In no mood for risk for the future economy

Economist Manu Bhaskaran of Centennial Asia Advisors wrote this article on the report of the Committee for the Future Economy. It was sent to Centennial’s  private clients in its regular newsletter. He has kindly allowed me to published it here. When the committee was formed, Manu wrote also wrote another article saying that it had its work cut out.

Singapore’s Committee for the Future Economy report abjures bold moves

The Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), chaired by Ministers Heng Swee Keat and S Iswaran, released its set of recommendations to chart Singapore’s economic strategy for the next five to 10 years. It aims to set the stage for the Singapore economy to benefit from emerging opportunities and equip its people and firms with the deep skills and knowledge to succeed in the long run.

Two key questions are raised by our assessment – what specific policy changes might emerge out of the CFE report and whether the CFE’s modest goals be achieved. On both these, we have a cautious take.

Key features of the CFE Report

The CFE lays out seven key points which it hopes will gear Singapore up for success, leading to an average annual growth rate of 2-3% and culminating in good jobs and meaningful careers for all Singaporeans while also ensuring that manufacturing continues to play a large role in its economy.

The seven broad and “mutually-reinforcing” strategies by the CFE are:

  1. Deepen and diversify our international connections
  2. Acquire and utilise deep skills
  3. Strengthen enterprise capabilities to innovate and scale up
  4. Build strong digital capabilities
  5. Develop a vibrant and connected city of opportunity
  6. Develop and implement Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs)
  7. Partner each other to enable innovation and growth

What policy changes should we now expect?

The CFE report carefully sticks with existing policy approaches, with few bold new initiatives, as noted by the Government itself in its press conference releasing the report. Virtually all the recommendations involved validating existing policy approaches such as:

  • Same old favoured growth sectors: Companies should look to high-growth sectors in Singapore such as finance, hub services, logistics, urban solutions, healthcare, the digital economy and advanced manufacturing, with the Government taking on a more active role to support growth and innovation.
  • Continued commitment to retaining a large manufacturing base: There will be stepped up efforts to ensure that manufacturing in Singapore is globally competitive and maintains its share of GDP at 20% over the medium term. The CFE’s strategy to do so is through the Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) that were announced last year – industry-specific platforms to integrate planning and implementation in 23 industries and about 80% of the economy. Six have been launched to date.
  • No change to economic openness: Not surprisingly for an economy utterly reliant on external demand and foreign investment, the CFE reiterated Singapore’s commitment to economic openness in terms of trade and investment. Singapore will focus on progressing negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as well as fully utilising the privileges stemming from the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) which is already in effect. No new initiatives for regional integration appear to have been contemplated.
  • Deregulation to spur innovation, digitisation and entrepreneurship: This was one area where some interesting policy moves were hinted at. The government will simplify the regulatory framework for venture capitalists and encourage the entry of private equity firms to provide smart and patient growth capital. It plans to design a regulatory environment supportive of innovation and risk-taking, such as through regulatory sandboxes and by issuing “no action” letters assuring disrupting companies that they would not be penalised if in pushing the envelope with new ideas they brush up against Singapore’s infamously rigid regulations. The Government will also act as a source of “lead demand” to support up-and-coming industries, particularly those which intersect which strategic national needs. It will also set up a Global Innovation Alliance to link Singapore’s institutes of higher learning and companies with overseas partners in major innovation hubs and key demand markets. Government to promote the adoption of digital technologies across the economy with a dedicated focus on building strong capabilities in data analytics and cybersecurity.
  • Scaling up and internationalising: Government to support the scaling up of high-growth local enterprises as well as the commercialisation of research findings and intellectual property of research institutions. The government will make a big push for agglomeration gains through enhanced international connectivity as well as by developing districts such as Jurong and Punggol into synergistic and vibrant clusters.
  • Tax reforms: The Government to maintain a broad-based, progressive and fair tax system while remaining competitive and pro-growth. This could be an intriguing reference to a hike in the goods and services tax (GST) in the near future.

Several commentaries in the usually pro-government media have noted the Report’s penchant for tweaks and expansions to existing policy approaches and the glaring paucity of new ideas and initiatives. Essentially, the CFE has brought together policies which are already in the pipeline or already being implemented into a coherent report. The Government is clearly in no mood to risk shaking things up through a bolder approach.

Can the objectives outlined by the CFE be achieved?

That means that the Government might struggle to attain its goals of 2-3% growth and the retention of a large manufacturing role in the economy.

First, without fundamental changes to Singapore’s economic model, it is not clear how these goals can be attained.

 The average annual 2-3% growth target is a marked downshift from the 3-5% range posited by the 2009 Economic Strategies Committee. Even so, it is difficult to see the Singapore economy hitting this target given lacklustre productivity growth and an ageing population.

  • Productivity gains have been abysmal in recent years with productivity barely growing.
  • Headwinds will grow in demographics as the population ages. Even though importing foreign workers and accepting immigrants are possible solutions to a greying Singapore, there are political constraints to doing so.

Since long-term economic growth is a function of productivity growth and labour force growth, it is difficult to see Singapore hitting the 2-3% growth target.

Additionally, external challenges could compound Singapore’s challenges.

  • A more hostile global environment beckons as the US and China jostle for hegemony in Singapore’s backyard. Should US President Donald Trump follow through with the rest of his anti-trade, anti-globalisation policies, export-oriented economies such as Singapore will be adversely and significantly affected.
  • Greater competition from unsympathetic neighbours will challenge Singapore’s status as the premier hub in the region. Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur are emerging as significant rivals to hub services which Singapore has focused on as a high-growth industry.

Second, the push for a large manufacturing base does not have sufficient under-girders.

Manufacturing, particularly for exports, has powered the initial stages of Singapore’s growth story and remains an industry integral to the economy. However, in light of rising costs, it has become uneconomical to manufacture most items in Singapore. Indeed, it is a wise choice to focus on advanced manufacturing which will be focused on high value production activities.

Yet, the question is whether a goal for the manufacturing sector to comprise 20% of the Singapore economy over the longer-term is feasible. A quick look at other advanced economies which are also production powerhouses (see chart) shows that maintaining a robust manufacturing base as part of the economy is very possible. Germany, Japan and South Korea are cases in point.

Chart 10
Singapore as compared to other advanced economies

Source: Calculated by Centennial Asia Advisors using CEIC Database

Singapore’s manufacturing share of GDP has been on a long-term downtrend from 26% in 2000 to 19% in 2015 – in line with economic experience around the world – while Germany and South Korea’s have remained largely unchanged while Japan’s has ticked down from 23% to 20% over the same period. Germany can count on its world-class Mittelstand while Japan and South Korea have strong national champions to undergird their respective manufacturing bases. However, Singapore has an unhealthy reliance on MNC-led growth and foreign direct investment and has not been making great inroads at nurturing a strong core of SMEs.

It remains unclear why Singapore should deviate from economic orthodoxy and attempt to sustain a relatively large manufacturing base even as costs rise and many production activities become uncompetitive. To this end, the ITMs appear to have a key role to play and we expect more sector-specific support schemes to materialise soon.

A big worry is that in the pursuit of this 20% target, the government will ramp up its big-ticket giveaways and sweeteners to entice MNCs to remain in or come to Singapore. This means more investment incentives, tax breaks, etc, pointing to a higher cost of attracting foreign investment and potentially skewing the cost-benefit analysis against Singapore’s favour.

Third, nary a mention on the overarching challenges Singapore faces

  • High cost structure inhibiting entrepreneurship and growth of SMEs: Costs in terms of rents, wages and compliance are mounting in Singapore resulting in a loss of cost competitiveness. High costs are also stifling entrepreneurial spirit and inhibiting the growth of local start-ups.
  • Rejuvenation of the local bourse: The Singapore Exchange (SGX) has seen stock turnover volumes plummet in light of the penny stock crash in October 2013. Average daily volume of stocks traded on SGX has declined to the SGD1bn level or less. There is a lack of liquidity in the equity market, resulting in uncompetitive valuations for firms thinking of listing on SGX. In light of the government’s pursuit of smart and patient capital from VCs and PE firms, rejuvenating our local bourse is imperative so that these companies have viable exit strategies from the start-ups they invest in.
  • Fiscal and social policies in age of upheaval: The CFE alluded to the more challenging global environment which Singapore finds itself in now; this is a time of technological change and a darkening of the mood against globalisation. Digitally-driven disruptions and dislocations will likely affect large parts of the economy and the working population and the Singapore Government needs to ensure that while the economy benefits from these changes, workers who are affected are, to some extent, protected and given assistance to transition.

All of which raises this critical question: Is the Singapore “premium” still deserved?

For some time, Singapore could charge a premium to activities that sought to locate in Singapore, because of a number of reasons:

  • First, Singapore had a clear edge in the quality of our regulatory and physical infrastructure, political stability, policy certainty, rule of law and incorruptibility.
  • Second, the economy delivered a premium return to investors so investors did not mind paying a higher entrance fee to be in Singapore.
  • Third, in the age of globalisation, Singapore was the paramount globaliser: we had a liberal immigration policy and emphasised heavily on free trade and FTAs.
  • Fourth, the Singapore Government offered tax and other inducements to businesses to locate here.
  • Fifth, the Government’s astute foreign policy won us advantageous FTAs and military alliances, Singapore could even befriend geo-strategic rivals such as the US and China at once, without having to choose between the two. We had the best of all worlds.

Now, some of these advantages are disappearing or fading. Singapore does not offer such a large premium return as before. Other regional hubs can offer enough of a good deal, even if they are wanting in some details, to pry companies and talent away from Singapore. Globalisation is reversing as well. Our tax arbitration offer to MNCs is now viewed with suspicion by large countries that we depend on, as part of the global shift against Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS). Our (tightening) immigration policies have made MNCs anxious. Key elements of our cluster are beginning to lose vibrancy – eg. the equities market – and if more of these lose their mojo, the entire cluster could weaken. Finally, China is deeply suspicious of Singapore while the US has become an unpredictable and undependable ally.

Most tellingly, the economy is not keeping up with changes. In an ageing society, where growth and dynamism depend more on innovation and productivity growth, Singapore does not seem to be able to deliver either. The country’s vaunted capacity to confront challenges head on and devise innovative solutions seems to have weakened. For example, policymakers knew that demographics would be a problem 30 years ago but could not come to grips with effective solutions.

The CFE ought to have addressed these issues and offered compelling ideas to take Singapore onto the next phase of economic development – a phase where economic growth might be slower but of higher quality, where traditional jobs might be disrupted by technology. Singapore needs to remain special in order to continue being competitive and adaptive in the ever-changing global economy.

It is not clear that the CFE report will bring Singapore sufficiently close to achieving that.


Censored pages in NLB’s Script & Stage show

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 (

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$002f$002fSD_ASSET$002f0$002f1156/9810494211

The Substation and the arts community

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”

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”

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

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. ( 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

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

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

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.

On the “Malay Problem” by Isa Kamari and Queerness in Singapore by Ng Yi-Sheng

“The Malay Problem – The Myth Of The Lazy Native Re-Visited” by Isa Kamari and “Background Vocals: Queerness and Singapore Mainstream Culture” by Ng Yi-Sheng

Cultural Medallion winner and novelist Isa Kamari gave a presentation recently in Hong Kong on the historical and present situation of the Malays in Singapore. (More about Isa here and here.) His spoke about how the myth of the “lazy native” in the past has become the ‘Malay problem’ today. He was part of a panel which included Ng Yi-sheng, Cheo Chai-Hiang, Lee Weng Choy and myself. We were there at the invitation of visual arts space Para Site curator Lim Qinyi, who is mounting an exhibition on the history of Singapore’s visual arts in September. The exhibition is titled A Luxury We Cannot Afford and goes from 18 September to 18 November, 2015. Yi-Sheng also gave a presentation on LGBT history in Singapore titled Background Vocals: Queerness and Singapore Mainstream Culture. Here are the slides and the notes. Hopefully there will be a more integrated essay version.

Isa’s presentation follows after the pictures:

Isa and Qinyi

Isa and Qinyi

Yi-sheng and Qingyi

Yi-sheng and Qingyi

Talk and Panel Discussion
Organised by PARA SITE
Quarry Bay, Hong Kong
28 June 2015




By Isa Kamari

  1. The Myth of the Lazy Native

In 1966, the sociologist and researcher Syed Hussein Alatas began pondering the question of why Western colonialists had, for four centuries, considered the natives of Maritime Southeast Asia to be generally lazy. His research eventually produced The Myth of the Lazy Native, a book which was published in 1977. In the book, he cited one instance of a “denigrating” view of the natives, when a German scientist suggested that the Filipinos made their oars from bamboo so they could rest more frequently: “If they happen to break, so much the better, for the fatiguing labour of rowing must necessarily be suspended till they are mended again.” Syed Hussein criticised such beliefs in the book as ranging “from vulgar fantasy and untruth to refined scholarship.” He also asserted that “[t]he image of the indolent, dull, backward and treacherous native has changed into that of a dependent one requiring assistance to climb the ladder of progress”

Syed Hussein wrote and published another book in 1971, Thomas Stamford Raffles, 1781-1826: schemer or reformer?. It is an account of Raffles’ political philosophy and its relation to the massacre of Palembang, the Banjarmasin affair, and some of his views and legislations, during his colonial career in Java, Sumatra, and Singapore.

