Sunday, September 27, 2009

Seagulls on the Ris

I figured I should join the crowd of spectators, and gather around a recent exhibit that has garnered considerable cyber attention.

It appears, in the case of Miss Singapore World 2009, Ris Low, there is an intimate - yet boredering on obsessive - relationship between the exhibit and the audience.

On the surface, it is plain to see how most of us will examine the exhibit. We individualise its qualities and view it in isolation. This makes it easier for one to make esteem-damaging jibes at the 19 year old, and all the more are we inclined to do it given recent news of her committing credit card fraud

At another but unpopular and inconvenient level, we see her as a possible window to what is wrong with society, and under what circumstances and conditions that have led to such a spectacle.

And then, we turn our attention to the audience. Wee Shu Min and the Intellectual Snob persona have already revealed some interesting qualities of us people. It already has been revealed to us how individuals and people react to certain things, and frame their arguments and criticisms.

The more that is said, the more that is revealed about how they think, how they are morally oriented, how they are socialised and perhaps what their characters are.

The more that is said, we come to know how people perceive certain issues and what areas of concerns they are more predisposed to.

I believe that the "actor" on the "stage" only tell less than half the story; for the audience is key to the narrative.

The actor holds an advantage over the audience, as when they have come to exist in the theatre, it is the audience who more readily and unknowingly, surrender their ability of self-reflexivity. The audience becomes too preoccupied with the drama, and as the drama entwines itself with their respective subjectivities and predispositions, they are taken in, relinquishing any thought of introspection during the performance.

Unfortunately, I think Ris Low is equally as disadvantaged as the mob that makes her newsworthy, for she probably had not intended to be a spectacle outside the domain of beauty pageantry.

Inadvertently, she has not only revealed how malicious and/or unforgiving we are, but also the social standards we use to judge others.

She reveals how people in a nation, that continually and conscientiously celebrates difference, has on an ad hoc basis, come to impose categories and expectations of what is the 'right' way of being. This is a paradox: On the one hand, we promote diversity, but on the other, we demand some standardisation and streamlining that omits people of the same demography as Ris.

People see what they want to see and interpret things according to how they see it. And that is how some have come to associate my discussion on Ris Low with my discussion on the person, when my focus is actually on the circumstances that led to us to giving her the unhealthy attention in the first place. In simple words, I don't really care about Ris Low, but am more interested in the people who "care" about her and how they represent themselves when they enter the discussion.

It is very much similar to coffeeshop talk about how evil the government is. In this case, we give attention not to the evil-ness of the government, but rather the subjectivities that underlie such a discussion, as well as the relevant relationships.

By convention, we are often more preoccupied with the discussed than the discussor. A topic of discussion doesn't exist without someone saying something. And after something is said/discussed, the sayer/discussor fades behind the discussion.

Quite a number of Singaporeans, as already acknowledged by some netizens, speak like Ris, if not "worse". On the one hand, we try to promote Singapore as cosmopolitan yet "uniquely Singaporean", and on the other hand, we are appalled by the extent to which Ris Low has (seemingly) naturally localised - but destroyed - the English language.

Through the criticisms, we have come to realise that in certain domains, the localisation of certain things are prohibited, simply because of image - we worry what others might think of us.

Well, "boomz" is probably a spontaneous concocted onomatopoeia that explains eye-catching flambouyance and extravagence. The Tamil, Bahasa Melayu and Mandarin languages on television are also seeing some lax in 'standards' from a linguistically conservative point of view. English is borrowed into the dialogue, and so are various colloquial expressions/exclamations, like "lah", "lor", "hor" in Mandarin dialogue.

There is also the cultural element, when Chinese pop cultural slapstick enters the domain of Mandarin dialogue. When a person says something outrageous, his two friends will "fly" backwards as if they were literally hit by a train. They go "biiiissshhhh". When someone says something ludicrous, the more anglicised folk will go "roll my eyes" while the Chinese slapstick folk will go "diaozzz".

It is probably most accidental (and most natural) that Ris reveals such intersections of cultural expressions. On the one hand, we observe a lack of English vocabulary, but on the other, there is some degree of amalgamation. We may see amalgamation, or we may see corruption of the English langauge. As if we owned it, right? And who are we trying to impress when we attempt to enforce it? Sure, there's some economic value in speaking proper English, because of its linguistic (and to some extent, cultural) hegemony.

There are tensions in how we manage culture - we push for homogenisation and heterogenisation/diversity at the same time, and in certain contexts or domains of political correctness, we place more value in the adoption of certain positions.

