Raffles Asia Programme Symposium 2019

By Emily Ni (20S03C) and Valerie Tan (20A01E)
Photographs courtesy of Joel Leong (20S03O) of the Raffles Photographic Society

The Raffles Asia Programme Symposium returned for its thirteenth edition this year, held in the Performing Arts Centre on the 25th of April. Featuring a host of research projects produced and delivered by students from the Humanities Programme, together with a keynote address by Ms Karen Chan, Executive Director of the Asian Film Archive, it promised three hours of discourse surrounding Asia.

The symposium opened with a speech by Ms Ng Mei Sze, Dean (Career & Higher Education). Quoting Sir Joshua Reynolds, she postulated that “all objects have blemishes”, and only those with “an eye for long laborious comparison” would be able to see them. And yet, details could be distracting; a scholar of the Humanities would have to learn to “be comfortable in the dynamism” in order to effectively study the world around them.

The keynote speaker for the afternoon was Ms Karen Chan, executive director of the Asian Film Archive. She stressed the importance of film as a site for historical and cultural discourse, as well as how it allowed Southeast Asian filmmakers to document and interrogate the notions of nation, identity and history. When interviewed afterwards on what she hoped students would take away from her presentation, she only asked that students “be more willing to explore Asian cinema instead of just looking at Western cinema”. Indeed, her keynote address gave an in-depth exploration of Asian cinema and its major movements, attesting to the fact that cinema in Asia is truly rich in culture and history.

Following that, the student keynote presentation by Bryan Ge (19A01B), Andrew Lau (19A01B) and Nihal Ahmed (19A01B) applied Osumare’s theory of “connective marginalities” to explore how Asian-Americans have used hip-hop to resist the ‘model minority myth’ in society. Additionally, they referred to the theory of ‘performative authenticity’ to argue that the portrayal of nuanced and genuine Asian-American lived experiences is mutually exclusive with commercial appeal. The presentation skilfully balanced entertainment and thoughtfulness, revealing insights about the use of music as not only an expression of identity but also as a subtle form of resistance.

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What is the place of Asian-Americans in a society that abides by a black-white dichotomy?

After a short tea break, participants made their way to different venues to watch the student research presentations. With 15 presentations on diverse topics, they served as testaments to the students’ ability to unpack a multitude of complex issues about the world around them. Raffles Press will now explore some of the breakout sessions.

The Colour Conundrum: Discourse on Skin Colour in Singapore
Presented by Naia Nathan (19A01A), Aaron Tan (19A01B), and Rachelle Chua (19A01B)

This breakout session examined the unconscious prejudice that lives underground, but nonetheless exists in Singapore: colourism, where people discriminate not by race, but by skin colour (though the two are closely related). The presenters analysed discourse of dark skin in Singapore to explore the power structures that shape it, arriving at four different factors that led to the perpetuation of colourism: colonialism, Chinese dominance, advertising and politics. These factors do not, however, exist in isolation; colonialism foregrounds Chinese dominance, which is amplified by advertising, while politics enables everything else by generating an atmosphere of apathy and fear.

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The team showed advertisements from colonial times rule that reinforced colourism.

Colourism is not inevitable, the presenters stressed; it is not an amorphous, ever-present phenomenon with nebulous origins. Instead, it has clear roots in power structures upon which contemporary society is built, and could be a direct result of the way they interact. Perceptions and assertions with discourse continue across time, and are simply perpetuated by different structures to different ends. Discourse has power, they concluded, and it supports power imbalances that we take for granted—power imbalances that we should not be content with, and that we should strive to change in search of a society that is truly “based on equality”.

A question was raised during the Q&A segment with regard to whether the situation surrounding colourism was getting better or worse in Singapore: What is the state of racial relations in Singapore now, and how can we change these circumstances? It’s hard to say, the presenters responded, but we can all do something about it. We can challenge or question the power structures upholding these discourses, or perpetuate new positive discourses of our own.

The presentation thus ended on a hopeful note: Despite the colourism that still prevails in Singapore, there may come a day where it fades away, if we all play a part in changing the discourse that surrounds it.

Apostasy Laws in the Middle East: For God or For Government?
Presented by Carina Lee (19A01A), Moh Jin Yin (19A01A), and Andrea Suki (19A01B)

Apostasy is a word that many of us have never come across. This, coupled with the seemingly far-flung region of the Middle East, makes this a relatively foreign topic to some of us who may not be Muslim.

Apostasy is defined as the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief of principle. Countries in the Middle East, such as Sudan, have enacted harsh laws, and even the death sentence, to punish apostates. This breakout session sought to explain the validity of these laws, as well as to explore the relationship between religion and the government.

The presenters first investigated the Islamic textual basis for criminalisation of apostasy in today’s society. Islamic law is a hierarchical system. The Qur’an is the most important and primary source. It is followed by the hadith, a record of Prophet Muhammed’s sayings and traditions. While the proponents of apostasy criminalisation cite the hadith, the presenters argued that this was flawed, as the Qur’an (the primary source of Islamic Law) is meant to be understood as all-encompassing and all-sufficient, with no extraneous resources required, not even the hadith. Additionally, over the course of their research, the group uncovered the view that the Qur’an espouses freedom of religion, contradicting the criminalisation of apostasy. The presenters hence concluded that the basis of citing religious text to justify the criminalisation of apostasy is questionable, and turned to historical evidence and events to find justification for the criminalisation of apostasy.

The earliest known incident of punishment of apostasy occurred in the years following 623 AD. Warfare was rife between Arab tribes and the Muslims. Some apostates deserted and allied themselves with the Arabs. Thus, the execution of apostates became a way to preserve the Islamic community. Furthermore, the period was meant to reflect most faithfully the ideals of the Qur’an. This would seem to point to the fact that in an ideal Islamic community, the persecution of apostates was permitted. Therefore, the presenters argued that it was crucial to understand apostasy laws within specific socio-political contexts.

