"So when we want to talk about what it means to decolonise we can’t expect everyone to speak the same language at the same level at the same time." | SWF x Ethos Books : Breaking the Colonial Gaze
About Breaking The Colonial Gaze:
How can we begin to decentre our art, stories, and histories from the colonial gaze? Partake in a collective unlearning of colonial attitudes and reimagine a culture of decolonisation as we explore more liberating ways of being and narrative-making.
This programme is co-presented by Singapore Writers Festival and Ethos Books. Singapore Writers Festival is organised by the Arts House Limited and commissioned by the National Arts Council.
You can find the speaker bios at the bottom of this page. Enjoy the conversation!
Prasanthi: A very warm welcome to all of you. Thank you for being here today.
To get the ball rolling, I thought I’d just jump straight in. I’d like us all to consider our separate journeys in developing a decolonial praxis (where certain ideas influence your work). So for those of you who are like “what is praxis”, praxis is basically a type of research practice where certain theories and ideas influence our work.
So our panellists today, as you've heard, come from very different backgrounds and have very different interests but they all overlap in their shared investment in decolonising narratives. So my first question is: was there a particular moment in your life that led you to recognise the importance of decolonising narratives? Nurul can start.
Nurul: Hi, thanks Prasanthi for your question. For me specifically, a lot of it started from the personal and it involves a lot of encounters with narratives that made my eyes roll. So for me, eye-rolling is an important step in my practice to understand what it means to recognise certain narratives that were problematic, without necessarily being able to pinpoint why.
I traverse between arts and academia, and so for me I recognise there’s problems with each of these respective fields in relation to the practices they embody and in relation to this need to drive out this narrative output, which was always tied to the very institutional structure of how things should be run.
So as someone who is a minority in Singapore, and to clarify the use of this term minority: when I use the term minority, it is with this attention to the fact that I am a minority to a majority; it is speaking towards the majority as well. It’s not just victimising myself like “oh I’m in the periphery”, in fact I’m very against this idea of periphery, which I’ll speak more about later.
But for me I think the first awareness was in moments of eye-rolling, in moments of rage, where I could not see facets of myself in narratives that were out there. I saw a lot of white-washing in terms of the kind of terminologies used to describe my communities, our experiences, and I think also in terms of how there is always a single authority and single authorship. And I think it is something I engage a lot in my work as a photographer.
Also to clarify, I am a photographer who doesn’t take photos. Because I use a lot of found photos, I engage a lot with archives. And also I realise, looking at photography in general, it’s always about the documentation and archiving of a single narrative but most importantly, a specific documentation that is always authorised towards a centre.
So that created the need to articulate: what does it mean to not only respond to a centre? In my practice, I articulated it through what does it mean to obscure, to refuse – a lot of time I refuse to share information on certain platforms or certain outputs because I feel that people are not ready to hear it.
Prasanthi: That’s a great answer. How about nor?
nor: I’m also a photographer who doesn’t take photos of myself anymore. I went to arts school and majored in photography. From there, I developed a practice of self portraiture. When I was studying in school, I realised that a lot of our curriculum used the West as a default. And majoring in photography, I learnt that the camera was an essential tool of colonialism.
When you say point and shoot you literally point and shoot right, cause there were many attempts to colonise a certain lens and that was not possible until the camera came along.
From that point on, I became fixated on ethnographic portraits, those taken by colonial administrators, and from there, on seeing what auto-ethnography can do to decolonise and how we can use it in our everyday life. We can talk about it later.
Imran: I grew up having stereotypical views of my own community. You've probably heard it: “Malays are lazy.”
It’s not just something that is articulated or said outside of the community; fellow Malays also repeat that kind of statement, that stereotype. I wasn’t happy with that, but I didn’t have a language to say my experience. I hear this thrown at me, and people around me. I was a teacher once, and it certainly had an impact on me and my students.
