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NUS Press and Covid-19 April 2, 2020 17:50
We are happy to announce that we are open for self-collection of online orders again!
In the interest of minimising contact, our customers can collect their orders made on the NUS Press website from Monday to Friday between 2:00pm to 4:30pm only. As usual, please wait for an email from us letting you know that your order is ready for pick-up before you come down to our office. Do make sure to check in by scanning the QR code pasted on our door using the TraceTogether app.
Remembering Ann Wee December 12, 2019 18:31
We received the news on December 11th that Ann Wee had passed away that day, aged 93. She was last in the office a few weeks earlier to chat about the sequel she was writing to her 2017 memoir with NUS Press, A Tiger Remembers.
Ann was a cheerful and inspiring presence to all of us at the press. More than being a delightful author to work with, and a frequent attendee of our book launches and events, she was an inspiring model of how to live: seeking to cross cultural borders, moving out of her comfort zone, first observing carefully, then seeking to help, rarely judging, always ready to learn. An Older Person With Attitude, she was the very opposite of preachy:
“When some elderly person claims that, by virtue of his being old he also has wisdom to share, run for cover. He is almost guaranteed to be on the verge of bombarding you with his opinions, which by virtue of his immodest claim, you can be almost certain will be a collection of personal biases and prejudice.
”I have said ‘he’, and it is true that I have met this more often in older men. But what of the occasional older woman with this self delusion? Watch out! She has the Queen Bee Syndrome, and the rest of us in that hive had better stop buzzing around and listen....”
Ann had a presence for sure, but she was was never Queen Bee.
When asked about her memoir, I am apt to say that it is the single best book I know for appreciating Singapore’s transformation over the last 60 years. That might be quite a claim for such a slim and personal volume. Ann certainly knew the statistics and policy narratives of Singapore’s astounding economic development, of its journey from Third World to First. But the stories she tells in her book are stories of people, within their families and social circles, among their colleagues, sometimes in life crisis, sometimes just dealing with the complications of life, work, family or bureaucracy. Hearing these stories is to understand what better education, better health care, better living conditions, expanded opportunity and social change really mean. It yields a far more powerful insight than the one that comes from marveling over Singapore’s changing skyline, impressive as it is.
The single passage of A Tiger Remembers I most admire is Ann’s dedication. Here she does make a judgement, she lets us know what is important to her. You might be tempted to interpret this as a conservative sentiment, even traditional: yet notice how it is tempered with a deep and seemingly so natural understanding of diversity and of difference.
“To the family in all its 101 different shapes and sizes. With its capacity to cope which ranges from truly marvellous to distinctly tatty: still, in one form or another, the best place for most of us to be.”
We will miss Ann!
The Grand Duke, the tiger and the buffalo November 13, 2019 16:54
by Timothy P Barnard
Chapter Four: Defining Cruelty
In 1872 Alexei Alexandrovich, better known as Grand Duke Alexis, the fifth child of Czar Alexander II of Russia, visited Singapore along with a squadron of naval vessels. His sojourn in the capital of the Straits Settlements was part of a longer diplomatic journey that involved an extended tour of the United States as well as stops in Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town and Batavia, and eventually Hong Kong, Canton and Shanghai. Grand Duke Alexis was headed to Japan, where he was to meet with members of the Meiji government and participate in discussions on Russo-Japanese diplomatic relations. While in Singapore he met with Governor Harry Ord and attended dinners and balls in his honor, amidst surging crowds and all of the trimmings of pomp and circumstance. The presence of foreign royalty brought some life to the colonial port. As one observer opined, it was “an agreeable interlude in the sleepy monotony and sameness which characterizes life in this so-called Paradise of the East.” The visit was originally scheduled for three days, but went so well the Grand Duke extended his stay for over a week, and even made a visit to Melaka.1
One of the highlights of this brief sojourn in the Straits Settlements occurred on 31 August. That morning, accompanied by the Governor and much of the elite of Singapore, Grand Duke Alexis boarded the government steamer Pluto and sailed around the island to the newly founded town of Johor Baru. The visitors alighted at the bungalow of the Maharaja of Johor, Abu Bakar, who was an influential supporter of the British presence in the region. The Johor royal family, Chinese entrepreneurs and the European elite of the port had been closely interlinked since 1819. The grandfather of the Maharaja was the Temenggong of Singapore who had signed the original treaties with Thomas Stamford Raffles and John Crawfurd in 1819 and 1824 respectively, which transferred sovereignty of the island to the British East India Company. Abu Bakar and his father continued to support the colonial government and its policies in the following decades as they expanded their influence and agricultural policies into the southern portions of the Malay Peninsula. The Maharaja eventually became so intertwined with the imperial elite, and their culture, his British friends referred to him as “Albert Baker,” and the visit of the Grand Duke to Johor was part of the larger theater-state of colonial society in Singapore.2
The Maharaja greeted his guests upon their arrival and accompanied them to a large tent in the courtyard of the bungalow, where a sumptuous breakfast was laid out. After the meal and several speeches, everyone retired to an area behind the building, where they saw a large cage consisting of “long poles driven into the ground and tied together with thongs, and made firm by strong cross-pieces at the top.” The Maharaja of Johor was about to entertain his guests with a contest between a “royal tiger and a buffalo bull.”3
Such spectacles were commonly staged in royal houses throughout Southeast Asia in the premodern era. As Anthony Reid states in a survey of such entertainment, “No great feast passed at the courts of Java, Aceh, Siam and Burma without some spectacular fight between elephants, tigers, buffaloes, or lesser animals.” J.F.A. McNair, a Briton who served as Head Engineer for the Straits Settlements and attended the breakfast that morning in Johor, described such events as “the grand national sport” of Malay polities. It was not the first time McNair had attended such a contest in Johor. Only three years earlier, he was present when the Duke of Edinburgh witnessed a similar confrontation—which would have the same outcome—during his visit to the Straits Settlements.4
A curtain divided the cage in half and, after Grand Duke Alexis and the other guests were readied, the two animals were admitted into opposite sides of the pen. As described in a newspaper report:
Beyond the symbolism of such a contest in a Southeast Asian polity, this staged spectacle, held for the elite of the Straits Settlements in 1872, was also a metaphor for a shift in animals and their importance in Singapore. The tiger was no longer much of a concern for residents of the growing port. The jungle had been tamed, its predators destroyed, and in this case even converted into a form of symbolic entertainment. In contrast, the buffalo—or, more specifically its close relative, the bullock—was about to become the most important animal on the island, where it would play a role in transporting peoples and goods while reflecting attitudes towards animals that would reveal many of the permutations of British imperial rule in Southeast Asia as well as the development of colonial Singapore. The bullock thus would play a role in transforming the island during a period when animals provided much of the labor in transporting goods and people throughout the region, and power structures within the colonial government were becoming clearer. This also would be reflected in how humans perceived other animals, and treated them, particularly those that provided labor.
1 CO273/59/10138: Arrival and Departure of Corvette “Sveltana” with Grand Duke Alexis Aboard; Anonymous, “The Grand Duke Alexis at Johore,” ST, 7 Sep. 1872, p. 1; Anonymous, “The Grand Duke Alexis,” ST, 31 Aug. 1871, p. 1; Anonymous, “Untitled,” Straits Times Overland Journal, 7 Sep. 1872, p. 11.
2 R.O. Winstedt, A History of Johore (1365–1941) (Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1992), p. 137; Carl A. Trocki, Prince of Pirates: The Temenggongs and the Development of Johor and Singapore, 1784–1885 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2007), pp. 128–60; Anonymous, “She Cannot Sue the Sultan,” The Chicago Sunday Tribune, 5 Nov. 1893, p. 1; Anonymous, “The Grand Duke Alexis at Johore.”
3 Anonymous, “The Grand Duke Alexis at Johore.”
4 J.F.A. McNair, Perak and the Malays (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 266–8; Boomgaard, Frontiers of Fear, p. 14; Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450–1680. Volume One, p. 183.
5 Anonymous, “The Grand Duke Alexis at Johore.”
6 Anonymous, “The Grand Duke Alexis at Johore”; Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, Volume One, pp. 183–91; Boomgaard, Frontiers of Fear, pp. 146–66.
Enjoyed this excerpt? Buy the book here!
Southeast Asian Anthropologies now available Open Access! October 15, 2019 16:27
What is the state of anthropology in Southeast Asia? How are Southeast Asians teaching and practicing the discipline, given its origins in colonial knowledge projects and the diverse paths of nation-building undertaken by the countries in the region?
NUS Press is proud to announce that an important new publication exploring these and other questions, Southeast Asian Anthropologies: National Traditions and Transnational Practices — edited by Eric C. Thompson and Vineeta Sinha — is now available as an open access title, free of charge for scholars and students in Southeast Asia and beyond. This is thanks to NUS Press’ participation in the Knowledge Unlatched project, which works with academic libraries around the world to unlock funds to make important publications open access.
The project is more than a publication; it is also a means of deepening networks across the region, through an initial series of book-planning workshops and most recently, a series of book launching events in Singapore, Jakarta, and Yogyakarta, with further events planned in the Visayas, Manila, and Kuala Lumpur.
The full text of the book can be downloaded here.
Published earlier this year in paperback, Anthropologies reflects ongoing endeavours to strengthen critical scholarship within Southeast Asian anthropology while seeking to consolidate efforts of teaching, research, and conceptualisation via local and transnational networks.
The project sought to bring practicing anthropologists from across the region together and into conversation with each other. The joint publication eventually materialized from a variety of disciplinary contributions. The first section of the book details the making of national anthropological traditions: the role of anthropology in producing “Filipino” identities in the Philippines (Canuday and Porio, Ch. 1), the struggle for institutionalization in Cambodia (Peou, Ch. 2), and a critical re-examination of Soviet and Western influences on contemporary Vietnamese anthropology (Nguyen, Ch. 3).
Chapters Four to Six shed light on the everyday challenges of conducting anthropological research in specific communities. These include maritime anthropology in the Philippines (Mangahas and Rodriguez-Roldan, Ch. 4), ethnicity and race studies in multi-ethnic Malaysia (Yeoh, Ch. 5), and the shifting institutional and intellectual pressures facing anthropologists in Singapore (Sinha, Ch.6).
The final third of the volume highlights the increasing significance of transnational dimensions in anthropological practice: the development of a “Borneo” anthropology that cuts across three nation-states on one island (King and Zawawi, Ch. 7), the construction of selves and others by Indonesian anthropologists within and beyond the border (Winarto and Pirous, Ch. 8), the opening up and diversification of both theory and practice in Vietnam (Dang, Ch. 9), and the role of Thai scholarship in transnational research (Tosakul, Ch. 10).
Since the book’s publication, meetings, roundtables, and launch events have prompted lively discussions surrounding the state of and prospects for anthropology across Southeast Asia. This volume, then, is by no means intended as the last word, nor does it begin to cover the breadth of exciting and important work being done across the region. We can only hope that it will serve as catalyst for an explosion of growth, interest, and visibility in the traditions and practices that the editors have strived to illuminate.
Anthropologies is one of a number of recent NUS Press efforts to provide the widest possible access to Southeast Asian scholarship while ensuring the quality and sustainability of high value-added publishing. The pioneering journal Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia went open access, beginning with volume three, earlier this year.
Other NUS Press OA projects include Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu, a shared database containing all references to Southeast Asia within the Ming Dynasty reign annals; and the Southeast Asian Site Reports series, a project to develop an appropriate format for the publishing of archaeological reports, many of which include large datasets as well as visual material.
Prizes and Summer Conferences - building to Berlin... July 25, 2019 13:59
Congratulations to John Butcher and Bob Elson for winning the "Ground-breaking Subject Matter" Accolade in the ICAS 2019 Book Prize competition for their Sovereignty and the Sea: How Indonesia Became an Archipelagic State.
And shortly after that pleasant news, we heard that two of our books were shortlisted for the 2019 EuroSEAS Prizes, one in humanities and one for social sciences. Congrats to Chua Beng Huat for being shortlisted in the social sciences for his Liberalism disavowed: Communitarianism and state capitalism in Singapore, and Lisandro Claudio in the humanities for his Liberalism and the Postcolony: Thinking the State in 20th-Century Philippines.
We're looking forward to hearing more at the 2019 EuroSEAS conference, to be held in Berlin from September 10th to 13th. Do be in touch if you would like to meet up!
Five Minutes with Samuel Ling Wei Chan May 15, 2019 09:42
In April this year, Dr Samuel Ling Wei Chan published "Aristocracy of Armed Talent, The Military Elite in Singapore". It explores the Singapore Armed Forces by a comprehensive and in-depth examination of its elite leadership: the 170 men (and a very few women) who served or serve as flag officers, that is generals or admirals. How did Singapore build a culture of leadership for its armed forces? What role did the SAF Scholars scheme, introduced in 1971, play in forming this culture?For this edition of Five Minutes With... we turned to noted military expert and journalist David Boey, who conducted this interview and first ran it on his excellent blog on Singapore military matters, Senang Diri. Thanks to David for the interview and for giving us permission to run it on the website.
How long did it take you to write the book?
The book is a revised and updated edition of my PhD thesis. I started my studies in March 2011 but by February 2012 it was apparent that my initial topic (on military education in Australia and the US) was not tenable.
What made you press on with research on the SAF despite initial hurdles?
It was a challenge to complete a puzzle and I was focused on the task at hand. The topic is interesting to me, both in academic and general terms.
What was the most challenging aspect of the research for this book?
The most challenging aspects were access to information in terms of open source material and interviews for the specific questions that I had in mind.
How did you go about resolving the challenge(s)?
The 28 interviews were great and a blessing in terms of being able to get the work done.
Which chapter did you enjoy researching/writing most?
I must say I enjoyed them all due to the variation, focus, and information in each of the chapters.
What are the takeaways you hope the reader will glean from the book?
To appreciate the SAF in its entirety, both the good, the quirky, and the not so good.
Call for Manuscripts - Art and Archaeology of Southeast Asia March 20, 2019 22:00
A new book series reflecting the focus of the Southeast Asian Art Academic Programme at SOAS University of London, namely the study of Southeast Asian Buddhist and Hindu art and architecture from ancient to pre-modern times, including study of the built environment, sculpture, painting, illustrated texts, textiles and other tangible or visual representations, along with the written word related to these, and archaeological, museum and cultural heritage studies.
Ashley Thompson & Pamela Corey
Series Editorial Committee:
Tran Ky Phuong
Call for Manuscripts
All editorial correspondences should be directed to
Ashley Thompson (email@example.com)
NUS Press Submissions (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This series is produced in partnership with
Who is this Jacques de Coutre the Prime Minister speaks of? January 30, 2019 11:01From Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's speech launching the Singapore Bicentennial: "Around 1630, two centuries before Stamford Raffles, de Coutre proposed to the King of Spain to build a fortress in Singapore, because of its strategic location. Had the King accepted de Coutre’s proposal, Singapore might have become a Spanish colony, instead of a British one."
