Friday, January 11, 2013

The State of an Emotionless State in Gopal Baratham’s A Candle or the Sun

Seeing Singapore through Hernie Pereira’s eyes reflects and affirms the country’s reputation for being the world’s least emotional state. Just last year, a Washington-based research group, Gallup reported that only 36% of Singaporeans recounted feeling positive or negative emotions – an ironic result in a society that is supposed to enjoy one of the lowest unemployment and highest GDP per capita rates in the world.

Reflecting on this study as a Filipino living in what is claimed to be the world’s “most emotional nation”, I am careful not to equate emotionality with happiness. Being emotionless does not necessarily mean being unhappy, it simply means being in a state where one lacks the capacity to be moved by feelings. This incapacity to express emotions has something to do with whether or not an individual has means or rights to even convey feelings. In other words, being emotional necessitates having first the freedom to express emotions.

Whether this freedom is curtailed or romanticized reflects the respective differences in the emotional landscape between Singaporean and Philippine society. In the Philippines, freedom is an integral part of what is usually characterized as the “happy and resilient disposition” of its people. The country is a big room for exercising the freedom to express and be moved by both positive and negative emotions. Filipinos love freedom – so much, in fact, that we sometimes refuse to be ruled by the transitory nature of time and limiting values of societal laws. 

The effect of freedom, when excessively imbibed, exercised, or idealized, can lead to disorder, chaos, and poverty in society – or at least this is how Singapore, through its state exercise of authoritarian democracy, justifies the surrender of freedom as a necessary trade-off for societal order and economic prosperity of its people. However, for a serious and creative writer like Hernie Pereira, the submission of individual rights and freedom in exchange for “good housing, safe streets, free education, and a colored TV” is no different from what a prostitute does: giving up self-respect for money. It is from Hernie’s comparison of what a whore and a Singaporean writer must grapple with – disentangling temporarily the (writing and sexual) act from its association – which made me understand the state of “emotionlessness” prevailing the country. 

Emotionlessness is embodied in Hernie Pereira – a cold, clever, and emotionally detached character who conceals what is most important to him: his writings and Su-May, his young mistress. Hiding both his deep affair with words and Su-May is the only way by which Hernie can genuinely express himself, without the interference of his wife, family, workmates, and the rest of the society. Being indifferent and staying emotionally neutral to the mass of people around him was his preservation of the littlest freedom and individuality he has. In Singapore, where conformity is expected to push uniform progress, the need to be distinct can perhaps only be found in silent eyes and in the “hidden” activities that people do to make them feel unique and alive. 

Moreover, being emotionless in the country means staying focused to compete and adapt to changes in the global economy. Laying off workers at Benson’s, for instance, is viewed as a sign “progress”, as the company plans to enter the mass market. Since these changes around him threatened the economic stability he once enjoyed, Hernie altogether gave up his writing freedom and betrayed Su-May and the children for “natural conservatism”. However, it was his emotions which, in the end, overpowered him and made him overturn his decision by betraying the state.  He paid thus, the sore price of being physically and figuratively toothless. 

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