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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

From GoLi to Zoom: “The Lesson – An Online Experiment” by Drama Box

By Ke Weiliang
(2,400 words, 8-minute read)

I had the pleasure of attending The Lesson in September 2015, when it premiered at Toa Payoh Central as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). That encounter was a serendipitous one, for I initially had not planned to attend the show and only happened to stumble upon the GoLi Theatre while on my way home from dinner nearby. I was eventually swayed by the sheer buzz of countless audience members queuing up to attend the show, and ended up spending more than two hours participating in what felt like a dress rehearsal for Singaporeans’ participation in the General Elections that very same weekend.[1] 

Meaningful simulations of grassroots democracy happen only when diverse cross sections of society are actively involved. On this note, the GoLi Theatre’s conspicuous physical presence has been integral to the critical acclaim that The Lesson has received in its multiple iterations since its SIFA premiere. While a durian-looking, state-of-the-art performance venue permanently nestled within the Civic District tends to attract a more socioeconomically privileged audience base – a bubble-like, inflatable theatre that appears in a guerilla-like manner in the heartlands catches the attention of the passerby who otherwise views art as a luxury that they cannot afford. Hence, when Drama Box announced that The Lesson would be adapted as an online Zoom experiment for SCENES: Participatory Practices, two broad curiosities surfaced in my mind. When interpersonal interactions are transposed to a digital space, how will the processes of deliberation and decision-making be affected? Whose voices will we end up representing and/or excluding?

The premise of The Lesson – An Online Experiment is something that is entirely familiar to past attendees of The Lesson. A fictional housing estate (also known as “The Town”) is slated to have a new Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station built in it. However, one of seven iconic landmarks (cinema frequented by migrant workers, columbarium, halfway house, hospice, marsh, rental flats and wet market) that exist in The Town has to be demolished to make way for the MRT station. 11 participants roleplaying as The Town’s residents are tasked to pinpoint one site to remove, and the rest of us – as general members of the public (which I was part of) – must ratify the residents’ consensus via a majority vote. Failure to do so would result in The Town ceding this decision to the relevant authorities.

What is different this time round, however, is that The Lesson – An Online Experiment was carried out over the course of three parts, on three consecutive days. In Part One (which was conducted as a closed-door session), we listened to keynote speeches (with a question and answer segment afterwards) given by Cassia Resettlement Team’s co-founder Lim Jingzhou, and Dr. Chong Ja Ian from the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Before the session, I mistakenly assumed that this would merely be the equivalent of what typically happens at the start of The Lesson, where a panel of subject matter experts would advise us on the direct implications of evicting the seven sites at stake. However, Jingzhou and Ian did none of that, and instead got us to reflect on the politics and mechanics of deliberation and decision-making in general. Jingzhou highlighted the complexities of intersectionality, and stressed the importance of building solidarity across communities rather than working towards a false assumption of a unified society. Drawing from examples from the court of law, Ian illustrated how the presence of different procedural structures can significantly affect the outcome of decisions made within the same context.

In the above example, a panel of three judges convene to decide if a subject should be acquitted or convicted of a crime. Depending on the procedural structures in place, however, the verdict that is eventually passed may end up being drastically different, assuming ceteris paribus.[2]  

– In Scenario One (indicated in red), the subject is convicted of the crime. In this scenario, the procedural structure requires the judges to vote on three separate issues, namely (a) whether the law that the subject was charged under is even applicable to the case on hand; (b) whether the subject did breach the law that they were changed under; and (c) whether they find the subject guilty based on their cumulative findings in (a) and (b). As there was a simple majority attained for issues (a) and (b), the court of law thus found the subject guilty.

– In Scenario Two (indicted in green), the subject is acquitted of the crime. This is because the procedural structure in place provided judges with the discretion to pass a verdict directly based on what they felt about issue (c). As a simple majority could not be reached for issue (c), the court of law thus found the subject not guilty.

I found Ian’s sharing fascinating, albeit for disturbing reasons. It made me think of domestic worker Parti Liyani, and the emotional rollercoaster she must have experienced as she was initially found guilty by a district judge of stealing from her employer, only to be acquitted of all charges after the High Court found discrepancies in the prosecution’s case later on. How transparent were the decision-making processes that led to her initial conviction? How much agency did she truly have during these legal proceedings? Extrapolating the lessons learnt from this saga – how can democracies better protect minorities who are excluded from such decision-making processes altogether?

As I listened to Jingzhou and Ian’s keynotes, I could not help but wonder if these were the kinds of reminders that would have benefitted Singaporean voters on Cooling-off Day, before they headed for the polls the next day. But then I thought of the police reports filed by the Elections Department against the sociopolitical website New Naratif for allegedly conducting illegal election activities, and I reasoned that the establishment’s definition of “election activities” is too ambiguous for anyone to publicly discuss what Jingzhou and Ian have shared without possible legal ramifications.

While I found Jingzhou and Ian’s presentations insightful, I also found it difficult to bear them in mind as I logged into Zoom for Part Two, where we would deliberate and vote over the fate of the seven previously mentioned sites in the presence of a live online audience watching via YouTube. Having previously attended The Lesson, I went into The Lesson – An Online Experiment knowing that anguish would inevitably surface no matter the outcome of the show. After all, my biggest takeaway from The Lesson was a meta-awareness of the flaws of democratic processes that simplistically catered to the majority (and let the minority fall through the cracks) through the provision of non-negotiable binary choices. Would any new silver linings surface in going through the same exercise all over again over computer screens this time round?

Many arts practitioners have lauded the pandemic-enforced shift towards digital presentations for enabling them to reach out to a more demographically diverse audience base than before. In the context of The Lesson – An Online Experiment, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Where their boisterous voices used to fill the GoLi during The Lesson, noticeably absent from this show were the elderly, whom I presume SCENES’ publicity efforts did not really manage to reach out to. The Town was predominantly made up of participants who looked like they were not much older than me[3], which led me to worry if Part Two would end up being an echo chamber.

Procedurally, Part Two was similar to The Lesson. During the course of the show, facilitators Chong Gua Khee and Kok Heng Leun conducted straw polls to help The Town get an initial sense of 1) which site(s) participants wanted to protect at all costs, and 2) which site(s) they felt should make way for the MRT station. In The Lesson, participants cast their straw votes by walking to the physical installations that represented each of the seven sites. In Part Two, my participants and I cast our straw votes for 1) by using a third-party website to project our video feed onto virtual installations (designed by Genevieve Peck) that represented each of the seven sites, and for 2) via Zoom’s in-app poll function. In between each straw poll, we would debate about our motivations for wanting to protect or evict certain sites via the audio chat function.

With all interpersonal interactions within The Town governed by these technological parameters, the act of deliberation ended up being a rather cumbersome affair. While the straw polls conducted provided periodic indications of the shifts in ground sentiments during the show, I found it virtually (pun intended!) impossible to tell why these sentiments had shifted as such. In The Lesson, such inferences could be drawn from concurrently observing participants’ body language and how they fluidly shuffled between the various physical installations set up inside the GoLi. In Part Two, however, we were entirely limited to only hearing one participant speak at any point of time, without an inkling of how everyone else felt about the opinion being expressed. I found it especially affronting that Drama Box had opted to disable the sending of text messages between participants. It made me imagine being forced to attend The Lesson in the GoLi with masking tape pasted on my mouth for the most part, and not being allowed to engage in one-to-one discussions even with people seated right beside me! Ultimately, all this meant that the power to effect change lay solely in the hands of participants who had the privilege of being granted air time to speak.

I spent the succeeding two and a half hours straddling between feelings of apathy and disgruntledness. I suspect that The Town’s residents were caught in a similar emotional limbo, for they eventually opted to pass on the responsibility of determining the fate of the seven sites to us members of the public. Suddenly, it felt as if the issue at hand was no longer about which specific site to demolish, but rather whether we were going to at least claim ownership over the final decision, or surrender it to the authorities altogether. At this juncture, I began to wonder if spoiling our votes in protest against the ludicrous parameters of this exercise would be a more meaningful course of action. But then I recalled reading Adeeb Fazah’s review of The Class Room [4] – where he pointed out how abstaining from democratic exercises was an act of privilege that could sabotage the possibility of making immediate positive changes to communities who desperately needed them – and eventually withheld that thought.

Where the straw polls suggested deeply divided opinions over which site to evict, by the time of the official poll, a simple majority of 51.3% eventually voted to demolish the columbarium, which meant sacrificing ancestral worship facilities and traditions dating back to 1870. This did not come as a surprise to me, for the logic of prioritising the livelihoods of the living in the other six sites over preserving tangible memories of the dead had been debated extensively amongst the participants. Nevertheless, what lingered afterwards was a communal atmosphere of sombreness that was palpable even through my computer screen. Considering this sombreness in relation to the 21.3% increase in votes to demolish the columbarium (which sat at 30% during the straw polls), it then begs the question: What does reaching a consensus really mean? Of the 21.3% swing voters, how many of them genuinely changed their mind, and how many of them were merely tolerant of the choice that was eventually passed?

The following day, we reconvened for Part Three, which was part decompression space, and part post-mortem to what had transpired during Part Two. After being invited by the facilitators to fill in our spontaneous reactions towards our experience so far on a Padlet mood board, we then split into breakout rooms to further discuss specific topics of interest suggested by ourselves. I myself proposed a breakout room titled “What Can We Do Beyond The Poll”. While my breakout room did not manage to generate any concrete action plans, we concurred that even the most well thought-out democratic processes still inevitably leave certain communities of people behind. In this context, decisions had to be made based on trade-offs, some of which affected certain individuals more disproprotionately than others. Perhaps it might be fruitful to reorient our energy towards caring for those whose needs were de-prioritised by the process of voting. This, however, means that the very same authorities that gatekeep our democracies need to have an active interest in such aftercare, for ground-up mutual aid efforts are not sustainable in the long run and can only get us so far before burnout eventually happens.

In recent years, Drama Box has developed a body of participatory work that champions the practice of critical citizenship amongst audience members – a cause that The Lesson has become synonymous with. Ironically, I had registered for The Lesson – An Online Experiment believing that there would not be any unanticipated curveballs thrown my way, given my prior encounters with The Lesson. What I ended up being ambivalently surprised by was how the experiment cleverly incorporated the technological limitations of a video teleconferencing platform like Zoom, to prod us into reflecting on how grassroots democracy might function in a physically distanced world (cc: this year’s General Elections). The restrictions on interpersonal communications that were imposed upon us this time round made me feel like I was in a dystopia that stripped us of the ability to even organise ourselves on the ground, let alone enact resistance against exclusionary political processes.

If anything, I suppose that experiencing The Lesson – An Online Experiment served as a sobering reminder that the pursuit of social equity is an eternal work-in-progress. Will having our pre-COVID lifestyles uprooted by the pandemic make us more reflexive about blind spots arising from privilege? In a world where face-to-face interaction can no longer be taken for granted, how can we still use our privilege to level the playing field for others?

 

[1] The Lesson premiered as part of SIFA between 9 to 12 September 2015. Coincidentally, the General Elections that year took place on 11 September 2015.
[2] Latin phrase. In this context, it means “all else unchanged”.
[3] I am 27 years old.
[4] The Class Room is a participatory theatre experience that was presented as part of the M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival in 2019. It was created by the very same artists who had a hand in creating and/or facilitating The Lesson.

The Lesson – An Online Experiment took place between 11-13 Sept 2020 as part of SCENES: Participatory Practices by Drama Box. Special thanks to Drama Box and Dr. Chong Ja Ian for providing the images featured in this article.

Ke Weiliang (also known as kewl, pronounced ‘k-yul’) is a Singaporean arts practitioner who is presently curious about how interpersonal intimacy can be fostered over scattered, physically distanced interactions. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Arts Management from LASALLE College of the Arts in 2019, and is the founding administrator of Channel NewsTheatre.

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