Just 10 hours into the the new year, Mr Ivan Heng started stirring keen debate among some Singaporeans. Recent recipient of the Cultural Medallion award – to celebrate Singaporeans who achieved artistic excellence – Mr Heng’s punch on the Mediacorp TV50 countdown show was surely packed with authority.
“… it was so “cheena”. Please. We are still one month from the Year of the Horse… Jack Neo and Zoe Tay wished me Happy New Year in Mandarin, and Wang Lee Hom took to the stage as the main act… where were the Malays, Indians, Eurasians, Peranakans and not to mention the dozens of other races and nationalities who today call Singapore their country and home. And could we not have featured more of our wonderful Singaporean talents on stage?… Wake up your ideas.”
His statement drew a deliberated, though expected, statement from Mediacorp, expressing their mindfulness of sensitivities, explaining their executive strategies and acknowledging their inadequacies in catering to non-Chinese viewers. End of story.
But what’s the fuss about? Though a record 18,000 showed up for the event, they may mostly be fanatic youths. Though 1.6 million tuned in on television, they may not have enjoyed it. Mr Heng’s remarks helped to take us beyond hard figures and into softer discussions over who we are as a society and where our local arts and entertainment landscape should head. This is no longer just about Mediacorp. This is about us.
There were 2 decisions being questioned. One, the invitation of international acts. The organizers oozed about the achievement pre-show. They should. Singapore prides itself on being a globalized city, which makes Wang Lee Hom and The Wanted’s appearances surprising only because they came. That they took up over 1.5 hours was merely fitting, given their regional or global appeal. While such invitations are still new, they are not necessarily a bad thing. Such huge stars can electrify audiences, creating energy in our normally subdued selves. Remember, there were still 3.5 hours for our local acts. Frankly, they could have done worse with more K-Pop stars.
Two, the focus on local Mandarin acts over others. This will be a perennial issue to contend with. How can we achieve balance with our ethnic diversity? Strictly speaking, the Countdown Show was a fair representation of today’s local media landscape. The determining factor: Viewership. By referring to the absolute figures in the MDA Annual Report, it is clear that Channel 8 has by far the largest reach, with Channel 5 and Channel U roughly a tie for second. Suria and Vasantham expectedly reach far fewer people. In this environment, it is undebatable that Channel 8 artistes will always be regarded the biggest local stars and deserving of the most exposure.
I have no issues with the usage of Mandarin, and not only because I am Chinese. Some Channel 8 artistes just aren’t comfortable speaking in English. As there was little scripting, subtitles were not possible. A little spontaneous Mandarin should be fully acceptable. The problem was that there was far too little airtime for other languages and cultures. If programmes are to be inclusive, then we must include, not block out, all our secondary languages. While there was a showcase of Suria and Vasantham stars, they didn’t perform. It would suffice if there was just one Malay song, one Peranakan dance, or one local Indian star, dedicating 2 lines of Tamil to those at home. That would have made a statement.
There is certainly room for improvement for the organizers. They could have done more to support our diverse local talents. But Mediacorp is primarily an entertainment business that thrives on audience appeal. While Mr Heng’s exhortation was directed at the media corporation, we should also ask ourselves questions. Do we visit museums and exhibitions? Do we support our local indie acts? Do we clap and cheer when we watch local performances, even when in languages and of cultures unfamiliar to us? The trends are positive, but more is required.
Mediacorp should now take the lead. Yet if we don’t show support, why should Mediacorp?
Ivan Heng’s comment: https://www.facebook.com/wr.ivanheng/posts/387838208028361
MDA Annual Report 12/13: