Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Celebrating Singaporeana: Happy 46th

In my friend Lucian's post, he admitted having the sort of prejudice some Singaporeans might have towards things made or achieved by Singaporeans:
It is true that for some obscure reason, Singaporeans look down on other Singaporeans. “Made in America” comes with the notion that the product is heavy-duty; “made in Japan”, quality; “made in the UK”, quaint. But when you talk about something that is “made in Singapore”, it is always the Singaporeans who’ll be first in line to pull it down. You’ll often hear things like “trying too hard to be [insert name of western country]” or “cannot make it”. Best of all, these criticisms are uttered by the ones who’ve never had the guts to even try.

I know, because I’m guilty of it.
(Btw the context of his post was Inch Chua's Open Letter to Singapore; her facebook post has been removed but you can read a repost here).

Lucian's admission struck a chord with me. I, too, displayed a similar sort of prejudice a few weeks earlier.

I was reading a book containing stories written by Singaporeans. The title of the book isn't the point. The point was my unconscious judgement, comparing those stories with my favourite non-Singaporean authors. I felt the "made in Singapore" stories were not "good enough".

On one hand, I desperately wanted to like the stories. On the other, I wanted to admit the stories didn't appeal to me. I even tried to rationalise why those stories weren't appealing to my tastes. My reasoning came up short.

I was torn between wanting the stories to be great, and having to acknowledge they were not.

Then I realised something else.

Even though I would not consider those stories to be 'great', I had managed to read the entire book from cover to cover. I read every single story. That was already an achievement. There have been contemporary best-selling authors whose works I can never read past chapter one, or less.

Once I got past my mental literary-hang up, it was easy to see what else was good about those stories. They were technically competent. There were no glaring spelling or grammatical errors. The story ideas may not have made me go "wow" (actually, very few stories can) but they were not run-of-the-mill ones. It was clear the authors put in what they were worth, and not out to insult the intelligence of the reader.

I also realised I didn't have to like every single story in that "made by Singaporeans" book.

Perhaps this sort of reader reaction is part of the literary territory. We all have our personal yardsticks against what we consider as 'best'. And I think it's healthy to compare, so that there's some specific literary target to aim for.

However, I think we Singaporean readers have to be mindful not to confuse "setting a goal" with "expecting every Singaporean author to write like [insert name of your favorite author]".

Another friend of mine is fond of saying, "Don't celebrate mediocrity".

I agree.

I'm not suggesting we endorse or embrace, by default, everything "made in Singapore" or "by Singaporeans". If the works are shoddy, we should say so. But I believe we should not impose undue expectations or comparisons. Enjoy the work -- a play, music, a piece of creative fiction -- for what they are worth.

We should not confuse "not being unique" with "not good".

If we have a flower that smells like a rose, it's OK to compare with another blossom in the next yard. But let's not forget: that very flower, grown in our garden, still smells sweet.

Happy 46th, Singapore.