Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Parliament is Theatre


I recently wrote to the forum editor of Today to contribute to the debate surrounding the need for having live broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings. As with any editing process, some bits were removed. While it does not change the fundamental points of my piece, some stylistic choices were gone. The following is the original letter:

I refer to Dr Michelle Khoo’s letter, “No plans for live Parliament broadcast, which runs risk of changing sober tone of proceedings: Govt” (Today, 15 May 2020).

As a freelance performer and an independent theatre reviewer, I am bemused that the press secretary to the Minister of Culture, Community, and Youth would evoke theatre to mean something frivolous.

Perhaps she should reƤcquaint with the fact that one of the ancient roots of theatre lies in the state, ritual, and the polis. The closest manifestations of that today are state functions and ceremonies, including parliamentary proceedings.

As long as there is someone doing something and another present to witness it, there is a performative element inherent in the activity.

I am supportive of having a live broadcast, and by that, I mean an online broadcast. I will not be surprised if several supporters of this move had that in mind as well. It is impractical to have a channel on television dedicated to parliamentary proceedings because we do not have a public broadcaster such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and it is equally impractical to disrupt an existing channel’s programming.

To that end, Dr Khoo’s argument of low demand as seen in television viewership is not fully relevant. Furthermore, it is fascinating that she leaves out the online viewership figures of the occasional live broadcasts.

Besides, a complete broadcast of parliamentary proceedings is a public service and should not be tied to ratings. The government should provide as many opportunities for citizens to scrutinise proceedings and their representatives as possible.

Whether we make use of it, is up to us.

Additionally, a live broadcast leaves a copy of the complete proceedings for us to review at a convenient time. Having access to recordings of only the speeches leaves out a lot of information of how members behave in parliament and the general atmosphere of the debate.

What is unsaid is equally crucial as what is said.

As for Dr Khoo’s worries of MPs “playing to the gallery” or “striking poses”, she should have more faith in the integrity of our MPs. It is natural for them to feel pressured in the knowledge that their constituents are watching them as they speak or listen; representing the people is a grave responsibility. However, if an MP feels the urge to preen, pose, and play to the gallery, it is more of a reflection on said MP as opposed to the audience.

Finally, having spent countless hours in the theatre, I can assure Dr Khoo in full confidence that the tone of the proceedings is up to those being watched; what they say and how they play their part. One should not blame the broadcast medium or the audience, who are meant to be there in the first place.

I invite Dr Khoo to spend some serious time in the theatre, when the curtains are raised again, to experience this for herself.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Writing it Down in These Ill-Wresting Times

Ever since COVID-19—known then as novel coronavirus—made its appearance on the world stage in January 2020, everyone has been trying to find ways to cope with its effects. For most of the world’s population, it is a matter of survival; a gamble between feeding oneself or catching the virus. For the rest, it is to find meaning; to tick things off our when-I-have-the-time lists, or just to kill boredom.

Among countless articles of the latest number of cases or furious commentaries debating whether governments around the world are doing enough, there is an unassuming article from the University of Virginia that seem to gain traction, as it made multiple appearances on my social media feed. It is an interview with Professor Herbet “Tico” Braun and why he encourages his students to document their lives during this pandemic.

“Many of us are writing today and producing our work on social media. It is an explosion. You can gather these voices, these experiences, all this creativity. They are all a record of our times. These voices are urgent.”

As a reader of diaries and letters, I do get the value of chronicling the times. I am taken by the idea of belonging to a community. Even though it is undefined and rather amorphous, there is something about writing something that resonates with a complete stranger. But what can I add to the wider record, to be part of this disparate community?

On one hand, I get the sense that people around me have had enough of the doom and gloom. Additionally, I am somewhat sheltered from the brunt of the calamity; detailing my “ways to cope” would come across as insensitive to those who are more adversely affected by the pandemic, medically or otherwise.

On the other, I am not keen on contributing to the junkyard of banality. It is fascinating how posts by some celebrities and “influencers” ring hollow in these times. Posing and preening brings no comfort, while polished endorsements appear farcical.

So what will the timbre of my voice be in this ill-wresting time?

It is for you to judge when we can step out of our houses again.




Saturday, 6 April 2019

The Passing of Dr Sydney Brenner



I have never personally met Dr Brenner; the only time I saw him was from afar. However, when I heard of his passing yesterday, my heart sank and I simply did not know what to do for a few minutes.

Having studied the humanities all my life, I will never know the magnitude of his contributions, however comprehensively expressed. Markers such as his Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002 and being given awarded an honourary citizenship by the Singapore government in 2003 do not seem to do him justice.

So why am I struck by the death of a scientist who, by all accounts, has led a long and fruitful life?

As life would have it, I encountered Dr Brenner while working for Para Limes when it was still based at Nanyang Technological University. Part of my duties was to edit raw transcripts of the various conferences organised by Para Limes before passing it on to a professional editor to turn it into a book. Hence, I have edited transcripts of various talks given by Dr Brenner during the conferences.

Watching recordings of him repeatedly while editing the transcripts had a strange effect on me. As one had to listen very intently with headphones on, it did feel as if he was speaking directly to me.

While most of the content are beyond me, I was struck by his vigour and wit despite being afflicted with ill health. He came across as someone who has always been interested in science, and the actual research and experimentation should take priority. Such a concern is understandable, and it is one shared by people from various disciplines as well.

During the conference entitled, Grand Challenges of Science in the 21st Century, he wryly criticises the bureaucracy within scientific institutions with his characteristic wit:


The full recording of Dr Brenner's talk, in which he went on to discuss the challenges of science can be found here. Para Limes has since went on to produce a book which condenses the main points made by all the speakers of the event, which is available for purchase.

Despite all his accomplishments and seniority, his passion and sense of wonderment never left him. During his last appearance at one of Para Limes' events, he sent down with computational neurobiologist, Terry Sejnowski, and spoke candidly about the development of science and his career.

Over the course of several sessions, he explained how he structured his laboratory and ensured everyone involved took responsibility of their areas of research. He also provided anecdotes about how he treasured talent and skill over paper qualifications. It is amazing that his rebellious streak still feels unorthodox today, let alone back then.

The following is the first video of the series:




His account of the history of microbiology and his work during this event has been recorded and published as a book entitled, In the Spirit of Science: Sydney Brenner on DNA, Worms, and Brains.

It is interesting that through the course of a menial task, I unwittingly established an unlikely connection with Dr Brenner. His devotion to science and endless curiosity resonated with me. The constant push and striving in the human spirit is inspiring, and was definitely embodied by Dr Brenner.

While it is almost impossible to attain equivalent accomplishments in my line of work, one hopes to emulate his spirit in pursuing what is important, and be endlessly curious in whatever we do. 

Thank you Dr Brenner.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Ray Blake Traveller's Notebook (Review and Set-up)

A while back, I wrote about the beautiful dilemma I have after being introduced to Midori Traveller's Notebook. It has been a year since I started using it and I've been loving it!

Recently, I decided to purchase a notebook from Ray Blake which will be used as a notebook to write my key impressions when I review theatre productions or books.

If you would like to read those reviews, please visit www.isaactanbr.com


Friday, 29 May 2015

Of Two Minds


I am glad that there has been a concerted effort in featuring most of our athletes in the run-up to the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games. It gives them the recognition they deserve which would hopefully drum up more support for them.  However, I am puzzled by this feature from Today

Any sport requires a combination of athleticism and craft. Excellence is achieved through years of practice and discipline. It is a career in its own right; one that starts rather early. This is why I am puzzled by the need for these netball players to have a day job. It would certainly surprise any athlete from abroad that some of our athletes only train three to four hours a day. More importantly, regardless of how doggedly resilient they are, having little rest would affect their performance in both the sport and their day jobs.

Why would they do this? Three possible reasons come to mind. 

(1) They really want it. 

If that is the case, then props to them. While I personally feel that they should focus on their sport, given that an athlete's career is short and netball has fewer competition opportunities (they are not included in the Olympics yet),  they should be free to pursue their own goals. I am also glad that their employers and coaches are understanding in this regard. 

(2) They want to make ends meet. 

I really hope this is not the case. If it is, then it is a disgrace that a country can spend billions and expedite construction only to have a stadium with a leaky roof, or millions on the opening ceremony and publicity campaigns, but not pay their players well. 

The time and energy invested in training are definitely the same, if not more, than their counterparts in the corporate world. They also risk injuring themselves which might have a permanent effect on their health. 

(3) They are doing this in preparation for a career transition once they retire from the game. 

This is a tricky one. We must not assume that they would necessarily want to stay in sports or be a coach after they hang up their jerseys. Though, as a point of interest, I wonder whether the sports industry is able to absorb all of them should they choose to stay.

While the Singapore Sports Council should be commended for their SPEX education and career scheme, the ideal would be for the athletes to worry about their careers only after they have retired. Of course they should plan for their career transition but they should not have to handle such an arduous juggling act. What little time they have outside of practice should go to spending time with friends and family. 

I wonder if, after the cameras and sound recorders are switched off, the reporter asked why they wanted to juggle two careers.