Category Archives: History

Happy (belated) Birthday Audre Lorde

It was Lorde’s birthday this past Monday.

Thank you Audre Lorde for making space for people like me.audre lorde quote

White Paper, Red Eyes

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Last night, I decided to read the ‘Population White Paper’ document that has been making its rounds on Singaporean news networks. The ‘Population White Paper’ is a document that outlines population policies for the next few decades. Mostly, the news reports were about how flawed the document from what the title of the paper should actually be to immigration policies  and  baby policies.

So naturally, as a lover of intellectual debate, an amateur policy analyst and a mid-level shit disturber,  I decided to weigh in on the topic. Unfortunately, the only outlet I have as a 20-something Malay woman living abroad to get my thoughts heard is the Internet. So I took to Facebook and over a 30 minute period, updated my status and comment sections with my thoughts on the White Paper.

This commentary below would make more sense if you have read the actual document. Here it is. 

If you’re too lazy for that and I don’t blame you, imagine a government document with lots of touristy pictures of Singapore and its people all happy in pictures where multicultural beings wave red and white flags and children run in the park with kites. That interspersed with graphs, pie charts of population statistics and a whole bunch of words and sentences that start with ‘We will continue to…’ and ‘We must ensure…’

So here is a screenshot of the running commentary on Facebook:

white paper

If you click on the image and zoom in on it on your webpage, you should be able to read it. Otherwise, here is a transcript below:

Status update – Monday, February 4th 2013 at 8.30pm: 

finally got the time to read Singapore’s recently released ‘Population White Paper’ and am already laughing at the second page. Get a load of this bull:

“We may have diverse geographical and ethnic backgrounds, but we are all Singaporean because we share certain key values and aspirations including meritocracy, a fair and just society, and respect for one another’s culture within a broad common space where all interact and bond.”


haha! gonna continue reading this tonight and see what else I can laugh at sarcastically.

Comment update – 8.35 pm:

I’m having a hard time stomaching the binaries between civilized and non-civilized here. We get it Singapore. You is developed. You is smart. You is also paranoid as shit with other countries ‘catching up on you’.

Comment update – 8.37 pm :

“We will continue to welcome immigrants who can contribute to Singapore, share our values and integrate into our society.”

read: we love people who think like us. otherwise, we dont give a shit about you. kindly exile yourself in other places. until you win the Nobel Peace Prize at which point, it will suddenly become important that you are Singaporean.

Comment update – 8.38 pm:

“Taking in younger immigrants will help us top up the smaller cohorts of younger Singaporeans and balance the ageing of our citizen population.”

We can top up populations like we top up EZ link cards.

Comment update, 8.40pm:

“Our economy must stay ahead of other Asian cities, so that we can provide them with the high-end goods and services that they need but are not yet able to produce themselves.”

read: we must make sure that we continue to oppress the working classes in our own country but also in the other countries of South East Asia.

Comment update, 8.43 pm:

OH something good at last:

‘99% of married respondents in the 2012 Marriage and Parenthood Study agreed that fathers and mothers are equally important as caregivers for children.’

Comment update, 8.49 pm:

and an acknowledgment that Singaporeans abroad aren’t useless complete with an acknowledgment? plea? for us to come home.

“Many Singaporeans living overseas continue to contribute actively to Singapore from around the world. We hope they will return home after studies or working stints abroad, adding a further dimension to our society.”

read: we want you to come home but we won’t listen to anything you have to say because you are now too Westernized. go sit in the corner and learn the words to ‘Dick Lee’s ‘Home’ again.

Comment update, 8. 54 pm:

investing in education sounds good and then it ends with this:

“The Ministry of Education is also conducting a study to see how to increase access and quality in the pre-school education sector.”

great. so my non-existent children can now be diagnosed with anxiety disorders at a younger age.

Comment update, 8.57 pm : 

what is up with the coy ‘we love immigrants but we cant let too many of you guys in’ thing? make up your mind. you can’t use people like tissue paper. get em when you need them then chuck them. sheesh.

Comment update, 8.59 pm :

“All our public buses will be wheelchair-accessible by 2020, up from about half today.”


Comment update, 9.02 pm:

This is laughable:

“Our immigrant heritage has shaped the Singapore of today, including the values that we hold dear – respect for others, family ties, hard worj, meritocracy, multi-racialism as well as a robust sense of social justice, harmony and cohesion. These values have enabled Singapore to develop into a First World Country in a few short decades.”