Let us see whether such notion or image of Malays persists in post-colonial Singapore and whether Raffles’ scheming and colonial policies have planted and entrenched the myth in the lives of the Singapore Malays till today.

  1. The Malay Problem – Definition

At this juncture, I would like to introduce to you the phenomenon of the ‘Malay Problem’.

Malays who are a minority in Singapore poses a strong challenge to the Singapore Government. It is a fact that in the development of Singapore history, Malays are relatively backward in the economic, social and political spheres. As an under-privileged lot in a country dominated by the majority Chinese who are aggressive in the economic field and who are agile and resilient in the modernization process, the presence of Malays poses complex challenges and instil tension in inter-racial relations (Betts, 1975). This phenomenon has been rightly or wrongly called the ‘Malay Problem.’

  1. The Malay Problem – The Causes

Scholars and cultural observers of Singapore Malays have attributed the Malay Problem to three main causes:

  1. British colonial policies – which focussed on the preservation and stabilization of the traditional Malay way of life. The British colonial government practised policies which prevented Malays from active participation in Singapore’s economic development. The British chose to give Malays marginal roles in this sphere. According to Turnbull (1977), Malays were peaceful and hardworking as fishermen, boat hands and woodcutters. Malays were generally not exposed to the demands of the capitalist economy.
  2. Exploitation by other immigrants – the political cultures of the Chinese and Indians were strikingly different from the Malays. This political culture had been nurtured and developed through centuries of hardships faced by these communities which provide the survival skills of tenacity and ever being ready for challenges (Clutterback 1984). They were well known for their dedication and steadfastness in amassing wealth. Slowly but surely the Chinese gained the monopoly in the economy while the Indians rose to the high ranks in the administration and judicial positions (Sukmawati, 1995).
  3. The socio-cultural system of the Malays – Focus and spreading of series of values which emphasized the mosque, home and family. The general perception is that Malays as lazy and lacking of initiative to improve their lot. Competition with other communities was not instilled in their minds. There was general absence of desire to amass wealth and be successful in their careers. It was also said that Islam as practised by the Malays also resulted in them accepting their fate which is generally backward. They can only hope that their fortunes would be better in the hereafter. They avoided worldly affairs and lived a simple existence (Sukmawati, 1995).
  4. Singapore Malays from 1950s till 1990s

To understand whether the above causes are valid and had an impact on the lives of Malays and inter-racial relations in Singapore, and consequently perpetuated the Myth of the Lazy Native, let us do a quick scan on some of the salient issues and challenges faced by Singapore Malays during the period just before Independence till about 1900s:

  1. 1950s

The issue of division of power in post-colonial days between the Chinese and Malays arose. Racial sentiments known as “Malay Nationalism” were at the forefront.

  1. 1960s

Nationalism and racial sentiments slowed down the country’s development before 1965. Political conflicts arose when the two countries merged. Singapore was finally separated from Malaysia. This heightened the racial sentiments amongst the Malays who then realized that they had become the minority in a country dominated by the majority Chinese.

Many Malay families were moved from the kampongs to new and modern housing estates. This move was to dismantle the ethnic groupings and forced the Malays to integrate with other ethnic groups. Many Malays were unhappy because their social ties at the kampongs had been severed.

Many Malays were working at the lowest-rangking jobs and brought home low wages. There were many obstacles such as lack of preparation and training, lack of English language proficiency, lack of technical skills, and social and religious restrictions which close their job opportunities in the civil and private sectors (Athsani 1970).

In family planning, the “Stop at Two” campaign was launched in 1966 by the government. The purpose was to limit the size of the family to enable every citizen to have better living conditions at the HDB flats. However Malays in general prefer to have big families.

In 1968, 100 Malay intellectuals and activists gathered to discuss the problems faced by the backward Malays. The Central Council of the Malay organizations, Majlis Pusat, was formed to tackle the Malay Problem.

  1. 1970s

The income gap between the Chinese and Malays became prominent. Young Malays were not conscripted into the Army or Police, which were their traditional occupation. Malay teenagers were also not called up for National Service, but they were not officially excused from it either. This created a problem for these youths as many employers refused to hire them for the fear that they would be called up for NS at any time. Cries of discrimination were heard from the Malays who felt that these policies favoured the Chinese.

The heightened attempt to integrate the different communities at the HDB estates had caused the Malays to be in a dilemma. They realised that they had to integrate with other communities because of national interests, but at the same time the realization of their backwardness and alienation also deepened, within the dynamics of development of a system based on meritocracy (Betts, 1975).

In 1970, Majlis Pusat organised a seminar “The Malay Involvement in 25 Years of National Development of Singapore: Achievements and Challenges in the 21st Century”. It was at this seminar that the Malay Problem was discussed, especially in the fields of education, employment and housing.

  1. 1980s

The 1980 Survey revealed a disappointing status of the Malays in the educational and economic fields. Malays occupy the highest percentage in primary education and lowest percentage in secondary and post-secondary education. 63.5% of Malays did not complete secondary education, and 42% failed their Primary School Leaving Examination, PSLE. There were only 679 Malay graduates (Sukmawati, 1995).

The Survey also revealed that the Malays occupied the lowest number in technical and professional jobs. Malay professionals constituted 6% of professionals, compared to 12.2% Chinese and 11.3% Indians. In public administration and management, Malays only constituted 0.7% compared to 6.8% Chinese and 6.4% Indians. In contrast Malays constituted 67.8% of factory workers.

The Malay MPs gathered to find a solution which was more systematic, integrated and effective to the problem that had plagued the Malay community. A self-help group, The Council of Education for Muslim Students, MENDAKI was formed, which focussed on the field of education to uplift the Malay community.

The PM elevated the status of the ‘Malay Problem’ from that which was faced by a specific community to that of a national level. The Malay Problem had clearly hindered the progress of the country.

Other social issues like drug addiction and high level of divorce rates amongst Malays also came to the forefront. It clearly undermined many efforts to uplift the community.

The promotion of Mandarin also irked the Malays. Many felt that the status of Malay as a National language was threatened. Many Malays also felt that the criteria of proficiency in Mandarin in some jobs also favoured the Chinese.

The imposed quota of ethnic groups at the HDB estates, and that of 20% Malays in national schools, and the rather relaxed policy on immigration of Chinese from Hong Kong and mainland China also created suspicion and worry amongst the Malays.

  1. 1990s

Goh Chok Tong took over as Prime Minister in 1990. The administration of Singapore which was based on the tripartite bond between the workers’ union, the administration, and the government in the management of the economy was expanded to the management of ethnic relations. Politics became corporatist as the government elites formed tendencies and programmes to administer Singapore society based on ethnic groups, including those involving the economy, politics, religion or race (Brown, 1993). Self-help groups based on ethnicity were seen to be the effective way to elevate the achievement of the different communities. Thus some adjustments to the cornerstone policy of meritocracy were made so that some form of ethnic balance was achieved in all sectors. The implementation of the original meritocracy principle seemed not to work well.

Malays performed better in education and other fields although there was still lack of Malays in the high-ranking jobs. They were seen to have participated more in national development. They were no longer perceived to be marginalised. That was the official position of the Government which declared that there was no longer a ‘Malay Problem’.

The question was and still remains whether this is true.

Let us move next to my novels.

  1. The Novels


The novel relates the founding of Singapore in 1819 from the perspective of the indigenous Malays in contrast with the official versions which are either told by those in power or by the British colonialists. Important colonial characters like Raflles, Farquhar and Crawfurd were confronted by the likes of the Muslim saint Habib Nuh, silat master Wak Cantuk, Sultan Hussein and Temenggong Abdul Rahman. The famous Malay intellectual Munsyi Abdullah who worked for the British as a translator and scribe also played a major role in the narrative. Raffles in particular is portrayed as the merciless schemer who exploits the weakness of the Malay leaders and community to ensure that his British imperialist vision is securely planted in the region with Singapore as the base, just as it is deliberated by Syed Hussein Alatas in his book.

What is important to note in the narrative is the exposition that some of the major policies and actions of the British colonialist have a great and far-reaching impact on the local Malays which translates into some aspects of the Malay Problem faced by the community in modern Singapore. Policies such as segregation of the different communities, and the conscious move to restrict Malays to the lower ranks of administration, and the encouragement for them to be involved in occupations like agriculture and fishing and not get involved in trade and commerce, have created and perpetuated a backward community in post-colonial Singapore.

Part of the blame also rests on the Malay leaders as depicted in the novel through the characters of Sultan Hussein, Habib Nuh, Wak Cantuk and Munsyi Abdullah, for failing to offer viable and effective solutions to uplift the community from backwardness.


It is the story of the Orang Seletar who is the indigenous people of Singapore. The story spans 3 generations and relates the fate of the boat people which lived on the rivers and shores of the island. Arising from the need to build a dam on the Seletar River, a group of them have to make a choice whether to live inland and be assimilated with the mainstream society, or forced to move away from their homes if they were to continue with their living on the waters.

The main character, Rawa chooses to move to the estuaries in Johore, while his daughter Kuntum marries Lamit, a Malay man and lives inland. Kuntum has to adjust to living in a shipyard workers’ barrack at Sembawang before moving to a Housing Development Board, HDB flat in Yishun. She also has to work as a factory worker to earn extra income to support the family and their modern lifestyle. Both Lamit and Kuntum have a son, Hassan who becomes very close to his grandfather after visiting him at Kampung Bakar Batu in Johore. Rawa then has to live with them at the HDB flat after his wife Temah dies. Hassan has an ambition to be a naval architect and loves rowing the canoe. Rawa tries his best to impart the values of the Orang Seletar to him while not stopping him from immersing himself with modern education and lifestyle.

Through the lives of Rawa, Kuntum and Hassan, the story is related from the perspective of the indigenous people of Singapore which have to face the onslaught of fast-paced development of the country since separation from Malaysia in 1965 till the 1990s. The issues faced by the Malay community in general form the background of the story.

A Song of the Wind

It is a ‘growing-up’ story of a young boy named Ilham who lives in a kampong located in the midst of a Chinese cemetery. The background of the story is Singapore in the 1960s till 1990s. It is a time of great challenges for the Singapore Malays as related in my earlier deliberation on the Malay Problem.

The community at Kampong Tawakal is multi-racial. The Chinese landlord has a provision shop which is patronised by his tenants comprising of Chinese, Malays and Indians. Ilham grows up with a group of close multi-racial friends amidst the squalid conditions of the kampong.

Despite the poor and deprived background, Ilham manages to top his class in primary school. His family then moves to the HDB flat at Ang Mo Kio when Ilham enters secondary school at Raffles Institution, a premier school in Singapore. His family then faces the challenges of living in a modern city. Since his father does not earn much as a gardener, his mother has to work as a housemaid to support the family which has grown to 8 from the 6 when they were living in the kampong.

When he is at secondary school, Ilham becomes acquainted with a religious teacher through a schoolmate. During that time, at the world scene, the Iranian Revolution has just taken place. Unknowingly he gets involved in an alleged clandestine group and is confronted by the authorities. He is interrogated by the Internal Security Division, ISD but released with a warning not to be involved in such underground activities again. He is finally arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act, ISA when it is seen by them that he has not learnt his lessons.

Again the narrative of the book is from the perspective of the Malay community facing the various political, social, economic and religious changes during the development of Singapore from a third world country to that of a modern city.

  1. Conclusion

From the discussion above, The Myth the Lazy Native in colonial days seems to have been preserved and transformed as the Malay Problem in modern day Singapore. While there are many attempts by both the Government and the leaders of Malay community to eradicate it from the psyche of the Malays, and from the perception and portrayal of the community by others, some policy decisions by the Government seem to have entrenched and propagated the myth further. Whether it is a reflection of a series of deliberate or strategic moves by the Government or not, deserves a concerted study, but suspicion and restlessness of the Malay community linger. These insecure feelings are further heightened by the recent policy of bringing in throngs of Chinese and Indian immigrants from mainland China and India respectively, to achieve a target of 6.5 million citizens by 2020. Amongst many Singapore Malays, their status and importance as the indigenous people of Singapore seems to have been challenged. Many feel that they are strangers in their own homeland. Many also feel that the Government has somehow given up on the under-performing Malays and resorted to bringing in immigrants from abroad to support the economy, at the risks of disintegration of the social fabric.

Having said that, in my novels, I have attempted not only to tell the story of the under-privileged Malays, but also offer windows of inspiration, hope and aspiration for progress and development through the portrayal of characters which run contrary to the downward progression of the community in general. Characters like the 3 friends, Ramli, Sudin and Ajis in 1819, Hassan in Rawa and Ilham in A Song of the Wind are symbolic and emblematic of the constant struggle and initiatives of some Malays to uplift their community through the assimilation of positive values brought about by modern living without compromising those which are crucial for the preservation and growth of their identity as Malays. They not only learnt painful lessons from the past but are firmly rooted to the present and have a hopeful vision for the future.