It is unfortunate that Ris Low is guilty of credit card fraud, not because of the dishonest and morally wayward act of committing fraud, but the extent to which the news of it validates existing and unconnected criticisms of her.

Like Season One and Two Phua Chu Kang, Ris has become the whipping boy, or girl rather, for the "problem" that is broken English. Yet, we probably will never fathom how much more authentic Ris is compared to say, Irene Ang's Rosie Phua.

It reveals the extent to which we apply (or remove) the concession of "nobody's perfect" in certain contexts, and for others, we impose a "you better be perfect" mantra.

Ris and the accompanying drama both present us with the opportunity to critique and rethink beauty pageants. However, there still remain those who treat beauty pageants as unproblematic, and any problem would lie in and be isolated to the contestant. As we unravel the "problem" with pageants, we begin to realise the extent to which we ordinary people, members of society, are related to these pageants. Of course, in the case of Singapore, it is somewhat an apathetic relationship, which explains the dismal sponsorship for our Miss Universe and Miss World local competitions, unless there is something really scandalous about the contestants worthy exploring in cyberspace. And again, from where I am coming, a "scandal" does not exist in isolation, but require the socially desirable attributes of sensationalism and the fixation of an audience base. Fetish is a two-way relationship.

I wonder if Ris will have a release or do an interview in light of recent events. Maybe she'll do a Cantona and talk about seagulls.


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Augustus said...

It's interesting that you've shifted the focus onto the audience of this spectacle.

I must admit that I was at first taken aback by her performance, as it were - she was, after all, being interviewed in an official capacity.

Perhaps it's in this "lifting of the veil" and revealing how representative the actor might be of the average person that the audience finds disconcerting - especially with our society's history of image management.

Over time, I did find her interview rather humanizing, but that's probably not what people want to see. Such representatives are less important as humans, and more important as symbols.

Great post :-)

Joe said...

Do you think she should represent Singapore?

Given that she's lied about informing the organisers, on top of her criminal charges and her apparent lack of remorse in the matter?

Augustus said...

Well, the question of "should" may not be relevant in this context. One can certainly make a moral judgment about her actions, but that would be culturally relative.

But I do think she is representative in some way - be it in her official capacity, or in her embodiment of a stereotype.

The opposite would be to consider her anomalous - in which case, I doubt there would exist such strong reactions.

Sam Ho said...

sgbluechip, i don't think my blog will look nice with ads and banner ads.

now that ris has been charged and appears not so remorseful, i think all the more she should represent singapore haha. for 2 reasons, 1 we have this idea of a yellow ribbon project, where we want to give a second chance, and 2, showing no remorse is a common singaporean thing. quite ironic.

~Pink Miu Miu~ said...

Mm search your conscience and ask your heart: have u not erred before? Just because u are forgiven or got away with it or not being put on probation doesnt make u a saint compared to her and it's rather disgusting to see nasty comments posted here and there (FB, forums, blogs)..etc

Some of 'em are actually my friends but i dun agree with 'em and this incident sort of allow me to see who are my skin-deep acquaintances.. the more u say or write, the more u reveal..about yrself.

Any news of sensational value is of most valued but how many out there are really the truth and i mean the undeniable truth?

Anyway again, a well-analysed entry and at best at possible: unbiased. Hopefully like seagulls, she possesses the resourcefulness & high EQ to get out of this mess.. *grin*.

Joe said...

She's out of this mess all right. She just quit.

Xue Rong said...

You're right to say that the backlash following Ris Low's interview revealed the ugly side of Singaporeans, that as much as we extoll differences, we also require much homogenisation.

But I was among those who were appalled at her English and more importantly, her whole presentation in front of the media. Upon watching her interview on FB link, I commented on how shocked and somewhat disgusted I was. And I still stand by what I did, not because I absolutely detest her state of English but because she is the winner of Miss Singapore World.

Yes, I do agree when you say that most people who condemn her are in actuality not very different from her (and that they should stop this bashing), but I do not feel Ris Low has been victimised because she is (or was) Miss Singapore World, a title which naturally warrants a certain level of acceptable oratorical and presentation skills. Its not only a beauty contest, it's about the personality too. And I'm sorry to say that she came across as a rather bimbotic and unsuitable representation of a Miss World, even if we put her English skills aside (I was really appalled at the way she had to pause for a considerable length to think about what her diploma was).

