Meeting in the Middle: The Right to Read

Photo of the panel (left to right): Jolene Tan, Kokila Annamalai, Lune Loh


Meeting in the Middle: The Right to Read was livestreamed on the Ethos Books Facebook page on 15 April 2021. You can access the livestream here and the full transcript of the programme on this page. Portions of the transcript have been edited for clarity. We would also like to thank the Hive for providing venue support! 

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Who gets to decide what we read? How has the policing of young people’s reading and writing impacted their interior and public lives?

Join us for this year's edition of Meeting in the Middle featuring Jolene Tan, Lune Loh and moderated by Kokila Annamalai. As writers and advocates who have engaged with youths in various capacities, this panel will touch on issues regarding freedom to knowledge and young people's rights.

From the 2014 Penguingate incident to installing a DMA (device management application) on students’ devices, this panel will discuss the intersections of young people's rights, the role of literature, and the extent to which we should control what young people can read - if at all.

 

You can find the speaker bios at the bottom of this page. Enjoy the conversation!

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Photo of the panel (left to right): Jolene Tan, Kokila Annamalai, Lune Loh

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Jennifer (Host): Before we start I’d like to invite our friend Dayana from the Hive to say hi.

 

Dayana: Good evening everyone. Thank you for joining us this evening. We’re a co-working space across Southeast Asia. We have two locations in Singapore. Lavender, and where you’re at, The Hive Carpenter Street where we occupy the entire building so levels 2-5 are all co-working spaces and level 6 is our event space and cafe. We offer different kinds of memberships, partnership opportunities and event spaces. 


If you’d like to learn more about The Hive and what we offer, you can always speak to me and I’d be happy to arrange a tour, or you can find us on Facebook and Instagram, or you can visit our website: https://thehive.sg/

 

Jennifer: Thank you to Hive for hosting us. Thank you to those joining us on Facebook. We’re taking questions on slido, post them there and the panel will try to answer them. Please enjoy the panel!


(05:00)

Kokila: Hello everybody. Today’s discussion will be about children’s right to read. I thought it would be meaningful to start with a broader question/reflection on what children’s status in our society is. It’s within that that we can clarify what children’s rights mean here. 


The first question I had for the two of you is, from your positions as observers of Singapore society, in your specific positions as a parent and a student activist, what are your observations about children’s status in our society, the ideas of childhood? What are the narratives and anxieties around childhood and adolescence that you find dominate state and societal imagination in Singapore? Jolene, would you like to share? 


Jolene: Speaking as a parent and former child, my experience is very much that there’s a tendency in Singapore for adults to relate to children as some kind of object which needs to be optimised, like a pokemon that needs to be leveled up. Or a threat. Either a threat themselves if they're not properly directed, that they’ll behave in a way that’s harmful or that they are themselves vulnerable to threat to their moral development. There is an assumption that children left to their own devices will go bad. 


I would say that my own view is that there isand obviously I'm kinda painting one extreme there, and there’s also competing tendency but it’s not as dominant—is that there is a growing desire amongst many parents and other adults that relate to children to develop instead a relationship of education and care, in which we see ourselves not as directing children to the thing they should become or to be good in a way that's predetermined by an adult. But rather see ourselves as responsible for providing a nutrient-rich environment and for modelling habits of engagement, thought and behaviour that children can then engage with. This is a lens with which we see children as already being their own people, with their own interests and inclinations and their own ways of engaging with things. I think these two ways of looking at children are often in conflict with how we see children in Singapore.


Unfortunately, most of our dominant routines and habits and structurese.g. what’s expected of children in school, how parents often speak for children, ideas of discipline that are prevalenttend to favour seeing them as objects.


It’s interesting to me how often when I'm out and about in a public space with my child, people will be like “You are who ah? You are the friend? The sister?” Part of this is that I look like I’m 11! 

And I'd be like, No no! I’m the mum.” And they’d be like, “Oh but you talk like friend friend liddat.” It’s striking to me how many times I actually get told this, to the point where it’s become like an in-joke in my family. That is an interesting experience, the way that my parenting is read by people around me. 


Kokila: Lune did you want to?


Lune: I agree with what you're saying. Childhood is extremely structured in Singapore. For many reasons that you have already covered.


I was thinking of Lego. On a Lego box when they show you the age range, like when you should be building this, it's a guide right, but in Singapore it’s very much a thing. What age should you be doing something? We see that a lot in education. Most of our lives are structured around education. Up until 18 or after, we have education structured in a certain way. You are taught to know things in a certain way. There’s a kind of barrier to anything beyond. There’s no space to develop, for further knowledge beyond what you're supposed to already know.


This is like, no surprise that an educational institution is also a disciplinary institution, it disciplines the child into thinking, “I’m a child, I should know certain things but not know other things because it might be too advanced for me, they might not be accessible to me for whatever reason, I dunno why but the adults say I cannot read certain things.” This really ties into my experience of being a child in Singapore. The experience has been a lot more recent for me and a lot more traumatic.


A lot of families are hierarchically structured. With my own family my father is thought to be on top. He will think of education in a certain way. He will talk about things at a certain age. And again out of education you’ll have film ratings, film advisories which really just target people under the age of 21.

