On the Record: Janice Koh, former NMP and actress

On the Record: Janice Koh, former NMP and actress

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Former Nominated Member of Parliament and state and TV actress, Janice Koh. (Photo: Janice Koh)

SINGAPORE: Award-winning actress Janice Koh has made her mark not just on stage and in television and film, but also in Parliament.

As a Nominated Member of Parliament from 2011 to 2014, she highlighted the importance of literature and the humanities, increasing support for Singapore-made music and the problems with arts regulation and censorship.

But has Singapore progressed at all on these fronts?

Koh went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish.

Janice Koh: I don’t think we've evolved very much on the regulation and censorship front. I think that we have evolved in terms of providing resources and funding for the arts and it continues to be fairly stable and hopefully growing, but in terms of freedom of expression, I feel that that has not moved forward very much at all actually.

Bharati: What makes you say that?

Koh: Several things. The pulling of funding from Sonny Liew’s book or the kinds of obstacles that even Ong Keng Sen has been facing as the director of the Singapore Festival of Arts (SIFA). The theatre companies who deal with the vetting of their scripts on a day-to-day basis. It’s all these little things that show us very clearly that there is still a lot of control over content.

Bharati: You mentioned SIFA. Just recently, the National Arts Council (NAC) said that it could be exempted from licensing requirements from next year onwards.

Koh: I’ll believe it when I see it.

Bharati: Why are you sceptical?

Koh: I am, because it’s been many years. We’ve had a very blunt and heavy hand with regard to censorship in the arts. I don't quite always understand it. To some degree, I expect some censorship to happen on free-to-air television, where any young child could just turn on the TV and access programmes. I can understand that.

But the arts has a very selective audience. People have made it a point to buy a ticket to go to a show and to have their minds opened and their hearts and their eyes opened to a new perspective or a new idea. And that’s precisely what the art does and that’s why it is a special place. In a way, (it is) also a safe place because it is not real life but make-believe to some degree.

The arts is where we should have a lot more innovation and openness and ideas. So I don't understand why the need to lay the heavy hand of censorship on it.

ARM’S LENGTH FUNDING

Bharati: When it comes to funding though, if the Government agencies are selective about it, wouldn’t you say it’s somewhat understandable?

Koh: I think it’s very important to move towards a framework which I call "arm’s-length funding". At the moment, it is a pipe dream because the NAC sees itself as a gatekeeper of public monies and therefore, has the final say as to what the guidelines are, under which they will distribute public funds for such projects.

But I really hope to see arm’s-length funding which is supporting high quality art without any intervention in content because the arts is where we want to see new ideas, and if we can’t enable that to happen amongst emerging artists or someone with a new voice or someone with a breakthrough, then it’s very hard for the arts to remain relevant to audiences.

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Janice Koh in the theatre production "With/Out" by Loo Zihan presented by The Esplanade Studios. (Photo: Tucky's Photography)

Bharati: But is that a realistic expectation? Even when it comes to private funding whether it’s private individuals or organisations that put their money into a piece of work, you can expect them to have conditions or to possibly be censorious.

Koh: Yes, I would say it would be naive of artists to think that investment, resources comes with no strings attached and in that sense, you need to choose your partners carefully. But when it comes to public funds, there is a difference.

What if the public wants to see it? What happens when there is a show the NAC decides to pull money from, but is sold out? Isn't that public support for that show? 

But without public monies, the tickets are no longer subsidised. Even though people bought the tickets anyway, is it right that the authorities didn’t want to help the creation process with public funds?

Bharati: But the level of public support can only be determined at a later stage.

Koh: To some degree, there needs to be some trial and error, some testing. That’s what the arts is about. You have to stage it. Is there relevance? Does it resonate with the public? Are people clamouring for the tickets? Is it sold out? And if it is, which means it is a quality piece of work, and yet the Arts Council feels it is not deserving of support, then how do you justify your role as the public funding body?

At the end of the day, I feel that it is really up to the public, to audiences, to people who consume the arts to make their voices heard if they want to consume, purchase or view something because the artists can only do so much and they speak through their art form. I suppose we saw it in Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. It was sold out.

Bharati: Some might say that only happened because of the funding controversy.  

Koh: There were also other factors. It’s won a lot of awards. I think it was a quality piece of work. To some degree, people are interested because funding was pulled, but the work has to speak for itself, and it does.

