Sir Ian McKellen

There is an article on Sir Ian McKellen in the Aug 27th New Yorker. Wo insight into his life.

Made me think about a couple of things:

  1. The Singapore audience

I watched Sir Ian in two shows last month, at our very own Esplanade—King Lear and Seagulls. Was blown away. Not just by Magneto (although he was spectacular). But by the whole production. All the actors, the set, the sounds, everything. Very happy that such top-notch productions are finding their way to Singapore.

A British colleague of mine was very upset with the audience, however. She lamented the inappropriate laughter at inopportune times (e.g. when King Lear was visibly going mad, a sorry scene about an old man’s dementia). That left a sour taste in her mouth. She said that she felt like going to each actor backstage and apologising to them.

So, I was somewhat surprised to read Sir Ian’s own glowing review of our audience. In his words, “Singapore was a wow—full houses and standing ovations”.

Hmmm, no mention of annoying laughter. Maybe we weren’t so bad, after all.

  1. Homosexuality

Sir Ian’s struggle with his sexuality is discussed frequently in the article. What I found interesting is that he only ‘came out’ in Britain in 1988, amidst a dominant British climate of gay intolerance. Today, much progress has been made in Britain on the front: gays in the military, an equal age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals, civil partnership. Sir Ian is an active gay-rights campaigner.

But what struck me was that it was less than 20 years ago that he had the nerve to come out in Britain. Very recent. Societal acceptance of homosexuality in Britain, the US, and many parts of the West is a fairly new thing. And even then, not everybody has accepted it. For every San Franciscan hippie, there is a right-wing, God-fearing member of the Christian Army in the South, denouncing sexual liberalism.

Singapore’s relationship with homosexuals has been uncomfortable, to say the least. There is still legislation banning homosexuality in our country. Senior politicians in our country have been unclear on the issue—on some occasions arguing that gays should have rights, on others asserting that the law shouldn’t be changed. And there is a suspicion that the government cosies up to gays not out of respect for their rights, but out of love for their ‘pink dollar’. One month we permit a gay activity, the next we clamp down on an innocuous ‘gay run’. In this uncertain climate, it must be difficult to feel free as a homosexual in Singapore.

My sense is that there is a lot more homophobia in Singapore than we care to admit. When I was in (all-boys) secondary school, from 1990-1993, I was surrounded by homophobes. Some students I knew would take great pride in beating up gays. The rest of us listened to their stories, non-plussed. In Army, homophobia was rampant. When I left Singapore for California in 1999, I was a homophobe.

Four years in Berkeley changed that. Living and studying in the midst of homosexuals changed my (horribly biased) perception of them. I now have gay friends and colleagues. And am the happier for it. Am a more well-rounded person for it.

However, while I had become accepting of homosexuality, many of my old friends had not. Lots of them harbour homophobic tendencies. Some show it, others don’t.

And even though they may not be outright homophobes, a lot of people in Singapore I chat to—young and old, religious and secular—have reservations about gay rights. For many of them, these are core worldview beliefs that may take some time to change.

So, while many liberals in Singapore go on about the slow pace of change here vis-à-vis gay rights, when I compare it to supposedly liberal societies having only recently become gay-friendly, I actually think we’re doing ok. I don’t mean to condone homophobia, or anti-gay legislation in any way, which is outright bigotry.

But I do think that some people will take a lot longer to come round than others. Blasting their draconian views won’t always work. Sometimes it might. It’s a delicate game.

I think that although there is still a long way to go, gays in Singapore should also be proud of how far we’ve come. Just think–in 1993, there was still active entrapment of gays by Singapore policemen, posing as would-be lovers.

I’m happy that Sir Ian spoke out for gays when he was here. His words should influence many.

wednesday i’m no love

I saw the Cure two weeks ago, at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. We had managed to get fantastic seats, front row of our section, a mere six feet from the poor sods in front who had paid $50 more.

They started playing at about 8.30, and we were in heaven, dancing and yelling and having a ball and a blast and the time of our lives. It didn’t take us long to piss off some people.

“Could you please sit down” was the nicest comment from behind. As the four of us kept rocking away, some of the unfortunate seat-bound tried appealing to the girls in our group, “Can you get them to sit down???” To no avail.

As the expletives started flying, we got increasingly annoyed, and so I turned around and cried, “It’s the Cure for godsake. It’s a rock concert! Are you going to be sitting the entire time??!!??”

They were.

Finally, some smart ass behind us did the sneaky thing and alerted one of the pseudo security guards/ ushers to our misbehaviour (standing and partying at a Cure concert). A sorry youngster half our size came screaming down the stairs and started yelping at us. Not wanting to cause any more of a scene, we sat down.

After about 20mins of listening to the Cure while seated, we had had enough. I climbed to the top of the stairs, and started dancing there, a long way off from our prized seats, which remained empty the rest of the show.

