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What makes a ‘real’ Singaporean and who came here first? Podcast hopes to broaden conversations on race

SINGAPORE — Fired up after a series of race-related events in Singapore, a team of university graduates have banded together to launch a series of conversations that will be combined with guided tours to highlight the diversity and difference among people living here. 

The team behind Looking Different/ly: (from left) Said Effendy Said Iziddin, Yeo Tze Yang, Genevieve Chia Xin Ying and Sharifah Afra Syed Farid Alatas.

The team behind Looking Different/ly: (from left) Said Effendy Said Iziddin, Yeo Tze Yang, Genevieve Chia Xin Ying and Sharifah Afra Syed Farid Alatas.

  • A team of Asian Studies graduates have a launched a podcast series, Looking Different/ly, aiming to broaden discussions about race
  • Podcast team member Yeo Tze Yang hopes to promote more constructive debates about race that are rooted in Singapore’s context
  • The team will hold guided heritage walks to accompany some episodes

SINGAPORE — Fired up after a series of race-related events in Singapore, a team of university graduates have banded together to launch a series of conversations that will be combined with guided tours to highlight the diversity and difference among people living here. 

After over a year of planning, the team engaged several speakers from various backgrounds, including outside of academia or activism, who shared new ways of viewing and discussing race issues that are rooted in Singapore's cultural context. 

In mid-December, they launched a podcast series called Looking Different/ly on streaming service Spotify and Apple Podcasts that touches on issues such as the evolution of religious practices in Singapore and what it means to be Singaporean.

Through deep dives into Singapore’s pre-colonial history and conversations with residents of mixed ethnicities, the team is hoping that listeners will gain a more nuanced view of race issues here.

Artist Yeo Tze Yang, 27, said he came up with the idea for the project in 2019 when he noticed that commentary on social media about recent race-related events tended to lack “alternative viewpoints”. 

He said that people here often borrow concepts and labels from rights movements in the United States — Black Lives Matter, white privilege — often without adapting it to Singapore’s cultural context.

“I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that Singapore lacks this vocabulary and experience,” he said. “As a result we borrow vocabulary and the theoretical frameworks of approaching these race issues from America.”

He added: “Our stance with this initiative isn’t like we reject all these arguments. It's more like, ‘Yes, let’s consider that, but let’s share, say, seven other ways of talking about this same thing’.”

Mr Yeo, a Southeast Asian studies graduate from the National University of Singapore, approached several former coursemates who agreed to join the project. 

Among his teammates, who are all in their 20s, is a Southeast Asia researcher and a graduate student in Southeast Asian studies.

The team received funding from the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth’s Our Singapore Fund, which supports projects that "promote our Singapore Spirit and shared values, such as opportunity, resilience, care, cohesion and trust, and build more socially inclusive communities".

Mr Yeo said they are using the funding to pay for studio rental fees and recording costs. He added that the team has also applied for the ministry’s Harmony Fund, which reimburses the costs of projects that promote racial and religious harmony.

SPEAKERS OF DIVERSE BACKGROUNDS

For its first episode, heritage enthusiast turned independent researcher Sarafian Salleh shares the lesser known history of the Telok Blangah neighbourhood, such as historical records pointing to the existence of Chinese communities engaged in piracy living with the local Orang Laut.

Speaking to TODAY, Mr Sarafian, 51, said he believes it is important for people to know that different races have existed in Singapore for years before the influx of Chinese immigrants when Sir Stamford Raffles set up the island as a port.

Historical records of other parts of the island also suggest that Indian communities have lived here for hundreds of years before Singapore was colonised in 1819. 

“It’s a way of telling the public that Singapore’s history does not start from 1819,” said Mr Sarafian. “What I put forth is that this concept of gotong royong, or living together, has existed a long time back until the British came about and segregated us.”

He added: “Racial harmony has existed in Singapore thousands of years ago.”

Mr Sarafian, an engineer by day, has spent his spare time over the past 20 years studying and discovering the history of Singapore. He often hosts heritage tours over the weekends. 

He will be leading the Looking Different/ly team’s guided walks, although details on these tours are still being worked out.

Mr Yeo said that the tours will take people around the neighbourhoods and landmarks discussed in the podcasts.

The next three episodes are of conversations with three residents in Singapore whose ethnicity or nationality are often questioned by people despite having lived here for a long time.

Against a backdrop of rising anxiety towards immigrants and xenophobic acts in Singapore in recent years, the team hopes the discussions will prompt listeners to reflect on their inherent biases about nationality and race differences.

In a future episode, the podcast team will be inviting another speaker to talk about the “hybrid” shrines in Singapore where effigies of gods and deities from different religions can be found next to each other.

At the project’s core is the desire to add a spectrum of diverse voices to the discussions on race, beyond the frequent commentators on social media, Mr Yeo said.

These speakers “may not have a PhD, they may not have 50,000 followers”, Mr Yeo said. “But they may have something very important or insightful to say.”

Related topics

podcast race discrimination racial harmony religion

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