Raffles Asia Programme Symposium 2021

By Faith Ho (22A01A), Lara Tan (22A01B), Mei Feifei (22A13A)

“Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls, For thus, friends absent speak.” 

For a second, it felt as if we were listening to a Renaissance Literature tutorial as Ms Lye Su Lin commenced the Raffles Asia Programme (RAP) Symposium 2021 with two lines from John Donne’s To Sir Henry Wotton.

The symposium, held over Zoom, did not enjoy the usual fanfare of its previous thirteen editions. Nonetheless, Ms Lye used her address to remind us of the value of the RAP symposium: a coveted opportunity for the Humanities Programme Year 6s to embark on research projects unique to the Asian context in “pure intellectual pursuit”. The symposium consisted of screenings of videos made by each group presenting their projects, as well as Q&A sessions for the participants to probe deeper into any of the topics that were covered. 

Topics ranged from Chinese fan culture to ‘authoritarian environmentalism’, but a constant theme was the audience’s enjoyment of the both educational and entertaining video presentations. 

No better way to open a video than a parody of our beloved Griffles. From “Helicopter Fans: An Exposé of Chinese Fan Culture.”
A picture speaks a thousand words, but videos can leave you speechless. From “Little Green Dot: The Efficacy of Authoritarian Environmentalism in Singapore.”

All the videos and papers can be accessed at this website created specially by the RAP Admin Committee. For this article, we have selected three out of thirteen projects to explore in greater detail. 

Live, Laugh, Censor: The Benign Violations in 21st Century Chinese Political Humour

By Brandon Tay Kai Feng (21A13A), Foo Loon Wei (21A13A), Kayleigh Low Ee Lyn (21A01A), Thet Hninn Zin (21A13A)

Do not let the fluffy alpaca on the cover page of this paper fool you: the Chinese word for alpaca—草泥马 (cǎo ní mǎ, Grass Mud Horse)—lends itself to a classic “your mother” joke when pronounced with the right inflections. Delving into the laughable yet poignant world of Chinese social media, Live, Laugh, Censor examines how satire is employed in online Chinese political humour to criticise censorship laws and government incompetence.

This group’s video presentation began with a meme montage that greatly amused the audience. From Winnie-the-Pooh (President Xi’s famed doppelgänger) to river crabs (hexie, a pun on censorship for the sake of ‘harmony’), the montage exhibited instances of Chinese netizens taking censorship rules to the extreme, thereby “demonstrat[ing] their absurdity”. 

Alpacas and ‘your mother’: a recurring theme. 

While this group’s paper may seem rather cheeky at first glance, their insights on the egao (恶搞, spoof) culture were no less intriguing to the audience, with some being exposed to this culture for the first time. As the authors rightly point out, “certainly, [parody] might be disillusioned, dismissive, desirous of regime change, but equally it may be longing and idealistic, or even, quite simply, neutral.” 

The paper thus ended on the note that “sometimes, a joke is just a joke”—a reminder that it is the very inconsequential nature of casual online political humour that enables mass participation. 

Eve, Not From the Rib: Accounting for Past and Present Perceptions of Female Leadership in the Islamic World 

By Jeremiah Seow (21A01A), Lim Mun Lok, Ray (21A13A), Loh Jun Xi Shaun (21A01A), Sarah Esther Goldman (21A01A)

You might be wondering where the rather enigmatic title of this group’s project comes from, or rather, what it might be a reference to. 

According to the book of Genesis in the Bible, Eve was supposedly created from the rib of Adam. However, the Quran instead posits that Eve was not, in fact, from the rib of Adam; and neither was she solely responsible for man’s expulsion from Paradise. A rather feminist perspective for a centuries-old text? Perhaps. 

This group analysed historical and contemporary examples of female leaders in the Islamic world, and their astonishing ascendancy to power in seemingly patriarchal societies. They contrasted two historical iconic Islamic queens—Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah and Sultanah Radiyya—with more modern examples of Islamic female leadership such as Benazir Bhutto (ex-PM of Pakistan) and Megawati Sukarnoputri (Indonesia’s first female president). 

The haunting opening visual of a woman’s face obscured by a niqab started their video presentation on a rather sombre note. While the video initially showed a list of examples of the discriminatory, regressive actions some Islamic societies have taken against their women, this was quickly contrasted with the statistic that the Islamic world has produced the most number of female heads of states in the world.

Just to show a few…

The group reflected that the “phenomenon” of female leadership in the Islamic world was not merely dependent on religious and cultural beliefs on women’s places in society, but a combination of unique customs of individual Islamic societies. 

Ending off with the same impactful visual used at the start, the team’s video presentation summarised their project and brought to participants a newfound understanding of the sensitive balance between Islamic religion, politics and feminism. While the use of the Muslim prayer trap remix as background music raised a few quizzical brows, their presentation left us with a cogent understanding of the refreshing issue they chose to raise. 

Let’s Fall in Love! ♡ : The Parody of Shoujo Conventions in Kaguya-sama: Love is War and Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun 

By Chwa Eu Quan Max (21A01B), Elizabeth Paulyn Gostelow (21A01B), Loke Sun Yi (21A01B), Rachel Ho Yi Xin (21A01B)

“Anime. Superficial drivel or biting social commentary that critiques gender roles and the power structures oppress, suppress and depress both men and women? Maybe both?”

And so begins this presentation exploring how parodies are used to challenge and deconstruct gender roles in two different Shoujo anime series. Shoujo is a genre of Japanese manga/anime targeted towards a young female audience (though their reach is not limited to this demographic), which often explores themes of family and school, with love as a common central theme.

After a short clip from Nozaki-kun that depicted a typical romantic scene of umbrella-sharing humorously gone awry, the team challenged the audience to reconsider how gender stereotypes are presented and re-presented in this form of media.

The presenters then shared how, as parodies of the shoujo genre which “clearly contains [gender] norms that can be critiqued”, they subverted recognisable tropes, providing social commentary and critique. 

Me when my nonexistent class crush says they like me back: 

Kaguya-sama is about two popular students in a high school who both try to extract a confession from one another. It thus highlights the performativity of such gender roles, particularly in the context of romantic relationships.

In contrast, Nozaki-kun, a series about a girl who has a crush on her stoic classmate who turns out to be the author of her favourite shoujo manga, downplays and even celebrates non-conformance to gender roles. 

“‘The person who falls in love loses’ is the rule!”

Kaguya-Sama: Love is War

The video closed with another short clip from Kaguya-sama, where the two engaged in a heated battle of mental maneuvering—depicting romantic love as the ultimate battlefield. Even to those unfamiliar with Japanese media and culture, this project opened up new insight into the continued pervasiveness and manifestation of gender roles in today’s society. 

Conclusion

That moment when the group photo is an mp4.

“We were thrown for quite a loop when the new Covid restrictions [were] announced,” Nicholas Yong (21A01B), a member of the RAP Admin Committee, told us. “For a while, it looked like the symposium was not going to happen at all, which was definitely quite disappointing.” 

To this, his fellow committee member Elizabeth Chen (21A01A) shared that “the process really made [them] re-evaluate the importance of adaptability and proper communication… [they] had to not only constantly keep up with multiple changes on short notice, but also ensure that everyone… was on the same page at every step of the way.” 

“Regardless, we were very grateful to still have the opportunity to share our research, and this new format even pushed us to experiment with presenting our projects more creatively.” 

Nicholas Yong (21A01B)

Ultimately, the myriad of different presentations we saw that afternoon were a testament to the richness of issues in our immediate surroundings, and a timely reminder to look within and explore our regional context with the same fervour we give to contemporary Western issues.

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