Quarantine Dreamsis a series of four instalments of video letters and monologues that are reflections on inequalities, systemic injustice, racism and classism.
Kenneth Paul Tan
16 June 2020
Lockdown. Circuit breaker. Stay-home notice. Work-from-home. Home-based learning. However we might want to euphemize it, the COVID19 quarantine has been a very sleepy time. Not the kind of sleep that the heavy-laden would welcome eagerly and describe as restful, soothing, and much needed. But a kind of stasis that is expectant, burdened, and tense. On the one hand, full of foreboding and, on the other, pulsing with potential for human and planetary flourishing. Cradled and lulled in this ungainly suspension, whose cadence never really seems to arrive, we dream.
We dream, triggered by the traumas of this pandemic. We dream, sometimes in only thinly disguised ways, about those desires that brought us shame and anxiety once we decided to leave behind our infantile past. We aborted these primal desires, and then denied their existence, and then forgot that we denied their existence. But even as the scabs fell off and the scars faded, the pain of abortion lingers. Today, some even express their disgust and demand censure whenever they see traces of these unaborted desires in others. The traumas of this pandemic have triggered the never-fully-forgotten pain of repressing our desires in order to become civilized, to become colonized.
Civilization – whatever social contract we imagine we signed – required and requires a collective repression of our primal desires, destructive as they are in their radical freedom and creativity. What is our history other than an account of continual repression to achieve an elusive freedom? Historical colonialism and the burden of tutelage by the enlightened liberal, who sees no irony in forcing subjects to be free. Political independence, national sovereignty, and the masculating terror of being cast out of an infantile paradise. A national economic machinery of material growth and urban prosperity, lovingly lubricated by a techno-administrative regime of mastery, control, discipline, efficiency, and productivity. They have all demanded greater and greater repression of our free and creative impulses, in pursuit of a greater freedom that civilization promises.
At the height of our collective repression today, we have neoliberal Singapore: peaceful, stable, safe, clean, liveable, wealthy, cosmopolitan, competitive, world-class, from third-world to first, a gleaming and energizing model of development, governance, and policymaking for the rest of our exhausted world to emulate. That is, until the COVID19 pandemic struck and that gold standard rapidly tarnished amid barely concealed feelings of schadenfreude, even among the usual gallery of admirers. Everyday acts of iconoclasm and non-compliance, resentment of elite arrogance, mistrust of public institutions, popular criticism, people power, politics itself, long repressed by an elitist neoliberal technocracy, have returned to disrupt the linear illusion of progress and success. Those qualities of neoliberal globalization that enabled a young, small, and vulnerable nation-state to overcome its limitations and prosper in the most spectacular ways are, it turns out, the very same ones that produced blind spots where primal energies returned unnoticed, congregating and waiting patiently for that tipping point. Behold, Singapore's dialectic of success!
The pandemic crisis has awoken memories and consciousness of the traumas of neoliberalism, reactivating our primal impulses and unfulfilled desires long since repressed and painfully forgotten by the colonizing momentum of civilization and progress. In the global pause that pandemic has violently imposed on the march of neoliberalism, our dreaming – and the creative work of narrativizing, visualizing, and symbolizing – can disrupt our propensity to avoid and displace its real meanings. But our dreaming can also diminish further our courage to face these meanings. Somewhere in this dream-space lies the possibility of decolonization, of dismantling the structures and systems of knowledge that we have deployed as explanations for our success, internalizing and privileging them in ways that silence voices including our own. Decolonization must start with addressing our own disempowerment. But somewhere in this space also lurk the massive forces of re-colonization, the compelling dream that frames freedom, creativity, and imagination as a terrifying nightmare.
In this project, 12 artists and academics present their quarantine dreams through recorded monologues. They range in format and style from the expository to the theatrical, from the quietly reflective to the sharply polemical. Each, in their own ways, points to the transformative, decolonizing potential of dreaming in the prolonged stasis of a crisis.
1a. What Is Neoliberal Globalization? (Kenneth Paul Tan)
1b. Butterflies Are Free (Noorlinah Mohamed)
Crisis, it is often said, brings out the best and the worst. By this, we sometimes mean that crisis makes us see our world more clearly, maybe more appreciatively, but maybe also more critically, through a much starker set of lenses. But sometimes, we mean that crisis can turn what is already bad into something even worse, while provoking the good to be even better, potentially augmenting their effects either way.
