"he can’t recognise the Singapore that I’m talking about, but I can" | Home, Community and Hope: Book launch of The Singapore I Recognise
Recording of Home, Community and Hope: Book launch of The Singapore I Recognise
Arin: Good evening everyone and thank you for joining us at the book launch of The Singapore I Recognise by Kirsten Han. I am Arin from the Ethos Books team, my pronouns are she/her. I am wearing a black dress with white sneakers, and I will be your host for today.
It has been quite the journey. As some of you might remember, we started our national day campaign back in July. From our mini documentary called Voices from the Ground, to our Ethos Dreams pop-up community initiative and One Book Bookshop featuring The Singapore I Recognise, and now finally the launch of the book, we’re so grateful for the overwhelming support that we’ve received and for those who have journeyed with us, shared their thoughts about the Singapore they’ve experienced, and expressed the resonance that they felt. It’s always empowering to know that you’re not alone.
Today is a momentous occasion. To have Polling Day falling on the launch of the book, which was completely serendipitous—we booked the launch venue before they announced Polling Day, so it is a significant day. We have Teo You Yenn here with us, she is the author of This is What Inequality Looks Like, she wrote it 5 years ago and kickstarted a national conversation on social inequality, the fact that she is here with us today in conversation with Kirsten, is significant as well. An underlying theme is our political infrastructure, and the choices we make as individuals, and as a society. For everyone who has chosen to join us this evening, we appreciate your decision. It is a choice to invest in community, discourse and the Singapore you want to see. You are here because you care. So thank you for choosing to be here.
I would like to give a gentle reminder for everyone to wear masks in the venue today if you can, to reduce health risks for our immuno-compromised friends in the audience. We also have a photographer roving around taking photos of today’s event. Please approach us after the event if you do not wish for your photo to be uploaded on social media. Thank you to Equal Dreams for providing sign language interpreters for today’s event. We have Clara interpreting for Kirsten and Evelyn interpreting for You Yenn today.
We also have notetakers who will be transcribing the event live and you can access the live notes from the QR code on the screen, I’d like to remind our speakers to please speak slowly and clearly into the mic so that we can capture the conversation. After the conversation, there’ll be a Q&A so if you have any questions throughout the session. Please scan the QR code for Slido and leave your questions there. You can also upvote questions you want answered.
Now, I’d like to take the chance to introduce our speakers.
Kirsten Han is a journalist and activist from Singapore. She is Managing Editor of Mekong Review and runs two newsletters—We, The Citizens and Altering States—in which she writes about Singapore politics, human rights, civil society and drug policy.
Teo You Yenn is an Associate Professor in Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University and author of This Is What Inequality Looks Like.
So please welcome You Yenn and Kirsten.
You Yenn: Good evening everybody, it’s lovely to see you. Thank you Ethos for inviting me to speak with Kirsten at this wonderful event. Kirsten, congratulations on the publication of this wonderful book. From having read it and also being a loyal Milo Peng subscriber to your newsletter, We The Citizens, I know that this has been quite a journey for you, and I wonder, by way of introduction, if you would just share with us a little bit about how you first came to the idea of writing this book, and what the experience has been like for you?
Kirsten: Hi, thank you everyone for coming. I think it wasn’t necessarily this book but the idea of a book, and it started maybe ten years ago, when my husband was like, “I think you should write a book.” He very often has a much bigger imagination of what I can do than me, so he said “I think you should write a book,” and my first reaction was, “there’s no way I’ll write a book, only very important and very smart people write books.” It’s a very big project and I didn’t really think that it was something that I could accomplish, but he said it so I was like okay, I’ll think about it. I went through quite a few ideas, I kind of started and stopped, my very first idea was I wanted to write about migrant workers in Singapore but also following them back home to see what happens—because we often hear of cases that end with “and then they were repatriated”, then I wanted to know what happened when they were repatriated. Now that I think about it, I think I tried to pitch that we should go to India for our honeymoon so I could chase migrant workers in villages (laughs). Very fortunately, we just went to Greece.
So I kind of thought about that, then thought about maybe a book on the death penalty. I started and stopped a lot. And then there were a lot of moments where I felt very bad, it was more and more years since he said “you should write a book” and there was still no book, and I was feeling really bad about that. But I think now that I think about it, I could not have written this book that I have written ten years ago. So it kind of took the time that it needed to take.
You Yenn: The title of the book, The Singapore I Recognise, I think really reflects the sensibility of your book and the core principle holding the book together, and I’d like to invite you to read a little bit from the opening passages of the book that refers to the title, and then to tell us a bit more about how it emerged and what significance it holds for you.
Kirsten: I’m reading from the introduction of the book when I introduce this idea of why it’s about the Singapore I recognise and what the theme is.
(reading from the book)
“What does it mean to “recognise” a country? Whose recognition is deemed legitimate, and whose isn’t? Whose experience gets to define what Singapore is or isn’t?
What we see or know about Singapore is coloured by where we’ve come from and where we stand. For some people, the system in this city-state works a charm; for others, it’s a highly stressful nightmare. Many of us inhabit a middle space, where we enjoy the creature comforts of a modern city while also worrying about keeping up with the rat race and not putting a foot wrong in a society that loathes failure and punishes dissent.
To a fresh, casual observer, Singapore—with its advanced technology and gleaming skyline, its highly educated populace and widespread connectivity—doesn’t look at all like an authoritarian state. Unlike other countries, including some very close by, Singaporean activists don’t have to worry about being physically assaulted, kidnapped or assassinated. Some journalists have attracted the wrath of the state, but we aren’t arbitrarily arrested or jailed for our work. We don’t have people disappearing because of their political views or activities, or hear of bodies of exiled dissidents being found in foreign countries. Our online discourse is often rife with disagreement, strong language and, of course, irreverent memes.
Yet the lack of bodies on the streets or reporters thrown in prison doesn’t equate to freedom or democracy. Singapore is a country where a culture of fear has been normalised. When we describe spaces in Singapore—from classrooms and workplaces, to the civil service and statutory boards, indeed any networks where one’s social capital depends on establishment connections or notions of respectability—as being ‘depoliticised’, what we mean is that only a very narrow band of political opinion is publicly tolerated.
The result is a country that looks free, but where everyone has an internal calculus about whether their speech or actions are taking them too close to real or perceived red lines.
In such an environment, the ‘real picture’ of Singapore is what is seen from the point of view of the PAP-led establishment.
This book isn’t meant to set the record straight or make any declarations about what the ‘authentic’ Singapore is. I’m not arguing for a binary of a ‘true’ or ‘false’ picture of the country. What I’m pointing out here is that the act of defining a country—of asserting the Singapore one recognises as the only Singapore—is an exercise of power. It is those in power who decide what can be stated and recognised as truth, and what gets dismissed and brushed off as ‘revisionist’, biased or false.
By writing this book, I’m pushing back and introducing an aspect of Singapore that’s as much a part of the tapestry of this island’s politics, culture and people as the image that the ruling elite chooses to present.
The contents of this book might be presented as an ‘alternative’ narrative or an account of ‘the other side’ of Singapore. But these stories aren’t ‘alternative’ to anything. They just are, and they have as much right to be acknowledged as part of Singapore as any other. This book is an act of claiming that right.”
You Yenn: Thank you very much. For those of you who haven’t read the book, I’m sure right now you really want to read the rest of it. Tell us a bit about the title.
Kirsten: So I don’t really exactly remember when I decided on the title. I think I was already writing the book at the time. So what had happened was i had written an op-ed for the New York Times in which I argued that Trump and Singapore were learning from each other in very troubling ways. That was a time when Trump had named Singapore as a model to learn from in terms of the death penalty, he was like “look, Singapore has the death penalty, and there’s very little drug crime, so the US should have the death penalty for drugs.” And so he was saying that, and at the same time, Singapore was going on about fake news, this was before POFMA came in, this was around the time of the select committee on deliberate online falsehoods. So there was this fake news discourse in Singapore and death penalty discourse in the US, so I had written an op-ed saying that both sides are learning these very bad things from each other.
Then some time later—it wasn’t immediately after—some time later, there was a response from the Singapore ambassador to the US at the time, and it was published in the New York Times with the headline “A false portrait of Singapore”, in which he did not point out any factual inaccuracies, but he just disagreed a lot with interpretation, and then he ended with, “I cannot recognise the Singapore that Ms Han describes.” And so I think I was already writing the book and after awhile I was just like, actually this idea of I can or cannot recognise what you’re talking about was very evocative, this idea of recognition is very evocative of who gets to decide who recognises what, who gets to decide—maybe it’s true, he can’t recognise the Singapore that I’m talking about, but I can, and who’s to say that that means I’m wrong and you’re right? So then I decided that actually at heart, this is a theme that I keep coming back to over and over again, and it became a very good theme to thread all the things together.
You Yenn: And I think the spirit you embody, challenging this insistence that there is only a singular interpretation of Singapore, when you do that and also through the kinds of stories you tell in the book, you are, on the one hand, drawing lines of solidarity with other artists or academics who are doing that as well, challenging the singular narrative, and you’re also inviting—I feel like the book is very open and inviting readers also to be part of that and inserting their thinking and their ideas about what is the Singapore that they recognise or know and to think about what it means to recognise, not recognise or not be recognised, indeed to misrecognise.
The book is also very personal. It sets up for the reader your experiences of Singapore, key moments that shifted your views and sensibilities as a writer and as a citizen, and I think you have some very intense experiences that the average person doesn’t necessarily have, and I know you’ve been very open about sharing those experiences in your writing prior to this book. It seems to me there’s something a little bit riskier in putting all those personal things into a book, it takes a lot of courage, and I wonder if you could say a little bit about how you made decisions about what to include in the book, and why it’s important to you to include these personal experiences?
Kirsten: I thought that it was important because I was thinking that probably other people could relate to it as well, and if I could show people that this is where I’m coming from, so if I’m saying that the Singapore you experience is affected by your upbringing, your class and your background, then it made sense to me to then share mine, so people can see where it comes from. I was hoping that people would relate and see that there are a lot of possibilities. I’ve met a lot of people who assume that I do what I do because I must have had a very political upbringing or a very political family, that some people are just more political than others, some people just know more than others and I don’t know, so I can’t do. But actually I wasn’t, I didn’t have that sort of upbringing, it was really a journey for me as well. So hopefully if it can show that this is the journey that I made and I could do it, then other people can as well.
The other reason also, was that you cannot POFMA opinions and personal experiences. The book cannot be POFMA-ed anyway because it’s physical and not online, but just that idea, right? You cannot say it’s fake news if it’s my personal experience. So that was helpful, instead of saying that people want to take issue with your reporting, if I say that this is what I saw, this is what I experienced and this is what I felt, I think it was also a little harder to try to say, “oh, you made that up.”
You Yenn: I think many of your descriptions of your early encounters in school and history in particular will really resonate because most of us have those experiences. And I appreciated how you weave the personal and political throughout the book. It makes sense that part of it is to not be POFMA-ed, it’s strategy to protect your right to speak, but I think ultimately it’s also very sociological, in that although you are telling something very personal and specific, you’re using that to draw broader, more general lessons about socio and political conditions. One major theme that you highlight is the tension around depoliticisation and politicisation. This is something you write about in this book but also in your newsletter quite frequently in very insightful ways. And it often strikes me that your work is about making natural this idea of the political. So I want you to tell us a little more about what politics is and how you think about politics in this book, and what you think contemporary politics requires of ordinary people.
Kirsten: I remember someone once saying, I can’t remember in what context, but it just really stuck with me: “you might think that you are not thinking about politics, but politics is thinking about you.” And I think that’s very true. There is no way for anyone to say “I am not interested in politics, I am not involved in politics, it has nothing to do with me,” because it really does. And one thing I tried to highlight in the book as well is that even if you think you’re apolitical, politics is the thing that determines what you study in school, what you read in your history textbook, what you read in your newspaper, all the things that shape what you know about your home and the country around you is all political. It doesn’t need to just be about partisan politics, but it’s politics as long as it’s about organising society and how we negotiate things. So I wanted to encourage people to think about that, that it’s definitely shaping your life, so I feel it’s empowering to then be an active participant in these processes that end up shaping our lives. So that was one thing that I wanted to highlight.
And I think it’s not as scary as a lot of people think, right? There are a lot of things that we can do to be involved. Today is Polling Day, I know some friends said they wanted to come, but they can’t come because they’re being counting agents. And that’s participating, right, all the people who were polling agents, election officers—okay the election officers maybe didn’t want to be there too—but a lot of the polling agents and the counting agents are volunteers, they’re just people who volunteer, and when the GE is here you’ll see as well, and I’ve done it myself, a text message goes around and says, “this opposition party can’t find enough volunteers,” and then suddenly a flood of people show up to take the oath and become counting agents, and I think it shows very much that a lot of Singaporeans really care actually, and that there are a lot of different ways that people can be involved in contemporary politics.
You Yenn: Can you say a little bit more—I mean today and these few weeks, it’s hard not to think about politics in that election, capital-P sort of politics—
Kirsten: But it’s not a political election!
You Yenn: I don’t know if we want to go there, we only have 15 more minutes to this segment (laughs). But I wondered if you could give—if you try not to be distracted by this day—the small-P politics that you talk about and the ways you think about what it is people can be involved in beyond these special moments in time, can you give us some examples?
Kirsten: I think just awareness of the various issues and how they affect our lives, talking about it to the people around you already makes a difference because of the way that our mainstream media operates, right, then a lot of civil society groups that are trying to get the word out, whether it’s about death penalty or climate change or whatever, if they’re not getting the coverage in mainstream media, then all we have to rely on is social media and other Singaporeans talking to people around them about it. So then it’s really like a sort of all-hands-on-deck, help us get the word out sort of thing, even small things like conversations with your friends, forwarding them stuff, amplifying things that civil society groups are posting, and amplifying things that opposition parties might be trying to share, parties might be sharing their alternative proposals and things which nobody gets to see if it doesn’t make it into the mainstream media. Just this sort of awareness-raising I think is already very powerful, and just a lot of showing up for various things and supporting organisations and people who are trying to get things done.
You Yenn: Thank you. Shifting gears a little bit to circle back to writing again, people who write non-fiction generally have to think about questions of audience, right, who they’re trying to speak to, who they’re trying to speak against, who they’re trying to convince. What were the various audiences in your head when you were writing this book, and did you have various audiences in your head when you were writing this book?
Kirsten: I think because of the journalism work that I have done, I got very used to imagining a very broad audience, right, because if it’s going out in a newspaper or a news website, they might have their sort of target market, but they’re generally writing for a broad audience. So I always try to write in a way that’s in-depth, but if someone who was completely new to the subject picked it up, it should still be accessible. So I didn’t want to get so into the weeds that if you didn’t know Singapore very well, then this book is incomprehensible to you. So I had this idea that if somebody came across this book in a bookstore, and they might be a tourist or just visiting Singapore, they should still be able to follow, and they should still be able to learn something, while balancing that with if somebody knew Singapore very well found this book, they should still be able to resonate. So trying to find that balance.
Apart from that, I think the only actual audience that I thought about very specifically when writing the book was the PAP, mostly how much trouble will I get into and how to reduce this risk of trouble, and how to, if still get in trouble, at least have moral high ground. (Audience & You Yenn laugh). So just because my experience was that I’ve experienced a lot of bad-faith attacks, so I’m trying to avoid that, but the whole point of bad-faith attacks is that they’re in bad faith, right, so no amount of reasonableness will make you completely safe from that, so that’s the thing that I was thinking about. It costs some anxiety, but at the end of the day, the best that you can do is just footnote extensively, you fact-check, you go through the edits and as long as you’ve done your due diligence, there’s not a lot that you can do to completely eliminate risk.
You Yenn: Several essays in the book, and for me these were the essays that I found especially illuminating and rare, were your commentaries on the state of civil society in Singapore. And there you consider, in various different essays, the consequences of the loss of social memory, the harms caused by co-optation, and you don’t shy away from talking about things that are quite difficult to talk about, you know, tensions and conflicts between people who are allies or should be allies. And I think those sections of the book are on one hand a little bit uncomfortable to read, on the other hand I think so important for putting on the agenda that it’s important to confront these tensions and conflicts. Can you tell us a little bit more about those sections of the book and what you hope people will take away from them?
Kirsten: I think it was very important to me not to portray it as a binary of there’s a very powerful government and we are all oppressed. I mean we are, but within that there’s still a lot of space and autonomy to decide how you want to react. So I wanted to also reflect that it’s not that we’re all oppressed and then we can’t do anything about it, and not only are people doing things about it, but people are having disagreements about what to do. And in that disagreement, that shows that actually we have a lot of autonomy in choices of how you want to approach a problem, the sort of activism that you want to do, the sort of tactics that you want to pick. The fact that we can disagree shows that there are options to disagree over, and I thought that that was important to highlight because it shows that we actually have more space than we might imagine, we have more choice than we might have imagined. And I think it was also important to not make it this very binary like, oh the government is very bad and civil society is very good sort of thing, in that we have a lot of challenges that we disagree with, and I understand it’s very difficult to write and articulate especially in a context where the civil society circle is so small, so it’s very awkward for people to speak out about criticism if you’re like oh, but next time we still have to work together, or I’m going to go to this dinner party and they’re going to be there, it’s super awkward if they think I’m criticising very directly. So it also wasn’t meant to call out any particular groups or people, and definitely wasn’t meant to be prescriptive, like “this is a good way of doing things, this is a bad way of doing things,” I just wanted to show that because there are many Singapores, there are also many different choices as to how people want to respond to what they see is the problem in society.
You Yenn: I know it’s early days yet, but I wonder if you’ve talked to other people about those parts of the book, talked to civil society friends about those parts of the book?
Kirsten: No, not yet, so far, not really.
You Yenn: Okay, so you don’t know if you still have friends?
Kirsten: I mean so far so good, it seems.
You Yenn: One important motif in the book, I think that the way you’ve approached it is really about solidarity and collective action and the importance of solidarity in collective action, right? And I guess it’s a bit tough to ask you to sum it up here, but if you could, what are the big lessons you’ve learnt as an activist doing this work for so many years, what are the big lessons you’ve learnt about solidarity and collective action?
Kirsten: I’ve learnt that solidarity is really important, there are a lot of things that I not only never would have done, but never have thought to do if I didn’t feel like there was a community that would be supportive, and even if they disagreed, would still be there and not cut me off of stuff. So kind of knowing that there are people who will have your back even if they disagree with you, I think that’s very important, that’s how we become braver and do bigger things than we would be able to achieve as individuals. So I think that’s really important. Another thing that’s really important about solidarity is that it gives you very important validation. Part of how the oppressive moves in Singapore work is that they’re very administrative, they kind of have this plausible deniability thing of, “we’re not oppressing you, you just happen to be holding a sign and standing on a street for fifteen seconds and this law happens to say that that’s illegal, so it’s not oppression, you’re just breaking the law, so you know, are you saying that we should ignore the law?” It’s this very gaslighty, “oh it’s just administrative, we’re just enforcing the law, why you don’t cooperate?” It makes it harder because not only can you not talk openly about your oppression, you feel like people don’t even believe you’re oppressed in the first place. So to have that solidarity where people are affirming, “yes, this is not fair, this shouldn’t have happened, you shouldn’t be going through this,” I think is very important as well.
You Yenn: And do you have, from that, a sort of hope for what readers will do with that?
Kirsten: I think just to look out for each other and remember that this sort of solidarity—solidarity is not the same as consensus. You can disagree and disagree quite strongly about approach or tactics, but still see that we’re working towards the same thing and want the same things and still recognise that certain things are unfair and shouldn’t happen. I think that’s the sort of thing, we’re not looking for some model of a perfect victim or a pure activist who does everything right, it’s about everyone’s trying to do the best they can in this situation, again what we saw over the past week, there was a lot of discussion over who you should vote for, is it good to spoil your vote, is it not good to spoil your vote, and people get quite invested in persuading people to vote the way they think you should vote, and in the end, everyone’s just trying to make the best choice that they can out of a situation that very few people seem to be happy with. So then, I think the key thing is that, the way solidarity works is that whatever the result is, even if you don’t like the result, you don’t turn on each other. The system was the problem, it’s not each other that’s the problem.
You Yenn: I think that’s a really good reminder, and very hard to hold onto actually. I think we have some time for questions, so we’re going to turn to that now. I’ve been instructed to go on Slido so I’ll do that. We already have quite a number of questions.
Question: What are some government data that you wish would be declassified and shared with the public?
Kirsten: A lot of the historical archives ideally should be declassified. Because I’m from the Transformative Justice Collective, we’re always after data on death row and how it’s run, what executions are like, who is the executioner, do we have an official executioner or not, we actually don’t know this sort of thing. Knowing an official list of who is on death row, why, their background, that sort of information is hard to get. There’s a lot of data on migrant workers that’s just not available. I think if you ask every sector, every sector has something that they want to know that they’re not getting.
You Yenn: What would you do differently if you had more data, do you think? What would be different about the way you advocate?
Kirsten: I think just having more data can create more possibilities to imagine, right? Firstly, you can have a lot more research that comes out, when you propose alternatives, it’s grounded in more concrete things. So right now it’s an issue of there’s no data, and when you criticise, they say that you’re not giving concrete or constructive criticism. No information, then what criticism can I give? So I think there’s that. But also that’s very helpful for public education. For people to actually understand what the problem is rather than talking around what we think the issue is.
Question: If you could send three copies of your book to three politicians, who would be the lucky recipients?
Kirsten: But they have so much money, they should buy it! Yeah I don’t have as much money, I don’t get to live in a big house, why I should spend money to buy, they should buy it themselves. (Audience laughs)
You Yenn: I guess the question is which three people should be reading your book. We’ll make them buy.
Kirsten: Yeah, if they were forced to buy. I suppose I would send it to Shanmugam because I assume that MHA and ISD will need one. I would send it to… hmm who else would I send it to.
You Yenn: That was a short list.
Kirsten: I guess I would send it to Lawrence Wong since he’s supposed to be the future PM, then maybe he should think about it. I mean we don’t know very much about his actual political visions, so it would be nice if we knew a bit more about the future PM beyond that he works very hard and he can play guitar. (Audience laughs).
And the third person… I don’t know. Maybe let’s just send it to the leader of the opposition, because I think it’s not just the PAP that needs to consider, right, I think opposition parties also need to think about it.
Question: To reduce risks, did you ever feel like you had to self-censor anything as you were writing?
Kirsten: Yeah I definitely feel like I, if not directly self-censor, definitely second-guess a lot more now than I used to, so the way that I say it is that I have thirteen years of experience writing about politics in Singapore, but the other way is that I also have thirteen years of experience knowing how you can be targeted for writing in Singapore, so I’ve become a lot more paranoid. And sometimes I feel like it’s making me a worse writer rather than a better writer, because I become more afraid of using different turns of phrase, I’m like, maybe I need to phrase it exactly this way, because if I phrase it differently, who knows there’s some nuance and they’ll say it’s inaccurate then kena POFMA and all these problems. So I think that definitely, in the day-to-day, I notice that a lot more now than before. That might not necessarily count as full-on self-censorship, but I think there’s that revolving anxiety, it’s not exactly a very healthy way to be writing and also imagining possibly being charged in court for your writing. So you’re writing it and then imagining the AG reading it back to you in court at the same time as you’re writing, I don’t think that’s a great way to be a writer.
You Yenn: Do you have two versions? Because I know sometimes when I write, I have one version I know is the angry version, that I need because I need to record it for myself. Then there’s—later on, maybe five versions later, a different version.
Kirsten: Not always, definitely some chapters of this book, I wrote, I read it and then I was like oh that’s quite ranty, let’s rewrite.
You Yenn: So ranty is different from self-censorship, right?
Kirsten: Yeah, and then after a while I felt like, am I picking on a certain person too much? Let’s not be so mean to them.
Question: How do you stay positive?
Kirsten: I think knowing that it’s meaningful work is very important, and having that community of people to work with really is important. I don’t generally feel like I’m staying positive, I feel like a very negative—not negative, but just a very tired person. So I don’t feel like I am staying positive all the time, just trying to find the sort of way to meet my own needs and to be part of the community so that we can keep working.
You Yenn: This is a similar question about pragmatic resistance, I think this person has already read your book, and you talk about Lynette Chua’s notion of that, so the question is: As pragmatic resistance doesn’t improve the democratic process, how can civil society disrupt the power structure while ensuring that they stay afloat? Actually it seems to me that that’s two questions, so maybe one you can say a bit more about—for people who haven’t yet read the book—what you talk about, and then how can civil society stay afloat?
Kirsten: So the concept of pragmatic resistance is really that sort of picking your battles sort of thing, of how to still further your resistance while surviving so that you’re not squished right away and then you can’t do anything at all. So I don’t feel like pragmatic resistance in and of itself as a concept is completely terrible and needs to be thrown out, I think that is going to always be there, in any context you always have to choose what you think will forward whatever cause you’re pushing while keeping yourself and people around you safe and while keeping the movement alive. I think that’s very basic movement strategy. I think my problem with how pragmatic resistance sometimes gets used is, as I say in the book, it becomes more pragmatic and less resistance, right? I’ve noticed that in Singapore, whenever people are counselling you to be more pragmatic, it’s always to do less, it’s never to do more, right? Nobody in Singapore ever says “the pragmatic thing to do is let’s go and civil disobedience.” Everyone is always like, let’s water down this statement, or let’s not do it, let’s try to get a private meeting rather than a public one, and so I think sometimes it becomes a bit too comfortable to say, “this is the more pragmatic step,” when actually what is making us uncomfortable is the fear of risk. And so I think it’s fine to choose other approaches, but you need to be very honest about why you’re choosing them. I actually feel it’s much better if someone would say, “I don’t want to go to that protest because I am afraid of being investigated by the police,” than to say, “we shouldn’t do the protest, all of us should not go because it would be more pragmatic not to.” So I think that is the difference. So as long as it’s clear in your mind what your risk thresholds are, and then also clear that other people might have different risk thresholds than you, so you don’t have to impose your threshold on other people’s threshold. Some people are okay with taking more risk, some people have reasons why they cannot at this point in time, so then to try and respect that for everyone is important.
You Yenn: When I was reading your book, one of the arguments you make is that the loss of social memory and in particular the loss of memory around activism is a big part of why, in some ways, we can’t quite figure out what the risks are, or we can’t quite figure out what the potential gains are also, because there’s that loss of kind of a knowing or wisdom from earlier generations of activists.
