Tales of the City
Singapore is a postmodern state. Discuss.
By Jeremy Tiang
This collection of essays has the alarmingly ambitious agenda of delineating ‘the condition of the postmodern in Singapore today.’ Editor William Lim acknowledges the difficulty of this undertaking, as ‘the word postmodernity displays a diversity of meanings, particularly when it is applied over several decades in various academic disciplines from art and literature to cultural studies, architecture and urbanism’.
This ambiguity allows the contributors to take pretty much any approach they wish regarding their subject. John Phillips’s angle in his essay on ‘what can a local writer do today?’ appears to be that anything goes. ‘The what would not indicate what writers are supposed to do,’ he says, sounding like a character in a David Lodge novel. ‘Nor would it indicate what writers actually do. [...] The what indicates, solely in the provisional register, what a writer can do.’ Well, yes. And when he goes on to argue that Tunku Halim’s Vermillion Eye – a pulp novel about a Vietnamese prostitute named Cindy Sweet – is a sophisticated ‘meta-narrative’ with overtones of Dostoevsky, one suspects Prof Phillips of pulling a huge postmodern joke.
Other essays are thankfully more sane, if self-consciously quirky. Bobby Wong’s piece on architect and artist Tang Guan Bee takes the form of an interview quoted almost verbatim (it begins, ‘Hi, Guan Bee, sorry for being late’ and includes lines like ‘Come, come, let’s not get neurotic about it’) in which Tang refers to himself as ‘a Modern poh piah man in a postmodernist world.’ Prof Wong’s other essay in this collection is entitled ‘A Few Good Men and their Phallic Jet Stream’, for no clear reason (to this reviewer). Irritating title aside, it is a fairly readable account of Fredric Jameson’s view of postmodernism as applied to Singapore, along with a rebuttal of Jameson and Koolhaas as over-simplifying the island’s situation.
Perhaps the most bizarre item is ‘The City Remembers’, consisting as it does of images by Brian Gothong Tan – largely of naked men roaming the streets – with accompanying text by Alfian bin Sa’at, who adopts the voices of elements of the urban landscape. A typical example is a traffic light telling a pedestrian, ‘I cannot tell you which way is the right way.’ Postmodernism, one feels, should consist of more than extreme weirdness.
A couple of writers attempt the strategy of applying postmodernism in sociological studies. Ilsa Sharp’s piece on the role of the expat in today’s society is very good indeed, but one takes issue with her painstaking argument that ‘modern’ expats came over with the East India Company, since this heralded the beginning of ‘modern’ Singapore, and therefore, that ‘postmodern’ expats are those who turned up after independence. Her essay is an illuminating study of the ambiguous concept of ‘being Singaporean’ as opposed to the statelessness of the expat, but her insistence on referring everything back to postmodernism feels tacked on for the purpose of inclusion in the book. Similarly, Constance Singam’s piece on Singaporean women is interesting, if not entirely original, but again, one is hard-pressed to see how the situation she describes is specifically ‘postmodern’.
Geoff Malone provides an interesting survey of references to Singapore in Science Fiction and other writings, including Rem Koolhaas’s comment that Singapore ‘is managed by a regime that has excluded accident and randomness’ – a degree of control at odds with the freedom from restraint that postmodernism embraces. Malone’s solution to this is the establishment of a ‘Zone of Chaos’, a seam of creativity beneath the ordered existence immortalised in such works as Bruce Sterling’s Islands In The Net.
Rajeev Patke also takes literature as his starting point, searching for postmodernism amongst Singapore poets. As almost all his examples come from the anthology No Other City, however, his view seems somewhat circumscribed, and comes with an annoying amount of jargon and awkward constructions (e.g. ‘a delusion of liminality’). Sharon Siddique’s argument is similarly limited, restricting herself as she does to a view of postmodernism as an engine for the opening of closed mindsets in both educators and employers.
As one would expect from a collection edited by an architect, the most interesting essays in this collection deal with the urban landscape. Ho Weng Hin produces a fascinating study of the Bugis Street area, especially the diminished, sanitized reconstruction of demolished shophouses that is Bugis Village. The banished streetside stalls have simply re-appeared round the corner, suggesting ‘to one’s somewhat perverse delight’ that people will claim their own space, whatever the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has in mind. Ho’s main point is a good one – that society’s collective memory of a place is as much a part of its identity as its current appearance and use, and the accompanying photographs by Tan Kar Lin offer an unusual perspective of the area.
Architect Robert Powell wanders across the face of Singapore, offering postmodern readings in passing. Like Ho, he notes the natural resistance to the excessively planned landscape – in particular the resilience of Thieves’ Market at Sungei Road, which survives all attempts by the Ministry of the Environment to clean it up – but also how this highly structured landscape reflects the state of our society. He tends to assume familiarity on the part of the reader with the structures he mentions, which can be annoying – Eastpoint Shopping Centre is described as having a ‘“dirty realism” in its overall ambience and character’, with no explanation of how it differs from any other mall, leaving us intrigued until our next trip to Simei. Powell makes no attempt to connect the various fragments of his study, claiming in his defence that linear progression has been superseded by ‘lateral leaps’ – ‘everything existed at once.’
This lack of connection is something the essay shares with the collection, in a microcosm-macrocosm way that is no doubt very postmodern. Most of the writers have clearly read the set texts on postmodernism – Koolhaas, Jameson et al. – but there is not a lot of coherence in the way they apply them to Singapore. The book as a whole feels shoddily put together – appearing reasonably substantial at first, it turns out to consist largely of wide margins and small black and white images taking up entire pages. Worse, there are an appalling number of typographical idiosyncrasies and errors, so that there are annoying infelicities like ‘a cultural vandalism’ or ‘kindz’, or a reference to an American writer called ‘Toni Morison’.
Postmodern Singapore is a mixed bag, interesting in places and stilted in others. By failing to define postmodernism as a concept more carefully, the editor has set himself up for a fall, as the book as a whole simply does not hang together, with each writer claiming their own sets of attributes for postmodernism – or at worst, insisting that as we live in a postmodern age, every aspect of urban life today must by definition be postmodern. It is worth reading for its many provoking viewpoints, which are often both well-thought-out and well-expressed, but anyone hoping for a definitive work will be disappointed, and appropriately so, as the lack of coherence in this collection is itself very postmodern.QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002