Topeng Pajegan Workshop

I Made Suteja teaching the steps of a movement in Topeng Pajegan

On 15 November 2016, students from the ELL department attended a Balinese Topeng workshop taught by Balinese dance and theatre practitioner I Made Suteja and hosted by Assistant Professor Maiya Murphy and Associate Professor Irving Johnson at NUS Theatre Studies Practice Studio.

In this workshop, I Made Suteja taught the basic steps and provided a demonstration of Topeng Pajegan. Some of the students who attended the workshop had previous exposure to Balinese dance and theatre in the module “Unmasked! An Introduction to Traditional Dance in SEA” taught by Associate Professor Irving Johnson. Topeng is a popular form of theatre in Bali that uses masks and half-masks in order to represent the human face. Topeng Pajegan is a sub-genre of Topeng where one performer portrays all characters, male and female, old and young, as well as characters of different backgrounds.

I Made Suteja drawing a diagram explaining the correct posture for performing Topeng

He introduced the students to a simple exercise that practices the basic physicality and footwork that constituted the foundation of performing Balinese theatre. The movements were controlled and powerful, at all times there is a conscious effort to ‘bulk up’ the performer’s stage presence. He went on to teach the class on how to perform a movement set called ‘looking for the umbrella.’ The students all struggled to master the movement, but nevertheless it was an energizing workout.

I Made Suteja giving a demonstration of Topeng Pajegan

At the end of the workshop, I Made Suteja gave a full length demonstration of Topeng Pajegan, displaying his prowess and mastery over his craft. His performance was lively and entertaining as he switched from mask to mask, character to character. Having experienced a taste of how much control and endurance one needs to perform Topeng, the students had a better appreciation of the craft of Balinese performance.

A link to I Made Suteja’s demonstration can be found here

(Contributed by undergraduate Eugene Koh.)

Kodrah Kristang! (“Awaken, Kristang!”)

On 21 November, The Straits Times featured a language initiative by Kevin Martens Wong, an honours year English Language major from the department. Kevin’s language initiative focuses on the revival and preservation of Kristang, a critically endangered language of the Portuguese-Eurasian community. Below we catch up with Kevin to learn more about his initiative and the plans he has to revitalize Kristang. We learn that besides continuing to run the popular Kristang classes, Kevin has plans to launch an online Kristang dictionary, produce a textbook for Kristang and hold a Kristang Language Festival in May 2017.

(Note: The new cycle of Kristang classes begin on 3 January 2017. To register, see poster below.)

Kevin in a Kristang class (photo by Marvin Tang)
Kevin in a Kristang class (photo by Marvin Tang)

Q: What is Kristang?

Kristang is the critically endangered heritage language of the Portuguese-Eurasian community in Malacca and Singapore. It is a creole language, meaning that it is effectively the progeny of at least two to three other languages: much of Kristang’s grammar appears to have its roots in Malay and possibly Hokkien, while Portuguese provided most of Kristang’s vocabulary. The language has also seen influence from other languages historically present in our region, including Dutch, Konkani, Malayalam, Hakka, Cantonese and Indian varieties of Creole Portuguese, all of which have left their mark on the contemporary Kristang lexicon.

Q: How many people speak Kristang today?

Estimates vary widely, but in Singapore the language is almost extinct, down to 100 mostly older speakers or so, while in Malacca it appears to be a little stronger, though it is fast declining there as well — an optimistic estimate would be about 400 or so speakers in Malacca, mostly concentrated in the Portuguese Settlement. There is also a significant Portuguese-Eurasian diaspora community in other cities worldwide like Perth and London, but overall I’d say no more than 500 people speak Kristang today, and most of them not even on a daily basis, if at all.

Members of a Kristang class (photo by Marvin Tang)
Members of a Kristang class (photo by Marvin Tang)

Q: What have you been doing to revive the language?

I am a linguistics undergraduate of Portuguese-Eurasian descent who only discovered the language even existed in January 2015 — that’s how unaware most young Singaporeans, even those who have their roots in this community, are about this language! I also discovered that almost nothing was known about Kristang in Singapore, both in the public sphere and academically, and so set out to document and revitalize the language on my own. I learned the language from my work with the remaining speakers in Singapore and the materials that had been produced about the Malaccan variety of Kristang; with one of the remaining speakers, Bernard Mesenas, we started a multimodal revitalization initiative for the language in Singapore called Kodrah Kristang (“Awaken, Kristang”)  in March of this year.

The initiative is centered around adult classes for complete beginners in Kristang: we’ve run four iterations of these classes so far, with a fifth and sixth already on the horizon in January and March 2017, and brought the language to 192 people in just eight months, which frankly still amazes me — demand for the classes is still very strong, and shows no signs of slowing down.  For older, more immobile and/or diaspora learners, we also produce an audio course, Kontah Kristang, and an online vocabulary course, Kriseh Kristang, so that they can work with the language as well. Beyond classes, I produce a new video of myself singing an original or translated song in Kristang every month in an ongoing series called Kantah Kristang; together with the rest of my team, we’ve also just received a National Heritage Board grant to start work on the first ever Kristang Language Festival in Singapore, to be held in May 2017. Complementing all this are our ongoing efforts to produce an online, collaborative dictionary in Kristang and a textbook for the language in Singapore, and an overall Revitalization Plan and Curriculum Plan that I wrote while attending the 2016 Institute on Collaborative Language Research (CoLang) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in July — the Revitalization Plan provides a roadmap for the language up to 2045, 29 years from now. In the near future, we hope to start classes for kids, and start formal teacher training so that the entire initiative becomes more sustainable.

Announcement for Kristang classes in January 2017
Announcement for Kristang classes in January 2017. Click to enlarge.

Q: How has your training as an EL major helped you in your work with Kristang?

If I hadn’t majored in linguistics I probably would have never had the confidence to first take up the extremely daunting and always very challenging task of revitalizing a language, even one part of my heritage; but because I had that linguistic training, I felt like this was the best way I could give back to my community, since such training isn’t exactly that common. So I had had the good fortune to have read courses with the department on second language teaching (EL3880E) and applied linguistics (EL3880F), creoles and contact languages (EL3211), and field methods in linguistics (EL3212), which all turned out to be highly relevant for what I needed to do with Kristang; I also had the fantastic opportunity to read an undergraduate research opportunity (UROP; EL3551) under Assistant Professor Rebecca Starr that very ably prepared me for independent research work on my own.

Since we started Kodrah Kristang, I’ve then been able to start looking at how I can have Kristang help me with my ongoing training as a linguistics major; I’ve written term papers and group projects on unexplored aspects of Kristang syntax (EL4201) and morphology (EL3205), with the former eventually becoming a conference paper which I delivered at the 5th Language Documentation and Linguistic Theory conference (LDLT5) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and eventually wrote my undergraduate honours thesis on Differential Object Marking in Kristang this semester under Assistant Professor Michael Erlewine. I’ve also presented about Kodrah Kristang at the University of Macau, the National Institute of Education, and the University of Malaya as an invited speaker, and will further present about the initiative at conferences in Hawaii and Barcelona early next year. Last but not least, Kristang is to be the language of focus for the new iteration of EL3212 Field Methods in Linguistics this coming semester, which I think is awesome.

Q: What are your goals for the future of Kristang?

To make the language healthy again, of course! — Kristang remains on the precipice of extinction, and though I like to think that our efforts have helped postpone its demise, it remains true that few families speak the language at home, and there is still relatively low awareness about the language’s existence in Singapore. For Kristang to be preserved for future generations, intergenerational transmission of the language must begin again, and more Singaporeans must be made aware that the language is a priceless part of our intangible cultural heritage — something very unique to our region, and part of our shared history and heritage.

(Assistant Professor Rebecca Starr contributed the questions to this post.)


Prof. Philip Holden Launches Debut Collection of Short Stories


Prof Philip Holden launches his debut fiction collection, Heaven Has Eyes – a collection of stories that studies estrangement, interconnection and belonging in Singapore. The 12 short stories are linked by their characters’ discovery of moments of transcendence in everyday life.


Join Prof Holden for his book launch, organised under the Singapore Writers Festival 2016, at The Arts House – Living Room on 9 November 2016, Wednesday from 8.30pm to 9.30pm. The session will be moderated by Dr Matilda Gabrielpillai.

To purchase or learn more about the book, visit Epigram Books.


Heartiest congratulations to Prof Holden for the launch of his debut fiction collection!

Launch of Contemporary Wayang Archive

The punokawan (clown servants) watch a wayang recording in their puppet laptop.

A hundred and fifty people attended the launch of the Contemporary Wayang Archive (CWA) in Lecture Theatre 13 on 7 October.

The archive is the work of Dr. Miguel Escobar Varela, an Assistant Professor of Theatre Studies in the Department of English Language and Literature. It contains video recordings of 24 performances, along with scripts, translations into English and Indonesian (if the script is Javanese), notes and details of honorifics. Together, the videos and supporting apparatus make this modern and popular performance form available to a worldwide audience.

Wayang is, Associate Professor Sarah Weiss of Yale-NUS College explained at the launch, a kind of “Gesamtkunstwerk”—a form that brings different arts together. It incorporates puppetry, dialogue, dance and music and has often assimilated new cultural influences from other places. Associate Professor Jan Mrázek of Southeast Asian Studies, gave a more personal account of his encounters with Wayang, and what it has meant to him. He first saw a performance as a teenager visiting the US from communist Czechoslovakia. The sense of dislocation he experienced then has remained with him ever since, and continues to shape his understanding of a form that “has defined my life”, as he confessed.

But if Wayang dislocates, it also brings people together. Farah Wardani, former Executive Director of the Indonesian Visual Art Archive, spoke of her institution’s collaboration with Dr. Escobar. CWA, she said, had been built upon friendship, a quality that was evident throughout the launch. The speakers and performers played their parts with the energy and enthusiasm of friends working together.

The launch culminated in an electrifying performance of “Wayang Hiphop.” It was led by the Dalang, Catur “Benyek” Kuncoro, and four members of his troupe (a DJ and three singers), and supported by FASS’s Singa Nglaras Gamelan Ensemble. The performance began with traditional puppets casting shadows across the back of the stage, to the sounds of gamelan music.

But this was soon interrupted by the eruption onstage of three of Dalang Benyek’s troupe. Dressed in traditional Wayang Wong costume, with the addition of very modern footwear, they rapped to electric beats complemented by the gamelan ensemble. Their music was a powerful mixture of street rhythms originating from the US with melodies and poetry from Java. In the puppetry that followed, modern versions of the punokawan (the clown-servants of Wayang) joked about the appearance on their puppet laptop of the CWA.

The members of Wayang Hip Hop and Singa Nglaras gamelan.

The launch was very different from the sobriety of most academic events. But there was serious academic work behind it. Wayang is one of Southeast Asia’s most important traditional performance forms. It has undergone many changes in its history, and the emergence of Wayang Kontemporer represents a new and significant development. The archive preserves and disseminates knowledge of this development for scholars and students everywhere.


Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing Competition Winner: Barney Gopalakrishnen

The prize ceremony for this year’s Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing Competition was held on 1 June. In this second segment of a two-part series, we continue to speak to some of the winners of the Competition. Here we converse with Barney Gopalakrishnen who won Third Prize for his play Cycle of Morality.

Barney Gopalakrishnen with guest-of-honour Dr Sylvia Goh
Barney Gopalakrishnen with guest-of-honour Dr Sylvia Goh


Q: Could you tell us what your play is about and what inspired its writing? What did you hope to achieve with your play?

The play Cycle of Morality is about the temptation of a young boy, Etienne, to cross over to the side of oppressing others. Being a victim of theft, his anger triggers him to see the beauty of touching upon a “monstrous” side with his new rationale–by oppressing, it can offset the “oppression” that is being bestowed upon him. It is not the act of oppressing that makes him a monster for the monster lives in the act of oppressing itself and that act itself is immoral. What if Etienne’s belief in oppressing encounters an opposing belief–that of positive invigorated encouragement and motivation? The latter is the innate attribute of his teacher, Kimberley. Will the act of invigorated motivation itself oppress Etienne whenever he reflects on his acts of oppressing? While it is a play portraying the battle of oppression versus positive “invigoration,” correspondingly, it is about the effects of “invigoration” and oppression over another. It is also about the influential power and the contagiousness of attributes and attitudes towards others.

A friend of mine had asked me to write a play that would fit perfectly under the category of “family entertainment.” Being my first attempt at “family entertainment,” I had seized the opportunity to address one of the themes that mattered to me–the impact of our actions and words on others. When it gets produced some day, I hope that the audience will have nights of fun with it while viewing my take on the theme.

Q: You are currently also part of the MA program in theatre in NUS. Does your academic studies in theatre have any influence on your creative writing?

I am currently doing my Masters in Theatre Studies. When I first came in, I was merely looking forward to the process of writing my thesis. I was excited how the thesis would serve my work as a practitioner and vice versa. Little did I foresee the impact the academic modules would have on my practice. Writing about inspiring servant leadership in films for the “Film Spectatorship” module inspired me to practice writing edutainment. “Performance Studies” inspired me to question the structures of writing that I had been comfortable with and had been depending on for years. Since then, I have been experimenting with other structures. Writing about branding oneself for “Asian International Cinema” brought about some strategies that I use for the pitching and branding of my plays. In “Screen Culture in Southeast Asia,” I wrote about attaining catharsis through the producing of the work alongside viewing it. That had gotten me to think about one’s relationship with one’s plays; if one’s films/plays are therapeutic for oneself, how can that process be used to the same effect for the other side, the viewership?

I would like to thank the professors of the respective modules for their guidance and inspiration: Dr. Park Je Cheol, Dr. Alvin Lim, Dr. Edna Lim and Dr. David Teh.

Q: Could you share some of your thoughts on the theatre scene in Singapore today? What are some of your hopes for Singapore theatre?

What I am about to say specifically refers to local theatre practitioners and companies with “track records”; for the record, I am classified as a local with “no track record” for I have no opportunity going public with my productions and performances. I am afraid to say that many—though not all—of the local theatre companies today have turned into “family businesses.” By “family,” I mean a network of like-minded people. So far, this is fine. But these local theatre companies subtly market themselves as “doing theatre for the people, by the people” when—as comments I have gotten suggest–they seem to be largely doing what they want to do (doing theatre for themselves). While there are many who are entertained by these local theatre productions, there are still many others who believe in growing a wider variety of local productions. Theatre should be done for a broader range of people. Instead, established local practitioners seem to be a narrow group concerned with building a “safety net” for themselves and their friends.

One evening, after a play-reading that I staged, an audience member approached me to suggest that there is a possibility of me writing a play that addresses what the theatre industry rarely addresses–the local theatre industry itself and the way it operates. Henceforth, a client identified my trademark to be that of “questioning those who question.” A lot of local theatre productions question many things while I sit there questioning their need to question. For instance, someone I know watched a performance that addressed the negative impact of censorship. This person commented, “Funny how this director stages a play on censorship and regardless of ‘the reception’ of her play, her funding never gets censored.” Her comments got me to question further this director’s enterprise, “How does it feel to be watching a play staged by someone who has forgotten about her privilege of being funded to direct and write plays these many years and who is commenting on things like censorship to her advantage? Fine, if she wants to direct a play on censorship but how about staging a play that celebrates being bestowed a special privilege?”

I am currently working on a play on my own. This play while having its own multiple plots, celebrates our broadcasting history and our rapid progress in communication technologies. Shouldn’t we while looking at what we do not have also treasure all that we have? Shouldn’t theatre also be about celebrating? There are those of us who have not gotten the privilege of the director I mention above.

My only hope for Singapore theatre is for a fair chance for new theatre practitioners like myself to pitch, audition and to undergo tests to be considered for funding from arts bodies. Funding to those with “track records” or to those who are being vouched for by those with “track records” will see an absence of diverse views which will lead to a situation of theatre for “the people” by a few “elite” individuals. For the purpose of funding, can track records be substituted with tests and pitches for a newcomer?

Having said all this, there are just too many local theatre practitioners whose work I admire. I love the works of the Singapore Repertory Theatre. I am grateful to playwrights Jean Tay and Faith Ng. With each of their plays, I get this confirmation that local theatre plays are taking sharp new turns and are going to where they have never gone before. There is this sense of moving on to a new chapter for local plays and an exciting sense of how “new things” will come about.

Q: What are your future plans? Are there further plays (or productions) in the pipeline?

I produce, direct and write feature-length business-themed plays for private events. I perform in some of them as well. Some of these are play-readings of screenplays. I have got plays ready for 2017 as I would have graduated by then (I hope). The next step for me is to take these performances into the public sphere. A lot of business friends that I made are keen on investing in these plays going public but there is a lot going on with regard to being granted venues. The priority seems to be given to locals with “track records.” So, as for now, I am at the stage of pleading with venue managements to be granted a venue. I have also been much encouraged by this gift that the Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing Competition has bestowed upon me. I am humbly grateful to Dr Sylvia Goh, the judges and everyone involved in this competition for such a gift.

I would like to thank NUS and the Theatre Department along with my thesis supervisor Dr Graham Wolfe for their guidance. They have shaped my career in ways that I would never have imagined and I am truly grateful for this experience.


Theatre Studies Field Trip to Yogyakarta

As part of her coursework for TS4217 Cultural Performance in Asia, Theatre Studies major Phan Yi-Wen participated in a field trip to Yogyakarta which afforded her a first-hand glimpse of some theatre and performance practices in the region. Below she recounts highlights of her field trip:


“Yogyakarta is a beautiful place and I am glad to have been given the opportunity to go there. This trip was crafted as part of the syllabus of TS4217 and aimed at giving students a first-hand experience at observing how ethnographic work may be conducted.


This enriching 4-day 3-night journey began with a visit to Prambanan Temple, which is said to be the most beautiful Hindu temple in the world. At night, we watched Sendratari Ramayana, a ballet performance in an open-air theatre with the Prambanan Temple as a spectacular backdrop. The performance was magnificent so imagine my delight the very next day when we participated in a costumed dance workshop to learn a simplified movement sequence from the same show. Also, we partook in a gamelan workshop in which we tried to master a short sequence and performed it to an audience. It was definitely not as easy as it seemed and a troupe of talented, young gamelan performers put us to shame. That same night, I finally was able to see an actual Wayang Kulit performance by a professional troupe. Did you know that a Javanese Wayang Kulit performance may be up to 9 hours long? I did not but the performance ignited my interest towards the different puppets. Each and every single one of the puppets is a work of art, requiring skill, time and effort. At Gendeng village, a master puppet maker gave us a lesson on puppet-making. While we spent minutes struggling to cut a decent hole in a piece of scrap leather, the master did it perfectly and effortlessly within seconds. It was definitely not as easy as it seemed and one needs to personally attempt it to understand how difficult it really is. Lastly, we toured the Sultan’s palace, also known as Kraton, and enjoyed a free-and-easy afternoon to explore the rest of the city. For a few hours, I was stuck at the row of shops, busy looking for unique trinkets and batik prints while communicating with the locals with my broken Bahasa Indonesia language. For those who have never experience bargaining at a street market, this would definitely be a fun experience.


All in all, this was a learning journey which allowed me a peek into the world of practice-based research. My final research may not be related to the cultures of Yogyakarta or Wayang Kulit but this experience has shown me the important difference between observing and doing. For example, if I had not actually attempted to learn the ‘Sendratari Ramayana’ dance, I would have failed to realise the unnoticeable twirling of fingers and tapping of feet that makes this beautiful piece. Watching a performance may be enough to recognise its value and beauty but practicing it first-hand allowed me to truly appreciate it.”

ASLE-ASEAN: Global in the Local

Elected Members of the ASLE-ASEAN Executive Council with Professor Scott Slovic, Founder-President of ASLE (second from right)
Elected Members of the ASLE-ASEAN Executive Council with Professor Scott Slovic, Founder-President of ASLE (second from right)

The founding of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment-Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASLE-ASEAN) was commemorated with an inaugural conference on Southeast Asian environmental literatures, titled Global in the Local. The event took place at the Shaw Foundation Building from 1-2 August 2016.

The conference was a grand success, with oral and poster presentations conducted by over thirty academic and non-academic environmental humanities specialists from various ASEAN nations. Participating nations this year included Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore. The event was also graced by an international panel of plenary speakers: Professors Scott Slovic, Yuki Masami and Hannes Bergthaller, from ASLE-International, ASLE-Japan and ASLE-Europe respectively.

In addition to stimulating ecocritical dialogue and interconnectivity in the region, ASEAN nature writing was also showcased. The event featured a book launch, booths by two publishers, as well as three creative eco-readings by poets Edwin Thumboo and Madeleine Lee, and novelist Christine Suchen Lim. The conference proceedings concluded with an ecotour of Labrador Park which saw participants venturing out of their conference rooms and into the mangroves.

During this event, the ASEAN ecocritics collectively elected the first executive council for ASLE-ASEAN which features a diverse range of delegates from various ASEAN nations:

Treasurer (Singaporean) from The Nature Society of Singapore;

Two Secretaries (both from Thailand);

Two Vice Presidents (one from the Philippines, the other Malaysian);

The Founding President of ASLE-ASEAN (Singaporean)

The elected executive council also formally ratified the nomination of a student representative–a graduate student from the Department of English Language and Literature.

The event would not have been possible without the participation of all delegates but thanks also go out to administrative staff and graduate student chairs from the Department for their hard work and selfless contributions.

(Contributed by Lu Zhengwen)

Book Launch: The Banyan, Edwin Thumboo’s Poems in Tamil

On 15 June, the Department organised the launch of the book The Banyan, which is a collection of Edwin Thumboo’s poetry in Tamil. Thumboo’s poems were translated into Tamil by our colleague A/P Chitra Sankaran. The event was graced by DPM Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam. During the launch, second-year undergraduate Losheini Ravindran recited Thumboo’s poetry in both English and Tamil. Below Losheini recounts her experience at the event:


“I still remember the day I opened an email from A/P Chitra Sankaran; my joy knew no bounds! An opportunity to recite Professor Edwin Thumboo’s poetry! With a great feeling of elation, I went on to read, understand and practise the poem, “Gods Can Die”/”Devargal Marikkalaam.”

Professor Edwin Thumboo
Professor Edwin Thumboo

Finally, the day of the book launch arrived. After Professor John Richardson’s introductory speech on Professor Thumboo, A/P Sankaran went on to share about her experiences in playing a major role in the translation of The Banyan into Aalam (Tamil translation). As a bilingual Tamil speaking girl myself, I was able to relate to A/P Sankaran’s concerns in finding the most suitable words to render Thumboo’s poetry in Tamil without losing the essence of its poetic qualities. A/P Sankaran also shared about how Professor Thumboo had been her guru, guiding her in her new venture of accomplishing this challenging yet meaningful project.

DPM Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam
DPM Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam

Succeeding her speech came Professor Thumboo’s speech where, among other things, he shared how he witnessed the nation’s progress from the past to the present. “To find, to know, to unlock the radiance in compassion” was a line that captivated me during his recitation of his poem “The Banyan.” The poem was recited with such passion it would certainly have evoked and awakened a sense of unity and the desire for strong bonds among all Singaporeans seated in the auditorium. After being spellbound by Professor Thumboo’s magnificent rendition of his poem, our Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam went on to share how the strong sense of multiculturalism forms the crux of Thumboo’s poems. What amazed me was to see the poetic side of our Deputy Prime Minister as he shared his thoughts on the poem “Ulysses by the Merlion”; he said, “If Professor Thumboo is the unofficial Poet Laureate of Singapore, the ‘Ulysses by the Merlion’ is the epic poem.” Belonging to a younger generation, Mr Tharman’s speech and sharing made me realize how Professor Thumboo’s poem holds a significant meaning in reflecting upon how far our society has come in reaching the pinnacle of success by going against all odds as depicted by the allusion to the Greek legend.

The author with DPM Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam
The author with DPM Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam

Finally my turn to recite Professor Thumboo’s poem came. To be honest, my heart was filled with apprehension. I was extremely nervous about whether I would be able to recite the poem well in both English and Tamil. At that moment, I recalled Professor Thumboo’s recitation of “The Banyan” during his speech; I gained inspiration and took off from there. The experience was very fulfilling and it certainly marked one of the most significant and blessed events of my life.

The author with A/P Sankaran (left) and members of the South Asian Studies department
The author with A/P Sankaran (left) and members of the South Asian Studies department

To sum it up all, this has been an event that has taught me about the beauty of poetry in depicting and exploring the shaping of a nation. Being a woman of both Indian and Chinese origin, I was able to relate to and appreciate the importance of multiculturalism and strength derived from racial harmony through literature.”