It’s only later that the whole discussion on racism came up. Society started discussing the issue of racism and that led me to discover where is the beginning of this racialised state of affairs that we have, as well as what is behind the idea of racism itself. Because it’s not just an issue in Singapore, it’s a global issue. It’s tied to the development of the global system. So then that lead me to find out a little bit more about colonialism and how it’s very closely tied to racism.
One specific book that made an impact on me is The Myth of the Lazy Native by Syed Hussein Alatas. It’s been re-published now, in Malaysia. That book actually opened my eyes to the foundation of that ideology of lazy natives—doesn’t necessarily have to be Malays, but also Filipinos and the Javanese.
The second aspect I’d say is my own life from a fundamentalist Muslim to adopting a more progressive vision of Islam. And fundamentalist Islam is related to colonialism: it’s a response to colonialism and it’s a mere effect of colonialism producing a static unchanging view of Islam. So when I discovered all of these, it opened up a new horizon to engage in decolonial practice.
Prasanthi: One thing I noticed is you all talked a lot about resisting a single authority, a single narrative, and when we got to nor we are talking about the West and how often we are using the West as a benchmark for ourselves. Then when we moved to Imran, we talked about ourselves as communities internalising these stereotypes. And we end up defining our own practices and understanding of our community which is quite upsetting but I think it’s true. I’m glad we’re talking about it.
As we move on, I’d like to hear more about your own works, individually. What we are going to look at are what kinds of terms or theories you feel define your praxis in a way? Or you feel you have to resist in your praxis? I’m going to start with Nurul again.
Nurul you work a lot with visual images, and one thing I found really interesting is, in 2012, you had a work called “Hijab/Her”. Interestingly, 8 years later you corrected that work and released corrections in 2020 that you annotated on those images. That indicated to me that your praxis had gone through some shifts over time. Around the same time in 2020/2021, you were also working on wanita kami, which in your words “dishevels ways of encountering wanita through the colonial and imperial gaze.”
I was just wondering how your praxis has evolved over time. Earlier you also mentioned that you are not fond of the term “decentring” and I was hoping you could tell us more about that as well.
Nurul: Thank you Prasanthi for that question. For me, I want to contextualise that I do differentiate between historical colonialism and coloniality. In a sense, when you talk about historical colonialism you are talking about the empire.
What I’m doing for my PhD now is I’m looking at the invention of the camera and how it actually moved alongside colonialism, which meant that all the characteristics and how we think about photography is tied to an invention of coloniality.
Regarding the second part, I talk about coloniality as well: it’s something I’ve been trying to explore in my work. I never saw my work as decolonising ever. In fact it was a resistance to merely classifying everything as other or as resistance.
For me, when I did Hijab/Her, that was when I had just finished my Master’s and I went into photography, thinking “I am so disenchanted with academia, let me go into photography which is a democratic tool to tell stories”. Obviously it was not, but at that point in time I wanted to use photography to tell stories of Muslim women who donned the hijab. And it was also self-reflexive.
What I did was, I interviewed a lot of women who donned the hijab, and I asked them “what were the problems you face wearing a hijab in Singapore?” I realised that in the act of visualising that, I was already creating a narrow scope of what I interpreted as the problem of what it meant to be a visible muslim.
So for me the act of correcting that work was also the realisation that the creation of a photograph, whenever we create an image, and send it into the world wide web, it stays there. And my visualisation of the hijab girl was also portraiture of faceless silhouettes of the hijab, and what I was doing was merely replicating a post 911 visual of how muslim women were being seen and these images were being activated as part of these national relations.
I realised that in the creation of those works, I was perpetuating a visualisation that was also problematic. And for me that becomes what it means to think about “coloniality”. It doesn’t always have to be a response to a historical colonialism but it has such properties in today’s technology.
It was actually my friend Corrie Tan who identified that annotation is a form of decolonial practice. And I never thought about that. I started realising that the process of annotation involves this slow process of writing, and thinking and voicing. Something that is very much antithetical to how we think about the reproduction of image, for example. The fast-paced sharing of a picture, the fast clicking, hashtaging, how we circulate images. Annotation for me is a way to slow down that process, and to think about time differently.