A Year in the Life of NUS Press July 19, 2018 17:35
It has been a busy and fulfilling year for NUS Press, and as there's three weeks to go before the start of the next term at NUS, we had time to catch our breath and recall our previous year in publishing…
(pix courtesy NUS Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences)
On August 14th, Prof Chan Heng Chee, Ambassador-at-Large and member of the NUS Board of Trustees launches Chua Beng Huat’s Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore, at the National Library Board’s Pod. We follow this up over the next six weeks with book events at the Kinokuniya Main Store, the Asia Research Institute, and the Head Foundation in Singapore. Read Prof Chan’s remarks in the Inter-Asian Cultural Studies journal, or see the NUS News report of the event. Later that month David Teh’s Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary, launches with events in Bangkok, and Chiang Mai. In the upcoming months we have book talks for Thai Art in Kuala Lumpur, Jogjakarta and Singapore.
The simplified Chinese edition of The ASEAN Miracle, by Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffery Sng launches in Beijing, published by Peking University Press. Prof Kishore fields questions from Chinese audiences keen to understand his views on the importance of ASEAN in an era of strategic rebalancing.
Kishore Mahbubani speaks on The ASEAN Miracle at the Asia Society, New York, and the Harvard Asian Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Later in the month he launches the Kompas Gramedia Indonesian edition before an enormous audience of 5000 students of international relations.
The ASEAN Miracle continues to attract interest: The book is featured at the international StoryDrive Asia conference by Singapore’s Intellectual Property Office as an example of effective licensing of copyrights across borders. NUS Press has signed deals for 12 translations and co-editions in the ASEAN countries, China, India, Taiwan, Japan and Italy.
ArtForum, New York, names David Teh’s Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary one of its books of the year, and it gets a thorough review in Art in America. Contemporary Indonesian Art: Artists, Art Spaces, and Collectors, by Yvonne Spielmann is named a book of the year by Art & Asia Pacific. The next month we announce our partnership with the Singapore Art Museum for Writing the Modern: Selected Texts on Art & Art History in Singapore, Malaysia & Southeast Asia, by T.K. Sabapathy, and the NTU Center for Contemporary Art for Place.Labour.Capital. Our art list is truly up and running…2018
Three NUS Press books were shortlisted for the Singapore History Prize, and the first prize, worth S$50,000, goes to John N Miksic for his Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, published by NUS Press with the National Museum of Singapore. The Jury is composed of Peter Coclanis, Kishore Mahbubani, Claire Chiang and Wang Gungwu (as seen in the photo above, with John Miksic in the middle).
Prof Wang Gungwu, Chair of the Jury Panel, says, “With this book, Prof Miksic has laid the foundations for a fundamental reinterpretation of the history of Singapore and its place in the larger Asian context, bringing colour and definition to a whole new chapter of the Singaporean identity.”
Also shortlisted are Nature’s Colony: Empire, Nation and Environment in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, by Timothy P Barnard, and Squatters into Citizens: the 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore, by Loh Kah Seng.
FebruaryThe King of Spain writes a letter commemorating 50 years Singapore-Spain diplomatic relations, but looking back to 400 years of interaction, citing the Jacques de Coutre’s Singapore and Johor 1594-c. 1625 as evidence. We published the book in 2015. There’s a citation we didn’t anticipate!
March 20th, President of Singapore and Chancellor of NUS, Halimah Yaacob, launches Breast Cancer Meanings: Journey Across Asia at a gala fund-raising dinner. That weekend, Peter and Paul fly to the US to attend the Association for Asian Studies meeting, where Paul chairs a panel he organised on Academic Journals and the Publishing Process, and Peter is the only publisher represented at the Digital Technologies in Asian Studies Working Group meeting. Meanwhile, back in Singapore, Cherian George draws a crowd of hundreds for a talk at NUS U-Town on censorship. Our team is there, selling his books, including his latest published by our colleagues at MIT Press.
Tim P Barnard’s history of the Singapore Botanical Gardens is reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, marking our debut in that journal’s review section. Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit’s edited volume - Unequal Thailand gets a super review the Journal of Asian Studies, which says it "should be read by all…who have an interest in contemporary Thai politics and political economy…”
Stefan Huebner’s Pan-Asian Sports and the Emergence of Modern Asia, 1913–1974 is published in Japanese translation. A Choice recommended title, Pan-Asian Sports is Stefan’s first book, published by NUS Press in 2016, but it has made a strong impact, 14 book reviews published to date, and another 40 in the works. We launch Writing the Modern at the National Art Gallery in Malaysia, five days after the General Election, and learn that NUS Press author Jomo KS has been named to the Council of Eminent Persons advising Malaysia’s new Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad. (We also get some work done on a book project on the election outcome, planned for 2019).
Conference season has started, and our events team is feeling the stretch. Peter addresses 600 book editors at a conference hosted by Zhejiang University Press in Hangzhou, China. Dorothy Wong launches her new book, Buddhist Pilgrim-Monks as Agents of Cultural and Artistic Transmission, at the Sackler-Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA. We have three simultaneous book and journal events in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore on June 30th, including a full house launch of a new edition of Paul Kratoska’s The Japanese Occupation of Malaya and Singapore, 1941–45: A Social and Economic History in Malaysia.
Peter and Lervinia display new and recent titles at the Asian Studies Association of Australia meeting in Sydney, and enjoy a launch of the latest books in our ASAA Southeast Asian Studies series. Pallavi and Paul attend the AAS-in-Asia meeting in New Delhi, and both appear on a Roundtable on “Getting Published” that Paul organized, with fellow panellists from the Journal of Asian Studies and Oxford University Press.
"A year has no revelations,
it must come and go
making some older, some younger by their absence."
Arthur Yap, See The Collected Poems of Arthur Yap, published 2013.
The ASEAN Miracle resonates in Taiwan June 5, 2018 11:28
The ASEAN Miracle by Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffery Sng has so far been translated into 10 languages, and published in different editions around the world. But the biggest impact of the book (as measured in sales per capita) has been in Taiwan, where the complex Chinese character edition from Yuan-Liou Publishing has sold more than 6000 copies, only slightly less than the global English edition from NUS Press. Why does the story of the success of the ten members of the Association of South East Asian Nations, and their position in the new geopolitical world, resonate so well in Taiwan?
It may reflect the way Taiwan is attempting to rebalance its human, educational and business and investment relations away from the mainland to Southeast Asia. President Tsai Ing-Wen's New Southbound Policy (NSP, 新南向政策) has boosted trade with Southeast Asia and led to a spike in Southeast Asian students coming to study in Taiwan. While it's unlikely Southeast Asia can provide a long term alternative to the draw of the mainland for Taiwanese talent, investment and cultural identification, a greater interest in Southeast Asia is surely a healthy thing.
(photo courtesy the Fair Wind Foundation)
On a recent trip to Taiwan, to participate in a two day conference, “From the Western-Centric to a Post-Western World: In Search of an Emerging Global Order in the 21st Century”, Prof Mahbubani drew on examples from The ASEAN Miracle to show how the US and Europe need to adjust their strategies in Asia. For example: he proposes that moralistic stances and interventions may not be effective. ASEAN was able to build trust with Myanmar and push for a political opening, through a long-term policy of engagement, while resisting European calls to reject Myanmar.
Equally, the Western powers can be more practical and realist in their approach, and here he points to the failure of European countries to deal adequately with rising tensions and demographic pressures in North Africa and the Middle East, tensions which inevitably would spill over into Europe. And this may point to a second reason for the interest in Professor Mahbubani's book in Taiwan: that it embodies a critique of the behavior of the Western powers, and a focus on the interests of Southeast Asian and Asians more broadly.
The Singapore History Prize January 11, 2018 00:00
The Singapore History Prize is Singapore's richest book prize, set up "to encourage more ambitious and sophisticated research relating to the history of Singapore, as well as to inspire the highest scholarly standards in such research and publications, while also promoting wider critical interest in studying the history of Singapore. At the same time, the Prize hopes to generate a greater understanding among Singapore citizens of their own unique history."
The prize is awarded every three years, and carries a cash prize to the author of S$ 50,000. Three NUS Press books were shortlisted for the prize, which was awarded 11th January to John N Miksic for his Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, published by NUS Press with the National Museum of Singapore. The judges were, from left to right, Prof Peter Colcanis, Kishore Mahbubani, Claire Chiang and Prof Wang.
Prof Wang Gungwu, Chair of the Singapore History Prize Jury Panel, said, “Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300 – 1800 by Prof John Miksic provides the essential context for understanding Singapore’s past in long term context. It is a truly monumental piece of work that is deserving of the first Singapore History Prize. With this book, Prof Miksic has laid the foundations for a fundamental reinterpretation of the history of Singapore and its place in the larger Asian context, bringing colour and definition to a whole new chapter of the Singaporean identity. We now know more about Singapore in the 14th century than any other city in the region during the same period.”
Also shortlisted were Nature's Colony: Empire, Nation and Environment in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, by Timothy P Barnard, and Squatters into Citizens: the 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore, by Loh Kah Seng.
Five Minutes with David Teh August 16, 2017 10:00
Earlier this year, David Teh published Thai Art: Currencies of the
Contemporary, which examines the transition of Thai contemporary art from a nationalist subjectivity to a postnational one. His analysis is set against the backdrop of the Thai monarchy’s waning sovereignty amidst political and economic turmoil.
In this edition of Five Minutes with…, Teh, an independent curator and Assistant Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore, reveals how he first became involved in Thai contemporary art. He also shares how his curatorial experiences and intellectual inclinations have influenced his work, and the importance for Art History as a discipline to ‘decolonise’ itself.
What are the qualities of Thai contemporary art that drew you to study it, over other Southeast Asian nations with their own contemporary art?
I got to know about Thai contemporary art while living and working as a writer and curator in Bangkok. The book reflects that—I didn't go there looking to do academic research. That said, I already knew the Thai art scene was strong. Several Thais had built high profiles on the international exhibition circuit. But I was more curious about what was going on locally. As I got to know people, I learned about the burst of exciting, independent activity in the late 1990s—artists of my own generation were beneficiaries of that—but by the time I showed up, things had stagnated. The indie scene had run out of puff. The government was beginning to promote contemporary art but it was very tough for artists to make the work they wanted to make. So, I found I was most useful as an independent curator.
Tang Chang, Untitled, 1969, oil on canvas, 98 x 103 cm (Courtesy: Thip Sae-Tang/ Installation view. Image credit: Laura Fiorio / HKW)
It was never a choice between Thailand and other countries. I hadn't studied Southeast Asia or its history, and I got to know the region through the lens of Thailand, a place which—like Singapore—both belongs in the region and doesn't quite belong. Apart from their successes abroad, several things were distinctive about Thailand's artists. First, many were working confidently in non-traditional modes (eg. installation, video, conceptual art) even though those forms were not well supported by institutions or galleries. Second, there was often nothing very 'Thai' about their work, at least not visibly. This was in stark contrast with the art of the '90s, the bread and butter of the biennials sprouting in so many places. For me, national identity was a boring, hackneyed subject. And here was a generation of artists who weren't interested in national branding, yet who knew their cultural background would determine how their work was interpreted and valued. I found this tension fascinating, and it became a central concern of the book.
In the central chapters, you examine various forms of indigenous “currencies”—an agricultural symbology, a Siamese poetics of distance and itinerancy, and Hindu-Buddhist conceptions of charismatic power—and how contemporary art has converted them into other currencies. Why have you chosen to write about these particular forms of currency? Or, more specifically, what makes these very currencies the “national currencies” of Thai art?
The term 'currencies' is unorthodox in an art historical context. That discipline's habitual methods are failing: traditional, biographical approaches ended up in the bogus mythology of the singular creative genius; iconography charts the visible resemblances between one artist and another but in our networked, image-saturated environment, those patterns are unraveling; formalism imposes boundaries between various media that artists themselves no longer observe. In distilling some salient themes and concerns from Thai contemporary art, I was led by the artists I found most interesting. The challenge lay in figuring out how to historicise their work, and the 'currencies' I identified were a provisional solution, a way of tying artists and artworks into much larger social and cultural histories, while bypassing some of the pigeonholes of conventional art history. So, when contemporary artists adopt the theme of agriculture, for example, one might look back through eighty years of Thai modern art and find a few precedents. But agricultural imagery belongs to an ancient vocabulary of power in this part of the world, and it's more than just visual. That deeper, wider history illuminates today's art far more than recent art history can.
Similarly, Thai artists have attained social and intellectual cachet thanks to the patronage of the modern state and other institutions, but if you trace this 'charisma' within that institutional sphere, you only get half the story. For fifty years, the dominant 'national school'—the state academy (now Silpakorn University) set up in the 1930s—was the nerve centre through which all aesthetic traffic was routed, controlling access to resources and training, awarding coveted prizes and commissions, and setting artistic standards. Patronised by state and palace, Silpakorn was the main clearing house for artistic currencies, especially those stemming from the three institutional 'pillars' of Thai nationalism—religion, monarchy and nation. But since the 1980s ,its monopoly has crumbled: competing schools have been established, while globalisation has brought artists new sources of prestige and opportunity.
Near the entrance of Silapkorn University, which has served as the bastion of artistic pursuits in Thailand since the 1930s
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons).
What I call a 'currency' is a value an artist might intentionally rehearse—sometimes it's as simple as a visual cue, a choice of colours, a well-known symbol, a sign of the past or 'tradition'. But sometimes it's more abstract, or a projection onto their work by others. Some currencies are not visible, but are generated in the performance of being a modern artist. For instance, what does it mean to locate yourself in the provinces and address the orang kampung, using everyday materials and references, rather than the recognised idiom of 'fine art' from the national-institutional centre? This is a question that can be asked all over Southeast Asia. As we look beyond the obvious centres of production, there will be dozens of different answers, but also some overlaps and resonances.
I should stress that this book is by no means a comprehensive account—there are many currencies I haven't dealt with. I focused on the ones that have secured art's contemporaneity in Thailand, that is, those that qualify certain modern art as no longer simply modern, but 'contemporary'. International mobility was obviously a key currency, as it became more and more a fact of everyday professional life. But it also opens up new critical possibilities: when a work is shown in different places, it can carry different meanings and values. Artists are not naive about these differences; they exploit them, and the critic can examine this as a kind of arbitrage. It's no accident that the acceleration of Asian art's transnational exchange coincided with a regional financial crisis, sparked by the failure of the Thai baht in 1997.
How has your work as a critic and curator shaped how you approached your research for this book?
This is a crucial dimension of the book. From a traditional disciplinary standpoint it will seem methodologically unresolved, for it brings together all sorts of knowledge: plenty of historical (but not exactly 'art historical') context; critical responses to seeing exhibitions; and lengthy conversations with artists and curators that might be called 'ethnographic', though again, collected in somewhat heuristic and undisciplined ways. These are exactly the data sets of curatorial work, and Art History has been slow to take advantage of them. Making exhibitions, one develops a great reservoir of trust with artists and others who know and care about art. There's an intimacy you don't get from looking at catalogues—you learn things that can't be learned any other way.