I don’t think there’s any point in being angry. I think that from an artist’s point of view, our job is to speak to audiences and as long as we make work that is good, that is relevant, that is thought provoking, that resonates with the audience, we’re doing our jobs. We just have to keep making the work and keep educating our audiences. That’s all we can do and if the audience wants to see more, they need to talk about it more.

It is also the audience's responsibility to ask for those freedoms. It’s not just the artists’ job.

I think a lot more philanthropic organisations, corporations, individuals can play a much larger role in giving back and contributing to society by donating to the arts by supporting art forms if they really feel that our culture life needs to be diverse and rich. If we have a Government that is not practicing this arm's-length funding, then we need to see how other parts of society can contribute back to the arts, so that we have a much richer landscape, a much more diverse landscape with alternative voices.

Bharati: One might say that the lack of organisations doing this indicates that people don't see the value of enriching our cultural lives.

Koh: I think that in terms of consumption of arts and culture, even in First World countries, it is still a niche activity. So you can’t expect everyone to call themselves regular arts-goers. However, I feel that today, more than ever before, we have Singaporeans going to the theatre, consuming the arts in a way that is more than in previous years or previous generations. I think it’s growing. It’s just that it’s slow. What needs to slowly change and evolve is that more and more people start to feel that this is an important part of our lives and start to demand it be accessible and provided for.  

Bharati: You worked at the NAC from 1997 to 2002 in arts funding and strategic planning. Describe that experience for us, considering that today, you seem to disagree with the way NAC handles such issues.

Koh: Attitudes towards the arts, towards funding, and how artistic freedoms are managed change over time, with the changing leadership. I was fortunate to be working at NAC during a period where there was a sense of wanting to "loosen up" and move towards greater openness, creativity and consultation. Mr Goh Chok Tong was Prime Minister at the time, and Mr George Yeo was in charge of the Ministry of Communication and the Arts. I believe the arts scene benefitted from the desire for this "light touch" approach.

Back then, I was part of the team that drafted the original 1999 Renaissance City Report, which helped to secure a significant financial boost to the arts from government. I recall how ecstatic we were because arts funding was limited and still very piecemeal up until then. When I got deployed to the Grants department shortly after, we tried our best to expend those grants to support new areas of work, to help build up the industry, and encourage arts groups in their long term development. For instance, we started supporting new media projects which often fell outside traditional art forms. It was tremendously exciting to have a vision of how the industry could grow, and to be able to execute policies and schemes towards achieving those ends.

Ironically, I was also in charge of working with the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit (PELU) at the time to vet scripts for licensing. We had guidelines for funding and script vetting, but they were fairly broad and open to interpretation.

Bharati: To what extent did you try to change things while you were there?

Koh: Most of the time, we would defer to the Drama Review Committee, which was made up of academics and specialist practitioners for their views and recommendations. I had to wear two hats all the time - as practitioner and as administrator - and constantly advocated to other government agencies and stakeholders on our cause. This was probably the most challenging part of my job. I still recall being there at the time when the Council was caught in the maelstrom of granting the license for Elangovan's controversial play, Talaq. The struggle between wanting to loosen the grip on artistic freedom and being lobbied by conservative factions of society is real, and I do not envy the administrators who are stuck in between. It is endlessly frustrating.

As advocates and supporters, we always try to move the scene forward, but the the power to make decisions on such issues is often taken out of our hands.

Sometimes, there are also issues and policies that are beyond the civil servants. There is a political mandate or something that the politicians decide on and in a way, the politicians are also beholden to a larger public. The civil servants may not be empowered on all levels to change the policy. How do the artists then reach the politicians? So when I was in parliament, I felt that I played the role of that bridge and that was important.

MAKING A CASE FOR “CULTURAL PROGRESS”

Bharati: When you were in Parliament, you said: “When cultural progress, not just economic progress becomes important to all Singaporeans, that’s when we will see it reflected in the debates we see in the house. Culture and arts should not be a specialist, niche area that affects only a small group of people.” You said this, but how do you make a case for it?

Koh: I think when you see theatre companies or art companies going to schools and being able to change a point of view or touch the lives of people who don't normally have access to the arts, we’ll feel it. I’ll give you an example. Some of my friends are educators who work closely with people with Down syndrome or even other young people in schools who don't normally have any access to culture and the arts. They realise that working through drama for instance, allows these individuals to have a voice to speak up, to take risks and that changes the way they see the world and gives them confidence. It’s invaluable. It’s immeasurable. Our job is to make it so accessible that even the poorest member of society can walk into the Esplanade and consume and be enlightened and be edified by it.

The National Theatre once had a programme where they provided free tickets to those 25 and under. So that’s what I mean by a concept where you need to make it accessible. Because the arts are not just meant for those who can afford it. It should not be

Bharati: There are community arts programmes though and more free events.  

Koh: But I feel there shouldn't be some kinds of arts for some kinds of people. We make all kinds of arts, some more abstract, some not so, but it could all be good art. You should bring the arts to the people but you also want to bring the people to the arts, to the theatre, to enjoy and orchestra or the philharmonic in a really beautiful theatre like the Esplanade concert hall. It needs to be democratic and it shouldn’t be just for those who are privileged.

That’s where funding comes in. So if you believe the arts is a public good, then you don't just create special programmes for the heartlands or to schools, you also try to enable people to have an experience in the theatre and be moved. That should be accessible to everybody. 

Today, there’s a much wider range of work, even from Singapore companies, whether it’s a mainstream musical like a Beauty World, all the way to a black box show, that in terms of taste, allows a much wider range of audiences to choose and select what they want to go to. At the same time, we still need to support the emerging voices, the experimental, so that arts-makers continue to test boundaries and say something new and not just rely on shows that have been there and done that.

Bharati: You talked about the need for cultural progress and not just economic progress. Based on your experiences and interactions with people, how far do you think Singapore society has come in terms of seeing the merits of that argument?

Koh: It’s hard to tell. I don't really know what’s the barometer for it. I feel that the government understands it. The question is how? We don't always see eye-to-eye as to how to get there. And what do we mean by cultural progress. Is it just numbers? Is it just audience numbers? Is it just box office?

Bharati: You’ve spoken about the need for it, so you must have your own barometer for measuring it. What is yours?

Koh: It’s also about the ability to appreciate beauty and differences in society. We need art in our lives to be able to do this and to appreciate different viewpoints. It’s a great vehicle. And even if we don't want to see it, we should not deny someone the opportunity to see it. Even if we disagree with a piece of work, I feel that there’s a right for it to exist for someone else to want to watch it. So sometimes when we don't accord that kind of respect to culture, to the arts. We are also pulling it back when we say: “There’s something incendiary about this piece of work and therefore we should close it down. We should not fund it.” It’s going two steps backwards because even if you disagree with it, there are people who agree with it or who are open to seeing it from a different perspective. Let them watch it. Let them decide for themselves. That is when I feel real progress happens.

Bharati: Authorities generally might find all of this unnecessary, even messy. 

Koh: Absolutely.

I guess anybody who is in the seat of power would want to have some control over the narratives. But if you truly believe that we need to develop as a thinking people and if you want to talk about creativity and creative thinking, then it can be messy and we have to accept that.

There is no straight direct route towards creativity. Creativity comes with chaos and chaos means there will be different, alternate points of views. You need to throw so many things into the mix before you get one gem, right? In that sense, the arts a wonderful place for people, especially young people, to experiment, to see how they feel about things, to have a point of view and to be able to articulate that point of view. In a way, exposing them to the arts and a wide range of it, from the entertaining, to the stimulating, to the provocative allows them to start a conversation and the conversation could be about sensitive and difficult topics. That’s what I mean by expanding your mind, expanding horizons. Why don't you take a walk in somebody else shoes for two hours? Why don't you read a book and understand the world from a different point of view? You can’t talk about creativity and not allow that to happen.

Bharati: While you, like many in the arts sphere, condemn Government censorship, do you have your own limits? What are your OB markers? For instance, what if it’s hate speech?

Koh: I feel that we have enough laws that you can enforce if some lines are crossed including hate speech. I'm a little bit more towards regulation than censorship. That means if you feel that a certain show has a lot of mature content that you don't want your 11-year-old to see, then maybe educate your audiences about it. Maybe tell them in the ticket. But still, give people a choice. I feel that that’s the responsibility of the producers and consumers.

For example, if you’re going to a museum and there are sculptures, there’s nudity, why don't we let parents decide whether or not they want to bring their child in there. I went into the Louvre and there was a lot of nudity. There’s a whole room of Greek sculptures with nudity. But when I go into the museum here, if there’s any nudity, there’ll be signs galore about how if you're 16 and below you can’t go in. If the same thing were done at the Louvre, our kids won’t be able to be exposed to the beautiful art there. Let’s put things in context. Right now, we are little too protective and patriarchal about this. We are still very nanny state about these things.

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Janice Koh in Mediacorp Channel 5's "The Pupil". (Photo: Janice Koh)

MOVE AWAY FROM HIGH-STAKES TESTING

Bharati: You’ve also expressed concerns about the study of literature in schools. While more schools are offering it as an O-level subject today than two years ago, one of the big reasons cited for students not taking literature is that it’s harder to do well in it. It requires more analysis.

Koh: Well, if you're the kind of person who’s concerned about the marks, then yes. If you're the kind of person who’s concerned about the quality of education that your child is getting and whether or not they will be exposed to different ideas, whether or not they are able to think outside the box and see the world through a different lens, whether or not you want them to be able to communicate well, use language well, then why not literature? If you want to give them Math, because you want them to navigate money and transactions and accounts, then why not give them literature so that they can at least understand the world.

Bharati: That’s intangible. A lot of parents I've spoken to say they don't have the luxury to do that.

Koh: There needs to be a systemic change with regard to why we study at all, and the role and function of education.

So long as we don't move away from high-stakes testing, so long as we continue to see the final piece of paper as the be-all and end-all of education, so long as parents subject themselves to that way of thinking, it is going to be very difficult to promote the humanities, which in a way, is not about black and white answers, it’s about the grey and whether or not you want to expose your kids to dealing with the grey because the world is grey. The schools need to be able to convey that too.

Do we really have the luxury to work in a universe or a world where there are just hard skills? I would say "no".

I would say that’s a luxury - to think that you can go through school, memorise half the things and just learn hard skills and not have the soft skills to analyse, the ability to see through the way people communicate, to see through language to understand the world in terms of metaphors, to have your child not be able to do that. That is a huge risk today, especially when they are exposed to so much online content and not be able to discern what is truth, what is not, what is fake news, what is lies, what is equivocating.

Bharati: Your kids are in the system. How are you coping?

Koh: Yes, my kids are in the system and they have to work within it. Every parent is different and for us, for me at least, I make sure that they read widely. I make sure that we are always talking to them broadly about current affairs, about what is happening in the world. We don't really impose on them any of our views. They need to develop their own and be able to defend it, justify it, support it. That’s all we can do. When it comes to tests, the grades, so on, what I think is most important is the work ethic. I can't force you to be any better than your potential, so I'm not going to put you through four days or five days a week of enrichment classes or additional tuition. The schools should be able to plug the gap if the child is falling behind. That’s how I feel about it. In the mean time, put your best foot forward. The kids have to develop an ethic of working hard, even in a subject that they are weak. Put more work into it. That’s all. If that’s the best you can do, so be it.

Bharati: They may not have enrichment classes four or five days a week, but do they go for any enrichment classes at all?

Koh: They go for Mandarin, because they don't speak it at home. To be able to deal with any language that you don't speak at all is difficult even with help from the school. I just don't want my kids to grow up monolingual.

Bharati: Why is that important to you?

Koh: I think language gives you a view of a world. It is an entry point to a world of thinking and to be monolingual is to only see it from one point of view. I think culturally, it is important that they are able to access different points of view. Language is an important way of doing that whether or not it’s learning it through the literature of that language or the idioms of that language. It’s very revealing in that sense.

Bharati: But you’re monolingual?

Koh: Well, I can speak Mandarin, just not very well. I want something better for my kids. In the case of Mandarin, it’s not just pen-and-paper thing. There’s oral, there’s creative writing, it does need that much more work including being able to read outside the syllabus.

Bharati: Some parents, of course, feel that the schools can’t plug the gaps, whether it’s related to Mandarin or any other subject, simply because the expectations are high and the environment is competitive.

Koh: When I talk to my own kids’ teachers, and I say my child isn’t doing so well in Math and I ask for help, the teachers always say, “Sure. Ask him to come and see me after school.” So that’s our philosophy. If there’s a need for remedial, so be it. Let the school try and help your child. We try and do our part at home and then we partner with the schools for them to also help the child in whatever weak areas. I'm hoping that should be enough.

Bharati: But I’m sure you’ve heard of schools or teachers who tell parents their kids actually might need tuition outside school. Could be a lack of resources.