 

photo of Lune speaking 

 

Even within family structures, parental concern comes up a lot in my experience as a transgender activist, talking to younger transgender people around 16-18 years old who might wanna start transitioning on hormones. The biggest thing that really prevents them is parental consentthis entire policy, this sort of regulatory practice of parental consent. That only your parents or guardians know what’s best for you, and can grant consent for your decisions. Rather than you as a person.


You know the terms and conditions, you should be expected to know, and even if you know, you don’t have the power to enact your choice. It’s always on the basis of someone else. This is how Singapore is so incredibly structured.


(12:58)

Kokila: Speaking about the social imagination of children here, what strikes me is how children are co-opted by the state and conservative forces in society as a vulnerable individual that needs to be protected. And used to forward certain harmful ideas—like pro-family ideas and whatever that means. The “best interests” of the child is often used to demonise non-conforming families or single-parent families, other types of families that don’t conform to state narratives. It’s evident to me as someone who has worked closely with the social sector. It's the ministries that have direct control or relationship with childrenlike MOE or certain segments of MSFthat are the most conservative. And it’s seen as more defensible, that they can control more of what teachers say and do because children are at stake. While you might be able to have some other kinds of discourses and ideas in some other carved out spaces, schools are what we really have to protect. Family service centres interact with children who are being violated at home or who are struggling with their home environment as themselves being deviant. The ways in which children are being co-opted for political ends is particularly troubling to me.


Jolene: One thing that’s very interesting about that is so much is done in the name of protection of children. Yet the status of children under the law, and under our social norms, violence against children is widely accepted if it takes the form of smacking or caning. In fact, in the definition of family violence in the women's charter, there is a particular carve-out for the use of corrective force for persons under 21 years old. 


At the same time a lot of ink is spilled placing children on a verbal pedestal, but their actual, material status is much worse than those of non-children. I almost wonder whether these flowery tributes to their innocence and preciousness are just masking the stink of disempowerment.


Kokila: It’s like Women’s Day


Jolene: I feel the same about Mother’s Day. There’s such a big song and dance about how mothers are most important bla bla bla, take them to the spa and give them cake for this one day. But then, what is the material support that’s actually given to people doing that hard work of childcare? Whether they are mothers or fathers or anyone else, day in day out. 


Children become a symbol for people to project their other kinds ofand I say this word to be as neutral as possibleagendas or perspectives in a way that's not reflective of what children are thinking, feeling or desiring, and would express if they were given more opportunities to do so. 


(16:55)

Kokila: When we were planning this conversation, we said it’ll be nice to have children on the panel and in the audience. There are so few children visible in the public space as people who have ideas and thoughts to express. We have very little community infrastructure that makes visible children as thinking people with interests, in more organised ways. We don't have that kind of community infrastructure to begin with.


Jolene: It's probably true that having teens might be a good idea. But part of the problem is we need children’s voices to be heard. For the hearing of children’s voices to go on in an integrated way. Every day and at every stage and at every part of decision making. This sort of public forum where you are on display and what you're saying is potentially broadcasted and recorded. As a parent I have my doubts whether younger children should be exposed to that at this point. 


Kokila: Lune, what do you think?


Lune: When you say that children are not in public spaces, the first thing I thought of was the practice of curfews. And a lot of discourse that happens in public spaces happens in the night time. People want to protect their children, they set certain time limits for them to come home. All in the name of safety, and that can be legitimate. But yeah I’m just reminded of how there’s already a curtailment in many families over whether children can even go out. It’s just something to think about.


(19:16)

Kokila: How we struggle with seeming contradictions, between seeing a group as both needing protection and as being deserving of political voice and expression. In our culture, we often see these things as mutually exclusive, which is inherently troubling, as a result a lot of the ways in which we have devised around participation in decision making require a certain level of exposure and risk. This applies to so many other groups. There are a lot of queer and trans people who cannot be as visible in protests or in certain kinds of expressions. Other kinds of vulnerabilities that don't allow people to participate in political ways...


Jolene: Like migrant workers.


Kokila: Exactly! Because the forms of decision making and ways of participating are inherently risky on so many levels. With those ideas in mind, how do these narratives play out when it comes to policing what children are allowed to read and write and think and say? What do you think is at stake?


Lune: I personally think that children have access to what can be read. The disciplinary structures of society and the state, family, education, pressures you to not read certain things. Puts you in a space where you are constrained to think in certain ways. It pressures you to read a certain way. Basically you don’t know that there are certain things that exist outside what you’re supposed to know. 


But again there's wide access to all kinds of educational material. The first time I was reading young adult fiction was when I was 12, so right to access is not a problem. But the way knowledge is structured for children, how you learn in the educational realm, it doesn't give you that space for further social and political or gender expression?


When you’re 12 what are you mostly learning? Ratios? How to write a story? And the story is always some 4-panel composition. Always a very linear narrative and doesn't go beyond saving a dog. Or falling into a hole and calling SCDF? There's an infantilization of knowledge. 


(22:38)

Kokila: I heard an ex-gp teacher say, what she finds harmful and unfortunate in the experience of young people. On one hand, and because of the instrumentality around “reading is good for you” in expanding your mind and horizons and engaging in critical thinking, again it’s an academic exercise.


But when compared with the actual conditions of children’s lives in school or at home, where they are punished if they question school authority or disagree with dominant political narratives and with the government. Those get shut down. That kind of epistemic violence. The dangers of thinking the ideas you read in a way that's divorced from actual life. That cognitive dissonance that happens. You can actually live in a rich world of ideas but it cannot have any bearing on material things. Do you have thoughts on that?


Jolene: Going back to what you asked earlier about what’s at stake when we talk about reading. Even if images and video are coming to dominate communication a lot more than they did in the past, I think reading remains one of the main ways for humans to make sense of ourselves and our societies and our place in the universe.


I guess at this point I should confess that I struggle to think of this like a normal person. Reading for me has an outsized role in my life. I think it plays a role, that for other peopleand I say this in all seriousnessit plays a role that for other people might be filled by religion. It’s my way of making sense of who we are, what we are here for and what we are meant to do. 


Even if we don’t have that intense relationship to it, there's still very few comparable ways for us to have an independent relationship to the kind of depth and breadth of human thoughts and experience across societies and across eras, compared to being able to read about it. 

 photo of Jolene speaking

 

For me it’s very notable that it's an experience that's closely connected with solitude. Even if you share the experience of reading, whether in a reading group or book club, it's still very individual. There’s still all that processing that goes on in the mind. For me, reading can be important to develop a sense of individuality. You can have a place, at least for the span of interaction you have with the text, you are kind of sovereign in your own mind.


So to tie this back to what we were saying earlier, it disturbs me therefore that this is a relationship that’s intruded upon so much, whether by swallowing up children’s time with set texts and set ways of reading, and a “correct” list of things to read. Or more disturbingly now, this action by MOE to put software on devices so what children can be reading when they surf the internet is continually under the possibility or experience of surveillance. The idea of being by yourself with information is taken out of the picture. Everything could always be the wrong thing to read.


It’s notable to me that this is a measure that will have a class-based impact. If you're a wealthy family you could always have a work laptop with this intrusive software. Your parents, if they are so inclined, can buy you another device and you can read things without the monitoring. This is going to affect people in a very lopsided way. It's the same bifurcation of censorship in Singapore. There are many things, as long as you can pay for a subscription service or you can pay for the expensive live performance perhaps, actually anything considered potentially dangerous is accessible to you if you are sufficiently wealthy. 


I think that the internet especially offers a kind ofand don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things that are bad on the internet; it's not perfectit’s a space where I think young people have found to be freeing from the set curriculum. It concerns me that this is potentially taken away by this device management software (DMA) software.


(29:10)

Kokila: Jolene, you bring up the class-based impact of these interventions. When I think about the issue of access to reading, access is there, it’s just about how structured your life is. Crowding out children's time means no access.


I think back toI was not in school that long agobut long enough that I think things have changed. I sometimes had homework but there was a lot of time to read book after book, go to the library and get like 16 books with everyone’s library card. Incredible in terms of having options for what you want to read. My sister and I would read through the weekend. When I see friends' children now, there's much less time. The ways in which schoolwork kind of colonises the child’s life. It doesn’t just take time away from reading, but from playing and everything it means to have unstructured, wild exploration that is undirected, about who you are and what the world is. And then reading is just a part of that.


Lune: Yeah it’s a lot about how time is structured. Time doesn’t leave children nowadays to actually have the space to read. They’re supposed to do certain things and not others. This is in the broader sense of architecture. Libraries are built in a certain way. Libraries have entire kids sections with a certain kind of syllabi. There are certain books that are there and books that are not there. But who’s to say that you can’t read something from the adult’s section? So it’s the social, architecture, infrastructure of time and physical spaces that pressure children into reading in a certain way.


Even then, children also got no time to go to the library. They don't really know what to read as well. There are things that people will read and perhaps it's a more popular series but they might not expand their reading elsewhere.


I’m also thinking about how back when I was in NUS high, which is a specialised institution that covers secondary and tertiary education, we were supposed to do research, but we didn’t really have access to research like we should have. We didn’t have an account that allows us access to journals and all that. That impacted our learning. Like I'm supposed to know about academic materials but I don't know the use for them? Except for schoolwork?

So there’s just a lot of barriers to entry, infrastructurally and architecturally. It either prevents access or does not make you realise that these things exist.


Kokila: In relation to access, to me it’s really stark how in lower income communities in Singapore, there really doesn’t seem to be as much access to books. Even though there’s access in that everyone can go to the same libraries. Everyone can get a free library card. But then the way that children's lives are experienced in poverty here doesn't often, in fact almost never, allows them to form a relationship with books and reading in a way that is generally nurturing.


I say this from experience working on reading programs within rental flat neighbourhoods. 

 

There's a lot of programmes in Singapore that are meant to bring books to kids in rental flats or organise reading sessions at the void deck. They’re usually once or twice a week and it's not enough to form a relationship with reading. You can’t really have that space to form that relationship if there’s so many other demands. So it’s quite different for a child living under circumstances of precarity, like a child who is policed and surveilled in so many other ways.

photo of Kokila speaking 

 

I’m thinking about how, in conversations with kids in these neighbourhoods, they’ve been telling me how much contact they have with the police when they’re in public spaces. There's not even space to gather. There’s so much interference with existence in public spaces to begin with, yet alone coming together to read. Like you need to come together at a community centre or something to form that relationship with books and it’s difficult to form that relationship. Another way access is interrupted is through interference with language and different languages that we’re encouraged to think and read and write in.


Jolene: Completely agree about whatever that’s been said about time in particular. There is an absolute absurd surplus of curriculum. Our expectations for when children should be performing specific tasks are completely out of whack, out of line with what is understood about the developmental stages of the human brain when the child is very small. You do not need to drill children in maths and language and reading and writing when they are small children in order for them to be competently numerate or literate later on. 


If you take Germany as a counter example, German schools do zero academic work before the age of 6. They do not do sums, however simple. No reading or writing. They do play, they do social and emotional development. They do physical movement which is what small children need. And at 6, which is when the human brain is actually capable of doing it, children learn to read and write and do maths. And no one can say that Germany's status in the world is one where educational standards are very low, right? 


So in Singapore, we have this unreal notion that somehow, and borrowing from Teo You Yenn, the child who walks 5 months earlier than another child, is not somehow going to be better when they’re an adult. That is ridiculous! It’s ridiculous to require children to do all these things at such a young age.


What you do do is communicate to them. Children are masters at picking up on the subtext that you think you are not communicating. Absolute masters of knowing what framing is in your mind when you ask them to do things. You cannot get stuff past them and they know when this is being presented to them as the thing they must do to be approved of, or the vitamin they must take because it’s good for them.


How can you say that you want a child to develop a love of reading if you don't open a book yourself and read for fun? Where is that love of reading supposed to come from? But also what purpose do you think it’s going to serve, other than this purely instrumental purpose of getting lots of As in exams. What is it you’re trying to achieve? That is the question I will ask.


(39:09)

Kokila: It just reminded me of the fact that I grew up hearing a lot of stories from my mother, who’s a learning support teacher in a primary school, about the extreme pains of being in the position of having to teach children who weren't yet able to read in Primary 1 and 2. That age that you were talking about where it’s okay for anyone to start at that age! When actually the kids from middle class backgrounds are already reading at pretty advanced levels and the curriculum is such that at Primary 1 they're already expected to know so much, from what they’ve learnt at preschool or learning support. Most of the kids in her learning support class are always children from marginalised backgrounds or lower-income backgrounds. Half an hour a day is all you get to try and get them to catch up. The anxiety that teachers and children feel to learn to read in that half hour. The subtext is not that you can develop a positive relationship with reading when that is the context in which reading is talked about. Like “You better learn so that the next period you can catch up!” These programs perennially fail, yet these are the only methods we engage in with regard to children’s literacy. 


Lune: Yeah. This got me back to thinking about the structural barriers of it all. I also read Teo You Yenn’s famous treatise. Children in poverty, they also don't have the space to think. They're thinking about other things, probably like the day-to-day. It’s congruent to the sort of lower income people, like the friends that I have. These are people who actually have managed to cultivate a love for reading but don't have time to read also. 


Let’s say you’re a child, and you managed to read something really interesting like Jeannette Winterson, and then you realise that, oh my god this person is writing about lesbians and you’re so intrigued and you want to tell someone!! Maybe you're 14 or 15, like another friend of mine (and these are abridged stories). Or another one who read every single political theorist in the early modern period, like [John] Locke and [Thomas] Hobbes and [Karl] Marx. At those ages, where can they find the space to tell someone about all this? 


I used to read Young Adult science fiction when I was 11 and 12. When I brought those books to school, I used to read this YA science fiction series called the Uglies. They have these very chic covers of girls’ faces. For good reason. Most of the protagonists in these are women. There’s a kind of coming-of-age story in all these books. I didn’t have the space because the moment I brought in the book, people saw this as chick lit. I was among boys and they would harass me for it. They didn’t see the value of the literature I was reading. 


This goes back to the way we are structured into thinking, the way that literature doesn’t occur to us. There's no space for children to even begin talking about certain things. Where are they going to find it? That’s why they go to the internet. The Internet has democratically expanded that space to unimaginable proportions. Which is why you have Twitter discourse by 13-year-olds. This is really an entire spillover of whatever has been happening in disciplinary society in real life. All the educational controls.


Again you have all these barriers of access. Some people don't have the time or space to think about reading. Some people like to read but they don’t have the space to talk about what they're reading. They don’ t have a discursive space.


(43:57)

Kokila: And I don’t know if this is a very “out there” thought, but Jolene you were talking about how to expect your children to read when you don’t, and that it needs to be the children’s environment. 


I was also thinking about how a lot of the Dalit thinkers that I have been recently listening to and reading about in Tamil Nadu. A lot of them grew up in villages and environments of extreme poverty and extremely oppressed communities with their parents that didn’t have access to reading or literature. But a lot of them talk about this immense thirst to find books and read. And so the other thing that comes to mind for me is that for them it’s driven by this desire to make sense of their world and their parents’ struggle, and why their community life is so different from other people’s, why their childhood is so different, and they need to know. And I feel like… because in Singapore, you are told! You’re told from so early on why it is that you are poor, why it is that you are rich, everything is explained. The desire for books as a way to learn and discover things about the world only comes about if that space is not crowded with all these national myths and meta-narratives that are in the books you have to read in school, for example. The flipside to children’s access to read is the things they are forced to read through the curriculum. 