HELLO, Singapore. Not all of us have ‘immigrant heritage’. Some of us are actually indigenous to the archipelago. But oh yea. You’ve been trying reallllllyyyy hard to forget that.

Comment update, 9.02 pm:

that followed by pictures of smiling people waving singapore flags. LOLLLL

Comment update, 9.03pm:

I have now finished reading the document. overall, an informative read – some interesting bits for sure that make me excited to be a part of the growth but some pretty serious flaws in this document.

Comment from a friend, 2 hours later:


As always, it seems as if policies don’t match with the real experiences of Singaporeans on the ground.

I know that feelings of mistrust and racism are growing towards ‘foreigners’ especially towards new non-white immigrants. If we keep talking about integration of new immigrants, where is acknowledgment for the responsibility of Singaporeans to be more empathetic towards these new immigrants?

I’ve lived in Vancouver for 6 years now and though it is far from perfect, at the very least, there are outlets, programs and communities that engage new immigrants to help us ‘integrate’ and learn about the history of this city and its inhabitants of the white settlers and First Nations peoples. There is an honest acknowledgment (in some communities and increasingly so) that Vancouver sits on unceded Coast Salish territory and movements that explicitly support anti-racism on all fronts. Can Singapore say the same? Can we honestly and openly acknowledge that Singapore sits on ‘tanah Melayu’ and that the Malays are its indigenous population, not to a country that is only half a decade old but to a region and an archipelago that dates back hundreds of thousands of years?

As long as we do not admit this to ourselves and we continue to perpetuate the idea that all Singaporeans are immigrants, we will never be able to integrate our new immigrants properly. I have heard of new immigrants disrespecting Malays and it is not uncommon to see flaming Internet-ers making rude and racist comments about Malay and Tamil communities in Singapore. There are reasons for this just like there are reasons that the Chinese community escapes this treatment that the Malays and Indians are given.

As far as the half-assed plea for Singaporeans abroad to return, Singapore has made it abundantly clear that Singaporeans overseas are largely to fend for themselves. Unless one of us brings home an ‘internationally recognized award’ given to us by White Men in the West, our presence is unimportant just like our votes in any elections.

I do love Singapore. My roots are in Singapore. My family is in Singapore. My ancestors are from Singapore. The region is my home and the nation is my home. Singapore is where I grew up and its humidity is familiar to my brown skin.

But reading policies like these just make me angry, upset and lead me to question my value as a Singaporean. It affirms my decision of self-exile from Singapore until I accumulate more degrees and more knowledge that Singapore will someday deem ‘enough’, ‘acceptable’ and ‘important’.  For now, my radical left-winging shit disturbing, direct talking ways will have to wait. Singapore is not ready for me and I am not ready for Singapore.

I wish to return someday and be accepted for who I am fully, as a person – not just as a Malay person, not just as a woman, a baby-making machine, not just a young consumer but as a WHOLE person. I wish I can return someday and be loved.

When women of color talk back

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Rush to arms

Beat us down

Tell us we’re the racist ones.

Spit on us

Threaten our lives

Tell us we’re the oppressive ones.


When women of color talk back

What did you think we would say?

Did you expect us to give thanks at the altar

of White Supremacy?

of Widespread Misogyny?

Thank you oppressors for giving us the right to speak.


You didn’t give us the right to speak.

Our mothers did. Our grandmothers did. Our great-grandmothers did.

They spoke to each other, they resisted together and they went underground.

Deep underground where you forced them to go.

Some of them never came back.


Your ancestors were deaf

and blinded by greed and ignorance

They built nations on the backs of poor brown women,

And then waged wars in their name.



We are asking you to remove your noise cancelling headphones

We are asking you to



You are still deaf.

Your eyes glaze over and then…

they burn with self-defense.

Deaf and stubborn.

Your ancestors would have been proud.


Go away.

Go whine to your friends

Go tell everyone how you were ‘attacked’

Go tell them you’ve been hurt

Go bask in loving commiseration and lick your wounds

Go. Go away.

Make it about you.

It’s always been about you anyway right?


Warn your friends. Tell them about us.

Yes, tell them about us!

Tell them to watch out for those brown women who refuse to be silenced.

Those uncontrollable savage women who just won’t shut up.


Gone are the good ol’ days

When you could trample on our heads and spit on our bodies

We freed ourselves. We removed our shackles and our mufflers.

We smashed your noiseless headphones

We rose above ground .


We are strong

With strength you can never understand.

Strength from generations of broken and beaten women who refused to give up.

Strength from humility

Strength from hope

From our bodies, the next generation of super human babies

It’s beyond genetic…

it’s authentic.


We will continue to rise

You can try to

Rush to arms

Beat us down

Spit on us

Threaten our lives

But we know better.

Our mothers, our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers

They taught us better.

The search for the history of my people

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In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful…

Last night, before I went to sleep, I was lying awake in bed thinking about my paternal grandfather, Arwah Tok Iswan.

I didn’t know him. My paternal grandfather. He died when my dad was a kid.

I didn’t know how he looked like because no one in my family had taken or kept a picture of him.

One day when I was 10 years old and at the museum in Singapura for a family outing, I saw his face.

I found out how my grandfather looked like by accident. I found out who he was by accident.

His photo was in the exhibition focusing on the history of Singapura, pre-independence years (1960 – 1965).

I still remember that photo – his passionate face, his fist in the air, the banner he was carrying. I try to remember every detail.

He looks like my dad.

I remember calling out to my mom who was a few steps behind and she was equally shocked to see the face of Arwah Totok Iswan. My late grandfather.

Last summer, my mother and I tried to secure a copy of that photograph but since it was nearly a decade ago, the Museum exhibits have changed.

It was a long and trying process. In the end, we didn’t manage to get the picture.

We did manage to get a clearer shot of what is pictured below but as you can see, his face is slightly out of focus. He’s the second guy from the right – with the songkok on his head.

This picture was taken on 23 September 1963 – at an event attended by UMNO supporters in Singapura welcoming Syed Albar – then Foreign Minister of Malaya who were visiting Singapura and its local UMNO (United Malays National Organization) branch members.

For those of you unfamiliar with Singaporean history, I’ll give you a brief rundown. Basically, after the British split and left Singapura at the mercy of the Japanese during WWII, people started demanding independence. Singapura and Malaysia merged briefly from 1963 – 1965 and then split. It’s no secret – we didn’t get along and it partly, if not largely, was because of racial politics. Singapura’s then (and now) Chinese-dominated political party and ideology (People’s Action Party – PAP) did not mesh well with Malaysia’s (then and now) Malay-dominated political party (The United Malays National Organization – UMNO)  and ‘bumiputera’ ideology which recognizes the Malays as Indigenous and accords them special privileges.

At the event on 23 September 1963 – where my grandfather is pictured above – Syed Albar accused the Malay candidates of the PAP to be ‘race traitors’. His comments are seen by many historians today as the catalyst for the 1964 Race Riots in Singapura. It was tough, turbulent times.

Before I stumbled onto that picture in the museum, I didn’t know a thing about my grandfather except that he died when my dad was a child.

I find it ironic that I started the search for my personal history and the history of the Malays as a kid in a museum. Museums are widely contested spaces especially for Indigenous peoples all over the world….and yet, that is where it all started.

In later conversations, my dad told me that my grandfather used to write for Utusan Melayu and was an active member of UMNO in Singapura.

My grandfather was a writer and an activist.

Like me.


If he was alive today, I wonder what he would have said to me?

Would he have told me that he took to the streets and marched so that I wouldn’t have to? Would he have told me that the battle is no longer to be fought on the streets, through rallies and speeches but in the classrooms, in academia, in the halls of ‘higher learning’?

What would I have told him?

In some ways, my search for my grandfather’s picture is similar to my search for my Indigenous,  Malay identity. Trying, long, arduous and emotionally taxing.

I did not believe I was Indigenous until I was 20 years old. I’m nearly 23 now.

It took me 20 years to believe that I was who I was, that my skin had a reason, that my language had a reason, that the stories my mothers and my grandmothers told me had a reason.

I’ve gotten into several arguments with Malay and non-Malay friends alike over this topic. It usually starts with them asking me to convince and/or prove to them my ‘Indigeneity’ as a Malay person.

For the record, I think this need to prove anything to anyone who doesn’t believe me when I say I am what I am is ridiculous. It reminds me of Americans asking Obama to prove that he was born in America. He finally showed them his birth certificate after being elected into the Oval Office, proving once and for all that he was born in the US. And even then, people don’t believe him. Since I don’t have a card that reads ‘I am Bugis/Boyanese/Malay/Indigenous, believe me!’ (like First Nations in Canada with their ‘status’ cards to ‘prove’ their Indigeneity) – I cannot pull an ‘Obama’. This obviously doesn’t stop people from trying to ask me to prove to them that I am indigenous as a Malay.

I do try anyway (sometimes).

The Malays are listed in the Singaporean constitution as ‘Indigenous’.

Article 152, part ii Minorities and Special Position of Malays

(ii) The Government shall exercise its functions in such manner as to recognize the special position of the Malays, who are the Indigenous people of Singapore, and accordingly it shall be the responsibility of the Government to protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language.

Political designation not enough for you?

Alright – what about ‘scientific’ evidence?

In 2009, a comprehensive study of genetic diversity and history of Asian populations was carried out by HUGO (Human Genome Organization) involving almost 2000 people across Asia. The HUGO found genetic similarities between populations throughout Asia and an increase in genetic diversity from northern to southern latitudes. These findings indicates the origin of Asia’s population and support the hypothesis that Asia was populated primarily through a single migration event from the south, entering South East Asian first. The South East Asian civilizations including the Malays, are possibly much older compared to East Asian civilizations.

I can argue on and on and try to prove just how ‘Indigenous’ the Malays really are but in the end, it is like asking a grain of sand on the beach to prove that it used to be part of a mountain. It is both ludicrous and offensive – I, nor any other Malay person who claims ‘indigeneity’ because of their Malay identity, have nothing to prove to anyone. Just because our history have not been taught in schools, have not been neatly written in books, have not been written in a language or expressed in forms you can consider ‘legitimate’ doesn’t mean we are not Indigenous. It is not our problem that you refuse to understand that.

As with many other Malay kids in Singapura (and arguably many Indigenous communities across this planet), I was not taught my history in school. We were, all of us, led to believe that we are ‘immigrants’ to the land. I agree – we are all immigrants. Nobody can be Indigenous to a country that is only 47 years old this year.

When I say that the Malays are Indigenous, I mean that we are Indigenous to “Malayadvipa” – Sanskrit meaning ‘insular mountain continent’ which refers to insular South East Asian continent. Our people existed throughout the peninsula before borders were drawn and therefore, we are Indigenous to the peninsula, not to any specific country.

Our experiences with national borders (which are arbitrary and temporary) are similar to the experiences of First Nations and Native peoples who live on Turtle Island (present day Canada and USA) , the Mayans in Territorios Maya (present day Guatemala, Hondura, Mexico etc) and the Hmong who live across present-day China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Indigenous peoples all over the world existed in lands before borders were drawn by colonial forces or otherwise. This does not de-legitimize that we are Indigenous – borders being drawn were not of our doing but that of governments and people in power who did not understand that our ancestors did not see the world like they did.

So many of us have been fed the ‘we are all immigrants’ rhetoric by the majority-Chinese government in Singapore. While I do understand some of the motivations behind this discourse (a big one being preserving ‘racial harmony’ to avoid the horrific and violent race riots of the 1960s), I cannot stand by and support this rhetoric any longer. Not after taking the time to do painstaking research into my own history and the history of my people. Not after crying for many days and nights in a country 8000 miles away from home over the sheer frustration of only finding out about and believing my indigeneity at 20 years old. Not after feeling robbed from learning about my own identity and our rich and diverse history. Not after feeling ashamed for so many years about my brown skin and my flat nose. Not after writing fictional stories when I was a kid, imagining I was someone else…anything else but a Malay kid. Not after all of that. I cannot stand by this rhetoric any longer.

Indigenous communities all over the world are not taught to be proud of ourselves, our histories and our people. We are taught what governments want us to think, what border-makers want us to believe, what the ‘winners of history’ want us to buy into.

So many of us have been fed the ‘we are all immigrants’ myth so I understand how many of us feel alienated from the label ‘Indigenous’. I’m just starting to reclaim my Indigenous Malay identity so I understand how it might be difficult for others because it’s been a long and ongoing process for me.

This has not been easy to write. As I sit here and write, I ruminate over whether I am sharing too much ‘personal information’ or whether I will be considered ‘traitorous’ to Singaporeans who insist on erasing our painful history for the ‘greater good’.

I am experiencing many conflicted feelings.

Does acknowledging the fact that Malays are Indigenous make me less Singaporean? Does it make me a national traitor? Does it mean I am ‘not proud to be Singaporean’? Will I now put on my baju kurung and join UMNO thus denouncing the PAP? Will I immigrate to Malaysia where Malays are ‘treated better’? Why do I give a crap about any of this anyway?!