Koh: All schools then should have the resources to educate children holistically. That should be the focus.

THE PROBLEM WITH PRIVILEGE

Bharati: Several people including you have brought up the fact that those with privileged backgrounds continue to benefit from the advantages of our system and those with similar capabilities but a lack of resources and parental support find themselves falling behind very quickly. I know that you grew up in a working class family, but your children now, might be considered privileged. So while you make such statements, how do you reconcile that with your own situation?

Koh: I just feel that that we should just bear that in mind when we make policies. My children are privileged and it’s because at home, we expose them to so many things, including books. We talk to them about so many different things and we bring them to the theatre, to the gallery and they travel. But that’s a minority. Most people struggle to make that happen for their children; and of course they want the best for them. Then there are those who give their kids tuition, because everyone’s surging towards a better life for the next generation. That’s totally normal. But when we have something like Direct School Admission (DSA) into some of the best schools in Singapore, then it’s a problem. The people who benefit from DSA especially when you're looking at kids who have sporting ability, artistic ability, some of them have a leg-up from young. And they continue to benefit from direct admissions to some of our top schools.

I think policymakers need to always see how we can make the education system a lot more equitable for those who come from regular backgrounds, families that don't have those kinds of luxuries.

Bharati: The original intent of the DSA scheme was to be more inclusive, have people from varying backgrounds and talents be able to enter top schools. Also by 2018, schools won’t be able to use general academic ability tests as a gauge. The focus will be on sporting and artistic talent as well as students’ strength in specific areas such as languages, mathematics or science. One could argue that still, those from more privileged backgrounds would have an advantage. So what do you suggest be done to level the playing field?

Koh: I don’t think that it’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s just about being watchful for where those starting blocks are for a child. For example, there are many children who may start Primary 1 without even kindergarten. My son who goes to a neighborhood school said, “Mum, you know when I started Primary 1, there were kids who didn't even know how to read.” Already it’s different and I think it’s just about making sure that we put that lens on when we make policy that affects young people or school children.  

Bharati: Aside from financial assistance, how can the playing field be leveled from a policy perspective?

Koh: I think it would help if we took away the high-stakes testing at Primary 6.

Bharati: And do what instead?

Koh: Do more of a through-train system. So if really, all schools are good schools, then there isn't a need to switch and aim for the best school because there’s no such thing as a best school, right? All schools then should have the resources to educate children holistically from Primary 1 all the way to Secondary 4. I would love it if school days were longer for instance, and people didn't have to rush kids to enrichment or to another piano class or to sports classes because that should all be encapsulated within the school.

Expand schools’ resources so that all the opportunities can be accessible to everybody. Then a child from whatever economic background or demographic can go to any school and feel they have the same learning opportunities as the next child.

There’s no pressure on the parents part to be part of this rat race to make them super-kids by the time they are five.

Bharati: Have you ever thought of moving your own children out of the system? Explore other options like home schooling perhaps?

Koh: I think that at the moment, so long as they are not adversely struggling, we will keep them there. I think we are content enough to keep them within the system. It’s not all that bad. It’s a very high level of education. It’s just that what could be better. In a way, we have an education system of high averages, but does this system then produce brilliance? Will it produce geniuses? Will it produce outliers? Will it help outliers? You're forcing people to step up at an earlier age when they might be late bloomers, people who learn better kinesthetically, but because you don’t provide that, they are made to feel academically poor and then have their confidence and esteem trampled on because of the high-stakes testing at 12. Why don't we try taking high-stakes exams away, so that young kids have more time to bloom and don’t feel like failures if they can’t meet those academic benchmarks along the way.

That then takes the pressure off parents. Then parents themselves can also relax and spend whatever hours that they have at home, having fun, taking them out on walks or whatever - more leisure time as opposed to ferrying them to classes or worrying about their grades. This could maybe even lead to higher birth rates. I'm just guessing, but sometimes when I talk to my friends who are in their 30s, they say they have no intention at all of having children because they feel it’s expensive, it’s such a commitment, there’s school pressure and they are so afraid of what it might do to their lifestyle and also a fear of the commitment of bringing up children in a rat race type of situation.

BREAKING OUT OF SILOS AND ECHO CHAMBERS

Bharati: The quality of civic discourse is something I know you feel strongly about. You very famously made a speech in parliament saying that you think the government needs to unlearn its instincts of wanting to draw more boundaries for civic discourse. Over the years, we’ve seen the space for public discourse grow in the sense that now, more and more of us are engaging online with differing political views. How would you assess the situation right now?

Koh: You can say that the platforms for dialogue, debates, discourse have grown but in a way, you can also argue that most of us operate in our own silo.

Bharati: Or echo chambers online?

Koh: Yes. I feel a lot more can be done, whether it’s by academic institutions, or agencies, to bring together people of diverse views to debate on issues openly and have it openly reported in the media. That means, to some a degree, relinquishing some control over these OB markers. Where are the platforms where people who disagree can come together and learn how to hear each other out in a civil way, in a gracious way and then eventually learn that maybe we have to agree to disagree but we don't need to take it personally or be petty about it.

Am I being too idealistic? People may say so.

But I believe we must make some headway in terms of trying rather than constantly being the policeman and hiding things under the carpet or putting them under wraps so that we can avoid an uncomfortable discussion or conversation.

Bharati: But this can be a ground-up initiative. It doesn't necessarily have to be initiated by the government.

Koh: Absolutely. But unless you free up platforms where the public has access to these discussions including in the mainstream media, you're still talking within your own space. We should be able to channel the debates on a much wider platform that reaches a larger public. Be less controlling about what goes out in the media.

If there’s displeasure or disagreement over something, let’s talk about it. Being able to withstand disagreement a little bit more than we are right now is helpful for Singaporeans as we move forward because it helps us learn to listen. If we control the spaces too much and we just say only this one view can propagate, then we don't exercise those muscles of having people disagree with us and it’s very one-sided. It doesn’t go away though. People will still have their own views but they just feel little more upset, repressed and we need valves for some of the frustration or unhappiness to be released.

Bharati: Going online and complaining is not good enough?

Koh: It’s so unproductive. It also speaks to your own kinds, people of your own bandwidth. I just feel it’s not proactive. It’s not productive. It’s not about positively making a change. Even at the very basic level, more institutions can actually create platforms for those debates to happen including on sensitive topics like race and religion and issues that touch on things that we consider uncomfortable. Why don't we just start with being able to have a debate, or classes that allow kids to have an opinion about any current affairs issue from a young age, to be able to talk about things openly. For example, at secondary school when you talk about history, when you look at our own history, why not be extensive rather than close down and say this is the only answer.

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Janice Koh with friends and family at a Pink Dot event. She was the movement's ambassador in 2014. (Photo: Facebook/Janice Koh)

BEING A CHEERLEADER FOR SINGAPOREAN WORK

Bharati: You’ve also been a great champion of Singapore artists, Singapore musicians. Recently, we saw Lush, a radio station whose key initiative was to support the local arts and music scene, close down. What do you think of this development?

Koh: I loved Lush but there’s also a part of me that asks if we need to get all Singapore-made music into a one station. I spoke up a lot for supporting Singapore music on radio during my time in parliament. Today when I turn on any of the Mediacorp radio channels and when I hear local music being played from The Sam Willows for example, I think that, for me, is a good way forward. It’s progress. It means that they are not just playing on one station. It should be playing on any of the mainstream radio channels and that is wonderful.

Bharati: While you care about local music, the fact that Lush was not commercially viable would suggest that most other people don’t. There wasn’t much of an audience for it.

Koh: I think it’s a matter of just cultural confidence.

To some degree, I don't even blame people, because for so many years, even the authorities didn't really celebrate it. 

So if you're not playing Singapore music and you don't think it’s good enough to be played on radio, then what do you expect the rest of Singapore to think? Those who are in the seat of influence need to make that change. Sometimes you need to see that change, but I think it’s changing.

I found that a turning point was celebrating our 50th birthday as a nation, our Jubilee year, because the lead up to it was a year of reflection on how far we’ve come and the arts played a very predominant role in demonstrating that. For example, the Esplanade celebrated by looking back at landmark works. We re-staged certain works whether they were by Kuo Pao Kun or Tan Tarn How and so on. You can’t celebrate a Jubilee year without artists. They bring to life history and growth. They actually imagined it and put it there for all of us to reflect. So I thought it was a good year for artists and it was an important year for Singaporeans to suddenly appreciate how far we’ve come and have some confidence to move forward.

Bharati: But it shouldn't be about supporting local for the sake of it, right?

