Essay
FREEDOM TO BE

This essay was written in English by Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib. It was first presented at the Singapore Dreaming Workshop in 2015.

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Formerly, I, Kwang Kâu, dreamt that I was a butterfly, a butterfly flying about, feeling that it was enjoying itself. I did not know that it was Kâu. Suddenly I awoke, and was myself again, the veritable Kâu. I did not know whether it had formerly been Kâu dreaming that he was a butterfly, or it was now a butterfly dreaming that it was Kâu. But between Kâu and a butterfly there must be a difference. This is a case of what is called the Transformation of Things. (Legge, 1989)

Dreaming is essential to the imagination. But why don’t we dream? Sometimes, we don’t dream because we find it difficult to sleep. Without sleep, we trudge like drones: dull, bored and tired. We lose all vitality and the energy that forms the basis of Hope. Is Singapore dreaming? Often, we were told to continuously be on the move. To pause and reflect is a luxury, or so it seems.

So, I decided to spare a little moment to be still and meditate. It was difficult, and in that moment, this weary body fell asleep. And so I dreamt. I was not sure if it was a good dream or a nightmare, but here is the account.

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I
I woke up to find myself in a strange place. It was a box. Not too big, but big enough to accommodate some 500,000 people. Or so I was told. But there was something peculiar about this place. There were mirrors all around me. Yet somehow, I was not able to see my own reflections. Instead, I saw others. But they were not Me. It was as if I did not exist as Me: an individual. I was all these people around me.

And so, I played and ran around this small box with mirrors all around. Soon, I noticed that above every mirror were words. Words that struck deep into my psyche.

L-a-z-y. P-o-o-r. S-t-u-p-i-d.

There were many more. And I used to see these words and stare into the mirror. Occasionally, a friend would come and stand beside me and say, “That’s us.”

In one small corner, however, was a different mirror. It offered an occasional glimmer of hope because it was a see-through mirror. I would stand by it and peer into the “outside” world. But, only when a light from outside was switched on. Who knows who was at the switch? But when the light came on, we got to see the “Others” – people on the outside. And like us, they were peering in; curious and gazing. But unlike us, the space they were in seems a lot bigger. And suddenly, my eyes caught a person on the outside, who strangely, looked like one of us who were inside the box. I wanted to be that person.

So, I wandered around this suffocating box, looking for an exit. If he can be outside, there must be a way out. And I soon found this small door, enough for a person to crawl through. But it was locked. And there was a gatekeeper. He would tell us, “Stop looking at the mirrors around you. Start looking outside more and be like those people who are on the outside!”

“But, Sir,” I argued, “Why do you confine us within these walls? Why don’t you remove them and let us roam free with those people on the outside?”

The gatekeeper smiled. “Only if you can be like them!”

“Like what?”

“Hardworking. Smart. Or better…”

“What?” I could not wait for him to complete his sentence. Sentence! Ha, what a pun, I thought.

“Better what, Sir?”

“Genes.”

There was a long pause. I slumped onto a wall by the corner of that small little door. Somehow, the door would open and there would be a fanfare. A few people would exit our box and be met with lights and cameras and people waiting to interview them. When the door opened, there would be a slit and I could see the gatekeeper on the other side. The gatekeepers would engage in conversation. They looked serious, but sometimes an occasional burst of laughter would pierce the air. I felt suffocated. I wanted to leave. But how? I found a small pen in my pocket. The tip was sharp enough. I started chipping away at the wall where I sat. Bit by bit…

And then, I woke up.

II
The place was dark. No, it was not pitch black. There were lights and I was not sure where they were shining from. But I could see people walking around. They looked different from me. I wandered aimlessly. Until a strange but familiar sight caught my attention. There! In the middle of this empty space was a small box. No, it was a glass cage.

I could see the inside. There were people. They looked like me. I waved, but was greeted with blank expressions and shifty looks. Perhaps they could not see me? And as my eyes roamed around the inside of the box, I saw those familiar words:

L-a-z-y. P-o-o-r. S-t-u-p-i-d.