Jolene: I think that’s a great point. It ties in with what you were saying earlier about the world of ideas you inhabit and the world that you’re allowed to discuss sociallysame with what you were saying, Luneis so detached and unreal. People always say “Why isn’t there more Singlit? Why don’t people read more Singlit?” Then people read things that happen elsewhere, typically America in terms of English language fictionit’s where a lot of people’s reading diet comes fromand then they have this sort of fragmented world in which there’s the world of ideas that somehow only belongs somewhere else, and then there’s the world of everyday reality in which everything can be explained on pap.gov.sg. 


I thought that was very interesting for me to hear you talk about and also made me think about how when I was a child, reading, I just kept thinking “this stuff in the books is so much deeper, broader, more complex and more nuanced than what people around me are saying.” Eventually it’s got to catch up, it’s got to join together. But I guess maybe part of the problem is that we are so bad at giving ourselves and one another the space to join that up in real life, in physical spaces, to have these open-ended discussions, that maybe it never does for a lot of people.


(47:29)

Kokila: Coming back to the direct interpretation of the title for this event, who decides regarding children’s access to reading, and my question is do you think there should be boundaries around what children can read, watch, listen to, or no? And if yes, what in your view should inform these limits and who should be involved in making such decisions?


Jolene: I will start by giving the answer that my child gave when I described this question. And the answer that I got was that the adult should warn the child if there’s something very scary in the book, but if the child still wants to go ahead and read the scary book, then they should be allowed to do so.


Then I said, what if there’s something bad in the booklet’s say it’s a very racist bookthen I was told that the problem should be described and the child should get the chance to hear what these problems are and the parent can say what their opinion is, but if the child still wants to go ahead and read it then the child should be allowed to read it. That’s what I was told. 


And my child also complained about the fact that a teacher at the school library had tried to stop her from borrowing a joke book. The teacher was like, “oh no no, you should read a better book!” And she was like “but I already had another book. But I also wanted to read a joke book. Why can’t I read a joke book!” So that was also a relevant data point. 


So my personal opinion is fairly close to my child’s opinion. To be honest, a lot of things, when they are not appropriate or they are beyond the level of understanding, children have a great capacity to simply tune them out. Or they just get very bored. My child has tried to read my novels multiple times and I have been told that they are very boring. They’re not actually very boring! 


Kokila: They are not at all boring!


Jolene: But from the perspective of an eight-year-old, they are very boring. So I think things that are truly developmentally inappropriate will often get filtered out, because that’s just how it is. Children seek things that engage them and interest them. So my starting point would be to minimise interference. But at the same time, I think that there is a genuine concern about the possibility of consuming material that has messages that we may be concerned about. But I think that the best way to deal with this, if our concern is with developing our children as people, is to have an ongoing relationship of discussion and education in which these things can be contextualised and understood, rather than saying ‘No, this is so threatening that if you allow the words to touch your mind then everything will be polluted.’ Then I must take (it) away.

photo of the audience 

 

Kokila: So to have a relationship where the child will want to discuss what is in this book or those things with you? 


Jolene: Exactly! Even if they don’t discuss it, I mean honestly some of the things I read when I was 10 or 11 years old… So I got super into books by Robert Heinlein who’s this 1950s science fiction author. These kinds of boarding-school-on-Mars stories. But then after I exhausted all the boarding-school-on-Mars kinds of stories, I wandered over to the adult sections and some of the stuff in his books were about septuagenarian orgies and I just read it as an 11-year-old and I just thought, “.... this is new.” The information just kind of sits there, right? But it’s not necessarily threatening, it’s okay that the child comes to know that there are unusual or, at that time, seemingly inexplicable things or ideas in the world and it’s fine. Children will store it up and eventually make sense of it, and I think what I hope we can aim for as a society is to develop children’s ability to hold different things in their mind and make sense of them, rather than to get frightened as if just touching it will burn you.

 

(52:29)

Kokila: What are the implications of trying to shield Singaporean children from differences (for example, in dress, religion, sexuality etc) in order to “uphold our common spaces”?


Lune: Well, what you end up having is the society we have now, the society that can be very culturally inept, can be discursively inept (in my opinion) politically defanged, and just an entire society of amnesia.


This panel is motivated by the sort of events that happened in the “And Tango Makes Three” incident, that library book that was pulled out from the children’s section because it had gay penguins. Gay penguins created this big moral panic in Singapore. Eventually it was shifted to the adult section. You just end up with people deferring their political education to a much later age to the point where they don’t see the point of politics even then. You end up getting very moderate political thinking. Everyone’s just like, “you cannot have an agenda, you cannot have a bias, you cannot have a stake.” And then you have all these activists on the ground, and we’re like, “hello, we have agendas because we have stakes. Our survival is on the line here. Our material reality is on the line here.” And there’s nothing wrong with having a bias because what is essentially our biases for us are our stakes in society. And in a sense, so much of political and cultural education is just being deferred further and further until the child just settles into this sort of moderate mentality where politics is just “I’ll listen to the government la. The government knows what’s best for me, and I can’t say what’s best for myself.” 


And I also get reminded, the suppression of differences also happens in literature. I remember in class I was reading this book from the days of the Harlem Renaissance by this mulatto African writer, I forgot the name. It was talking about African-American families and their children, and back in the day when you’d see lynching on the TV and in the news, and in these books the children start asking what’s happening, this Black person is being killed. Then the parents in the book suppress it and all that. It becomes a point of discussion about why should you suppress this sort of violence from children? And there’s this tension because both parents in the book don’t agree on whether they should suppress it or not. And it really affects the sort of lived experiences of characters when they grow up and when they realise the politics around them and there are actually real things happening around them. 

