest and of course I Not Stupid, which is brilliantly funny and spot-on in its satire. The most endangered scene appears to be the local music scene, which is quite tragic because there are some very good Singaporean bands – my personal favourite is Humpback Oak – every Singaporean should listen to their Side A Side B album as part of national education! A lot of bands have disbanded though, very sad. What to do, how can there be a lively scene with PELU licensing needed and all that. I’m told it’s really dying / dead compared to what it was 10 years ago.

As for the literary scene, as I’ve said before: a lot of local writing lacks a sense of urgency and intensity; a lot of local writers tend to be from similar backgrounds which is a bit dangerous though it can’t be helped of course. The new generation of poets publishing now is great though – Cyril Wong, Alfian Sa’at and Koh Beng Liang are the best of the lot. And now there are a few outlets for Singaporean writing – I personally think the 2ndrule has the most interesting work, but the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore has good critical articles and reviews. And of course the local writers are accumulating more contacts with overseas magazines and writers – for example, some local writers will soon be published in an American magazine called the Atlanta Review – so there will probably be more exposure to be had in the future.

Who are your favorite poets and why?

Some of the poets I keep going back to are those who are more political, such as Carolyn Forch?and Adrienne Rich. Forch?is kind of my role model for now – she’s American, went to El Salvador on a Guggenheim fellowship and documented and reported human rights abuses there, then went back to US and did a lot of activist work. But then she stopped writing for several years because of this; I’m not sure I could endure that! And of course there’s Alfian Sa’at – there’s this long poem-sequence of his that I love to bits called “We Are Not Yet Free”, basically about (self-)censorship and freedom of expression in Singapore. In terms of a new kind of voice, I’m looking to this Canadian poet called Anne Carson; her style is really weird and edgy and beautiful, very influenced by Greek classics. So in a way she unlocks the potential of language in a way that I don’t see many other poets doing.

What do you see yourself doing in the next couple of years?

Well I hope to work more intensively on my writing in the next few months or so, try other genres and work on the ideas I’ve accumulated, because politicisation, then the A-levels and getting the results back took up time and energy that I would usually have spent on writing. With luck I’ll have enough poems I’m satisfied with to have a manuscript done by next year. Also I’m hoping to go further with two recent interests, translating and photography. I’ve got a thing with exploring the tension between things – other than in my writing, I’m exploring the dynamic between languages as well as between word and image. The dynamic between Chinese and English when translated back and forth really fascinates me. At the same time a couple of friends and I are thinking of organising a series of forums based on the theme “Literatures of Witness” – that is, if we can even get the speakers! Plus I’m thinking of how to set up very open, small-scale residential seminar-type things like the UK writing courses I’ve been for – hopefully this will happen within the next few years.

In terms of academics I’ll be going to overseas to read English literature, hopefully it’ll be Oxford but things are a bit uncertain because I didn’t quite meet their offer. If they turn me down I’ll be going to Columbia University in the US. But wherever I am I’ll keep at pretty much the same things – writing and raising issues. I want to really DO something soon, not just talk, which is essentially all I’m doing now.

How do you see yourself fitting (if at all) within Singapore?

Depends what you mean by fitting in. If you’re talking about what kind of public role I see myself in, I suppose I’d like to be a writer-activist, and possibly a teacher too. It is very likely that I will have to commit myself to a particular field or organisation, but at the moment I’m not sure what this will be.

What are your long-term goals/ambitions?

Maybe 2 collections and a novel before I’m 25? No lah, I don’t know. I guess I just want to make a living without killing my time and energy for writing, and keep writing and learning and being an activist. Without sounding cheesy, I do very much want to make an impact on both local literature and political activism – for me it would be morally wrong to be aware of things, to keep learning about things and not spend a fair bit of time taking action. Right now my ideas are more along the lines of cultural activism, especially ways to educate young people about the complexities of local culture and history. However I’m finding it difficult to balance imaginative writing and reading about local issues, so to be honest, I don’t know if I have the strength to both write and do activist stuff intensively. All I can say is I’m damn well going to try.