A Fluid Borderless Past

Borders: A Photo-essay
by ila


2:15 pm, 2nd February 2019, Tuas, Singapore

The air was salt and brine and it billowed; bulged in and out; but the sea was nowhere in sight, no matter how far into the distance one tried to look. How did the sea, in all its vastness disappear completely? I stood amidst the metal beams, gazing around the barren land, looking up at the towering cranes catching the glint of the shifting midday sun. The winds were relentless; like restless spirits that danced on lands but were hungry for their sea. They forgot that waves could not form on land but they could not stop themselves from trying.

The sea, even if it was buried by all these rocks and cement merging into the soft red soil and even if all the life that thrived inside it was drained out, could never disappear completely. My ears caught echoes of the waves. It is common for sea breezes to penetrate 40 to 80 km inland [1]. How far was 40km and how did one measure it in relation to an absence?

Tuas is one of the massively reclaimed areas in Singapore that underwent land expansion of 650 hectares in the 1980s. Housing heavy industries, two of the four incinerators in Singapore, and the Second Link—a bridge but also an immigration checkpoint to enter Malaysia—Tuas is currently going through more major developments, in four phases over 30 years, to turn it into a mega-port, the largest container terminal in the world, capable of handling 65 million twenty-foot containers, more than the combined 50 million units in our current ports.

Taking a long drive into that dreamy dystopia, I finally caught sight of the sea as I went closer to the coast. However, the shore in Tuas was completely off limits, barricaded and heavily protected with signs and security posts. I tried to catch sight of Jurong Island, an artificial island birthed from a scarcity of industrial land at the expense of residents from seven offshore islands, who were resettled in the 1980s from their homes to the mainland. Like the Orang Selat or people of the straits of Pulau Seking, one of the offshore islands, I imagine my home disappearing into a giant landfill, bearing no traces of my past.

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1st June 2016, Batam, Indonesia

Over a decade ago, geographer Nathalie Fau explained that these disparities are not the result of dysfunctions within the Triangle but are fundamental to it:

“At the micro-regional level, IMS-GT (Indonesia-Malaysia-Singapore Growth Triangle) typifies the principles of the international division of labour. It exploits to its advantage the geo-economic hiatus created by national borders. Its operation relies on the existence of gradients, which are economic (labour costs, level of industrialisation and size of the service sector), demographic (availability of labour) and political (protectionism or free trade) among the countries bordering the straits”.

The hope of growth shared fairly among partners is illusory, as are the promises of a territory without borders.” [2]

"Do you know of any fishermen living here?" I asked the two men whom I had met for the first time, as I stopped by the roadside to find my bearings. They nodded nonchalantly, almost as if they were waiting for me all morning knowing that our paths would converge. I walked to the back alleys of Tanjung Uma, one of the oldest villages in Batam, carefully stepping on rickety wooden planks and peering into the open doorways of the wooden houses. These stilt houses were built directly above the sea. It was low tide and the air smelt of salted fish and rot.

I was brought to Pak Ramlan's house, a deep blue wooden house near the well. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor of his living room with his assistant, Wahab. In front of them were photocopies of the identity cards of most of the registered fishermen in Tanjung Uma.

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"Salam, Pak," I greeted him with the customary term used for older men, and introduced myself. Pak Ramlan generously shared about the straitened state of fishing in Tanjung Uma and other areas in Batam. Having fished for generations in the same waters, the fishermen in this area have been badly affected ever since the increase in commercial trade on the Singapore Straits in the 1960s.

Selected transcript of video documentation:

"First, Singapore took our sand, affecting our corals. Now our fishing areas are polluted and the tides are inconsistent because of these big ships. They profit from it but we get nothing,"

"So what do you do if you cannot catch fish? How do you sustain yourselves?"

"We are trying to get the Government to do something about it. That’s why you see all these identity cards so that they are aware of the number of families affected and maybe they would allow us to fish slightly further from where we are."

"Do you have alternative livelihoods to sustain yourselves?"

"Oh, right now, even if it's not something we all can agree on, whatever we get will be shared among ourselves. 1 kg of rice will be shared equally with everyone. This is to ensure that everyone can survive."

"How long have the fishing villages been affected by this?"

"Very long. Ever since Singapore opened the straits up for commercial trade in the 1960s. Those big commercial ships affect the tides."

“Does the government know that there is an issue of not being able to fish in these waters?”

“Yes, they know, but they close one eye."

“How long has this process been going on for, to seek help from the government?"

"Since the 1960s, when they opened the commercial straits. Singapore took our sand and harmed our corals. We, fishermen, didn't get anything. They just take but they never compensate us for our losses."

"So what would be an ideal solution for you? What is the best situation?”

Wahab interjected angrily at this point.

“It's the pollution at the end of it, the harming of our environment, specifically the anchors of these ships that wreck the coral life in the sea and the dumping of oil and other harmful substances into the sea. The ones that are affected the most are the fishermen, right? Our main livelihood is fishing. How are we to survive? We have been excluded in all the decisions made by companies and the governments over the years. It's always between the government and the company. The government is lying to us and we want that changed.”

“It is so polluted that sometimes when I fish, I will catch shoes, bags and bras, instead of fish."

“Bras?”

“Yes, bras.”

“What sort of help have you received from the government so far?”

Wahab laughed cynically at this question and Pak Ramlan just smiled.

“They gave us boats installed with GPS systems but they forgot that GPS is already built into our bodies. We just want a different area to fish in, somewhere further, closer to the borders of Singapore or Malaysia but that is something that no one can give us.”

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"Settlement was new to most people in the 1960s, and they viewed it with great hostility and suspicion. Resistance and even violence against public officers were not uncommon.”

Kwek recalled: “After the land has been acquired, those who remained on stateland were deemed to be squatting. When the land was required for development, and they refused to move after notices to quit and several extensions, then we had to go to a magistrate’s court to apply for a Warrant to Dispossess Unlawful Occupant to evict them, and they had to explain in court why they were refusing to leave after many notices and after payment of compensation.  After the Warrant to Dispossess was granted by the court, the police would enforce this warrant to evict the occupants. If there was any resistance or violence, the police would handle the situation. The other thing the resettlement officers would do was render the place uninhabitable. That means, take out all the windows or the staircase, so the squatters can’t stay anymore.”
[3]

Synonyms can convey different meanings:

resettling,
shifting,
transferring,
moving,
displacing,
removing,
erasing,

and the choice of words really depends on who is in power and who controls the narrative.

Each time I return to Tanjung Uma to visit Pak Ramlan and his family, I fall into a speculative time warp, pre-1955 Singapore, before land was acquired under the Land Acquisition Act to make ample space for our prosperous first-world country and its financial district, incinerators, petrochemical plants, airports, and military camps. Families who had lived in these areas, some for more than a century, were forced to move into the concrete blocks of public housing. How was it before the accelerated progress? Was it the same as sitting on the dock with your legs hanging out, waiting for the tide to come in? Or was I romanticizing a past I could never access?

During our second meeting, Pak Ramlan asked me if I was from Indonesia and I told him I was born and raised in Singapore.

"Why do you speak with that accent, as though you are from Indonesia?"

"Because it would be easier for you to understand me."

"But we speak the same here in Batam. We are from the same place, the same sea. We always feel that the sea divides us. We forget that the lands divide us but the sea connects us. Kita serumpun."

Serumpun translates to a group sharing the same language and culture from the same origins.

A fluid borderless past.

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When I was on an artist’s residency in Bandung, Indonesia, in 2015, I met Pak Ali at a warung, a small cafe by the road. He asked me where I was from.

“I am from Singapore.”

“What about your parents?”

“Singaporeans as well.”

“How about their parents?”

“My father's mother is from Central Java, Pak, and his father is Malaccan.”

“How about your mother?”

“She was adopted but her biological mother is from Bugis.”

“So are you more Javanese or Bugis?”

“I don't know what you mean, Pak. In Singapore we are all Malays.”

“Ok. If you feel troubled or stress, do you look for a body of water to calm you down?”

“Yes, Pak. In fact when I travel I always try to visit a beach, a lake or a river.”

“Oh, then, you are more Bugis.”

“So what does it mean to be Javanese, Pak?”

“Do you travel a lot to seek better opportunities?”

“I do, Pak, but don't we all.”

I have a strange relationship with the sea. Growing up, I would spend most Sundays with my family at East Coast Beach, although none of us could swim. Most of our family photos are of us by the coast. My mother would remind us not to go too far into the water and to make sure our feet could still touch the ground. We didn't swim in the sea so much as bobbed around the coast like beached whales. When I was 10, I almost drowned in Kota Tinggi, a popular river bank in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, because I couldn't float and kept sinking. My mother, who is of Bugis lineage, claimed that we are cursed because her ancestors chose to disavow the sea to live entirely on land. "We would always gravitate back to the sea," she said "but we can never return to it.”

