Stephanie and the Very Spatial Awareness

Today’s adventures in Southeast Asian writers festivals feature two panels from UWRF, one from SWF, and a broad look at the idea of the construction of space and borders in cities and minds.

Previously on Festivals:

I love talking about space. Though I came to Singapore to look at traditional culture and how that impacts with climate change and sustainability education, and how it shapes communication, somehow that’s become for me a whole lot of conversations on space. On the construction of space, and how we sit in space, and how we use space and how space comes to shape us and define us.

One thing I’ve noticed as I move in the spaces created by Singapore is the ways in which space is very clearly delineated. Specific areas are almost always used for specific habits and tasks. A park is not a free space for a variety of activities, it’s got clearly stated elements. (It’s not used for picnicking, unless you’re foreign, for example, or it’s a specific park, like the Botanical Gardens. I never see Singaporeans picnicking in random grassed areas.) A void deck underneath a HDB or condo, which in Australia would be a place of constant socialising, picnicking, and sporting, is more limited in its use in Singapore. Skate parks are only for skaters (or skateboarders).

I’m morbidly fascinated by Hong Lim Park, the only space where one can protest in Singapore. Foreigners aren’t allowed in the park when protesting is going on, and protests must be registered in advance. As such, when Singapore held a Black Lives Matter solidarity rally, I was told, the actual black people were, for the most part, restricted to staying outside of the park.

I’m fascinated by this park, but I’ve bought into this idea of space for specific uses, too, because I realised, as I went past recently, that there’s a community centre in the park, and gazebos, and a car park. The park isn’t only used for registered protests; it’s used for other things, too, and I can’t believe in such a short time I’ve been trapped by the ideas by which I’m surrounded.

There are issues around the ownership of public space, and a barrier in the mind that tells one that a space can’t be used. Some of the work I’ve been doing and the discussions I’ve been having have been around this. There are definitely class issues at play, and racial and ethnic issues, but there are other things at play, too. There’s education, and the ways in which the nation state encourages these barriers around how residents view and use spaces.

SWF: The City and I

Loh Guan Liang, Aaron Lee, Clara Chow, mod Zhang Ruihe

In writing about the city and its spaces, how do writers create works that capture and transcend the humdrum of everyday life? Join these writers as they share their observations of living in a city and the ways that urban architecture and spaces have influenced their works.

This was a great panel! So many interesting things to discuss and think about. I forgot to take notes about who said what, so this little summary is just my thoughts mixed with my notes, and I apologise to anyone from the panel whose words I’ve stolen.

Good citizenship makes you want to ask permission before you use a space, which I think is totally consistent with my experience in Singapore so far. But from whom are people asking permission?

A city is about spatial negotiation, and people occupy space in various ways. But Singaporeans are always negotiating spaces, even just down to the micro in terms of using public transport. I forgot to take notes, but Clara gave an anecdote about when she was promoting something, she asked permission everywhere that she tried to publicise it, including on the community noticeboard on her flats. She feels grateful, she said, when she gets permission to do a thing.

The design of cities shapes how we behave. Singapore is a city of defensive architecture, of seats you can’t sleep in, open areas you can’t congregate in, spaces where you can’t sit down.

I spent a week recently negotiating Singapore with my mother, a thing I’ve been doing my whole life, but she needs to sit more often, now, and it’s difficult in Singapore. I made her sit on staircases and retaining walls far more often than she might in Australia, just because there’s often no seats. We’d walk through shopping centres with wide open areas and comment on how, in Australia, there’d be couches and benches there, places to pause and make the experience (of shopping – a thing Singapore wants us to do!) more comfortable and inviting.

I think sometimes of Curtin University, where I got my Masters, and how it was specifically designed in the 1970s as a campus with spaces too small for students to gather and protest; but after three years there, I know exactly the spaces I’d subvert and protest in.

It is in this way that cities shape social actions and habits. You can’t invite someone in if you have a grill on your door; it’s harder to have a chat with your neighbour if the hallways go along the exterior instead of meeting in the middle.

Singapore is a dissonant city, and one that’s changing in its spaces. One of the speakers used the example of the Esplanade. The top level is world class entertainment; below ground is a carved out, hard space. There are no seats and benches, and it’s used as a thoroughfare. But here people sleep (and are often chased out); sometimes there are skaters, and sometimes the space is echoing and empty.

Singaporeans don’t get that endless horizon, infinite space, both geographically and in the mind, and it has a wider impact on Singaporeans as a people. A nation can reclaim land and build islands, but ultimately Singaporeans are still trapped by the limits placed by the concept of being a little red dot.

The ways in which I’ve seen this play out in my research and in my time in Singapore is incredibly noticeable. Climate change action can’t occur, people have told me, because Singapore has no impact. In a later post I’ll be talking about environmental panels I attended, and the CEO of WWF-Singapore spoke about the low consumer consciousness which is, in part, from this idea that Singapore has no influence over things. Singaporeans have no influence over the haze coming from Indonesia, therefore can’t do anything but complain when the haze comes through.

Miscellaneous bits:

  • The moderator asked if Scandinavian countries have huge writing and reading cultures because of their cold dark winters? I love this idea, it’s fun.
  • An audience question: The way we’re shaped by the city should be awful but it isn’t; is that about difference, and the fear of difference? I don’t know the answer to that.
  • The city shapes us to have a public face and a private face whereas old kampungs maybe everyone knew everyone’s business and only had one face
  • Control is synonymous in Singapore with efficiency
  • In Singapore, if trains fail, it’s the Land Transport Authority not having control; in Melbourne, if the trains fail, it’s about Metro’s incompetence and inability to succeed. I laughed as I thought this, all the way out the door.

