My first book, The Singapore I Recognise: Essays on home, community and hope, was officially launched on 1 September, somewhere between the polls closing and the presidential election results coming out.
I had a great conversation with Teo You Yenn, author of This Is What Inequality Looks Like. As is always the case with these things, there wasn't enough time to answer all the questions that were asked, but because they were mostly asked via sli.do we managed to keep the list even after the event—so I'm answering them here!
I've grouped them into broad categories for a better flow.
You mentioned that your family was the 'ideal family'. How do you reconcile that you have less to complain about than those that didn't benefit from the system?
I’ve been so, so lucky. But it’s not enough for me to be fortunate; I want others in Singapore to also be able to thrive and live full and fulfilling lives. I’m a big believer in the saying “no one is free until everyone is free”, and I think that applies to many contexts. We aren’t doing well as a society until everyone is able to do well.
What does it feel like to have the PAP obsessed with you? honestly you’re living rent-free in their head SLAY QUEEN
LOL the price is right but the neighbours are terrible
What gives you hope for the future of Singapore?
The people! I’m constantly reminded of how many people really care about Singapore and the communities they’re in, and are trying their best to find ways to contribute and make things better. This is a spirit that can’t be easily crushed. As the saying goes, “They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.”
Being the rather anti-establishment figure that you are, how do you engage with establishment figures/forces?
I feel like I have fewer and fewer opportunities to engage with establishment figures, maybe I am becoming more and more 'radioactive' now? But if I do have the opportunity, I can only put forth my position—I can’t force anyone to change their minds or do anything they don’t want to do.
Any pressures from loved ones to stop doing what you do?
My parents are great because they respect my choices regardless of whether they agree. Even as a kid I was given latitude to make my own choices: about what schools I wanted to apply to, what I wanted to study in university, etc. Now, as an adult, they tell me that as long as I’ve thought about it and am willing to be responsible for my choices then they’ll respect what I choose to do, and what they can do to help is make sure I don’t starve to death or become homeless in the process 😅
Where do you foresee yourself in 20–30 years time? How do you plan to stay relevant (especially with the younger folks) even when you become old?
In 20–30 years’ time, I hope I won’t be doing the same things that I’m doing right now. I’m not saying this because I want to quit, but just from the very practical perspective of assuming that it would be quite tiring—I’m already finding things tiring as a 30-something that I was happily doing as a 20-something. 😅 I hope—assume—that there will be younger people stepping forward to organise and lead, and I can do more supportive things from wherever I am, like feed people. (I don’t know how to cook or bake. But maybe I will have learnt by the time I’m 50.) I would still like to keep writing if I can, but I want to be one voice among many many! And importantly, I want to continue holding space for others.
One more thing: when I am an old auntie, if I ever stand up during a Q&A and say, “I don’t have a question, I just want to make a comment”, I give permission for someone to shoot me with a (mild) tranquilliser dart after one minute. Just remember to send me home after.
Writing and journalism
What drives you to continue writing despite all the risks of persecution?
I really believe it’s important to hold on to the little space that we have—if everyone opted for silence then we’d end up normalising this silence and ceding the space. So I want to keep writing not just because I enjoy writing, but also because I feel like it’s something I can do to hold on to space and demonstrate that this is possible!
What difficulties/considerations/dilemmas did you have when writing this book?
I think there’s a difference between criticism and airing personal grievances, and I definitely wanted it to be the former and not the latter, even though, like everyone else, I will have my personal gripes from time to time. Gripes can be vented in friend chat groups and opinions can change, but I wanted the critique in the book to be more thoughtful than just complaining and also to address more fundamental issues that can be relevant to a wider range of people or groups. I put a lot of thought into trying to strike the balance between not pulling punches and being even-handed.
How do you juggle between writing balanced and fair journalism while expressing your opinions?
I don’t buy into the journalistic mantra of “objectivity”. I don’t believe anyone can be truly objective because how we see and understand the world is so coloured by our own backgrounds and experiences. But that’s different from saying that journalists can’t be balanced and fair; I think that’s basic professionalism. I try to be as transparent and open as I can, so people can see where I’m coming from. For example, I don’t do straight news reporting on the death penalty, because I don’t think I’m the right journalist to do that. When I write about the death penalty, I write personal essays or commentary where I make it clear to the reader that I’m an anti-death penalty activist.
In a NPR podcast, someone said that balanced reporting supports the status quo and establishment. What is your view on this?
It really depends on how “balanced” is defined. There are times in journalism where this fixation on “balance”, without sufficient awareness or analysis of power or evidence, ends up presenting false equivalences because journalists insist on showing “both sides” even when one side might actually be talking complete nonsense. An over-reliance on officials and authority can also lead to supposedly “balanced” reporting that actually favours the status quo or the establishment. And of course there are many cases in which the media outlet itself is part of the establishment in terms of the social circles that the editors or journalists move it, or the editorial slant of the publication. It’s really context dependent and that’s why media literacy is so important.
How was your experience working with your publisher Ethos. And was Ethos the only publisher who would have agreed to publish your book?
