We need a wiser Singapore, not a reactionary one: NMP Kok Heng Leun

We need a wiser Singapore, not a reactionary one: NMP Kok Heng Leun

Nominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun, who is the Artistic Director of theatre company Drama Box, went “On The Record” about convincing the Government to put the arts at the centre of education and policy-making.

Kok Heng Leun

SINGAPORE: It was only after his second attempt that Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Kok Heng Leun got into the chambers of Singapore’s legislature, and when he stood to speak for the first time in April, he set out to make his speech count.

Speaking during the Budget debates, he focused his remarks on what he cared about most: The place of the arts in Singapore. Among other things, the Artistic Director of theatre company Drama Box said that the state had failed in mediating between disagreeing parties when it comes to works of art. He also bemoaned the lack of critical thinking among Singaporeans, and firmly believes this can be addressed by putting the arts at the centre of education and policy-making.

The question is, can he convince the Government and Singaporeans? Kok went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about this, and how he found himself in the arts after spending most of his school life specialising in the sciences.

Kok Heng Leun: I was 24 or 25 and a good friend of mine, of the same age, passed away suddenly. He was working and suddenly he just fainted and fell, and the next moment, he was gone. For no reason. And he was actually super fit. That really set me thinking, because I think while you can, while you are young, maybe you should start doing something that you are interested in.

Around that time, I was offered a job at The Substation. So I decided to just try. The arts was interesting to me, so I went in. And from then on, it became a whole process of excavation, searching and finding. I think each time you do an art project, or you start exploring a particular issue, there are so many things for you to learn. And in that process, I learnt so much about myself. I learnt what I'm good at, what I'm not good at, what my values are, and whether I can challenge my own values.

Bharati Jagdish: What are some of the answers that you have found over the years?

Kok Heng Leun: I wouldn't have thought a lot about the death penalty, for example. Partly because I'm doing all this work, I started to think a lot more about why am I for, or am I against, and on what grounds. I’ve thought about what arguments actually make me feel uncomfortable and why. And I think that's really important in this time and age where we're hearing so much information, so many arguments going on in social media. You have to ask yourself: What is it that you feel uncomfortable with? And once you know what it is, then you can also ask yourself, so what is it you stand for? And I think in that dialectical process and that dialogic process, you actually become stronger.

Bharati Jagdish: The important thing is to know why you’re uncomfortable with something – like you said, on what grounds. You mentioned the death penalty. When it comes to certain issues, while you know your stance on it, what can you really do at the end of the day?

Kok Heng Leun: I think there are a few things. I think hope is very important. Hope comes with two things: Imagination and action. I think if you do not do anything, if the activists are not even trying, then there's no hope. I think we need the imagination. I think we work with a lot of fear, we work a lot of fear that if certain information gets released or certain topics are discussed, people will flip and there will be conflict.

Bharati Jagdish: When you say “we work with a lot of fear”, are you referring to the Government?

Kok Heng Leun: The Government, and sometimes the public too. The Government would defer to the public. Members of the public sometimes do express that they fear a discussion of certain topics would create conflict and unrest. Thomas Hardy said: "Fear is the mother of foresight." I think while fear tells us what things we should be wary about, it should not freeze us into inaction. So fear tells us what we should be dealing with, tells us what we should be careful about.

But then we need imagination. We need to imagine, to think about the future. For example, when it comes to domestic violence. A lot of victims of domestic violence are fearful of their future. They are fearful when they think: “If I leave this family, if I break this relationship, how would other people judge me?” They may think: "I don't have a skill. I don't know how I'm going to work. How am I going to take care of my child?”

These are all real fears and they are important when you're making your decision. But you just need a bit of imagination, a bit of information and do some fact-finding, get alliances. Then you’ll realise you can break away from these fears. So I think that there are two things that we, as human beings, must be able to do. Firstly, to be able to discern fear, and that means a lot of critical thinking. Secondly, we need creative thinking to take us out of these conundrums, to see a possible future.


Bharati Jagdish: We’ll talk more about stepping out of fear in a moment, but you also talk a lot about critical thinking, which you say you learnt through the arts.

Kok Heng Leun: Yes, definitely. I make art, and through that process, I learn so much about critical thinking. No one in my school life ever told me what critical thinking is.

Bharati Jagdish: It was just “here's the textbook, study it and go?”

Kok Heng Leun: Yeah. And so, you do not dispute the facts that were given to you, so I think we never learnt to question.

Bharati Jagdish: The Education Ministry says that now things have changed, and it is trying to inject more critical thinking-oriented teaching and learning into the school environment. What do you think of the efforts that are being made?

Kok Heng Leun: Okay, I do work with schools and I've met teachers. This is my observation: The policies are there, but most of the teachers now are the product of an education system…

Bharati Jagdish: An education system that did not promote critical thinking?

Kok Heng Leun: Yes, so if you want them to have a paradigm shift, it’s not going to be easy. They have to also deal with the demands of examinations and the syllabus. So I think they're trying to cope with this. One of the biggest problems they face is how to ask and deal with a good question. They're so used to asking questions that need an answer that they already have, that they become worried.

They worry: "If they (students) ask me a difficult question that I can't answer, then how?" Are teachers able to let go of that authority of knowledge, the power of knowledge? That will require a paradigm shift. How are you going to manage a class where people would argue, where we would not have a consensus, where people have varied views? In fact the most exciting class is when students are engaged in very vivid arguments and discussions.

So, I think education is really not just about putting humans into jobs, which is what our education system basically is. And even when we do talk about critical thinking and creative thinking, we talk about it in the context of whether students can use this type of thinking in making headway when they're looking for jobs.

Bharati Jagdish: Some would say, surely, there needs to be a proper use for whatever it is that you're learning, an economic value, because we can't all live on fresh air and love.

Kok Heng Leun: No, I have never denied the importance of economic values. I think that's equally important. That's part of our cultural life, but that cannot be our only source of cultural life. What we have here is that economic values seem to be everything, but our cultural lives have so many things, our family, economics, the society, the environment.

Bharati Jagdish: You said there needs to be more investment in creative and critical thinking, but you've also said to me today that the teachers in school are not able to execute this. So how can this be implemented better? How can arts education and creative and critical thinking actually become a part of the DNA of the education system?

Kok Heng Leun: I think we need to go back to teacher training. At the moment, a lot of teachers are so busy organising events in school, sometimes I would tell them: “I think if you quit teaching, you'd be a good event manager.”

And a lot of them tell me that they think so too. So we need to create more space for them. I think we need to actually create more space in the syllabus and curriculum, such that there is room for more discussion and more critical thinking processes in the classroom. Teachers should be partnered with artists in schools. They should be trained pedagogically. And that means a total shift. So I think we need to really relook the training of a teacher, very substantially.

Another thing I think is important is the idea of playing and improvising. We need the skill of improvisation to deal with change in our lives. Teachers must learn to give and take. For example, if a student proposes an idea that is beyond your imagination, would you take that idea, and hop onto it? I suggest art because it creates a very good safe space for you to do it. And the teachers can jump into the safe space and say, what we have discussed is within the context of this safe space. Then you will have to have critical discourse and think whether the same idea can be placed into your everyday life, and you can then adjust it and transpose it into your lives.

Bharati Jagdish: You mentioned the pressure of exams.

Kok Heng Leun: Yes, I think we really shouldn't have PSLE. Now, students in Primary 3 are learning how to answer questions. When they start learning how to answer questions for the examination, they stop thinking. I can understand why we have PSLE, so that they know how to stream the students into secondary schools. But the examination may not be the only way, because the detrimental impact of this examination is really scary. You just need to go to schools, and you just need to see how students, or even teachers are pressurised by it.

Bharati Jagdish: So what alternative do you suggest, in the way the education system can be constructed in order to adequately incorporate the various elements you mentioned?

Kok Heng Leun: I think the IB (International Baccalaureate) system can be slightly adjusted and be used for all students, but without streaming. I think there are models that we can look at, and I would suggest that we go for that. Now, even when ministers talk about the concept of “play more and learn more” in schools, my first question is: Would you change your syllabus, would you relook your examination structure? If not, you're going to have the same problem.

Kok Heng Leun soundcloud


Bharati Jagdish: You’ve mentioned that you want to act as a mediator between artists and the authorities. And you said in the media some time ago, that the relationship between the two sides has become problematic in the one and a half years since the last arts NMP, Janice Koh, was in Parliament in 2014. You mentioned the things that have occurred since then that you perceive as problems. For instance, the public outcry over the National Arts Council's withdrawal of funds last year from comic artist Sonny Liew's graphic novel on Singapore history. Sonny, by the way, just won an award.

Kok Heng Leun: Yup.

Bharati Jagdish: And the Media Development Authority's ban on public screenings of Tan Pin Pin's documentary To Singapore with Love. But this actually generated public discussions about the film and about censorship. Can this be construed as an achievement, rather than a problem? Singaporeans came out to speak up about these issues.

Kok Heng Leun: I think having discussions without watching the movie doesn’t make a lot of sense. Once you watch the movie, Pin Pin's work, you’ll realise that there's a lot for you to excavate. Then the argument, the discussion can be deeper. A lot of people who talked about it, took a stand without seeing it. I think good discussion comes with information and knowledge.

Bharati Jagdish: But you’ve also talked about how we need to understand another person's perspective, that one shouldn’t try to impose one’s views on another person. Some people trust the authorities and may not want these pieces of work in the public domain. What about people who feel this way?

Kok Heng Leun: Well, the book is on the shelf, you can decide not to pick it up. For the movie, you have to buy a ticket. You can choose not to. Let’s look at the current issue of Pink Dot and the Wear White movement. If Pink Dot says: “Go away, Wear White. You shouldn’t exist”, I would have a problem with Pink Dot and vice versa. Why can't they co-exist? I think it's only right that we spend time thinking about why they are there, rather than to first negate their existence, and then feel threatened.

Bharati Jagdish: You clearly take issue with the way the Government has been handling such issues. How do you think it should be dealing with such issues?

Kok Heng Leun: Let the artist, the relevant authorities, the relevant stakeholders speak with the public. Have a public debate, talk about it, mediate within it. If it doesn't solve the problem, then we look at what the law has provided. Rather than just jump on it, and try to appease people without allowing dialogue to happen. So this mediating platform becomes important. And this is something that I would hope that this Government would consider. The various agencies must be there. So definitely MDA has to be there. I think the artist and the public have to be there. If it involves other agencies like religious bodies, let them be there. It should be as open as possible. But it must have good facilitators who ask critical questions and process the feedback critically.

Bharati Jagdish: When we talk about the public though, it'll usually end up being the vocal few who would speak up.

Kok Heng Leun: Yeah.

Bharati Jagdish: So is there any real way of gauging what's in the public interest or what is of public concern?

Kok Heng Leun: I think that’s something that we must accept. We can only represent those who want to be represented. We can only speak for those who want to be spoken for. So if you care enough, you must come up and speak about it, let’s start a dialogue. For those who decide that they do not want to be involved, that means they do not care for the decisions.


Bharati Jagdish: And clearly if the education system nurtured people to be critical thinkers, such dialogue can be done more meaningfully. Considering that all this could be seen as being inconvenient in terms of decision-making and policy-making, do you think the Government will listen to you and actually work towards this?

Kok Heng Leun: If they have said that they're willing to listen, I must believe that they will. If you stop believing that, then there's no point being a mediator. We want to negotiate and we want to discuss. We are not looking to always counter the Government. We are actually trying to open up all the windows.

Bharati Jagdish: It’s obvious that you want the Government to take the arts more seriously, and you want it to be on the national policy agenda. How are you planning to convince them to take it more seriously?

Kok Heng Leun: First, I think we need to convince Singaporeans that art is important. Honestly, this Government, like any government, will listen when the people start making decisions at the polling station. So if the public starts to see art as important, that would make our job easier. It is the artists’ job to reach out to the public. I think art should be a priority. For example, when you tear down a building, do you actually do a cultural impact assessment? I think that's very important. I know one of the things that I really want is for every government ministry and department to have a cultural policy that governs decisions.

That makes a lot of sense, because then you're saying that "my policy is not just about dollars and cents, but it affects the way we live, the way we make decisions, the way we articulate ourselves, our value system".

