On Saturday I went to the third Mynah Magazine launch!! They also had a really neat panel with several of their contributors that was moderated by the Mynah Magazine editor, Isabelle Lim. 🐦🐦🐦
It was absolutely mad packed and people even had to go upstairs to a balcony seating…!
I took notes as best I could of the discussion and the Q&A after
(I’m in the picture, see if you can spot me 👀🎯🕵️♀️) so my notes are not 100% accurate… Apologies if there’s any misquotes or misunderstandings!! 😩
MYNAH MAGAZINE #03 LAUNCH: A PANEL ON COLONIALITY AND ALTERNATIVE FUTURES @ THE MOON
ft. Nuraliah Norasid, Syafiqah Jaaffar, Natalie Christian Tan & Isabelle Lim
Panelists + Moderator:
What would Singapore have been like if the British had never colonised the island? What would a humane labour arrangement look like for foreign migrant workers past and present? How has our colonial history shaped the language-worlds that we now occupy and what could it look like in the future?
I would like to add that a lot of what was discussed at this panel reminded me of what was discussed at the SG Writers Festival that I sat in on about Language and the Colony. I wrote up a little post using the notes that I took that day HERE if anyone is interested! 😎
NN: I was contacted by Mynah and asked to write a series of vignettes and to use them to imagine a Singapore without colonialism. It was tough to think on where to begin. How early do I go? Do I think of a past without the Dutch or English companies? Or a past where sea travel, transnational ocean travel, didn’t exist???.. For the first vignette I ended up going with a point where the treaty wasn’t signed. The second vignette is when I went speculative. What if a woman were to be a ruler in one of the sultanates? What if we had a woman sultan?? The last vignette is a contemporary character from 2019. She’s from New York – a product of immigrants. So she writes stories of her ancestors through a western point of view.
NT: I’m primarily an illustrator and designer, so I don’t write often! I compare Samsui women with present day migrant construction workers and how they mirror each other. During my research I opened up a Pandora’s box..! I saw how Samsui women were transformed from an individual woman to becoming a national icon removed from these individual people.. Looking at that, I saw that we were at risk of repeating history, and how we might convert these things into narratives to serve privileged people.
SJ: At the time I was thinking of translation with my thesis when I was contacted by Mynah. I was thinking of translation across mediums. From text to artworks, etc.
🔹IL: On what Natalie said, at the second launch we were talking about the upcoming bicentennial and now we have seen so much being in the thick of it. So many foreign companies are also taking it on. What is your assessment on how the public has approached colonialism in such a wide way? Is there a public reckoning on colonialism? 🔹
NN: People have been talking about alternative history and countered narratives to the prescribed historical narrative that we have. And the one good thing of the bicentennial is that it pushes these marginal stories into the mainstream.. There’s been a lot of upheaval and downfall in Singapore. People have been talking about colonialism already and now it’s louder!.. I kinda expected the public reckoning and I’m GLAD for it. Before it felt like fake news or alternative history.
NT: Right now it’s a very exciting time to work in arts or publishing in Singapore because we are seeing an interest in this topic seeping out of the upper echelons of society. The mainstream public is taking notice, and you see larger institutions paying attention to this topic. There was even a National Gallery exhibition about it!! There are imperfect representations and imperfect ways to approach the issue but they are steps, and off to a good start. The fact you’re here and want to listen to us, shows we care about telling our stories and these narratives, and uncovering these people who’ve been made to feel redundant.. I’m very optimistic. It’s good to be critical of what you read, obviously, and it’s good to correct each other, but also at the same time it’s good to encourage and push and go, Yeah. It’s a start.
SJ: This bicentennial allows the public to tell more stories, so they stop becoming marginal stories. People are now more confident to tell their stories too. They don’t have to feel encumbered by national stories.
🔹IL: With the public response to the bicentennial – Syafiqah, can we create alternative futures if we haven’t reckoned with the past? Is it possible to not do that?🔹
SJ: There is a big interest in decolonising work these days but I get uncomfortable with people doing it without paying attention to the past because they will often be colonial themselves.. How does it shape our world? It starts with interrogating ourselves. What ways are we participating o perpetuating things we want to break free from? Education can only go so far. If we don’t ask ourselves what our role and responsibility is…?? It’s not good.
NJ: It’s like we’ve been dating this person for SO long and you break up, and you don’t know who you are anymore because so much of you is tied up with them, and it’s like, should I cut my hair???
NJ: With this scenario it’s important for us to remember that we are more than just that thing. There was a time before we met them and times we were without them. There are so many talents and histories without them that can continue.. It’s a very chick flick analogy but all good analogies are.
NN: It will be tough. What will it look like? It was hard with the vignettes, to decolonise. It was hard to think of a past and a future devoid of colonialism. It makes me think of the fact that this is possible right now. And I’m not defending it, but the medium we engage with is in English. And when it comes to confronting ourselves, it made me think that this is possible because we converse and understand in English. And it also made me think of access. What about those who cannot speak English? As well as access via class and race. All this was brought about via colonial thoughts.. It’s very difficult unless we imagine a world without it. That’s how we (storytellers and artists) come in.
NN: All these things intersect with other things like technological advancements, especially certain ones that came about because of it. Navigation and photography came about via colonialism. The colonial empire that made us, unfortunately.. As writers we can try to strip away these things: rethink navigation, redraw things. Use them to unpack and unravel and get rid of these things.. What if there was no way for Europe to get to South East Asia? What would that look like? Maybe there’s a sea of monsters they can’t pass! Maybe there’s an ice sheet they can’t get through!!
NN: And also just because we can get rid of that, what other powers or inequalities come into play? And how will that affect the world and its people? What about alternate geographies and alternate knowledge and alternate technology? What is people and communities got to develop their own technology on their own home front with their own resources?? What if our resources now were something else!?? It’s not just one thing, colonialism. It’s all these other things.
🔸This certain point made me think of my dissatisfaction with the Steampunk genre and its tendency to view Victorian times through rose-coloured lenses. That era was actually pretty shit for anyone that wasn’t a rich white man! So I love it when people write alternate future fiction in a Steampunk vein that challenges those colonial views! The first book that comes to mind re this is The Sea Is Ours. As well as Jaymee Goh‘s post-colonial Steampunk Blog, Silver Goggles. ANYWAY. Back to your scheduled programming: 👀 🔸
🔹IL: With all these What If’s, there are also constraints to these ideas. Like access and languages. What are these boundaries and the challenges involved?🔹
(This question in particular reminded me a lot of what Farish Noor said at the SWF talk on Language and the Colony.)
NT: This is something I find very important, we have this internal illusion that if we only continue in English while looking into our history, that it’s fine. Like the vernacular we wrote gives us ideas as a people, and that gets lost. And so much in Singapore has gone into how we speak, like all English but our national language is Malay, like the anthem. And Mandarin is your mother tongue and if you can’t speak it well, it’s very shameful and bad.. We don’t recognise or confront that the Speak Mandarin campaign started very differently. Now it’s like, this is your heritage! But back then it was, speak Mandarin because you shouldn’t speak Hokkien or Cantonese. This is the way our linguistic landscape has been moulded. The linguistic knowledge of people right now in their 20s and 30s is so poor compared to previous generations.. It’s a matter of importance. Previous generations think it’s good that we only speak English and a bit of Mandarin or Hokkien. It’s not as abstract as what people think. Can you speak to your grandpa?? It’s as simple as that. You lose stories within your own family.. It’s a very unique to Singapore problem. In Malaysia their linguistic diet that they feed on every day is so different.
SJ: To add on – Language is not just a means of communication.. In regards to prioritising English: When you can access English, you can access the best knowledge. Knowledge in other languages is not the same standard. There’s also the economic value of other languages.. I do see how knowing English to get ahead impacts you and your identity. I see it among my friends too.
NN: Language does allow certain kinds of access and also does limit access.. As someone who loves writing speculative fiction, I feel like if we put our ideas down and try hard enough, we can actually think of alternative futures. If we come up with a lingua franca of the world without English, we will still be working within constraints.. We are still limited by imagination and what we know will work with the knowledge we have.. Like, can we imagine a being that doesn’t look like us??
🔹IL: What are your thoughts on confronting colonialism or thinking through it in a communal way or public way that is larger than just one person?🔹
NT: Experimenting with Singlish. The more we elevate it and experiment in other mediums and formats with it, there’s a lot of potential for it.. So many types of Singlish that exists!! We have something to work with that could be fun but there’s work to do in this language..
NN: There’s a danger of Singlish being codified.. Maybe it shouldn’t be standardised.
NT: What if it was expanded on instead?
SJ: People like to codify and standardise.. Sometimes I see stuff online like, the correct way to speak Singlish.. 😒
NN: Like the way a Malay would speak is different too.. I would like to go FAR and create a new one altogether, but again. Limitations.. I could be creating a new hierarchy! I have my trepidations but it could be something to explore.
🔹IL: Re alternative futures – Could there be a more just future? An egalitarian future? Or do you have in mind of an alternative future for not just Singapore, because we talked about smashing geographies, but for our community or public area that we are in right now, and what does it look like?🔹
NN: I dunno man. I’d wish for an open field and a house. It’s a simple future but I have simple needs.. It’s really really tough. Like. We can’t even get the new bus with the door at the back that the government promised us!!
NT: With the state of climate future it’s like, what if I live to 70. Wow.
NN: I want to be 70 so I can be a grizzled old lady and scold people on the bus.
NN: Now you mention global warming and climate change. It’s a real reality!! Hopefully we will evolve to survive. Maybe some won’t… But that’s the natural order.
NT: I was gonna say it’s different for us to imagine an alternate future, but if we think of how to do it as a process of moving on, young people are very optimistic on how the government is progressing.. The more we do things like that, the more we see change on a systematic and structural level, the more those in power and those privileged ones will listen to us. And with that in mind, even though I can’t think of an alternate future, if we approach it knowing the power we have, there WILL be an alternate future.
SJ: I wish I was as optimistic as Natalie because I just see our future as specks of dust 😩. Maybe my job has made me jaded.. We have to keep pushing when we can. The biggest challenge is that we don’t get tired halfway. We are just gonna sink and die..
SJ: You all look so young and hopeful!! I hope you share Natalie’s optimism. Take it as far as you can without sacrificing your paycheck!!!
🔹Do we have to think of our present to think of our future? What is wrong with the present and do we need to be critical to analyse it? And on future imaginings, do we have to be global and transcend Singapore?🔹
NT: If you want to be constructive on how we move as a society, then we have to look at the present.. Re-the third question – If you look at the HK protests, Singapore has so much apathy and we are even gleeful of what’s happening. Like we are the good kid and they are the naughty ones! It’s entertaining to watch and we feel superior. We don’t exist in isolation even if Singapore is an island. We are connected to the rest of Asia and the way we deal with issues locally is tied to others.
NN: Re the first question – We do. We definitely do. Our present provides a foundation and resources for what we will grapple with for that future. The present is where all our resources pull together. And our foundations where we have to break or improve on.. And for the third question, I don’t think we can run away. The world is so connected. We share so much across borders. We can access knowledge so easily from far away in the comfort of our own home. And our economies are very connected. All these economical dependencies that we have. The future of other places of the world will be intertwined with our future as well.
🔹Going back to the break up analogy, are we happily married or currently in a break up? Like in Singapore we hate foreign influences. How does decolonisation look if we consider who we are making miserable with our own selves?🔹
NT: Considering they left us with Japan, they broke up with us. And then when we go to the UK they’re like, lol what is Singapore.
NT: We also have to understand that Singapore is a very wealthy country and we have immense influence on the rest of Asia. Like we can go on and on about being a little red dot, but money talks. Maybe if we highlight the way colonialism has had a negative impact on us we can relate to other countries. But it’s hard to get the average Singaporean to care about political issues because they don’t seem to care much beyond their immediate issues.. In terms of responsibility, it’s on the more educated person, as we have the knowledge and the ability to translate things for others.
IL: I don’t think that kind of political change is restricted to upper echelons like for example, the current PMD discussions.
NT: I don’t mean that others cannot organise, but if you have family or friends who don’t understand, the responsibility is on you.
SJ: I joke with friends that Singaporeans never decolonise because we do it ourselves. Like the sand from Myanmar to reclaim land.. Singaporeans seem to be like they don’t care. The challenge to initiate change is to change the apathy of Singaporeans. How to get them to care more about people besides issues that are relevant to them.. You move forward but at the expense of whom? People are missing the point of the PMD riders voicing concerns because people are trivialising things that don’t seem important for upper and middle class people.
That’s all folks!
You can buy copies of Mynah #01 and #02 at the following stores: