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On the Record – Simon Tay, Author

14 Jan On the Record – Simon Tay, Author

SIIA Chairman Simon Tay was interviewed by 938LIVE’s Bharati Jagdish on his work and his latest book, “Middle & First”. The interview was aired on Friday 13 Jan. The full audio is available on SoundCloud and a brief video clip was posted by 938LIVE on Facebook. A transcript of the interview was also posted on Channel NewsAsia on 14 Jan.

Even as Simon Tay has been described as “Singapore’s answer to Haruki Murakami”, he’s not only an award-winning author, but the head of a think-tank, a lawyer, a professor and a former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP).

Tay has been writing poetry and prose since he was a teenager. His novel City of Small Blessings won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2010 and is expected to be adapted into a feature film in the coming years. His latest work is Middle & First, a collection of short stories in two groups. “First” centres on the Singapore of the 1990s when an old way of life loses its grip in a rapidly changing society. “Middle” suggests what is happening to many Singaporeans who were born in the first years of the country’s independence – a questioning and searching. 

Tay went On the Record with Bharati Jagdish about his new book and how it reflects the questioning in Singapore society today about various issues, and the future of education and literature here.

Simon Tay: I think our country and the generation I belong to that grew up when Singapore was young have come to a certain pause. We’ve told a story from Third World to First as if there was an ending. But really, it is a “middling”. We’ve come to the middle of something where we’re very successful on some fronts but starting to question old truths in search for new ideas. So at this juncture, crossroads, I think not so much as a question of politics but simply as a question of society and individuals in society, we’re asking: “Where next?”

This is not just as a society as a whole, but really as individuals. Many people born in the 60s are now in their 50s. I’m 56 myself, and really, it’s not so much a middle-aged crisis, but just that last stretch where you can see the end and ask: “What is the meaning of what we’re doing today for tomorrow?”

I think those are the kind of very existentialist questions that hopefully these stories are trying to answer.

Bharati: What have you found out in terms of answers for yourself through asking these questions in your book?

Tay: One is how quickly time moves. The stories in this book are roughly parallel to my life where, you were 30, starting to get serious in your job, starting a family, and suddenly, 20 years have gone by. It’s remarkable how many people I’ve talked to, to whom this happens. That speed. We’ve hardly had time to contemplate the “why” and the “what next”?

So you want to arrive at that juncture, in the middle of something and as one of the characters says: “One begins at the beginning and ends at the end.” But that sounds as if the middle is just an afterthought, just a line drawn from the start to the end and that’s not true. At the middle juncture, there are choices to be made.


Bharati: So, how does this relate to you personally? What choices do you find yourself struggling with?

Tay: I persisted in writing. My first book came out in 1980 when I was a young teenager in NS (National Service). It was a book of poetry. My first book of stories came out in 1990. And then, my novel which won the Singapore Literature Prize. So, while there’s been a longish gestation period between each work, writing is something that has persisted with me alongside my other work in Singapore as a Nominated Member of Parliament and think-tank head, etc. So really, for me, it’s a kind of continuing question about the deeper things. We can live life on the surface like a snorkeler, but the whole point of snorkelling every now and then is that one holds their breath, dips and goes under to see what is beneath the surface. I think we all do. I certainly have.

Bharati: What have you found beneath the surface?

Tay: I’ve been very blessed. When people look at me, they might say well, he’s a professor, he’s been in Parliament, he’s gone to various famous law schools to teach and study. But beneath that, these so-called social norms of success are just that – superficial. One really has to look for your own values, your own benchmark as to whether you’ve succeeded in life, deeper down. I think, for many people and myself, it is a level of contentment. And one can have one’s contentment differently according to your mission. For me, it’s trying to make the world a better place and that sounds like I’m trying to be big-headed or trying to be Miss Universe, but I think that really does come back to me and especially the younger generation.

So in my life, I’ve helped to start up the Singapore Volunteers Overseas, our version of the Peace Corps. The think-tank I head talks about economic growth, but also about development and security issues. And I think that many people try to do the same thing – doing their job well, but beyond that, to find a meaning in their job. Of course, some people draw their circle a bit narrower. One of the characters in the book says: “Is he trying to change the world, save the world? No, he’s just trying to save himself.”