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Pak Ramlan, his two sons, and I were out at sea one day, trying to find any signs of the chemical waste that were frequently dumped at sea by some of the commercial ships. Pak Ramlan told me that these ships would weigh the waste down with rocks or other heavy objects so that once it floated back to the surface of the sea, the ships would have been long gone. I held on tightly to the side of the boat, nervously looking back at Tanjung Uma growing smaller in the distance.

"What's wrong?"

"I can't swim."

"Have you learnt before?"

"Yes, Pak, when I was a teenager but I never got the hang of it."

Pak Ramlan, who was pretty reserved most of the time, started laughing at the irony. "You live on an island too but you can't swim?"

"Have you been to Singapore, Pak?"

"Yes. I went to Singapore on a boat in the 1960s. It took me almost an entire day and my boat did not have a motor back then, so I rowed over instead and stopped at Pasir Panjang Terminal."

"What brought you to Singapore?"

"No reason, just wanted to see if it was possible to do so in a day. You can't do such a thing now. The Coast Guard will arrest you and imprison you in Singapore and your boat will be destroyed."

"What happens if you go to Malaysia from here, Pak?"

"They will just beat you up and take all your money as a warning, so you won't do it again."

"How do you know where the borders are? Are they marked?"

"Yes, in the coordinates."

"Does your boat show these coordinates, Pak?"

"No, but my body remembers it for me."

"Do you want to go Singapore again, Pak?"

"Even if I want to, I have no passport."

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22nd February 2019, Punggol Beach, Singapore

Aside from the a few people fishing by the jetty or walking by the shore, the beach is empty in the afternoons. I walk from one end to another, snaking my way between the rock formations.  Even though this beach lacks the social activities at more commercial beaches such as East Coast and Siloso, it is never quiet. A customs checkpoint greets workers on small motorboats crossing international borders and arriving on schedule. In the air is a constant stirring with the low rumbles and hums of ships and factories. Right across, just 1.5 km away, is Pasir Gudang, home to the port of Johor, the Sultan Iskandar Power Station, and a number of petrochemical companies. At night, one can see the flames of the gas stacks, bright red and ominous, flailing in the darkness.

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Punggol Beach was one of the three sites of the Sook Ching Massacre during Japanese occupation of Singapore in World War II. Chinese men suspected of being anti-Japanese were shot dead in large numbers. Their bodies were left on the shore to be swallowed by the sea. In the 1960s, during the resettlement period, sand from the beach was washed before it was used in the construction of public housing. Bones, teeth, and other human remains were uncovered during these sand-washing operations. The remains were interred at the Civilian War Memorial on Beach Road during that period Still, there are reports of accidental findings of teeth and bones by people who fish at Punggol. Along the shores are scattered shrines of discolored sun-beaten deities underneath the trees, probably there to appease the restless spirits.

As I sit at the jetty, I would catch sight of a different ship almost every hour, transporting tons of sand. As the ship moves across the sea, disappearing into the horizon, I wonder what lies buried in those mountains of sand and how much of our displaced pasts exist elsewhere.

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13th September 2018, Tang Tea House, Bedok, Singapore

Most times, all of these encounters are just disconnected strands, unmapped routes that are dead ends, fragments that are dispersed without intersecting trajectories. They do not bring me anywhere but exist only as a handful of memories. But sometimes it just takes a single moment, like a current that blows the tide in, for these strands to merge and form a deeper meaning.

I met Raki, a twenty-four-year-old non-binary friend for supper before they flew back to Glasgow. Since Raki was ten years younger than I, I had a hunch that their relationship with the Nusantara is more fractured and removed than mine. Derived from Old Javanese, nūsa means islands and antara means in between. We talked about the layers of generational trauma passed down like cursed heirlooms and our fraught relationships with our ancestral histories, and the constant navigation with our identities. I was surprised that, much like me, the consciousness of being Nusantara is still present in their daily life and struggles. We are, after all, children of the archipelago, people living in between islands.