 

And again, like you said, children can pick up on things. And as a child I remember picking up on a lot of things. There were these problems and I did not have the language to talk about it. I did not have the space to talk about it, because the space was restricted to a certain kind of language, to certain kinds of things that you can talk about. It results in a kind of repression. I don’t mean a psychoanalytical kind of repression necessarily; it could, but also just a general suppression and repression of political thinking, of cultural thinking, of being in this society of civil discourse. So much of what we have been doing in civil society, in activist spaces, is to undo all of this. We’re all adults and we realise how little civil society actually exists in the country. All this suppression of differences and suppression of information really snowballs away into this general apathetic, materialistic, goal-oriented society that we now live in. 


(57:44)

Kokila: Another question here. There are two questions with similar themes so I’ll ask them combined. So there’s this kind of anxiety around exposure that children have to regressive ideas or dangerous ideas or hate speech, you (Jolene) touched on that a little. But I think the question is asking about anxiety around, you know, the 16 year old who planned to attack a mosque, should those things make us concerned about what people read? And the other question that I think is related is how do we build capacity around discernment and, I’m assuming, media literacy? To discern positive and negative influences in literature and media et cetera that act on us, and do those things go together? Would the building of capacities would perhaps make, ideally, society and culture more confident generally in letting people read whatever they want because we have built capacity around discernment? 


Jolene: I think there’s a wider conversation which is not limited to children about curation, about what we choose to elevate for public attention and notice in an age of information overload, and this is also a question of editorial judgement. If I have a platform, if I have a publication, what do I try to bring to people’s attention? But even if we were to accept that there is that, it would still leave a very wide playing field of material that has various forms of value as well as various flaws. The idea that there is any material that is completely safe is also a questionable one, in my point of view. 


In a sense this question also connects to the earlier one about trying to hide differences, right, it’s interesting to me because as if children can be shielded from differences, as if your primary school children aren’t already going to school and hearing homophobic slurs and racist slurs that acknowledge differences that they can see, but there’s just an absence of maybe moral leadership in their lives or role modeling in their lives for someone to honestly acknowledge that there exists such discrimination and such differences, and to model the way to deal with it. 


What I would say is that when we take censorship as the answer to this, that approach in itself communicates something. It tells people that this is taboo, that this is something that we’re not going to talk about and moreover, we tell them that we do not trust their taste and their judgement and that we do not trust them to develop. And it is not as if when we expunge things from access that that happens invisibly. It often happens very visibly, and then it marks that thing out in a certain way. So if you take for example, “And Tango Makes Three”, being moved to the adult section is not just the same as making it available, it’s saying that this is something that’s inappropriate for young people to consume, which is in itself a signal, right? 


What I would say is that there’s nobody in the world whose judgement comes fully formed any more than physical coordination. Babies don’t learn to walk by adults holding them upright and moving their arms and legs and moving their torsos to make them perform the act of walking. They learn to walk by gradually going through exercises that they are themselves motivated to do because it’s innate to them, and then exercising their muscles, building those muscles, pulling things up, sometimes falling down, realising that you fall down if you do that, and gradually getting to the point where they can walk. There’s just no substitute for this; we cannot speed-train the baby into walking at two months, that’s not happening. And I would say that likewise there’s no substitute for encountering diversity in information and perspectives, and a richness of texture and content, and practicing the skill of prioritising, evaluating, filtering, and then having people around you with whom you can discuss your provisional judgement.

 

So something else that’s there is also my concern that we are very quick sometimes to freeze children and young people into an image that’s created of them. I think that we need to give them the gift of space, of making utter fools of themselves as we all did. Every single one of us has said some appalling thing that we now look back on and like, “how on earth could I have been so naive?” Because we didn’t know! We were still learning. And I think that’s the danger that you have to let children wear some of their actions lightly. They’re acting in what’s essentially an experimental manner, experimenting with identity, with voice, with social positioning, there’s a great danger that if you rush to grab and freeze and punish and calcify, then you actually stop them from ever being able to move out of that. And that’s not to say that they cannot cause harm, and they should know if they’ve caused harm, and maybe sometimes they need to be guided to repair harm that they have caused, but must let them make mistakes also la. 


Kokila: Lune, did you want to add anything to that? 


(1:03:46)

Lune: We know some of the questions that Koki was going to ask before the panel, and you wrote something about Amos Yee. And I got reminded of that whole thing with Amos and saw it unfold with my eyes. And actually, in his case back then in 2015, and now I’m just looking back, it really shows you how there is so little space. Also considering how his political beliefs and his social beliefs turned out in the present day, I don’t know if y’all know…


Kokila: Actually, his example to me feels like a pretty poignant... of the point you just made about the calcification of… like what would have happened to this boy if he was just allowed to say some silly things and some pretty thoughtful things on, you know, a provocative video like a 16-year-old does, and then didn’t become a criminal that the whole society persecuted in such contemptuous terms that was chilling for someone who was at the time we have to remember16. How much responsibility do we hold for then this identity being thrust upon him and the things he has gone on to believe and think and feel and position himself as in society? Like what would it have looked like if adults in the society had responded with compassion?

photo of Kokila (left) and Lune (right) speaking 

 

Lune: But there were adults who actually engaged with him. But it was definitely a very new thing, right? This young teenager is on such a public platform, and it was publicly known at least on social media that there were adults that were engaging him. If I have to say names, I remember artists like Alfian Sa’at engaging him, religious people like -- 


Kokila: Yeah there were a lot of people in terms of civil society individuals who were engaging him. But then when the state sanctioned… that is the symbol of the society of the adults responding to him.


