Censored pages in NLB’s Script & Stage show

February 6, 2017 § Leave a comment

Went to the exhibition on Singapore’s theatre history called Script & Stage at the National Library.

It is a shame that an important chapter from the 80s has been excised for evidently political reasons: The history of the pioneering and politically- and socially-conscious group called Third Stage. Its members were jailed without trial in the alleged ‘Marxist conspiracy’ of 1987, namely, Wong Souk Yee, Chng Suan Tze, William Yap, and Tay Hong Seng. Look at the panels below for the sanitised version in which Third Stage is not even mentioned (they mention Kuo Pao Kun’s arrest in the 70s, but I guess he has been rehabilitated):

Let me quote from Wong Souk Yee’s article (http://s-pores.com/2010/03/third-stage/):

Third Stage was at its most productive from 1983 to 1986, staging a total of eight plays, all written and developed by its members, on issues and themes that affect Singaporeans, such as the graduate mothers’ scheme, education policy, in particular the destructiveness of the early streaming of school children, marginalisation of the lower-income and foreign domestic workers. Literary critics might consider the plays counter-discourse to Singapore’s nation building. Because of the group’s predilection for creating plays that depict human frailties and destabilising official narratives (such are the staples of any number of theatre groups in the world — with the exception of some dictatorship regimes), it was considered a security threat in the insecure minds of the government.

Shame on whoever who is trying to whitewash history in the NLB show. Now, am I to trust the other things presented and not presented in the exhibition?

Some of Third Stage’s plays have been published, including the play Esperanza, one of the first and still one of the few (I don’t know of any others, so please let me know if there are others) to talk about how badly some of us treat our domestic workers. See


The Substation and the arts community

March 31, 2016 § Leave a comment

Wrote the  following in December last year in response to the concerns Zai Kuning and others about possible staff and  policy changes at The Substation.  It might be relevant to the Townhall chaired by Sasi:

2016-03-31 09.47.55.jpg

“Substation staff and what happens to them. My view is that the boss has the final say about who to keep and in what form as long as it is fair and follows good practice. For instance, you can ask people to go, but you need to do so with due process: adequate reason, a system of feedback so people have the chance to improve, compensation for time served. And if it unfair then the arts community should be concerned because we care about everyone who work with us. This is an important matter. I don’t know the facts of the case as it stands whether what is happening now was done properly. But I trust the Board Of Directors in this, and I do trust it will do the right thing if they found out that things had not been done properly.
The more difficult question is whether the arts community in general should have any specific say in what happens in and to The Substation in terms of its artistic side? That is, does The Substation belong to itself (and is hence accountable to only to its board, its funders, its staff and the people it works with). Or does it also belong to Singapore and the arts community (in which case, it is also accountable to all of us artists and Singaporeans in general). In other words, is The Substation like any arts group which can do what it likes within the demands of its direct stakeholders (most arts groups belong to this category), or is it special and belongs to everyone (like Singapore Art Museum of The National Gallery and other public institutions)? Of course, The Substation is administratively configured to be like any arts group, unlike the public institutions such as the two museums. Nevertheless, it seems to be more than any arts group. I am not sure my position on this, and it also depends on the answer to the next question.
Another question is does The Substation see itself as belonging to everyone or just itself. Pao Kun, it seems to me, ran The Substation like it belonged to everyone. The first part of what he said in the following suggests that: “The Substation should be anything anyone wants it to be: Open and flexible enough to do things his or her own way.” That is, a shared aim or aims negotiated with the whole community but (this is necessary) autonomy in how to realise it. I think Sasi too agreed with this. And under Weng (and Audrey) too, who definitely involved everyone, not just the artists but also academics and activists, in the programming. I am not sure about Effendy. Neither am I about Alan’s position.
So many of us were transformed by The Substation. We all (rightly or wrongly) want to make a claim on it, not just of its past but also of its present and future. We care. We also make a claim on just on its programming but also its spaces (including the rental question).
Should Pao Kun’s vision be the eternal vision of The Substation? (To have an eternal vision does not mean you do the same things, but that the purpose remains the same, and sometimes you have to do things differently to achieve the same purpose.) I think so. But this is no where written in stone. It all comes down to the Board of Directors and the Artistic Director. Do they see themselves as custodians of Pao Kun’s vision, or just keeping The Substation going while changing the vision and mission as the times change?
Maybe the problem is that different people have different notions about what Pao Kun’s vision was. “A Home For The Arts” is a very flexible idea. To me, it seems that Pao Kun’s vision of The Substation is to be at the fringe and cutting edge. I have never worked with him and done anything artistically at The Substation. The difficulty is that yesterday’s fringe is not today’s fringe. Neither is the cutting edge. In the new context of today, I see his vision of that The Substation as being home to the fringe of the fringe, the most cutting edge of the cutting edge. I wish the logo ran something like “A home for the fringe and cutting edge”. Unlike many of today’s veteran artists, my contact with Pao Kun is very little, a couple of conversations here and there. So my opinion is based on the programming then, the people who came to The Substation then, what I know about him largely through reading, and what people tell me about him. But that is just my view. The Board of Directors calls the shots in this. As it should. Unless The Substation belongs to all of us. In which case we are back to square one.”

PM Lee Hsien Loong hits 1 million Facebook “Likes”

March 7, 2016 § Leave a comment

PM Lee Hsien Loong has now more than a million “Likes” on his Facebook page, making him possibly the political leader with the highest ratio of social media followers to country population in the world.

He crossed the landmark 1 million figure on 17 February. By Friday last week (4 March 2016) afternoon he had 1,021,456 likes and counting. That means that he has 18 followers for every 100 persons living in Singapore. By country of origin as registered on Facebook, 52.7 % (or 537,000) of his likes are from people in Singapore, 16.0 %from Malaysia and 6.6 % from Vietnam, according to statistics from Social Bakers website obtained my research assistant Tng Ying Hui.

Among political leaders,United States President Barack Obama has 47.2 million fans, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi 32.5 million, Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan 8.18 million, Indonesia President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo 6.08 million, Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III 4.25 million, Malaysian Prime Minister NajibRazak 2.98 million, Russian President Vladimir Putin 2.01 million. The ratios of their Facebook likes to their country populations is less than PM Lee’s.

PM Lee Facebook Page

Screenshot of today’s page                                                                

Mr Lee is also one of the most popular Singaporeans in any field. Actors Aaron Aziz tops 2.76 million likes (mostly from Indonesia) and followed by Jeanette Aw with 1,27 million(mostly from Malaysia) and Fann Wong with just under a million. Megachurch New Creation pastor Joseph Prince has 3.20 million likes, but only 1.6 % or 48,000 are in Singapore and the highest proportion from the U.S. (33.1 %).

PM Lee’s first Facebook post was on 20 April 2012, though some posts uploaded later are marked with earlier dates, such as a post on when he first became an army platoon commander in July 1973. So far he has posted more than 1,780 times, with 50 to 100 posts each month. He has shared 1325 photos,  222 videos and 145 status updates.

On his Facebook page, he explains: “My staff from the Prime Minister’s Office help me maintain this page. I sign off my own posts with the initials “LHL”. Mr Lee crossed the 1 million mark on 16 Feb when he was in US. There he met President Obama and leaders in the technology field, such asFacebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who put up photos of their meeting on his social media. ,.

Among the most popular politicians on Facebook are Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs K. Shanmugam (93,000), Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin (72,000 likes), Singapore Democratic Party leader Chee Soon Juan (40,000 likes), Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean (39,000) and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam (34,000).

PM Lee FB Likes graph

Crossing one million (data from Social Bakers)                                                                        

PM Lee FB Likes by Country

‘Likes’ by country of origin (data from Social Bakers)                                                   



Top government panel on economy “has work cut out”

January 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

Manu Bhaskaran thinks that the ministerial Committee for the Future Economy recently set up to chart the way in the choppy economic waters ahead for Singapore has its work cut out for it. This is because there are many economic challenges facing the country, some not not fully understood and some perhaps potentially unsolvable. Fundamental reforms will have to be carried out as mere tweaking of the existing system will fall short.