We should have cultural policy in every ministry, not have culture as a separate ministry. If it's about the dollars and cents, then you must find some way to justify all these dollars and cents. Do you value heritage as importantly as those dollars and cents? Why? I think it's about finding that equation. And I think we have not talked through that enough.

Bharati Jagdish: So how do you plan to convince the public that this is important? How do you plan to convince a public whose sensibilities generally lean towards utilitarian concerns?

Kok Heng Leun: First, do your art well. So as an artist you must have the skill. It’s about shifting sensibilities. Make the invisible, visible. Make the unheard, heard. The unspoken - give them the voice. I think these three things are very important. When the public sees something and they go: "Oh dear, I've never thought about that, I've never seen that, or it's actually around me but I've not seen it." That moves them. And if the education system changes, it will help.

Bharati Jagdish: There have been so many programmes introduced by the Government - community arts programs. Soon the arts will be brought into preschools. Why isn’t all this good enough? Enough for you to say: "Yes, the Government realises the importance of the arts.”

Kok Heng Leun: My feel about what the Government has done, is that quite a fair bit of the initiatives, for example, some of the community arts programmes, feel more like embellishments. They seem to be merely icing on the cake. The participatory art that happens at that level sometimes can be really patronising. You just do some art and craft and you just draw something, and is supposed to be as if you are creating art and experiencing art. Or someone drew a template, and you coloured the template. That is not really art-making. I don't think that kind of experience is deep enough.

The art-making process is deep, and always engaging. What we really need to do is start looking at engagement on a much deeper level. People need to ask how much of that creation came from themselves? How much of it was an articulation of themselves? How much of it was an articulation of their thoughts, about the people around them or the environment they are in? The Government needs to focus on the intangibles instead of just footfall.

You shouldn’t just watch a play and then go off and say “Hey, I've watched a play.” and forget about it. You want them to, after watching the play, sit around and say why this play touches them. Why this play offended them? What is it that connects with me? This will actually make us a much more discerning and critical-thinking public.

Bharati Jagdish: You also believe that all of this can inform the way we do the utilitarian things that need to be done. For instance, make money, go to school, do a business?

Kok Heng Leun: There was a BBC programme that I thought was very interesting. Soldiers who are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq had to go for philosophy lessons. Why? Because they didn't want the soldiers to be mere war machines. They want the soldiers to consider the decisions that they have to make in that moment. Even if you want to make your money, you must know why you are making the money, how it impacts you, the choices you make, how it affects your life, the lives of the people around you. I don't think we want a society whereby we make money while not thinking about the people around us, and the impact on society. Businessmen should talk more to artists.

Kok Heng Leun video 1

Bharati Jagdish: How would this help?

Kok Heng Leun: Artists make art about places, the environment, issues. And a lot of art-makers make predictions in their own way. They are so sensitive about what happens to society. Art also imagines possible futures. If businesses start talking to artists, they’ll realise that we are all trying to understand what our future is and create solutions and prepare for the future. We make art to express, but at the same time, to empower and actually create a lot of imagination. The most important thing is to actually allow the two sectors to cross-pollinate and learn from each other.


Bharati Jagdish: Minister Grace Fu actually responded to some of the things that you said in Parliament. And she said there is in fact now, more space than before for arts expression, and experimentation. Do you agree with that statement?

Kok Heng Leun: I would say that there is a bit more space, but it has always been three steps forward, two steps back. Take for example, Pin Pin's work. I’ve always wondered what problem the authorities have with her work. Is it about who defines history? Why is history such a minefield that you cannot step in? Why can't we have an alternative take, learn about history from a much more macro level, rather than just see it as one narrative. I would say that in the last few years, I’ve seen more cases of plays being questioned and stopped. And there has been more resistance.

Bharati Jagdish: Why do you think this has happened? One would think with time, we, the public and the Government, would be more progressive, more liberal, more relaxed and open about these things. Why aren't we?

Kok Heng Leun: To be honest I think that last few years we have been at a very important part of the development of Singapore. Last year was SG50. It seems it was a time when we wanted to start to think about what makes Singapore, what is our future. And it was the time to have critical discourse and dialogue about it.

And I can understand why the powers-that-be would start to worry about how that narrative would be written. They want to be cautious and they want to make sure that the right thing is being written, the right thing as perceived by themselves. That would give them the authority of power for the future. So I think that’s why it has become contentious.

Bharati Jagdish: Minister Fu also said that there is still a need for rules engagement to safeguard social harmony and she did say that it is only with social harmony that we can enjoy the peace and ultimately the freedom that comes with it. In the context of what you just said, and this statement by the minister, do you think the Government has been and is being not just cautious, but overly so?

Kok Heng Leun: Yes, but actually as artists when we make work, we are also very careful. We also think about how this work would reach out to the public, what the engagement may be like. So I think it is not about whether the Government or the artists are constrained by the rules of engagement. We all consider the rules of engagement. I think it's the definition of what harmony means. So if we look at it musically when we think about harmony, we're thinking about tunes and chords that come together. But think of a Stravinsky piece.

Bharati Jagdish: Perfectly harmonious in spite of the discordant notes.

Kok Heng Leun: Yes, there is discord within the work, yet it sounds perfectly right. I think the harmony that is being proposed by the Government is about wanting to hear only a singular narrative and tune, not allowing counter points to co-exist. The definition of harmony has to be opened up.

Bharati Jagdish: It’s not all about consensus. It shouldn’t have to be?

Kok Heng Leun: Yes, and in fact, the world has never been orderly. The world has always been chaotic. When we keep trying to force order within chaos, we're taking away people's ability to appreciate and understand chaos, and to learn to deal with chaos.

Bharati Jagdish: In that context, to what extent do you think the Government just doesn’t trust the public?

Kok Heng Leun: I think they're being paranoid. And yes, the Government doesn’t trust the public enough. The Government needs to trust the public. My experience is that when we started doing forum theatre, which is very interactive and with a lot of discourse in the year 2000, initially, people thought that most Singaporeans would not want to talk. And secondly, there was a general feeling that Singaporeans do not know how to talk, don't know how to discourse. And thirdly, that if we do such interactive theatre, it would become a public nuisance and we would create public disturbances. After doing this for more than 16 years, I have not had a case whereby the public came and created any disturbance to the process. The moment when you start trusting the public, I think the public would want to take care of the space. And I think they're most willing to talk about difficult issues. There is so much fear.

The bureaucrats have so much fear and they're transferring their fear to the public, especially in Singapore where the public holds the government in high esteem. If this Government does not learn how to relax and be confident, and at that the same time, be able to listen and to trust, the public too will never be that way.

Bharati Jagdish: You wouldn’t really know, until you really push the boundaries though in terms of content.

Kok Heng Leun: That’s why I think we need to do all this concurrently. The education system becomes very important, and I'm not just talking about schools, it should happen in businesses, it should happen in workplaces. I’m hoping that people, through the arts, learn more about themselves, develop confidence, learn how to interact with others, learn about their environment.


Bharati Jagdish: You did mention in your speech in Parliament a month ago that we need to learn how not to be easily offended when others disagree with our views when discussing difficult issues. How do you think we can get to this place where we're not so easily offended, where we can deal with disagreements in a mature manner?

Kok Heng Leun: We need to get more involved in discussion and argument, to build our confidence to articulate, for instance: “Oh, this is the vision that I have for Singapore, or this is the vision I have about my life, at least within my community.” With such confidence, you become more ready to take on challenges. And then when you're ready to take on challenges, you fight. But you fight knowing that there's something that you're fighting for, rather than you fight just because you feel threatened.

That's why I always go back to art. Because when you really learn about who you are, you learn how to take criticism.

And with that you actually open up many windows for yourself to be receptive, to be empathetic, to listen, and yet to be able to be prepared to defend your ground. Neither is it black or white. It doesn't mean that just because someone doesn’t agree with you, and openly contradicts you, that you're a “nobody”. It doesn't mean that your stand is any weaker.

In school, we tend to learn only about how to score well. Sometimes we learn how to work with people so that we can work in groups, also to score well. But we forget that fundamentally, it should be about learning to appreciate and learning to accept yourselves. Sometimes, I think, and this may be going too far, but I think that we should do philosophy in primary schools. Start from the simple question of, “Who am I?” It is important to know who you are so that you know how to interact with others. You’ll know how not to be offended, because you’ll know how to protect yourself, how to defend yourself while being receptive to others. You’ll know when you'll be offended. Then you can get out of the discussion.

