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The roadblocks to passion: Creativity and risk-taking won’t come with a Govt nod
By Teng Qian Xi
23 June 2003 0825 hrs (SST)

There was once a boy who was fascinated by mathematics. He made it to Cambridge on a military scholarship and was urged by his tutor in his first year to give up the army and pursue his passion. He, on the other hand, saw this choice as a neglect of his duty and instead returned to serve in the military of his tiny country.

I like to think that in a parallel universe, he spent the last couple of decades messing happily with numbers. In this one, he rose in politics and this year, faced a group of junior college students and told them what to do with their lives.

Having sacrificed his own passion for a higher calling, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong interestingly told this year’s Pre-University Seminar students to pursue what they were passionate about.

More ironic was the fact that after DPM Lee’s speech, students were barred from speaking to the press independently. This was also due to an “advice” from the Pre-University Seminar organisers, which reads: “If at any time you are independently approached by a member of the press ... give a listening ear to the request but politely decline to be interviewed.”

This schizophrenia is neither radical nor unexpected. What disturbed me was that the speech was a reaction to feedback from some students, who were looking to DPM Lee for guidance on what to do with their lives. That some, like 17-year-old Kang Li Ping, found relief in his directive was even more alarming.

Li Ping told Today: “We were very happy to get a very good answer, which is to pursue our passions when it comes to our career choice.”

Admittedly, we have long been conditioned to look elsewhere for affirmation. But why do young people need “a very good answer” from the authorities about whether or not to follow a passion? Moreover, why are they not looking further afield?

Information - and affirmation - can be gathered from so many other sources other than the tyrannical trinity of family, school and state.

The Internet, of course, is a resource unknown to previous generations. It is a way to learn about - and get involved in - the activities of Singaporeans like The Necessary Stage’s artistic director Alvin Tan, who pursued their passion long before the Government started encouraging people to.

The case of the JBJ documentary shows, however, that the Government still has a problem with passions that deviate from their boundaries.

Last year, a 15-minute documentary about former opposition politician
JB Jeyaretnam was made by three polytechnic lecturers. Originally scheduled to appear at last year’s Singapore Film Festival, it was quickly withdrawn and written apologies submitted by the makers.

By responding to what interested them, these lecturers had to deal with the aftermath, namely, the possibility of a fine of up to $100,000 or jail for up to two years.

Singapore’s Films Act bars films with “wholly or partly either partisan or biased references to or comments on any political matter” from being made, distributed or shown.

Enough speech-making.

Why not instead make sure that those who exercise passion are not threatened with the kind of aftermath faced by the three filmmakers or even “advice” of the kind given to the Pre-U Seminar participants?

Creativity and the willingness to take risks - be it in art, business, or scientific research - do not come when a minister gives you the okay.
It happens when you come across something that agitates you until, whether or not the state permits it, you must engage with it despite the odds.

Whether people can make something of this drive depends on the Government’s willingness to take a far more active step in removing the roadblocks they have placed there.

No doubt, with the constant threat of being punished, it is still possible to pursue individual beliefs and interests, but if the Government does not take the initiative in opening up, these will remain private quests for most Singaporeans.

Yet, on the other side of the Causeway, there is Mr Amir Muhammad. A contributor to Malaysia’s print media since the age of 14 and a filmmaker, he has also made two films.

A significant part of his latest film, The Big Durian, deals with Operation Lallang, namely the 1987 detention of more than 100 opposition leaders and activists under Malaysia’s Internal Security Act.

After being screened to a variety of domestic audiences, The Big Durian made it to this year’s Singapore Film Festival.

One hopes that the freedom to do similarly uncommon things in Singapore - unlike DPM Lee’s mathematics career - will not occur only in a parallel universe.

The writer is a student at Columbia University on a National Arts Council Arts Bursary (Overseas).

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