Future Economy

Tough challenges ahead. (Photo Credit ThisWeek@Gov.sg)



The Prime Minister has set up the Committee for the Future Economy (CFE) to review the economic strategy that has been in place since 2010 and to come up with ideas on how to create good jobs for Singaporeans and help firms to adapt to future challenges. Headed by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, it has got off to a cracking pace, with several sub-committees formed and already meeting. The CFE will set the tone for key economic policies in coming years and will therefore play an important role in Singapore’s future development.

So, what are the challenges that the CFE needs to find answers for?

Singapore’s economy is clearly at the cross-roads. Economic growth has slowed, many local companies are struggling, costs have escalated and income inequality is more evident. While there are both cyclical as well as structural elements to these challenges, it is the structural one that should concern us most.

Cyclically, weak global demand is clearly hurting exports which provide about 80% of total demand in the economy. A second cyclical drag is the correction in the real estate sector – as interest rates rise and the supply-demand imbalance worsens, prices will deflate faster and hurt a range of activities in the economy – construction, real estate services and mortgage lending. Some policy support is needed to help Singapore navigate through this rough patch and no doubt the CFE will give its views on this.

However, the global economic cycle will probably turn around and the real estate cycle can be contained through government measures. The structural challenges, however, are more concerning and this is where the CFE has to focus its energies:

  • Singapore’s work force is ageing and not growing any more, making rapid growth very difficult to achieve. How then does one ensure that Singapore remains a vibrant economic hub?


  • Productivity growth has also stalled. If we do not get this right, competitiveness and future living standards will be compromised. No one seems to understand why this has happened.


  • In addition, businesses are complaining about high costs which have depressed their profitability and undermined Singapore’s competitiveness. This goes beyond the rise in labour costs and difficulties in securing workers as a result of the government’s restrictive policies on foreign workers. Ensuring that costs do not get out of alignment with economic reality is a basic we must get right. Yet, something has gone quite fundamentally wrong in our cost structure which we need to understand better and find a solution to.


  • One way out of this problem is to foster greater innovation and creativity. Virtually everyone agrees with this but no one seems to fully appreciate why Singapore is struggling on this issue. While there is some progress in the number of start-ups and so on, The Global Innovation Index 2014 report shows how Singapore is quite clever at mobilising resources to throw at innovation but not so adept at extracting real innovation outcomes out of this. This is another quite fundamental weakness in Singapore’s structure and the CFE needs to get to the bottom of this.


  • Related to this is the issue of entrepreneurship. It is not that Singaporeans are not entrepreneurial – just like so many other people around the world, there are many Singaporeans who yearn to be their own masters and who want to make their mark on the commercial world. Yet, Singapore has struggled to produce a good number of interesting companies that emerge, grow rapidly and become large and globally interesting. Other small economies such as Taiwan or the northern European economies seem better able to do this than us.


  • Another challenge is inequality. All over the world, including in Singapore, we have seen a trend of a widening gap between the top tier income earners and the rest. Many middle class jobs have disappeared and median incomes have not been growing as fast as many hoped for. What can Singapore do to arrest this trend and ensure that everyone benefits fairly from the growth of the economy?


  • Such challenges can only grow. Technological changes are coming faster than anyone expected and some of these breakthroughs are likely to displace workers. For example, the expanding use of artificial intelligence and robotics could mean that many even white collar jobs could be replaced by machines. How do we ensure that there are enough good jobs which meet the aspirations of Singaporeans in such a brave new world?


  • As the population ages, many other challenges will appear. First, is our retirement funding system so dependent as it is on the Central Provident Fund able to provide for our growing pool of retirees? Or do we need to find ways to reform the system? Second, how do we re-think such issues as retirement age and protection against discrimination against older workers?


In other words, unlike before, many of our challenges are not fully understood and are potentially intractable. Some things are clear though.


First, simply tweaking with the existing models will not do – more fundamental and perhaps even root and branch reforms are possibly needed, taboos may need to be broken. For example, can we get innovation going without allowing more freedom of expression, without amending our hard-headed approach to bankruptcy, without reducing the overwhelming government presence in the economy … ?