And obviously, I choose fiction to write about that. I’m not sure I’m willing to confess my whole life in front of everybody. I think the art of writing fiction is not just about your own life. There are ways in which these stories pick up from people around me, my friends. There’s one story that picks up from a story I wrote in the 1990s. It was called My Cousin Tim about a young man who seemed so bright and a success but suddenly he started to fail, so to speak, by not finishing university. His father sends him to a variety of expensive English universities. He never finishes. So suddenly, from the darling he becomes the failure but actually, he is the same person. And in the present story, it picks it up from the point where, by trading properties, he’s made a fortune. What happens next? Just because one has a fortune, does it mean you’re suddenly a success? Does that suddenly mean that now, you’re going to just fit in society? Or do you continue to be that same adventurer, that different person?

Characters stick with you. When I first wrote My Cousin Tim in the 1990s, it asked a very difficult question of that time in Singapore. The character said something like: “People are crazy. When they ask you what you want to be when you grow up, they mean “do you want to be a lawyer, an engineer or a doctor”. If you say “I want to be kinder, smarter, wiser”, they say that you’re crazy. I think that question has persisted and here in this book, Middle and First, that returns. My Grandfather Tim tries to imagine what it would be like for that same character who has persisted in my imagination to grow up, whether he conforms, or whether he finds another path.

I think it relates to all of us. Do you want to wholly conform or wholly opt out, find your own path? I think most people, give or take, will hanker after their own destiny.

Bharati: How does all this relate to the larger questions that we should be asking ourselves as a nation?

Tay: I guess in terms of meritocracy, in an overly simple way. If you’ve worked hard, because the system is fair, you will get ahead and getting ahead in Singapore, by and large, does mean materially. I would say that in the last 20 years, we’ve come to revisit that. Not to throw out that whole idea of that material success. I think Singapore is still very much focused on that prize, but to add to that.

The cultivation of the spirit and religion has grown in Singapore. Not just Christian, but Buddhist, Islamic, etc. Our society is asking itself these questions and finding different answers. So I think that really, today, Singapore is way different from the 1990s when I first wrote stories, but we still face very hard trade-offs.

Our Government likes this idea of hard truths, hard choices. So, in questions about land valuation against conservation, questions about how much we work as opposed to how much we earn, more competition as opposed to having leisure and time away. I think these are political questions, social questions and very individual choices.


Bharati: And what’s your take on how this is unfurling in Singapore – the questions about these issues and the possible answers that are emerging?

Tay: I think fewer and fewer people are paying attention to what the Government may hope and wish and dictate to us. I think people are finding their own path increasingly. In a way, I think technology is making this more so. The digital economy can give people more chances to freelance, practise different things and try to make a life. This dynamic economy, very diffused economy can also drive a very dynamic, diffused society.

So bringing it back to where we are in today’s politics, we are going to have soon, the Government reveal the report of the Committee on the Future Economy. I would say my book, my thinking right now is: “What’s the future society?”

Singapore has very much been a mainstream, schooled kind of society. I think this is going to change.

Bharati: In what ways would you like it to change?

Tay: Well, I would like to see Singaporeans be more global. We travel a lot. We interest ourselves in food, but the deeper meaning of global citizenship is when we start to care about, understand more deeply and take to our hearts the humanitarian issues around us.

We live in a very complex region. In addition to the economic complexity, there are human complexities. For example the Rohingya issue in Myanmar. It’s an ongoing cataclysm right next to us. It’s complex, of course. I’m not saying they are victims and it is easy. Global citizenship doesn’t mean to have all the answers in one pocket. I mean, the world is a complex place, but it is vital to be on that quest so that you realise that it is somehow related to you – these humanitarian issues.

One looks further abroad. What’s happening in Syria? What’s happening in the rest of the world? These, in a way, impact us. Our country, our economy but then finally, us. And sometimes we just don’t bother to see the connections.

Bharati: You have mentioned several times during this interview that in Singapore, we have been quite focused on material success. This struggle is perhaps also reflected in how we view careers in the arts and we’ll talk more about that in a moment, but you once wrote in relation to materialism and our focus on utility: “In a society that puts rational calculation first, the idea of loving Singapore is emotive and radical.” Can you elaborate on that?

Tay: Well, I wrote a poem in 1985 and the line that everyone remembers is: “If you cannot learn to love (love the city) you have no other.”

Bharati: That’s the most famous line.

Tay: But yes, to your question, we went through a period of nation-building where the early poets, the early writers of Singapore were trying to extol Singapore. So you have My Country, My People. You have Ulysses by the Merlion and these kind of played a role a bit like the nation-building songs at the National Day Parade. I don’t mean to deprecate them. They’re important. But I think my own view of where we are, or where I am, is a certain, more ironic love. It is clearly love but one is aware of the difficulties of wholly embracing Singapore as it is. Maybe the Singapore we want to see, but not the Singapore as it is with some of the rejection of the more human, more cultured and more literary values that we might want to see.


Bharati: You talked about asking “why” questions, so my question is: Why do you write?

Tay: When I first started in my teens, it was a sort of self-identification and that’s persisted because one needs to ask the question about oneself. As one grows up, becomes a working citizen of society other questions then become bigger. And so, as I’ve gotten older I guess questions about the country, questions about the region and global questions, they enter more. I do the mixture. There are things I’ve said during parliamentary speeches or as a think-tank analyst in the newspaper. I think that meets a certain need. Poetry and stories understand the world through a different lens. Writing is often like a person whispering something intimately in your ear. This gives a different lens to reach somebody very differently.

Bharati: How did you find your literary voice?

Tay: I think all of us go through teenage traumas. Mine weren’t particularly different. My father and his generation really believed in books. That was just the pre-Internet, pre-everything era and there was hardly any television. So, I grew up in a house full of books. Among his friends were the poet Edwin Thumboo. I was very lucky in my early years because he mentored me. He literally sat down with me and went through my young poems. It helped me. He did not impose his voice on me, but helped me cultivate my own.

Bharati: Why did you never make writing your full-time career?

Tay: Because of several choices. One, I do think that after a while, writers run out of things to say. So an amazing numbers of even well-known writers like Philip Roth end up writing about writers. And I never wanted to do that. I wanted to write stories that talk about people as normally as possible, in a literary way, facing the same question marks. The second reason was practical. When I was writing in the ’90s, one was a writer and barely scraping through. I can respect the choices others have made to be full-time artists. I made the other choice because I felt that I had to be practical. I needed to earn money.

Bharati: Rational calculation.

Tay: It is. I can bemoan it but I can’t escape it completely. The word is “and” rather than “or” – how does one make a living and make one’s choices at the same time. And I think that’s where many professionals are. The other thing is the synergies. I think that really, the writer’s life should not be too different from normal life. Otherwise, they write in a bubble.

If I had spent all my life writing in a room, I don’t think I would have produced these stories. These stories are about the conflict about trying to see success in the material world with the question of values. These stories are sometimes drawn from politics. For example, the story about civil servants and how they, in their quest to make Singapore a better, if not a perfect place, go to extreme ends. I think that I’d never bump into issues the way I have if I hadn’t been for a time the chairman of a statutory board.

Bharati: So, one role actually informs another?

Tay: Yes, I think that the experiences one draws from life do fit in the book. But, as a writer, one also experiences life differently. One tries to ask the question of “why” and not just what to do next. So one visits the practical day-to-day situations which are kind of embedded philosophy.


Bharati: While the literary scene in Singapore has grown, how far can it really go? Our education system is still very much geared towards studying to get the skills to be financially successful, geared towards utility. You yourself said that one of the reasons you don’t write full-time is that it’s not financially viable. The number of people studying literature in schools is also dwindling. So is there really a future for Singapore writing?