  1. Athsani K and Dzaffir R. 1970. “Singapore Malays and Employment opportunities” in Sharom Ahmat and James Wong (eds) Malay Participation in the National Development in Singapore. Majlis Pusat.
  2. Betts, R H. 1975. Multiracialism, Meritocracy and the Malays of Singapore, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  3. Brown, D. 1993. “The Corporatist Management of Ethnicity in Contemporary Singapore”, cap 2 in Rodan, (ed). Singapore Changes Guard. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  4. Clutterback, R. 1984. Conflict and Violence in Singapore and Malaysia 1945. Singapore: Graham Bash Pte Ltd.
  5. Isa Kamari. 2013. 1819. Kuala Lumpur: Silverfish Books.
  6. Isa Kamari. 2013. A Song of the Wind. Kuala Lumpur: Silverfish Books.
  7. Isa Kamari. 2013. Rawa. Kuala Lumpur: Silverfish Books.
  8. Sukmawati Sirat. 1995. “Trends in Malay Political Leadership”. Phd Thesis. University of South Carolina.
  9. Syed Hussein Alatas. 1971. Thomas Stamford Raffles, 1781-1826: schemer or reformer?. Singapore: Angus and Robertson.
  10. Syed Hussein Alatas. 1977. The Myth of the Lazy Native. Singapore: Cambridge University Press.
  11. Turnbull, C. M. 1977. A History of Singapore 1819-1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

Fear or Writing, Fear of Being

Photo from Espanade at The Studios:

My edited notes for forum on Fear of Writing? The Development of Political Theatre in Singapore at the Esplanade:

Of course we should not be allowed to say, to write everything that comes to our head. We should not be allowed to call for murder or arson or assault. But the limits matter, the limits are the points of contention. In other words, there are just laws and unjust laws.

The artist’s fear is not just that of censorship, but of worse. Indeed, censorship, though painful, demeaning and an act of violence against the artist and disrespect against the thence-deprived audience, sometimes reduces fear of other kinds of punishment because it means a certain sanction, however grudging, of whatever remains. However, this not always so, as censorship is often just the first of many feared punishments arbitrarily inflicted on the artist for even daring to challenge the status quo.

Is there any fear of writing in Singapore? There are two categories of fear. There is the fear of losing x or of suffering y. Of losing our job, of losing our standing, of losing our freedom, of suffering funding cuts, of not getting a scholarship, of not getting that promotion, of not getting into university or of our children not getting into university, of getting red-flagged or black-listed, of being censored, of being censured, of getting into any kind of small mess and inconvenience in our already complicated-enough lives that don’t need any more complications.

Then there is the second category of fear that both arises from and can result in the first category of fear coming true. The fear of writing, of painting, of creating, of producing, of directing, of acting, of making videos about dead people, and (these things extend beyond the field of arts to everyone) of saying you Like something such as a video about dead people that the government or the mob might not, of coming together to do things, of being seen to be doing things, of being seen to be with certain people or to have certain friends, of publishing online or in academic journals, of speaking in Hong Lim Park or in the classroom to your students or to your fellow students, of suggesting alternatives, of resisting, of expressing the precious things that are deep down inside us. This category is that of the fear of living according to what we truly believe in. It is the fear of being.

Not everyone fears everything. Not everyone has fears in the first category, fear of consequences. Furthermore, not everyone fears to do things in second category because she fears things in the first, the fear of consequences. Unfortunately, we have among ourselves precious few of these people. I don’t deign to count myself amongst them, far from it.


The forum was chaired by Janice Koh
Speakers: Ivan Heng, Alvin Tan, Robert Yeo and myself.
9 May, Sat, 4pm, at Open Stage, library@esplanade,
Synopsis: Despite our relatively brief theatre history, the Singapore stage has had no shortage of plays and performances that have courted controversy or compelled the use of the censor’s red pencil for their political content and commentary. How has political theatre in Singapore changed and developed over the years, if at all? What is the role of political plays here, and how effective or impactful have they been as a forum for reflection and transformation? What is the relationship between the artist, the State and audiences? In a place where artistic content continues to be regulated through licensing and funding, how have our theatre-makers found ways and strategies to be heard? Can art really speak truth to power? Is there a fear of writing? In a panel discussion moderated by Janice Koh, playwrights Robert Yeo and Tarn Tan How, together with theatre directors Ivan Heng and Alvin Tan, come clean on the subject.

Esplanade Studios 50 Production of ‘The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate “S” Machine’, and reading of ‘Machine’ and ‘Fear of Writing’

The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate “S” Machine

Includes interview of director Zizi Azah Bte Abdul Majid.