Lune: I’m sure the people engaging him knew how to engage him in a way that was critical, actually, and not something that was about agendas. I mean I already said that agendas are not necessarily a bad thing, but again, I felt like it was possible that they did manage to give him that space when they engaged with him, because his reaction to that sort of reaching out was not a very good reaction. He was quite upset and disagreeable with the sort of things that they were trying to tell him.


Jolene: Who can say what was going on inside his head? I would tend to lean towards kind of looking through the lens that Kokila mentioned that there were some adults who were trying to engage him in a more positive way, but no amount of a few thoughtful individualswho, by the way, are themselves not regarded as particularly mainstream in Singapore societyhow can that possibly be weightier and more influential than the full force of law and the complete demonization in the media and on social media, plus then being frozen in place is this posture of criminality and outrageousness. I’m not saying that he would definitely not have done any bad things later. Maybe he would have.

 

I just absolutely don’t think we helped matters, and that was definitely a case where I just don’t think that the initial conviction was on things that actually caused any harm. Like when you look at the judgement on the count of obscenity which was for this line drawing that he posted of a cartoon of Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher engaged in an act of intimacy, the court’s judgement was that apparently the harm caused included reasoning such as that looking at this line drawing of Margaret Thatcher and Lee Kuan Yew might encourage children or minors to experiment sexually. I mean this line of reasoning, I’m sorry, is only convincing to some alien species who has only ever reproduced by cloning, and then “oh, what is sex? Come, let us see.” I’m sorry, nobody would take that seriously!


Kokila: Also, there’s so many terrible things that people do all the time in the world, and yet it is this child that was slapped outside court for making a silly video. And also, to me the image of him, at that time a child still, in shackles, in court, while all these adults were grandstanding around him about the consequences of this on our culture and society is just so symbolic, I think, more broadly of how we view children.


Lune: Again, my point of bringing up those adults that engaged him was that some of them were trying to frame him into thinking in a certain way. Which again boils down to… it’s not just the disciplinary mechanisms of law, and everything getting conflated into public and the private, there’s just this complete lack of political discursive spaces in the first place. We don’t know how to deal with a teen who says things like that. We don’t know how to engage him with that critical propensity. And the fact that whatever he did in this context was something that a lot of people would have done as well. But the fact that he was a teen, it became a big hoo-ha and so much spotlight was on him, it was a spectacle, and this is not the way to create discourse and discussion.


(1:10:30)

Kokila: And in fact I think the spectacle of him was as damaging as the state sanctions and the legal sanctions, for sure. Okay so we’re out of time, but can I ask one tiny last question that I feel is not so doom and gloomy? Because I feel like everything’s been very doom and gloomy. I was curious about whether you have thoughts around what it would look like to include children’s voices more in conversations that concern them? That’s a lot of things, but like at the level of families, school, community, what does it look like to start moving in those directions and the directions of, if we believe children deserve access to more both information and also platforms to speak or write without censorship right? What do you think could be things that the people who are invested in the welfare of children and in caring for them can do?


Jolene: This sounds very woo-woo, but it’s related to what I said earlier about how children are masters of sensing your judgement. They can always tell if you are secretly judging them. It’s just to shift the way you think. To stop applying labels like “well-behaved”, “good girl/good boy”, “badly-behaved”, and start thinking in terms of, when you interact with children, what are your needs and objectives, trying to ascertain their needs and objectives, and try and mutually find a solution together. And I think that that should be the starting mindset for carers and people involved in interacting with children and educators and everybody else. Now, part of the problem is that sometimes it’s very hard; you’re in a rush, you need to get out of the door, we need to go, we’re going to be late, no you cannot sit here and spend the next 15 minutes deciding on what socks to wear, no it’s not okay! So part of this involves slowing down. Life has to be slower. And so I think that, going back to what I said earlier, just kind of not having such enormous burdens on children in terms of schoolwork would be a massive step. Because once you do that, that gives the breathing room to everybody who’s involved in their lives to calm it down a bit without there being these high stakes of “but then you will fail your exams,” or whatever. 


Lune: I mean mine is very direct I guess. The thing that’s coming to my mind right now is that well, and especially as a kid growing up in Singapore, I usually want to be treated like an adult, actually. You should treat children like an adult, but also understand how to be able to guide them but not to frame them, to guide them, and if need be, to question certain presuppositions, question certain assumptions that they might be having. In a sense just generate that criticality and to question certain things. But also to expose them that there are people going through these things as well, and care, talking about stories that are real, stories of people who are suffering, of people who are trying to heal, and these are very important things that you should be discussing with children around you, and in a sense, don’t infantilise their discourses.

 

They can pick up things, they are learning a lot of things already, and what you should be giving them is sincerely what you know, and to be critical about it, because children and teenagers will generally say a lot of problematic things, and this is why on a space like Twitter, you have a lot of teens who say a lot of problematic things because they think it’s very funny. But also they don’t really have the space to talk about these things to anyone in a critical manner, in a manner that has criticality and nuance and… but then again not everyone is an adult also so I guess that might be hard, sometimes we don’t have time. Sometimes I don’t even have time to talk to younger trans people than me who are teenagers who are really very young. But we still have to find ways to care for them, and with care also comes criticality. 