Tay: First of all, I’m not the kind of person who says one has to study literature at university as a must-do. It’s a can-do certainly today because the word “skill” is transformed. We actually don’t know what kind of jobs there will be in the future. Despite the fact that we’ve got one of the best education systems in the world, we are not necessarily providing the exact skill set for the future.

One of the things to do is to shape the mind rather than fill the head. I think literature, learning stories, is going to be a vital part of that. It is through the lens of literature that we can try to understand people who are not us. We can read about the Pakistani terrorist, or a person who becomes a terrorist and try to understand that un-understandable mindset, to see the alien as somehow human too. We can, in my book, understand people who are successful in some ways but facing existential crises in other ways.

In my last book, City of Small Blessings, I try to imagine somebody who is in his 80s. I’m not 80 yet and hopefully what I imagine will help me approach that year. So I think that literature in the coming world – the idea of empathy, of understanding, to be in someone else’s shoes – will be more important than ever. These ways of thinking can help with even decision-making when it comes to business. For instance, understanding your customers. When you think about it, practically everything is about human relationships and understanding the world.

Bharati: However, we are seeing a decline in the learning of literature in schools. One commonly cited reason students give for not taking the subject is that it’s a challenge to get a high score for it – typical of the still rather harshly pragmatic approach to education.

Tay: I think the promotion of reading outside the class will be very important. One can always find time to read. Then the question is: How to learn how to read because the literary element, the empathetic element isn’t just about reading it as a script, as a kind of story, but to understand the actual writing.

Bharati: To what extent do you think more could be done to emphasise literature’s importance in schools, even teach it better.

Tay: What do we do? If we try to make it mandatory, wouldn’t we just end up making a lot of people unhappy about having to read various stories? My stories from Stand Alone – my book from the 1990s – have been taught in Hwa Chong Institution for almost 20 years. My friend told me that if you Google, you can find crib notes, a cheat code for my stories. I can’t decide how to feel about it. I think it’s worse that somebody had to be forced to read my story as part of an exam and not respond to it in his own unique way, but just to pass it for the exam by reading someone else’s notes.

Bharati: For a Singaporean writer, what do you think it will take to make a mark globally?

Tay: Well, I’m not sure if that’s the right reference point. I’m very aware that I write in English. From there, the danger of trying to make a mark globally, is that one writes an “airport book”. What I mean by that is that when you imagine who is reading your book, you imagine someone who picks it up in an airport. I still imagine a Singaporean, an English, literary Singaporean.

Bharati: It’s a small audience though.

Tay: But it does create a certain channel to whom I’m talking. I’ve read books which have been published by international publishers and I’m not against it. But when they start to artificially inject local colour, some magical myth of Hokkien or whatever, put a cheongsam on the book, I think that’s the danger. If one can go and make a mark, all the better. But for me – perhaps it’s a sillier way – it’s about trying to speak to one’s own audience – the Singaporean of a certain type. Then, if Singapore becomes better-known and people see that Singapore is worth investigating, you may be one of the few names that’s talked about having a book which talks about Singapore from a Singaporean point of view.


Bharati: We’ve talked about how your work informs your writing. How does your writing inform your other work?

Tay: Well, when I was a Nominated Member of Parliament, I had a licence to be the in-house critic. As a writer, one observes first, analyses, and then decides. I think that’s one of the traits I’ve carried with me into the other worlds of politics, the law firm, being a professor.

Bharati: You mentioned your time as an NMP. The scheme has been criticised and scrutinised off and on for several years now. Questions have been raised as to whether they should have full voting rights, whether there’s a need for them in the first place. What do you think?

Tay: I was an NMP from 1997 to 2001. That was before the social media revolution. So, I think that really played an important role at that time. Parliament then had basically two opposition members. So we, I think, helped broaden the voices that were represented in the main debating chamber at that time. We have to ask ourselves today, in the present circumstances, whether the NMP is less important than it was at the start, before social media and other things that made Singaporeans’ voices surface.

Bharati: While we talk about the voices of Singaporeans increasingly coming to the surface, there have been also been calls for political diversity within Parliament even though the PAP (People’s Action Party) got a very strong mandate in the last election. How are you reading all of this in the larger context of how our society is evolving?

Tay: One is that it should never be taken for granted that one can have a working government that, without corruption, is trying to do its best for what it believes to be the general good rather than for the good of the generals. I think that Singaporeans take that for granted and Singaporeans don’t look at it from a global and regional lens. Having said that, within that system, I think the struggle for governments globally now is, how to represent more people, especially those who have been excluded from the modern market economy.

Here, I’d have to say that over the last five years since the last election setback and one big reason that they did better this time round, is that the PAP has pragmatically adjusted its programme. In terms of helping people, it has become more socialist. But the country where it is today has much more complex and diverse wants and desires.

Bharati: Considering these diverse wants and desires, to what extent do you think political diversity in the form of a multi-party parliament is a necessary ingredient to ensure the success of a democracy long term, or is it not really all that necessary?

Tay: I think this is a deep political, philosophical debate. Does one describe the process and emphasise the process – that it is democratic? Is it improving lives? One can point to an endless number of democracies which fail to make people’s lives better. Equally, of course, one can point to all kinds of one-man dictatorships that go kaboom. To me, the process isn’t the key thing. It is the result. But some processes will always have better chance of producing a better result. Today we’re getting a sort of nationalistic chest-beating democracy and that necessarily does raise question marks. I think that Singapore is evolving. It takes time though. In the case of the US, it wasn’t until the third president that there was a two-party system. We are at the point. We’ll see.


Bharati: You mentioned your book that bagged you the Singapore Literature Prize back in 2010, City of Small Blessings. This story was about a retired school principal who got a notice from the government to vacate the black-and-white bungalow that his family had been renting.

Tay: You got the plot right, but even before he ended up in the bungalow, he himself tried to migrate and in doing so, made a very difficult choice of first leaving the country and selling his childhood family home for a condo. So, in a way, the country didn’t give up on him. He tried to give up on the country. He went abroad, his son was there, but he couldn’t fit in and he came back.

I think it’s a dilemma that many people face. Many people love Singapore. This is home, but at some juncture, some point of disappointment or at retirement, or both, it doesn’t fit them anymore and they try going elsewhere. But the grass isn’t always greener on the other side so they come back and that acceptance of the going and coming back – that’s a big question mark for Singapore. Are we a harsh society? Do we have space for these people? Do we have space for retirees? When I see some retirees ambling around Changi Airport, I’m not sure we have found the right place where retirees can fruitfully occupy themselves. So the book is about that Third to First World growing-up story, but questioning it. Rather than thinking everything in the First World is great, we see that there are underbellies.

I myself lived in Seletar Camp in a small corner house with two bedrooms for almost two decades until we were pushed out and half the camp was gone. I’ve written about that in essays. That experience clearly is formative. The black-and-white bungalows represent a part of Singapore that is very Singaporean. Colonial Singaporean no doubt, but still a part of the Singapore history. But no black-and-white is actually conserved. They’re thought of as being for foreigners who pay top dollar. Or they are torn apart as Seletar Camp was when it was time to try and create an aviation industry which, by the way, hasn’t really taken off because of the global economy.

Bharati: Clearly you must feel strongly about such issues. Today there continues to be multiple points of contention over multiple sites in Singapore – Bukit Brown, now Rochor Centre and these questions of development versus conservation are also perhaps rooted in the existentialist theme of your latest book. How are you processing all of this?

Tay: I’ve done my share in that when I was NMP, they kindly invited me to be co-chair of the Singapore Concept Plan 2000. And that plan actually helped Pulau Ubin move from possible reclamation to keeping it more or less where it is today. We advocated a much stronger process and agency to talk about these values so the Government will internalise the values of conserving.

To be fair to Singapore, we’ve probably actually listed more buildings for conservation than say, Hong Kong. But obviously, this number is not resonating with all the demands of society. Clearly we will have to go case-by-case and we have to be aware that some conservationists are bloody-minded. They are seeing just that one issue.