From above, peering down on the Singaporean audience, I felt sorry for Robert Smith and gang. These legends had flown all the way only to be faced with an audience that was sitting down and bobbing their heads up and down. Even the crowd in the pit was more interested in their latest digicam-phone than in the band.

I told a friend, “If you just looked at the crowd, you’d think you were at a jazz concert!”

“Are you kidding? More like an opera!”

(second friend) “No way. This is like a bloody funeral….”

At that moment, I was really pissed. But on the other hand, everybody behind us must have also thought we were real jack-asses for blocking their view. Who is right? I don’t really know…I mean, we felt it ludicrous not to stand at a rock concert. But they thought that the proper thing to do was sit, listen and appreciate. And we certainly weren’t going to change their minds that night…

But it’s a great metaphor, no? –

In any society, there are people who might stand and block the view of others because they think it’s the right thing to do.

Those who are blocked can either stand up and see the difference, or remain seated and scream at the blockers.

The blockers, when screamed at, can hold their position steadfastly, even amidst a torrent of abuse.

Or they can sit back down obediently.

Or they can go right to the back, to the outskirts of the group, and do their own thing there, hoping and wishing and praying that those still seated will eventually hear the same tune, and stand up.

In Singapore, for sure, too many people are doing their own thing on the edges of society, without respect, without recognition, without reward.

I can only wonder how many more were forced to sit back down….and how many more never stood up in the first place.

We should have just bought the cheapest tickets.

a migration of poor standards

I’m getting a little bit tired of Indians saying how much they like my country, Singapore.

The gushing never stops. Towering buildings; glitzy shopping malls; roads without potholes; clean, drinking water; spotless streets; safe neighbourhoods; efficient administration; incorruptible government; gateway to the world; ….they could go on forever.

(Every now and then, one of them questions the lack of genuine democracy here, while yearning for the chaos of Indian coffeeshop chatter and multiparty elections. But only for a moment.)

So, Indians love Singapore. Accountants, bankers, engineers, IT guys—no matter. They all love Singapore so much.

But what’s wrong with that? Well, I was particularly irked by a comment from a very senior Indian banker (so much so that I decided to write all this).

He said, “I don’t understand why you Singaporeans keep complaining about your Ministers’ salaries. After all, they deserve it—they do such a fantastic job! Look how well your country is run! You have no idea what corrupt government is. You have no experience of a fat, inefficient, bureaucratic administration, like we do in India. If you knew what that was like, you’d have no problems paying these guys their multi-million dollar salaries. What’s an extra million or two, after all?”

Indians love Singapore so much because they keep comparing our country to theirs. Many of them feel that we Singaporeans are ungrateful and spoilt—we’ve had it so good for so long, we know not what real hardship is.

There may be some truth to that, but I’m actually fed up with this general line of reasoning, because

1) Why are we comparing ourselves to India?

There are several different groups of people who enjoy comparing Singapore to countries clearly worse off than us. Our politicians; our neutered media channels; well-off Singaporeans who have succeeded here; and foreigners (like the Indians).

Perhaps sometimes there is reason to compare and reflect on our successes, but there’s a bit too much of that going on. In order to progress, we should be engaging in upward comparison, not downward comparison.

In other words, we should not be asking
“How did Singapore succeed economically where so many other poor countries have failed?”

But instead, we should be asking
“How come there are other countries that are more developed politically, socially and economically than Singapore? What did they do right? How do we get there?”

2) Do expatriates really know what’s going on?

My Indian banker friend may not think an extra million or two is much. But not everybody is in his shoes. There are plenty of Singaporeans who are finding it tough to keep up. The bottom 30% of households has actually seen their real income drop over the past 7 years, even as Singapore continues to grow millionaires at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world. Income inequality is rising fast.

In this climate, raising the salaries of Ministers to stratospheric levels does, for many, appear like ‘legitimised corruption’ (a term bandied around on an online discussion group, Singapore Review).

I think a premium must be paid, because that is one way to lure the best. However, the current salaries seem a bit much (average salary of government minister–US$1.25m)

Sometimes it is good to get an external perspective on things. Other times, it is misleading. When a jet-setting Indian banker makes big proclamations about Singapore, its politics and its economy, after having lived only in a bubble of expense-account French wine and company-paid luxury apartments, it smacks of bias.
(For sure, I too don’t fully understand the challenges that many of my less well-off countrymen face.)

The irony? The well-heeled, sharp-tongued banker, having lived here for 6 months, will probably get much more air time from our government and its press than the fourth-generation Singaporean single mother in a 1-room HDB flat, her everyday a struggle.

Of course, it’s not just Indians from India who say these things. People from all over the world come here and say similar things. They’re just comparing life here as they see it with life as it was from where they came…only natural.

But that shouldn’t stop us from understanding the realities of life in Singapore, and trying our best to match up (and beat) the world’s best.