In the West, Art History has ceded a lot of ground to various kinds of 'visual studies', and there's a burgeoning literature on histories of exhibition and curatorship. But in Southeast Asia, Art History is still getting clumsily on its feet. Universities have largely failed to seize an obvious opportunity. Meanwhile museums are going up with breathtaking speed, but without the necessary software to make them relevant. Until recently, research wasn't part of the curatorial skill set in Singapore, which is clearly the region's institutional centre of gravity. I think I'm very lucky that I found publishers who understood this patchy landscape, and that independent curators have been a crucial link in the knowledge chain. It's an imperfect science, to be sure, but ten or twenty years from now I think the book's idiosyncrasies, and its deficiencies, will tell us something about this moment.
Pratchaya Phinthong, Who Will Guard the Guards Themselves?, 2015. Lightbox, duratrans, and steel frame; 161 × 200 × 9 cm. Collection of Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (Courtesy of the artist and gb agency, Paris).
In the book, you challenged Singapore-born artist Jay Koh’s condescending response to Thai-born artist Rirkrit Tiravanija’s simulacrum of his New York apartment—titled “Tomorrow Is Another Day”—at the Kölnischer Museum, and contended with the view that representing one’s national polity of origin lies at the heart of the artistic enterprise. In your opinion, why is there a prevalence of this biased attitude towards national identification in the transnational sphere?
Its prevalence today may be put down to laziness, to certain ingrained habits of artists, writers and exhibition-makers. But there are clear historical reasons for it. In the late 1980s, contemporary art began to circulate transnationally with a new intensity, a whole new scale of exchange. There's a pair of excellent books on this moment, put out by Afterall under the title Making Art Global. One can pin this to the thaw of the Cold War and a certain narrative of globalisation, though upon close examination in a given place, one finds very complex processes at work. Nevertheless, this circuit became the basis of the transnational art system we see today. With this burst of circulation, audiences—particularly professional ones—came face to face with art from other worlds, from social, historical and aesthetic contexts about which they were often perfectly ignorant. Identity (and not exclusively national identity) was the primary interpretive crutch, providing a way in, some starting point for the uninitiated viewer confronted with Vietnamese, Peruvian, or Congolese contemporary art for the first time.
Southeast Asia's artists are still subject to the gravity of nation, much more than their counterparts in the Euro-American sphere whose institutions still dominate the art economy. In fact, when I travel in that post-national milieu, I'm the one insisting that the nation still matters! But as an interpretive support, it can only be one amongst many. Some artists still make art about national identity and belonging, either because those things are still material to their lives, or because they're on auto-pilot—it's what Southeast Asian art has done for twenty years; it's what made their mentors famous. But for most young artists in the region, national heritage and national problems are no longer front-of-mind. We have to find other ways of understanding their work and what it has to tell us, including what it might say about the place where it was made.
You recently curated an exhibition in Berlin, titled "Misfits". Are there any overarching ideas that you always try to put into your work, be it in curation or in writing?
David Teh introducing “‘Misfits’: Pages from a loose-leaf modernity” to visitors at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Photo credits: Laura Fiorio / HKW).
I'm a card-carrying anti-essentialist. Most of my work is about unpicking and sabotaging big, overarching ideas. "‘Misfits’: Pages from a loose-leaf modernity" is about the process of canon formation that has been accelerated by the museum boom, and the recent discovery of Southeast Asia by first-world collecting institutions. I chose three modern artists on the cusp of canonisation, whose legacies haven't been mediated by national institutions, either because they deliberately kept their distance from the latter, or because the latter's narratives simply couldn't accommodate them. Two of them died in 1990: the Burmese artist and illustrator, Bagyi Aung Soe, and the Sino-Thai modernist Tang Chang. The third was Rox Lee, a Filipino filmmaker who is still very much alive and kicking. This grouping is unorthodox, but I liked how it opened up the question of what distinguishes 'modern' from 'contemporary'. (This is also a preoccupation of my book.) A growing curatorial workforce is busily constructing an overarching idea of 'Southeast Asian modern art'. It's important that we complicate the picture, and to that end, these 'misfits' are important circuit-breakers.
What sort of future conversations do you hope that this book will inspire?
In the broader (global) context, I think Art History is an ossified discipline, badly in need of renewal. Its academic mainstream is still cloistered, in Europe and North America; its conceptual toolkit is inadequate for the task of decentering and decolonising the history of modern art. Serious efforts are being made to adopt a more inclusive outlook—sometimes framed as 'world art history'—but encyclopaedic surveys only get you so far, and they don't make for compelling reading. To make Art History relevant again, its methods need to be deconstructed, its vocabularies need to be hacked. And we have to devise interdisciplinary but historically rigorous ways of furnishing context.
Closer to home, I hope the book's strengths and weaknesses will be picked apart and will provoke more critical discussion. It's a very charged environment in Thailand at the moment. The generals have their fingers in the dyke but the tide of history is pressing in. Managing a sensitive royal succession, the dictatorship has shut down the system of political expression; there's no public sphere, and criticism has become more and more dangerous. But at the same time, the country is gradually awakening from a long bout of historical naivety; people are reading more and debating more than they have for decades, largely thanks to the advent of social media. Thai artists are not known for taking strident political positions, yet the art world can be a relatively accommodating place for public discourse and argument, often flying beneath the radar of officialdom. I hope the book will be a conversation starter. Each chapter, each theme, is intended to open new ways of understanding contemporary art, and the social realities and histories it reflects.
NUS Press at ICAS 2017 July 28, 2017 17:16
NUS Press participated in the 2017 International Convention of Asia Scholars conference at Chiang Mai Convention Centre in Chiang Mai, Thailand last week (July 20-23).
Organised by the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD), with support from the Faculty of Social Sciences of Chiang Mai University, we were pleased to participate at the conference's Asian Studies book fair.
(Photo credit: Valerie Yeo)
We were also pleased that Sarah Tiffin's Southeast Asia in Ruins: Art and Empire in the Early 19th Century was shortlisted for the ICAS Book Award. Whilst it did not win, we were pleased with the overwhelming interest in the book and our art history publishing programme.
Here are highlights of some of the books that were displayed:
- Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore by Chua Beng Huat
- US-Singapore Relations, 1965-1975: Strategic Non-alignment in the Cold War by Daniel Wei Boon Chua
- Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary by David Teh
- Sovereignty and the Sea: How Indonesia Became an Archipelagic State by John Butcher and R. E. Elson
- The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace by Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffery Sng
- Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia [NEW JOURNAL]
The 11th edition of ICAS will take place in Leiden, the Netherlands (July 16-19, 2019). For updates on ICAS-11, please check the ICAS website occasionally at the following link: http://icas.asia/en/icas11
Five Minutes with Lisandro E. Claudio July 18, 2017 15:30
In March earlier this year, Lisandro E. Claudio published Liberalism and the Postcolony: Thinking the State in 20th-Century Philippines. Prior to this groundbreaking work, historical scholarship on liberalism in the Philippines was largely unexplored. In this edition of Five Minutes With…, we chat with Claudio—an Associate Professor of History at Manila’s De La Salle University more affectionately known as Leloy—about how his book was born, his experience of writing in Kyoto, free dinners, politics, and his revolutionary of a grandmother.
Although your book is concerned with Philippine politics and intellectual history, it was written during a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in Kyoto. How did that distance help shape your critical views?
I’ll use this question as an opportunity to thank my host institution. The Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) at Kyoto University was the perfect place to write a book on a Southeast Asian state. For one, it is close enough to allow regular trips back to the region. So, in a sense, I actually did not have much distance. What I had was time to think and write amid the monastic yet urban atmosphere of Kyoto, while being able to easily book a flight to the Philippines if I needed to plug gaps in the research.
Secondly, CSEAS does Southeast Asian Studies for Southeast Asians. Its sensei have solid connections with the region, and they have a clear idea of their audience. My primary audience has been and will always be Filipinos, who think about and debate the future of our political community. Kyoto reinforced this. It is not a place that forces you to get into an academic rat race, where you aim to publish with American publishers while jumping on the latest American trend (whatever that may be—I think it’s affect theory at the moment). I’d like to think that because of the culture of CSEAS, I produced a book for Filipinos and Southeast Asians, written without paying obeisance to trends in cultural theory. And because I was in Kyoto, I was encouraged to publish in the premier academic press in Southeast Asia (that’s you guys!), and co-publish with the premier academic press in the Philippines (Ateneo de Manila University Press). If people outside my intended audiences wish to pick up the book because they are interested in liberalism, of course, that would make me happy. They can buy something from Singapore or Manila. But the primary goal is to talk to Filipinos concerned about the Philippines qua state.
Japan is wonderful because, like the US, it has money for research, but without the trendiness. And this was a very square, untrendy book about a philosophical idea that is not as exciting and revolutionary as postcolonial theory or even good ole’ Marxism. Moreover, if I were in the US, I might have had to factor identity politics into the manuscript, since Filipinos there are almost obligated to ‘interrogate’ or ‘problematize’ their subjectivities. But in Japan, you do what you want. So I wrote a book that conceived of “Filipino” as a political community as opposed to cultural identity. I wanted to write a book about civic nationalism/patriotism, unabashedly anchored on conceptions of the state.
Finally, Kyoto provided me the best mentorship. I sped through my PhD in three years in Australia, and felt a bit ‘undercooked’ at the end of it—not because my teachers failed to guide me, but simply because I was in such a rush to complete the degree (I was homesick in the beginning). Writing this book felt like writing a second dissertation. In the process, I benefited greatly from CSEAS’ Caroline S. Hau, who made me think about the relationship between liberalism and our vague notions of who the ‘elite’ are (while buying me multiple dinners). She also made me, almost against my will, think about liberalism and macroeconomics, which produced the chapter on Salvador Araneta. I owe so much to Carol for gently nudging me out of my comfort zone.
The nationalist economist Salvador Araneta pictured with family at Far East Air Transport, Incorporated, n.d. (Image credit: Manila Times Photo Archive, Rizal Library, Ateneo de Manila University).
You mention in your book’s introduction that you are interested in “bureaucratic writers and pencil-pushers, who aided the transition of a nation from colonial rule to independence” over other groups with nation-building interests. What attracted you to these particular perspectives of liberalism and postcolonialism?
As I said earlier, I’m attracted to, for lack of a better term, squareness. This is why a section of the introduction is called “a defense of boring politics.” Why must academic work have to be sexy or provocative? Especially when the topic is a postcolonial society like the Philippines. My sense is that, since academics like me are square personalities anyway, we should also write about square topics, like, yes, the history of pencil-pushers. Come on, how many academics are really revolutionaries? And yet some of them write like they’ll be the next Che Guevara. I’m only being slightly facetious here.
In Southeast Asian studies, we’ve been so obsessed with insurgencies, millenarian movements, anarchism, mythological and magical interpretations of politics, et cetera. I almost feel like there is an element of self-Orientalization. Maybe we should also talk about reason and Enlightenment and not be ashamed of it.
I think there is a need to grapple with Southeast Asian modernities that are in dialogue with Western Enlightenment. Unearthing the history of the Philippine liberal tradition was my way of doing this. I have a number of friends in Thai studies who are doing similar things, looking at Thai liberalism. I hope we can push the limits of Southeast Asian studies and write more histories of square people.
You also observe that, in Filipino history, liberalism is often excluded from the records despite its close ties to Philippine nationalism. How did you come into this insight and what was the first step you took in addressing this exclusion?
Yes, look at our national hero José Rizal, for example. With perhaps the exception of John N. Schumacher and Nick Joaquin, very few writers talk about him as a liberal. Always a nationalist, but never a liberal. But he was so obviously a liberal! The guy was perennially talking about the rights of man and the need to defend liberty. He even wrote numerous essays against the absolute power created by martial law (how proto-anti-Marcos, right?).
Former president Ferdinand Marcos (left), who ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, meeting the educator and statesman Salvador P. Lopez, n.d. (Image credit: Manila Times Photo Archive, Rizal Library, Ateneo de Manila University).
I don’t remember exactly how I came to my insight about the exclusion of liberalism from the national narrative. But I do remember my other mentor, Patricio Abinales, once asking me—way before I decided to write this book—why nobody had written a history of Philippine liberalism. I guess I never got that question out of my head. So I ended up working on this book.
Maybe the exclusion of the liberal tradition comes from the fact that much of our country’s liberalism is of American vintage (although, as I mentioned earlier, Rizal’s generation was already liberal). In the 1970s, Philippine historiography fell prey to a rabid, almost ethnocentric nationalism that dismissed anything from the US or the West as external to the Philippine experience, and that included liberalism. It had a very insidious effect, and the rhetoric survives today, mouthed, no less, by our dictatorial baby boomer president, Rodrigo Duterte.
You know what makes my blood boil? When Filipino politicians, especially supporters of the president, say Filipinos should challenge “Western liberalism.” As if liberalism were so external to our national experience.
How do we go beyond the exclusion of liberalism? I’m very practical about this. Perhaps we should stop obsessing about the provenance of an idea. Instead, maybe we should ask if an idea, regardless of where it comes from, is a good one. In the book, I tried to make the case that liberalism is a good idea for the Philippines, especially during the age of what commentators have called “Dutertismo.”
What were the major obstacles you faced in sourcing material for your book?
Nothing much. The advantage of intellectual history is that you work largely with published material. The most difficult chapter to research was the one on Salvador P. Lopez, because he lacked vanity. The rest of the intellectuals in the book loved to self-publish their speeches, but SP was too self-effacing (unlike his hucksterish, but formidable, mentor, Carlos P. Romulo) to play that game. With the help of my friend Aaron Mallari, I was able to dig through the SP Lopez papers in the University of the Philippines Diliman. It’s a treasure trove, actually. More people should go there—if they can take the heat and the dust.
SP Lopez addressing students, teachers, and staff during the Diliman Commune of February 7, 1971. (Image credit: Manila Times Photo Archive, Rizal Library, Ateneo de Manila University)
In your afterword, you offer a fifth liberal to join the four historical protagonists in your book—your maternal grandmother, Rita D. Estrada, who had been a professor at the University of the Philippines. Based on your tender and illuminating portrait of her, she was a remarkably charming and extraordinary woman. Would you consider writing a book on her one day?
Rita D. Estrada, the author’s grandmother and a revolutionary liberal in her own right. (Image credit: Lisandro E. Claudio)
Thank you, I tried to conjure the Lola Rita of my memories, while representing her as an intellectual in her own right.
But, no, I don’t think I'd be able to write a full book about her. There isn’t enough material. My lola was a quiet intellectual who did not leave behind a lot of writings. The epilogue of the book is enough of a tribute to her, and enough naval-gazing for me. I enjoyed writing it, though, and it made my mom cry.
NUS Press at AAS-in-Asia 2017 June 30, 2017 15:00
NUS Press participated in the 2017 AAS-in-Asia conference at Korea University in Seoul last week (June 24-26).
(Image credit: Chye Shu Wen)
Organised by the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), in partnership with Korea University, the theme of the conference was 'Asia in Motion: Beyond Borders and Boundaries.'
(Image credit: Chye Shu Wen)
We are pleased to have met scholars and students who have an interest in Southeast Asia, and were heartened by the warm response towards our art history publishing programme.
(Above) Publishing director Dr Paul Kratoska speaking with some scholars based in South Korea and Thailand
(Image credits: Chye Shu Wen).
Here are highlights of some of the books that were displayed:
- Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore by Chua Beng Huat
- Sovereign Women in a Muslim Kingdom: The Sultanahs of Aceh, 1641-1699 by Sher Banu A. L. Khan
- Singapore's Permanent Territorial Revolution: Fifty Years in Fifty Maps by Rodolphe De Koninck
- Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary by David Teh
- Liberalism and the Postcolony: Thinking the State in 20th-Century Philippines by Lisandro E. Claudio
- Sovereignty and the Sea: How Indonesia Became an Archipelagic State by John Butcher and R. E. Elson
- The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace by Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffery Sng
- Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia [NEW JOURNAL]
The 5th edition of AAS-in-Asia will take place at Ashoka University, New Delhi, India (July 5-8, 2018). For updates on AAS-in-ASIA 2018, please check on their website occasionally at the following link:
Five Minutes with Andrea Benvenuti June 21, 2017 12:00
With the recent publication of his new book, Cold War and Decolonisation: Australia’s Policy towards Britain’s End of Empire in Southeast Asia, Andrea Benvenuti seeks to challenge popular views—and misconceptions—of Australian relations with its neighbouring region during the Cold War. Moreover, Benvenuti, a senior lecturer in International Relations and European Studies at the University of New South Wales, offers a fresh and incisive look at the Australian perspective during the emergence of independent Southeast Asian nations and the collapse of British colonial rule.
In this edition of Five Minutes With …, Dr Benvenuti debunks the myths surrounding Australian political history, particularly those regarding the Menzies government, transplants his Cold War observations into the current political climate, and shares his upcoming projects.
What attracted you to the Australian policy perspective of the Cold War?
One of the enduring myths in Australian political history is that Australia failed to pursue an independent foreign policy in Asia during the early Cold War. As the story goes, under the Liberal–Country Party Coalition government of Sir Robert Menzies (1949–66) Australia overplayed the threat of international communism and became closely aligned with the United States and Britain in an effort to contain the spread of communism in Asia. However, by identifying itself too closely with American and British Cold War policies in Asia, the Menzies government, it is said, foreclosed any chance of engaging meaningfully with its neighbouring region and of developing a distinctive regional role for Australia. The underlying assumption here is that Australia would probably have been better off pursuing a neutralist foreign policy.
Robert Menzies (left) meets with US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara at the Pentagon in 1964
(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons).
I have never been persuaded by these kinds of arguments and I thought I ought to find out more. I hope my book will provide a less distorted appreciation of Australia’s Cold War role in Asia and thus make a significant contribution to a better understanding of Australian policy concerns and interests, in a region of paramount strategic, political and economic importance.
What insights does your book offer on Australian foreign policy and relations with Southeast Asia that other historians may have neglected?
Another enduring myth in Australian history and politics is the idea that the Menzies years stand as a blot on the relationship between Australia and Southeast Asia. In Australian universities, scores of undergraduate and postgraduate students are taught to believe that Menzies’ conservative government had little interest in forging close and enduring links with Southeast Asia. According to the prevailing academic wisdom (one that is often embraced with gusto by the Australian media), Menzies’ Anglophilia and his keenness to nurture close ties with Australia’s ‘great and powerful friends’ (the US and Britain) prevented Australia from developing closer regional ties. Only with the arrival of Gough Whitlam at The Lodge (the Australian Prime Minister’s residence in Canberra) in 1972 did Australia begin to seriously engage with the region.
Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth and my book shows just how grotesque this view is. Under Menzies, Australia pursued a policy of active and sustained regional engagement. Southeast Asia’s political stability and economic prosperity were of utmost importance to Menzies’ Australia, and the Liberal–Country Party government acted accordingly by placing regional engagement at the forefront of its foreign policy.
A clip of Gough Whitlam’s 1974 visit to the Philippines, which was part of a Southeast Asian tour to strengthen ties between the region and Australia. Whitlam also visited Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, and Burma. (Source: Whitlam Institute YouTube Channel; footage courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive and the National Archives of Australia [NAA 4423/31]).
The Menzies government expressed approval of Malaya and Singapore’s bids for merger and independence from British rule. How has this endorsement shaped Australia’s relations with Malaysia and Singapore since the Cold War era?
It has no doubt contributed to drawing Australia closer to Malaysia and Singapore, and forging an enduring and deep relationship with them.
In light of increasing nationalism amongst certain world powers, what lessons on navigating security and international relations from your book might be applicable today?
It is often difficult to compare the world of the 1950s or 1960s with our own. When I talk to my undergraduate students about the early Cold War years in Southeast Asia, I sometimes feel as if I am talking to them about ancient history, given that so much has changed at international and regional levels since then. With this proviso in mind, I venture to offer one possible lesson: as the history of modern Singapore and Malaysia clearly shows, regional political stability and economic prosperity are best maintained through a continuing and robust Western engagement with the region and vice-versa. Beijing’s version of ‘Asia for the Asians’ is really in no one’s interest.
What are your current research projects?
I am currently working on two projects: the first deals with Western (American, British and Australian) responses to the emergence of non-alignment in Asia during the 1950s and early 1960s. The second examines the role and impact of Western military power and strategic foreign policy in the ordering and re-ordering of Asia between 1919 and 1989. It is a collaborative international project sponsored by the Department of History at the National University of Singapore and led by Professor Brian Farrell.
The Challenges of Mapping Singapore’s Permanent Territorial Transformations June 2, 2017 14:30
On May 29, Professor Rodolphe De Koninck launched his latest book, Singapore’s Permanent Territorial Revolution: Fifty Years in Fifty Maps, at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. As the third book in a series of Professor De Koninck’s noted atlases—the first was released in 1992, and the second, in 2008—the event saw a huge turnout consisting of local artists, students, heritage advocates, and established local academics.
(Image credit: Sebastian Song)
Professor De Koninck described his early fascination and subsequent research on farmers and vegetable traders in a post-colonial Singapore. He related how his series of atlases was borne out of an unnerving sense of displacement he felt as a returning researcher, having lost his bearings many times in a constantly developing Singapore. In particular, he recalled being struck by the aspirations of his Singaporean friends who, despite having their daily lives dramatically altered by the massive urban transformations of the late 20th century, had taken in all these changes without complaint.
“No other city in the world experiences such rapid and systematic transformations.”
(Image credit: Sebastian Song)
Comparing the urban developments that have unfolded in capitals across the world, Professor De Koninck declared that the territorial evolutions of Singapore are of an unprecedented scale, subsequently proposing the hypotheses at the heart of his book: (1) the resignation of Singaporeans towards socio-economic transformations are in part due to the permanent transformations of the urban landscape, and more importantly, (2) the transient nature of local spaces allows for only a single dimension of territorial allegiance: that of the Singaporean state.
“Nothing is sacred, nothing is permanent, nothing is culturally untouchable.”
(Image credit: Patricia Karunungan)
Bringing the audience into a preliminary view of his book, Professor De Koninck presented the nature of territorial alienation faced by Singaporeans through a vast and fascinating series of maps. These included: the diachronic mapping of changes in the population spread, the distribution of religious places of worship, military training grounds, burial sites and the like. The constant marginalisation, and in some cases, destruction, of culturally sacred spaces, he argued, has precipitated a cultural phenomenon in which “nothing is sacred, nothing is permanent, nothing is culturally untouchable”.
Throughout the talk, Professor De Koninck also debunked several myths—such as that of land scarcity—and raised keen observations surrounding changes in the territoriality and topography of Singapore, such as the non-intentional softening of violent urban transformations in the effervescence of nature alongside roads.
(Image credit: Sebastian Song)
At the end of the talk, Professor De Koninck and members of the audience engaged in a heated Q&A session where they grappled with issues surrounding territory and topography, the alienation of heritage and history from individuals, as well as the politics of identity.
(Image credits: Sebastian Song)
In light of the increasing and galvanising public outcry surrounding the demolition of sites such as Bukit Brown Cemetery, the lessons to be gleaned from Singapore’s Permanent Territorial Revolution, in particular, its comprehensive insights into a Singapore rarely remembered, are now more relevant than ever.
The book is available for purchase in-store at NUS Press and on our online webstore.
Author Events: Ann Wee and Rodolphe De Koninck May 19, 2017 12:00
We’re pleased to announce that two NUS Press authors will be having events in Singapore towards the end of May.
Meet Ann Wee at Kinokuniya (May 27)
Mrs Ann Wee, author of A Tiger Remembers: The Way We Were in Singapore, will be appearing at Kinokuniya Main Store (Ngee Ann City) on Saturday, May 27 at 4pm.
Born in the year of the Tiger, Ann Wee moved to Singapore in 1950 to marry into a Singaporean Chinese family. Affectionately observed and wittily narrated, A Tiger Remembers: The Way We Were in Singapore brings to life Singapore’s social transformation.
A finalist for ‘Best Non-Fiction Title’ for the 2017 Singapore Book Awards, this book captures the things that Ann Wee remembers but history books have left out – questions of hygiene, terms of endearment, the emotional nuance in social relations, rural clan settlements, migrant dormitories, and more.
(Image credit: Ann Wee)
Admission is free—just drop by the Kinokuniya Main Store at 4pm next Saturday!
Talk by Prof Rodolphe De Koninck: The Challenges of Mapping Singapore’s Permanent Territorial Transformations (May 29)
Rodolphe De Koninck will be presenting a talk at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore on Monday, May 29, 4 – 6.30pm.
Over a period of nearly 25 years, Singapore’s territorial transformations have been the object of three atlases by Professor De Koninck. The first appeared in 1992, the second in 2008, and Professor De Koninck’s latest book, Singapore’s Permanent Territorial Revolution: Fifty Years in Fifty Maps will be published at the end of the month.
Ever since Singapore became an independent nation in 1965, its government has been intent on transforming the island’s environment. This has led to a nearly constant overhaul of the landscape, whether still natural or already manmade. No stone is left unturned, literally, and, one could add, nor is a single cultural feature, be it a house, a factory, a road or a cemetery.
(Image credit: Wilson Pang)
By constantly “replanning” the rules of access to space, Professor De Knoninck shows that the Singaporean State has been redefining territoriality, even in its minute details. This is one reason it has been able to consolidate its control over civil society, peacefully and to an extent rarely known in history.
The talk will be devoted to the presentation of how Singapore’s Permanent Territorial Revolution was produced and, more importantly, to a summary and explanation of its contents and conclusions.
Admission is free but you are encouraged to register your interest with the Asia Research Institute.
Five Minutes with Wataru Kusaka May 5, 2017 11:00
In this edition of Five Minutes with …, we speak with Wataru Kusaka, author of Moral Politics in the Philippines: Inequality, Democracy and the Urban Poor, who spent a year living in a slum/informal settlement in Metro Manila during his postgraduate studies. Dr Kusaka shares why he is deeply interested and invested in the study of civil society in the Philippines; why cultural anthropology and politics are a perfect disciplinary pairing, and why the moralization of politics is important to understanding the rise of populist politics around the world—from Trump to Duterte.
What piqued your interest in cultural anthropology and politics in Southeast Asia and the wider region?
I first became interested in the region when, as a naïve teenager, I was shocked to learn about the atrocities committed by the Japanese imperial army during World War Two (WWII). That, together with the huge economic gap between Japan and Southeast Asian countries after WWII, drove me to expose myself to other Asian countries and cultures. I wished to change my positionality (which has been embedded in Japanese society) and mingle with local people as if I was one of them. Perhaps I wanted to breach the border that separates me and other people in the region. I became an active member of student-run NGOs, which had various projects of building simple infrastructure in Leyte, Philippines. This activity gave me opportunities to deepen my relation with the country and people. During my time as a political science undergraduate, I wanted to go beyond conventional political science theory and make my study more human-centric.
Dr Kusaka listening to some locals singing, and sharing coconut wine at nipa huts in Albuera, Leyte in August 2004 (note the graffiti) (Photo credit: Wataru Kusaka)
James C. Scott’s works* inspired me to combine political science and anthropology. I was also lucky to have two different supervisors in my interdisciplinary graduate school: Professor Hiromu Shimiz (a cultural anthropologist and Philippine studies expert) and Professor Seiki Okazaki (a political theory expert). Under their supervision, I developed my own approach that bridges concepts of normative political theory and grass roots realities in the field. I use the latter to examine and develop the former.
In your preface, you mention that your interest in the Philippines dates back to the early 2000s, when you were enthralled by the charm and wisdom of the Philippines, its peoples, and the way strong sense of civil society that exists in the country, as compared to Japanese people who tend(ed) to rely heavily on the state. Would you say that this comparison still stands in 2017?
I think the contrast is still valid. In the Philippines, the state has yet to provide a comprehensive welfare program to guarantee security for life to the people despite its high economic growth. Relationships in kinship group and civil society are much more important for one’s life than the state. On the other hand, the situation in Japan is getting worse because the state has further cut the country’s social budget and the private sector promotes flexible (and therefore less “stable”) forms of employment, giving us a sense of insecurity of life in a society where custom and network of mutual help has seriously been weakened.
Despite different degrees of mutual help that exists within societies, the conditions of “pre-welfare state” and “post-welfare state” overlap under neo-liberalism, and the linear developmental perspective that frames Philippines as a “developing country” and Japan as a “developed country” is no longer factual. Rather, I believe we need to identify commensurability between the two worlds so that we can share and learn each other’s ideas and practices for the betterment of our future.
You have written papers** on urban poor and Hansen disease patients in the Philippines, Filipino entertainers in Japan, and recently started a project on LGBT politics in Asia. Would you say that identity politics and the desire/need for representation are running threads in your research?
I have worked on very diverse topics because my friends kindly invited me to various research projects. Sometimes I feel like I do not have any consistent theme but I recently realized that I have chosen topics that are related to politics of the morally marginalized. I initially developed the view though my one-year fieldwork in a slum or informal settlement in Metro Manila. Although the dominant argument of civil society holds that moral citizens are indispensable for democracy, I realized that the urban poor, supporting their humble livelihoods from squatting or street vending, could not simply survive without breaking the law. With this finding, I started thinking that moral discourses that uphold civic values paradoxically justify marginalization, criminalization and elimination of those who have been framed as “immoral non-citizens.” I expanded my topic from the urban poor to other cases to demonstrate the argument.
You mention in your book that the "moralization of politics" refers to the transformation of interest politics, centered around resource distribution, into moral politics predicated on definitions of right and wrong. Under President Rodrigo Duterte, do you think his policies (especially his drug wars) have exacerbated existing divisions within society?
The moral antagonism I discuss in the book was contested along the class cleavage but it has changed its characteristics under the Benigno Aquino III and Rodrigo Duterte administrations. Aquino called for moral nationalism based on “civic decency” and implemented it though social policies such as conditional cash transfer which gave poor mothers cash incentives to encourage them to discipline their family.
