Opinion by Jill J. Tan
“Why do you care this much?” is rarely asked explicitly, but oft implied in conversations regarding the political situation in the U.S. “Why—you’re not a citizen,” or “you don’t live there/ here anymore,” Singaporeans and Americans alike might observe. Sometimes, we even self-interrogate in this vein. It has become reflexive to question if we have the right to feel the way we feel, to the extent that we do, about a particular political situation. I find this telling of how emotionally loaded a sense of belonging has become in an age when bordering is not just physical.
To be concerned, and feel affinity or allegiance, is to position oneself, consciously or not, and Singaporeans who live or have lived in the U.S. often do so with a foot in each continent. We toggle between the apprehensions of overstepping or understating. The bred Singaporean impulse to censor ourselves certainly compounds this quandary. We can, however, make good use of that impulse by not opining until we understand the situation better. We would do well not to take up conversational space at the expense of voices that need to be heard more urgently, such as those coming from marginalized communities most affected by the changing political tides. We would also do well to recognize our privileges alongside our challenges. Whether speaking about our own country or another, but particularly in situations pertaining to experiences that we do not share firsthand, educating ourselves is paramount. The emotional and intellectual labor should also not be delegated to others. We must be open to learning, but never expect to be taught. Intellectual humility forms a strong basis for action.
When I think about the act of intervention (where, when, and how) as it pertains to Singapore Unbound, and more broadly to Singaporean writers and artists living in the U.S., I look at how to proceed in two ways. First, as individuals and as a community, we must consider a plan of mobilization, recognizing the relatively greater freedom in the U.S. to demonstrate publicly and organize politically. Second, as writers and artists, we must consider intervening in words and images. How should the Singaporean writer and artist in the U.S. endeavor to change, in whatever small way, the current literary and artistic landscape?
I would also like us to think more broadly about the responsibility of the artist in the age of political dissatisfaction. This is hardly a novel subject but worth relooking at in view of our conditioning as Singaporeans to separate art from politics. Does a work of art inevitably become political once the cherished values and fundamental rights of the artist are threatened? Does art that fails to broach the political sphere fall short of being true? If indeed the answer to either question is yes, we must ask ourselves how our work can challenge the intellectual and imaginative bases of economic exploitation, political authoritarianism, and social injustices. There is, of course, something to be said for art which takes both the reader and writer outside of themselves, whether through escaping therapeutically to other worlds, or tapping into reserves of levity they may have forgotten. Pleasure can also be a form of resistance.
Noting, then, that self-preservation is vital, we should, however, guard against denial and desensitization as its extension. In “Writing the Implosion,” Joseph Dumit notes that even when we are barraged with information through the 24/7 news cycle, the “unbearable world is tragic—but somehow tolerable” to us. Dumit then poses the challenge of “how to disrupt our own tolerance, how to see the intolerable in the everyday.” Here, I want to bring attention to fear as an important and productive force in both the work of writing and organizing. As writers and as human beings, I think we sometimes neglect to take fear seriously, both our own and that of others. There is an impulse to charge ahead without attending to what drives us, particularly if the driving force of fear is hard to sit with. Yet the danger is becoming numb to what we rightly fear.
We are right to fear gun violence when a single shooting in Las Vegas kills 59 people and injures 500 more. We are right to fear for the lost autonomy over our bodies when the U.S. House of Representatives passes legislation to criminalize abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Both of these events have taken place in the span of a week. Without letting fear paralyze us, we must place our fingers on the ticking pulse at the base of our throats. By that means, we sense, too, the pulse that beats in the body of our neighbor. Maybe it thunders in the face of constant violence, which we see more clearly only now. Maybe it thuds more slowly a continent away, hardly urgent, yet accompanied by a hapless ache for a country they feel they no longer have a claim on. “Why do you care this much? You don’t live there anymore.”
Crucially, I ask that when we think about the political climate in the US, we think about it in the context of politics in Singapore. In agitating or calling for particular values, laws or actions Stateside, we are obligated to push for the same things in Singapore, unless we have good reasons to think that they will not do for Singapore. I believe those reasons are far fewer than we think. We should consider if we hold different standards to our country of residence, possibly one that we made a choice to move to, and our country of birth and upbringing, perhaps idealizing the former and experiencing apathy and resignation towards the latter. I think it productive to assess our frustrations or hopes for the U.S. and use our assessment as a lens to reflect on our deeper desires for Singapore. We are not so far away from Singapore that we cannot act from here, too.
Jill J. Tan is a Singaporean writer and graduate student of Anthropology based in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Guernica, ELLE Singapore, and the anthology Film Criticism Collective Volume II (2017), edited by Chris Fujiwara, and is forthcoming in the next issue of Mynah Magazine. Her collection Indian Ink was awarded the Reed Prize for poetry by Wesleyan University. She is currently working on a book of fictocriticism on Zen Buddhism, Kierkegaard, eros, and repetition. Find more of her work at jilljtan.com.