Interview with Zakaria Zainal and Prabhu Silvam

It is frequently hard to navigate through the waterfall of updates from media—alternative and otherwise—whenever news breaks, let alone during our first major outbreak of violence in four decades. Multiple accounts of one story flood our feeds, and one can only imagine what the truth really is.

In Riot Recollections, Zakaria Zainal and Prabhu Silvam go against the current and hit the ground when the wounds are still fresh, collecting the voices of witnesses that have been present in the midst of the frenzied mob.

We speak to the authors to find out more behind these recollections.

Riot Recollections is a project that has been around for a while, did you always intend for there to be a book? 

Z: This project was done within a week after the riot. It was spontaneous and basically an excuse for us to walk the ground and talk to people close to what happened.

I imagined it as independent narratives on the ground, or history from below – instead of narratives dictated from the state or the media. In a way, we were hopeful for it to be a book but were not sure if any publisher was willing to take it up. 

How did you two decide to start this project?

Z: When the riot happened, I was affected in a deep way because all of us have taken for granted this country’s security for granted. In addition, there was also a simmering of grievances from the migrant workers that I feel all of us Singaporeans could have done better as well as to appreciate the work that they do.    

It was funny how I had not spoken to Prabhu a long time prior until we were just emailing each other about a previous writing assignment. Then I suddenly realised that hey, Prabhu’s language and writing ability was very valuable in making this project happen. And so we did, discovering all the little streets and lanes that make up Little India.   

P: For me, it was about trust. I’ve worked with Zak before and I’ve always appreciated the poignant human approach he takes when approaching any subject matter. As a writer, documenting the human condition has always been my greatest muse. So even as 2 different artists from varying fields, we were both on the same frequency from Day One. So when Zak approached me with the idea of documenting alternative narratives of the riot, it wasn’t difficult to say yes.

What are some memorable moments while you were collecting stories?

Z: I think the best moments were the stories themselves, as they revealed a variety of emotions and moments that made us reflect on who were are as people living in Singapore. Each story revealed a layer of our understanding of the riot and Little India as a space of diverse people.   

P: The fact that people were willing to open up their hearts and minds to two complete strangers with pen and camera in tow will always be a special memory for me. Listening to their stories, struggles and hopes was remarkable as it was emotional. It’s amazing what people share when there’s someone willing to listen. 

What were some difficulties faced while working on the project? 

Z: It was difficult to find people who were present and were willing to speak, as the weeks progressed. It also took quite a bit of time and convincing for some – and we were highly fortunate when they shared with us their stories. 

What are your personal thoughts and feelings about the riot in little India?

Z: It was a really unfortunate event but I feel that this should not stop us from reaching out and understanding the lives of migrant workers finding a livelihood in this country and sharing our spaces with them.

What is the one thing that you truly wish was done better during or after the riot?

Z: I was really keen to interview and photograph the Home Team and the exact location they were stationed during that night. What were their hopes and fears? What went through their minds in the face of danger? That being said, as independents, we had little clout to convince the relevant authorities to support us in such an endeavour. Perhaps in the future.  

Riot Recollections is available for purchase at all good bookstores, and here