Singapore: Kenneth Paul Tan would be considered a liberal intellectual anywhere in the world, but in Singapore he stands out even more so as the city-state has been known to view outspoken writers and thinkers like Tan with some suspicion.
However, this 42-year-old academic, author, political and cultural theorist has learnt the fine art of being thoughtfully critical and complementary in the same breath—whether he is speaking in the classroom or in his writing—about the politics, society, and culture of Singapore.
He has mastered the art of speaking truth to power, but in the role of a constructive critic and an active political citizen, who strives for a “more confident and cosmopolitan nation".
Tan parses his words carefully, but not enough to dull their edge or subvert an “inconvenient truth". He is always game for an “open, honest conversation" if it serves the cause of a more progressive society.
He is described by some as a unique combination of “a cosmopolite left-leaning thinker, who can challenge the status quo, while at the same time remain a loyal, responsible citizen".
Tan is given enough public space, and even encouraged, to play this role.
He is the ultimate outsider-insider. Today, he is the vice-dean (academic affairs) and associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, where he has taught since 2007.
Tan—who completed his PhD in social and political sciences at Cambridge University—has received more than 10 teaching awards, including the “Outstanding Educator Award", the most prestigious teaching honour bestowed by the university.
His peers call him “a gentleman scholar as well as a bold intellectual" who is very conscious of how he is communicating to the varied stakeholders on important and sensitive matters.
He is deemed to be someone who is both very accomplished and humble and the very model of a new breed of a “modern university leader".
Tan has also been consistently rated by his students for nearly a decade as being one of the most “brilliant, creative and open-minded teachers".
A lot of them don’t come to Singapore expecting a candid voice like Tan and are pleasantly surprised.
He lectures and writes prolifically on issues such as liberalization, democracy, civil society, race, gender and sexuality. Tan has authored two books: Renaissance Singapore? Economy, Culture, and Politics, and Cinema and Television in Singapore: Resistance in One Dimension.
In his own way, he is pushing the boundaries to further open the space for public discourse in Singapore for “better outcomes for all".
Tan has written about the “crisis, self-reflection, and rebirth in Singapore’s national life cycle" and on the “new politics for a renaissance city".
There is also now a large and steadily growing body of writing on his special œuvre about nurturing creativity in Asian cities through an emphasis on film, television and popular culture.
Tan is an outspoken supporter of the arts and a firm believer in the critical role it plays in shaping a progressive and self-reflective society.
He is a member of the National Arts Council in Singapore and sits on the committee of “Our Singapore Conversation", a year-long national-level public engagement exercise that began in 2012. He also sits on the board of directors of one of Singapore’s most cutting-edge theatre companies, The Necessary Stage.
Through all these platforms, Tan is subtly shaping the national discourse on arts, politics and culture to “widen the existing space" for multiple voices to be heard, some of whom may be fringe and even radical.
Many say that intellectuals like Tan represent the new face of Singapore and are being carefully nurtured to help the city-state move to its next life cycle of a global, liberal, cosmopolitan city that values the arts as much as its politics.
Tan will be the first person to acknowledge how far his country has come in this regard and is optimistic about its future.
You have taught and written extensively about politics, art, and popular culture in Singapore. Tell us about this intertwining journey and how it played out in the early days?
Singapore has come a full circle today. It was quite vibrant culturally in terms of cinema and theatre in the era of post 1945-1960. We were a huge producer of Malay films and many Chinese language films as well. Singapore was considered to be truly cosmopolitan then, and we were bringing in some very talented film-makers from India and South-East Asia.
Then, after Independence, and PAP’s (People’s Action Party’s) coming to power, the prime agenda of the nation was development. Films and cultural spaces were deemed good to have, but less important for economic advancement. So Singapore’s golden age of film-making was neglected and fell by the wayside.
Still, the arts were not absent from the government’s development plan because the arts were also seen as potentially dangerous as it could be subversive. It was closely monitored at the time as many of the theatre practitioners were taking inspiration from Communist China. We were a little nervous about that kind of development.
This led to some censorship and the arrest of theatre personalities that were considered politically disruptive. But what is interesting to note is that some of the same people in the arts, who were considered dangerous, were then awarded medals in the ’80s and ’90s by the government (which) then made a deliberate choice to recognize their talent.
Why do you think this unusual trend happened, of first arresting and then celebrating some of the same artists?
Arts became economically important in the late ’80s and ’90s as Singapore sought to compete with Hong Kong and other global cities to attract talent. It then decided to do everything it could in terms of changing its policies to encourage art and artists.
