On the exercise of perspective on empathy
By Toh Hsien Min
I've written about calamitous world events only too often in this column, but it's not only frequency fatigue and a sense of these editorials thereby becoming appropriately downbeat that made me consider this time if I wanted to write about the tsunami disaster of 26 Dec 2004. Rather, it was a nagging suspicion of some form of failure of collective human perspective that gave me doubt. I don't mean to suggest even for the slightest moment that the natural disaster was not catastrophic or worthy of the outpouring of sorrow and support from all quarters of the earth; something that strikes eleven countries spread out over several times zones and takes the lives of 175,000 people of dozens of nationalities in the space of a few hours cannot be anything but.
Credit where it's due also: the world response has been, by and large, humanely generous. For example, since the tsunami Singapore has seen the biggest public response to a crisis ever, with about SGD 15M donated by the public within the first one-and-a-half weeks, not counting contributions in kind, nor our government's pledge nor our military, medical and emergency services deployments. There are many positive things that can be read from this, e.g. that Singaporeans are very aware of their place in the region, or that Singaporeans do have a sense of empathy.
At the same time, however, one easily finds as many disparities in perspective. One oft-cited example is how the death toll from the tsunami disaster is approximately equal to the best estimates of the Iraqi (mostly civilian) death toll over the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, yet the sense of outrage amongst Singaporeans has been muted at best. The continuing genocide in Darfur, Sudan, is estimated to cost 10,000 lives a month, yet there is no public campaign in Singapore to offer aid. The difference seemed to me to consist in how the tsunami was reported (nay, even marketed) to people all around the world, in order to evoke such a response, and I wasn't sure that I wanted our voice in the woods to be part of the media flyby.
But then I changed my mind. It was in part catalysed by an unusually subtle article in Salon, in which Chinese journalist Val Wang recalls her meeting with Susan Sontag, and how their particular concerns had clashed. As Wang writes: "Susan Sontag was going to sit in a sushi restaurant in the East Village and tell me that the fate of this dinky, two-bit poet who lived most of the year in the States was more important than, say, the plight of the country's 800 million farmers? The hubris!" Yet the conclusion she draws is: "We had both been motivated by personal passions and insecurities. And that was perfectly fine." I would have gone a little further though: that there is a limit to the amount of empathy that even the most saintly human being can give. And whatever the form in which this empathy expresses itself, let us take it as a positive.
This issue of QLRS was not the easiest to put together. I had all sorts of things coming together all at once, e.g. two exams in different subjects in the space of eight days, and we continued to have occasional technical problems with our email. Although these factors stirred up more anxiety than usually accompanies the birth of each issue, I can't say the issue hasn't also come together in a nice way. The poetry in this issue seems to take on a different style than in recent issues, beginning with slightly more ambitious and less accommodating poems such as Michael Fessler's 'Poem in the Third Style' and Bridget-Rose Lee's 'In Memory of Gu Cheng's Kingdom of Daughters', and shading into a pianissimo interior landscape of poems such as Catherine Baab's 'Say, to Pennsylvania' and Rachel Curzon's 'Here is nothing'. Rachel also contributes a short story, separately chosen by Kai Chai. In the course of his review of idea to ideal Leonard Ng asks what kind of critical thought our literary scene should be developing, while Richard Lord again seeks to place Singapore theatre in the context of its own particular obsessions. There is something in all of this of our own personal passions and insecurities. Maybe that's what makes this issue perfectly fine. Maybe that's what makes our flawed, splintered and yet shared humanity quite as rich and resilient as it is.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 2 Jan 2005
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