You Yenn: So the way you’ve just answered the question like the individual calculation, it’s actually very hard to decide what is pragmatic and what is risky if you don’t actually have that information and that kind of background knowledge.
Kirsten: Yeah that’s true. Definitely, sometimes, I meet students who don’t want to write about Singapore history for their school project or whatever, they’d rather write about some European history or American history or whatever, because it’s very scary, because they don’t know—if you’re so new to it and you don’t know exactly where the red lines are, then it becomes so much easier to say, “let’s not approach red lines at all, let’s do something completely different and then we don’t have to worry about it.” So I think there’s that sort of uncertainty, that lack of background, because the history and the social memory is also grounding in a way. So that sort of lack of grounding makes everything much more scary.
Question: Following up on that, do you have advice for students or young people who want to be more politically involved or who want to write about politics as well, what would you advise them to do?
Kirsten: My own personal experience was I didn’t think and I just did, and then I got in trouble, and then I thought well I’m already in trouble, so I’ll just continue (audience laughs). So I don’t necessarily recommend that.
You Yenn: Why wouldn’t you recommend that?
Kirsten: I’m very lucky that I can survive as a freelancer, again because I come from a family background where I don’t have financial dependents. I only have cats, so I have financial dependents but they’re not very big dependents. So as a freelancer, if I’m not having a good month, I have a family that will make sure that at least I’m not starving to death, and if I need to borrow money from my parents to pay bills, at least I have that safety net. I don’t think that’s possible for everybody, and so for some people, I completely understand that they might not want to burn a bridge, they might need the civil service job, they might need to keep the job in The Straits Times or whatever, so then you have a very different calculation. So I would encourage people to be clear about what they can do, because it is hard if you are stuck in a situation that’s not what you intended.
You Yenn: Thanks for that. To the extent that mainstream media covers or reports your book, what do you expect, what headline or angle do you expect them to report? I feel this question a bit unfair to ask Kirsten though (laughs).
Kirsten: I don’t expect any coverage until there is a government statement about what’s wrong with it. Then the headline will be “government says: (whatever the government says)”. Yeah.
You Yenn: Let me try to find some that diverge a little bit… We’ve talked a lot about “everything should be political” and about embracing the notion of the political, but is there space for addressing issues in a depoliticised way so that, for example, it doesn’t completely alienate people from a cause that they would otherwise support?
Kirsten: I’m not sure what would be a depoliticised way, what do we mean by that? For example, if it’s the climate crisis, explaining that the climate crisis affects us in Singapore and it affects our lives, things are getting hotter, there’s more natural disasters around the world that have repercussions for us if it disrupts the planet, that already becomes political very quickly, right? So I think what people often mean when they say “depoliticised” is just a reference to partisan politics. They’re like, is there a way that you can talk about it that doesn’t sound so anti-PAP, and I think that’s what Singaporeans tend to mean. But at the same time, I also feel like the reason a lot of things suddenly become cast as anti-PAP is because the band of expression is so narrow, the band of allowed expression is so narrow. So it’s not like we are making it anti-PAP, it’s just that there’s so little that’s allowed, so anything that’s outside of that becomes, by default, anti-PAP. For example, when I was interviewing Pink Dot about how it first started, they were saying, “we were so worried that it would be seen as anti-PAP to have Pink Dot.” But why is LGBT equality immediately anti-PAP? It was just because there was this sense that anything that is not directly endorsed by PAP must be anti-PAP. So rather than saying how can we becoming more depoliticised, it’s more of asking how can we normalise that politics is everywhere so that we don’t get caught in this trap?
Question: Your book has a really strong sense of awareness of self and society. How do you think people can develop this sense of awareness?
Kirsten: I think that’s partly just how I am personality-wise, but in recent years I also started thinking much more about intentionality, to feel like you are in control of the choices that you make. And I think to be intentional about the choices that you make require a lot of self-reflection. So just kind of slowing down and thinking that actually I have a choice and how do I want to make this choice is one very important thing for everybody to do.
You Yenn: There was a question somewhere, I can’t find it anymore, but there was a question about whether there’s room for play or pleasure in doing this kind of work. What do you think?
Kirsten: Yeah I think there is. Sometimes when we do things as a collective and a community, it can be quite a lot of fun and I think it’s also important that in activism, the campaigns that we do, the tactics that we use, are not always super serious or solemn, because you’re trying to get as many people involved as possible, so then to do things that are also fun is important. It might sometimes be quite difficult to do that, definitely one thing we struggle with is, if I work on the death penalty, there is a limit to how fun that can be. At some point it just becomes very inappropriate if you’re trying to make it funny. But within that space, there’s still space for fun. So I think just trying to find creative ways of reaching out to people, working with different groups, like if you’re working with theatre groups, they have a very different approach, and sometimes that’s actually much more inviting, to invite someone to watch a satirical play is a much better first step than to come to a Hong Lim Park protest. It’s not fantastic feminism, but to someone who’s never thought about feminism, maybe watching Barbie is more fun than immediately, this is the convention of elimination of and discrimination against women. So just a lot of different entry points.
