Oh my God, the HEAT. I was out most of the day and ended up just sitting dazed over my dinner because it felt like my brain had melted.
If you haven't read my Altering States piece on the cost of the War on Drugs, you can catch up here.
Last week, a performance entitled Queer-tai was staged as part of the celebrations for the 10th anniversary of the Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Art (NTU CCA). The show was staged by a Intervention, a queer party collective. Low Eng Teong, the National Arts Council's CEO, attended as a guest-of-honour, and was interviewed by TODAY about the presence of queer-themed works in more mainstream and institutional spaces. Low said something about how "artists explore all types of topics and themes and issues", which is really quite a hand-wavy thing to say and didn't really express much of NAC's position other than to suggest that NAC isn't frothing-at-the-mouth scandalised about queer-themed performances existing.
But I'm guessing even that was an issue for some people, because NAC then published a press statement saying that Low's comments had been "taken out of context", claiming that Low hadn't answered TODAY's question about whether there will be more queer-themed events in mainstream/institutional spaces. The statement emphasised that "NAC would like to take the opportunity to reiterate its position that it takes a measured and calibrated approach to performances which touch on issues that are not widely accepted as the norms of our broader society, or might serve to create conflict or misunderstanding in our multicultural and multi-religious society."
TODAY stuck to its guns, and published the transcript of the short interview they'd done with Low on the sidelines. The transcript shows that it was clear that the journalist was talking about queer performances, so it was pretty disingenuous for NAC to claim that Low hadn't been talking in relation to questions about the inclusion of queer performances and was just making a broader observation. Still NAC insisted that the transcript proved that Low had been taken out of context.
Next thing you know, NTU is out there saying that Queer-tai shouldn't have been held in public and that they're going to review internal processes. Who is going to draw the short straw here? Queer artists, that's who. 😡😡😡
I thought the TODAY transcript showed that Low had been woefully unprepared to deal with such a line of questioning. Some have criticised the TODAY journalist for pushing this point, and everyone is free to form their opinion on the questions asked and why they were asked, but I feel like the bulk of the responsibility must lie with the NAC and the NTU administration for making this a thing. It wasn't the most confident or coherent of answers, but there was nothing inherently so wrong with what Low had said—artists do want to make work that speak to the times. They shouldn't have panicked and back-pedalled. And there is no reason why the NTU admin should have jumped. This is just spinelessness all 'round.
What is enough?
This past week in Parliament there was a debate about what can be considered a basic need, in the light of the latest Minimum Income Standards (MIS) report. A question was asked about whether the government will consider making adjustments to the financial assistance schemes for low-income families, or perhaps do their own research to determine a living wage. The answer from Eric Chua, the senior parliamentary secretary for social and family development, was that the Ministry for Social and Family Development already conducts reviews into the ComCare schemes to make sure that families are given enough assistance to meet their basic living needs. He argued that there were limitations to the MIS report's methodology, and that the study had gone further than the basic needs of lower-income families. He said he'd asked two single mothers living in rental flats and asked them what they thought about items like perfume, jewellery and holidays outside Singapore, and that they'd said that these items were merely "good to have". Basically, it doesn't sound like the government is very convinced by the MIS report.
First things first: what sort of life are we talking about here? Are we talking about subsistence, where we focus on making sure that people aren't starving to death on the side of the road? Is the emphasis on keeping people just above the level of destitution? Or are we interested in making sure that people can live in dignified ways that allow them to participate in society and feel included?
During the launch of this year's MIS report, both Teo You Yenn and Ng Kok Hoe made clear that the MIS research is concerned with the latter. They're interested in what people need to flourish, and not just survive. Sure, you're not going to die if you don't have perfume or some accessories. But having those things—or at least having a little bit of budget to afford such things, we're not talking about huge amounts for luxury items here—can help people feel like they are living with more dignity and agency, and are able to better participate in social activities and norms with the people around them. It's not just about financial poverty—people can also experience deprivation in terms of their spirit, their emotions and their mental health, and some of the things that might strike people as "optional" because you wouldn't die without them can actually make a big impact on how a person experiences the life that they're living.
Also, the basic needs identified by the MIS report were arrived at after extensive focus grouping with a diverse range of Singaporeans. The whole point is that it's not for elite and privileged people like the senior parliamentary secretary for social and family development—who draws a very generous MP allowance for his part-time role, by the way, many times more than the MIS report's suggested living wage for a full-time worker—to determine what counts or doesn't count as a basic need.
Pek chek sia.
Got some more...
🙄 Poh Li San, a PAP MP, asked a question in Parliament about Yeo's using Lee Kuan Yew's image on their limited-edition chrysanthemum tea packets. She also asked a supplementary question about how the government could ensure that there would be "no undue disrespect" to LKY since the packet drinks would be thrown into bins or become litter. She asked these questions in Parliament. I cannot. Does she know that people have used newspapers with photos of LKY to wrap vegetables, clean windows, or line litter boxes? Should someone tell her?
🙃 K Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan are suing Lee Hsien Yang for defamation and have served papers on him (via Facebook Messenger). Lee had challenged the ministers to sue him in a UK court since that's where he was when he'd made the social media posts they find so objectionable. Lee has also since suggested that both sides "mutually agree to an independent arbitration". Nope, Shanmugam says. He argues that, if Lee is so confident, he should defend himself in "full view of the Singapore public". The problem here, though, is that Lee Hsien Yang's faith in the Singapore judiciary is probably in the negative figures right now.
🗳️ What does Tharman's win at the presidential election mean? Cherian George considers this question in a piece commissioned by the Australian Institute of International Affairs.
On my radar...
🗣️ I'll be chatting with KC Chew and Jolovan Wham about critical thinking at Orange & Teal (Rochester) this afternoon, from 3pm–5pm. Drop by for a bite and some conversation!
📚 Seats are sold out (!!!) for the No Readgrets Book Club discussing my book next week! I'm really looking forward the session.
📖 There's also the option of joining the CAPE Book Club—also discussing my book, a few days after No Readgrets's session. I won't be present for this book club, but perhaps you prefer that? Book clubs are really different depending on whether they're designed to be with the author or without.
💬 Next weekend, Lepak Conversations is hosting "Are You OK, Bro?", a discussion on male mental health, from the perspective of the Malay community. Get your tickets here.