Because even time has been colonised; how we think about input/output, cycles, et cetera. For wanita kami, it was a way to engage with the archives; that work dealt more with historical colonialism. So I do distinguish between the two. And I move between them in my different works as well.
The problem that I have with decentring is: when I look at historical colonialism, it was a geographical movement of power. An assertion of power. And this judgement of which places deserve to be colonised. Therefore what we did is create this geographical imagination of who is in the centre, and who is in the peripheries.
And so the act of decentring was not enough. When I started I thought we needed to come up with alternatives. But then my friend who’s an artist as well mentioned we should move away from alternatives because we’re still measuring ourselves in relation to someone, whereas it’s important to think of plurality. So we think of it as a mass of narratives, instead of a centre and the need to respond to the centre.
Prasanthi: Instead of a binary, think more of plurality. Now we can move to nor. I came across your series of works Siapa Nama Kamu, Sekali Lagi as well as Siapa Nama Kamu 2095: Seru! These works to me seem to centre on the lasting legacies of colonial imperialism. You also once explained that you were hoping to incorporate more recent histories that people are not necessarily aware of. Could you tell us a little more about this series and how it relates to your praxis?
nor: Sure, so Siapa Nama Kamu, Sekali Lagi are all children of past and present lives, in which I created vignettes of my past life. In 2020 I did like a YouTube hypnosis because I was broke and I couldn’t go for therapy so I was listening to meditation. I went into my past lives, and I revisited these narratives as part of my final year project. Cause we love to unpack our trauma for our final year projects!
I was looking deep into the archives and I was trying to find all of these women that I might have been in my past lives. And I thought that there was a gap in the continuity of these women that were being portrayed and the women I’m around today. One of the seminal texts that really influenced me was Lily Zubaidah Rahim’s “Singapore in the Malay World.”
That was a really important text but not relevant to the visual work that I was doing. I wanted to have that continuous narrative that I felt was within my own research at least. So what I did was I invited women, non-binary people, gender non-conforming people, who might have stories that they wanna contribute. Using Lily Zubaidah Rahim’s text as a base, and some texts from our favourite readers as well, having half of the script unwritten and allowing my collaborators to write. It became a film performance for the National Gallery and then it became a sci-fi version, 2095. In all these projects, I felt that it was important that it was no longer a single narrator even though it began with my personal history. I felt that it no longer made sense to only have one narrator.
Prasanthi: I’m seeing a bit of the commonality between the two of you. I have two questions for Imran: first of all, you have an ongoing project on autonomous knowledge in Southeast Asia. I feel like the audience would be interested in defining what that means. What is that and how does it relate to your praxis?
Imran: Actually we prefer to use the Malay term, ilmu mandiri, which is autonomous knowledge. I think it starts from the realisation that decolonising knowledge and indigenising knowledge itself is not enough. Because there’s a lot of things that are simplified to Eurocentrism and decolonising has become a fad. This term is so sexy now. Really, we have to look beyond that.
And a lot of it is patch work, like “oh we want to include our third world literature into this canon”, without actually questioning the idea of the canon in the first place as the centre. So I think that autonomous knowledge, ilmu mandiri, is about questioning different forms of hegemony.
That may include things like androcentrism, culturalism, ethnonationalism; all kinds of hegemonic forms of knowledge have to be critiqued. In fact, many of these predate colonialism. And sad to say, as discussed, there’s also the aspect of Malay feudalism that needs to be critiqued.
Then colonialism came and Malay feudalism actually leveraged on colonialism to have a double impression. This kind of critique does not occur in decolonial circles, which is still very Western-centric. So it’s a Western-centric decoloniality that autonomous knowledge also tries to challenge.
The aspect of intellectual imperialism continues to occur even within the spaces of decoloniality. And that’s something that needs to be uprooted, because we are still looking for theories and concepts in order to critique the West. What about our own experience; located in our own contexts that can produce knowledge, that can contribute towards the social sciences?
Why do we have to borrow concepts from elsewhere and supply it to our side? This is a form of project that we are still trying to work with. All of us are assisted by academics, researchers and activists in the region like Indonesia and Malaysia.
We have produced a series of papers on autonomous knowledge. If you are interested in contributing, please approach me. We are coming up with books, seminars, and we’re starting to plan a trip to Manila next year. So there is a lot more that could be done from this region that has not entered into the discourse in decolonial circles.
I’ve been to the decolonial programme in Granada. I was the only Southeast Asian there, and there was only one South Asian there for that year. It was still very Eurocentric and that is something we cannot let go. We need to produce our own sources of knowledge and contribute towards an extension of this plurality and multiple centres of power.
Prasanthi: This was something I noticed as well as an educator. A lot of the readings we give our students tend to be western and then you wonder, “what else do we give?” It’s quite shocking to realise that we’re used to a certain kind of narrative, and when we are searching for our own we are at a loss. I’m glad we’re shifting away from that.
Imran: It’s actually a new form of division of labour. The theorising is done in the centre of knowledge in the West, whereas people from the Global South produce their data, in "area studies" as you call it, right? It happens in the economic sphere in labour production where people go to industrial sites in the West and come back to the Global South. Similarly, knowledge is like that. And so, we actually imbibe theorising from the West as if it’s universal.
Prasanthi: The other question that I had is: you work as an interfaith and diversity facilitator. Did you notice any colonial attitudes emerging in any of your discussions and how?
Imran: Definitely, I think one of the projects that I’m running is on decolonising faith itself. It starts from a critique of the word “religion” itself. For the other panellists you work with cameras right? Visuals. I think language also needs to be critiqued. Because ideology is encapsulated in language.
In my line of work, the word "religion" itself is very Eurocentric. It comes from a very Eurocentric Christian and Protestant ways of understanding that term. If you look at pre-modern cultures, a lot of them don’t have a word equivalent to "religion".
Correct me if I’m wrong, in Mandarin I’m told there isn’t a word equivalent to the word "religion" as how we understand it. I know in Arabic language there’s no such term that encapsulates "religion". The word "deen" conveys a much more cultural way of life, a worldview. And this idea that "religion" refers to the rituals that we practise —it doesn’t conform to the practices on the ground.
Because there’s a lot more fluidity. And today we’ve yet to develop a language or terminology that refers to multiple ways of belonging in Singapore. Go down to Waterloo Street—there are Indians who go to the Kuan Yin temple, then the Hindu temple. Or Kusu island, where the shrine is visited by people of different races and religions. That is the kind of religion that transcends what you put in as your religion on documents.
We don’t have a word to capture that, because we’ve been colonised. This problem enters into governance—the way we categorise religion. We administer according to these different categories and force people to decide: you’re either this or this. And that doesn’t conform to the experience of many people on the ground.
Prasanthi: The frameworks themselves are so binaristic and yet we’re trying to force it upon people and cultures that are so much more fluid. What I wanted to say is that not only are we reflecting that the language we use doesn’t really fit what we’re experiencing, we’re also realising that a lot of our work reflects ourselves and our positionality.
One thing I wanted to ask is if you find it challenging to develop such a praxis in the first place? Did you have internal challenges? What are some colonial attitudes you’ve had to unlearn? What are you continuing to unlearn? Or were there fellow researchers who were not in line with what you were thinking about? Do you experience any kind of resistance? I was wondering if you faced such experiences and if you could tell us a bit more about that?
Nurul: For sure. I think when I was younger my initial response to wanting to decolonise was “okay I need to translate everything in Malay”. But then my mum had to remind me that my Malay sucks.
I was also pondering about that because at that time I was in university and I know that being in academia means I’m afforded a certain experience of what it means to decolonise, which is why we talked about theories and everything. We also need to think about how we make that more accessible.
When I was teaching in art schools, I talked to students who were producing work about the importance of positionality. What is your position in relation to yourself and your society? I personally also have a problem with the term community because of how it has been co-opted by the government. You know, terms like the kampung spirit. Honestly, the only kampung spirit I know is pontianak.
In my personal everyday life, I already have a problem with thinking about this as a praxis, because only academics or a certain kind of practitioner can think about it this way, with access to theory.
In the everyday, it’s about identifying coloniality through experiences of power, even in the technologies that we use. Currently I’m doing a lot of reading on AI and there’s this thing called data colonisation where basically they’re colonising our data by taking everything and telling us what we should buy. So there’s all these kinds of processes.
What has been challenging for me has been when I talk about my work. There is always this need, or an affinity for others to say "this is what it is". People say “hey, you’re looking at images of Muslim women so it’s about Islam.” But I don’t really talk about Islam.
For me it is about being able to disentangle the different kinds of layers to what we are talking about; that the experiences can coexist side by side and across different periods of time and all kind of assemble at a certain moment. And at the same time realise that you as an “I” will change over time.
When I was younger in my 20s I always thought of colonialism as being about historical colonialism—it was always about dead white men. And that I needed to champion against that, saying “I shall not read anything by white men in the canon.”
I think that is also problematic because if you want to talk about what it means to decolonise, solidarity and allyship is important. It doesn’t mean you ostracise someone because they come from a certain canon. So for me it’s about correcting all those things as well. But—because I was also teaching for 8 years—it’s also about understanding that people are coming in on different levels.
So when we want to talk about what it means to decolonise we can’t expect everyone to speak the same language at the same level at the same time. As much as I have afforded myself that care and time to come at the different understandings of different manifestations of how I identified colonialism and coloniality, and how I then thought about decolonising through my practice—that is something that we should afford everyone else.
That’s why care becomes a very important component in how to decolonise praxis.
Prasanthi: Affording people grace is actually very important. How about Imran and nor, what do you think?
nor: I wanna say that I feel like I don’t wake up and think “oh gosh, how am I gonna decolonise today?” I mean one way is, I actively eat nasi lemak la…but I have been conscious about how colonialism takes root in my life and especially in my artistic choices.
But it’s very important for me to honour raw expression. Because as someone who has been through the system, I think about the final artwork and the final artwork has to be sexy, if not I cannot put it out.
Ever since then I just really look at expression, what first comes out, and colonialism kicks in when I start placing value in my work: is my work good enough/is my work efficient? Can it reach its intended audience?
I think it’s unfair to attribute quality or standard as something exclusively colonial. I would say the value of art is often deeply tied to capitalistic values. I mean now on Instagram or Tiktok, you are deemed as somebody deeply in touch with your emotions if you have 2000 likes. So capitalism is one of colonialism’s many children.
With regard to creating a narrative, or if a character idea comes to me, I ask myself: does this image want to be seen, or is this a story to be immortalised forever through text? Or shall I decide to pass it down through oral tradition? That’s how I’ve been. And about the urge to create, nowadays whenever I wanna create, I ask myself: is it important that it exists in the world? Or can it exist as secret knowledge that only some need to know.
Nurul: Can I just add to that? I think it’s also a process that I’ve been thinking about, especially when you think about producing from within your own community or home. Or your own articulations or expressions.
I often ask myself this question of whether, if it’s coming from a place of pain, who deserves to see that pain? Do I have to show it to everybody as a validation of who I am? That’s why I like ethnography and fieldwork; there is always a tangle of obscurity and the notion of the refusal to translate or give everybody access. For me that becomes so important.
Prasanthi: How about you Imran?
