My enchanted life in Singapore and my struggles as an academic



The Nas Daily video blog on Singapore and the social media buzz it created in Singapore around its authenticity reminded me of my own negotiations in Singapore.

Let me begin by saying, I love Singapore. Of the many parts of the world I have traveled to and lived in, Singapore tops the charts.

I have loved Singapore from back when I was a teenager, forming some of my impressions and ideas of development,  progress, growth from the story of Singapore.

One of the earliest stories of Singapore I had read was an Opinion piece by the Bengali journalist Sunanda K Datta Ray, then editor of The Statesman (the paper that most Bhadralok Bengalis wanting to perfect the art of English prose read those days).

Datta Ray, although a narrator of a different genre from the now-famous Vlogger Nas Daily, crafted a story of Singapore that is all too similar to the punchy Nas Daily vlog: Singapore, the model of Asian development at the crossroads of Asia.

The Singapore story that spoke to me and left such an impression on my mind was the story of postcolonial development success through smart state planning, intelligent resource strategy, effective multicultural management, and cultural flows that originated from and seeped into different parts of Asia.

Singapore stayed with me as an exemplar of the Asian story, as a seduction of what Asia could be.

When the opportunity to travel to and work in Singapore came about, I was ready to give up a tenured Full Professor position at Purdue University, at what is one of the most established Communication Departments globally.

Singapore meant an opportunity, a gateway to entering into many conversations with Asia, an opportunity to learn from and study an Asian story of development and transformation. Singapore meant coming home to Asia, an opening to participate in the flows, complexities, and richness of Asian cultures.

My life in Singapore for the six years I spent here was fulfilling, joyful, and full of enchantments.

As a faculty member at the National University of Singapore (NUS), I enjoyed a life of privilege. The resources and structural opportunities created for me and for my young family were amazing, and I am very grateful for the incredible support.

Singapore felt like home.

The comforts of life in Kentvale, the Friday night outs at our favorite places (Clarke Quay, Arab Street, Chip Bee gardens, Chijmes, Sze Chuan  Dou Hua on the 60th floor of the UOB Plaza downtown), the safety, and the greenery, these were some of joys of the city we took in with much pleasure. The multi-culturalism felt comfortable after over a decade in the U.S. The mosques, monasteries, temples, Gurdwaras, all often within a mile of each other, gave a sense of what multiculturalism as celebration felt like.

These joys of my expatriate life, many of which were also grounded in my privilege, however, were juaxtaposed in the backdrop of my journey as a scholar studying poverty and marginalization, and seeking to conceptualize the scholarship of social change through practical interventions based on solidarity with the poor.

In 2013, the Center I was directing at NUS, the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) started a project on listening to the voices of the poor in Singapore.

Because of the absence of legitimate discourses for operationalizing poverty, we began with an exploration of the lived experiences of low income individuals and families in Singapore [Low income is the aceptable term in mainstream discourse].

Drawing upon a collaborative ethnographic approach, grounded in the tenets of the CCA, and informed by an advisory board of individuals living in poverty, our team sought to create a "communicative infrastructure" where the voices of the poor would be heard.

The advisory board became our guiding post, the key decision-makers in the research process.

Uncle Daniel, Uncle Willie, Auntie June became the anchors of our work. We were accountable to them as a team, as they worked on the interview protocol, the research objectives, the goals of the research process, and the nuts and bolts of the research design. The communicative infrastructure thus created led to the white papers and communication advocacy tools built by the team, and resulted in the "No Singaporeans left behind" campaign. The campaign built infrastructures for storytelling, with the narrative anchors held in the hands of our advisory board members.

The campaign and our work with individuals and families living in poverty disrupted the comforts of my enchanted life.



The stories I was listening to through fieldwork, the experiences in navigating structures, and the struggles in telling these stories interrupted my Asian dream. The stories emerging from our conversations, the advisory board meetings, and the many hours of work in the field were teaching me to love Singapore in an altogether different way, different from the Singapore I experience as an expat with privilege.

I was learning to love the strength, the grit, and the grace with which our sojourners living in poverty in Singapore negotiated the material deprivations in their everyday life. I was learning to love the bonds of intimacy and community that appeared in the threads of daily negotiation among individuals and families living in poverty. I was loving the hawker centers and residential blocks where we would do our work.

This world of Singapore is different from the world of Singapore constructed by Nas Daily and Sunanda Datta Ray.

These images of Singapore, the one of expat enchantment and the one of struggles of the poor, formed the textures, complexities, and tensions of my life in Singapore.

Both these images will stay with me, as reminders of what home felt like for an itinerant migrant.

 

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