"We keep referring to the British as our only colonizers,” Raki said mid-conversation when I casually brought up the Bicentennial celebrations of the British “founding” of Singapore. “But we forget that we have been colonized way before that."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, for example, Islam. Our ancestors adopted it when they converted but it was not something they were born into. Colonization erases, and it makes me feel unsettled because we know that our bodies contain so much history yet much of it is not easily accessible. I remember a period of time being really frustrated because I felt like many things that my body had to learn felt really awkward."

"What were these things that you were learning, Raki?"

"The practices in religion have to be reinforced because we literally have to train our bodies to get used to them and attempt to embody these practices. And so we lock away the things that our bodies knew so well until we cannot access them anymore."

I think of how Pak Ramlan's body remembers coordinates, how my body shifts towards the sea when I'm sad, how the nape of my neck itches before it rains. I think of a friend who looks for soft earth and walks barefoot to feel grounded, and another who dreamt of the land where her grandfther came from, although she had never been there before, only to find out it was the same as her dream, when she finally did. I think of birthmarks that reveal how one died in one’s previous life. I think of the bones buried in the sand, bodiless and silenced, and the sand used to extend borders.

The body is an archive of languages that cannot be written or read. The body is a dead archive of the forgotten. Can the body remember all these histories once more?

When I asked Raki what it meant to be of a certain lineage, there was a long pause before they said, "I feel really lost most times thinking about my ancestors because it feels like a hidden history. But I feel their presence most when my body is forced to function in certain ways."

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bekas, a performative video installation, was shown at NTU Centre for Contemporary Arts as part of the group exhibition Arus Balik in March, 2019. Much like the conversation with Raki, I met and talked to several people about what it means to identify oneself with one’s ancestral lineage and what it means to be, for example, Javanese, Boyanese, or Malay. Parts of the conversations were written on my body as I lay myself on the grounds of reclaimed areas, such as Punggol, Tuas, and East Coast.

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bekas:

1 tanda yang tertinggal atau tersisa (sesudah dipegang, diinjak, dilalui, dsb);

2 sesuatu yang tertinggal sebagai sisa (yg telah rusak, terbakar, tidak dipakai lagi, dsb):

3 pernah menjabat atau menjadi, tetapi sekarang tidak lagi;

4 sudah pernah dipakai

5 berkesan; memberikan kesan:

6 tempat menaruh sesuatu;

1 residual marks

2 abandoned and not used anymore

3 used to be but not anymore

4 have been used before

5 to affect/ to create affect

6 a receptacle


My hands pressed against the ground as I tried to push myself up, before my entire body collapsed back into itself. My movements were limited. I could see the arch of my right shoulder, both my arms, the back of my hip. I could see my breath dancing against the dust and small stones. I could not see anything beyond this. I did not know where I was. All I could feel was the heat of the sun against my body and a slow throbbing coming from underneath me. I tried to push myself up again, this time shifting my hands from the front to my sides. I collapsed once more, from the same invisible current and the weight of the throbbing. There were markings, writings that I could not read, all over my body. These markings were disintegrating like wet earth after rain, paving meridians and parallels across my skin. I embodied what I had forgotten.

My body refuses to forget.

Mega mendong
Laut pun bergoncang
Nelayan tersentak biduk sesat haluan
Sang mentari terlindung
Pantai tak kelihatan
Tawakkal jalan akhirnya
Kembara, Impian Seorang Nelayan


Notes:
[1] https://www.nea.gov.sg/docs/default-source/resource/guidebook-on-climate-of-singapore.pdf

[2] “The money, the land and the labour: Singapore’s golden triangle,” Phillipe Revelli, Le Monde diplomatique, France, August 2016, https://mondediplo.com/2016/08/09fareast

[3] Urban System Studies: Land Acquisition and Resettlement: Securing Resources for Development, Centre for Liveable Cities Singapore, First Edition, Singapore, 2014 https://www.clc.gov.sg/docs/default-source/urban-systems-studies/uss-land-acquisition-and-resettlement.pdf

All images used by permission of artist. Copyright ila.


ila is a visual and performance artist who works with found objects, moving images, and live performance. She seeks to create alternative nodes of experience and entry points into the peripheries of the unspoken, the tacit and the silenced. With light as her medium of choice, ila weaves imagined narratives into existing realities. Using her body as a space of tension, negotiation, and confrontation, ila creates work that generates discussion about gender, history and identity in relation to pressing contemporary issues.