Per aspera ad astra
By Toh Hsien Min
In successive months in the middle of this year, the citizens of an island country looked forward to the outcome of a voting process that had the potential to change the lives of those concerned. Some thought the outcome, due towards the end of the month, would be predictable; others disagreed, saying that margins were tight and it was not clear which way the decision would go. When the result became known, there was only unhappiness, for everyone with a stake in the matter thought that the outcome was, clearly, wrong.
The first event was the ill-judged June referendum in the UK over its membership of the European Union, where the winner's curse can be seen in the rapid spawning of the word 'Regrexit' after 'Brexit'. Sure, there may be societal challenges from greater integration with the world, but trying to roll back globalisation is like not wanting to put in phone lines or data cables. The failure of democracy, perhaps?
The second event was the release of the inaugural Michelin Guide Singapore a little over a week ago: 20 restaurants and two hawker stalls were awarded a single Michelin star, six restaurants were awarded two stars, and a single restaurant was awarded three stars. I have yet to come across anyone who approves of the awards. Rather, I have heard plenty of complaints along the lines of: for X to get a star when Y, which is so much better, did not get one, is unjust. One punter at a weekend gathering after the announcement went as far as to say, if Michelin can get it so badly wrong here, it makes you wonder whether you can trust all their other guides. The failure of oligocracy?
To be fair, Michelin were really on a hiding to nothing here. Coming in from outside into a food-crazy, "complain king" Singapore society to pass judgement on what each Singaporean already intuitively knows the way the Frenchman knows his wines or the Malaysian official his global financial system was never going to end well. But as I listened to my friends it also became clear that there were contradictory incentives at play. The Singaporean wants his/her favourite restaurants to be recognised, but at the same time doesn't want crowds of punters, especially tourists, complicating access to those restaurants – or in the case of the hawker stalls, prolonging one-hour queues by as much again. (Yesterday a friend of mine went to Tai Hwa at 7am just to be first in line for Michelin-starred bak chor mee at 9:30am; I was the beneficiary when she woke me at 9am to ask if I wanted to dash over to Crawford Lane. I did.) The point is, in either case, there would invariably be a glass half full.
That may be the lot of a critic. There's never going to be a way to express an opinion with any significance that finds favour with everyone reading it, and yet, without people willing to step forward with their views, there may never be the necessary dialogue and self-examination that helps a community to improve itself. As such, when the Arts House asked me earlier this year if I would help out with their Young Critics Mentorship Programme, I had no hesitation. The programme is now getting into gear, the first reviews are in, and where QLRS is concerned Wei Chian has had the relative luxury (/hiding to nothing) of picking between very competitive reviews of the same book to use in this month's issue. Laura Kho's review of Marc Nair's Spomenik joins an issue that has perhaps as balanced between the creative and critical pans as we've had, and I look forward to more such critical discourse in a future that includes continued easy access to my favourite, undeservingly unstarred and already-always-full restaurant…
Which one is it? I'm not telling…QLRS Vol. 15 No. 3 Jul 2016