The Eunuch State (2016)

Module: Contemporary Singapore Society (Nanyang Technological University)

I will be using Kuo Pao Kun’s play, “Descendent of the Eunuch Admiral,” to draw parallels to Singapore and as points of discussion. I will begin by providing a brief summary of the play and then begin discussion on (1) our pursuit of modernity, (2) our governance and (3) the Singapore story. This article is chosen because of its significance to Singapore’s local art, portrayal of the people’s life, and relevance of it throughout history and today. In 2015, when Singapore commemorated her 50th birthday, this play was showcased, and it gained much traction in the news.

 

In the play, the protagonist is a well­known historical figure, Eunuch Admiral Zhenghe. In the play, Kuo covers the adventures Zhenghe experiences, the losing of his manhood and the loneliness of having been cast adrift (Tan, 2015). “(His) national allegory relies on a historically significant figure whose stature in the region’s history is roughly equivalent to that of Sir stamford Raffles, and it uses his journey from poverty to power and his sacrifice as a metaphor for the losses of his compatriots. As with Zhenghe, who lost the full use of his ultimate signifier, each of the yuppies depicted in the play gave up some sacred or personal part of themselves in order to ascend the corporate ladder.” (Peterson, 2001) In drawing parallels, Zhenghe will be used as representation of the body of Singaporeans.

Modernity

Tan (2015) reviews of the play as “also a meditation on rootlessness, displacement and being a cultural orphan.” The pursuit of modernity being a future-­orientated determination, parallels the play in Zhenghe’s life after the castration. He dreams of the future and the lost of his manhood gives him a sense of loneliness. At the stage of attempting to develop Singapore, the people dreamt of the future and all its possibilities. It became all about progression, and, the most direct and efficient mean as a nation to attain it, is none other than economic development. Modernity values individualism, freedom and democracy. At the cost of prioritising economic development, other important things such as history and culture were lost or suppressed, as seen from the video, The Invisible City by Tan Pin Pin. “It is in Descendants that Kuo foregrounds his pivotal idea of Singaporeans as “cultural orphans”, an immigrant community with no nation or culture to return to, each person displaced and only inheriting fragments of cultures.” (Tan, 2015) This rejection of tradition and other factors that grounds someone’s root, distances the people, represented by Zhenghe. It might even be very probable, that one loses a sense of belonging as well. The people having lost their roots, and bound by the situation which in this sense being the country and duties, might even have some part of the very freedom it tries to work towards taken away. “Kuo…said at a 1993 conference at The Substation: “We are great at making money… we still possess this merchant mentality. Everything can be bought or sold, including culture” (Tan, 2015).” Therefore, in our future­-orientedness, we have a strong duty to be prudent in our sacrifices so that we do not end up giving away what could be worth more, and end up ‘orphans.’

Governance: Power and Authority

“When the nanny has won the confidence of the boy, she would begin to massage his testicles, softly…so that there is no pain, there is actually comfort and pleasure. As time goes by, the nanny would have increased the pressure of the massage to such a degree that although the boy still finds it pleasurable, she would have started to crush the testicles so hard that the impact begins to damage the inside of the organ. Of course by this time the pain tolerance of the child would have risen so high that he would still perceive the massage as benign and pleasurable…Apart from the absence of perceived pain, the greatest merit of the method is that no part of the organ gets cut off. In fact, externally everything looks the same. Nothing is missing; everything looks normal and untouched.” (Peterson, 2001)

The narration here represents the lost and suppression of the people. The nanny in this situation represents (A) the environment that Singapore faced and, (B) the government. After the separation from Malaysia, Singapore was faced with many issues internally (e.g health, jobs) and externally (e.g geopolitical forces) that ‘forces’ them to make certain decision, like the pressure exerted by the nanny. The government on the other hand, from a position of power, exerts their power over the people (Zhenghe), all in the name of political stability and economic development which is supposedly for the people ­ that is the common good. This comes in the form of Singapore’s infamous authoritarian leadership. Like Zhenghe, the people lost their power to resist this nanny who will shape them and their future. The country became a business, and the people treated as its supposed ‘greatest resource.’ People were used as ends to achieve the means, and not as ends in themselves, which on an ethical level is arguable according to Kant’s deontology, but defendable on utilitarian grounds if it produces the most good/happiness. It became an alienation of the powerful (government), against the powerless (the people), and sets a hierarchy and power differentiation. This disempowerment goes against the common theories of political science and philosophy in which people are free and equal beings. There is a situation in the authority of the government, and people are given a false presentation of authority in their supposed voice in voting for their representation in the parliament ­ the people falsely think they are organising the state, but it really is the state who organises them. Being a citizen, and member of a state, has to mean more than being an expat or tourist. The people here are ‘sold’ to the foreign companies and investors as workers. This current situation has progressed through time ­ like the nanny who increases the pressure over time. It is praiseworthy that “no part of the organ gets cut off,” like no part of Singapore seemingly looks missing ­ but is this the most we can say? Why are we doing what we are? Is it out of fear, and if so, who? The people or external forces? Let’s not forget the people who made the country, and the government ‘removing the bad parts’ during its generation.

The Singapore Story

“What is interesting about this chamber is that the boxes of penises, or treasures…were not stacked or stored…Instead, they were hung up, suspended in the air from the ceiling…The most junior eunuchs get their penises suspended at ground level, then as you get a promotion, your position goes higher. Your penis box, commensurate with the higher stages, will also get to a higher level. As you get promoted, your penis box also gets higher and higher.” (Peterson, 2001)

The main Singapore story presented to the public is one that places the People’s Action Party on the pedestal, and emphases the man behind, Lee Kwan Yew (LKY). Thus, the story of LKY has now synonymously become the story of Singapore. However, the seemingly important factor missing is its people. Is the nation only one man, one political party or the people? The people had to make many sacrifices for the future (moving their houses, selling their lands). Their mere obedience to the authority themselves, is also an important factor, in that they allowed the policies and government to work without inhibition. The penis box represents the people’s lost powers and sacrifices. These are hung up higher and higher over time as a shown of pride and reminder. This is in itself disturbing because instead of fixing the issue, the losses are glorified. Instead of trying to reconcile people’s power back to them, it is shown as the right thing.

This is not an expository of the inadequacies of the government, but a reminder and to highlight what is missing in the Singaporean life and nation, that we should look into.


Peterson, William. T heatre And The Politics Of Culture In Contemporary Singapore. Wesleyan University Press, 2001. Print.

Tan, Corrie. “Why Kuo Pao Kun’s Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral Matters”. T he Straits Times 2015. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s