My Big Brother Phobia

I'd rather live freely in a garbage bin.

By Oscar Ho

I frequently pray to God and my chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, not to make Hong Kong like Singapore. Ever since Tung expressed his admiration for Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, I have had this nightmare of waking up some morning to find out that everything is tidy and clean, and that my son is too fat to be allowed to drink Coke.

No, Hong Kong is no paradise. For many people, it is a money-grabbing society with aggressive, even obnoxious people who scream instead of talk, run instead of walk. The streets are filled with activity and noise, including daily demonstrations protesting against everything. However, it is precisely this intense energy that makes Hong Kong a colorful, pluralistic metropolitan culture. I do like these unbounded energies. Most of all, I like the spirit behind them: freedom. I would rather live freely in a garbage bin than be imprisoned in a beautiful hospital. Hong Kong is neither a garbage bin nor a hospital. It is a fun and beautiful city that occasionally gets a little bit crazy.

There is a price to pay for freedom and creativity, but it's worth every penny. We have the freedom to think and do all kinds of things, including the wrong things. This freedom allows our imagination to go wild, and gives birth to a dazzling pop culture that extends its influence all over Asia, including Singapore.

Like many Hong Kongers who are obsessed with freedom, I have a Big Brother phobia. Maybe I overreact, but the simple task of going to the toilet in Singapore can be nerve-racking. What will happen if I forget to flush, or fail to aim accurately and mess up the floor? Even during a most private act, one has to think about legal issues. It was in a Singapore toilet that I understood what Confucius meant when he said: "A gentleman should be careful when alone."

In Hong Kong, we trust people to make their own decisions. I have heard stories of Singapore artists' being prohibited from performing for life because of some "improper" act onstage. In the past, I tried hard to tell myself that these were the fabrications of biased Hong Kongers. However, my negative impression was confirmed last October, when the works of a Hong Kong artist, Zunzi, were removed from the Singapore Art Museum before an exhibition for which I was a co-curator. In his installation piece, Zunzi had portrayed the political leaders of Singapore as cartoon figures--and for that, his entire installation was dismantled and trashed.*

The sad thing is that there are many sensitive and intelligent young talents in Singapore. They could thrive in a more accommodating environment. The Singapore government is working hard to nurture creativity among its people, and that is the right direction to take in the post-industrial era. But creativity is about crossing borders, challenging the establishment and questioning the unquestionable. For officials who hope to produce submissive, obedient citizens with creative, challenging minds, my advice is: forget it.

Oscar Ho is a Hong Kong artist and art critic.

*The museum says the computer-generated work was removed with the support of exhibition organizers because it infringed a contractual term that it not be "defamatory, offensive or obscene or contravene in any way the law of the place where a residency occurs."

published in Newsweek International, December 21, 1998