Imran: You know the Greek mythology on Medusa? It can be interpreted in many ways. Feminists will use it as "rage". But I see the "colonial gaze", which is like Medusa. Coloniality fixes and makes you static like stones. And stones belong where? In the museum! So I constantly try to avoid Medusa’s gaze because it attempts to reduce you to a certain stereotypical category—unchanging and static.
That’s basically Orientalism which Edward Said talks about. It’s everywhere. Sometimes, it’s very difficult to navigate this. Because another aspect of coloniality is the binary worldview. It puts you in a position where you have to choose one or the other.
That’s a challenge I face - Autonomous knowledge involves removing all hegemonic terms, not just Eurocentrism. So when you critique the West people would say “oh, you are an apologist for the Muslims." Or, maybe the Muslims will cheer you on: “good, you’re taking on the West.” But when you criticise your own community, it becomes “oh, you are a sell-out; you are a Zionist agent, you are Westernised.”
So that is the problem we face when we encounter all kinds of hegemonic tendencies; and the pressure to be co-opted to one side or another in a binary worldview. It’s a constant struggle to provide nuance and see things as it is.
Prasanthi: I’m realising, in asking you to define your practice, that to define itself is colonial, and about hegemony. I find that very interesting and one thing we can talk about quickly, before the Q&A, is the idea of narratives beyond what we already know.
Nor, in your essay "Semangat in Practice", you talk about how the land mutes itself and the history it holds when the landscape changes. And we’re so used to this type of state narratives about Singapore, that starts after Raffles lands, or our fishing village narrative—but we never know what that fishing village was like or who lives within it. So I was just wondering what are some narratives that are important to you personally and that you want to see more of in the world?
Nurul: I don’t want to dictate at this point of time. I love what you say, that it’s hard to define praxis, because praxis has these whole lineages of theories or concepts and histories and the outputs only come out later.
I think to answer the question of the narrative we have to be in a constant state of defining. I do believe in the importance of narratives but I also feel that everyone should tell their story. But it’s not just about that. Because as someone who looks at digital technologies, I think it’s important for us to think about where the stories are being platformed.
And I also take issue with this idea of representation. What kind of representation are we talking about? If it's a replication of the CMIO, it’s a failure. We don’t need to see that being perpetuated. It is about who is telling the story, what stories are being told. I feel it’s important to speak with each other, to each other. And at the same time to think about where these stories are being told, who has access to them.
I think focus groups within smaller communities, personal sharings, are more important than public speaking stuff sometimes. So it’s important to think of issues of circulation and distribution, and the need to think about where these narratives land.
nor: I wrote about the same thing. Some keywords: collaboration, non-linearity. I think relying on pre-existing tools of reproduction can reproduce violence as well. It can be as simple as an orange filter on Asian countries. It’s as simple as that. I know you asked about narratives and what we should look for, but I think there is such a power of the unseen, now more than ever.
My whole practice is seeing myself and seeing someone else like me. But it’s about these possibilities, not to cement a certain perspective or a certain portrayal. Instead allowing people to make sense of things on their own, because you cannot dismantle the master’s house using the same tools. (Audre Lorde). I feel like we should start lying. Make something up whenever they ask us about our experience, because some experiences are meant to be just for ourselves.
Prasanthi: I think we have a relevant question to this:
Could you provide some specific examples of how the colonial gaze is still being perpetuated on popular local media like TV, Radio, Newspapers, Advertising?
Nurul: I think standards of beauty are one of the biggest things. We see certain bodies, and we talk about the importance of queering the media: who are the bodies that you see? A lot of this is a colonial product.
They came here and gave us the binary gender, this is what beautiful is. And everything else—I use “thing” here because in the colonial experience, they measured people and put them in museums, they became objects—is not.
It is fun to consume media. I love BTS; it’s important. I’m not saying you don’t consume anything, I think it’s ironic to say I’m an anti-consumer when you’re so deeply embedded in a capitalist world.
