I have been rather quiet amidst all the frenzy of the Golden Jubilee; not because I have nothing to say but because I choose not to say. Yet, amongst all the nostalgia, amongst all the reminiscence of a good old time, and amongst all the false rhetoric of the transformation from a small fishing village to a cosmopolitan city in fifty years, I could not help but speak.
I read a recent blog post by Melody Sim, a Singapore student at the University of Manchester, who compared the situation in Manchester to Singapore, and I just had to write in response. In Manchester, she is ‘saddened by the sight of homeless men and women begging for spare change’; her enjoyment of the vibrant city life is ‘tainted by the ugly streets plastered with splotches of unwanted gum’; after daylight, she jumps ‘at every alarming sound that could possibly have been a gunshot or a violent attack’; and she runs to the bus stops on Sunday mornings ‘hoping and praying that [she] didn’t missed [sic] the bus (for [she] would never know when the next one would come’. In Singapore, however, she ‘would rarely – if not, never – experience’ any of these things.
I study in Manchester. I’ve been in Manchester for the past 4 years and will still be here for at least 4 more. Whilst it is true that the streets are not clean from gum splotches, and whilst there are homeless people sat by the cash points, I have never run for a bus throughout my years in Manchester. The transport system in Manchester is one of the most punctual and the Wilmslow Road bus corridor has often been touted as the busiest bus route in the whole of Europe. In other words, if I miss a bus, because of my own tardiness, I’ll just have to wait for a few minutes before the next one comes. I have also never felt threatened walking around Manchester in the middle of the night (even on the notorious Moss Side, and even that unfair impression of Moss Side is changing) and have, on multiple occasions, consciously decided to take a walk late at night because it gives me space to think.
Yet, this is not to discount Sim’s personal experiences in Manchester, but my point is that your personal experiences – as with mine – do not really count as a comprehensive understanding of the situation in Manchester. The homeless resistance camp that have been protesting the government’s austerity measures have recently been evicted from the Manchester city centre, and maybe to Sim, they may be upsetting for it reminds her of the state of the homeless situation in Manchester. It’s sad, but it’s also kind of like a performance, a performance of resistance that brings their individual narratives to fore. Each individual has a story to tell, and we are invited to hear them.
With a single stroke however, Sim waves away the hidden in Singapore, and rehashes Singapore’s success story, a story with a very specific narrative where the poor do not exist. Kishore Mahbubani writes that in Singapore there ‘are no homeless, destitute or starving people’. He elaborates: ‘Poverty has been eradicated, not through an entitlements program (there are virtually none) but through a unique partnership between the government, corporate citizens, self-help groups and voluntary initiatives’. Yet, what do we say of the people who sell packets of tissue in order to make ends meet, or what about the elderlies who collect cardboard boxes under the unbearable heat (not forgetting the statement made by the Minister of Family Development, suggesting that they are doing it as a form of exercise), and what do we make of the government’s refusal to define a poverty line in Singapore?
Or what do we think of the Media Development Authority’s decision to impose 27 cuts on Royston Tan’s 15 (2003). When asked on how he felt about the demand, Tan suggested:
[A] lot of film-makers feel that locally made films are treated more severely by the authorities than foreign film: Irréversibly, for instance, was passed uncut […] I think it has to do with a perceived need to protect the way Singapore is seen internationally. We didn’t have any problems with the short, but as soon as the BBC and CBB ran stories on the feature, the censors acted. (Tan in Bell 2005)
Or when Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, With Love (2013) is refused a media rating and public exhibition, because it tells a wrong version of Singapore’s history? How do we make sense of it? Why are certain stories more worthy of telling than other stories? What makes a story right when the other stories aren’t actually heard?
I am aware of what the PAP has done to bring Singapore to the state of economic success in 50 years, and I am thankful for that. But I don’t think it’s about being grateful anymore. Gratitude binds you to the past. It doesn’t allow you to move on.
Come election time, I will be going down to London to cast my vote and no, I will not be voting for the mainstream party because I refuse to have a narrative that only perpetuates success and rejects failure. I refuse to have a parliament where there are only 7 elected voices to tell a different story. A parliament should represent the people, and a parliament should tell all the stories of the people.
And even if the party I vote for do not win – and it most probably won’t, considering I belong the Prime Minister’s constituency – I would have attempted to make my voice heard; my narrative is as important as yours. We need to stop making empty comparisons with other countries. Instead, we should look at ourselves, and ask: “Well, that was great but now what? How can we be better?”
Bell, James, 2005. ‘Singing for the Censors’, in Sight and Sound 15: 2, p. 6.