Second, the citizenry has become more demanding and questioning. Their expectations are high and they want to have a stake and a say in the system. Can an economic model based on a huge role for multinational companies and government-linked companies but which has not really developed inherent capacity of the indigenous firms meet the aspirations of these Singaporeans?


There really are no easy answers to these questions and whatever the solutions are, there will be some who may feel they will lose out. The CFE certainly has its work cut out for it!



Mr Manu Bhaskaran is partner and Member of the Board, Centennial Group Inc, a policy advisory group based in Washington DC where he heads its economic research practice. He is also an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies. (http://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/faculty/bhaskaran-manu/) He was invited to write this article for this blog. 

© Manu Bhaskaran 2016 All Rights Reserved




Singapore International Festival of the Arts: The risk-reward pyramid and censorship

September 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

Goli tent at Toa Payoh during performance of The Lesson by Drama Box

Goli tent at Toa Payoh during performance of The Lesson by Drama Box

THIS year’s Singapore International Festival of  the Arts (SIFA) again shows that the arts is like life: No venture, no gain. That is, if we go to watch something safe, well-known, we are more likely to be rewarded, but rewarded with only a “not-bad” night or day out. On the other hand, if we try something less safe, less popular, we are less likely to be rewarded — but when the reward comes, oh my, it can change us and the way we see the world. True, if we take a risk, sometimes are we left with a “huh?”. Or leave scratching your head about what we just spent $20 to $60 or more and an hour or three of our time on. Or sometimes we just hate the show. Once in a while though the experience is transformational, and rarer even, transcendental. That’s what art is about.

Another analogy is a pyramid: at the bottom, the chances of payoffs are more often, but mediocre; at the top, the pay offs are rarer, but superior.

This has been a great Singapore Festival of the Arts. I could not see Hotel by Wild Rice, or that Bukit Brown thing by Drama Box (It Won’t Be Too Long). I hope they will come back.

I watched:

  • Returning by Goh Lay Kuan (loved the music and some of the dance)
  • Imagination of the Future (the Chilean play in the Open season of SIFA that because our government banned from baring breasts laid bare Singapore’s censorship: more below)
  • Biomashup (a dance with live Theremin music; I was more mesmerised by the musician rather than the dance)
  • Cabanons (a head scratcher: circus or theatre?)
  • Dementia (innovative but emotionally remote for me)
  • Revolutionary Model Play (uneven).
  • One part of Dance Revolution (Cambodian Chey Chankethya’s My Mothers and I was excellent)

One of highlights was Drama Box’s The Lesson under the wonderful inflatable space the Goli at Toa Payoh Central. It was truly a lesson on the possibilities of theatre, of politics, and of political theatre.

After one of the shows, I had a chat with one of my favourite critics (and playwright) Helmi Yusof of Business Times about the old but important question of whether SIFA should be popular (like the HK Arts festival: success measured by ticket sales alone) or adventurous (measured by not how many people like it, but whether some people really really love it.) This year’s slate under artistic director Ong Keng Sen is indeed adventurous. That it got the numbers is an added bonus.

My view is that Singapore has such a bustling arts scene offering all the popular, middle of the road stuff from the casinos’ crowd pullers to numerous festivals and shows that cater to more popular needs. This is great. But it is not often that a big festival offers something more esoteric (and I don’t mean esoteric for the sake of being so). SIFA has that role. Unfortunately, SIFA has suffered from schizophrenia for much of its existence: one year it wants to be popular, the next year it wants to be cutting edge. Go for one, preferably the latter. Otherwise the audience gets confused.

Oh, by the way, the other highlight happened at the sidelines of SIFA. It is Keng Sen’s interview about censorship. The highlight from that highlight:

I think first of all the context is very very important. The fact that our censors were not considering context at all means there is an impossible situation actually put forward.

So I think it’s very difficult to show Singapore is a global hub, because all these companies are laughing at us. I feel embarrassed to be going to our international guests with such absurd demands from the censors, like, “Can you please cut the blowjob?” or “Can you do less?”

And in the end this censorship is a real mockery. It’s an international embarrassment for Singapore to be shown to be so childish.

Some seven or eight years ago, I wrote in a report that one of the three main messages from speaking to practitioners, academics and policy makers in the creative industries in Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong was this: Censorship matters. A very senior civil servant who read the report retorted: “Censorship is no longer an issue in Singapore”. From Keng Sen’s interview, I guess, it still isn’t.


Conflict of interest disclaimer: My plays have been directed by Ong Keng Sen.

Singaporeans voted with their pockets

September 16, 2015 § 1 Comment

hong bao pic

Many people have offered many different reasons for the unexpected PAP rout of the Opposition. I am no politics expert, but they hardly discussed a glaringly obvious one: The goodies given out to voters.

In the last year or so, the numerous sweeteners given out to or promised Singaporeans include, but are not exclusive, to the following:

  1. The Pioneer Generation Package of $8 billion to help 450,000 people with healthcare
  2. The Silver Support Scheme giving 150,000 elderly quarterly payouts of $300 to $750 from now on, costing $350m in 2016.
  3. A personal income tax rebate of 50 per cent up to $1,000
  4. Premium rebates for 949,000 CPF Home Protection Scheme members, about half getting S$400 or more.
  5. GST vouchers, of which there are various types, raised
  6. HDB Service and Conservancy charges rebates worth $80 million for 80,000 households
  7. Account top-ups for Singaporeans in various education accounts
  8. Full fee waiver for Singaporean students taking national exams
  9. Skills Future credit for over 2 million Singaporeans 25 years old and up, with an initial credit of $500 from 2016
  10. Reduced maid levies, and extending reduction to households with children ages 16 and below from 12 and below. Some 144,500 households will save $720 a year
  11. Reduced childcare centre costs for many parents
  12. About 82,000 civil servants received a $500 Jubilee bonus
  13. Other workers in universities, healthcare and other sectors received SG50 bonuses ranging from $500. Even private sector SG50 payments such as the $1,000 given out by some banks help sentiments

These goodies are either one-time or permanent, already given out or will be rolled out soon, part of or outside the Government Budget. Almost everyone got something, and some a series of payments adding to a very big hong bao.

Some of the sweeteners are similar to those in the 2006 and 2011 election years. But the goodies given out or promised since last year come up to much more.

The important point is that they also add up to a very big reason to thank the PAP-Government at the ballot box. As Deputy Prime Minister and the PAP’s shining star in this election Tharman Shanmugaratnam once wrote in a poem “and happiness is sometimes bought.”

To be sure, not everyone voted from the cash lining their pockets or did so for only that reason or even for that reason. Other factors probably played a part. Among those reported in the media have been:

  1. The feel-good halo hanging over the SG50 celebrations
  2. The effect of Lee Kuan Yew’s passing and/or his legacy
  3. The desire for  different voices in Parliament
  4. The quality of parties and/or candidates in my constituency
  5. How well the Opposition did in parliament in the last four years
  6. How well town councils are managed
  7. The fear that the Opposition will win enough to form the government
  8. The worry about Singapore’s vulnerability as a country

Some will be more salient than other among certain groups. New citizens are assumed to be pro-PAP, for instance. The supposedly more pro-Opposition young voters were much talked about pre-election as a big danger to the PAP, but were quickly forgotten post-election.

Another reason given for the PAP triumph was the policy changes and better implementation of policies since 2011, These were seen as the key grouses that gave the PAP its worse ever electoral showing ever: crowded trains and buses, too many foreigners, high house prices and the small difference between of citizens and permanent residents for subsidies and other perks. If there is a party that can deliver on these issues, it is the PAP. Leading up to 2011, it hid its head in the sand to the issues or kept the eye off the ball in implementation. After that wake-up call, the PAP quickly moved to address these problems. Add policy fixes to the goodies, the contest was probably already determined way before nomination day.

In 2011, many assumed that PAP’s setback signalled the electorate’s irreversible change from one caring more about bread and butter issues to being more concerned about democracy, diversity in parliament and checks and balances.