I’m an abolition feminist so I do believe in dismantling certain structures. On one hand you can still partake, but the recognition of what you are taking in, how much you absorb, and let change you, is important. Popular media is fun, but it’s just about what is your position and what are your different claims to a personhood and how much of it is being dictated by popular media. Which is a continuation of coloniality. And it’s different from person to person.
Imran: Let me jump in here. Simple example, if you look at local productions. Have you seen a portrayal of a transgender person in a positive, non-comical way?
You don’t really see right? That is coloniality itself, and its binary of male and female. If we were to go deep into our own traditions, you will know that for the Bugis, there are five genders. You’ll be surprised that there’s such a thing. If you look at certain histories, there were societies that did not have that binary of female and male. We’ve lost that knowledge from our own traditions. And instead we invite a Victorian view of gender.
nor: Yeah, I just wanted to say that popped up immediately for me. When it comes to minoritarian narratives, there’s a need to fix [minorities]. Often they will ask “when did you find out/at what point did you realise…?” As if there’s something wrong with you. They’ll say “oh this person is so beautiful but I realised that this person was a man before.” In recent times popular media tries to be more inclusive. Try to.
But I think the key word is ownership—when you decide to interview somebody, find out somebody’s story, write about someone else. The reproduction of the violence of colonialism happens when the story is written by somebody else.
And also going back to the transgender and queer narrative, here’s always this celebration that you’ve come to the point when it’s just one point. It’s an ongoing journey. And all these absolutes within these storytelling or interview is very violent and colonial.
Prasanthi: There’s a very interesting question:
“We inherit societal structures from colonisers, whose modus operandi is divide et impera - divide the races, conquer them, and perpetuate a 'hierarchy'. How important is it to have allies from the majority to break the colonial narratives and without it, does it mean we will never be successful in doing so?”
Nurul: It’s so tiring to have to always…I’m speaking as someone whos’ a minority living amongst the majority. It is so much labour even to identify representations of ourselves—and even so it’s not an authentic representation, it’s problematic. This took me a while, which is why I was so angry in my early 20s. Because we can’t keep doing this labour of undergoing all this.
As an arts practitioner, I was also questioning myself. My friends also asked me: “how come you never talk about happy topics?” It’s tiring to always feel like you have to put your problems and issues on a pedestal. Therefore it’s important for the majority to also realise that. Reflecting to myself upon why I undergo the labour of producing such work—it’s a call. It’s a call or reaching out to the majority to recognise this a problem we are facing, it’s a problem we’re trying to articulate/share with you.
Solidarity is the call for you to undergo that labour to meet us in the middle. Solidarity is also the means to decide a meeting point. At this age, I’m also thinking about it in terms of care. How do I articulate solidarity and give those from the majority time to meet me? That’s a very hard question. It needs its own revolution. But it also needs its own material and steps. Do we meet and talk and decide what are the terms we need to unpack? Do we start to forgive each other and ourselves?
Imran: There are specific experiences of minorities which cannot be unpacked and maybe that’s something to be acknowledged. A lot of people won’t fully understand the experience, but that doesn’t mean we can't be part of this journey as allies.
Let me be provocative here: I’m quite mindful of replicating the very structure itself by using a certain language too. So I'm putting it out there: I don’t like the term “Brown”. It uses the same kind of colourism as an umbrella term. Also, it doesn’t really come from within the community's experience. But please buy the book Brown is Redacted because I’m not saying this to invalidate the experience of anyone, but maybe we come from different starting grounds.
Prasanthi: We have one last question.
How do we start educating ourselves and the generations to come regarding the importance of decolonisation? What are the steps? What is the end goal, the big picture?
One way to go about it is to suggest a book per person? Singapore and the Malay World. Or any other responses to this question?
nor: I think it begins with wanting; wanting and desiring. The moment you want more then you realise, there’s work to do. The moment you realise this doesn’t work for you. I think for a long time I was stuck on what I do not want. But I think the moment you start wanting, that’s when you want more for everybody else.
