"Care is a way of structuring our world" | SWF x Ethos Books: Care is Revolutionary: Towards an Inclusive, Sustainable Future
From left to right: Dawn-joy Leong, Kuansong Zhuang Victor, Tim Min Jie (moderator), Mysara Aljaru & Kristian-Marc James Paul.
Care Is Revolutionary: Towards an Inclusive, Sustainable Future took place in-person at The Arts House, Play Den on Sunday, 13 November 2022. You can access the full transcript of the programme on this page. Portions of the transcript have been edited for clarity.
About Care Is Revolutionary:
Beyond #selfcare and “holding space”, how can care work be transformative, revolutionary, and inclusive? Join us for a conversation about building a culture of care and working towards a climate-resilient future at the intersections of systemic change and sustainability.
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!
Min Jie: I hope that everyone is feeling comfortable! We have a very exciting panel and I’m excited to get into this conversation. To start us off I’d like to throw this first question out to everyone: What does inclusivity mean to you?
Victor: The issue of inclusivity requires us to begin to challenge the norms in which we inhabit in this world. There are many norms that we may not recognise. We assume that people can see (the screen). We assume that people can hear, we assume that people are not immunocompromised and that’s a norm. For me, inclusion is about recognising some of these norms and how some of them are in fact changeable and challengeable.
Dawn: Victor always makes me think… I’m learning a lot from my friends in the disability community, disabled or not. So thanks for reminding us all to read that out. And for me as a disabled person inclusion doesn't just mean a seat at the table, but also the opportunity to lead the table.
Mysara: To add on what Victor and Dawn have said, to me it’s recognising that it’s constant work. There’s no such thing as “we try to change something one time and that’s it”, no, it’s a constant relearning of what we understand about people, and recognising the need to let them be, so not tokenism. So it’s not just reforming systems but making new ones.
Kristian: When I first saw this question, I was thinking specifically about my lens as an environmental activist and I think a lot about how environmentalism needs to be more inclusive about how we talk and think about it.
The policy route maybe isn't the easiest way to get people to think about environmentalism. I guess the politics of consuming less is also quite a tough sell, especially for people who are quite precarious. We do have people who are food-insecure in Singapore right?
The politics of asking people to consume less is also tricky. So I think an inclusive environmental discourse is one that gets masses to believe in the cause. I think a lot about inclusion with respect to the environmental scene.
Min Jie: Thanks everyone for starting us off and explaining what inclusiveness means to you. I think what you have elucidated is the tension between inclusivity as an ideal and how it’s being practised. I think inclusivity has become such a big word that is being used by companies, but there often seems to be a tension between what we hope for it to look like and how it’s being practised. I just want to get into that. What are some of the problems in the way inclusivity has been practised and understood?
Dawn: Like Kristian said, I don’t know much about environmental discourse, the nitty gritty, but the way I connect is with the sentient and material universe, and working with disabled people. I would love to not have so much plastic everywhere—we’re literally eating it everywhere.
But when I came into contact with disability activists and they said “some of us really need those straws”, doing away with it completely is exclusive and not inclusive. It’s a really tricky and complex conundrum that I don’t have answers to.
Victor: So when I agreed to be on this panel my hope was to talk about the practices which go into this upcoming book I’m editing with Ethos. It launches next year in the first quarter of 2023, it’s going to be called, Not Without Us: Perspectives on disability and inclusivity in Singapore.
It’s going to be the first critical disability studies-led volume to be published in Singapore—very excited Ethos agreed to publish it. Dawn is one of the contributors. In fact her chapter will be the one that opens the conversation with what inclusion means. It is very easy to say inclusion is great—who will say we don’t aspire to be inclusive?
That for me shows or points to the biggest challenges in thinking around inclusion, that inclusion is something that is good, for big hearted people. It’s something that is benevolent. I don’t disagree, but when we think about inclusion in such ways, it reinforces the fact that anything that aspires toward inclusion must be seen as good. It doesn’t allow us to recognise that there might be problematic forms of inclusion.
So for example Dawn’s example about straws. We think it's good to create a more sustainable planet by taking away straws. But this has impacts on certain populations. So we have to recognise that inclusion can also be problematic.
Min Jie: Thanks so much for complicating this idea of inclusion. That’s really what I wanted to get into as well. That’s got me thinking about how inclusion work can be very messy because different access needs can come with conflict right. Would you have anything to share about it?
Victor: I’ll just share an example where Dawn and I organised a roundtable. Dawn prefers to speak very fast; that's how her mind works. The notetakers over there will have difficulty keeping up with her. So if we cater access for Dawn we need to afford the fact that she speaks fast. But note-taking, creating live notes for people who might not be able to understand English, or if I have a terrible accent and they cannot understand me—being able to speak slowly for the notetakers to keep up also is a form of access. That showcases the tension between different kinds of inclusion and access.
Dawn: Okay on this episode right, I try to go around this by providing a script to the notetakers, and that’s my way of getting around my own style, not compromising and also still being as inclusive as I can towards the support needs of others. But it doesn’t always work, like now there’s no notes to supply. So I have to tell myself: “slow down Dawn.”
But as a person with a disability I’m learning from other disabled people. I think for me I’m happy if I can see effort being made.
Min Jie: It’s almost as if in being attentive to the ways in which any inclusion efforts can be exclusion as well. It’s sitting with that tension we can come up with solutions together about how we can collectively meet our needs. [turns to Kristian] How about you, what do you think about problems with how inclusivity has been practised?
Kristian: The other thing is in some of my professional work. I do work in the corporate Diversity & Inclusion space. And I think it’s interesting to see how inclusion there is also being framed.
What often happens is people ignore power and equity, and inclusion becomes this thing where everyone has and should have a seat at the table. We need to recognise people have different identities and histories, but sometimes there’s this slippage between inclusion and both side-ism where I’ve heard Diversity & Inclusion leaders be like: “People of the World…” or “I don’t see gender, I don’t see race”, but I don’t think that’s really it.
That’s something I see in how inclusion has been constructed in the corporate Diversity & Inclusion space.
Mysara: Where the problem lies is that we are working in a system where the foundation is built on racism, sexism, ableism. And we’re trying to reform something that was built to exclude people in the first place, which is why talks on inclusivity are by people who don’t really understand or haven’t been through it.
A lot of conversations I see on plastic straws don’t involve people with disabilities. It’s people with no disability making assumptions, and that’s where the problem lies. Going back to what Kristian said about power, there is this thing organisers do about picking, saying “I'm not gonna pick her because she challenges my own views, I want someone who’s safe.” For people who wanna change the structures—they are not too keen on it.
And that’s where it becomes tokenism, where they pick the select few that make them comfortable but the system is upheld. Nothing is changed. And that’s where the problem lies.
Min Jie: Thank you everyone, I would like to now move to unpacking the second term of this panel. What does “sustainability” mean to you?
Kristian: When we did the zoom Dawn was like “I don’t know what this hardcore environmental stuff is” and I said “Ok, I’ll take the hardcore environmental stuff.”
I approach sustainability with a lot of caution. I heard Matthew Schneider Mayerson, the editor of Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene, saying that sustainability or sustainable development really were only applicable in the late '80-'90s. We’ve moved past that. There’s no way we can have a world where we can believe in sustainable growth, we’re already past that as we can see from different markers or where we are as a climate.
I think sustainability is outdated and is constructed in a way that upholds the status quo to a great extent.
If the people were to define sustainability they won’t be defining it in terms of carbon offsets, you know. Companies may say "yes we wanna be sustainable, we can continue using fossil fuels, we can plant more trees". But you’re gonna need trees the size of Brazil to offset carbon; you’re going to have to forcibly chase people off land. So if people themselves define sustainability they’re going to have a very different definition.
Dawn: Actually I just want to ask, have you ever thought that disability inclusion is not sustainable? It is against the whole current ideology of sustainability, because to keep me alive, I have to waste a lot of resources.
Victor: For me, if we bring in disability and sustainability, Dawn is right to say that for some disabled people, we require more resources; more support is needed. And for me the question is: why do we not allow that, especially in Singapore where we are trained to think, very broadly speaking, in meritocratic ways?
If people need more support, then the question is, why not? That for me is the conundrum thinking around what I would call “sustainable futures.” In Princeton, I will be working on sustainable futures and disability.
The question for me when we talk about sustainable futures is, how are we shaping the discourse today? A lot of the time when we talk about disability, a lot of the issues that come to mind are firstly, climate and secondly, environment.
But if you look at how sustainability is defined in the UN (United Nations) goals, it’s not quite just about that. There are other aspects of sustainability: equitable distribution, who can partake in this future we are envisioning for all of us for the planet? Who is deemed to be in a way, includable? What populations should benefit from this new way of thinking about growth?
I think that should be what we are focusing on when we think about sustainability. It should be about how we are distributing the future, how do we benefit from the future, and how do we do that in a way that is sustainable, in a way that recognises that all of us are different?
Dawn: What are the environmentalists saying about this (sustainability, if you say we’re past that)? What is happening?
Kristian: There are a lot of different strands in environmentalism. In the environmental discourse I’m thinking about, I’m actively challenging the politics of less. Even when we’re thinking about sustainability, the thought is we have to consume less.
Which is not false, which is true, but as you mentioned, to build an inclusive climate resilient world we are looking to do a lot of things: new infrastructure needs to be built. So thinking about how we can construct things equitably is the other way to talk about environmentalism.
Because it's true, we will need to build a lot more and shouldn't shy away from that, so it’s about how we allow different people to be part of that conversation about what we build.
Mysara: Can I ask the audience, how many of you think environment work is important? [many people put up their hands]
How many of you have been to Bali? [some people put up their hands]
How many have heard of Bali Tolak Reklamasi? [audience is quiet]
Exactly. So I’m going to be honest and say that a lot of the new ideas of environmentalism doesn’t resonate with me, and for the longest time I’ve always wondered, why? I'm a Malay woman who grew up in a 4-room flat in Woodlands. When it comes to climate change and environmental issues, we still lack voices from indigenous groups. That's what a lot of people have been pushing for.
I was in Bali in March to see my friends who are locals and they were telling me about this movement, and they said a lot of these white people say “let's build an eco-friendly villa!” when the locals are being forced out of their land. Overfishing happens because all of us go there and have a party and go back and talk about batik shorts?
My extended family comes from West Sumatra and they don’t buy into this “new age” environmental movement because indigenous groups have been sustainable for the longest time. And this whole politics about being vegan—great, that’s your choice, but we have our own ways of understanding the environment.
One thing I find interesting is this whole idea of ‘love the planet’, I remember my grand aunt telling me—when I go back to West Sumatra, they have plantations and stuff—they said to me “we don’t love the planet, we respect the planet.” You can love something and that doesn’t mean you can respect that. And that's why in human relationships people say they can love you, but don't respect you. That's why you hear people say "my partner loves me but then still hits (hurts) me". You can love someone but not respect and still hurt the person.
I’m just gonna end it with something my grand aunt said. She's a typical grandma (“you-getting-married?” that kind of stuff). She said, “If you want to find a husband, find one that respects the earth, then he’ll respect you.” Before Islam came into the region, people used to worship nature. Even when Islam came there’s a certain respect: you don’t own the earth, and the earth is an element on its own and you have to respect that.
Dawn: Thanks, this is so important to hear today. This is what I spoke about in my PhD dissertation, that many autistic people, especially those non-speaking ones, have a connection with the earth, sentience and materiality. When I bump into the table and I don’t know what I’m doing, I apologise to the table. My friends ask why I’m apologising to the table, but, to me, everything has life, and the only way to save the world is to have respect.
Min Jie: Thank you so much for sharing that, I think It’s very clear how dominant environmental discourse has erased other ways of being, which are so rich. It makes me think about the tension between the urgency embedded in environmental issues but also this important work of inclusion and grappling with all these tensions that takes time.