A voter education poster in Pantranco, Quezon City in May 2004. It reads "Accept money, [but] vote your conscience" (Photo credit: Wataru Kusaka)
A major assumption behind it was that the poor were trapped by poverty because they lacked morality. However, not all of them were able to or willing to become “good citizens” because of structural limitations or reaction against moral intervention from the authority, which constructed the division between “good poor” deserved to be saved and helpless “bad poor.” Human rights violence under Duterte is generally tolerated because it mainly targets the latter poor, framing them as “hardheaded drug criminals.” In this sense there is a complicity between the moral-based social policy and extra-judicial killing.
Your book puts the spotlight on moral antagonism, followed by the rise of populism in the class divided Philippine civil society. Do you think that your argument of moral politics will help others understand the global trend of populism?
In many parts of the world, liberal democratic values are in decline and “populist” leaders have come to the forefront by exploiting the resentment of people who believe such values have, albeit its universal appeal, only further enriched elites. The Philippines is a good example of this, having experienced persistent inequality under American liberal democratic institutions. While growing global inequality brought about the rise of populism against liberal democratic values, the contestation involves not only interest politics over resource allocation, but also moral politics over authorities’ definitions of “good” and “evil.”
People crowding an outdoor polling place in Pechayan in May 2004
(Photo credit: Wataru Kusaka)
There will continue to be controversy within societies on whether liberal democratic values should be revived, or if different politics and values should be established and entrenched, which easily escalates the difference of ideas into moral antagonism. Conflict in interest politics can be addressed by adjustment of resource allocation but moral antagonism is hard to be reconciled. To make matters worse, such moral antagonism ends up increasing resentment within civil society and does not address the structural issue of unequal distribution of wealth. I am afraid that discourses of political correctness may also have a similar paradox of dividing society into the dichotomy of “good” and “evil.” I believe creating a new channel of deliberation beyond moral dichotomy is important to “tame” antagonism so to speak, and address inequality.
What are some projects you are working on now, and what are some topics you will be working on in the future?
Since the publication of the Japanese edition of Moral Politics in the Philippines in 2013, I have worked on how people can create mutuality beyond various moral divisions. I seek to highlight and understand another aspect of the Philippines: the spontaneous, autonomous, and anarchist creation of social order based on mutuality of the people. Stemming from this research interest, I have written a paper on the Filipino community in Japan as well as a paper on Hansen disease patients in Culion, and started new research on sexual minorities. I hope that these studies will create new knowledge on individual and collective survival in increasingly difficult times where we cannot rely on the state to provide for welfare and security.
* NUS Press published the Southeast Asian edition of James C. Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.
** For more information on Dr Kusaka's work, check out his website (posts in Japanese and English).
World Book Day 2017 April 21, 2017 16:00
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), seeks to promote reading, publishing and the protection of copyright through World Book Day, which falls on 23 April every year.
This year, we are celebrating World Book Day by offering a 20% discount on ALL titles on our web store from April 21-23. Use the promo code WBD2017 to enjoy this discount!
Before browsing through our catalogue, here are some fun facts you ought to know about World Book Day:
- April 23 was selected to be the official date for World Book Day in remembrance of the deaths of two major authors: William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes.
- Conakry, Guinea, has been designated World Book Capital 2017, in recognition of its programme to promote reading among youth and underprivileged sections of the population.
- Capital cities in Asia that were previously designated to be World Book Capitals include New Delhi, India (2003), Bangkok, Thailand (2013), and Incheon, South Korea (2015).
- The United Kingdom celebrates World Book Day on March 2 but it celebrates World Book Night on the night of April 23 every year. On World Book Night, books are given out across the UK with a focus on reaching those who do not regularly read across different sectors of society. Books are also gifted through organisations such as prisons, libraries, colleges, hospitals, care homes and homeless shelters.
- Did you know that approximately 6 billion people have access to a mobile phone? UNESCO has shone the spotlight on mobile reading, which has grown exponentially with growing numbers of people reading books and stories on inexpensive mobile phones. In Southeast Asia, NGOs such as Aide et Action have started equipping children in Laos and Cambodia with e-learning devices and e-books to create conducive and communal reading environments.
Happy World Book Day!
Two NUS Press Titles Shortlisted for the 2017 Singapore Book Awards April 7, 2017 10:00
We are pleased that two NUS Press titles have been shortlisted for two categories in this year’s Singapore Book Awards.
Best Non-Fiction Title Finalist
In A Tiger Remembers, Ann Wee, born in the Year of the Fire Tiger, pays homage to the things history books often deem insignificant — questions of hygiene, terms of endearment, the emotional nuance in social relations, stories of ghost wives and changeling babies, rural clan settlements and migrant dormitories, the things that changed when families moved from squatter settlements into public housing.
Affectionately observed and wittily narrated, with a deep appreciation of how far Singapore has come, this book brings to life the story of social change through a focus on the institution of the family. The late S. R. Nathan is "certain that this memoir will be absorbed in society and will serve as a conversation piece to learn about the various aspects of our past heritage and culture."
Best Illustrated Non-Fiction Title
The history of Singapore's Chinese community has been carved in stone and wood throughout the country. Professor Kenneth Dean and Dr Hue Guan Thye's Chinese Epigraphy in Singapore, 1819-1911 looks specifically at 62 Chinese temples, native place associations, clan and guild halls, where epigraphs were made between 1819 to 1911 are still found today. Over the course of four years, Professor Dean and Dr Hue visited more than 400 locations to record, photography, analyse and translate these inscriptions into English. These epigraphs are now faithfully reproduced with more than 1,300 illustrations in these two volumes.
The Singapore Book Awards is an industry award for books published in Singapore. Into its third edition, the awards shine the spotlight on the quality of published works and celebrate the achievements of the local publishing industry.
This year’s award winners will be announced at an Awards Ceremony at Pan Pacific Singapore on April 20, 2017. For more information about the Singapore Book Awards and other award categories, click here.
How did Indonesia become an Archipelagic State? March 31, 2017 10:00
Until the middle of the 1950s nearly all the waters lying between the islands of Indonesia were as open to the ships of all nations as were the waters in the middle of the great oceans. These waters belonged to no state nor did any state claim any form of jurisdiction over them. As a consequence, Indonesia was made up of hundreds of pieces of territory separated from one another by high seas. Then, suddenly, on 13 December 1957, the cabinet of Prime Minister Djuanda Kartawidjaja declared that the Indonesian government had “absolute sovereignty” over all the waters lying within straight baselines drawn between the outermost islands of Indonesia.
How, in the face of powerful global opposition, did Indonesia eventually gain recognition of what became known as the archipelagic state concept? That is the story told by John G. Butcher and R.E. Elson’s Sovereignty and the Sea: How Indonesia Became an Archipelgaic State.
Here is an excerpt from the book:
In an atmosphere of crisis and extreme anti-Dutch feelings Djuanda’s cabinet met on the night of Friday, 13 December 1957. The meeting began by discussing the political situation inside Indonesia and President Sukarno’s health. It then, according to Danusaputro’s account, turned its attention to the Dutch “warships cruising ‘the Java Sea and the seas of Eastern Indonesia’”. “Without exception all the discussion was aimed at finding a way to prevent and respond to the Dutch ‘show of force’ so that a great deal of thought focused on how to ‘close’ the Java Sea and other Indonesian seas for Dutch warships.” With this goal very much in mind cabinet then began consideration of the draft law prepared by the interdepartmental committee.
Djuanda Kartawidjaja, the 11th and final Prime Minister of Indonesia (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons).
As best we can reconstruct the sequence of events that evening, Colonel Pirngadi, who was accompanied by staff carrying maps, was then called into the meeting to answer questions about the draft law. Immediately after Pirngadi emerged Mochtar was asked to enter the cabinet chamber. As he was about to go in he was waylaid at the door by Chairul Saleh. Chairul had suddenly had the idea that Indonesia’s territorial sea should be 17 miles wide, since seventeen was a “sacred number” for Indonesia, which declared its independence on 17 August 1945, but he abandoned it after Mochtar insisted that the government would have enough trouble defending 12 miles. Once Mochtar had finally entered the cabinet chamber, Djuanda asked him to explain the difference between straight baselines and normal baselines and then asked him a series of questions about the straight baselines on the map he had prepared for Chairul Saleh.
Indonesian waters according to the map accompanying Law No. 4 of 1960. This map has been redrawn from the map accompanying Law No. 4 (Full image credit is available on p. 502 of the book).
After Mochtar left the chamber cabinet began debate. When the ministers concluded that the draft law could not possibly provide a response to the “Dutch actions” they shifted their attention to the declaration being sponsored by Chairul. There followed a “lively and deep exchange of views” about the consequences of making this declaration. The ministers considered the ICJ’s ruling in the Anglo-Norwegian Fisheries case, the Philippine example, and the discussion the ILC had had regarding article 10 of its draft convention. The majority of ministers believed that the declaration would not only meet the government’s needs at that particular time but also protect Indonesia’s interests in the long term.
Ministers were apparently fully aware of the reasons for the interdepartmental committee’s rejection of the “point to point” concept for, according to Danusaputro, some highlighted the great burden that implementing the declaration would place on the government, but this did not dissuade them from believing that the declaration provided the best means of achieving the government’s objectives. After the discussion broadened into a consideration of a wide range of issues including fisheries Djuanda, “at an extremely critical moment”, proposed that the ministers focus entirely on the basic question of the nature and extent of Indonesia’s maritime jurisdiction and leave discussion of other issues to another time. Cabinet readily agreed. Subsequently, according to Danusaputro,
Discussing the issue of maritime jurisdiction in connection with the issue of the “Dutch demonstration of military might” and “the undermining caused by regional rebellion”, PM Djuanda advanced the concept that the “archipelago principle” be applied to the “Indonesian archipelago” with all its consequences, and that the determination would be taken in a political manner.
The Indonesian delegation to the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, Geneva, 1958.
Ahmad Subardjo Djoyoadisuryo is third from left, Mochtar Kusumaatmadja third from right
(Photo credit: Indonesian Spectator, 1 April 1958).
Whatever the ministers had in mind, Indonesian newspapers regarded the declaration as primarily a security measure. There was some confusion about whether the declaration had in fact already given the government new powers. When a reporter asked Djuanda on 14 December whether it meant that the Dutch warships reportedly in “Indonesian waters” were now “violating Indonesia’s territorial sovereignty”, he would only say that the government had yet to issue an interpretation of the declaration on this matter. An unnamed “high official”, however, insisted that even though the government had not yet passed laws implementing the declaration it did indeed have the power to act against foreign ships violating Indonesian sovereignty.
Against the backdrop of speculation about the immediate security implications of the declaration Mochtar went out of his way in a talk he gave on 29 December to counter the view that the declaration had been motivated by Indonesia’s conflict with the Netherlands. While acknowledging that the conflict had “strengthened the feeling that such a change was necessary”, he portrayed it primarily as a step any state with a weak navy, tiny merchant marine, and undeveloped fishing industry would take to protect its interests, a reflection of the unity of Indonesia, and a natural extension of well-established principles in international law. Reasonable though all this seemed to Mochtar himself and the Indonesian government, the maritime powers were outraged, as Indonesians were already beginning to find out.
To read more about Sovereignty and the Sea, click here.
Five Minutes with Southeast of Now March 24, 2017 11:00
This month marks the official launch of Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia, a new journal devoted to art in Southeast Asia (and the wider region). The journal's inaugural issue has been launched at several events across Southeast Asia, engaging scholarly as well as artistic and curatorial publics.
In January, the journal had a soft launch that coincided with the Singapore Biennale Symposium at the National Museum of Singapore, and an informal launch was held earlier this month at the Jim Thompson Art Center in Bangkok to coincide with the exhibition People, Money, Ghosts (Movement as Metaphor).
In this edition of Five Minutes with …, we caught up with the editorial collective—Isabel Ching, Thanavi Chotpradit, Brigitta Isabella, Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez, Yvonne Low, Vera Mey, Roger Nelson, Simon Soon, and Vuth Lyno—to discuss the complexities of an exisiting “gap” about contemporary art in Southeast Asia, the decision to have a thematic focus of “discomfort”, and what readers can expect in future issues of Southeast of Now.
In the editorial to this inaugural issue of Southeast of Now, you express a desire to address a gap in current scholarship about contemporary art in Southeast Asia. Could you briefly account for the nature and complexities of this gap? Why aren’t enough people writing about contemporary art in the region and, even so, why aren’t writers framing their research “historically”?
Yvonne Low: Saying that there is a gap in current scholarship about contemporary art in Southeast Asia does not mean that there aren’t any writings on and about the contemporary; on the contrary, there are a lot. Such writings however are frequently curatorially driven or biennially-driven (if such a term maybe used). In some instances, such as in Indonesia, writings on contemporary art are commissioned by collectors. For all these reasons, research and writing on contemporary art in Southeast Asia are often skewed toward particular collections, personal or public; they may be responding to particular themes or have had to meet particular objectives. With the exception of the rare few publications (for example,T. K Sabapathy's Intersecting Histories: Contemporary Turns in Southeast Asian Art) that make a serious attempt to look at the region’s contemporary art historically, mapping commonalities and shared pasts, and identifying intersections and inter-/intra-regional developments, the far more common approach taken of contemporary is to view it as ahistorical, an artistic phenomenon that does not have any precedence, when this is clearly not true. And especially not when conditions that led to the rise of contemporary art in the region was traceable to as early as the seventies.
The First Southeast Asia Art Competition Exhibition, Manila, 12 May 1957
(Courtesy of Vanessa Ban. Original Source can be found in the MoMA Archives, New York IC/IP I.A.408)
You settled on “Discomfort” as the theme for the first Call For Papers. What sort of provocations did you hope to invite?
Editorial Collective: To adapt the words used in the Call For Papers and the editorial from the inaugural issue, the provocations that the Southeast of Now editorial collective wanted to invite were pieces that reflect on the burdens and future possibility of wielding “regionalism” as a framework. The playful disquiet evoked by the title of the journal, which troubles linear notions of space-time and destablises any certainty of an imagined temporal centre, gave rise to the first theme. “Discomfort” locates this source of tension and anxiety as a productive register to explore various discursive stakes, propelled by new urgencies, orientations, and motivations; and perhaps discover therein some comfort, even if merely within shared discomfort.
Image from Sharmini Pereira with P. Kirubalini, “Searching for Discomfort” (an essay from the inaugural issue of Southeast of Now)
Alongside traditional academic writing, the Artists’ Projects section in this issue features fascinating work by artists such as Shooshie Sulaiman, who is based in Kuala Lumpur, and a transcribed conversation between artist Tom Nicholson, curator Grace Samboh and the late Edhi Sunarso, who was supposedly “Sukarno’s most trusted sculptor”. How do you see this section evolving as a space for creating discourses about contemporary Southeast Asian art? What, in your opinion, are the curatorial possibilities here?
Vera Mey: It was important for us to create an open platform within the journal where we could pair artistic responses to the various journal themes we have planned. We also wanted to have the possibility for an artistic response which could be purely visual alongside more scholarly articles and written work. A lot of contemporary artists are engaged in artistic research and have different ways of demonstrating this beyond writing an article, essay or review. In the case of the transcript in the video work by Tom Nicholson with Grace Samboh we also wanted a place where this kind of research material, in this case generated from an interview of a video work, could travel beyond the site of the physical exhibition in which it was originally viewed, which was the Jakarta Biennale. Within the context of the journal it is not only an artwork to be experienced; it is also a primary source of research material about an aspect of Indonesia's art history.
