Singapore wonders: can you dissent, and discuss dissent, while still loving your nation?

As with my post on the (all-too-recent!) brownface saga, this is a summary of links on the Singapore government- and establishment-led inaccurate characterising of dissent as traitorous behaviour, and thus of activists, artists and independent journalists and scholars who express dissent as traitors to Singapore.

If I've missed anything meaty, please let me know. The information here was last updated on 14 October 2019.

This series of events began when news broke that a Yale-NUS enrichment programme, "Dissent And Resistance In Singapore", to be taught by playwright Alfian Sa'at, had been cancelled two weeks before it was scheduled to begin (Seow Bei Yi, "Yale-NUS cancels programme to introduce students to 'modes of dissent and resistance in Singapore'", The Straits Times, 14 September 2019).

Initial statements on the cancellation of the course:
As online discussion intensified over the next week:
On 25 September 2019, the minister for home affairs K. Shanmugam described independent Singapore news websites The Online Citizen and New Naratif as being used "to advance foreign interests" (Kenneth Cheng, "Shanmugam questions funding sources behind TOC, reiterates need for laws to curb foreign interference", TODAY, 25 September 2019). Shanmugam's speech included inaccurate descriptions of New Naratif co-founder Kirsten Han's political positions (see her refutations below).
On 29 September 2019, Yale University released a statement and its fact-finding report, contending that "the decision to cancel the module was made internally and without government interference in the academic independence of the College." Its fact-finding report by Prof Pericles Lewis additionally asserted that Yale-NUS had been concerned with "legal risk" and with the "inadequacy of the materials" submitted by Alfian Sa'at.
On 7 October 2019, minister for education Ong Ye Kung stated in Parliament that the cancellation of Alfian Sa'at's proposed programme was because "MOE's stand is we cannot have such activity in our schools or institutes of higher learning. Political conscientisation is not the taxpayer's idea of what education means". Ong also read a few lines of Alfian's poem "Singapore You Are Not My Country" to throw doubt on his loyalty to Singapore (see also Rei Kurohi, "Yale-NUS saga: Academic freedom can't be carte blanche for misusing academic institutions for political advocacy, says Ong Ye Kung", The Straits Times).



Singapore wonders: is brownface racist?

I've had a crazy-busy-unstoppable week that involved the fantastic Sewanee Writers Conference, a little downtime in Nashville, then coming back to Boston to move apartments---in the midst of which, every morning I woke up to find that my phone had exploded with the latest (and increasingly ridiculous) developments in what I'm going to call the brownface saga in Singapore.

As the title of this blog post states, Singapore wonders: is brownface racist?

The longer version: In 2019, in the midst of its (neocolonial) bicentennial year and in the lead-up to its 54th (postcolonial) National Day, Singapore---ostensibly a democratic, modern, urban and multiracial society---is still trying to figure if brownface is racist.

More agile minds than mine have provided excellent commentaries on the brownface saga as it unfolded, so I'm just going to summarise the links (last updated 13 October 2019).

First, some handy primers on the meaning and implications of brownface in the Singapore context (it's tragic that these are still needed in 2019!):
A brief recap of what went down:
  • Faris Joraimi documented the appearance of a NETS advertisement for epaysg.com using brownface (26 July 2019)
  • As Visakan Veerasamy and Yogesh Tulsi have pointed out, this is at least the sixth brownface incident in the last seven years.
  • The creative agencies involved in making the ad, but not the client NETS, apologised "for any hurt that was unintentionally caused." (28 July 2019)
  • Singapore YouTube artists Preetipls and Subhas made a rap video, "K. Muthusamy", responding to the brownface advertisement (29 July 2019)
  • Someone promptly made a police report about the video. As Kirsten Han observed, "‪A government initiative can employ a Chinese actor to put on brownface and just get away with a half-assed apology, but a satirical rap video by actual brown people in response gets investigated for allegedly containing offensive content?!"
  • This comic at A Good Citizen also captures the preposterousness of the situation.
  • Or as Ruby Thiagarajan observes, "the backlash against calling out racism turned out to be worse than the backlash against racism".
The backlash continued, focusing almost exclusively (as of 4 August 2019) on the rap video, not on the original brownface advertisement:
Some excellent commentaries on the situation:
Unrelated to the brownface saga, I happened to read two other commentaries on black-white race relations in the US that transpose somewhat if you substitute "Singaporean Chinese men" for "white men":
I'll keep updating this post as things develop. I'd like to think the situation is winding down, or at least people will refocus on the original brownface advertisement instead---but knowing Singapore in 2019, I'm not optimistic.



Last story in

Back to school, first story due. • #latergram #MFAlife
(Picture from January 2019.)

Today, I handed in the last piece of new fiction I'll write as part of my MFA programme. My first hand-in was on September 9 last year. In the seven months in between, I've written eight short stories from scratch and 50 first-draft pages of my novel. One of my stories won the Mississippi Review Fiction Prize, for which I still feel very lucky. Another story is out on submission, and there are a few more I'll revise over the summer.

Other achievements of this period:
  • Surviving a dry-but-still-very-cold Boston winter with the aid of solid winter boots (thank you, Wirecutter reviews) and all manner of Uniqlo Heat Tech garments.
  • Managing several winter hikes (snow, ice and all), thanks to the abovementioned winter boots. I wish I'd squeezed in a few more before the snow all melted.
  • Learning not to overthink (still learning; my website domain name still stands).
  • Coping with the unexpected volleys life throws at you.
  • Making friends in the MFA classroom---and in unexpected places beyond.
  • Mastering the comma before the independent clause.
Anyhowly taken, but this is #BeaconStreet with the white #magnolias blooming. Last week these #trees were bare. I guess it really is #spring, even if daytime temperatures are barely above freezing. • #latergram #Boston

Meanwhile, the magnolias are flowering, and the daffodils are coming up, whether in flower beds or as part of the Marathon Daffodils project. It's like a switch flipped in the ground after the spring equinox. I have to start paying attention to flowers and learning the different species again (I was doing it in the fall, until there were no more leaves to help me make identifications on Pl@ntNet).

I still have plenty of writing to do over the summer. The MFA creative thesis requires 90 pages of revised fiction from my last seven months, plus there are a couple of short story ideas that I didn't have the time or wherewithal to pursue during term-time. Plus I need to finish my novel manuscript.

Tonight, though, I'm thinking about the last few lines of the story I just submitted:
"Well, since we’re all the way out here in this strange corner of Singapore, where can we go next?"
"Aren’t you tired?"
"I can walk a little more—if you’re up for it."
Sharlene removed her hat and sunglasses. "Well, what do you want to see?"


Not here, not there

Hey, that’s no duck ... • #latergram #BostonPublicGarden

I've been in Boston for two weeks and in my apartment for one. It's been a little unreal, living between identities: no more in work-writing mode, not quite in tourist/traveller mode, not yet an MFA student proper; away from Singapore, yet not familiar enough with Boston to avoid mixing up Beacon, Brookline and Boylston Streets. Living in interstitial spaces: a comfortable but soulless Airbnb room for a week (add that to your list of non-places, Marc Augé), then a small apartment that I spent the last week pulling together--diligently, deliberately making it over into a place where I can live and write.

Morning light. • #latergram

How to ease entry into Boston when moving on one's own:
  • Move a couple of weeks before the annual hellish moving extravaganza (because the vast majority of Boston apartments turn over on September 1)---before the Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond stores are overrun with anxious parents and their antagonistic freshman-offspring, before the internet installation services are all booked out, before the banks and mobile phone service shops are tied up with international students needing new accounts.
  • Walk everywhere. If nothing else, one soon figures out which road is which and which road leads to where (I quite like the fact that Boston isn't on a perfect grid).
  • Have a helpful property manager who has a stockpile of Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons and other handy neighbourhood tips.
  • Price things by going to shops and taking notes---which confirmed, for instance, that when it comes to Asian groceries, H Mart is indeed more expensive than Super 88, which is more expensive than C Mart (which also sells refrigerated ma lai gou that one can re-steam at home, be still my beating heart!).
  • Have a friend who's lived in Boston for years, and is helpful with money-saving/dollar-stretching tips and adept at karang guni'ing stuff.
  • Also have a friend-of-a-friend who generously handed down a kitchen's worth of barely used household items even though we've never met.
  • Trawl Facebook Marketplace obsessively every few hours for apartment stuff. Buy only what one needs, not all the cute/unusual/quirky/amazing stuff that's out there.

The most amazing #lamppost, and a purple house. • #latergram #Boston #JamaicaPond

Unexpectedly, what I've often thought of as the Singapore-honed skill of spotting where the shade is and sticking to it has come in handy in Boston. It's been fiercely sunny almost every day, and this week it's been 30ºC and up, with a heat index of 37ºC to 40ºC, according to the National Weather Service. I even had to buy sunscreen.

I know it won't last, the weather, this limbo. University stuff starts on Thursday, classes start on Monday, I have to write a complete short story for one class by next Thursday. But tonight I watched the moon climb above the horizon outside my window, and I wondered how high it would go.


Wake me up

Packing to move to Boston. See blog for details.

Dusting this off to say: I’m moving to Boston. Next month. To work on an MFA in creative writing. At Boston University. For a year and a bit. During which I hope to finish my novel as well.

Obviously, I don't remember how to blog anymore.

I haven’t touched my novel since Xmas because of work and I miss it dreadfully, as I’ve been saying to anyone who asks. Don’t ask me when it’ll be published, I need to finish the manuscript first.

Other things that excite me about Boston: the Boston Public Library, indie bookstores and cinemas, free astronomy nights at the campus observatory, all the modernist architecture on the MIT campus, rereading Robert Lowell and The Peregrine (because peregrines at BU!), hiking, and, um, living five minutes from a Trader Joe’s.



Residency routine

Rainy and gray again today, so here's a pic from inside the #MaverickWritingStudios building from two days ago. • #latergram #VermontStudioCenter #Vermont #JohnsonVT #insideout #fromawindow #fromthewindow #reflection

At Vermont Studio Center, they feed us three times a day: 7:30-9:00 am, 12:00-12:45 pm and 6:00-6:45 pm. At home I usually wake up at 8 am, but here I try to be at breakfast by 7:45 am and try not to linger beyond 8:30. I figure since the dining hall is a one-minute walk from my residence (two minutes in the morning if I have to wait at the T-junction for the elementary school buses to pass), and since the residency has freed me from the time I would spend cooking or thinking about what to eat or ordering food, I should make the most of what they're providing and get up earlier to extend my work day.

After breakfast, I pop a slice of lemon and bag of Earl Grey tea into the forest green coffee mug they gave us on the first day ("write your name in permanent marker on the bottom, or you'll get them all mixed up"), top it up with boiling water, then fill my black Zojirushi flask with boiling water, so that I can make more tea in my studio later, and I'm ready to go write. In my second-storey studio, my desk is about a meter wide, bisected by the dictionaries on which I place my laptop (I prefer to keep the laptop screen at eye level, while typing on a Bluetooth keyboard on the desk). To the left of my laptop are my sprawled, handwritten notes, folders and a desk lamp that gives off a warm yellow light; together with the dark wood of the desk, it makes the place feel cosy and writerly (I am captive to Western, Romantic images of what it means to write, I know). To the right of my laptop is an even messier hodgepodge of teabags (Earl Grey, genmaicha, camomile), snacks (nuts, cheese, fruit, Reese's peanut butter cups) and personal items like headphones, lip balm, tissues and a microfibre cloth for cleaning my glasses. I keep nothing in the desk drawers because I'm afraid of forgetting them when I leave at the end of the residency.

The first week I was here, it rained every day, almost all day, and I kept looking out of my window (to the left of my desk) to listen to the rushing water in the Gihon River. From the second week, it has been sunny every day and the water levels have fallen significantly. I could go wading in the river, I suppose, and feel the curve of its rounded, cool stones under my feet. But the river seems to be the domain of the ducks, who show up every mid-morning and every evening around 5 pm and honk to each other, dive underwater to feed or perch on a rock to groom their feathers if the sun is out (there is a rock directly in the middle of the river, that is also directly at the centre of my window view). Often one or two ducks swoop dramatically down from the sky like divebombers. The loud splash with which they land---which is what usually snaps my gaze to the window, I have not yet witnessed the actual dives---belies their panache as they surface, paddle nonchalantly and greet their friends (or maybe rivals, sometimes there is truculent honking and an uncertain fluttering of wings).