It feels important for disability and sustainability activists to be discerning what kind of issues need what kind of time right? Some issues are of immediate urgence but some issues need more time. I think this is something I’m also grappling with in environmental issues.
I feel like sometimes we don’t slow down and discern what kind of issues need what kind of time. This is a good segue to our last question, which is: what does revolutionary care mean to you and as we navigate these tensions, where do you see care come in?
Victor: I will start again. For this question, what I want to do here is perhaps introduce some of the processes which we talked about when we produced the volume with Ethos. Once again, the first critical disability studies volume in Singapore, so this is a very exciting time for me, as one of the editors, and I think this question of care relates also to these other key terms: inclusion, sustainability…what kind of future are we building, who is going to be in it?
How can we then challenge the ways normative practices frame the way in which we put [those terms] in our work? A lot of times in Singapore we are raised to be independent. In fact all around the world people are seen as individualistic - overcome all these barriers and be successful in this world. It’s a very common trope that you seen in Singapore and everywhere else.
That sense of independence neglects that as human beings we are all dependent on one another. Getting here, you walked here yourself? Even then, you are still dependent on the pedestrian crossing that someone built for you.
There's a lot of dependencies that we live on. So from a disability justice and disability studies lens, the idea of care, of interdependencies, is something we need to recognise. So when we produced that volume, that is something we thought very strongly about.
How do we produce a volume based on the ethics of care and disability care? How are we going to challenge practices in publishing such volumes, that are quasi-academic? Who gets the space to speak?
So Dawn’s chapter begins the volume, she co-wrote this with Cavan, who lives with Down Syndrome. Cavan is not so expressive, he doesn’t speak so fluently. So a lot of time you speak to him, a lot of Singaporeans may think: “he doesn’t deserve to speak.” You probably see him as intellectually disabled. And I say it in a cringey way, I don’t like to say it as it shows how we have stereotypes against disability.
But in the chapter that Dawn co-wrote with Cavan, she wrote eloquently and Cavan wrote with art. Cavan allows his art to speak and that raises the question of what it means to speak academically.
A lot of us who go to universities don’t recognise that being in a meritocratic system, universities are very ableist in that only people of a certain intellectual achievement can go into. That's one of the key things I want to highlight.
Throughout the volume we also work with writers to express their thoughts into language that could cut it. And I think a lot of times when we publish things in academic volumes you are left on your own to do it—you either make it or you don’t, there’s no in-between. There’s no rhetoric of care and supporting each other in producing something. And that’s important for me.
Care is a way of structuring our world, of challenging normative practices, as a way of thinking about a more inclusive and sustainable future. For me the key takeaway would be to recognise that care is important in our lives.
Dawn: Care being revolutionary—when I heard the topic I was like "I love this" and my request for masking is part of my request for care. That kind of care is necessary but for those who don't need it, it is revolutionary cause “gahmen” say no need. So I thank everybody who is caring enough to do this revolutionary act. That’s what we need, respect—and if we have resonant respect for the material then we would naturally care? But in itself it’s revolutionary.
Including Cavan in the book…I told Victor I was done with academia, when I came back to Singapore, nobody wanted to employ me because I’m disabled and very proud of it. Up till now I’m unemployable. So I said I wouldn't write (my academic chapter) unless I could include Cavan because those who talk about inclusion, it’s rubbish if you’re not gonna include that person. Anyway academia is rubbish, sorry. You have to get all the way to a PhD before you dare to say it and why?
Min Jie: There’s almost like a right way to be disabled and a wrong way to be disabled, and that shapes how much access arrangement you get access to.
Mysara: Ya I agree, academia is rubbish, I just wanna drop out of my Masters, you know. I didn’t do my bachelors at NUS or NTU. I was working part time and because I was working, I realised that when it comes to these kinds of issues, you are expected to know the right way to say something or you’re not seen as being intellectual enough.
“You’re not politically correct”. But what does politically correct mean? If you talk to a Malay uncle, he has very valid points but he is not going to be politically correct? So how do you engage with people who have a different understanding of a certain discourse or different language for it?
