Monday, December 28, 2009

Singapore Idol and the invisibility of the Chinese majority

You know what? I am very happy for Sezairi Sezali, the third Singapore Idol.

I haven't followed a single episode of Singapore Idol this season, because I cannot stand the tackiness and plasticity of the pop music industry. But at least someone could and he made it.

Sezairi is a musician. He makes band music. And someone who makes band music is an Idol winner. That is quite a feat.

If you're from a band in Singapore, you're most likely to be labelled "indie". You'll most likely to perform before a crowd of youths, clad in dark coloured t-shirts, black skin-tight jeans, thick plastic framed spectacles, wind-swept hair and the whole get-up, which borrows influences from an assortment of subcultures such as emo and goth.

To make that transition to a pop music platform is quite a remarkable feat.

The essential yet contentious element to the Idol show is the voting. Popularity and fanaticism matters in the pop music industry. You need to generate demand for your products, i.e. artistes, their music and relevant merchandising.

As with past Singapore Idols, we've got a male ethnic Malay winner. But this season, instead of your long-haired ethnic Chinese finalist, we had a woman of Filipino heritage.

Singapore Idol teaches us something more important than having talented Singaporeans work hard and fulfill their dreams; we learn about the ethnic idiosyncrasies that have come to characterise our nation.

We learn that non-ethnic Chinese solidarity is strong as always in Chinese-majority Singapore. It is the ethnic Malays who set a shining example on how to support members of your own community, and often times, unconditionally. It appears to me that the ethnic Malays are also openly supportive of our countrymen and women. If you need examples, just look at the folks who actually turn up at the stadium to support our national football team.

The visibility of such support from our ethnic minority Singaporeans reflect the invisibility of the ethnic Chinese Singaporeans. In my opinion, the Chinese are relatively more calculated, overly rational(ised) and often times too cynical and unsporting to join in or even match half the fervour and passion displayed by our Malay friends.

We are too cynical to have a hero of Chinese ethnicity.

When people start criticising Singapore Idol, and make those Malay-reference jibes, we need to start wondering why the Chinese are so invisible and inactive. There is something in our upbringing, "values" and socio-economic conditions that mould our social behaviour as such.

Well, I think some (or most, if you liked it) ethnic Chinese Singaporeans are too obsessed with the big picture, the end product of things, and everything they see or experience has to have some pragmatic function, that we forget to smell the roses. We will fidget with impatience whenever we try to stand behind a potential hero/icon, because we probably do not like the idea of making the little sacrifices to support/help another person, as it is considered irrational to do something that doesn't result in immediate benefit to yourself.

I speak for myself too. I have never voted in any Singapore Idol season. It is because I do not want to part with my money. Perhaps there is a cultural element to stinginess, and if there was, it would have shades of Chinese-ness.

The stereotypical Chinese would be one who will only support so long as it does not come as a great expense. He/she would expect something in return, because that is only rational. However, reducing it to (race-based) culture would be too simplistic. We need to consider national culture and our political culture. Singapore is all about carrots and sticks, and the entire civil and public service (private sector too, actually) is all about rational milestones, pragmatic decisions and more pragmatism.

It is a political and social system, created and sustained by a Chinese elite of politicians, community leaders and businessmen, so obviously ethnic Chinese integration into this system would be seamless like urinating into a public swimming pool (I KNOW YOU DO IT!). It is so seamless we think of it to be natural, and do not question it or critically evaluate or appreciate our Chinese position in an elite Chinese-run Singapore.

That is why, inadvertently, we alienate other ethnicities. We think of our system as a fair system, that is rational, and ding ding ding "multicultural" and "cosmopolitan", and other words cooked up by the Chinese elite.

Symbolically, and to indulge in some twisted (pseudo-)anthropological analysis, Singapore Idol is an opiate for the ethnic Malay Singaporeans. It gives them the hero they can so celebrate, and takes the attention (and pain) away from the political, social and economic realities they face in Chinese-dominated Singapore.

Be Malay is very important, especially in an environment in which there is rapid deculturalisation and suffocating ethnic Chinese political and economic discourses saturating your social and political spaces.

The Chinese have been streamlined and knocked out of their respective heritages and cultural identities. No dialects but Mandarin. Half-baked English and half-baked Mandarin. Urbanised and compartmentalised. Increasingly less affinity to culture, but to your Church (especially the ethnic Chinese Christians). I say it's a result of policy and how we are socially governed. We have our culture of kiasu-ism, microcosmic of how the PAP government runs the place.

I don't value cultural identity or national identity as much, but the ethnic Malay Singaporean have shown how solidarity works and how you can derive happiness from it. The industry may not believe in Malay talents, but they will always have a community who do so. A 7-11 endorsement is a pure insult, and just reflects the industry's confidence in our talents. Surely there can be more Singaporeans doing more endorsements. We don't need a caucasian or a pan-asian (except me) telling us what to buy or how to live our lives.

I hope Sezairi gets to have creative freedom to do his stuff, and not be overly disciplined by the industry. Pave the way for band music!


zee said...

Thank you for this post.

charinef said...

very good post. i didnt follow any episode of any season but i've seen him singing in one of the shows, a talent, a different one among all, definitely.


小心 said...

love reading your writings! :)

Sam Ho said...

thank you for your kind words.

if anything at all, we should have more talent contests. we're already so caught up with the rat race and so buttoned up, we should indulge in some local talents and hone them

shonendumm said...

I only watched the first few episodes of SI, to see the rejections.

Wasn't into SI at all... prefer band music/songwriters rather than solo performers.

87th Farn said...

hello there. I happen to chance upon ur blog. Must say that I am glad that a non-Malay has actually stated as such. I think it is a very constructive view which all Singaporeans should read about.

Azhar Hafiz said...

+1 to this blog post

- Malay Singaporean