There are some truly big questions that perplex humanity. Where did the first single cell organism come from? What came before the Big Bang? Is there extra-terrestrial life out there? Does the SAF have any creative talent?

Watching its latest advertisement – Our Home, Our Singapore, Our Army: My Boyfriend [] – ranks as great a crime as waterboarding and genital electrocution. A bunch of girls (you can’t possibly describe them as women) sit around in a cafe doing what Singaporeans do best – comparing what they have. The suspense over the identity of a boyfriend is duly ratcheted up until a painfully stiff chap in a SAF No. 3 uniform appears from a far like a voyeur stalking his girlfriend. The giggling girls then collapse into the type of sigh that straight men give when they see a Maserati Quattroporte cruise by.

To call this latest attempt to make the SAF relevant to a younger audience hackneyed, cliched, insulting or even banal, is way too easy. What we have here is the most cynical stab yet at entrenching and glorifying a consumer culture and a social status conscious society we proudly call ‘Singapore’. In the not too distant past, the SAF used to sell itself (or ‘package’ for those who prefer market-speak) with illusions of ‘honour’, ‘duty’ and ‘patriotism’. The crudest form of packaging then came with a wonderfully unambiguous siege mentality, complete with the complimentary subliminal message “if you don’t defend your land, they’ll rip it from you and chase you out!” Life then was so much simpler.

Going up another level was never going to be easy. Unlike other countries that have fought actual wars or experienced border skirmishes, we can’t do slow-mo footage of square-jawed Commandos kicking down the doors of insurgents or Guards units saving villages from enemy fire. We can’t appeal to any type of machismo that, say, the US Marines, SAS, or the IDF have stocks of. And you can’t really be truthful when it comes to advertising can you? Imagine a SAF advert that went “Join the SAF. Learn to organise National Day Parades!” – it just ain’t gonna sell.

So we appeal to what we already know – a banal cafe culture, shopping-break gossip, upping your friends in every material and social department. This SAF advert is sad not because it’s poorly done. It’s sad because it has decided to take the path of least resistance in appealing to our baser instincts and to our quest for the superficial.


Chinese Democracy

December 8, 2008

gnrWelcome to the jungle
We take it day by day
If you want it you’re gonna bleed
But it’s the price you pay
And you’re a very sexy girl
That’s very hard to please
You can taste the bright lights
But you won’t get them for free


The unmistakable riff of GNR signified the excesses of 1980s glam rock and egocentric youth. As the amalgamation of two different Sunset Strip bands – Hollywood Rose and LA Guns – Guns and Roses was the ultimate version of the rock and roll phallus where pure id met glamour and black bandanas. Lead singer Axel Rose was even compared to Jim Morrison whose famous utterance “Death and my cock are the world” epitomized the fatalistic self-obsession and autodidactic sexuality from which a generation of rock cassette martyrs from Kurt Cobain to Michael Hutchence was nurtured.  


GNR, in short, was about youth and everything that was both good and bad about it. It was about being young and invincible, but most of all, it was about the right to be self-indulgent.  Appetite for Destruction (1987) is routinely lodged in the top 50 albums of all time, and not far behind is Lies (1988), the band’s second album. Both albums were released during the second term of the Reagan administration when Pax Americana was at its peak, capitalism was rampant, and paradoxically, paranoia and neurosis were at their most infectious in the light of fears that Japanese MNCs were out to rule the world. Gordon Gecko had told everyone that ‘Greed is good”; just another way of saying “my cock rules the world”, and evil already had a name long before Bush Jr. came along – USSR . The world as we knew it back then was in black and white, divided into right and wrong. What made GNR so special was that it offered itself as pop license to venture into the shades of gray. And what delight it gave us directionless youth.


And then, out of the blue, the era of excess came to an end. The Berlin Wall came down, the first Gulf War saw international cooperation, Clinton played his jazz and sprayed his jizz. The world turned all Jerry Maguire on us – it grew a damn conscience. Suddenly we began to hear about climate change, the ozone layer and Greenpeace. It’s as thought the whole 1980s has been hermeneutically sealed, together with its big hair and shoulder pads, by a kinder, gentler zeitgeist. And that is why, GNR’s later albums like Use Your Illusion I & II (1991) never quite touched the depths of self-indulgence and perverse glut of their earlier albums.


GNR’s long waited Chinese Democracy (2008) is now out. But it’s a completely different monster. The only surviving member of the old band is Axel Rose himself, and only because he was smart enough to trademark the band name so none of the others – Slash, Duff or Adlin – could use it. But the album is a sinking ship. The techno slices, the garbled arrangements and the most destructive, the need for the sensitive artiste to show he has ‘matured’, have all consipired to undermine whatever moments of hell-raising goodness there are in the album. Axel can still sing. But Chinese Democracy confirms what everyone knew all along. He’s not much without Duff or Slash.


Chinese Democracy is more than an album. It’s a tombstone. It’s a tombstone for great, stupid and delightfully naïve expectations. It’s a tombstone for GNR. But most of all, it’s a tombstone for my youth. Nostalgia is a bitch.        


As a director, I like real. Everything in my movies is real.  Jack Neo


The romanticisation of the working class is a universal past-time. It begins when specific everyday actions of the working class are interpreted as acts of resistance, heroic struggle, or tragedy; actions that are framed with linear time and unfolding towards self-realisation. Such actions are taken to characterise the sentiments of an entire, often diverse, group; turning the romanticisation process into an erasure of complexity and the expression of homogeneity.


Jack Neo has emerged as Singapore’s most popular and populist film-maker whose work has become synonymous with the Singaporean heartland. His stories about the plight of the Chinese Singaporean working class in the fast-paced global city are often soaked in socio-political critique and cultural moralism, and presented straightforwardly in a conventional style. His protagonists are predominantly Chinese males who are poorly educated and dialect- or Mandarin-speaking, and are often portrayed as victims of global capitalism and/or the PAP state’s education, bilingualism and foreign talent policies. While his production values are considerably lower than his contemporaries like Eric Khoo or Royston Tan, they exude an economical aesthetic that coats his films with a patina of no-frills authenticity. Meanwhile, his success at the box office has not only established his commercial viability but also shows that his stories about heartland life have struck a chord with the average Singaporean. A large chunk of Neo’s charm and box-office success has come from his romanticisation of the Singapore working class.


All of Neo’s Chinese working class protagonists are essentially well meaning, even if sometimes morally misguided, but nevertheless always redeemable and thus able to achieve absolution or reprieve through self-realisation by the end of each film. Hence, whatever struggles, hardships and luckless escapades they go through, his protagonists are guaranteed of a happy ending. In Money No Enough (1998), Ong (played by Mark Lee) is a happy-go-lucky renovation contractor who borrows a large sum of money from illegal money-lenders. He is confident he can repay the money-lenders because his friend is supposed to return him some money borrowed earlier. However, when Ong’s friend absconds, Ong is unable to pay the money-lenders and gets a beating from them. These money-lenders later interrupt a funeral but are conveniently arrested by the police. Having avoided the nasty consequences of illegal money-borrowing, Ong goes on to set up a car-polishing business with his friends, and the film ends with the business achieving some degree of success.


Another example of Neo’s luckless-working-man-trying-to-make-good narrative is found in The Best Bet (2004), a cautionary tale on the evils of gambling. Tan (Mark Lee), a hawker and incorrigible gambler, dreams of striking it rich. After several attempts at lottery and gambling, Tan starts a business with his two friends, Yong Shun (Christopher Lee) and Richard (Richard Low), which very quickly folds up, landing all of them in debt. Tan is arrested for trying to borrow money from illegal money-lenders but eventually and facilely strikes it rich with a winning lottery number. The film closes with Tan partnering Yong Shun and Richard in a bak kut teh (herbal pork rib tea) business which prospers. In One More Chance (2005), a story about convicts and second chances in life, Zhou (Henry Thia) is a factory supervisor cum burglar. Though a criminal, Zhou is also a filial and devoted son who cares for his senile mother. After a spell in prison, Zhou decides to turn over a new leaf but finds that he is not accepted by society. To top it all, his romantic overtures to a warden officer is rejected. Driven to desperation and fuelled by the desire to fulfill one of his mother’s wishes, Zhou gathers a couple of his ex-prison mates to plan for a burglary. Nevertheless, everything works out for the better in the end and the film closes with a heavy dose of moralising.


Neo’s Chinese working class protagonists in all three films fall into the cycle of misdemeanour and redemption. It is a formulaic account of human failing, self-realisation, struggle and finally the endowment of material largess as signifier of success. This is not surprising given that economic status is one of the most recognisable and respected signs of legitimacy in capitalist Singapore. Neo’s Chinese male heartlander is vulnerable to hardship yet resilient, crude yet kind, materialistic yet sentimental, able to overcome his socio-cultural disadvantages through hard work or sheer luck. In their everyday struggle against state institutions and structures, they offer themselves as heroic figures who can overcome socio-economic adversity, serving as metaphors for rebirth, self-awakening and self-purification for a nation of consumers devoid of a ‘golden past’. Hero-making, Anthony Smith informs us, is necessary for the transmission of values, culture and customs from generation to generation.


Neo also laces his heartlanders with authenticity by contrasting them against middle class English-educated and English-speaking characters. In Singapore theatre, television and film, several stereotypes have emerged as literary devices to encapsulate different cultural groups and socio-political interests. One of the most persistent and recognisable stereotype is the English-speaking middle class character, typically as the epitome of political and bureaucratic power (civil servants), or Western values (proponents of liberal democracy and freedom issues), and economic success (well educated professionals and beneficiaries of global capital). Neo may lionize the heartlander by highlighting “Western values” as foreign and alienating.


Take for example a scene in I Not Stupid (2002), where a young precocious female Chinese student stands up in class to declare that she wishes she was a Caucasian because “if I am a Caucasian, I won’t have to learn Chinese anymore”. This prompts the Mandarin teacher to launch into an impromptu lecture on how Mandarin is the key to personal and national identity, and without mastery over the language, the young anglophile would not understand who she is or where she comes from. Explicit in the teacher’s discourse is that ethnic Chinese who are better versed in English and the ‘West’, like the young student, are likely to be rootless and unauthentic.


Lastly, Neo is fond of illustrating heartlander authenticity by setting up clashes between Chinese- or dialect-speaking protagonists and English-speaking middle class characters in order to accentuate the contrast between the beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries of globalisation and PAP state policies. In Money No Enough (1998), Keong (Jack Neo), a Mandarin-speaking, senior and more deserving worker, is passed over for promotion in favour of his new colleague, Jeremiah Adolpher Lee, who has an overseas (read: Western) education. As the film unfolds, it is revealed that Lee’s command of English and overseas education triumph over Keong’s qualities such as industriousness and sincerity in the corporate world. This perhaps echoes the sentiments of the Chinese-speaking majority who may feel that their nation-building sacrifices have been glossed over by the English-speaking elite who have made the Singapore Story one that celebrates only the achievements and successes of the English-proficient Singaporean. Neo hints at this in the film by having the overseas educated Lee deploy his command of English to embarrass and put down his Chinese-speaking colleagues. 


Neo’s celebration of the Chinese-speaking working class must be framed with the cultural politics of globalisation. Individuals, groups and communities who claim authenticity are, in effect, positioning themselves as an embedded quality against deterritorialising and delocalising forces. The local-global and heartlander-cosmopolitan binaries not only draws attention to the spectre of loss and transience in the global city, thus reaffirming the human need for a sense of the real, but also highlights the vacuum in the Singapore national identity that has not yet been filled.


[This is an excerpt from a longer paper. Footnotes and references have been removed.]