Thank God! Those words are not Me! I’m outside. Those words are Them – the ones still inside! A sense of relief gushed through my body.

“We are not them, yeah?” Someone was standing by side, striking up a conversation. I turned. We were alike. He was probably from the inside too.

“We must be free like these people around us now. We must not be like them!” And he pointed to the people inside the glass box. I stared hard into the glass box. I could see my own reflections. I saw myself for the first time. And I looked like the people inside the glass box. Yet, I was outside and surrounded by people who did not look like me. Who am I?

As the light came on, I could see clearly the faces of the people inside that constricting glass box. I could see the aspirations in their faces. They could see outward. Until the light was turned off and all that they could see were mirrors of their own reflections. And those words:

L-a-z-y. P-o-o-r. S-t-u-p-i-d.

Was there not a small door somewhere by the corner of the glass box? I searched frantically. Yes, it was there by the corner. And I could see a gatekeeper.

“Sir,” I said to the gatekeeper, “Will you not open the door and let them out?”

“Who?”

“My people.” My people? I was surprised at my own words. The gatekeeper laughed. “They are best inside,” he retorted. “We‟ll protect them. We know all too well. Their leaders informed us. They are…”

“Lazy? Poor? Stupid?” I jumped in. The gatekeeper was taken aback but soon regained his composure. “Yes! See? You are not like them now. You are hardworking and smart… Are you mixed?” I kept quiet. “I knew it! Your parents must be from one of us!”

My body was trembling. I felt insulted. Helpless, my body slumped by the walls of the glass box. The walls felt cold. My hands slipped into my pockets and felt an object. It was a pen that I had from the inside. I started chipping the walls of the glass box. Bit by bit. Soon, I was joined by a few people whom I did not know. Some looked like me; some did not. It did not matter. We chipped away. Bit by bit…

And I woke up!

III
Here I am now, trying to make sense of my dream. Am I someone from the inside dreaming that I was outside; or someone from the outside and dreaming I was inside? I do not know. But I know that there is a box that needs to be broken. That box represents the constructed image of Me. It holds a repertoire of stereotypes. They imprison me. They constrict potentialities. The box is a cage. And you cannot be you without being judged according to how the box defines you. Is that fair, I asked?

I dream of a Singapore without boxes. Boxes with strange acronyms that I found sterile: C-M-I-O. As I reflect on my two dreams, I came to the conclusion that the first was an instance of freedom from. I am an individual that cannot be confined to how I am defined by whoever has the authority and power to define me, according to the box I am tossed in. In the second dream, it was a sense of freedom to. I am someone with the same aspirations as everyone else and what I can do need not be constrained by where I came from. Both freedoms are necessary to Be who I am in this place I call my Home.

Essentially, the freedom to be is the freedom to be Human. I longed for a moment where I do not have to spend every second of my existing moment looking into the mirror to be reminded of the box I am in. I longed for a day where we can stop categorising people and assigning stereotypes upon them. We walk, play and work together as a people, not as separate categories that assume what we are and who we are. I longed to traverse this wide-open space freely; to interact and learn from one another as fellow humans; a free spirit of a truly open world. The moment when we are not putting hierarchies upon us in order to control each other and put others in their place, will be the dream I wish upon this land. To be one’s self and not suffer any form of discrimination – whether in the name of race, language, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

And then… I woke up! And I found myself surrounded by more strange people! I realised, that even this space we call Singapore is a box. And there are others who eventually made it to this small box we call Singapore. To live, learn, play and build a dream with us. Do we need to box them too? Let there be the freedom to Be!

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This essay can be found in the anthology Singapore Dreaming: Managing Utopia, published by Asian Urban Lab.

Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib is founding member of Leftwrite Center, a dialogue initiative for young professionals. He comments on issues of multiculturalism and has articles published in Straits Times, Today and Berita Harian.

 

REFERENCES

Legge, James. 1989. The Texts of Taoism, Volumes 1 and 2: 197. Singapore: Tynron Press and Graham Brash.