So I think the wiser thing is to actually go back and redraw the envelope. What is the commitment, overall, for conservation in Singapore? I think for me, Seletar Camp was a personal loss but I can see some of the overall gain. What I would lament is some of the buildings have been left empty for six to seven years. There’s a wastage. The Government has so much power to take, it tends to take too much because it has no one to really press it, to minimise the taking. But one of the good points of the reality of Seletar Camp was that they intended initially to take the whole camp. Today, though I’ve been pushed out, I’m happy to say that they’ve relented and half the number of buildings have remained.

Bharati: But there’s always a caveat. That should there be a need for development, some of these places could still have to go.

Tay: That’s why I think we need to have a better institution. Right now, we have basically a dialogue of the deaf between the Government and the NGOs (non-governmental organisations). We don’t really have an intermediary, a much more impartial body which understands conservation value as well as development needs. There’s no arbiter in that sense. So the Bukit Brown debate, frankly, didn’t go very well for either side. Hopefully we’ll learn from that. The Government needs to listen, but I think citizens also need the habit of dialogue to change and one of the ways is to just keep the dialogue going. If not, when you see the minister, you only have one chance to see the minister and you think he is trying to rush past you. You either shake his hand and say nothing, or you yell, or you write one of those long letters to the Prime Minister’s Office and copy it to everyone under the sun. Citizenship isn’t just getting your IC. It’s a habit. It’s a culture.


Bharati: What should this culture look like in your mind?

Tay: As a professor, as a lawyer, I would tend to be rather rational. As a writer though, I think there is a place for passion. So I would say right now, we are at an interesting juncture where not just directly through the political process but in their own way, through art or social media, this energy, these opinions are emerging. How to reconcile them? How to make them matter? That would be a big challenge. The Government is trying to respond, I think. The other element that made them better performers in the last election was their engagement in social media. They’re getting much better at this playing ground.

Bharati: How do you think citizens can be encouraged to be better at dialogue? Some NMPs and civil society members have mentioned before that what we need is political education in schools. What do you think?

Tay: Right now, the education system is controlled by the Ministry of Education (MOE). Schools have some leeway. Not everything is dictated by the Government but the perception is that if political education was warranted in schools, then it would be controlled by the MOE. I think a much better idea is for citizens to practise among themselves.

How many of us belong to any kind of society where there is a need to question each other, citizen-to-citizen, horizontally if you will, rather than yelling at the minister? What are our habits? If we belong to a chat group and somebody says something that we don’t agree with, do we exit the chat group? Do we start trolling them? Similarly in person, do we stomp out of the room and yell? Or throw something at the other person? So these habits of civility are really important.

Cherian George has written a book called Hate Spin where he says on the racial and religious front, the world is in danger of really descending into being sensitive about everything. We really need to be in the habit of debating differences civilly.


Bharati: Going back to the debate about conservation versus development. You mentioned that we need an intermediary, a much more impartial body that understands conservation value as well as development needs. Who should make up this panel, how should it be set up, etc?

Tay: It’s a recommendation of a concept plan from 25 years ago so it’s not just my own view. One of the answers I can think of is for the Government to build in-house capability. Until today, often when the Singapore government wants to do surveys of the Bukit Timah reserve, they end up turning to universities or NGOs like the Nature Society. The Government has in-house talent on engineering and finance and other things. If you always outsource that part, aren’t you saying it’s not that important? So develop a core expertise of civil servants which would be valued in that, trained in that.

Bharati: Like the Preservation of Sites and Monuments division. But can these civil servants that personify “in-house capability” be trusted to be objective, to be impartial?

Tay: When one builds an institution, one doesn’t always get thrown into saying “yes, yes and yes”. It’s more to bring a balance, an in-house voice to counter the other voices. So, one clear example of this was the 1990s when we created the National Arts Council, created the swathes of museums which I hope your listeners and I have enough time to go to because now there are so many. Efforts were made to provide more resources to help train curators. The arts have taken over Singapore.

Bharati: But many artists I’ve spoken to have said the Government does this often with the view to fulfil a national KPI – either economic or social, rather than with a view towards art for arts’ sake or art that is designed to question elements of the national agenda. As a result, art that does that is not even financially supported by the government.

Tay: I agree with that but the question is – why would you expect the Government to do anything else? The Government better have a purpose in giving taxpayers’ money away. Governments’ purposes are more broadly written. Not every art piece has to talk about, say, the value of family or the population problem. The Government hopefully will be more liberal in terms of funding a broader range of art performances. But I think in the sense government giving, whether it’s here or America, will always have to draw some lines because the taxpayers expect that. I think that the artist also must find avenues to express themselves which don’t require government money. Then they will really be free. My book costs nothing to the Government.

Bharati: Do you deliberately not apply for grants?

Tay: Maybe I should ask my publisher that. I focus on the writing. I’ve thought about that.

Bharati: You’ve said that it is understandable that the Government only supports things that fulfil its national agenda for the people of Singapore so –

Tay: But I really hope the national agenda will be a little broader. I think the Government needs to get out of certain businesses. One business is the distinction between approval, supporting and of course protesting or banning. The middle is simply to just let it go – neither to fully support or fully ban. For example, if I were putting out a story about how divorcees live happily ever after and people just don’t need to get married anymore and the Government feels that it is an anti-government message, they are entitled to their view. They don’t have to fund me. As long as they don’t ban me, I’m okay.

Bharati: One could argue that the Government represents all of us, and that includes people who say they don’t believe in marriage. So shouldn’t –

Tay: Don’t vote for them. Because in a way, going back to political theory …

Bharati: But those people are citizens and taxpayers too regardless of who’s in government and who they personally voted for. Why shouldn’t taxpayers’ money be used to explore through art, their beliefs and convictions too?

Tay: I say “no” because the theory of delicate democracy is when one votes in the MPs, they don’t necessarily have to refer back to you on everything. You vote them for their independent judgement. The next time round, when they ask for your vote again, you can say: “Oh, you didn’t support single mothers. I’m not voting for you anymore.”

I think that is the democratic check. In between, of course, one can voice and one should have more avenues to voice and make things clear to your MP or to your civil servant.

Bharati: This discussion was sparked by our conversation on an independent institution on conservation and development issues. Going back to your idea of an in-house government institution made up of impartial civil servants to tackle such issues, how can the public count on such institutions to be really be impartial if the members are hired or appointed by the Government?

Tay: The Government needs to let more “outsiders” in. For example, on the grant funding and censorship issue, over the ’90s into now, they did bring in more people. I think it’s not gone far enough given how diverse society is today. So many people still think, all these committees are so-called non-civil servants but they just vote “yes”, they’re all yes-men and yes-women. We need to take a further step to make these committees more diverse and clearly more independent. We are going through a difficult time. After the last election (2011), I think the Government really felt that they needed to censor things. I think that in some ways, a more open society that is seen on the horizon has not necessarily come about.

Bharati: What makes you say that after the last election, the Government really felt that they needed to censor things?

Tay: In the written press in particular, there seems to be a lot of control over the headlines. Of course, my journalist friends tell me there are other trends. But I don’t think it’s moved as much as perhaps we had hoped.  The revolution of social media, the revolution of information can breed it two ways. So if I’m running a media organization and I’m controlling, you could say well, let’s open up because we cannot otherwise be seen as credible. But on the other hand, if you just go to the extreme end, there are all sorts of fabrications and very extreme views on social media too. So how do you retain that balance? I think the instinct in a turbulent climate is to clutch, to really hang on to what you have and not evolve.

Bharati: And you think it’s time to evolve.

Tay: The more thoughtful Singaporeans are trying to evolve, but how to evolve? The question of whether there is a uniquely Singapore evolution remains to be seen. Again, when I look at the region and the world, I can’t say that the liberalisation around the world has gone well. Things can be very volatile.

Bharati: So do you think perhaps the Government here has it right?

Tay: Well, there is the rightness in recognising the dangers, but there needs to be some kind of liberality as well. But now, look at the troubled world we live in. So while a lot of the things I’ve said may be critical of where we are, asking questions about where we are going to go, I would also say there’s no definite path ahead.