- Theater and the Politics of Culture in Contemporary Singapore
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Once described as "Disneyland with the death penalty," Singapore remains ceaselessly fascinating to social commentators and cultural theorists for the irreconcilable tensions at the core of its modus operandi—one that has seen the country prosper, developing from colonial backwater to one of the richest Asian nations in a handful of years after achieving independence. These tensions are distinguishable by the plethora of oxymora that have been coined to characterize her state system, from "guided democracy" to "soft authoritarianism."William Peterson's book is among a growing list of tomes endeavoring to decipher the subtle codifications of Singapore's governance, deploying theatre as the conduit to understanding the various metanarratives used to fashion her inarguably successful yet unremittingly regulated social rubric. The title is therefore a bit of a misnomer in that the emphasis is less on the craft or practice of theatre than on the larger socioeconomic underpinnings of cultural policy. By configuring theatre as the locus of contestation for issues ranging from gender, censorship, and nationhood to alternative sexuality, Peterson's book, as another reviewer has shrewdly observed (Rae 2001:83), is more accurately titled Politics and the Culture of Theatre in Contemporary Singapore. For example, the chapter on "Festival Culture" is only tangentially related to theatre practice in Singapore, encompassing as it were events ranging from Singapore's annual Food Festival to her Busker Festival, and is concerned by and large with the instrumentalist approach to the programming of arts festivals by analyzing the latter's mission statements as well as diverse dubious attempts at legislating creativity. Likewise, the chapter on "Musical Theatre," though falling under the generic category of theatre, deserves its own canon and timeline, which, like its nonmusical counterpart, have not been sufficiently chronicled and documented in the earlier chapters. The result is a fragmented, self-contained chapter, an afterthought grafted to the corpus of the text.
Having lectured at the National University of Singapore for three years, Peterson is ideally positioned to undertake this dissection of Singapore's body politic. Academic objectivity notwithstanding, he combines firsthand experience of Singapore culture with the cynical detachment of an expatriate scholar who has been exposed to, but not internalized, its various discourses. The immediacy of personal encounter emerges in such minutiae as when Peterson recalls advertising panels along Orchard Road, Singapore's superconsumerist precinct, blatantly [End Page 173] touting the Caucasian body as the site of sexual commodification; or when he recounts the phenomenon of the young people of Singapore being more attuned to the Broadway musical than their own indigenous forms of Chinese opera, a fact he would have been privy to after interviewing and auditioning innumerable applicants to the university's theatre program during his term as a founding faculty member. His accessible writing style, aptly punctuated by a whimsical sense of humor (he describes a certain Singapore director as "an unapologetic fan of the [American soap] Models Inc. for its unrelentingly trashy qualities" ), makes his book an engaging read while belying its impressive range of references and its meticulous research, much of which is also evident in the substantial endnotes and annotations. The attention to detail is made manifest in such instances as his ironic aside on the character of Raffles (founder of the erstwhile colony of Singapore), in a scene from a local fantasy drama, who congratulates Singapore's prime minister for his achievements in racial harmony, when the selfsame Raffles in real life refused to recognize the marriage between his historical peer Colonel Farquhar and a native Malay woman (71). The first two chapters, "Setting the Stage" and "The Culture of Crisis," are especially comprehensive in their coverage, providing an essential infrastructure against which to appreciate the social attitudes and cultural dynamics of Singapore society.
However, the directness of his own confrontation also casts in high relief portions of the text where Peterson ostensibly relied on materials dispatched by a Singapore-based research assistant...