Koh: No, I don't think so. Support it because it is good, but I do think that sometimes you also need to be a cheerleader. It’s hard to really emerge when you have very tall trees, and those tall trees could be Hollywood or much more mature industries. Because we are a largely English-speaking audience, how are we going to have a Singapore film compete with a Hollywood blockbuster?

So what we need are just cheerleaders along the way. Let’s help give you a leg-up. Let’s help give you some exposure to a wider audience, at least a Singapore audience. I have got many musician friends who when they go overseas and they want to be picked up by a major record label, are asked: “So how many people listen to you back home?” And when they say, “I'm not really being played on radio right now,” they are asked why they should be picked up if they don’t have a home base.

It’s tough.

Bharati: You'll be playing a minor role in “Crazy Rich Asians” to be released next year. What's your view on the minor controversy surrounding the casting of the lead - a half-Asian in an ethnic Asian role?

Koh: Firstly, with all the whitewashing going on in Hollywood cinema, and with “diversity” being the buzzword right now, I totally understand why a lot of Asian-American actors and audiences are calling out for greater representation. But this issue is quite different for those of us living in Singapore and in other parts of Asia. In a multicultural place like Singapore, in which the Crazy Rich Asians story is set and where we are used to growing up alongside Eurasians and friends of mixed marriages, what does it mean to be truly Asian anyway? Are we going to start measuring how Asian we all are based on ethnic bloodlines and origins? I mean, I play a Chinese character in the story, but I have some Peranakan blood in me, so am I Chinese enough? Where do we stop? Singapore has always been a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities, and I'm careful about adopting the American viewpoint on ethnic representation and identity.

I think what is more important here is spending enough time, energy and effort to cast the net wide enough in the search for Asian actors. In the longer term, we need to see more Asian faces across all Hollywood films, period, whether in leading, supporting or minor roles. The more we see them, the more we will accept them as being part of the movie landscape, and that's where the real change happens.

HAVING THE COURAGE OF ONE’S CONVICTIONS

Bharati: You once said it takes a lot of courage to stand by your beliefs when you're under so much pressure to conform. You said this in a previous interview in the context of being an NMP and having to stand up in parliament, face all these people and say something that you know might be a contrary view. How did you find this courage?

Koh: I like to believe that whatever I say comes from a place where I think it is for the betterment of Singapore society and for our future. This is no different from where people who serve in, whether it’s grassroots or politics, come from too. We might see it from a different point of view, but that doesn't mean we don't come from the same place of love and patriotism. I think that artists are as patriotic. They express themselves when they speak up through their art. They also do it because there’s a message, there’s a mirror that they want to hold up the society so that we can continue to evolve.

So in a way, I speak for my own conscience and that gives me the courage. It’s not because I want to be a contrarian for the sake of it. 

It is difficult when you're in a chamber where there is a majority from one dominant party and in many ways, the NMPs we become a certain kind of barometer of where the Singapore population stands on certain issues. It’s hard to be the lone voice, but it also means that there is a segment of the population that we need to represent.

Bharati: Considering that you have acknowledged that things haven't really evolved, maybe you weren't really heard. 

Koh: I hope they were listening and maybe one day there will be change. These shifts take time. Even if I didn't get the agreement of those on the inside, what was always very encouraging and heartening is that I would get e-mails from people on the outside, whether it’s school teachers or random people, who were touched by something I said. At that time, that really kept me going and till this day, I feel that’s why it is a real privilege to be able to speak in the highest level of government and to be represented in parliament.

Bharati: You’ve also spoken up for other social causes, including for initiatives like Pink Dot. The fact that progress in these areas might not come so quickly – how does that make you feel?

Koh: I really hope that in the next 50 years, Singapore would move towards being a lot more compassionate and more open to diversity and more inclusive in a real way. I don't mean rhetoric. I don't mean in terms of representation in the parliament for instance. I really mean inclusive in the way we treat our foreign workers, how we are open to people of different sexual orientations, how we navigate what could be a very complex landscape of diverse point of views. So for me, that is the world I really hope my kids get to grow up in, but I also believe in giving them the right values and educating them because they are going to be part of making this world happen. It may take time, but that’s what I really hope for – a more compassionate Singapore.

Bharati: And I'm sure you'll say the arts have a major role to play in doing this.

Koh: Oh, absolutely. The arts just open the heart.

Source: CNA/bh

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