But the results of this election, which I see as primarily as a vote for the material and the restoration of good-old PAP promise of taking care of basic needs, shows how misconceived the liberal optimists were.


Thinking about the election

August 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

How should we think about how the election will turn out? What follows is one way.

  • How to tell if it is a good result for PAP? The two key indicators of how well the PAP does will be measured by:
    1. Total percentage of votes obtained
    2. Number of seats not lost (since the number of MPs will rise by two)

There are four combinations:
Up-up is good for the PAP; down-down is bad; up-down and down-up will be harder to weigh.

  • The basic question about the last election that helps understand this election is:Why did the swing voters swing against the PAP? There are three possibilities:
    1. Bread and butter issues: Population growth, causing related problems of transport, housing prices, jobs, sense of being overwhelmed by foreigners)
    2. Democratic issues: People want more Opposition in Parliament for more accountability
    3. Values issues: Ministers’ salary, relative subsidies for citizens versus foreigners, elitism, ministerial salary, equity and equality. It is hard to tell how much the values issues mattered.

Certainly, all three sets of issues are related: Some people could have swung because of one or the other, but some could have also swung because they felt that the PAP government was not listening to them on the bread and butter and the values issues and the only way to be heard was to have more Opposition MPs. Liberals seem to think that most of those who swung did so because of the desire for more Opposition, but is it wishful thinking?

  • In the coming election these are the questions to ask about how the vote will turn out:
    1. Have the bread and butter issues been tackled enough? The following is one assessment; many would disagree. Housing prices have eased (though it means that people who bought some time ago before the government cooling measures might be miffed at paying higher). Public transport is less crowded (But is it better on the road for drivers too?) While the number of foreigners has increased (the measures have been aimed at reducing the rate of increase) there seems to be perception that it was not as bad as before. Handouts have been generous: Pioneer generation package plus this and that. Will those who swung against the PAP swing back?
    2. Was the demand for accountability satisfied? Do people who swung because they wanted more Opposition feel now that there are enough Opposition MPs? Do they feel that the Opposition MPs have done enough for them both at the grassroots in the Opposition wards and nationally for all voters?This is a hard call.
    3. Do people who swung because they felt that the having more Opposition MPs was the only way to get heard on bread and butter and values issues now feel that voting in more Opposition MPs still remains the only way to get heard.
    4. Have the values issues been solved:Do people feel better treated, and has elitism abated? The gap in the subsidies enjoyed by Singaporeans versus foreigners (in school fees and government polyclinic fees, for instance) has increased. Tougher action has been taken against some privileged/elite people (for example, the 18-month jail sentence for the doctor who AWOLed to enrolled in Cambridge University.) Softer policies have been rolled out that focus on the main the street, such as the huge infusion of funds for community arts: Arts For All. The Jubilee Year celebrations might leave an after-glow for the PAP.
    5. Will there be a black swan? These include:
      1. People saying or doing the wrong things:
        PAP candidates lost in the following instances when it said or did something misjudged: Mr Lee Kuan Yew telling Aljunied voters in 2011 they will repent in Workers’ Party were elected; Mr Lee in 1984 comparing Mr Chiam See Tong’s paltry O level results against his PAP rival Mr Mah Bow Tan; Dr Seet Ai Mee in 1991 when she washed her hands after shaking hands with a fish monger.
      2. “Things” happening:
        The MRT breaks down several times during election week. Shock events which help pull people gravitate towards one party or other.Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death?
  • Fielding of X Factor candidates:
    This especially true for the Opposition, which could stand out with candidates who capture the imagination, such as Chen Show Mao. Tin Pei Ling had a negative X factor though she is said to be very popular now on the ground, enough to be fielded in a single ward constituency this time.

I am not a politics specialist, so these are merely observations of someone who is trying to make sense of what is happening. One way to learn more is to talk to other people, from experts to players and average folks. So far, the people I have been spoken to don’t have a consensus, or even a majority, view about why the swingers swung, whether the issues have been resolved, and who will win or lose on both the voting percentage and number of seats measures.

Every election is interesting, but this election will be particularly so.