Wednesday, March 5, 2008


I was just at the National Museum of Singapore visiting the exhibit on the Greek Masterpieces (will run until 16 March 2008), and although I saw what I expected to see, it is my reflections on the exhibit that I find novel.

The exhibits, mainly sculptures (like that of Ares Borghese seen on the left) talk about city states that are ruled by men, with social classes that have varying sounds like Singapore, but actually, they were talking about ancient Greek cities.

Athens, and many other Greek city-states, called polis, are self-ruling political enclaves that are multi-layered. Each layer is a class of people that have different privileges, and of course varying responsibilities. At the top of the pyramid is a small group of men that rule, and create laws and decide on the affairs of the common man. Below them are men called citizens, who are allowed to exercise full political rights. They can vote or be voted in office. But then, they also have the added repsonsibility of having military training (National Service?) and defending the city-state in times of war....well, to many Greeks, dying for a country is not a responsibility, it is a privilege, a direct ticket to Greek heaven, the Elysian fields.

Below them is a group of foreigners, called "metics," typically they are artisans that are residing within the territory, paying taxes, conducting business or practicing trade, but having no political rights (Permanent Residents or on Employment Pass-holders?).

At the bottom of the structure are workers that are not registered and not paid, considered as goods, traded as commodities....these are the slaves (officially, we do not have them in Singapore...).

Funny, but the Greek structure that flourished had 1/3 citizens and their families, 1/3 foreigners/ and 1/3 stateless slaves. It sounds very similar in the case of Singapore in the sense that, without the free foreigners and the slaves, life in ancient Greece would not flourish at all.
Besides war, the main preoccupation of the learned and the leaders is politics. Thus, no self-respecting Greek man would not know how to handle discourse and debate. Ideas flow freely, both assenting and especially dissenting. This freedom, although at that time is enjoyed fully only by men extends not only to literature and political thought, but especially to lifestyle choices. Thus, even if women are not granted equal status, they are considered partners. Sappho of Lesbos is a known lesbian and yet respected as a poet and lyricist. Homosexuality is largely practised as a form of apprenticeship, where the elder will have to teach the young partner various bodies of knowledge (no pun there).
It is with this freedom to discourse that has given rise to creativity. Partner that unequalled creativity with agon, the love of sports and competition--and what you have is almost a cult-like devotion to the human figure. So much so that the Greek gods have taken the form of humans. And heroic humans are given gods for ancestors-in turn making them demi-gods, if not outright gods. And because they are heroes and gods (or demi-gods), their bodies are perfect, and therefore have to sculpted naked and without embellishment.

In terms of trade, besides spending time in war and sports competitions, the Greeks have excellent maritime technology and industry. How else will they be capable of launching a thousend ships to retrieve Helen from the Trojans? Never mind that they nearly failed and that Odysseus of Ithaca got lost in the tiny Mediterranean Sea for a few years.

I suppose the Singapore model, as envisioned by the founding fathers, probably had some Greek city states in mind. But what cannot be replicated are the wonderful sense of identity and art that came along. Even the conquering Romans became the conquered, when they began absorbing the culture of Greece. In essence, the Greek culture was disseminated by the more widespread Romans-sort of piggybacking their culture on another. Even the Roman gods took on the identity of the Greek gods (sans the name).

Singaporopolis is relatively young, with less than half a century of history, but what we have to be cognizant of, is that culture cannot be instructed, legislated and roadmapped. It is a spontaneous expression of the moral and artistic convictions of the people, that does not need prodding, and convincing. It moves by itself, finds inspirations by itself, like the Greeks with their gods and heroes.

Maybe when this city state has produced enough heroes, enough demi-Gods, and has survived long enough through many travails like war, politics, sports and has fully opened to freedom of ideas, like many a Greek city-state has...then maybe, just maybe, this nation will start singing poetry of great men (and women), sculpting its own figures, building its own architecture, and defining its own culture.

There is hope yet. But I will not be holding my breath.