Graduate Student Walter Chan Presents at the Bridging Gaps Conference

Professor David Marshall and Walter
Professor David Marshall and Walter

In July 2016, a Masters student from the department, Walter Chan Mun Keet, attended the Bridging Gaps conference in Barcelona, organised by the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies. The conference, subtitled “What are the media, publicists, and celebrities selling?”, aims to discover solutions by investigating the link between celebrity status and activism. Here, taking on both roles of interviewer and interviewee, Walter interviews himself about his presentation and research interest areas.

What is your presentation about?
It’s basically about how we read media, in this case, social media. My focus is on finding alternative methods to read different sociologies of new media, through theory. On the one hand, I think social media has infiltrated our everyday activity to the point where we instinctively engage in the process without giving it much thought. And on the other hand, I think that social media has received flak (and rather unfairly so, in my opinion) for being a text too “shallow” or “banal” for analysis. Isn’t it the other way round? It’s this emergent technology at the forefront of our daily experience, and it keeps on changing at every single moment. In my opinion that qualifies it as an exciting new field of study, and I think we can all be enriched if we give it its due academic credit.

Ar the Bridging Gaps conference.
Ar the Bridging Gaps conference.

Okay, but if studying social media texts are as rewarding as you claim, how then would you analyse it? Give us one example of your method.
I think the one that really stuck with the people at the conference was the one about Kim Kardashian’s selfies. Yes, Kim Kardashian. The Queen of selfies. Anyway, if you think about why the selfie is such a common image on social media–doesn’t it have to do with the immediacy of the face? I think it performs a metonymic function–you instinctively recognise that there is another human being there, based on the face alone. And also, you can materially localise this sort of “instinct” within the brain–this particular portion in the fusiform gyrus is developed specially for facial perception.

So I try to read the selfie through one notable theory of the human face, by the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. For him, the face-to-face encounter is, at its very core, ethical. And this sort of ethics, for Levinas at least, precedes ontology–that means it is already in play even before our mental conception of such an encounter. In other words, we are beckoned (i.e. we have no choice in this matter) into a contractual responsibility for the other. And I try to place this ethical demand into the context of the selfie, to rationalise why people have such strong emotional reactions (from awe to joy to hate) to selfies in general.

I see. So you’re very theory-driven, then?
Oh, definitely. I think one of the reasons why I love doing critical theory is because it’s not just a topic, but also a method. It’s crazy how many ways you can make sense of things.

Indeed. And besides Levinas, there’s another line of argument that theorises the female selfie as re-appropriating the male gaze.

Absolutely! There are also potential threads from film and aesthetic theory that one can choose to tug at, for alternative perspectives on theorising the selfie. I think it’s great. People are starting to take notice of the value of earlier critical thoughts in the domain of new media, and this illuminates different ways of thinking media and thinking through media. This is one #throwback that refreshes the old anew–both past and present can learn much from each other, through the exercise of critical theory.

Whoa whoa, was that a hashtag in your reply?
Yes. Am I cool now?

No. Do you have a favourite theorist? Or theory?

Hmm . . . . I don’t think I’d want to pick favourites, I think all of them are exciting in their own sort of way. For this conference presentation I tackle Levinas, Badiou and Derrida. And for my Honours thesis earlier this year, under A/P John Phillips, I did some Derrida and Jameson on the topic of the female superhero. And on and off I’ve worked on many others: Lacan, Deleuze, Barthes, Spivak, Bhabha, Bakhtin, Mulvey, Foucault, Butler, Irigaray, Althusser, Durkheim, Benjamin, McLuhan. All of them fascinate in their own way.

Hold up a second. Kim Kardashian, superheroes – you sure do pick some wacky examples for theoretical analysis.
Oh yes. Yes. Haha! I’m all about pop culture. I love watching films, I love graphic culture, I love listening to popular music, I love reading satirical social commentary. I guess that’s where my research interest lies–right smack at the intersection between pop culture and critical theory.

Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing Competition Winner: Isaac Lim

The prize ceremony for this year’s Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing Competition was held on 1 June. Dr Sylvia Goh was the guest-of-honour for the event, and she presented prizes to the winners. In the first of a two-part series, we speak to some of the winners of the Competition. Here we talk to Isaac Lim who won Second Prize for his play Whither Are We Going.

© NUS Eng Lit | Photography by Lionel Lin
Isaac Lim with guest-of-honour Dr Sylvia Goh

Q: Could you tell us what your play is about and what inspired its writing?

Whither Are We Going, put simply, is about identity. As much as I hate to say this, it involves globalization, and the millenials’ concept of language and their questioning of national identity and meritocracy. Sneaked within are two ambiguous relationships that never quite work out, and some sort of political commentary on Singapore and our neighbors.

Through this work, I hope to raise the issues of who we are as Singaporeans, our identity, and if we as a nation are perhaps too competitive (which is not for our own good). It questions Singaporean millenials’ position in the diverse world we live in today.


Q: You are currently also part of the undergraduate program in theatre in NUS. Does your academic studies in theatre have any influence on your creative writing?

I’ve actually just completed my BA (Hons) in Theatre Studies here at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in NUS, and the four years have taught me so much about theatre and performance. I am glad that I’ve been provoked to think of issues in very different ways, and am allowed to see things from various perspectives and angles.

There are two modules which I consider to have a big impact on my writing today–firstly “Introduction to Playwriting” and thereafter “Advanced Playwriting,” both of which are taught by Ms Faith Ng. The two modules exposed me to various play genres, and challenged me to attempt writing works that I would never have tried before. It is in these two modules that I learned playwriting skills. I also met a great group of classmates who are unselfish in sharing ideas and opinions as we do peer reading and reviews in each class session.

Another module that influenced me is “Singapore English Language Theatre,” taught by Dr Robin Loon. The module offers a comprehensive survey of the vast collection of original works churned out by Singaporean or Singapore-based playwrights over the years. The intensive course tasked us to read and understand the history of local theatre development, and opened my eyes to the fantastic world of Singapore literature. It aspired me to want to be part of the scene in the near future and to add to its library of creative texts.


Q: Could you share some of your thoughts on the theatre scene in Singapore today? What are some of your hopes for Singapore theatre?

I believe that the theatre scene is burgeoning even more today than a decade ago. More people are willing to be audiences to support original local works. The next three months alone, we get to see at least five local theatre-related festivals, from Peer Pleasure, a festival for school drama groups, to the Twenty-Something Theatre Festival which serves as a platform for young emerging writers. We also have the Singapore International Festival of Arts, which attracts a vast regional and international audience.

I myself watch a rather broad range of theatre shows, from headline productions to fresh, independent works. I am especially intrigued by the works of Chong Tze Chien, especially writings like Pan Island Expressway (1998) and Charged (2010). I am also inclined to favoring works by Natalie Hennedige whom I have had the pleasure of working with; Hennedige directed me in my Play Production module. Hennedige’s works are bold and provocative, and focus much on the craft of storytelling among other things.

The past year has been a good one for me as I “venture” into the professional theatre scene in Singapore. Post-graduation, I am open to working freelance as a theatre practitioner, and believe there are many more things to be learned. There is space for growth in the Singapore theatre scene, as emerging writers, actors and directors are slowly taking to the stage. My hope is that there will be more funding from the authorities to push for a more vibrant arts scene and that theatre can reach out to more audiences because there are many stories waiting to be told. Theatre always provides food for thought, and is always targeted at the masses. If Singaporeans do not support Singapore theatre, who will?


Q: What are your future plans? Are there further plays or productions in the pipeline?

I am currently looking for work opportunities, including teaching theatre and drama to young children. As mentioned earlier, I am also very ready to be a freelance theatre practitioner in Singapore. If there are opportunities for further studies in the near future, I would like to do research and learn about directing and dramaturgy.

This prize has been a great encouragement to me. I hope to further develop this piece–Whither Are We Going?–through the National Arts Council-Mentor Access Project. My aim is to complete the work into a full-length piece, and perhaps have it staged within the next 2 years.

With the prize money, I also seek to start a collaboration with my peers to put up the work on stage. Currently, Between Consciousness, an earlier play of mine, is being worked on and I am seeking people who have interest to come together to develop the writing into a stage production.