Single-digit temperatures and dreamy fog this morning, but by 9 am the sun was out. • #VermontStudioCenter #Vermont #JohnsonVT #sunny #viewfrommywindow

I tried to look up what kind of ducks they are on Whatbird.com, which suggests that they might be garganeys (they don't have the white stripe above the eye, although it could be that my ducks are female, or that my vision just isn't good enough to discern the stripe) or greater scaups. After further observation and listening to the bird calls on that website, I think they might be the latter. I might just refer to them generically as ducks, since I don't actually know any better. At any rate, the majority of them don't seem to have colourful plumage, so they are mostly females.

Last Friday morning, there were two female ducks sunning themselves on the rock in the middle of the river. A male who had been chased by them earlier was loitering around, and eventually dislodged one from the rock. She complained and paddled around the rock to see if there was another spot for her, but there wasn't any space so she was reduced to sulking nearby (she stood on a smaller rock in the water, so she that she could get some sun but her feet stayed wet).

It's noon, I have to go eat.

I'm back from lunch. It's not that I have to eat during the stipulated mealtimes. I could eat at a cafe in town (um, the only cafe in town) or buy something at the supermarket. But the Studio Center provides good food, great company, and after two weeks it's still so nice to be among people to whom you can say, excuse me, I'm going to go work in my studio now, and they say, uh-huh, yeah, okay, because if they wanted to do the same, they would too.

As I walked across the river to get to the dining room, I thought about the last river I was in: Pa'Lungan, in the Bario highlands in Sarawak. I was in that river because we took a boat during the dry season and when the water level was too low for the boat to pass, we had to get out so that our boatmen could push and carry the boat over the rocks and then we got back in again. This usually meant standing up to our knees in the river---although memorably, my colleague jumped out at an unexpectedly deep spot and sank up to her chest.

In Singapore, you don't hear the river. There is too much traffic noise and also too much concrete on its banks, which I'm sure that affects the sound of the water. If anything, you may hear the otters in the river---or, more likely, humans squealing at the sight of otters in the river.

Afternoon reading spot. • #notanartinstallation #VermontStudioCenter #JohnsonVT #MasonGreen #redandgreen

After lunch, I write for the rest of the afternoon, and sometimes if I've had a big breakfast and a big lunch (like today), I skip dinner and keep writing. There is little else to report. Once or twice a week, there is a slide presentation by artists or a reading by writers, which is a great way to visit the imaginations of fellow residents; I always come away with my mind feeling very full. On Sundays, I have gone for hikes (so far, one short, one long). I took all of last weekend off, in fact, because I'd been writing for nine days straight and needed to rest that part of my brain. But I suspect I will write through this weekend because next Friday this sojourn comes to its stipulated end (of course we all wish we could just stay a bit longer ...).

In the late morning today, about eight ducks were in the water, then suddenly they did the thing where they propel themselves to take off, and for a few seconds they were both flapping their wings and using their feet to kick powerfully on the surface of the water, and for those instants they were fantastically both in the air and in the water at once---and I, the city dweller, was amazed.

Ten more days of this. Go!

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The plan for 2017

I'm not one for writing obligatory New Year's posts, but I told myself this morning that I would tack something here for posterity, so here it is.

I'm going to spend the year being a "writer" writer. By which I mean I'm going to work on my novel and take on very little commercial freelance work. To that end, I'm very lucky that I've been accepted as writer-in-residence at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) for six months (commencing tomorrow!), as well as at a couple other foreign residencies in the latter half of the year.

Objectives for the year: finish a decent draft of the Dakota Project, which I didn't have the time or headspace to properly get into for much of last year, and be very, very prudent about money. Step one of the latter is probably not to go crazy buying all the Chinese New Year goodies that are already flooding the shops.

Actually, my first order of business is to put together the syllabus for the undergraduate creative writing class I'll be teaching as part of the NTU residency. I've taught writing workshops over the past few years, but this'll be my first time back in a formal classroom in over a decade. I'm both excited and prepared to be astonished.

As I alluded to on Twitter earlier today, I'm really lucky to be paid for six months to read books about writing, teach writing and also write. So I'm pretty tingly about 2017, despite the spectre of Trump.

Oh, and if you haven't read it already, check out Kirsten Han's piece, "Lessons From Singapore On Trump’s Authoritarian America".