I only talked to Ethos about my book! From the very beginning they seemed like the best fit for a book like this, and I know the team at Ethos and trusted that they would approach this with the care and love that they’ve since demonstrated, over and beyond what I had expected. We actually worked on so much trust that it was only after I submitted the close-to-final manuscript (i.e. we’d already done a couple of rounds of editing) that I was like “erm is there an actual contract-contract we should be signing?” and we were all like “😲 oh yah hor!” I can imagine all the lawyers reading this thinking “wah jialat these people” but it was really because we trusted each other and collaborated well and it all turned out well in the end.
Civil society and action
What resources and skills do you think are most sorely needed by civil society right now?
All sorts! There’s almost always a shortage of resources in civil society, and different groups have different needs. For example, with the Transformative Justice Collective that I’m part of, because of the issues that we work on, it’s always useful to have lawyers (or people who are legally trained). More generally, it’s always helpful to have people who can help produce content and manage social media channels for outreach, people who can step up to help with coordination and event organising... Honestly, as long as you take some initiative, are reliable and show up to get work done, there’ll always be a space in civil society for you!
(Also, if you have a car and can drive things/people around—especially when there are events on—you’ll be quite popular.)
Do you think we need more formal spaces in Singapore for civic activities, and how do you think we can move to creating these spaces?
Yes, space is always important, and can be very difficult to find. There’s a lack of independent spaces that are willing to host civil society activities that might be seen as more “radical” or “politically sensitive”. We need more spaces that we can count on. Unfortunately space is so expensive in Singapore. Someone rich buy activists a building please 😭
How do I get into these groups to volunteer as a vote counter?
Around the general election period, opposition parties might post on social media platforms about needing volunteers for various things, including to be polling agents or counting agents (which is not the same thing as being a vote counter, the people who actually count are election officers who are trained for it). Or, if you’re not seeing these notices but would like to get involved, you can try contacting the parties and asking whether they need more polling or counting agents; in my experience, they usually do! The only party that is generally covered for these things are the PAP—everyone else is trying to make do with what they have in a very short period of time. In 2011, my mother and I signed up to be counting agents for the Singapore Democratic Party just hours before the counting actually started, because they were still struggling to get enough volunteers to cover all the counting centres. Elections are really resource intensive, so volunteers are very much appreciated. The way I see it, you don’t even need to be a supporter of that party to volunteer to be a polling or counting agent; those roles are not about campaigning for any party, they’re about ensuring the integrity of the process.
How do you think solidarity amongst civil society has changed over the years? For the better or worse?
I don’t know if I can speak for all civil society—different people will have different experiences—but for me I feel like it’s got better! I feel like we’ve learnt from collective experience and are getting better at looking out for each other, talking through challenges and concerns, and supporting one another in making intentional decisions.
What does sustainable activism look like in Singapore? How do we support sustainability?
Ongoing support from the public is really important, be it financial support for operations or volunteering. We need as many people involved as possible, because the more people there are involved, the more opportunity and space there is for individuals to take a step back and rest when necessary. Burn-out is a common problem in civil society, and often people push themselves to power through because they’re worried that there isn’t anyone else to do the work. So if we want sustainable activism, we’re also going to need to create conditions in which people can step out of activism from time to time to catch their breath.
In light of pragmatic resistance, what specific battles are you de-prioritising/KIV at the moment?
One example that comes to mind is the Transformative Justice Collective’s ongoing campaign, #StopTheKilling. It’s a campaign calling for a moratorium on executions, pending an independent and transparent review of the death penalty in Singapore. Obviously TJC is an abolitionist group that wants the death penalty to be abolished completely. But for #StopTheKilling we decided to focus on calling for a moratorium as a first step—as opposed to demanding abolition right away—because we felt that it would be more accessible to a wide range of people first, since not everyone might have fully made up their minds about capital punishment but would be open to a halt in executions for now. It’s okay if people haven’t figured out whether they support abolition or not. With #StopTheKilling we want to create space for conversations and reflection that’s open to as wide a range of people as possible, and not alienate/frighten/put off people who aren’t ready to take as big a step as abolition at this point. I see this as a form of pragmatic resistance that’s intentional and thought out.
If the ambassador moves in very different circles (e.g. Ridout Rd) and not marginalised youth, isn't “recognition” actually inequality in Singapore part two?
Yes, I think inequality is a big part of this question of “recognition”! Wealth and privilege can’t do everything, but it can do a lot to insulate people from the aspects of Singapore that are harsh, punitive and unpleasant.
Given everything that we’ve seen over the past few years/weeks/days, do you think that Singapore’s political system would be susceptible to a fascist takeover?
The most troubling thing to me is that, if a right-wing, fascist were to come to power in Singapore, we don’t have sufficient guardrails in our institutions and processes to protect us against their worst. So many of our laws don’t have adequate checks and balances, and grants too much power and discretion to whoever is in government at the time. The way things are set up now, we really don’t have much to restrain a rogue government.
About how Kirsten was POFMA’ed: what’s stopping people from making anonymous guesses to what’s happening on death row and using POFMA to figure out what’s real?
The problem with this strategy is that often even after you get POFMA-ed you still don’t get data. Like when they issued POFMA orders against claims about Ho Ching’s salary, but we still don’t know what Ho Ching’s salary was. Then kena POFMA for nothing very not worth it…
What are the top few things you are most concerned about looking at Singapore’s political landscape right now?
I worry that we have a political culture that is so thin-skinned and fragile that people can get greylisted, blacklisted or sidelined for even mild criticism or dissent. That people who have vision or ideas—which would by nature lead to and require some level of dissent, conflict and discussion—will either be marginalised or get fed up and leave for greener pastures, and that decision-makers will increasingly be left with yes-people and group thinkers. This isn’t good for Singapore at any point, but in the long-run it makes us more brittle and complacent, and less able to respond to both global and local developments with imagination and conviction.
Do you think that the culture of censorship is maintained mainly by the government? Or by other (potentially illiberal) parts of society?
I think the government sets the tone, especially in this context where the same party has formed successive governments for so many years, to the point where things are normalised and entrenched. So that’s also led to a population that is uncomfortable with difference and conflict, which makes us prone to policing one another. While I think there are certainly segments that are more intolerant and policing than others, I think we all have a responsibility to undo a culture of censorship!
What is the Singapore you hope to recognise in the foreseeable future? If there’s one most important wish you have for Singapore in the next 50 years, what would it be?
I wish we could move away from a punitive culture in which many of us are operating from baselines of fear or anxiety. Not just anxiety about political oppression, but about failure, about making ends meet, about being seen by society as “deserving” or “worthy”. I would really like us to become a gentler, more open society that recognises and celebrates diversity, and creates space for people to lead fulfilling lives as themselves and not who they are expected to be.
What current political problems would the government have an easier time solving if they read your book?
One thing that I’ve thought for a long time is that even if the PAP were to ease up on the oppression and allow more space for freedom of expression and assembly and the exercising of our political rights, they might not actually fall out of power (not right away, anyway). For the most part the party does enjoy support and trust from large segments of the population; it’s not as if the oppression is the only thing that’s keeping them in power. Sure, they might not get landslide wins like they want, but I suspect that, even if they were more open and respected people’s right to dissent and speak out and engage in activism, they wouldn’t immediately get kicked out. I hope that, if any senior PAP person reads my book, they learn to stop treating criticism and dissent as enemy threats. We’ll be better off that way. (But I’m not holding my breath…)
Could you speak more about lack of freedom of information/expression and the Singapore education system and if more activism should be focused on introducing reforms to education?
The lack of freedoms of information and expression might not immediately seem like “bread and butter” concerns but they have a real impact on how we understand socio-political issues and how we engage with one another on matters that impact our lives. Of course it doesn’t mean that these rights are the silver bullet to all of our problems, but they are key to the processes of navigation and negotiation that are part and parcel of democracy.
I definitely think more activism could focus on reforming education. And by “more activism” I don’t mean that civil society should switch focus from some of the issues we’re currently working on to work on education; I mean that more Singaporeans, especially those with experience and expertise in education, should come forward and organise.
Resources and recommendations
Besides your newsletter and book 😉, what other resources would you recommend to apolitical friends?
I think theatre and literature are fantastic entry points for people who might find many of these political issues new or intimidating, or have the impression that they are dry and boring. So many of our theatre companies in Singapore are doing marvellous work. Drama Box has an ongoing project in Cassia Crescent. I’m really looking forward to W!LD RICE’s G*d Is A Woman. (I haven’t been to the theatre much this year so I’m missing a lot!)
I also recommend Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency, and Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novels Inheritance and Now You See Us. There are definitely more, it’s just that I haven’t had time to read/watch/listen—I’m looking forward to reading Myle Yan Tay’s catskull and Rachel Heng’s The Great Reclamation. These are all great entry points to start thinking about issues about Singapore. And then when your friends are ready (or caught unawares), you hit them with the writing of Cherian George and Michael Barr and Jothie Rajah’s The Authoritarian Rule of Law. 😈
Which Stray Kids song inspired you the most while writing this book and why?
I got into K-pop while writing this book! K-pop works for me when I write because I started finding it even harder to focus if I was listening to English songs while trying to write in English, like trying to keep track of two conversations at the same time.
I could be here for a really long time recommending Stray Kids songs—there are so many songs that I love, Stray Kids is my true passion—so here are some highlights:
Maniac, because this was the first Stray Kids MV I watched as I was going down the rabbit hole. And also I went to their Maniac tour concert in Singapore and it was the best night ever.
Mixtape: OH, because I just love this song a whole lot, I can listen to it over and over.
God’s Menu, because du-du-du-du-du-du. Also, "ne sonim!"
Waiting For Us, because I’m a sucker for ballads. This is probably the closest, genre-wise, to the sort of music I listened to before I got into Stray Kids and K-pop.
Limbo, because it has dominated my playlist ever since it dropped.
Awkward Silence, because this song (and the choreo!) is just cute AF. It was a happy thing to listen to while writing and editing grim things. And now also a happy note to end this long post on!