Forum: Playwright a 'loving critic'? Maybe not

Alfian Sa'at has often been critical of the establishment in his writing and called for more freedom of expression in the arts.
Alfian Sa'at has often been critical of the establishment in his writing and called for more freedom of expression in the arts.PHOTO: ST FILE

A number of prominent Singaporeans have come out in support of playwright Alfian Sa'at, calling him a "loving critic" and supporting a more benign interpretation of his poetry (Minister's citing of Alfian Sa'at poem sparks storm, Oct 9 Oct).

I agree that any work of literature is subject to interpretation. I am no literary expert, nor do I have a sophisticated understanding of what the poem in question is about. But when seen in the context of what else Mr Alfian has said and done, it is quite possible to see the poem as something other than loving.

Mr Alfian, while professing a love for his country, seems to have a bone to pick on everything about it. It is no different from a man who says he loves his wife, but wishes she were someone else.

More troubling, his approach to the Yale-NUS College programme shows that he is prepared to encourage young Singaporeans to take up more aggressive forms of dissent to achieve the change expressed in his literary work. This is despite the situation in Hong Kong giving us a good live example of how such movements can easily turn into something far more damaging.

It is in fact irresponsible of Mr Alfian to retreat to the position of being an artist, not an activist.

Had the programme at Yale-NUS been allowed to go on, students who inadvertently break the law while participating in it would have had no such defence. Neither do the activists that Mr Alfian had invited to the programme.

In any case, it should not be that our laws and systems somehow apply less to Mr Alfian because he identifies himself as an artist.

All of this casts doubts on Mr Alfian's views on Singapore and his attitude towards Singaporeans.

Professor Tommy Koh may wish to consider that the gap between being "anti-Singapore" and being a "loving critic" is wide.

Mr Alfian could easily fall in the middle - not entirely worth demonising, but also not someone the average Singaporean might want to embrace wholeheartedly.

Isla Hema Koh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2019, with the headline 'Playwright a 'loving critic'? Maybe not'. Print Edition | Subscribe