This is the eternal/internal debate for the Indigenous person who has been told that they belong within certain national borders when their Indigeneity clearly transcends the very borders that were not drawn by them. UMNO and PAP are two sides of the same coin to me – both are responsible for creating the arbitrary border that exists between our two countries. To me, these questions are for the narrow-minded, for those who do not understand Indigenous history and for those who insist on pledging patriotism to imaginary nation-states without first understanding the meaning and repercussions of creating borders. Borders alienate, they do not unite. Borders oppress, they do not free.

I write this with the hope of reaching out to other young Malay people who are interested in finding out more about your personal history and the history of our community. It was a long and hard road for me but let me tell you, it was worth every drop of sweat and trickle of tears. I am not done and not satisfied with what I have learned. I still have many questions.  When I get tired or downtrodden, I pause to catch my breath and then, resume the search again.

My personal history is a shared history. It is the history of our community.

…Last night, I lay awake thinking about what my grandfather would say to me if he was alive today.

I wish I knew him.

Boo I came back from the dead

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Friend: Viruses are the original zombie.

Me: O. M. G. Yes! You should be a biologist.

Hi errbody!

I am back from the dead.

After two weeks of being down with the flu and recovering from mental lethargy (this past weekend being the last of me sleeping away my days from exhaustion) – the sun is shining today and the birds are singing and spring has sprung…

oh who am I kidding.

I’m still pretty lazy today in terms of getting my butt in gear writing this piece for one of my ex-profs on women’s rights in Singapore.

Self-motivation – it’s a tricky thing.

I’m much more content thinking, researching and writing about the history of the Malays and continuing my ongoing project towards reclaiming my indigenous identity as a Malay woman. I’m much more content thinking about my personal history and connecting it to issues that matter to me – like the stories of  Indigenous people across the world.

Still working away on multiple blog posts. I hope to get one up soon – let’s hope this week.



Humility, Resilience and Connection: What I learned from First Nations communities in Vancouver

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 I’m a featured contributor at the Dialogues Youth Vancouver blog today. Here is an excerpt from my piece:

“I was born in this skin for a reason.” – Lynda Gray, First Nations activist and author

“O mankind! We created you from a single pair of male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other).”  – 49:13, The Quran

I’ve been asked to share my story. My story is not unlike many others – my voice is one of many, one in a chorus.

I want to start my story by situating myself. I’m currently writing on unceded Indigenous land in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. On this land, I am a visitor….

To continue reading, click here.

Why I (and many others) won’t shut up about race

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It’s the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination today! (Try saying that 5 times fast)

March 21 is marked every year as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to commemorate the anniversary of the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa when police opened fire on hundreds of South Africans protesting against Apartheid’s passbook laws, killing at least 67 and wounding 186.

Racism is alive and well today. For those of you who’ve been living under a metaphorical coconut shell, please understand this. I feel like I’m going to make myself sick saying this over and over again. We are not post-race. Let’s chant this together and get this into our thick skulls. Post-race is a lie. It is a myth. It is as much a myth as money falling from the sky. When dollar coins start falling from the sky, I’ll maybe start considering that we might be post-race. But until then, I won’t shut up about this. You can count on it.

I was prepared to write a whole long spiel about how we’re not post-race blah blah blah but you know what? I’m sick of writing. I am sick of wasting my energy trying to convince people that just because their friends are black, or just because they claim to be part-Native or just because they have travelled to Africa or India or just because they took one course or workshop on racism or just because they are colorblind, that they are the best anti-racists in the world. You’re deluded if you think that and frankly, I’m not going to entertain delusion. I’m not a certified psychologist and even if I was, they get paid for that shit. I’m not getting paid for this. I am not going to waste any more energy trying to teach people, especially white people, that when I talk about racism and whiteness and white privilege, I am not talking about them as individuals. Please try to rise above your narcissism and believe that when people of color say they hate whiteness, it’s not you they hate. God forbid we have a life outside of hating individual whiteys. It’s the system we hate – remember? the system you white folks benefit from every single day of your life? Yea, that one.

So instead of a long spiel, I’ve given you a semi-spiel and a graphic below (cross-posted from here). Look at the graphic. Study the graphic. Nice graphic, nice. Now go and click on the links below the graphic. Good job! You just took one step to further edeucate yourself. And look – you did it all on your own.

Some writings of mine you might like to read:

White defenders and internalized racism

Interracial relationships for a post-race future? My ass.

Coming to terms with the whiteness in me

Negotiating my Muslim identity

Links you might be interested in reading if you gave a crap about the state of the intersectional political activism today:

Deconstructing White Privilege

No Feminist Wedding For Me, Thank You

Men, Sexism and Faux Oppression