Are we going to hide behind our university lens or degrees and say you have to join an activist group for you to talk about it? You have to study environmental science to talk about the environment, if not your points are not valid. So I think this is still a big issue in activist circles and I would love to see us changing that. When we talk about including voices, whose voices? Is it only people we are comfortable with?
We expect people to be university educated, to know the exact words because we want to feel comfortable, right? Because at the end of the day we wanna feel comfy, we don’t wanna grow or change. We still live in a very ableist and classist system, I feel as long as we don't acknowledge that, even in circles we are supposed to be progressive, it’s gonna be hard for things to change. But I would like to remain optimistic and think that things will change.
Kristian: I really appreciate we’re talking about revolutionary care cause our current system cannot already la…so I think we need new things. When I think of revolutionary care a feminist that has inspired me is Bell Hooks, and she writes about love and care a lot. She says that for her, justice is a prerequisite for the ability to care, is it a human right to be able to care? And I think if you were to centre justice then you can very quickly see how our systems do not value care, they’re not caring systems.
A system that tries to extract as much from you as possible is not a caring system, the converse is more evident: revolutionary care to me then is about centring justice, doing the working social justice, doing the work of social justice, believing everyone deserves a decent wage to live a full life, being anti-homophobic, anti-racist, anti-ableist, etc.
Revolutionary care means centering justice. And if we come from a place of justice it’s easier to see where to go from here.
Dawn: I did say that academia is rubbish because the system is rubbish. But we need scholars like that [gestures to the panellists] to infiltrate and do new things.
Min Jie: Great, now we’ll move on to the Q&A. I’m just going to start with the most upvoted question: How can we encourage inclusivity whilst acknowledging human plurality? How do we discuss practical solutions when it is not one-size-fits-all?
Dawn: It’s what Mysara said, the fundamental thing, the key, fundamental thing to making positive change is respect. Simple but not easy.
Victor: I’m going to add to this question, a lot of times—and this question applies to a lot of different sectors and policies and areas of work. But I will focus on the emphasis on the idea of one-size-fits-all.
That is a very utilitarian way of thinking about the world, that we should have one policy that fits everyone. And it’s not just in Singapore but everywhere else—utilitarianism—the policy that benefits the most is the best. I think that doesn’t recognize that we are all different. We are brought up to think we all belong to the average, we are all brought up to think that we are all “normal”, middle class. Who is from the middle class here? Almost everyone will think that.
Most of us think we are middle class. But when we get down to it, the idea of the middle-class is so wide. Some people will think I define it by earning $2000-$3000 a month. Other people might think I have a HDB flat and so I am middle-class.
The definition of this kind of normative concept is very broad, though very divergent. So from a policy lens, it’s easy to say one size fits all. But what I’d encourage us to think is, can policy be the reverse? Can we design policies that allow for customisation? So some of us are nodding, thinking “that makes sense but how will it work in real life?”
The classic case in disability would be to allow people to have control over their lives. If you look at service provision, what they do in Australia, or the UK, what they do is to allocate disabled people a certain budget they can use to purchase services. Then it’s the disabled person making the choice about what services they need and taking control of their lives.
This kind of policy is very customisable. The disabled people will say "maybe I don’t need to go to an institution, I can use it to purchase something that allows me to go to the community, the shopping mall like everyone else". So I think it’s that kind of idea. I’m not saying that’s totally applicable to the Singapore context, but the idea of customisable policy allows us to challenge the notion of one-size-fits-all.
Min Jie: So I can see that this question is very popular: I want to hear Mysara and Kristian talk more! Their insights so far have been so valuable! Please tell us about how Brown Is Redacted is related to this topic!
Mysara: To add on to what Victor said, one thing that’s lacking in Brown Is Redacted is we don’t have brown disabled folk talking about how race intersects with disability as well. How it relates is that when we included the script from Brown Is Haram, I think it was revolutionary in that form. I've never written about my own experience as a brown woman in Singapore, and it came from my experiences and if you read the play that’s in the book, I would say there's one part people might read and say it’s not politically correct.
There’s a scene where Kris and I were acting out. I was working with a VWO (Volunteer Welfare Organisation) and going to rental flats and people who were receiving financial aid, and they would… Well, you cannot expect a university answer that’s politically correct. Some of you gasped when I said, about human relationships, “he loves me but he hits me”. But when you go into social work, you hear a lot of these kinds of things, and you gasp or say, “what do you mean by that?”
It’s revolutionary, the care comes in understanding your point of view is not the only point of view. And so I agree with Victor saying that you can't have one policy fitting everyone.
Sure I grew up working class in some sense, but I’m also a university-educated woman, in some sense PAP (People’s Action Party) would love me, saying "very good very good". But I have to acknowledge my privilege in being admitted into this system. And I guess writing that was one way of breaking that narrative as well of what we understand of people with marginalised identities of race, class, etc.
I guess the book comes into play because we have people of all sorts of backgrounds writing it. We didn’t want it to just be a Kristian, Mysara project, no. We wanted to show there are multiple narratives, we didn’t want to dominate the “brown narrative” … And I wouldn’t say the book is complete; there are still thousands of narratives to be heard out there. The book is a first start to talking about these things. And again, there’s no one-size-fits-all way to talk about it. We’re all stuck in a bubble, and we need to break out of that.
Kristian: Yeah I’ll talk about two questions I've been thinking a lot about since the book and performance lecture:
Editing - that was tough, as someone doing it for the first time, editing professionally: how do you make sure that you respect someone’s story and writing while also trying to pay attention to how it works narratively—if it's strong narratively—and ensuring you’re seeing the larger ecosystem of the book. You need to be strategic with what it needs to say. There is some curtailing that you need to do which may go against being inclusive. How do you tell someone you kinda have to write a different way? That’s the main issue editing it.
The other question about inclusion was where we have gotten questions about translation. I think a lot about how this relates to art and access also. I do think ensuring a space is accessible to everyone is incredibly important, but in terms of the content of the art, do we have to explain everything? What are our expectations of art, is that how we approach art? I would err on the side of “I don’t necessarily need to get everything, it’s about how I feel”.
Dawn: If you ever decide to do a second edition, I’ll put you in touch with brown disabled people.
Mysara: Yes, Yes. And I would love to, and talking about translation, it’d be great if Dawn doesn’t have to say "I'm immunocompromised" and doesn’t have to explain, and recognising there are people with disabilities that we cannot see physically and we don’t have to justify our existence every time.
Dawn: There is an issue with being a minority within a minority: One of my close friends, she's Malay and autistic and she’s always ignored and I try to suggest her to panels and people selecting just ignore me. That is another exclusionary practice within disability circles! So I would love to see that within the next book.
Victor: I just wanna touch on this complication that the editors of Brown Is Redacted have raised, on the idea of inclusion: I think that what the editors of Brown Is Redacted are recognising is that if we ever see inclusion as a goal to be achieved then I would think we are terribly wrong.
Inclusion is never that goal where once we ticked enough boxes, then we will get there. I'm pleased to hear we are aware of all the shortcomings of all the work that we do, so we should never think of inclusion as that goal that can be achieved.
I would hope that all of us think about inclusion as a starting point, that we should be self-aware that whatever we do can lead to exclusion. That’s hard, but I think that’s the better approach and I'm hopeful for the second volume and it would be a more inclusive way about thinking about race and minority. If we have a second volume, that would be another way of thinking about race and minority, but that would be the start of another conversation.
Min Jie: Actually we do have Laika [Jumabhoy] in the book, coming with a disability perspective but it’s never enough, there should be more. It’s easy to say: “Oh there’s one book about brown voices, that’s enough!” But it’s not enough.
Dawn: The more we support these so-called revolutionary ideas, the less revolutionary they will become; they will become ordinary everyday ideas. So buy the books.
Min Jie: We briefly touched on this but we can also revisit this question: In your experiences, what are the strengths and challenges of the arts as a medium for discussing inclusivity and sustainability?
Dawn: Kristian said something really key. As an example, there's this thing called audio description, it’s amazing, I love it. But when I experienced it together with two blind friends, we came to a similar conclusion that it’s not enough, cause it can be distracting.
At the show I was at, there were dancers and if I closed my eyes I could feel the dancers better, but if I was listening, I was distracted by the description, “she turned her head to the left, she turned to the right, her hair swirled!”
My blind friend said exactly what Kristian said, “we don’t need to know everything. We just need to know the essence. And we understand that the interpreter is interpreting through their own lenses but that’s okay, it’s like going to the museum with a friend and the friend said “what do you think of this?” So I’m learning this new thing about creative audio description from my blind friend, Claire, and she is someone to watch.
Victor: So just to continue the discussion, there’s disability art and there’s disability art. In Singapore, there’s performances about disability, and that’s great, but there’s also art based around disability experiences. And I hope that when we go out there to watch disability art, I hope we can recognise what Colin Barnes, disability researcher, calls Disabled-led art or disability art and art for disabled people (the difference).
Dawn: By the way, SIA’s new film is not disability art, it’s horrible, the whole autistic community around the world hate it!
Victor: What I want to say is that when art is based around disability experiences, when art becomes based on disability, when audio descriptions become an art form in itself, that's where we challenge the boundaries of what art means. That’s how we can use disability as the means to challenge normative expectations of how art can be presented. I think that’s where I’m coming from.
Mysara: For me as an artist I’d love to just to make art as an artist, and not a brown artist, or write as an artist not a brown artist. But when people see me they think: she’s gonna talk about race and feminism for sure, when sometimes I want to write romance stories without race in it, I just want to write nonsense stories!
It’s also seeing artists with marginalised identities—who work with marginalised identity topics—as people, right? I write a lot about identity but I’m also an artist.
Dawn: Actually before I came back to Singapore, I had never stepped foot into disability arts, I was just an artist! They would just ask what support I needed, and they gave me support, they asked, "what do you need?" And I went to mainstream events and was known, internationally speaking, as an autistic person who practises art. But in Singapore I’m shelved into the label of a disability artist. But it is changing.
Mysara: Yeah at the end of the day, when you organise such exhibitions and stuff, who are you doing it for? In Singapore, sometimes they need a disabled person, or a brown person there to look cute, but then what?
My friends ask me on panels and I say “okay, but are you giving me a job?” I need to pay my bills. Your one time exhibition is my lifetime experience. And maybe it will change, but one step would be to acknowledge us as writers and scholars without a label and reimagining what that looks like as well.
Min Jie: We’re coming close to the end but maybe we’ll do one more question: To what extent does inclusion entail confronting capitalism and colonialism? In what ways does this relationship manifest and how do we confront it concretely?
Mysara: We can't talk about inclusion without acknowledging capitalism and colonialism. That’s how we view ourselves. Essentially, it’s a big chunk of what we call our identity, right. I would love to go back to what Victor said: there will never be an end goal, there will be an ongoing project. Cause the moment you feel you've done enough, you haven't. There’s more things you need to look at, and we have two raffles statues—that’s all I’m gonna say la—not one but two.
Victor: For me confronting capitalism and colonialism the best way is to ask a series of questions. I think one of the fundamental questions is who can work, who is deemed hirable? I think that brings us into the whole question of thinking about why certain people are deemed as unhirable because of their inability to perform normatively in the workplace. And you can link it back to colonialism as well where certain populations are deemed as the martial race and so on and so forth.
A lot of the time you can see, with disability, a lot of ways we think about how we care about certain segments of populations are linked to the rise and growth of institutions in the colonial era. Think about homes for disabled people that have their roots in the colonial era and how the British people thought about the disabled in the 18th, 19th century.
There's a lot of research and history to be done to uncover some of this, I won’t dare speak on it but we need to ask those questions, and the fundamental questions, especially with capitalism is, who is deemed workable.
Min Jie: Okay! And with that we have come to the end of the panel. Thank you all for the great questions and the wonderful panellists here.
I will end with a quote from Brown is Redacted, from the introduction which I thought is so beautiful:
“We hope that you are left with a sense of wondering state of mind that is inherently always open minded and always daring to dream bigger. This conversation has been a process of collective setting and dialoguing of uttering. Because we continue to utter, we necessarily continue to fight.”
Thank you all for participating. To borrow the beautiful words of Kris and Mysara in their book Brown is Redacted, we hope that you are left with a sense of wondering, a state of mind that is inherently open-minded and always daring to dream bigger. This conversation has been a process of collective searching, of dialoguing, of uttering. Because when we continue to utter, we necessarily continue to fight.
I also want to extend gratitude to the organisers of this event, and also the people who work and care for this building, rooms and grounds. The people who built this building, dispose of the trash and clean the floors and toilets. The people who make this event, this moment, possible for all of us.
As we continue to reflect on an inclusive, sustainable and radically caring future, let us too remember that much of our land was built on violence towards indigenous and local communities from within and beyond our shores. And that there are communities and lands around the globe being exploited (historically and presently) so that we may sit here in an air-conditioned place together. Let us remember how interdependent our lives are, not only when it is convenient, but every single day.
I would just like to credit disability justice activist Mia Mingus for inspiring the words I just shared. With that, thank you everyone and have a great day ahead.
From left to right: Kuansong Victor Zhuang, Tim Min Jie (moderator), Mysara Aljaru, Dawn-joy Leong & Kristian-Marc James Paul.
About the Speakers:
Dawn-joy Leong: Upon discovering she is Autistic at 42, Dawn-joy Leong plunged into the tumultuous sea of autism research and immersive art, published and presented in Hong Kong, Australia, the U.K., South Korea, Japan and Singapore. In 2012, during her first year as PhD scholar in Australia, Dawn-joy met her beloved, Lucy Like-a-Charm, a rescued former racing Greyhound. Together the duo have traversed blended terrains of wonderment: dancing around pandiatonic-polyrhythmic fires, collecting oxymorons, finding new ways to sense the world and Be. They are now chronicling their adventures in a fully accessible, multimedia memoir fantasie.
Kristian-Marc James Paul (he/him/his) is an activist and writer. He is a member of climate justice collective SG Climate Rally. Apart from his work in climate activism, Kristian also facilitates intergroup dialogues, partnering with organisations like AWARE to run community discussions on masculinity and male allyship. He was also a contributing author for white: behind mental health stigma (2020), an anthology on mental health in Singapore.
Mysara Aljaru (she/her) is a lens-based practitioner, writer and researcher. Mysara was previously a journalist and documentary producer and has also worked with various research institutions. An artist and writer herself, Mysara has showcased and performed at Objectifs, The Substation, ArtScience Museum and Singapore Art Week 2022.
Kuansong Victor, Zhuang is a Fung Global Fellow at the Institute of International and Regional Studies, Princeton University, and International Postdoctoral Scholar at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University. He is also Principal Consultant at SG Enable, the national agency for disabled people, where he advises them on their plans to build a more inclusive society. He is working on two book projects at the moment. The first, based on his PhD research, examines how inclusion as an ideology is created, circulated, communicated, and consumed in Singapore, and undertakes an interdisciplinary approach towards understanding the logics and implications of inclusion as a form of biopower, and the lived realities of disabled people in Singapore. The second, is a co-authored book with Gerard Goggin exploring the intersections of disability and emerging technologies. As a Fung Global Fellow, he is currently researching the intersections of disability, technology, and sustainability as it emerges within the smart city. He hopes to use his research to contribute to current debates about how inclusion happens both in Singapore and around the world.
About the Moderator:
Tim Min Jie (she/her) is an activist and organizer-in-progress for climate and disability justice. She authored the chapter “Care is Revolutionary” in the anthology “Making Kin: Ecofeminist Essays from Singapore”, where she explored the importance of a care- centric culture for revolutionary movements. What makes her feel alive is dreaming, experimenting and building towards radical visions with other like-minded folks!