There are endless curatorial possibilities here. The artists' pages could be a space for a specifically curated space of images or texts either by a member of the editorial collective, a guest curator, or someone with a desire to respond to our call for proposals. This follows new approaches to publishing where printed matter is considered equally an exhibitionary format in two-dimensional form. In future issues we will also alternate between archival pages from various archives within and beyond the region and the artists’ pages.
With the opening of National Gallery Singapore in 2015 and the upcoming opening of Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (Museum MCAN) in Jakarta, it appears as if substantial investments, whether from public institutions or private individuals, are being channeled to the area of contemporary art. Where do you think a journal of critical scholarship such as Southeast of Now might fit, given its context?
Brigitta Isabella: The infrastructure of public and private institutions in Southeast Asia cannot be generalized as having similar nature and agendas. Its characters are contingent on the context of relationship between artists, curators, the state and the market inside the local art scene. Within this context, there are different power plays shaped by politics of nationalism, commercialization of art and commodification of culture, as well as narratives of resilience from minor artists and alternative spaces that also greatly contribute to the practice of contemporary art. Framing an apt critique of art institution in the region certainly cannot follow the discourse of institutional critique within the Western art system and here the journal is trying to present a necessarily historical perspective to understand the shifting cultural context in Southeast Asia. Another fact to consider is the lack of educational infrastructure of art history in most countries in Southeast Asia, so, in a way, the journal serves as a trans-local container and a discursive space for creating encounters between critical scholarships of contemporary and modern art produced in, from and around the region.
What other conversations do you foresee happening within the pages of future volumes of Southeast of Now?
Roger Nelson: The categories of “contemporary and modern art,” indeed of “art” in general, are obviously terms we consider to be open for debate just as much as the category of “Southeast Asia” itself. Given this, we anticipate continuing to trouble and denaturalise these categories, including through looking at aspects of culture that don't usually qualify as “art,” and also through treating the region's borders as fluid, and looking at research that transcend these borders.
But in all this, we remain committed to the importance of an historical approach, however interwoven with methodologies from other disciplines and practices that historical approach might also be. We would be delighted if future issues of the journal can look further back in time, to the 19th century (and before), and perhaps can place this historical research in dialogue with issues of today (and the future).
International Women's Day 2017 March 8, 2017 15:23
Will you #BeBoldForChange on International Women's Day 2017? This year’s campaign calls for action to drive change and progress for women and create a “more gender inclusive” working world. This comes in light of recent projections by the World Economic Forum that—with the current state of affairs—the gender gap in workplaces will not close entirely until 2186.
In line with this year's theme, we have foregrounded women who have moved beyond the stifling limitations of gender norms and become leaders in their own right to enact groundbreaking change for their communities.
First on our list is Ann Wee (author of A Tiger Remembers: The Way We Were in Singapore), the founding mother of social work in Singapore. In 1955, she became a training office at the Social Welfare Department, responsible for counseling low-income families in their homes.
(Image courtesy of Ann Wee)
Later, Wee helped shape social work education in Singapore for undergraduates, establishing an Honours degree course for social workers. Responding to a question of what inclusivity means to her, Wee said, “(The) gender gap will close more easily if society emphasises 'parenthood' rather than just 'motherhod'. Inclusivity must include an ethos that not only gives men legal family rights, but makes it okay for them to exercise these rights.”
In the academic discipline of art history, we chatted with Sarah Tiffin, author of Southeast Asia in Ruins: Art and Empire in the Early 19th Century, who talked about female art historians she admired and their contributions to this field: “I remember that as an undergraduate in my first year of an art history degree, the work of Marcia Pointon, Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock was a revelation to me. Their writings taught me how to think critically, how to probe for the subtle undercurrents of meaning that lie hidden within an image. Instead of just looking at what was depicted, they taught me to ask how and why.”
(Image courtesy of Sarah Tiffin)
Shifting our perspective to a historical one, nationalist movements within Southeast Asia tend to adopt a male centric perspective. We read about the struggles of national heroes (usually male) against imperialism and their journeys to becoming the founders of Southeast Asian nation-states. Yet, little attention is given to the role of women who toiled alongside their male counterparts.
Susan Blackburn and Helen Ting’s edited volume, Women in Southeast Asian Nationalist Movements provides a more in-depth appreciation of such hidden figures. We have put the spotlight on two key figures:
Daw San (Burma)
“Daw San”, the pen name of Ma San Youn, was a pioneering nationalist in colonial Burma. Single handedly running the popular weekly newspaper Independent Weekly as an editor and author, Daw San was known for her prolific writings, which often underscored her nationalist and feminist aspirations. Partaking in local and trans-local women’s movements, she sought to make the Burmese government and political elites more accountable to the masses.
Suyatin Kartowiyono (Indonesia)
Remembered as the leader of the women’s movement in Indonesia, Suyatin Kartowiyono organized the first Indonesian women’s congress and became the founder of the secular women’s organization Perwari. Devoting herself to the burgeoning women’s movement and nationalist movement, she became a leader in raising women’s awareness of belonging within the Indonesian nation, demanding for radical changes in Indonesian society and public policy.
For more books on/about women and their social, political and cultural impact, check out our selection of titles. Happy International Women’s Day!
Five Minutes with Ronald McCrum February 24, 2017 10:00
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore. Considered one of the greatest defeats in the history of the British Army during World War Two, retired British Army Officer and military historian, Ronald McCrum, undertakes a close examination of the role and the responsibilities of the colonial authorities in his new book, The Men Who Lost Singapore, 1938-1942.
In this edition of Five Minutes With ..., we talk to Colonel McCrum to get his insights on how his military background helped his research, his history and ties with Southeast Asia, and whether co-ordination between civil authorities and military bodies has improved nearly eight decades on.
How did you come to be interested in the military history of this particular region?
My interest in military history was, I suppose, inevitable. At 18 years of age, I decided to become a soldier and at Sandhurst, the officer training college, part of the curriculum is military history and it fascinated me. In any case, it was now my chosen profession and I almost felt duty bound to understand something of the trials and tribulations of my predecessors.
The Far East, Malaya/Malaysia and Singapore were of particular interest because I spent a lot of my life in these parts. I first came to the area not long after the end of the war (1948/49?)—my father was then stationed in Nee Soon. We lived just outside Johor Bahru and I went to ‘English College’ in Johor Bahru. After a period in England, we returned to Malaya, this time to Kuala Lumpur (KL) and I went to Victoria Institution in KL. So the formative years of my life were in this part of the world.
McCrum in Germany (Iserlohn), 1981
(Image credit: Ronald McCrum)
In your book you discuss the various factors leading up to Singapore’s downfall, particularly how the preparation and execution of British defence strategies were addled by the conflicting views, interests and priorities of the military and civil authorities. In what ways has your military experience allowed you to be more attuned to these issues?
In 1965, after I had been a commissioned officer in the British Army for a number of years, an opportunity arose to be seconded for a period to the Malaysia Armed Forces and I accepted. I was sent to the Malaysian Military College at Sungei Besi just outside KL as an instructor. While in Malaysia my first two sons were born, the first shortly after we arrived and the second just before we returned to UK. And then surprisingly in 1970 after completing a year’s course at the British senior officers Staff College I was sent to Singapore as the Assistant Defence Advisor to the British High Commissioner. Where I spent two and half very happy years and my third and last son was born there. All three boys have Southeast Asia in their blood.
You’ve pointed out the civil authorities were slow to recognise the impending threat of the Japanese invasion. Was this general across other European colonies in Southeast Asia, or was it particular to Singapore? Do you think issues of co-ordination between civil authorities and military bodies improved with the advent of new technologies and procedures of co-ordination today?
While in Malaysia/Singapore I was endlessly curious about how the British Forces were so easily beaten in 1941/42. And in my travels I took the chance to visit the scenes of the battles that took place. After much reading, I began to recognise that in those early days of a new form of mobile modern warfare no one escaped an enveloping invasion. Inclusive lessons of total war were quickly learnt in the West, but in the quiet backwater of South East Asia such a prospect seemed remote. Glaringly obvious afterwards was the need for a combined (civil and military) planning headquarters, with an overall supremo able to impose decisions. At that time the three military services had each their own HQ’s in different locations in Singapore and the Governor was remote in Government House. Now of course a combined planning authority is normal greatly helped, of course, by modern communications. I cannot think of a current example where the civil and military authorities do not work closely together towards a common aim. A good instance in the Far East, after the war, was the combined operations of all the authorities in Malaya planning the defeat of the communist terrorists during the Malayan Emergency.
McCrum in Israel, 1988
(Image credit: Ronald McCrum)
What also struck me as grossly negligent was the poor, indeed almost non-existent, liaison between the Colonial Office and the War Office in London. One was demanding increased production of tin and rubber and the other telling the military they had to employ local labour to prepare defences. The same labour that was required on the rubber estates and the tin mines. There were of course a number of other very important factors that played a crucial part in the defeat, but the authorities quarrelling on basic matters like this did not help.
What are your future plans? Are you thinking of writing another book?
I am well into researching another book. This time a biography of a significant British figure who played an important part during the Indian Mutiny of 1857.
McCrum in Singapore with an advance copy of
The Men Who Lost Singapore in early February 2017
(Image credit: Pallavi Narayan)
#BuySingLit Highlights (Part 3) February 23, 2017 14:30
In the third installment of our series on #BuySingLit highlights, we look at memoirs written by Singapore authors. Through the memoirs published here at NUS Press, the experiences and personal anecdotes shared by authors have allowed readers to learn more about their outlook on life and the world around them.
Here is a short reading list that gives you glimpses of Singapore and the wider world through different lives that have been lived.
From the Blue Windows: Recollections of Life in Queenstown, Singapore, in the 1960s and 1970s
By Tan Kok Yang
Have you ever wondered what everyday life was like in one of the earliest housing estates in Singapore during the 1960s and 1970s? In From the Blue Windows, Tan Kok Yang reminisces about life during his formative years in Queenstown. Coupled with a sense of nostalgia, Tan’s memoir pays tribute to the estate he grew up in and takes readers back to a simpler time of Singapore’s bygone past.
Born in the Year of the Fire Tiger, Ann Wee arrived in Singapore in 1950 to marry into a Singaporean Chinese family. Affectionately observed and wittily narrated, A Tiger Remembers recounts her experiences of cross-cultural learning such as domestic rituals and emotional nuances in social relations, along with various untold stories of Singapore’s past. With a strong appreciation for Singapore’s social transformation, this book provides a frank perspective on the shapes and forms of the Singapore family through the eyes of a keen social observer.
What transpires when a young Asian student finds himself in the Ireland of the 1950s? This memoir by Singaporean novelist Goh Poh Seng details his adventures as a student in a world with an entirely different milieu and culture. Through his travels in Europe and stay in Dublin, readers are able to catch a glimpse of what shaped Goh to become the writer he is known as today.
#BuySingLit Highlights (Part 2) February 22, 2017 10:00
In part 2 of our series on #BuySingLit highlights, we shift our attention to the discipline of Sociology. In the words of C Wright Mills, “neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both”. Within the local context, Singapore society provides compelling subject matters for sociological inquiry given its metamorphosis since independence.
Here are two NUS Press titles that offer in-depth perspectives of specific social phenomena in Singapore.
Remembering the Samsui Women: Migration and Social Memory in Singapore and China
By Kelvin E.Y. Low
Leaving their families behind and migrating from the Samsui region of Guangdong, China for a better life abroad, how did the Samsui women come to be icons of Singapore’s burgeoning economic transformation? How were these women, who donned the iconic “red head scarf” (红头巾), remembered for their hard work and sacrifices both in Singapore and China? Situated in the politics of social memory and the processes of remembering and forgetting, Kelvin Low explores first hand accounts of the women’s migratory experiences and how they were ultimately reinvented as industrious pioneers of Singapore through the memory appropriation of the Samsui women.
The AWARE Saga: Civil Society and Public Morality in Singapore
After the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) was helmed shortly by a Christian faction in March 2009, the controversy foregrounded issues such as religion, sex education, homosexuality, and state intervention within Singapore’s civil society. In this book, academics and public intellectuals situate the AWARE saga within the country’s political and historical context, further discussing the role of religion in Singapore’s civic society.
#BuySingLit Highlights (Part 1) February 21, 2017 10:00
NUS Press is proud to take part in the #BuySingLit campaign, the first nationwide initiative led by the local publishing industry to promote the reading and purchasing of Singapore literature. In addition to discounts on selected titles available on our web store, we are also highlighting literary and non-fiction titles in a series of blog posts throughout the week.
Our first installment showcases the Press’s literary publications.
The Collected Poems of Arthur Yap
By Arthur Yap, with an introduction by Irving Goh
Sometimes referred to as a “poet’s poet,” Arthur Yap (1943–2006) published four major collections between 1971 and 1986, all of which are now out-of-print. With color reproductions of original cover art, many of which are Yap’s own paintings, and a critical introduction by Irving Goh, this volume of collected poems represents the burgeoning of recent scholarly activity surrounding his oeuvre.
Noon at Five O’Clock: The Collected Short Stories of Arthur Yap
For the first time ever, the rarely-seen short stories of Arthur Yap are brought together in a single volume of collected work. These short stories are less sprawling tales than miniature vignettes—or what Shirley Geok-lin Lim calls “his little area of animation”—all of which proffer glimpses into a mind constantly grappling with the aesthetics of global modernism with the lived experiences of modernity in a newly independent Singapore.
If We Dream Too Long
Widely regarded as the first Singapore novel, If We Dream Too Long explores the dilemmas and challenges faced by its hero, Kwang Meng, as he navigates the difficult transitional period between youthful aspirations and the external demands of society and family. Since its first publication in 1972, Goh's novel has moved and delighted generations of readers and was most recently given a new lease of life and adapted into an interactive theatre-dinner production by Marc Nair and AndSoForth in May 2016.
Writing Singapore: An Historical Anthology of Singapore Literature
This volume, which chronologically surveys literary work from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, broadens the idea of a national literature with its inclusion of stories and poems from the Malay Annals and the Straits Chinese Magazine, as well as classic and forgotten work by Lee Kok Liang and Kassim Ahmad. With its rich offerings of primary material and criticism, Writing Singapore is an excellent resource for anyone with an interest in Singapore literature.
Remembering the Fall of Singapore February 15, 2017 12:30
On 15 February 1942, Singapore—famously dubbed the “impregnable fortress” and the final British stronghold in Southeast Asia—fell to advancing Japanese troops after a violent campaign that killed 7,000 soldiers on both sides. The Fall of Singapore was, in NUS Press author Ronnie McCrum’s words, “unprecedented in the annals of British history”; despite the portentous warnings of the Second World War erupting in the Pacific region, the surrendering of the ‘Gibraltar of the East’ to the Japanese nevertheless “stunned the British nation and the watching world.”
This week, we commemorate the events of 1942 and the Japanese Occupation with a reading list of NUS Press titles that offer in-depth perspectives of the watershed event and its aftermath:
The Men Who Lost Singapore, 1938–1942
This lively new monograph by military historian and retired British Army Officer Ronald McCrum provides an alternative perspective to existing accounts of the Fall of Singapore, all of which engage extensively with military strategy, focusing on the role of the Malaya Command. In contrast, McCrum highlights the vital role played by the civilian colonial administration, which not only failed to prepare the colony adequately for possible invasion, but also created distractions and hostile working relations with the military command. The Men Who Lost Singapore levels a fresh charge against forgotten agents in history, and significantly expands the current body of scholarship about the Asia-Pacific theater of the Second World War.
War Memory and the Making of Modern Malaysia and Singapore
Having lived through the Japanese Occupation for more than two years, how did the survivors of wartime Malaya remember and reconstruct the trauma associated with the period? How has its memory been shaped by individuals, communities, and states? What’s at stake in the very act of remembrance? Kevin Blackburn and Karl Hack present compelling and richly-illustrated instances where wartime memory and postcolonial exigencies collide, for example, in the debates around the design and construction of the Civilian War Memorial, and the representation of wartime heroism in post-war Malayan cinema.
Asian Labor in the Wartime Japanese Empire
During the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asian, thousands of Prisoners-of-War were sent to work on the Thailand–Burma Railway, which—given the dismal conditions of labor—was also dubbed the “Death Railway.” In this volume of essays, edited by Paul Kratoska, an international group of specialists on the Japanese Occupation examine the labor needs and the management of workers throughout the expanding Japanese empire, with a particular view to the experiences of Asian laborers, whose voices are often left out of mainstream narratives.
In this classic study of the Japanese Occupation and its aftermath, Cheah Boon Kheng performs the groundbreaking task of engaging with vast archives about the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army, which was a communist-led guerrilla resistance movement that formed during the Japanese Occupation and emerged as a significant force of liberation after the war. Now in its fourth edition, Red Star Over Malaya examines the ethnic and racial lines that divided Malaya after the surrender of the Japanese, and continues to shed light on the conditions that shaped Malaysia and Singapore during the turbulent period of decolonization.
New Perspectives on the Japanese Occupation of Malaya and Singapore, 1941–45
After their surrender, the Japanese military systematically destroyed war-related documents, severely limiting the range of Japanese-language primary sources about the Occupation in Singapore and Malaya. This volume represents an international effort to gather primary materials from libraries and archives in Britain, Malaysia, Singapore, USA, Australia and India, to illuminate new findings and reconstruct the history of the Japanese Occupation.
Guns of February, an equal-parts novelistic and scholarly work, highlights the experiences of the Japanese soldiers who fought during the Malayan Campaign. In this book, Henry Frei sensitively examines the prevailing ultra-nationalist ideologies that propelled young Japanese men to risk their lives for their country, and provides much-needed perspective on an imperial war fought on an impossibly alien terrain.
Playing for Malaya: A Eurasian Family in the Pacific War
Rebecca Kenneison’s Playing for Malaya is a literary and meticulously researched work that vividly describes, in minute detail, the everyday conditions of wartime Malaya. This is a memoir that depicts the experiences of a Eurasian family in Malaya during the Japanese Occupation in all its grim details, revealing in the process the intertwined registers of heroism, tragedy, and endurance.
Five Minutes with Sarah Tiffin February 10, 2017 09:00
When Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles published his landmark book The History of Java in 1817, ruins were far more than the architectural detritus of a former age. Images of ruins reminded people of the transience of human achievements, and stimulated broader philosophical enquiries into the rise and decline of entire empires. In this edition of Five Minutes with ..., we speak with Sarah Tiffin, author of Southeast Asia in Ruins: Art and Empire in the Early 19th Century, who shares with us how art history has become a useful source to understanding colonialism and why portrayals of the "Other" will continue to pique public imaginations.
Colonial art seems undervalued/understudied as a resource that could potentially yield insights into colonial perspectives and preoccupations; why do you think this is so?
Actually, I think a great deal of really interesting and thought provoking work has been done on colonial art, particularly by art historians responding to the ideas initially raised by Edward Said and the ensuing debates surrounding his work. Certainly, their work has had an influence on my own. But I think that in the area I am interested in— the work of British artists in Southeast Asia—there is room for a great deal more scholarship. So often in discussions of British art and empire, the work of British artists in Southeast Asia is overlooked. I think the dominance of India in British imperial thinking and experience has had a big part in this, and it is understandable given the huge quantity of materials that were produced as a result of British rule in India. But there is also a wealth of fascinating material relating to the British in Southeast Asia that could generate some really interesting new scholarship.
A painting by William Daniell titled, ‘The large temple at Brambánan’, from T.S. Raffles, The History of Java, Vol. 2 (London: 1817)
(Image courtesy of The Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library)
Your previous book was about the depiction of Chinese poets by a Japanese artist in the seventeenth century. Have you always been intrigued by the politics of representation behind the portrayals of a culture by others?
Do you know, I hadn’t really thought about that connection before as the starting points for my books were very different. My first book was produced for a small art exhibition that was based around a pair of Japanese screens—it explored the iconography of the screens within the context of 17th century Japan. Southeast Asia in Ruins, on the other hand, grew out of a doctoral dissertation and my studies in Southeast Asian history as well as my interest in British art. What I am particularly interested in is socio-political context, in how art reflects the society in which it is created and at the same time, it also influences that society.
In Southeast Asia in Ruins, you explore how the British saw the ruined candi as evidence of a cultural, and indeed civilisational, decline of Southeast Asian peoples. Did the British apply this line of thinking to their other colonies, or were such notions particular to the Southeast Asian region?
The linking ruins, or images of ruins, with ideas about cultural decline was an essential part of late 18th and early 19th century ruin appreciation. The remains of the past allowed people to derive a melancholic pleasure from contemplating the transience of even the most grandiose of humankind’s deeds and designs, including the demise of entire empires. For British ruin enthusiasts, the fall of civilisation was most throughly associated with Rome—most famously in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—but this thinking was also extended to the remains of past civilisations in other parts of the world. The British response to Southeast Asia’s ruins, then, was not a unique one, but part of a wider expression of ruin sentiment.
A painting by William Daniell titled ‘Prome, from the heights occupied by His Majesty’s 13th Light Infantry’, from James Kershaw, Views in the Burman Empire (London, 1831)
(Image courtesy of The Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)
What piqued your interest in images of Southeast Asian ruins that were idealised popular colonial British imagination?
When I first looked at Raffles’ The History of Java, I was struck by the beauty of Daniell’s aquatint ruin plates. I was familiar with the images of Indian architecture he and his uncle Thomas had created for the superb Oriental Scenery, but I had not seen his images of the Javanese remains before and I felt they really deserved more attention. Similarly, the engraved vignettes by a number of British printmakers that are scattered throughout Raffles’s text are really lovely and very fascinating, yet I found very little had been published on them, or on the wealth of archaeological drawings now held in the collections of the British Library, the British Museum and the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. It has been something of a labour of love, and I hope it might encourage other people to look at these wonderful collections for their own research projects.
William Daniell, A Javan in the court dress (plate from The History of Java by Thomas Stamford Raffles, London : 1817, vol. 1), coloured antiquint
(Image courtesy of the Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library)
What is your next project? Will you return to the museum/gallery scene?
I am currently working on a study of Southeast Asia in 17th century English poetry, prose, pageantry and drama, looking at how authors responded to the aspirations and experiences of English merchants then active in the region, and the changing political and economic imperatives at home and abroad. I’m keen to keep working on this project over the next couple of years, but apart from that, I’m not sure what the future holds!
(Image provided by Dr Tiffin)
Five Minutes with Ross King February 3, 2017 09:00
Memories, while often thought to be intimate personal recollections, can be
interpreted through a collective lens, where memories and experiences of individuals are weaved together to form collective memories that influence the larger community. In his latest book, Heritage and Identity in Contemporary Thailand: Memory, Place and Power, Ross King situates the notions of social memory, place and power to make sense of the production of Thai heritage and the identity of the Thai people.
In this edition of Five Minutes with, we speak with Prof King to discuss how memories and sites of memories (be it grand locations or everyday settings) contribute to and shape a country’s heritage, and whether the recent passing of the revered King Bhumibol will further polarise Thai society.
What made you decide to delve into the world of contemporary Thailand again, given that your previous book, Reading Bangkok, was also focused on the country?
Heritage and Identity in Contemporary Thailand, quite simply, emerged from my teaching in Thailand. Thai research students, in my experience, tend to be assiduous in the pursuit of good data but there is generally an inhibiting difficulty in bringing sharp, critical thinking to bear of the real issues to which those data might relate. Over the years I have supervised some 32 Thai PhD students; some have produced excellent work but it has not been internationally publishable because of the lack of self-reflection and the failure of critical thinking. My aim in Heritage and Identity was therefore to show how theoretically informed, critical thought might be mobilized to throw light on the phenomena of Thai heritage and identity.
(Image credit: Milei.vencel/ Wikimedia Commons)
What was the process of writing Heritage and Identity in Contemporary Thailand like?
It is based on 12 PhD theses and on subsequent work of those scholars. On the basis of my reading of that work I would write a chapter—an essay—that could address the book’s theme of the intersections of memory, place and power. There would then be various interchanges of ideas and drafts between myself and the 12 co-authors until I could get the manuscript to a coherent text. It was a difficult book to write because it was neither one thing nor the other—neither a consistent, single-authored book written to a tight intellectual agenda, nor an edited collection from separate, different authors. Despite the difficulties, I strongly believe that it is a powerful way to bring Southeast Asian scholars to publication, also to bring critical reflection to the work of such scholars.
In this book, there is a large focus on spaces and landscapes in Thailand, such as temples and palaces, as sites of memories. What about these places drew you to explore further into their historical background?
Heritage is always linked to memory—it is what we remember and which thereby defines who we are. And yes, I am certainly interested in the grand sites of memory such as temples and palaces; far more, however, my interest is in the ordinary ‘environments of memory’—the home, the street, the village and the memories that attach to them, for these are the real wellsprings of identity, also of creativity. Further, they are the real heritage of a people.
The book is structured in such a way that its first half dwells on the present memories that attach to ancient places: temples, palaces, remnants of past ages—to the things that might define some officially sanctioned idea of ‘the Nation’; in the second half, it moves on to memories that resonate through everyday life—a canal (khlong), a small street (soi), village, local customs, the home, family.
Fishing Village in Narathiwat
(Image credit: preetamrai/ Wikimedia Commons)
With regards to the recent passing of the revered King Bhumibol, how would the notions of memories and identities of the Thai people relate to the social cohesion of the country? Do you think his passing would deepen the polarization of the Thai community?
Thailand’s is not a unitary culture. Rather, it is an assemblage of diverse ethnicities and cultures. There is generally some sense of harmony, except in relations between central Thailand (mostly Bangkok) and the Northeast (Isan). There is a profoundly cultural base to the division—the people of Isan are, mostly, not Thai but Lao; there are language differences. The rift has stretched over centuries with its origins in ancient conflicts but, even more, in exploitation and brutality leveled by Bangkok against Isan, notably since the 1930s. Hence the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts of the present era. King Bhumibol, though controversial especially in his relationships with Thailand’s military coups, had since the 1950s expressed concerns for the depressed conditions of the Isan region. It is notable that, with King Bhumibol’s failing health in recent decades, his previous conciliatory role also failed. Simply, the new King will not be able to replicate his father’s role as the great conciliator. Polarisation will proceed apace.
Portrait painting of King Bhumibol Adulyadej
(Image credit: Government of Thailand/ Wikimedia Commons)
You mentioned in your book that Thai heritage is sustained by the “preservation of deprivation”, maintaining the entrenched inequalities amongst the Thai people. What are your thoughts on how the Thais can bridge this deep divide in their society? Is there any possibility at all?
At one level, it is heritage tourism that is thus sustained. At a deeper level, the book invokes dependency theory to demonstrate how dependency—exploitation—works at a diversity of scales throughout the society. Most seriously it underlies that rift between a Bangkok elite (royalist, middle-class, military) and a repressed Isan. So, what can be done about this? The starting point has to be an understanding of and respect for different memories and experiences—Bangkok must come to understand the tragic history and present condition of Isan, also to understand Bangkok’s continuing role in that tragedy.
Will your next research project be revisiting Thailand or has a new subject matter piqued your interest?
I have a book on Seoul to be published later this year from Hawai‘i University Press. More to the present point, I have completed a book (not yet in press) titled The Tragedy of Isan. Its argument is that the tragedy is one of mis-interpretation: the long history of the rift and its causes has been suppressed, it is not to be remembered. (Even the National Museum in Bangkok virtually ignores Isan, despite its being one-third of the country.) Instead, the rift will be explained by the elites simply as Northeasterner inferiority—“water buffaloes”, they will be labeled—while Isan perspectives will perceive the elites as forever anti-democratic. It is yet again a problem of suppressed memory, and the interpretative task—therefore the task of The Tragedy of Isan—is to strip away suppressed memory. To expose tragic history. In a more positive sense, The Tragedy of Isan is not only to interpret the tragedy and its roots, but also to celebrate the real glory of the culture of Isan and to assert that, in the richness of that heritage, are the tools of reconciliation.
Soft Launch of Southeast of Now at the National Museum of Singapore January 26, 2017 09:00
In conjunction with the Singapore Biennale 2016 Symposium, NUS Press’s newest journal dedicated to art history in the region—Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia—was launched at the National Museum of Singapore’s Gallery Theatre last Sunday (22 January).
(Image credit: Pallavi Narayan)
A panel that included renowned art historians John Clark, Patrick D. Flores and T.K. Sabapathy, NUS Press Director Peter Schoppert, as well as two members of the Southeast of Now editorial collective Simon Soon and Yvonne Low, discussed the significance of producing an academic journal dedicated to contemporary art in the region.
Left to right: Yvonne Low, Simon Soon, T.K. Sabapathy, John Clark, Patrick D. Flores
and Peter Schoppert
(Image credit: Sebastian Song)
John Clark, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Sydney, opened the session with remarks about the role of journals in forming and sustaining epistemic communities. He spoke on Southeast of Now’s potential to engage “laterally” with other clusters of research within the general field of art history and contemporary arts scholarship, and praised the “chutzpah of young art historians in the field,” citing this as evidence of a thriving community of researchers.
(Image credit: Sebastian Song)
Thereafter, T.K. Sabapathy, a leading authority on art history in Singapore and Malaysia, considered the role of publishers and university presses in fostering an environment conducive to research: “NUS Press,” he rejoined half-jokingly, “has woken up.”
Patrick D. Flores, Curator of the Vargas Museum, Manila, and a professor with the Department of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines, suggested that the journal represents a new development in the professionalization of arts research. He added that the journal also provides young arts researchers invaluable opportunities for acknowledging the “different system of knowledge-making in the region.”