UWRF: Thinking Without Borders

Çiler Ilhan, Agustinus Wibowo, Voranai Vanijaka

Shorelines, state lines, party lines and cultural chasms – the forces that divide us can sometimes feel stronger than those that unite us. In a time of mass migration and mass communication, how can and should we think about borders?

This was a fantastic panel and I loved all three panelists. They all had thoughtful, interesting things to say about borders. I’ve included it here because I think borders is a good (“good”) continuation after talking about the restrictions placed on our minds through the construction of the city.

Çiler talked about the erosion of borders through spirituality and the internet simultaneously with the tightening of physical borders. She said it was understandable that a country doesn’t want unknown people in its borders, and Agustinus agreed borders are for our own protection. I didn’t agree with it at the time, and I guess I don’t really agree with it now.

It feels really different to be thinking about this panel in the week after the US election, and also in the days since the lifetime ban on refugees passed Australia’s House of Reps.

Anyway, Agustinus talked about visiting borders to understand borders, and used the example of the Kazakstan-Uzbekistan border, which is arbitrary and enforced and requires a visa and strict restrictions, even when the border passes literally through someone’s house.

On the borders of the mind, Çiler spoke about how she thought social media has made gen y more sympathetic to border crossings and permeable borders – the implication was ‘than older generations’. As a member of that generation, I can’t really agree. She also spoke about unseen borders in our minds, and how that exists in Turkey.

There was a thread of post-colonialism through these discussions, which was great (and which I’ve discussed a little already). Agustinus spoke about borders as imposed by white people thousands of kilometres away, and the creation of religious borders, especially through social media, that leads people to be like ‘this is mine, you can’t judge me.’ The borders of the mind are the most dangerous, Agustinus said later, because of the implications for enforcement and border creation. Voranai mentioned that conflicts come in part from fear of rapid change and tension of challenges to identity (eg, multiculturalism).

Part of challenging these borders means teaching students in Asia how to think and question (said Voranai).

The three of them spoke about travel writing. Agustinus writes about borders and boundaries, not resorts. Çiler wishes travel writers would never open a story with ‘Indonesia is a country with 1079 islands.”

UWRF: The Self and I

Kamila Shamsie, Amanda Lee Koe, Arung Wardhana Ellhafifie, Çiler Ilhan, and my least favourite moderator of UWRF, Adam Breasley

Is there any bigger question than the question of self? What shapes our identity? Writers from Indonesia, Singapore, Pakistan and Turkey debate how ‘self’ comes into being – from nature v. nurture, to education, geography and imagination.

This session opened with Arung talking about how, as a researcher, Arung expects himself to be able to break free of the violence in Madura identity politics. It’s so important that we are able to be our own researchers in our spaces and become experts on ourselves.

I have a LOT of feels about this. So often there’s this sense that there needs to be a western/white moderator, some regional ‘expert’, to be the expert or the objective opinion. For so many of us, that is colonialist bullshit, and it’s perpetuated everywhere.

This session had some nice crossover with the borders panel when Ciler talked about how it’s easier to control populations when they’re the same, and Kamila pointed out that when people feel like they’re not being adequately represented in what’s being written, this is how demagogues rise. A too rigid fixing of the self and identity gets in the way of one living in a more fluid space. Amanda continued this, noting that being born into late stage capitalism gives us the illusion of lots of choices, but perhaps that leads to a rigidity of self, because the choices we make aren’t real choices. As writers we’re discomfited by the idea of the rigid self, when really you want to make boundaries more hazy.

Amanda spoke about how in Singapore one doesn’t get a chance to have spatial imagination (FULL CIRCLE). The types of people who could have been public intellectuals are sucked into high paying business roles, because that’s how the nation and education works. But public intellectuals aren’t all of it – Kamila spoke about how we put too high a premium on education. It doesn’t in and of itself confer any sort of moral values or enlightenment. There are many without educations who have less rigid ways of thinking.

It’s valuable to think about this rigidity, I think. The idea that the ways in which we’re shaped and constrained are reinforced by the cities in which we find ourselves, and the borders we impose upon ourselves and which are imposed upon us.

(In Perth, to be independent and functional is to own a car. In Perth, we drive cars everywhere because the city is designed that way; it’s unthinkable to be a person without a car, because a car makes one a resident of Perth. One doesn’t choose to catch a bus, or a train; that choice is imposed upon us and we’d rather be in a car. When I explain to Perth acquaintances that, now I live in Melbourne, I don’t own a car, there is a shock and a disbelief there. But my cousins in Singapore – not a one of them drives, including the one with two children. The city supports collective transport. That’s a way in which our cities have shaped us.)

(Why this moderator was bad: although he started with Arung, incidentally the only Indonesian on the panel and also the darkest of skin, the moderator ignored him for about 40 minutes and had his back to him the entire time. Awful visual from a white man with a dark Indonesian man on one side and three lighter skinned women on the other side. No moderator should be in the middle in this way. Arung had an interpreter but so did many other people, one panel had literally three panelists each with a moderator and it never felt like this.)

Further Reading: