Singapore will languish if its lovers are uncritical and its critics are unloving. What Singapore needs is not sycophants but loving critics and critical lovers.

Tommy Koh

As of writing, Singapore has been mired in a debate about what it means to be a patriotic citizen. In a society where dissent is eyed with suspicion and activists and critics are branded disloyal troublemakers, there seems to be little breathing room for anyone who speaks up about shortcomings in Singapore’s system.

Bristling under the weight of a cultural misconception that criticism and constructive care are mutually separate concepts, Singapore’s media artists find themselves caught within an interesting issue of expression: how can I use my art to raise awareness of gaps in our society without people thinking I’m just a troublemaker? After all, Singapore doesn’t appear ready for the incendiary approach; we’ve previously written about Preetipls and how she uses humour as a weapon, and how her protest against racial prejudice became seen in itself as an attack on racial harmony. In a media landscape where rage borne of disappointment is perceived as ingratitude, one must innovate to express the former without being called the latter.

Yet, when faced against the immutable behemoth that is Singapore and its desire to believe in a utopian social fantasy that doesn’t actually exist, Singaporeans who think that we still have work to do find themselves working against the friction of speaking to a society that insists on the truth of its fiction. As a result, we push ourselves into feeling penat – a fatigue that stems from a desire to say and do more, while coping with the bitter recognition that nothing will ever change.

I pause here; why am I even writing this? What is this labour–of describing, contextualising, explaining–that I have to perform even as I feel, like so many of my compatriots, that the only thing I want to say is ‘penat lah’? A resignation beyond sorrow. Why do I always expect better of people only to become so crushingly disappointed?

Alfian Sa’at

“Runaway” (2019), a music video freshly dropped by Singaporean rapper Subhas (who is also Preetipls’s brother) and Dnl., struggles with kepenatan (the noun form of penat) and whether one can work against this feeling of resignation. “Runaway” features a series of monochrome images that take the viewer through various Singapores, both the Singapore of cosmopolitan glitz and the neighbourhoods in which real people live. Drained of colour, these images are punctured with a sense of loss. Yet, in spite of its stillness, the video stirs; it longs to transcend the gravity of a kepenatan that becomes heavier as time passes. “Runaway” is an ode to those who are losing their voices in a world that prefers silence.

Friction doesn’t hit you right in the beginning. It’s a slow burn that drags on as you push onwards, wearing away at your spirit. In “Runaway”, friction is the sense of loss that the camera feels when its dreams crash back onto the cold hard ground. After beginning with a bird’s eye shot of the Marina Bay district, the music video cuts to cramped and cluttered images of everyday life, juxtaposing wealth against the lives of people for whom the crazy rich lifestyle is a foolish fantasy. “This is also Singapore”, the video reminds us. Fixated on the cosmopolitan city that we imagine ourselves to be, Singapore forgets the citizens it’s left behind; citizens for whom these lofty dreams mean nothing.

Nonetheless, “Runaway” retains an inkling of hope. Even though the music video is disillusioned by the grand narratives that the state sells to its people, it finds a reason for life in the innocence of its children. Unfettered by a climate of silence that has yet to worm its way into them, children play with a freedom that adults can only dream of. However, even these images of innocence are stricken with grief, because these states of organic joy are an Eden from which we have walked away, never to return again.

Wistfully, the camera can only peer into these frames of simple honesty from a distance away. Its view of the void deck is split by a pillar, and it can only observe the swings from the back. Just like how the camera’s gaze is defined by its lack, its separation from the object of its focus, “Runaway” centres around the impossible task of striving towards an absent dream. The camera must cope with the dread of discovering that there might actually be nothing there.

As such, freedom lies outside the world of the music video. We trace its outline with the eyes of our dreams.

There is truth when people say…
‘You cannot make it as a _____ in Singapore.’
Especially if your work has something to say.

This is the boomerang effect of art-making in a small city
that doesn’t recognise ‘local’ until they lose it.

We don’t know if we’ll leave Singapore one day.
But we know Singapore will never leave us.

“Runaway”

After working its way through the stifling effects of kepenatan on a city’s dreams, “Runaway” tries to find an escape, even if at the cost of selfhood. Bursting out from the stillness that has dominated the music video thus far, Singaporean runner U. K. Shyam explodes out of the screen and towards the viewer. With his devilish speed, and the unnerving effect of meeting the audience’s eye throughout his mad dash, it’s unclear whether he represents the “demons we run from” or if he’s us running towards our dreams. By this point, it doesn’t matter, because we – our complex selves, insistent upon dreaming in a sleepless world – are our own demons. It is our desire for dignity that invokes pain and penat upon us.

At the end, we see a hint of escape: the music video’s imagined persona finally transcends gravity. Up so high above us, the plane – borne of the runner’s momentum, and carrying with it his desires for breaking free and out – soars out of sight and mind. This is the video’s tragic end; we seek freedom in a trace of smoke, an erasure of the self. To care is to be penat, and to be penat is to be tired, and to be tired is to sleep. At the end, we are always writing, singing, thinking at the limits of our being.

“Runaway” is simple, brave and heartfelt. Like Citizen by Claudia Rankine, “Runaway” is a cry for significance. In fact, closer to home, one might even say that it is a screen version of Alfian’s much maligned poem, “Singapore You Are Not My Country”. Much like how Alfian’s poem negotiates love and pain, “Runaway” mourns the impossibility of living up fully to our dreams. One should remember, then, not to brand these dissenting artists traitors, for we only mourn those we love.

I have lost a country to images, it is as simple as that.
Singapore you have a name on a map but no maps to your name.
This will not do; we must stand aside and let the Lion crash through a madness of cymbals back to that dark jungle heart when eyes were still embers waiting for a crownless Prince of Palembang.

Alfian Sa’at, “Singapore You Are Not My Country”

And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child’s cry

Melts in the wall.
And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

Sylvia Plath, “Ariel”

About the Writer: Ben is interested in how screens and society relate to each other. He likes rap music and thinks Preeti and Subhas are wonderful additions to our media culture. Ben’s other interests include horror, comedy and spicy food.

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2 thoughts on ““Runaway” (2019): Penat, Yearning and Loss in Black and White

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