The session then inspected the government’s role in criminalising apostasy. As a result of the constant upheaval and unrest in the Middle East, governments often find their legitimacy threatened. In such cases, it is beneficial to governments to portray themselves as defenders of the religion, through the criminalisation of apostasy. This is doubly advantageous, as it also invests in them a divinely-ordained status. In both ancient and modern time periods, portraying themselves as divine protectors of Islam allowed governments to legitimise their regime and gain greater authority and power. Criminalising apostasy thus became a highly effective way of getting people to comply with the government. Governments could use religion as a tool for political suppression—when publicly discrediting messages that could harm state authority, the government was able to disguise it as the protection of Islam, allowing them to silence any opposition and maintain their hold.

Finally, the presenters concluded that the perception of the structure of Islamic Law, as well as the religious deference of the Middle Eastern governments, create a climate where religion and apostasy laws can be used to forward political interests.

Contesting Voices: Social Media and General Elections in Singapore
Presented by Ryan Lim (19A01A), Fang Yihang (19A13A), and Ng Shang Wen (19A13A)

Social media, to many of us, is nothing but a platform to connect with friends and follow the lives of celebrities. It may hence surprise us that more politicians have started using social media to present authentic images of themselves, engage with their electorate and argue against their opponents. This breakout session thus sought to understand the influence of social media on Singapore’s elections, as well as its different uses and limitations.

Social media, the presenters argued, acts as an alternative source of information for the electorate, as mainstream media tends to elevate the ruling party (the PAP) and present the opposition negatively. The liberalisation of online spaces means that social media is seen as a means of genuine political participation and campaigning. However, there was no direct correlation between party performance and social media use, putting forth two questions to the audience: Is there a need to use social media to be successful? And what makes some efforts more successful than others?

The presenters argued that greater accessibility is only true insofar that a party has established credibility and conducted on-the-ground work such as regular house visits. Only then can social media—and a consistent use of it—act as a complement for outreach efforts on the ground.

The session then turned towards the voters, analysing their use of social media during election periods and the impact of doing so on voting behaviour. Voters continue to rely more on mainstream media for election news, using social media to consume information rather than express opinions—there is only a vocal minority, whose sentiments may not reflect voting behaviour. Nevertheless, social media could have flight-to-safety or swing effects, playing a minor role in determining voter behaviour.

The presenters concluded that politicians’ attempts to use social media to garner support must complement on-the-ground presence and reinforce overall credibility. Furthermore, social media is secondary to mainstream media, which voters trust more for election news, but sentiments expressed on it by the vocal minority can influence voting behaviour. Overall, the presentation offered insights into the role of social media beyond what our generation understands it to be, and proved that its role of affecting political discourse may well expand in future election cycles, changing the ways politicians campaign and interact with the nation.

Monsters, Magic, and Militarism: Charting Japanese War Memory in Hayao Miyazaki’s Animated Films
Presented by Alyssa Loo (19A13A), Kuang Shane Qi (19A13A), and Yu Ke Dong (19A13A)

Japan’s war memory has evolved tremendously in the last half-century, going from warmongering aggressor in World War II, to constitutional pacifist in the wake of the war, and now an unwilling belligerent since the early 2000s.

Animated films have long been used as tools to present historical narratives, and in this respect, the presenters discussed their choice of animator, Hayao Miyazaki. His films are profound in their nuanced, deliberate portrayals of war, reflecting and responding to existing narratives.

Set in a world destroyed by the Seven Days of Fire, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind foregrounds Japan as a victim of the war, and dramatises the devastating effects of nuclear technology. It denounces that the Tolmekian’s actions, paralleled with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were callous and atrocious, rather than altruistic. Nausicaä has a firmly pacifist message, seeing the beauty in the world and communicating the belief that it is possible for Japan and the world to escape the cycle of destruction.

Howl’s Moving Castle is profoundly affected by Japan’s stance in the 2003 Iraq War, and portrays Japan as an unwilling belligerent. Howl’s anti-militancy is contrasted with Sullivan’s aggression, which mirrors the pressure the U.S exerted on Japan. In the end, Howl’s participation parallels that of Japan’s definitional and moral distortion. The film represents Japan’s uneasy and tumultuous journey to remilitarisation, and reflects popular sentiment: the mass public did not support Japan’s involvement in the Iraq War.

Finally, The Wind Rises portrays Japan as an aggressor, and deliberately subverts nationalistic myths. The main character, Jiro, is disappointed when he sees his legacy of destruction caused by the Zero Planes he helped to build. This comes at a time where Japanese nostalgia and nationalism was at its height, with advocates for increased military spending and a return to the glorified Japan of the past. Miyazaki uses the perversion of Jiro’s pacifist, idyllic dreams by war to undermine wartime nostalgia and denies the Zero Plane its eminence in Japan’s history.

The contradictions in Miyazaki’s films represent the public struggle of coming to terms with war, and how history and narratives can be a part of forging national identity.

Closing

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Students listening to the presentations intently.

This year’s symposium was truly thought-provoking, and everyone in the audience left with new questions and perspectives to ponder on. It again underscored the need for a more conscious understanding of this region of ours, and served as a reminder of how discerning eyes and minds were important in making sense of the world around us. It is also essential that we initiate the conversation by ourselves, as people living in and shaped by Asia, and not just rely on Western interpretations deemed superior—ultimately, one can only gain an authentic learning experience of the very world we live in by going out to explore it ourselves.

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