Raffles Asia Programme Symposium Shows Audiences “Why Asia”

Reading Time: 11 minutes

By Joyce Lee (19S06O), Loh Lin (19A01D) and Alyssa Marie Loo (19A13A)
Photos courtesy of Ting Hou Yee (19S03S) and Jiang Jin Liang (19S06N) of Raffles Photographic Society

Twelve years since its first edition, this year’s Raffles Asia Programme Symposium involved over 100 invited students, 15 student research projects and speeches by professors from Yale-NUS College. One might consider the exclusive regional focus of the Raffles Asia Programme to be counter-intuitive: why limit research to Asia when humanities research can be broad and unbounded? Mr Gavin Swee, one of the teacher-mentors for the RAP, believes a regional scope is far from limiting: it can “help (students) develop sensitive understandings of the socio-cultural context in which they live”. Though most of us would not instinctively consider Asia a key region for research—perhaps due to a humanities curriculum often centred on the West—the RAP research projects proved this sentiment sorely misplaced. The projects showcased a variety of topics about Asia’s vibrant culture, politics, literature and more, demonstrating that Asia is just as rich as the West in its potential to be studied and explored.

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Keynote speaker Professor Sarah Weiss expounds on “Why Asia”.

Both external speakers stressed the importance of studying Asia. Rector at Yale-NUS Professor Sarah Weiss emphasised in her keynote speech that “the weight of population, money and resources in Asia demands that we look at it”. She urged the audience to understand the cultures of different Asian countries to devise effective solutions to the world’s problems, giving an example of a group of Singaporeans going to India to carry out a project: if they do not understand the culture and people of India, they would be “talking in two different languages, literally and figuratively” with their local partners.

Meanwhile, Yale-NUS Senior Lecturer (Humanities) Professor Tony Day, himself a researcher who has published papers on Southeast Asian film and literature, added in an interview that “(Southeast Asia) is not a region of the world that has a dominant world power… It is a place where learning how to get along, inventing ways of being small but important and creative and innovative (is paramount),” therefore emphasising how this region is particularly worthy of study.

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Mr Swee and Deputy Principal Mrs Reavley Munn Ye speaking to Professor Tony Day.

The student keynote presentation by Ivan Toh Sheng Wei (18A01A), Wee Jin Yang Ryan (18A01A) and Mark Loh Wei-Yang (18A13A) was a project on contemporary Chinese politics. The presentation referred to Max Weber’s theory on the three types of legitimate authority to explain how the Chinese government has successfully held on to power and won the support of the people in recent years. It also explored the conflict between the interests of the state and the personal agendas of individual statesmen that shapes decision-making in politics. It was particularly insightful in how it proved that historical models and trends—topics of study that we often think only belong in the classroom—are useful in understanding modern politics.

Following the keynote items, guests split into breakout sessions of student research presentations. From contemporary Chinese art to Singaporean food nostalgia, the sheer breadth of research topics  highlighted the colourful and endless possibilities of humanities research focused on the region. “I think the symposium really engaged with a lot of topics that many of us simply don’t consider,” said Angus Yip (18A01A), a member of the organising team, adding that “what was important was how the different groups approached their subject matter in a very critical manner”.

Thus in the following section, Raffles Press writers at the symposium offer reviews of the different breakout sessions they attended.

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A riveted audience at one of the breakout session presentations.

Tackling Trauma: The Graphic Novel and Its Presentation of Traumatic Narratives

By Li Wanjie (18A01B), Angus Yip (18A01A) and Emil Tay Chee Yee (18A01B)

This breakout session focused on the presentation of trauma in three Southeast Asian graphic novels: Saigon Calling by Marcelino Truong, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui and The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew. The first two graphic novels delve into the stories of Vietnamese refugees and migrants during the Vietnam War while the third explores Singapore’s separation from Malaysia and the political chaos that followed. All three focus on the personal narratives of the protagonists who are forced to navigate the complicated circumstances of their times. Yet, they still manage to link this personal trauma to the collective trauma experienced by whole nations in the tumultuous 20th century that saw two world wars, countless civil wars fought in the Cold War, the collapse of colonial empires and the conflict-fraught birth of many nation-states.

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Wanjie explains the importance of representing trauma.

After exploring the importance of studying and representing trauma in literature, the presenters put forth their main argument: it is difficult to represent traumatic stories solely through the written word, as trauma is often defined mainly by the images and memories they evoke. Thus, novels must take extra steps to help readers imagine the traumatic scenes using vivid descriptions, while the graphic novel can use images to elicit the readers’ traumatic memories immediately. The clever and skilful integration of visuals and text in graphic novels can also help set the mood of a scene. Where words fail, the graphic novel allows images in the absence of text to portray a complex mix of emotions in a simple yet impactful manner.

The presenter’s choice to analyse comic books, a medium often looked down upon as pure entertainment, was intriguing. In doing so, they showed how graphic novels can portray trauma just as, if not more, realistically as conventional novels. The selected comic books dealt with serious topics like war, loss and political upheaval, yet managed to depict these themes in an accessible way through the use of poignant and haunting images.

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This page from The Best We Could Do shows photos of the author’s family as they were fleeing from war-torn Vietnam. They serve to emphasise how helpless the author and her family were, as refugees who arrived in neighbouring countries by boat with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The accompanying text and background images references how insignificant they felt as they were only one of many who were forced to flee and evokes sympathy from the reader.

However, one possible limitation of using graphic novels to depict trauma is that they rely heavily on the readers’ ability to infer the characters’ emotions and thoughts from subtle visual cues, whereas novels are able to describe this inner turmoil more explicitly. Moreover, traumatic memories are also often evoked by sound rather than by images alone. Hence, a medium that encompasses both sound and visuals such as film has more potential than graphic novels to authentically represent traumatic experiences. Nevertheless, comic books are still a powerful and unique medium through which the disorientating emotions that accompany trauma can be expressed.


Apologies for Atrocities?: Evaluating Japan’s Chances of Successfully Apologising for World War II

By Mohammad Faisal (18A13A), Warren Liow (18A01B) and Jonah Tan Sheen (18A01A)

The presentation began with Faisal punching Warren in the shoulder. After offering a flippant apology of “deep remorse” amongst laughter from the audience, Faisal then added more seriously, “I might get a laugh out of this now, but if I had beaten Warren to a pulp…‘deep remorse’ really wouldn’t cut it.” This served as an analogy of the ‘history of Japanese apologies”: a series of evasive and seemingly insincere ‘apologies’ delivered by Japanese leaders over the years. Japanese wartime atrocities have been euphemistically referred to as “certain things which happened” (Emperor Hirohito), an “unfortunate period” (Emperor Akihito), or even entirely dismissed as “what is done cannot be undone” (Shinzo Abe).

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“History is harsh, what is done cannot be undone,” said Mr Abe to the US Congress. (Source)

The group asks: against this backdrop of repeated failed apology attempts, in tension with the fact that the Japanese themselves may not think their apologies to be insincere, what are the chances that Japan can successfully attain forgiveness for its WWII crimes? “It started with the three of us just really being interested in Japan and war narratives,” Faisal told us. In fact, the group at first wanted to “examine Japanese narratives adopted during WWII”, but due to feasibility challenges of finding sources for this topic, decided instead to research the consequences of post-war narratives—namely, the perceived sincerity of Japan’s apologies.

Their paper’s argument adopted political scientist Thomas U. Berger’s framework of “Five Conditions of a Successful Apology”, evaluating Japan’s chances of success by examining Japan’s past and present measures against each of these conditions. Did they conclude that Japan has good chances for successful apology? Their caveated conclusion at first lures one into blind optimism: “Yes”, it begins, “but not under this government”. They argue that Abe’s cabinet, in its rush to remilitarize as per domestic wishes, has become ignorant of the significance of the global parliament. “The dominos to a satisfactory apology are inching ever closer: all that remains is for a new political administration to make the first push,” concluded their research paper.

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Abe’s new cabinet members for his second term of presidency. (Source)

Despite the inherently retrospective nature of apologies, the group’s question of a successful Japanese WWII apology is far from just a question of the past. In light of today’s concerns about North Korea’s ICBMs being launched over Japan, and Japan becoming increasingly excluded from North and South Korea’s peace talks, Japan faces increasing domestic pressure to remilitarise for self-defence in a hostile region. One of the barriers to this is Article 9 of its Constitution. The article, appended in the face of its surrender in WWII, denounces Japan’s right to belligerency. Today, even though Abe pushes heavily to modify the article, it is unlikely that he can do so without heavy international backlash—unless Japan successfully apologises and earns the trust of the international council, particularly of countries like China and South Korea. With the outcry earlier this month after Japan’s activation of its first marine unit since WWII, it is evident that Japan is still far from being trusted by its neighbours and the world.


For the Love of the Nation: Chinese Style Dating Show and Nation Building in Modern China

By Hong Yu Wen Lynn (18A13A), Siobhan Charlotte Tan Xue Qi (18A13A), Peck Hsiao Shan (18A13A)

A single Chinese character loomed over the audience from the front of the PAC: 爱 (love). Below it lies the group’s main point of scrutiny: how does Chinese Style Dating Show contribute to nation-building in the modern Chinese state? The seemingly disparate subjects of comparison initially threw us off—what exactly does the search for romance have to do with modern China’s agenda of nation-building? As it turned out: far more than any of us had suspected.