Nearly everyone notices – though not all with full approval – how nature has started to reclaim the urban environment that we colonize in the name of order, hygiene, progress, and the satisfaction of the insatiable needs that our progress defines for us. Confinement and safe distancing practices, apart from the primary purposes of preventing the spread of disease, have severely reduced the opportunities to over-produce, over-consume, and – in doing these things – pollute and ultimately destroy the material conditions of life that, if we acted more rationally, we would defend fiercely. For some, the pandemic has given us another chance to repair and revitalize our degraded natural habitat and to see clearly how easily this can be achieved by living just a little differently. Yet for others, the flourishing of animal and vegetal life in city spaces is an unwelcome sign of a return to disorder, uncontrollability, low standards, and danger. Others regard this as nothing more than a lengthily delayed gratification of modern urban living, which will quite simply augment the desire to return with a vengeance to an even more self-destructive mode of post-pandemic living.
Confinement at home means that people get to spend more quality time with members of their household, a chance to understand better the roles they can play to provide one another with mutual encouragement, support, and assistance. From once formalistic and ritualistic social units reified by an arid, pietistic, and politically motivated discourse of Asian values, families can now become primary sites of love, intimacy, and security for more Singaporeans who are confronted with stressful and alienated social lives. And yet, especially for most Singaporeans who live in smaller high-rise apartments, spending so many hours of the day cooped up together can also be stressful and alienating. Occupants of smaller and less advantaged homes compete with one another for very limited space, facilities, and equipment, physically and emotionally getting in one another's way. The introverted are heavily burdened by the continual obligation to socialize. The exploited and abused live in continual terror. Sufferers of claustrophobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or other mental illnesses find it harder to get the empathy and help that they need. As businesses collapse, jobs disappear, incomes plummet, and savings dwindle down to nothing, individuals in this society with some of the highest rates of depression in Asia become even more vulnerable. In these circumstances, the home can become a prison-like space of frustration, irritation, resentment, anger, conflict, violence, fear, self-loathing, and self-destruction.
Crisis can dynamize older communities and encourage the formation of new ones, as individuals come forward in kindness, generosity, and greater numbers, driven by a desire to help and care for others who have fallen in need. In a sense, crisis can restore human connectedness lost in the atomizing, alienating, and hyper-competitive dynamics of an advanced capitalist society focused on rewarding meritocratic "winners", preventing an attitude of dependency among its "losers", and demanding of everyone hours of labour that go well beyond what is necessary to furnish a happy and dignified life.
Today, online technologies possess the most powerful potential to repair human disconnection. Even as confinement and safe distancing regulations disallow mass gatherings and in-person group activities through which we gain pleasure and power in solidarity, online technologies – both synchronous and asynchronous – have started to provide alternative "virtual" venues for communities to congregate, interact, and cooperate safely and satisfactorily. Through these technologies, re-configured communities can become more inclusive, diverse, fluid, and dynamic in their membership. They can extend their reach to a broader and more variegated array of people, thus helping to make marginalized communities more visible and their silenced voices more audible. As more and more communities and their social activities go online, however, individuals may also suffer from over-connectedness. Inundated by massive amounts of content produced in social media and archived on the internet, the individual is overwhelmed. And then, when the technological infrastructure becomes inadequate or breaks down, the same individual suffers from a sense of helplessness as all their essential needs and core activities depend profoundly on the latest technology.
In the midst of this pandemic crisis, artists – who are being nudged (though some might say shoved) into a fuller, tighter, and more cost-saving technological embrace – are asking themselves deep, reflective, existential, and longer-term questions about the nature of art, the role of the artist, and how these can not only survive the current crisis, but also adapt to a more complex world tormented by crises that we might not even be able to anticipate, the unknown unknowns of our future. Mirroring the vitality of the arts, there is clearly some optimism, but this is cautiously expressed. Artists recognize the productive, creative, and democratizing potential of digital technology to build new interdisciplinary and experimental platforms and foster new collaborations, new genres, new communities, and new kinds of outreach. They may look forward to the cost advantages of digital production, its hyper-interactive possibilities, and the ease of archiving and streaming work online according to the individualized preferences and circumstances of a greatly enlarged and more accessible audience. To prepare themselves for such a renewed practice, artists may seize the opportunity to acquire other skills (including digital skills favoured by new arts grants), learn about other disciplines and cultures, and refresh their own perspectives, sometimes too jaded by success, cynicism, or habituation. Giving priority to such things is a luxury most artists cannot afford in normal times when they move busily from one project to the next. However, there is also a powerful underlying concern, even pessimism, that something profoundly valuable will be lost if all artists moved in these same directions. These concerns, specifically those surrounding the limitations of digitalization, are not simply manifestations of ludditism, conservatism, or nostalgia. Art forms like theatre, dance, choral singing, and performance art, for instance, are special and powerful precisely because they are performed live. Their public, social, ritual, corporeal, and ethereal qualities are essential and nearly impossible to replicate online. Many artists consider the human interface and cultivation of social relationships among colleagues and with their audiences to be vital. Others worry that the pandemic is forcing artists to give a public account of their relevance and value that is legible only within the narrow constraints of commercial and bureaucratic language that frames the conditionality of support. This can be dispiriting, belittling, and harmfully reductive in terms of what the arts can really be.
