Saturday, June 09, 2012

I ask the questions here!

Context is everything, but it seems these days people are losing sense of what it means. I'm referring to the online debacle with the Pre-U Sem (from now identified as 'PUS') kid who was upset that the guest political dignitary (from now identified as 'DPM') did not answer his or anybody else's questions during the Q&A. Instead, DPM redirected the questions back to the questioners for their take on the situation.

First, I'm not going on about the crude language said kid coloured his online response with. Online, crudity of expression is fair game, to be expected, with the exception of certain refined individuals who represent a tiny minority. This post is more about how our kids have no idea how a discussion is supposed to be conducted.

For them, questions must have answers. Answers must be satisfactory, and should be useful in scoring an 'A' grade at the final exams. After all, kids are forced to cook up some kind of question for Q&A sessions, so at least the panel should have the courtesy of providing a suitable answer. Full-stop. Draw a line across. It's very upsetting for a kid when the replies don't follow protocol. The question is wasted, the time spent thinking it up is wasted. The questionee must be an idiot because he doesn't have an answer. I should know... I get that all the time in class. I'm used to it.

About context. Q&A sessions (and people are going to hate me for saying such) are invitations to a discussion; i.e., a sharing of information. You share some with me, I share some with you. When the panel returns a question, it's an invitation for further conversation. This pattern repeats itself until a resolution or something else more interesting arises.

Discussions are a form of dialogue. Unfortunately, PUS kid got upset because he wasn't interested in dialogue. Instead, he took the Q&A to be an interrogation. I ask the questions, you tell me the answer. If I'm not happy with your answer, I'll abuse you until you tell me an answer I want to hear. Which, basically sums up what happened online.

The really sad thing is that the kid is attending the PUS with no idea why he is doing so. The PUS is organized annually as a forum for JC-level academic peers to gather and discuss national issues, to come up with ideas and projects that pro-actively address national concerns. We invite a political representative not to listen to his directives but rather propose to him what we plan to do, independently, with a well-thought through plan, because it's the right thing to do. So in fact, the guest is not there to be interrogated, but to be impressed by our initiative, our drive and our ingenuity. We are the ones who provide the answers to his concerns, not the other way around.

Now that the PUS kid has apologized, I hope he knows what he is apologizing for. It's not because he behaved badly but that his bad behaviour was the result of misidentifying his role in the PUS in general, and in the Q&A specifically.

BTW, it's really hard to be the government right now, especially when the people are becoming increasingly ungovernable. When you have answers to questions, people call you a tyrant; non-consultative; dictatorial. When you invite discussion, people call you incompetent, having no ideas; not worth your salt. When things go well, no one notices; but when things go wrong, you're everybody's favourite whipping-boy.

With a people like that, it doesn't matter whether our representatives are from the ruling party or from the opposition. We will always be unhappy with the government whenever we don't get what we want. You couldn't pay me a million dollars to take on that kind of thankless job.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The state of the arts

Since last week, strange yellow circles began appearing at different locations on the floors of our neighbourhood void decks. Now it's clear what they are meant for.

What's interesting about them is that they are painted on by stencil in a public location. They present information in the form of text and graphics, but they are dry, humourless and terse. Obviously not meant as art, but they have a legitimate purpose for their presence in the public eye.

This public service is in direct contrast with what's been happening with the so-called 'sticker lady' and her attempts to perform her blend of design and cultural commentary, within the context it is relevant. Her unilateral action to paste authority-impersonating wry stickers on public amenities and stencil officious-looking, yet irreverent text on public roads has met the ire of the authorities whose duty it is to maintain public order.

There was no doubt in anybody's mind that she would get into trouble. I doubt she had any illusions about that. But she went and did it anyway; to give passers-by a chuckle and wonder at the mystery over the identity of this bold individual thumbing his?her? nose at the norms of civil society, at least while it lasted. Her art was not in the design of the stickers or the stenciled text themselves but in the performance of placing them where they could be found and making her audience connect with her observations of Singaporean life.

Since her arrest, the artist has ignited a public debate over what is art and what constitutes public nuisance. This coming from a nation that once had no time and no energy for such impractical, unprofitable considerations. This is an artist's highest achievement: to be talked about; to have a people challenge the once comfortable cut-and-dried standards and values that underpin their culture; to push the boundaries of what is accepted so that we start to think about what we stand for instead of blindly accepting status quo without question.

Perhaps I may be over-romanticizing her objectives. It could be that all she wanted was a little fun, that's all. But whether she's right or wrong, let's just say if she didn't get into trouble with the powers that be, her performance would have fallen flat. Her statement would have been pointless and meaningless, worthy of an lol comment on Facebook, but little else.

So don't feel sorry for her. Rather, respect her as a true artist who has given her all for the sake of her art. Whether she wins or loses in court, this entire performance with its slow, patient build-up and mass audience participation scores a total WIN.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Best Exotic

The best movies aren't the ones with the biggest explosions or the eye-poppingest 3D effects. As much as superhero movies supply ever-increasing bangs for our bucks, movies about real people facing real problems with good humour, gumption and a sense of unrealistic optimism told with a touch of charm are the true nourishment between the candy fillers.

"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" in Jaipur, India, is just the place to be, if your eyes are the type that can see into the future. For now, the structure is ramshackle, the facilities are barely functional, the rooms are pest-ridden, the food... takes some getting used to. The whole place runs on a dream that one day it will be great, but in the meantime, just put up with it, it will get better. Soon.

The guests are a diverse set of retirees with an assortment of health problems, empty-nest syndrome, regrets of one sort or another, and they've come to get away from it all. People who don't have much future left, as far as they can see. And so begins the mismatch of English elderly middle-class expectations versus ambitious youthful Indian struggling-against-tradition hospitality.

Much of the charm taps on our desire to run away from everything and everyone in order to start afresh somewhere new, exotic and unfamiliar. But then, life always puts us in unfamiliar situations anyway, wherever we are. Retirement, long-term illness, loneliness and ageing are aspects of our lives that are inevitable, yet we never think that they will happen to us -- that is until they are already on top of us and we realize that the bridge we were going to cross when we get there is already behind us. Omg. Question is, is there life after that?

Is it still possible to find love or remain relevant and useful to society once we've turned a certain chronological milestone? Is it possible for a dream to come true even if no one else but the dreamer believes in it? The BEMH has brought everyone together to find out.

Two maxims keep the action flowing:

1) The only failure is the failure to try; and
2) It will be all right in the end. If it is not all right, it is not the end.

Words to live by.