You Yenn: Maybe if we print it in pink or something. Or make people wear pink when they read it. (Kirsten laughs)
Were there parts of the book that you wanted to include or initially had included but you ended up taking out?
Kirsten: Not really actually, I don’t think so. Once I decided on that format, then it kind of fit. There had been things that I wondered if I should put in because there are definitely more family experiences that I had, but they didn’t fit in the flow, so in the end I didn’t add it in.
Question: What are your thoughts on media censorship over the last ten years, and what you see for the next ten years?
Kirsten: I think what I find most disturbing is when it gets to a point where it’s so normalised that it’s not seen as censorship and it just becomes seen as this is how journalism is done in Singapore, we are just different, journalism is just different in Singapore, not the way that Americans do journalism but the way that Singaporeans do journalism is different, and it’s no longer seen as censorship and a problem. I feel like that’s very troubling when journalists themselves are not fighting for media freedom, but instead normalising that we actually don’t need media freedom, that maybe Singapore just has a better model of journalism than other places. That’s very troubling, right, because then there’s no resistance at all, you’re just accepting and normalising.
Question: For the past seven years, democracy throughout the free world has taken quite a beating. When will we be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel?
You Yenn: After you read this book! (laughs)
Kirsten: I think it is very difficult, it feels like the worldwide trend is very depressing, but there’s also huge amounts of activity trying to resist that and I have a lot of hope in that activity, and also in cross-border solidarities where people try to help each other and learn from each other. Definitely a lot of information that’s shared between different movements and different countries has been very valuable. It feels like it’s very hard to stop, but a lot of what I’ve been learning through doing a lot of the work is that we have to put our faith in people and in the work that people do, and sometimes things that look like they’re never going to move do eventually move, and sometimes the changes are more subtle but they’re actually very important and they build up over a long time. So what I also talk about in the book is about how I’ve learned to see my role differently. Maybe I am not the person to end the death penalty or achieve freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, all those things that I wanted to see, but the work that I do is important foundation for future generations and the work that they do is important foundation. So I think seeing it like that, that we just do what we can, is very important because otherwise it just gets very depressing when it’s like, I cannot personally bring democracy to the world, then it becomes very depressing and very difficult to do anything because it just feels very hopeless.
Question: As a young person in Singapore, I feel that there is this sense of learned helplessness that we have inherited from our society, and I’d like to hear from both our speakers, perhaps their perspectives on how we can slowly unlearn this sense of learned helplessness? In my experience, yes there are more people being involved, but on the flipside, there are also more people who have a lot of anxiety about the world ending and being in despair, I feel like it’s very polarising. You either want to get very involved, or you are so scared and so helpless that you are afraid to do anything, even the small things that you’ve just mentioned. So how can we unlearn that? Thank you.
Kirsten: I think it’s definitely very overwhelming, and I think recognising that it is overwhelming is also a big thing. To accept that it is very troubling… the anxiety is real, it’s not like people are being unreasonably anxious. I think the anxiety is real and realising and accepting that is quite important I think, because I think just forcing yourself to push through might work for a little while, but it probably doesn’t work in the long while. That’s something that I’ve learnt also, that dealing with burnout is an actual thing that you have to do, and not like I just keep working until the burnout goes away, because it doesn’t go away, it just gets worse. So I think that’s very important, and I think that’s where the solidarity comes in: when you have people around you who will do things with you, even the little things, you kind of see that you are not alone in it. I definitely got a lot of hope and strength from realising that I am not alone in doing this, and the burden is not on me alone to fix everything, right? There are other people doing it, and in fact it’s quite ego-centric to think that you are the one that’s going to fix things. So just to recognise that you are part of a bigger collective was very helpful to me in learning that there are things that can be done.
You Yenn: Thank you so much Kirsten. This is a wonderful book, if you don’t have your own copy already, I hope that you will get many, several copies and share it with your friends. I think reading it is one way to, in some ways, feel empowered, to see that these are realities, they are not fantasies or merely stories. I think Kirsten has given us a lot of ways of thinking about how to insert ourselves into this story and to create a Singapore all of us can recognise.