So how should we make sense of the best and the worst that crisis is said to bring out? We can choose to be optimistic, in spite of knowing that there is every cause for pessimism. But this is mere illusion, the kind of dream that avoids and obfuscates all the primal desires and fears excessively repressed by a history of colonization that in its current and most sophisticated stage takes the form of neoliberal globalization. In neoliberal Singapore, with its open economy and closed politics, impressive accumulation of national wealth is accompanied by inequalities that are widening and deepening. In such a place, the privileged (and what more the millionaires and billionaires whose numbers are rising) can afford to seize the pandemic as an opportunity for self-advancement and perhaps even national progress. But it is the underprivileged who, in growing numbers, have been most painfully confronted, overwhelmed, and diminished in their dignity, every day and everywhere, by the very worst of the pandemic’s effects.
2a. I Am Overwhelmed (Ong Yi Xuan)
2b. COVID19 as Method: A Contemporary Story of Singapore Choirs (Shahril Salleh)
2c. Pandemic Ponders (Sharon Frese)
2d. Let's Eat The Billionaires (A. Yagnya)
Trumpeted for its seductive promises of economic growth and material prosperity, neoliberal globalization has since the mid-1980s been progressively colonizing Singapore's lifeworld through the monologic of the market, relentlessly enforced by sophisticated modes of political and social control that amount to a new authoritarianism, differing in its subtlety from the more demonstrably obvious toughness of Lee Kuan Yew and his founding vanguard of leaders.
The economic and political beneficiaries of this system have won big and thus they have much to gain by propping it up against any form of opposition to it. The losers of this system have internalized its logic and values so deeply that many are willing to accept full responsibility and even shame for their failure. For many, submission to the will and worldview of the elite is done in the belief that this will be in their best interest, that neoliberalism is not the cause of their problems but the potential solution, if only Singapore could embrace it more perfectly. The condescension they experience from those who have done better in this system is reproduced and imposed upon those whom they consider to have done worse than themselves. At the same time, those who condescend to the ones below are envious and resentful of those above. These experiences of condescension, envy, and resentment are individualized to the extent that hyper-competitiveness and generalized mistrust seriously limit the will and opportunities for moral solidarity and collective action to demand fundamental systemic and structural change in the name of a more just and compassionate society.
There are numerous problems with meritocracy, a ruling principle of neoliberal Singapore. A focus on monetarily rewarding the successful in order to attract the most meritorious through a market of talent into vital leadership positions has led to a particularly chauvinistic habit of estimating the worth of persons according to the salaries they earn. Not taken into account are the very unequal opportunities and starting points that people enjoy by virtue of life's lottery, reinforcing the myth that success comes to the individual who puts in the effort to make the best of their individual talents. Also not taken into account are the socio-cultural prejudices through which the worth of particular occupations, the people who do them, and their socio-cultural conditions and characteristics are perceived and estimated.
These are the same prejudices through which more labour-intensive vocations in nursing, caregiving, cleaning, food preparation, delivery, security, and other "low-status jobs" are devalued, even though their importance in people's lives is undeniable. Society as a whole refuses to pay those who do these jobs a proportionate salary, resorting to spurious economic arguments about viable businesses closing down, costs going up, and the inability of the poor and elderly to afford basic living expenses, all the while tightening conditions so as to discourage the needy from relying on state welfare in ways that will drain the national reserves.
War analogies have frequently been used to make sense of the pandemic. Thus, we speak of the frontlines and imagine them manned by the same labouring people whom we think undeserving of better remuneration, but whom we now hypocritically celebrate as heroes, applauding and singing patriotic songs from the safety and comfort of our windows and balconies as an easy and inexpensive tribute.