The other thing I have an issue with is actually funding conditions. What’s tied to grants. For example, funded work cannot deal with particular types of content. I still have a problem with it.

Kok Heng Leun (1)


Bharati Jagdish: A lot of artists do. They take issue with the fact that funding is tied to whether the piece furthers the national agenda. But if you disagree, you can always say “no” to government funding.

Kok Heng Leun: We’re such a small nation with few resources. And it's such a small market. We can't run away from the fact that, in a way, Government support for the arts is an important part of the ecology.

Bharati Jagdish: So the Government might argue we have limited resources, therefore we only want to put money into work that actually furthers some of our national goals, rather than work that questions the national goals.

Kok Heng Leun: I would say that if you look through all the things that artists have said, and the things the Government has said, we have the same goal.

Bharati Jagdish: Which is?

Kok Heng Leun: We just want a better Singapore. I think we all have the same goal. So we must know that.

Bharati Jagdish: But your idea of what it takes to get a better Singapore is different from the Government’s. Your idea of a better Singapore in itself, could be different.

Kok Heng Leun: Yeah. So, what I'm arguing is that for example, there is the Sedition Act to put things in order, why do you need censorship?

Bharati Jagdish: The Government may be taking a prophylactic approach. Let's not let it get to that point. Take steps to prevent it from even getting to the point, where the law needs to be used.

Kok Heng Leun: The problem with that is if you don't start to let things happen, and before it happens, you start clamping down, you're not going to grow any wiser. I think what we need is not a reactionary Singapore. We need a wiser Singapore.

Bharati Jagdish: Ultimately though, all work has to be rated by the authorities anyway. You talked about Tan Pin Pin's work. I’m sure you’ve been through similar situations in your engagement with the authorities.

Kok Heng Leun: We have had over the years, many different productions. Sometimes it was an issue with ratings. Sometimes they just didn't want the play to be put out at all. Sometimes they would want us to remove an entire scene.

Bharati Jagdish: And you've done it.

Kok Heng Leun: Because sometimes you just have to do it, and then you try to work with it, and you realise that it is actually a farce. We had a production about new migrants, and it was done in public. We were talking about the interaction between locals and new migrants and the first act was actually about the difficulties. In between, we actually planned to flash newspaper cuttings from the local media. So they wanted us to remove the first act. They felt that because it was to be played out in public, the public would only see the first act and react. Then, they told us to remove the newspaper cuttings, because they felt that it would mislead the audience, because these newspaper cuttings would put the focus on the various migrant issues. I think it's farcical. If that’s the case, then we should tell the newspapers not to write these things. We had to do it, if we wanted to perform. So what I did was that I removed the segment from the act, but we posted them on Facebook, and told the audience to go into their smartphones and look at Facebook. We got a warning.

Bharati Jagdish: I asked another theatre practitioner this as well when he expressed similar thoughts: Why do you stay in Singapore working under such conditions when it clearly makes you unhappy? He said that because he is Singaporean, he feels a connection and the answer to such problems is not to disengage, but to try to change things. You’ve expressed similar sentiments in the past. So how do you cope?

Kok Heng Leun: Let me put it this way. The first time you have a problem, the second time you try again, the third time you try again. Maybe, if they get used to the narrative, they’ll feel less fearful. You have to try to take these incremental steps. You sometimes just have to do this.

Bharati Jagdish: Is there room to negotiate with the Government when these things happen? As far as I know, you tend to get your ratings at the last minute.

Kok Heng Leun: Yes, I wish they could give it to us earlier, but there's no room to negotiate. So in the case of the production I was talking about earlier, we were informed a week earlier.

Bharati Jagdish: What if all these things you’re proposing never come into being?

Kok Heng Leun: I'm prepared. I'm sure there are some issues whereby we would not have a lot of space. Some battles take a long time.

Bharati Jagdish: Going forward, what exactly is your long-term goal, what exactly do you want to achieve?

Kok Heng Leun: My simple wish is that any person who walks in a public area can see an artwork and be inspired by that artwork. They can be inspired by nature, that they do not think just about their everyday life, but they think about how, what they do has an impact on everyday life.

Source: CNA/cy