Imran: Just a short response: I think the work is with ourselves. Personally, I’m always asking, “Whose voice am I recording? Whose story am I recording?” And that comes from a standpoint that we must cultivate in ourselves this sense of curiosity.
Nurul: Talk to your grandparents, people who are younger than you. The whole intergenerational thing we have, we have missed out on that. Because the term decolonising itself feels like it’s within a particular group. We should talk vertically. I don’t want to recommend a book, just talk to people and be respectful when they don’t want to talk to you.
Prasanthi: If you are willing enough, you will find a way to decolonise your praxis and the way you approach pursuits. And with that, we’ve come to the end of our panel, Breaking the Colonial Gaze. Honestly I’ve learnt so much from these wonderful panellists. Obviously our audience has as well, from the Q&A.
I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the panellists for their hard work in decolonising narratives—god knows we need it. I also want to recap the key themes: resisting a single author and narrative, resisting a binary, embracing plurality. Also questioning ourselves and how we define ourselves, about these concepts that are imposed on us but are not made to fit us; they are not designed for us.
As we now leave the chambers we can think a little bit more about this and how we ourselves can start decolonising in our own little ways. And before we close the session I want to close with a quote from nor’s essay:
“To know one’s self is to know one’s history. To know one’s history is to know one’s land. To know one’s land is to know one’s sea.”
Bhumi will always find its way to you. The spirit of the homeland and mother earth will always find a way to you! Thank you so much for being here today.
About the Speakers:
Nurul Huda Rashid (she/her) is a researcher-writer pursuing her PhD in Cultural Studies. Her research focuses on images and narratives, visual and sentient bodies, feminisms, and the intersections between them. These have been articulated through visual projects such as Women in War (2016-ongoing), unknown woman/wanita kami (2021), and Hijab/Her (2012-2014), each anchored in articulations of the female figure. Nurul has collaborated on a nusantara digital archive, Pulau Something (2021), facilitated a decolonial pedagogical camp, New Curriculum for Old Questions (2019), co-created and facilitated programmes with Objectifs and The Substation. Her most recent exhibition-activation, Nodes (2022), was presented at Substation’s SeptFest 2022. Nurul hopes to adopt a cat someday.
nor is an artist whose practice is rooted in self-portraiture. Their works situate identity and community within speculative timelines through frameworks of gender performance, ethnographic portraits and transnational histories. nor's writings have been published in Singa Pura-Pura: Malay Speculative Fiction from Singapore, Making Kin: Ecofeminist Essays from Singapore as well as Brown Is Redacted: Reflecting on Race in Singapore.
Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib is an independent researcher, facilitator, writer and interfaith advocate. He is director of Dialogue Centre; and a founding Board member of Centre for Interfaith Understanding (CIFU). His writings have appeared in journals and dailies, such as Channel NewsAsia, Today, The Straits Times, Berita Harian, BeritaMediacorp, The Jakarta Post, The Malaysian Insight and South China Morning Post. He was editor of Malay socio-religious journal, Tafkir (2008), and has published several books, including Budi Kritik (2019, 2020), an essay compilation on Malay society. Imran is a graduate in Philosophy and his research and writing focuses on inter-religious/ethnic relations, multiculturalism and Malay/Islamic thought. He is currently working on a project on autonomous knowledge in Southeast Asia. He is also currently writing 3 books, focusing on faith, history, heritage and memory.
About the moderator:
Prasanthi Ram is a full-time writing lecturer at Nanyang Technological University, where she completed her PhD in creative writing. Her short stories can be found in a variety of publications including Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume Five (Epigram Books: 2021), and her personal essays can be found in What We Inherit: Growing Up Indian (AWARE: 2022) as well as Making Kin: Ecofeminist Essays from Singapore (Ethos Books: 2021). She is also the co-founder and fiction editor of Mahogany Journal. Outside of her professional pursuits, she finds comfort in South Korean pop culture, long walks and hours of lifestyle vlogs on YouTube.