Kokila: And I guess the thing that comes up for me from what both of you were saying is also having a deep, basic sense of respect for them as persons in the world. Seems very woo-woo but also very foundational and how that shapes so many other things and this idea of letting children grow up and say problematic things and make mistakes and how that pushing of boundaries is part of identity formation and exploration and play. How it’s so much more high-stakes and criminalised when it’s working class children is also something that weighs very heavily on us as a society, I think. That some children can experiment a lot more than other children can and so whether it’s parents policing, which happens across different cultures and structures, or schools policing, there’s this additional extremely high-stakes intervention of the state policing and police and prisons policing young people.


And I’m also thinking about, as kind of a summary thought, going back full-circle to the earlier idea of what does it mean to both regard a group as vulnerable and deserving of protection but no less worthy of respect and dignity and voice and participation? And how do we create new ways of engagement with that in mind? I’m reminded of things like how civil society groups are doing consultations with children and young people through Telegram or platforms where they can be anonymous, and yet participate and then these things are taken into consideration in whatever reports or recommendations are put out. So that to me are examples of these creative reimaginations that hold both of these realities concurrently.


Lune: But again, we definitely need to create spaces that are probably semi-public that really allow them to show what they want to do or what they want to think, and to be able to have them engage each other as well. We need to create these spaces and not police them so much. 


Kokila: And especially because so much of the literature points to how young people learn most from each other, and it’s peers and having free spaces for peers to come together and talk about things. 


Okay, thank you everybody for bearing with us!


Jennifer: Maybe we can give another round of applause to the panelists! And just to wrap up, I think y’all have said some very interesting things so I think those here and those at home may want to follow you for your work, so maybe you can just let people know where to find you or what work you’re doing right now that you want to shout out? So they can continue following your stuff.


Jolene: Ethos has just published my second novel After the Inquiry! If anybody else is interested, you can find it on the Ethos website or at bookshops!


Kokila: Also, just to add to that, a lot of Jolene’s work that is being talked about is the things that are recent. But there is this short story Jolene wrote for the Manchester Review that’s actually my favourite of her writings. It’s a very poignant story around childhood. It’s called “A Good Visit”, and it’s published by The Manchester Review. You can find it online. I think it spoke to the very hurt child in me, so it is a good book for people with painful childhoods also. 


For my work… you can follow me on Facebook I guess?

Jolene: I think you can mention TJC, since you were talking about…  


Kokila: One of the things I spend a lot of my time on now is the Transformative Justice Collective, and we’re doing work around first understanding and demystifying the carceral system in Singapore, and exploring alternatives to policing and prisons in the form of restorative and transformative justice mechanisms. And we also have a project on juvenile justice where we’re trying to map out the juvenile justice landscape in Singapore and how it works and what the different forms of intervention are in young people’s lives in that form.


The other thing that I spend a lot of my time on is working with young people in community settings around also restorative and community-based responses to harm and concerns in their community. Okay, that’s all.


Lune: I don’t have any organisations I’m in that are specifically child-focused, but you can add me on Facebook and Instagram, just search Lune Loh. Just drop me a message about where you’re from and how you know me and I’ll gladly accept your friend request or follow you back on Instagram. Another thing is my writing is on my wordpress at lune.city  (I pay for that domain.)


You can also find my writing collective. S@BER (stop @ bad end rhymes) on Facebook. We are a bunch of writers from 18-30, a young poetry collective, and we put our published works up there, so you can follow that and get a bit of Singlit out of it.


Activist-wise, you can follow Students for Safer NUS, we deal with sexual violence on campus. I’m one of the co-founders of Students for Safer NUS. On Instagram we are @safe.nus, and we are trying to focus on the issue of sexual violence on campus, and hopefully we can spread to the younger institutions and tertiary institutions to create movements there. You can definitely follow us. Yeah that’s it.

 

📚 

 About Meeting in the Middle 

Meeting in the Middle is an annual women-led conversation organised by Ethos Books since 2017 as part of International Women's Day. These conversations focus on various intersections of identities, expertise and literature. 

 

About the panel

Jolene Tan is a writer whose fiction includes her newest release After the Inquiry published by Ethos Books, and the novel A Certain Exposure and a children's picture book, Saturday's Surprisingly Super-Duper Lesson, both published by Epigram Books. She has written numerous non-fiction articles, principally on equality and human rights, for publications such as New Naratif, The Online Citizen, CNA and The Straits Times.

Lune Loh is a core member of /S@BER, a Singaporean writing collective, and is currently an Undergraduate at the National University of Singapore. Her works have appeared in SOFTBLOW, Cha, Cordite Poetry Review, as well as SingPoWriMo issues from 2017 – 2019. 

 

About the moderator

Kokila Annamalai is a community organiser, researcher and writer based in Singapore. She has worked with young people on the margins for much of the past 12 years. This includes young people in conflict with the law, LGBTQ youth, and children from low-income families. She works in solidarity with progressive youth organisations and cares about transforming the structures and narratives that disenfranchise children and young people in Singapore society.

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