Kuo Pao Kun, the famous playwright, theatre-director, art-activist is a classic example of a radical left-wing theatre practitioner, who was arrested in the ’70s for alleged communist insurgency, was then awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1990 for his contributions to Singapore theatre.
There was a realization then that arts and political edginess were very important to make Singapore an exciting place. For economic reasons, it needed to be a global city and creativity would begin to play a significant role for growth.
But the problem was that with so many years of authoritarianism rule and clamp-down on artists, we had all the money to build the infrastructure, but where were the stories, imagination, and out-of-the-box thinking going to come from?
So these softer elements as active promotion and study of the arts, seen as unimportant and secondary to economic growth, and even dangerous politically, started to be rehabilitated by the government. The Economic Development Board pumped in a lot of money to revive the film industry in Singapore, and arts then became an economic commodity.
So how did Singapore, starting with the ’90s, lay down policies to become the culturally vibrant and cosmopolitan country that it has evolved into today?
There was a significant re-branding of Singapore as an international city with a vibrant arts culture, starting with the ’90s.
The projection of soft power was systematically designed by the government to add another dimension to the value proposition of this country. It wanted to shed the dominant and somewhat boring image of the time of being just a safe, clean, green and efficient city to live in, and an attempt was made to sculpt a more creative and open face.
This then really accelerated in the last 15 years, where the policy was geared at attracting not just foreign investors but also foreign talent. The arts and tourism were considered a great vehicle to achieve this transformation.
We are also now actively trying to preserve our heritage and revive our cultural roots. While in the past, there was demolition in pursuit of the new—we were building theme parks over old historic neighbourhoods; now there is greater awareness and sensitivity about these spaces and what critical role they play in preserving our identity and national consciousness. This all adds to the appeal of Singapore as a dynamic, creative city that is constantly opening up and evolving for the better.
Do you envision a more democratic space for media in Singapore in the near future?
There is probably more space for mainstream media today than ever before, although some of the established boundaries still remain. Now you see many articles and letters to the editor that don’t necessarily reflect the establishment view. Social media also presents an open challenge to traditional media and, hence, it has to adapt accordingly to remain commercially viable. So some of the more “unconventional bloggers" have been co-opted by the traditional media to make for edgy reading and inclusion of different points of view. These are positive trends and you will see more of it in the future.
How is the civil society space expanding in Singapore?
There are many types of civil society structures in Singapore. One which is supported actively by the state like voluntary welfare and grassroots organizations who are offered a lot of space, staff and resources by the government to do their work. On the other hand, Singapore also has a more independent civil society that is not dependent on the state for funding. They pursue interests that may be neglected by the state and they fill in the gap and advocate for more attention in these areas. In the ’80s, for example, there were women’s groups, race and religion groups who were independent. More recently, there are groups that are advocating for migrant workers’ well-being and rights, and groups campaigning for economic equality and gay rights.
What is wonderful is that the artists are active across all these platforms and are the most sophisticated in terms of being effective influencers for change. One key point to note is that in Singapore, the civil society movement—unlike in countries like India—is a subtle one. Activists often effect change from behind the doors, and operate under the radar; sometimes they even give state the credit for their good work. On its part, the state has started to encourage this space, too, as it recognizes that a constructive civil society can be an active partner for nation building.
How does the new generation of film-makers here, which is being globally recognized, embody a more politically open Singapore?
I think this is a very exciting and encouraging time for young film-makers. Movies like Ilo Ilo and Sandcastle, made by third-generation film-makers, better reflect the reality and complexity of Singapore’s past. Many of these young film-makers want to uncover the past in a more complete manner and are very sensitive and aware about how in some ways it has been whitewashed. They recognize that there are also losers in our history whose complex and interesting stories need to be told.
What is your view about the issue of identity in Singapore that is constantly debated?
This is an evolving debate and a healthy discussion to have, although it can never really be fully settled. I would, in fact, be really terrified about a society where identity has been settled. The government is actively partnering with the citizens to engage on what issues of identity really matter to its citizens, and how it can be preserved, enhanced or developed. It is also increasingly becoming sensitive to the fact that in a maturing society, people don’t want to be told what to think and how to feel.
What is your view of Singapore’s journey, in opening itself up for promoting arts and artists in the last decade?
I believe Singapore has come a long way in terms of being a more open space for artists, journalists, writers and the civil society, and will hopefully continue on this positive trajectory of being a more tolerant and pluralistic society that accommodates multiple perspectives without losing its strong foundational core. Some of this has already happened and I hope to see more of it in the near future.