Singapore wants to achieve middle-class standards of living as cheaply as possible, which naturally requires the instrumentalization of others. Chief among them are the more than a million migrant workers who come to Singapore on short-term work permits in order to provide low-waged, lower-skilled labour mainly for the construction sector, waste management industry, and live-in domestic work. Many Singaporeans insist on profiting from these migrants’ labour, but wish not to have to deal with them as people with rightful claims to dignity and respect. So they are made as invisible as possible, corralled into dedicated areas for weekend leisure, and housed in out-of-sight facilities that are not in anyone’s backyards. About 200,000 of them, mainly Bangladeshi men, have been accommodated in very profitable privately-run dormitories that are overcrowded, poorly ventilated, and unsanitary, making it nearly impossible to practice the kind of personal hygiene and social distancing that are necessary to prevent the rampant spread of disease. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Singapore's embarrassingly high numbers of COVID19 cases are based within these dormitories. If being confined at home is challenging, imagine what it must feel like for workers to be separated from their families and loved ones, and to be quarantined in spaces where high numbers of new infections are reported every day.
The dormitory crisis has provoked a variety of responses. Some have responded with human compassion, voluntary energies, and a call for social justice to be more systematically and wholeheartedly extended to migrant workers. But many have responded in ways that reveal a callousness towards these most vulnerable of people in Singapore, who – over the decades of building and cleaning our city and looking after our families – have been subjected to exploitative practices, social stigma, and discrimination. Many choose to view the dormitory outbreak as a problem of culturally and morally inferior behaviour of a low-class group of foreigners. Similarly, when migrant workers rioted in Little India in 2013, the episode was explained in terms of the actions of a people prone to drunken and disorderly behaviour and ill-suited for Singapore society. And thus, the solution was to police them and the spaces they occupy even more heavily. The structural problems associated with the working and living conditions that these workers had to endure were ignored and repressed. The xenophobic and racist perspectives that profiled these workers as pathological, in need of enforced discipline, and unworthy of dignity and respect were also ignored and repressed.
Arguably, these repressive attitudes originate in Singapore's practice of multiculturalism, which is based on a reductive multiracial model of Chinese-Malays-Indians-Others (CMIO). In turn, this model is a legacy of colonial civilizing principles of social management and urban planning, and its ideology of racial difference and superiority that undergirded both. Often credited for structuring social harmony and stability, the contemporary CMIO model informs the design of policies to ensure fair access to public goods and representation in politics. However, instead of deepening cultural literacy and sophistication, Singapore's multiracialism has been detained at a superficial level of development, stunted by a rhetoric of survival, fear, and surveillance, as well as both casual and calculated circulations of shallow and stereotypical racial depictions in popular culture. Decades of nation-building and neoliberal governance have protected from criticism and hidden from immediate view the asymmetric power relations among the racial categories, the unearned privilege of the majority, and its disparaging views of minority deficiency that several of those in the minority have been forced to internalize.
Also repressed under decades of nation-building and neoliberal governance has been language policy as the site of cultural violence. Chinese dialects, once the majority languages, are outlawed in order to install the supremacy of Mandarin. Singlish is disparaged in favour of an international English standard to signal a bland world-classness. A bilingual education policy rigidly conceives of English as a common, functional, and technically useful first language and the “mother tongue” (actually, the “father tongue”, whether or not he spoke it) as a second language through which culture and values can be transmitted. That same bilingual policy imposes an alien mother tongue on Peranakans and Eurasians, to discipline and control their cultural and linguistic hybridity and excess.
Colonization in Singapore exceeds its historical colonial period of 1819 to 1963. Colonial mentalities and modalities extend well beyond the sunset of the British Empire in Malaya. And they stand erect as turgidly and brazenly as the white statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles continues to do at the symbolic centre of Singapore’s civic life today. They are reproduced, transposed, and extemporized in the baroque virtuosity of contemporary Singapore’s economic, social, cultural, and urban policymaking, its paternalistic governance, and the elitist vision of an increasingly rigid hierarchical society upon which policy and governance are built. They inform how we view our national identity and how we legitimize and delegitimize identities contained within it.