In short, if it was just an interview with a normal Singaporean on the street, and if that person spoke exactly like Ris Low, I would flinch but wouldn't care much more. But for Ris Low, winner of Miss Singapore World, sorry I just can't accept.

Sam Ho said...

i think i'll appear like a "bimbo" too if i come across as forgetful, or speak in a language i'm not comfortable with. i'll be a "bimbo" if i take a considerable long time to answer certain questions, whether i'm nervous or not.

any way, what's wrong with having a "bimbo" represent the country on an international level? is the problem the inherent wrong-ness of bimbo-ness, or the country itself?

are bimbos or "bimbos" (whoever we call them) inherently bad?

and for me, with my own brand of feminism, i'm personally against the standards set by ms world/universe contests. the criteria for success of such competitions are confined to middle class aesthetics and skills.

some feminists may be against the idea of "bimbos" representing women, but the thing is, "bimbos" are women too.

that aside, i think ris low is fit to be ms world singapore, whether she's a credit card fraudster or not, whether she speaks good english or not, and whether she carries herself in a way that meets traditional expectations or not.

hypothetically, after all the publicity, if we still has ris as ms world singapore, some countries might laugh at us, but there will be others who will see that we are gracious and supportive of our own singaporean.

but of course, we love our "face" and reputation, and are not too comfortable with others who laugh at us.

for me, if a normal singaporean on the street appeared in a tv interview and spoke half-past six english, i wouldn't flinch at all, whether they are educated or not, young or old.

Carol said...

Dear Sam, I understand the academics of your argument. But to have a serial cheater (see the recent case about her having to re-take her MDIS exam because of notes found in her pencil case) represent Singapore, ah lian singlish or not, is to my opinion, unacceptable. This is a public forum, and I think anyone is as much entitled to express our disapproval as much as you are entitled to your approval of her. That is the intent of your post isn't it, to invite a public discussion. Nobody can deny an inherent character flaw, argument for equality or human rights notwithstanding. You have to acknowledge that to some extent. And I'm finding it increasingly worrying to hear people say that 'we make mistakes in our youth, forgive her la', as if it is a given rite of passage. Of course, this will blow over. Of course, people will forget about Ris Low after a while. Meanwhile, the discussion and public interest in her ensues. You'll realise that you are also too judging on the people you call judgemental. I used to speak up for the underdogs like a bad chronic knee jerk reaction. You'll also learn, like I have, don't be too quick to speak , or argue for the sake of it.

Sam Ho said...

my blog posts (not my comment posts) are more of an indication that i'm not interested in ris low or supportive whatsoever, because again, i am more interested in the reaction and discourses that have arisen in the wake of her 'scandals'.

i may appear to have sympathy for the underdog and i may appear to have some degree of frustration with her critiques, which i express in my posts as comments to the blog entries.

but like the first blog entry related to ris, i think some points mentioned, are already proven when readers (attempt to) interpret my position on ris low when i talk about her. my position in my blog posts is a non-position, because i couldn't care less about ris; she's not the subject of conversation.

the more labels and reasons we come up for her being unfit to represent singapore, the more we have to question ourselves and the discourses we subscribe to. unfortunately, we end up taking more things for granted and to be "true".

yes, this is to most people just a musing, that is not helpful to the "real world". that whole idea is also a discourse that most of us will use to neutralise arguments that might threaten a comfortable predisposition we may hold.

the intent of my posts is up to what readers make of it. for all we know, there are some who may think that i would purposely and cheekily adopt a position that is rather oppositional and too disagreeable that it will yield a reaction worth analysing. in other words, bait a response for analysis.

i'm always judging. as long as there is an adjective uttered in a blog post. it is a judgement. in fact, even a noun or a verb may suggest judgement.

ris may be on the one hand deviant, but that doesn't mean we should ignore discussing the conditions that make her deviance or her personality so sensational and google-worthy.

and lastly, i believe i have yet to make clear my honest opinion of ris low. i don't think i will, because that is not my intention.

Carol said...

You are hiding behind semantics.

The 'real world' has its prejudices, without which is the ideal world, which you champion.

But I like you! Please carry on, you remind me of a younger me. And that's not a bad thing at all.

Sam Ho said...

i hope that wasn't passive aggression.

the championing of ideals has a place in the 'real world'. ideals are a projection, might be a theoretical end, unachievable, but without them, we will not know the direction to which we should make change. i make change and i do change.

and some people in the 'real world' earn a living "hiding behind semantics".