Stories from the field

month August 2015

Maybe its for the best right now…Blog 4-Raviv Litman

Towering above one of Singapore’s many shiny shopping centres is a megachurch. I was invited to go to this church with a very kind older neighbor, Rachael (all the names here are changed). We attended the New Creation Church, a megachurch in Singapore, which can host around 200,000 attendees over four services every Sunday. It was an incredible experience, to see so many people physically entranced in their religious experiences in a kind of space that I associate with concert halls. As overtures of Jazz and pop brought youthful gospel and Anglo-Saxon references seamlessly mixed with Singaporean tropes in the sermon, and my friend would laugh at them all. But when the sermon turned to the preservation of god’s love in family, it became serious. For Rachael, family is brought together by getting a deal together. She had been talking in the ride over about her son’s apartment and it was a point of pride that he had moved from a 3 room to a 5 room place and ‘boy what a deal he got!’ she said. Since Singapore offers subsidies for ‘3 generation under one roof’ she would like to move closer to her children and rent their apartment someday, as another neighbor does. Sunday is the day her two children visit, and she is not alone. Singapore is a small enough place that as long as you have not gone overseas, it is not hard to visit home over the weekend, and this fact is not lost on most parents….

That evening I was treated to a meal at Rachael’s house, two floors down from my flat. When I got there her son, Ke, was already there,excited to share with me his experience overseas, his research in college, and his experience as a teacher. Ke gave a great interview, explaining the process by which nationalism is instilled in schools at an early age through mass participation in national day and the changes that have occurred in communication technology since he went overseas (in the pre-Skype days). Our discussion continued as his sister and brother-in-law entered the house and joined us for dinner. It was clear from the start that the parents treated his younger sister, Mia, a bit differently. While Ke and I were given gifts and plied with extra helpings of meat, Mia and her husband ate quietly. Through the dinner I learned that Ke did not get into the local university, so his parents paid for his overseas studies. They had only enough money to send him, and not his sister. She had only gotten a chance to realize her desire to go overseas later, when she finally felt comfortable asking her father for help, but by that point she was already working. When Ke was overseas they would communicate by ICQ, the first generation of Internet messengers, and it was his sister who was in charge of relaying the messages.

Their father has Parkinson’s, and Rachael takes care of him full time. Over the meal the children showed their concern for their father in different ways; Ke asked if he was taking his medicine. Mia made sarcastic jokes about him crying and reminiscing while we tried to change the subject when he cried. She said he had been tough, working all his life, and all the emotions had gotten bottled up. Now they were spilling over….

Rewind to last week. I was sitting down with the semi-pro cyclist/kayaker/Community activist Zixing for lunch. He is a man who goes against the grain. The way he puts it, he is ‘a bit of a rebel’. Before he moved to Australia to do construction for half a year, he had a bad holiday, a very bad holiday. Zixing’s father and his uncle were at odds, so much so that they fought over Chinese New Year; something Zixing says drove his grandmother into a poor state of dementia. Zixing’s older sister had been caring for the grandmother for 2 years, and he thought this was a constraint on her social life, as she was hardly qualified to live alone with a high-maintenance elder. Zixing found her to become increasingly lonely and despondent. He had complained to his father of this, but his father felt it was the best course of action; after all, someone needed to take care of her. His father fighting with his uncle had been the last straw, and he said to his father, maybe we should just not talk for a while. They did not speak for a year. Today Zixing lives back at home, and does community activism in his neighborhood for the support of migrant workers in the area. When I asked if he will care for his parents he said sure, but don’t tell them. For him filial piety is a trump card, and he doesn’t want his parents to take his future contributions for granted, but after all, ‘someone has got to do it’…

…. Rewind another week. My friend Wudao and I are browsing coffee shops in China town. I’m still new to Singapore and anxious to learn more about people here. I ask if I can visit his house that weekend, since like all other Singaporeans I’ve met, the family gets together for the weekend. In response he tells me a tragic story of his maternal side. Skipping many tragic details, 5/6 of his uncles and aunts cannot care for his grandmother, and that led to animosity on all sides. He said sometimes he and the final uncle would talk about how it might be easier just to put them in a home…but that is something, he said, we wouldn’t talk about with the others…

Taking care a family is not an easy task. What is expected is unevenly distributed by age, gender, and income. As one imam said in a speech at the Islamic learning centre, taking care of elders is the quickest path to paradise, because it is the hardest work that somebody has got to do.

Siobhan Davis – Podcast 2: Perspectives on Canada’s Reputation (I)

A recent survey by the Reputation Institute deemed Canada to be the country with the best reputation in the world (Reputation Institute). Although I feel as though I am very lucky to be born in Canada and have a home there, I don’t necessarily agree that Canada should be considered the country that is most admirable and reputable. I suppose I fall into the category of Canadians that are “among the most self-critical”, on a scale of “how residents of a country felt about their own reputation versus how others saw it” (CBC).

 For this podcast, I wanted to carry out short interviews with a few refugees/asylum seekers that I have met at MSRI where I have been interning to gain some valuable perspectives. After learning about this report, I decided to ask them about their thoughts on Canada as a country and on the report by the Reputation Institute.

My three main questions for this podcast were:
1. What the participants thought about Canada winning the title as most reputable country – and whether another country deserves it instead;
2. What images or thoughts come to mind when they think of Canada as a country;
3. Did they think that Canada has some issues when it comes to refugee/migration rights and policies.

Thanks for viewing/listening – I welcome any feedback!


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Kip Jorgensen – Blog 1: Differing Nature of Dhaka

In my first blog, I explore the field of urban political ecology and its applicability to Dhaka in analyzing the interplay between environmental change and power. Incorporating critiques and efforts to ‘provincialize’ the study, I outline the theoretical foundation of my Commonwealth capstone project.

Tabitha Black-Lock – Blog 2: The Skins of Bangladesh: Leather Industry in Dhaka

The leather industry is one of the oldest industries in Bangladesh, and is known worldwide for producing high quality leather. The processing of leather and manufacturing of leather products helps feed the growing international thirst for low priced, high quality leather goods. After hearing about the local leather industry, I was curious to learn more about the large production of animal hide in this context. Thanks to a local friend, I was able to visit the leather tannery district and a leather footwear factory. In this blog, I address the environmental and health issues associated with the leather tanneries and plans for a potential industry relocation. I will also talk about the leather industry in general and the manufacturing of leather goods. 


Raviv Litman – Podcast 3: On the edge

My next blog will tell you about the idea of being in two places, or potentially being in multiple places that has come up in some of my interviews. In particular a narrative of international culture or globalized identity which a number of interviews have touched on. I realized after making this recording I have to begun to make some generalizations about Singaporean students in it without contextualizing that this only reflects the opinions of young men. I think this shows a danger in my own research practices of too easily turning anocdotes into generalizations without fully concidering the whole context. I want to make it clear that that was a mistake, but rather than erasing it, I would like to use this opportunity to draw attention to it and how I can re-evaluate these contexts in the future. That being said, I hope this podcast will none the less address how some young men in Singapore feel about their travels overseas and return to Signapore based on the interviews and participant observation sessions I have been conducting with individuals and families here.

Roxanne Power – Podast 2: Catching up with Perry Watson

After just a few weeks with the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) in New Delhi, India, learning as much as possible with new experiences each day, I sit down to catch up with Perry Watson to hear about his experience with PRIA so far.

Listen in to hear about the project he’ll be working on, some of his thoughts moving forward, and a little bit about the region in which he will be working.

(Image below: Sunset in New Delhi)

Raviv Litman – Blog Post 1: The cost and return of overseas communities.

One thing that is not easy when living overseas is finding community. For Singaporean overseas sons, after going through NS and finding a source of funding to go overseas, the next step is actually living overseas, and that means making new friends. From personal experience I can tell you being out of place can be a bummer sometimes, and the excitement of being somewhere new and exotic goes hand in hand with the alienation of being somewhere foreign. Luckily for many Overseas Singaporeans, some of their community comes with them.

SingSocs, or Singaporean Societies are present wherever there are hubs of Singaporeans studying or living overseas, particularly at large and prestigious universities in the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. According to the Overseas Singaporean Unit (OSU) there are 249 registered SingSocs worldwide. These organizations are largely organized like other student clubs at universities, providing mentorship, community and resources for incoming Singaporeans over Facebook, blogs and in person. Particularly in the UK and the East Coast of the US, the close distances between colleges allow these societies to connect and organize holiday events for a large network of Overseas Singaporeans, such as Hari Raya and National Day. Funding for events comes from a mix of partners, and the handful of society leaders I have talked to say it is a mix of university, student, and government support. In particular the largest government support comes from the OSU, a Singaporean government agency under the National Population and Talent Division of the Prime Minister’s office. OSU provides a directory of SingSocs, events, resources, and stories for students, parents and professionals in all stages of going overseas. It covers overseas professional and business communities as well as students. In addition to the OSU there has also been funding available from Contact Singapore, an organization under the Ministry of Manpower and Economic Development board with the mandate which, according to their website, is to engage Overseas Singaporeans along with global talent to ‘work, invest and live in Singapore’.

Funding from OSU for SingSoc events can range from 40-80% depending on whether they fulfill the following criteria: “Celebrate Singapore’s culture and heritage; Keep Singaporeans abroad abreast with developments in Singapore; and Strengthen a sense of community amongst the Singaporeans abroad through meaningful projects and activities” and have group of over 50 with majority Singaporeans. ( Three of the Singaporean students I have interviewed have worked with these SingSoc’s, and they have expressed gratitude for the type of funding that helps keep these organizations together that few other countries would provide. It seems many students kept close with Singaporean friends after settling overseas, rooming with other Singaporeans, road tripping with them, or going to seniors for advice on their future. As a returned exchange student myself I can see how valuable those kind of groups would be, particularly for the new students with little or no connections when they arrive.

Some Overseas Singaporean men, particularly those living in the US and those more set on emigration expressed a certain amount of ambivalence about what they referred to as a ‘bubble’ of Singaporean culture in colleges that are hubs for Singaporean students. Although almost everyone seemed thankful that support was there for them from Singapore, many Overseas Singaporeans (OS) were proud of the fact that they had taken the initiative to break out of that bubble and connect with a larger community of international students and locals. Especially for those graduates finishing 3 or 4 years stints overseas, the importance of keeping connected with a more cosmopolitan, or as one friend called it, ‘sophisticated’ community of foreigners and Singaporeans with international perspectives was heightened upon returning. This was often associated with the self-reflexive linguistic code-switching that returning students had to deal with where they would speak more Singlish or Chinese dialects with Singaporean friends, and more American/UK English or Standard Mandarin with international friends. In fact, many interviewees mentioned they find it annoying when OS, who are considered posh or too Westernized, are unable to properly switch back to local speech patterns and instead maintain an overseas accent as a result of their experience. Bringing this back to the realm of place in the family and nation, staying connected overseas fits with the goal of maintaining ties to homeland, which connect both long term family plans of localized eldercare, marriage and home ownership, and state discourses about OS as a part of the national development plan. At the same time, the continued association with ‘sophisticated’ communities raises questions about what are the long term effects of studying overseas in terms of identity and sense of place.

As I am living in Singapore it is becoming increasingly clear to me that I am myself part of these cosmopolitan circles, as the people I am becoming friends with and interviewing tend to quote American TV shows, talk of overseas dreams, and use the same internet sites I do. At the same time,it is clear this is not the only identity for many, as when I press them further, these same friends will talk about their duty to Singapore and their nuanced opinions on its politics, their home languages, which rarely mirror our conversational language, and their localized use of the internet. In other words, as a foreigner I am more exposed to one identity then the others, but it is clear that for most people, they exist simultaneously and are context dependant.


Perry Watson – Podcast 2: “Seeing with your heart and responding with your brains”

Earlier today I had the chance to sit down with Participatory Research in Asia colleague, Rabindran (Rabi) David Shelley.

In the podcast we discuss Rabi’s own academic background, which led him to PRIA; why he decided to pursue a career in the non-governmental organization sector; PRIA’s water and sanitation project in the State of Chhattisgarh; and the differing capacities that the N.G.O community and the Indian State play in the broader field of ‘development’. 

I conclude by asking Rabindran if there are any books that have inspired him and his work in the development field. 

Cheers everyone!

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