Cast: Crispian Chan, Dominique De Marco, Shafiqah Effandi, Gene Sha Rudyn, Prem John, Farez Najid, Rizman Putra, Lian Sutton


“Tan Tarn How’s satire Lady Of Soul still sings the Singapore blues”, by Corrie Tan, May 8, 2015, The Straits Times

“Tan Tarn How’s political play from the ’90s continues to resonate even today”, by Mayo Martin, Today, May 9, 2015

Machine and Fear of Writing

Directed by Goh Boon Teck.

Cast: Andrew Lua, Terence Tay, Amanda Tee & Zee Wong

Courtesy Zee Wong

Courtesy Goh Boon Teck

Photo courtesy of Andrew Lua

Machine by Orangedot Productions


by Orangedot Productions
Co-produced by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Date  18 Jul 2013, Thu – 20 Jul 2013, Sat
Time  8pm (1hr 40mins, no intermission)

Appliance repairmen Rex and Heng turn up at the home of two listless friends Lina and Kim, and proceed to “fix the washing machine”. But things are not what they seem as a spiral of events soon leads the four into the uncharted territory of the heart.

Performed by up and coming actors, Julian Low, Eden Ang, Oon Shu An and Seong Hui Xuan, this chilling production takes a hard look at love, sex and romance, and explores the timeless theme of predator and prey in the need-want-desire game of relationships.

Written by Tan Tarn How, who won Best Script with this play in the 3rd DBS Life! Theatre Awards in 2003, and directed by Jeremiah Choy, who was nominated for Best Director for Machine in the same Awards.

Watch interviews with the director and cast here.

(This post is backdated.)

Fear of Writing: The smell speech

Actor (as Writer): I once lived in a place which was almost perfect. It was beautiful in many ways. It was safe and clean. People were nice and polite. All the services one could want were a handy distance away. I had a nice job. The only problem was there was a faint almost imperceptible smell hanging in the air all the time. It was just the slightest hint of an odour, actually, always wavering just below or just above the limits of my ability to sense it, so sometimes I could smell it for sure, however weak, and sometimes I could almost not smell it, if you get what I mean, so I couldn’t tell whether the smell that I couldn’t smell was there or not, or was just a trick of my memory or mind. I don’t know if I am making sense in saying that something can be utterly subtle but also blindingly evident at the same time.

The smell was of rotting flesh. It made me want to throw up. It was repulsive, when you think about it, especially when you try to imagine its source.At first, I thought it was just me, that perhaps there was something wrong with me, with my nose. I even thought that perhaps I was the source of the smell, and at one time, I took out all my belongings and started sniffing them one by one. And I turned my house inside out, looking for some dead, slow decomposing animal. And, of course, I sniffed my body, very intently, very hard. But there was nothing that suggested that any of these things was the source.

At first it seemed to be just me. No one seemed to be noticing it. I scanned the newspapers, but there was nothing written about a strange smell going round. I thought I was going crazy. But then I started to notice that a few people also seemed to be suffering the same problem. I would for instance catch a person taking a deep breath for no reason, with a puzzled look on their faces, and then doing it again, as if trying to catch hold of some shadow in the air that they were not sure was there at all. I caught a few people sniffing themselves. Or looking at people near them with their noses crinkled, wondering whether to stop breathing so as to end the horrible smell or to breathe in harder to see if it was really there and coming from someone.

They were the exceptions. I never dared or thought to ask any of them if they were experiencing the same thing as me. I was too frightened to find out either way. These people as I said were rare. But they proved to me that the smell was not the creation of my imagination but a fact. Most people went on with their lives totally oblivious to the odour of decaying meat that pervaded the air.

What had made them immune? Were they the lucky ones to not notice the reality? Or were they pitiable in not even knowing that they were constantly steeped in this putrid vapour that hung about them all the time like an invisible blight? I, of course, was otherwise so comfortable that I didn’t think of leaving. And I think that was also true of all those who were like me.

Later when I left the place because of circumstances outside my control, I thought about the nature of imperfection. There is first the imperfection of the material, and it seems to me that these can be tolerated. A television that does not give a perfect picture, or clothes that are less than totally fitting, a car that makes a rattling noise. Then there is the imperfection of the spiritual. And it seems to me that such imperfections, no matter how small are intolerable. That is, we would be less human if we see these imperfections and do nothing about them.

After I left that place of the rotting flesh, I also thought hard about those people who could not detect what was at certain times so obvious, no matter how faint. What had made them lose their ability to smell? Or what had made them unable to smell it in the first place? And again I go back to the question of what it is to be human, truly, fully human.

Fear of Writing by Tan Tarn How is published by Epigram Books.

Get your copy at Select BooksKinokuniya or other good bookstores.