(Image credit: Sebastian Song)
Peter Schoppert elaborated on the series of decisions that led to NUS Press’s acquisition of the journal. According to him, the editorial collective’s energy levels, commitment and openness were “impressive,” and, interestingly, their proposals were also accompanied by “rumours” of their ambition and ability spread by their teachers, supervisors and mentors. To end the panel, he quoted extensively from an interview—included in the first issue of the journal—with Stanley J. O’Connor, on the idea that in the face of global upheaval and changes in the production and practice of art, “nothing can be more important than the decentering of the art world,” a process which is “by no means automatic.”
(Image credit: Sebastian Song)
Southeast of Now will be published twice a year (March and October). Register with Project MUSE to enjoy free previews of Vol. 1, No. 1 (March 2017) and Vol. 2, No. 2 (October 2017). For editorial enquiries, contact the editors at email@example.com. Click here to find out more subscription rates and to subscribe to the journal.
January-June 2017 Highlights January 13, 2017 11:00
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) turns 50 this year, making The ASEAN Miracle: The Catalyst for Peace a timely tribute to the history (and future) of the regional body. Written by Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kyan Yew School of Public Policy, and Jeffrey Sng, the book highlight the strengths of the ASEAN model of international cooperation, and in the words of Amitav Acharya, the book is a “a powerful and passionate account of how, against all odds, ASEAN transformed the region.”
Turning closer to Singapore’s shores, Chua Beng Huat examines the rejection of Western-style liberalism and continued hegemony of the People’s Action Party in his thought-provoking book, Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore. Chua analyses the areas in public policies that are foundational to the political, economic and social stability of Singapore, making his book a valuable read for readers who are interested in Singapore's political economy and public affairs.
While many have lamented that countless books have already been written on the Fall of Singapore (which is commemorated on February 15, 1942), Ronald McCrum’s The Men Who Lost Singapore, 1938—1942 will be a valuable addition to the literature of the Japanese Occupation and Pacific War. Professor Greg Kennedy has commended the book as “a must-read for anyone wishing to understand why Singapore's fall occurred in the manner it did."
Fast-forwarding readers to the 1960s and 1970s, Daniel Chua focuses on Singapore’s relations with the United States under Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon in US-Singapore Relations, 1965-1975: Strategic Non-alignment in the Cold War. Chua argues that against the backdrop of the US’s policy of containment at the height of the Cold War, the superpower took a great interest in Singapore’s nation-building and was integral to Singapore’s development. This counters the well-trodden narrative of Singapore's growth from “Third World to First” merely because of good governance.
CONTEMPORARY ART HISTORY
David Teh’s Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary examines the tension between the global and the local in Thai contemporary art. The first serious study of Thai contemporary art since 1992, Teh analyses the work of artists who straddle the local and the global, against the backdrop of sustained political and economic turmoil.
Last but not least, Yvonne Spielmann’s Contemporary Indonesian Art: Artists, Art Spaces, and Collectors is a comprehensive overview of artists, curators, institutions, and collectors in the Indonesian contemporary art scene. Spielmann demonstrates how contemporary art breaks from colonial and post-colonial power structures, and grapples with issues of identity and nation-building in Indonesia.
We will also be launching a new art history journal Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia this year. It will be published twice a year (March and October) and you can enjoy free previews of the inaugural issue (Vol. 1, No. 1 [March 2017]) and Vol. 1, No. 2 (October 2017) by registering with Project MUSE.
Subsequent issues from Vol. 2, No. 1 (March 2018) will be available upon subscription. Subscription form is availabe here.
Events to Start The New Year January 6, 2017 11:30
Professor Kenneth Dean and Dr Hue Guan Thye will be launching their magnum opus Chinese Epigraphy in Singapore, 1819-1911 at the POD at the National Library on 10 January (Tuesday), 6.30-9pm. The event is free to attend but registration is required via Eventbrite.
In this two-volume set, Professor Dean and Dr Hue have painstakingly recorded and translated over 1,300 epigraphic records of 62 Chinese temples, native place associations, clan and guild halls. These materials, dating from 1819 to 1911, include temple plaques, couplets, stone inscriptions, stone and bronze censers, and other inscribed objects found in these institutions. Available in Chinese and English, this reference set opens a window into the world of Chinese communities in Singapore.
Chinese Epigraphy in Singapore, 1819-1911 is available at S$220 for the whole month of January (original retail price: S$245). Enter the code ChineseEpigraphy during checkout to enjoy free delivery in Singapore.
On a more art-historical note, we will be soft-launching a new art history journal, Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia, at the National Museum of Singapore Gallery Theatre on 22 January (Sunday), 6.30-7.30pm. It will be held on the second day of the Singapore Biennale Symposium (21-22 January).
The launch is free (and you can attend it without a Symposium ticket) but registration via Eventbrite is required.
You can purchase tickets for the weekend-long symposium via Sistic: http://www.sistic.com.sg/events/csb0117 (S$50 for a 1-day pass and S$90 for a 2-day pass).
Cover photo taken by Michael James Colbourne, 'David Medalla in an impromptu shot before rice-planters, with Sonia Monillas, Rizal province, Philippines, 1959.’ (Collection of David Medalla, 'another vacant space', Berlin).
Southeast of Now presents a necessarily diverse range of perspectives not only on the contemporary and modern art of Southeast Asia, but indeed of the region itself: its borders, its identity, its efficacy and its limitations as a geographical marker and a conceptual category. The first issue will be officially published in March 2017 and it will be published twice a year (March and October).
Register with Project MUSE to enjoy free previews of Vol. 1, No. 1 (March 2017) and Vol. 1, No. 2 (October 2017). Subsequent issues (print and digital) will be available upon subscription.
For editorial enquiries, contact the editors at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For subscription enquiries, contact the National University of Singapore Press at email@example.com.
NUS Press Highlights of 2016 December 27, 2016 10:30
While 2016 has proven to be a rather bleak and tumultuous year, we are proud to have published some books that will continue to have much bearing in the new year ahead.
All eyes will continue to be on Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency as it implements plans of restoring peatland to prevent haze crises (like that of 2015) from engulfing the region again.
Two NUS Press books, Catastrophe and Regeneration in Indonesia’s Peatlands (edited by Kosuke Mizuno, Motoko S. Fujita and Shuichi Kawai) and The Oil Palm Complex (edited by Rob Cramb and John McCarthy) touched on some agricultural and labour challenges that Malaysia and Indonesia are facing within the oil palm industry and peatland agriculture. In his review of both books in The Jakarta Post, James Erbaugh commented that both titles “provide scholarship that elucidates the complexities of oil palm production, and the challenges presented by peatland agriculture as well as peatland restoration.”
Indonesia’s gubernatorial election is set to take place in February 2017 and Edward Aspinall’s and Mada Sukmajati’s edited volume, Electoral Dynamics in Indonesia will be handy for observers as it provides greater insight into the patronage systems and money politics at the grassroots level.
In the field of maritime developments: Tensions in the South China Sea will continue to have much bearing on US-China and China-ASEAN relations in 2017. Ng Chin-keong’s collection of essays, Boundaries and Beyond, provides a novel way of understanding the nature of maritime China, and the undercurrent of social and economic forces that have created new boundaries between China and the rest of the world.
Lastly, in light of the 29th Southeast Asian Games taking place in Kuala Lumpur next year, Stephen Huebner’s Pan-Asian Sports and the Emergence of Modern Asia, 1913-1974 explores the role international sporting competitions had in shaping discourses of nationalism and development across Asian states. As one of the first major studies of the history of sports in Asia, Dr Huebner’s book provides a compelling window into the intersection between sports and politics in the region.
The history of pre-independence Singapore remained a staple to our publishing programme this year, with Timothy Barnard’s Nature’s Colony shedding much light on the Singapore Botanic Gardens' lively history. Professor Barnard examined the Gardens’ changing role in a developing Singapore—from colonial times under the charge of several colourful Superintendents and Directors, to today, as a World Heritage Site.
On a more personal level, social work pioneer Ann Wee reminisces about her eventful life in Singapore. Her memoir A Tiger Remembers ruminates on the Singaporean family, and presents the reader with a series of charming vignettes from her life that captures the nuanced transformation of Singaporean society over the years. These intimate recollections, all told in exquisite detail and rich with insight, are testament to the vibrant cultural heritage of the nation.
We are also proud to have published Professor Kenneth Dean and Dr Hue Guan Thye's two-volume set, Chinese Epigraphy in Singapore, 1819-1911, which has been described by Claudine Salmon, Director of Research Emeritus at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), Paris to be a "a repository of Singapore cultural and historical heritage." The collation of over 1,300 epigraphic records is a breakthrough in the telling of the Singapore story and according to Prof Dean, "such inscriptions provide snippets of what life was like in 19th and early 20th century Singapore, and capture the diverse cross-section of society at that time."
SOUTHEAST ASIAN ART HISTORY
What importance does art hold in the representation of history?
In the context of the portrayal of Southeast Asia by its colonial masters, Sarah Tiffin’s Southeast Asia in Ruins explores how the British justified colonialism through imperial art. Dr Tiffin will be speaking at the National Gallery Singapore on 25 February 2017 about British artists' portrayal of Southeast Asian civilization(s) in ruins in Stamford Raffles' The History of Java, and the role that these artists (and their work) played in Britain’s imperial ambitions in Southeast Asia.
In 2017, photographers and photojournalists will continue to play a vital role in exposing the realities of an increasingly authoritarian Southeast Asia. Zhuang Wubin’s Photography in Southeast Asia will be a useful introduction to the discourse of photographic practices in the region as his survey provides insights into the role images play in shaping Southeast Asian society, culture and politics.
Five Minutes with Brian Bernards November 22, 2016 15:00
In this special edition of our author-interview series, Professor Philip Holden from the National University of Singapore conducted an email interview with Professor Brian Bernards on the occasion of the publication of the Southeast Asian edition of Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature. An assistant professor at the University of Southern California, Bernards works in three languages – English, Chinese, and Thai—and his book thus gives a revisionary perspective on the literatures of the region, and indeed the way in which we imagine Southeast Asia itself.
Professor Holden's and Professor Bernards' exchange was first published on singaporepoetry.com. We are pleased to present some excerpts of their lively discussions:
Philip Holden: As someone who has been studying auto/biography, I’m always interested in the life stories of scholars. What drew you to study Chinese and Thai? And what fostered your interest in the literatures of Southeast Asia?
Brian Bernards: When I was 9 years old, a family from Shanghai (a father, mother, and their 2-year-old daughter) moved in with my family at our home in Minneapolis. The father was studying engineering at the University of Minnesota, and the mother, who later went on to study accounting, became our live-in babysitter. On occasion, our two families had meals together, and the boiled dumplings (shui jiao) our sitter cooked became quickly my new favorite dish. Our good friends from Shanghai lived with us for about two years, when the father graduated and found a plush job in Milwaukee. Starting high school about three years later in 1992, I opted to take Mandarin because of my prior exposure to Chinese culture (and cuisine!). I first traveled to mainland China in 1998, where I studied for a year at Sichuan University in Chengdu. My language professor recommended Chengdu because she had done research there, she knew I wanted to tread beyond the typical path of studying in Beijing, Shanghai, or Taipei, and, most importantly, she knew I would like the spicy ma-la food there. Living and attending school in Chengdu certainly opened my eyes, and my taste buds, to new experiences, flavors, and possibilities.
PH: Given your exposure to different disciplines, what are your thoughts on inter-disciplinary studies?
BB: I have always enjoyed literature (especially fiction and poetry), music, and film. As a student and traveler, I felt I could better connect with a place, a culture, a society, and its history through the very personal stories and creative imagination conveyed in fiction and memoirs by authors who were from or who were very familiar with that society. While Southeast Asian studies in the US is largely a social science-oriented field, I was fortunate to take history and anthropology classes as an undergraduate from professors who, rather than assigning dry textbook readings, assigned novels by authors such as Pramoedya Ananta Toer, José Rizal, Duong Thu Huong, Ma Ma Lay, and Kukrit Pramoj, to be read in conjunction with course lectures. I was very inspired by this approach to history and cultural studies, not only because it put the human impact of historical events and social transformations in relatable narratives rather than abstract figures, but also because the micro-histories we encountered in such literary narratives often challenged or even contradicted the standard interpretations and “big picture” perspectives taken for granted in the official histories. I am grateful to my teachers for cultivating the approach that would stick with me as I moved forward into graduate studies.
PH: What was the process of writing Writing the South Seas like?
BB: Writing the South Seas began as a way of combining my interests and background knowledge in modern Chinese literature, Southeast Asian studies, and postcolonial literary theory in an attempt to make a novel contribution, and hopefully a type of critical intervention, in each field. I felt the varying approaches from these different fields could be mutually illuminating in ways that the disciplines had yet to sufficiently consider. Mainly, I sought to bring a Southeast Asia-centered perspective to the study of literatures in Chinese on and from the region. Luckily, I conceived the project at the time that Sinophone studies was emerging and bringing about a sea-change in the modern Chinese literary field. Sinophone studies not only emphasizes cultural networks across national and ethnic boundaries, but also seeks to situate such networks locally in their multilingual milieu. In this sense, my interests in Anglophone literature and Thai-language literature from Southeast Asia, which might have otherwise been seen as irrelevant or marginal to modern Chinese literary studies, could provide an insightful comparative perspective that showcased the cross-lingual interactions and relationships of these Sinophone literary networks. I owe a significant intellectual debt to the pioneering work of Shih Shu-mei in this regard.
PH: The cover of your book will have a particular resonance for many Malaysians and Singaporeans. Could you explain this?
BB: I really have you to thank for this, Prof Holden, as you were the first person to recommend Suchen Christine Lim’s novel Fistful of Colours to me when I began researching Anglophone authors in Singapore. As you know, at the end of the novel, the protagonist returns to Kuala Jelai, her home village in Malaysia, from Singapore, and she becomes moved viewing the large wall murals while waiting for her train at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. When I read this passage, I wanted to see the murals myself, though at the time I had no idea they would later provide the source material for the cover of my book.
That was before the station closed. When it was operational, the station, along with the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway tracks, was an important living legacy of the intimate relationship, common colonial history, and shared culture between the two countries. Now that it is closed, it can only serve as a “heritage site” – a relic or a reminder of that past. For a lot of Malaysians and Singaporeans who grew up when the two societies were more integrated, Tanjong Pagar is bound to be a source of nostalgia, especially because it conjures a more rustic landscape and older colonial architecture that contrasts with the image of Singapore as a city of glistening skyscrapers and squeaky-clean air-conditioned malls. I think this nostalgic sentiment regarding the railway station is quite obvious in “Parting,” director Boo Junfeng’s contribution to the omnibus film, 7 Letters: he uses the space of Tanjong Pagar to tell the story of an interethnic romance against the backdrop of racial riots in the 1960s.
Interior of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, 2010
(Image credit: Jacklee, Wikimedia Commons)
Of the six triptych murals in the station, the one with the commercial maritime focus showing the harbour was the most relevant to my book in its entirety, so I commissioned an image of that mural for the cover. The different types of ocean vessels in the image, from a sampan to a junk to a passenger steamship, really captured the varying modes of maritime crossings and convergences that the Nanyang has historically signified. And it’s beautifully done.
NUS Press would like to thank singaporepoetry.com's founding editor, Koh Jee Leong for granting permission to republish these excerpts.
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