Sunday, October 30, 2011

Software of Open Society - Learning from HK

I have been observing Hong Kong for quite a number of years due to my frequent visits there.

There are a lot of things which I do not feel good about Hong Kong but there are many things which I feel that we should learn from this vibrant city.

Hong Kong has various districts, just like Singapore with different GRCs and SMCs. Within these districts, there are also similar "community centres" but these are not controlled by any partisan organizations financed by taxpayers' money with "symbiotic relationship" with the ruling party. They don't organize "political activities" like getting people to attend political party's rallies.

These district community centres are pretty well equipped. Some have very decent concert halls or performance halls for cultural activities. This is unlike our Singapore's community centres which are filled with "multi-purpose halls" with very bad audio system and acoustic structures. These concert halls or performance halls are definitely no "white elephants". Many LOCAL cultural groups rented these halls at very low price and put up various performances, from Chinese Wayang Opera, Chinese Dance, Western Ballet Dance, Chinese Orchestra to plays and even special film shows etc.

Hong Kong is preparing to build a huge Cultural Centre at West Kowloon and it is not merely for "International Performances" like our Singapore Durian Esplanade. They will have some main Hong Kong cultural groups like Hong Kong Dance Troupe and such to be permanently stationed there. They are confident that this huge Cultural Centre will be filled with local performances because they have cultivated a substantial mass of cultural performing groups and participants.

Although there are quite a number of small district cultural centres in Hong Kong, but it seems that all halls are fully booked all year round. Even the libraries are available for rent for people to put up artistic exhibitions like calligraphy and such.

Many people have mistakenly labelled Hong Kong as "cultural desert" but I think if you look at the cultural events put up by local groups, you will think otherwise. Such booming vibrancy in the cultural setting could only happen not only with the hardware infrastructural support by the government but also depends on maintaining a truly open society with the core value of respecting the freedom of expression by the people.

Such respect of human dignity was extended to other segments of the society. The radio station of Hong Kong has various programs catered for different segment of the society. There is a weekly radio program specially catered for Prison inmates for them and their family members to write in or dedicate songs to each other. They also have a special program on Sunday morning for foreign maids for them to call in or dedicate Indonesian or Filipino songs since that is their weekly off day. Of course, they will have an Indonesian and Filipino as their co-hosts!

Cultivation of the software of an Open Society doesn't depend only on the big infrastructure investment by the Government. It also depends on the willingness of the people and government to uphold the critical core values on the freedom of expression. It depends on catering to the needs to small cultural groups, not only on the finances but also the availability of opportunities for them to put up their performances.

I have watched Drama Box performing at grassroot level in open air stages at various places in Singapore. I find it quite refreshing and but it seems that it has faced excessive censorship from MITA from time to time. Even that, they have continued their excellent work with limited resources and constrains imposed by govenrment censorship.

In Hong Kong, there are many such small local performance groups who are actively involved in putting up local performances at grassroot level. I hardly hear any censorship issues imposed on them at all.

Many people have said that Hong Kongers are very "practical people" but it seems that even under such capitalist system, there are many more people who have the passion to pursue their cultural dreams. So, what about Singapore? What has happened to Singapore which was once the Venice of SEA back in the 50s? It is really something for us to ponder about.

Goh Meng Seng

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