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Chinese Style Dating Show: where parental approval is key in securing a match (Source)

The group posited that propaganda has shifted from utilising explicit revolutionary instruments to taking on more subtle media as their mouthpiece. However, state control still manifests in the narratives forwarded by the television industry: content creators still adhere passively to government parameters, and must negotiate a balance between entertainment and regulation. As such, one may find political messages embedded in the attitudes and behaviour of the various agents—the parents, host, and hopefuls—involved. In fact, many of these messages alluded heavily to the “Chinese Dream”, which aimed to revive pride in Chinese culture among the people and legitimise China’s Communist Party as the predominant state guardian.

Chinese Style Dating Show forwards a surprising notion of modernity: while giving young people the chance to find a marriage partner, it gives both the children and their parents the opportunity to navigate and work out the intergenerational differences between them. Discussions over social topics that are inadvertently brought up are moderated by the host, who ensures that opinions are heard and validated.

Despite the show’s progressive elements, traditional Chinese values remain a constant presence. This is exemplified through the consistent reinforcement of the Chinese value of filial piety, on which the show is premised. While the children are allowed veto or even override their parents’ decisions regarding the candidates, none of them made full use of this opportunity, and were shown deferring entirely to their parents’ wishes. This so happens to be a display of a major norm that typifies traditional Chinese society: that which demands for an to individual surrender their self-interests in favour of ensuring the welfare of the collective family unit.

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A candidate ultimately choosing not to override her mother’s objection; the subtitles read: “I will still listen to what my mother says.”
(screencap taken from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPiQIwm9uEI)

There is no denying that Chinese Style Dating Show took on an overtly progressive tone in setting its narrative, especially since Jin Xin, a famous transgender woman, was chosen to host. It suggests that China is working towards a society that is tolerant of diversity, and which is built on discourse and consensus instead of staunchly conventional coercive measures. Lynn shared that “in mainstream media we casually mention things about China’s oppressive mechanisms but you don’t get much depth […] so it was interesting for me to see how that translated in the show”. The group also acknowledged that they “discovered Chinese television isn’t as rigidly state-controlled as we had been led to believe by the Western media, but it does affect dominant discourse of nation building, which is set by the CCP”. Indeed, mass media is a powerful tool in its extensive influence: it is able to establish intimacy with the consumer and allow them to confront and configure their own perspectives, which meld to construct an identity unique to the country.


Closing Thoughts: Asia and its Unanswered Questions

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Professor Day and Professor Weiss are presented with appreciation gifts from the organising team.

Charlotte Lim (18A01A), a member of the organising team,  hoped that RAP would “make people curious about a continent that people usually think they know all about simply because they live in it”, and therefore “realise that Asia can be so exciting and so much more.” The symposium definitely left us with a greater curiosity about the complexities of our very own region.

Although the research projects raised more questions than answers, as Deputy Principal Mrs Reavley Munn Ye elegantly said: “one must embrace open-endedness.” This point was similarly emphasised by Mr Swee, who elaborated that  “the best sort of learning takes place when there is an active exchange of ideas—the negotiation of different perspectives, the act of asking and answering questions.” Certainly, such questioning and negotiation occurs best in ambiguity, when one knows they do not have all the right answers.

Finally, in reply to ‘Why Asia’, the symposium surfaced a multitude of reasons. First, a regional focus highlights concerns within our immediate context that we would otherwise be oblivious to. A student from National Junior College echoed this point after attending a breakout presentation about the gurkha community in Singapore: “(The gurkha project) brought light to part of (our Singaporean society) that is very obscure”. This crystallises the importance of “contextualising (humanities) into something that we can easily relate to in our local vicinity” and makes it something “we should all learn and care about”.

Moreover, it allows us to form a more complete and independent view of Asia. As Charlotte expressed, “ I think we unconsciously buy into the stereotypes (from the West), and we forget that…this is not what Japanese nationalism or the Japanese identity is, or China or any Asian country for that matter…. (studying Asia would allow us to) seek out fresh, less biased perspectives on what Asia is.”

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Students listening attentively to the symposium programme

Overall, the Raffles Asia Programme Symposium undoubtedly succeeded in raising interest in Asia and the region’s affairs. “I think especially as a Southeast Asian country, it’s important to stay true to your roots and focus on the region in which we lie, because ultimately that’s the region… which will affect our country the most,” shared an Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) student. Raffles Press looks forward to future iterations of the RAP, and is certain that the programme’s unique regional focus will continue to lend itself to a myriad of novel topics and projects.

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