Tan Pin Pin
I have always been interested in alternative Singapores, the path not taken and relatedly, I also think about the cost of paths taken and how these decisions have come to shape our lives today. What if we could turn back the clock?
For example, what if our language policy was more laissez-faire and did not privilege English over the mother tongue languages and dialects? What if Singapore town planning did not use the HDB high-density township model as its central motif? What if the crème de la crème of each “A” level cohort was not skimmed off by the Government, Government Linked Corporations and bonded for 6 years for the privilege of having their overseas undergraduate education paid for? These policies have affected the textures of our everyday life and our interactions with each other and the state to a high degree, for better or worse. What would Singapore be like, look like, sound like without their influence?
The other questions I asked myself are political. What if Singapore had not separated from Malaysia in 1965 or what if Operation Coldstore (1963) never took place? What if Lim Chin Siong was not detained under the Internal Security Act and had become Prime Minister?
Interspersed with these epic musings, are musings of a more personal sort, what if my grandmother hadn’t listened to her neighbour and sent my father to a Chinese school instead of an English school? What if my father had moved to Kuala Lumpur to be with my mother? What if I had taken that PSC scholarship?
Perhaps because I am a filmmaker and not an academic, I find myself conflating the the big Ifs (politics, social policy) and the small ifs (what if my grandmother. . . ) together. This is not done disrespectfully, but I am interested in the personal. Would I be living in Australia, like all my Malaysian cousins? Would I be playing the harmonica? Would I be writing and speaking in Mandarin or Malay today? What would my occupation be? It is not by accident that I am able to write this foreword today as a filmmaker (a privileged occupation) and in English too, no less.
And so it was with this mindset that I asked writers to consider in the first person three important aspects of Singapore that I mentioned in the first paragraph. Using the I in their essays is also strategic, it confers immunity to the writer, limiting their point to themselves. Yu-Mei Balasingamchow writes about being a scholarship holder serving out her 8-year bond in Once Bonded. Every year 15%-20% of students in top Junior Colleges take up overseas bonded scholarships. They return after graduation to serve six years in the Civil Service, Statutory Boards and Government Linked Companies. Yu-Mei reflects on the moment when she signed on the dotted line and also when, as a teacher, she advises her students who are about to do the same. I cannot think of a more important milestone in the lives of bright young Singaporeans as when they sign on that dotted line.
Ho Weng Hin celebrates the enduring design of the HDB point block, a public housing design trope that has endured more than two decades. It was the first time privacy was commoditised for the masses elevating the quality of life for many. It is much cause for celebration that HDB was able to achieve this with such simplicity, elegance and efficiency.
Finally, I had asked Lee Huay Leng to write a piece on what language she would choose to speak to her kids if she had them (She is one of few people who can actually choose, being bilingual). Upon receiving her essay, I realised the error of my ways. Huay Leng writes about her journey back to China where she visited her grandmother’s village in Chaoshan. Here, she is reminded that there are places where one does not “choose” which is more expedient to learn, but learn that which is closest to one’s identity. She returned from her trip and gave me a copy of Disney’s Snow White (1937) dubbed in the Teochew dialect spoken there. I gawked at the movie in disbelief, then it hit me, was I so tickled because I could not imagine why anyone, not even Chaoshan’s children, would want to watch a Disney video dubbed in Teochew? How far we have come.