3a. How Did Singapore Become Dependent On Migrant Workers? (Kenneth Paul Tan)
3b. Are There Parallels Between The 2013 Little India Riot And The 2020 Dormitory Outbreaks? (Kenneth Paul Tan)
3c. Prism (Charlene Shepherdson)
3d. Breaking The Chains Of Rituals And Comforts (Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai)
3e. Day 77 (Elizabeth Lazan)
Singapore is often described as pragmatic. At its best, this can mean being open to possibility, experimentation, and adaptation; being attentive to the practical achievement of desired results; and all the while maintaining a healthy resistance towards intellectual inflexibility, monocultural insistence, moral dogma, and totalitarian politics.
At its most vulgar, pragmatism’s focus on material results can be a tether to formulas of success even when changing circumstances suggest or demand a change in method and approach. It fosters obstinate closed-mindedness, thoughtless impatience, and a brutish culture of disposability, seeking instant results and gratification, rather than investment and cultivation. It sees the world as an unchangeable assemblage of external and internal constraints to be worked around formulaically, and not worth the effort or creativity to re-configure or overcome. At its most vulgar, pragmatism can decline from a radically transformative force to become its own dogma, utterly conservative, defeatist, and intolerant of alternatives and those who dare to articulate them.
Neoliberal Singapore was achieved on the crest of a transformative pragmatism. It is now impeded by its vulgarization. The dialectical decline of Singaporean pragmatism can explain much of the COVID19 crisis. Coming out of this particularly bad crisis, do we become even more determined to re-establish the status quo, forging ahead in the same general direction, moving even faster, but this time with stronger reinforcements? The vulgar pragmatism that drives neoliberal Singapore still has a lot of mileage.
Or is this crisis a disruptive moment and disjunctive opportunity for the re-emergence of a more transformative pragmatism that can dismantle the cognitive and political rigidities that are driving us rapidly to our collective death? Dreaming in this global pause, can we allow the freedom, creativity, and imagination that we have repressed in the madness of rapid economic growth to return in hopefulness? But there are many difficult questions we must ask first.
Whose responsibility is it to clean up the mess of previous generations? Can one person’s dream make a difference? Can the dreamer be held responsible if the future consequences of their utopian dreams turn out to be dystopian? What if the dreamer’s dream is merely a new colonizing vision that replaces the old? What if it is really just a logically continuation of the old vision – a new cast of characters dressed in new costumes performing in virtually identical emplotments, an eternal sameness from which there is no escape? Raffles and Lee Kuan Yew were both dreamers who defied authority and prevailing wisdom, we are told.
As artists and academics who dream, we acknowledge our position within the intellectual elite and the privilege that comes with that. Some of us may want to use our privilege to effect change, to make the world better, and better particularly for those who have been exploited, marginalized, silenced, and violated. But in practice, how do we avoid the distinct possibility of imposing our own colonizing visions on the exploited, the marginalized, the silenced, and the violated?
We know that we should engage them as equals. We know that we should let them speak for themselves. We know that their intelligence and creativity should not be repressed by our aesthetic and scholarly expertise. We know that we should not exploit them, as the targets of our decolonizing project have done, for our own professional advantage or even psychical pleasure.
What we need to do above all else perhaps is to heal the wounds of neoliberal violence and work towards a more liberatory world, much less repressed and repressive. But, I suppose, I must be dreaming.
4a. After The COVID-19 Pandemic, Will Singapore Emerge Stronger? (Kenneth Paul Tan)
4b. Precious cargo (Cheng Nien Yuan)
4c. I Walk Around With My Chinese Privilege In New York (Sim Yan Ying)
4d. Looking From Within (Emylia Safian)
Dr Kenneth Paul Tan is a multiple award-winning teacher at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. In January 2021, he will resign his tenured faculty position at NUS to take up a tenured professorship at Hong Kong Baptist University. He is the author of Singapore: Identity, Brand, Power (Cambridge University Press, 2018; Chinese edition in 2020), Governing Global-City Singapore: Legacies And Futures After Lee Kuan Yew (Routledge, 2017), Cinema and Television in Singapore: Resistance in One Dimension (Brill, 2008), and Renaissance Singapore? Economy, Culture, and Politics (NUS Press, 2007). He is a member of Singapore’s National Arts Council’s Arts Advisory Panel and the National Museum of Singapore’s Advisory Board. He chairs the Board of Directors of theatre company The Necessary Stage (Singapore). He was the founding chair of the Asian Film Archive’s Board of Directors. He sits on the Board of Advisory, a fully youth-led non-profit dedicated to empowering young Singaporeans to make informed career and further education choices.