Friday, February 12, 2010

Form is not enough, a city needs depth

Feb 11, 2010

By Lee Huay Leng

I WAS invited by the West China Metropolis Daily to a media forum in Chengdu. I listened to media experts from Sichuan and senior management from metropolitan newspapers from all over China talk about their experiences and views.

When I left, it was not just their thoughts on the future of China's metro newspapers that I took with me. On the plane, carrying a few current affairs magazines that I had bought at the news-stand, I thought of the exchanges I had had, and felt invigorated and fulfilled. Then, as my thoughts turned to my journey home, I realised that beneath this feeling of invigoration and fulfilment lay a sense of loneliness. This is the feeling I get every time I leave Beijing for home: I am filled yet empty at the same time.

Never mind the inadequacy of China's infrastructure, its polluted air, the congested city traffic, and the shock of seeing well-dressed young Chinese spit on the ground.

China is not my country, and therefore my expectations of it are not the same as my expectations of Singapore. However, I am not someone who defines her existence with reference only to material things.

China's media is indeed controlled. But because of its strong and deep culture, as well as its huge pool of active intelligentsia, the moment there is a let-up in the controls, I can see how, despite the restrictions, the Chinese are taking to thinking and creating and forging their character in a difficult environment.

Theirs is a one-party state. But to be fair, nowadays one can find all types of books, newspapers and magazines on the news-stands, and a wide variety of theatre productions. Even cafes, teahouses and restaurants offer a diversity of tastes and flavours.

What is more, all this is not detached from the lives of the ordinary people. As we go to the market, take the trains or buses or simply walk along the road, the sights and sounds that all of us take in are the same.

I think very often of London too, although I stayed there for less than a year. I remember a snowy day in April. The cars along the road were covered with a blanket of melting grey snow. It was not at all snowy white.

I was not in good health during my stay in London and got to know the public health system quite well as a result. I was supposed to have one last physiotherapy session before leaving London, but right up to the last moment I could not get an appointment. The administrative staff I came across, whether at the university or the bank, were friendly but, I must say, inefficient.

I would walk out of the subway at night and pass staggering Londoners in a state of drunken stupor. But this did not prevent me from taking a liking to browsing through the newspapers and magazines in London's convenience stores. One could pick up anything one liked, whether it be The Sun, The Guardian with its interesting content and attractive layout, the Times Literary Supplement or The Economist.

The seats in the subway always felt like there was a thick layer of dust on them. Yet it was common to see passengers reading in their seats.

London's swanky fashion stores had their own way of displaying fashion; London's popular culture had its own history and depth. And of course, there was the BBC, a broadcaster that did not assume its audience was daft.

The cities that I miss are not perfect; indeed, they display no sign of intending to seek perfection. Behind their vibrancy and wealth is the depth of their cultures. Depth is something accumulated, not drawn up in a plan. In their formative years, did their governments outline any vision?

What was planned, I suppose, was their infrastructure, including transport systems. And they do have robust economic and financial activities.

Sometimes, Chang'an of the Tang dynasty - a city where talents congregated - comes to mind. I remember what my teacher taught me about the Tang dynasty at the zenith of its power. Looking back in history, Chang'an was already a full-fledged cosmopolitan city. But how did it get there in the first place? Let's suppose the government at that time did provide strong planning and drove the development. But still, how did it drive the most important element of a cosmopolitan city - the vibrancy of the people?

The island-state of Singapore has always been fixated on making itself a global city and a Renaissance city. I have in fact always held high hopes with regard to these propositions.

But in the past, reports of this kind always gave one the feeling that Singapore is playing the role of a cultural intermediary, with its willingness to build pretty showcases to display the products of others, and its supposition that culture is an embellishment of economic success. Thus, the country directed its efforts into building theatres, refurbishing old buildings, promoting branding and advertising itself in tourist pamphlets.

Although more recent reports on this front are still framed by culture as a constituent part of economic strategy, at least the reports no longer dwell on how many percentage points creative industries can contribute to economic growth. Rather, they focus on creating a 'soft' environment to vitalise the economy.

It is essentially still an economic strategy that is put forth, with planners employing the set mode of thinking prevalent in this country. It is still about setting measurable indicators and meeting numerical targets - for example, getting a certain number of world-class institutions into Singapore.

But there is no escaping the question of atmosphere, which is something that cannot be seen. It is true that low taxes and comfortable surroundings can attract foreign investment and talent. However, to persuade those who want to go abroad to stay in Singapore to pursue their studies, not only must there be academic freedom, there should also be freedom of thought and expression, as well as respect for knowledge and culture. There are ways to make talent stay, and it is not just about letting them think that it is easy to leave.

In the last 20 years, the cultural environment in this country has indeed changed. Many of Singapore's detractors in the Western media have come to praise it for the excitement that can now be found here.

It is true that we are consciously making an effort to change and this is something that should be affirmed - for example, having an arts school in the heart of the city was something I could never have imagined possible when I was a student. But after the euphoria, the country still has to continue with its soul-searching.

Besides form, is the country also sufficiently seeking depth? Are the officials who drive and implement cultural policies, including those who actually execute them, open-minded enough? Do they have adequate professional knowledge and are they steeped in culture?

In measuring their performance, do we bid them look at figures, the level of activities and the technical skills, or do we allow them to look at the arts scene as a whole, consider the big picture and take a long-term view? How the officials see things will determine how the arts sector gets its funding, how it will follow the lead of the authorities and how it will work with them.

During my flight home, I flipped through the pages of the magazines I had bought and looked at the notes I had made in Chengdu. The mass media industry really is the most direct and fastest way to get a sense of the level of thinking in a society.

Being able to go online wirelessly, and being able to watch cable television - these have nothing to do with our level of thinking. The strength of this island- state lies in its ability to employ new technology to connect to the world and circumvent its own weaknesses. This in fact deepened my sense of loneliness at the thought of going home.

The writer is Lianhe Zaobao's Senior Executive Editor. This article first appeared in Zaobao Sunday on Feb 7.

[I can't say as I fully understand what he is going on about. Perhaps I have no depth. But he says it with honesty and conviction so I'll try to understand it. Perhaps he means the cities he misses has a certain gravitas or age, or even identity. Perhaps what he (or she? I cannot be sure) means is that Singapore lacks historic sense. But even LKY agrees that Singapore has not arrived. We are a nation in transition. We may have the trappings of of a civilisation, but we do not have a vibrant, robust, and deep-rooted culture. But perhaps instead of moaning what we do not have, we should consider what we do have and what we can do with the opportunity to be at the birth of a city. Did the early inhabitants of a fledgling London know what their city will become? Did the early city planners planned for the future or just the immediate needs of the citizens? Did they make mistakes?]

No comments: