Image Credit: Dana Lam
We invited Surprise Your Shelf #002 curator and avid bookworm Amaryllis Puspabening (Iris) to interview civil rights activist and writer Constance Singam. She discusses her fears, influences, and memories with the same candour and insight she uses to pen her reissued memoir, Where I Was.
Q: This is a reissue of your memoir, which was first released in 2013 – nearly a decade ago! What is different about this release? Would you also tell us more about the change in the title?
A: I think it is important to remember our historical journey - the history of our nation, the history of our culture, the history of our politics - to enable us to understand the kind of nation and the kind of people we have become. We need to be more reflective as individuals and as a nation which is what I am doing in this updated version of my memoir. Hence the change in the title.
I hope that more young people will be interested in this version of my memoir. I felt it was important, besides the official version of our history that ordinary citizens write our Singapore story from their perspective, the lived history of becoming Singaporeans.
Q: You mentioned in your memoir that when you went to Australia to get your Master’s, you took a Feminism and Cultural Studies module, which gave you a theoretical framework for all the practical work you’ve done in the previous decade. Would you share with us memorable theories or readings that you encountered during that time?
A: At a fundamental level, feminist theory is looking at the nature of inequality. It examines women’s and men’s roles and politics from a women’s lived experience and perspective. Fiction is powerful in bringing to life theories and two books remain in my mind, after 25 years, as fascinating illustration of theories : Maxine Kingston Hong’s The Woman Warrior and Marguerite Duras’s The Lover.
But what gave me optimism about continuing civil society activism in our political culture is Michel Foucault’s theory about power and control. In his philosophy, power is not possessed but exercised through actions. Power is not monolithic. In other words, it is not only governments that have power. We all do, which makes civil society activism an important part of this interplay of power. My book does trace the power of our government but also the successes that civil society organisations have had in influencing policies and legislation over the last 30 years or so.
Q: There is a script from the Mahabharata you quoted in your memoir, something your late husband shared with you. It is a piece of wisdom Krishna gave to Arjuna, and a particular verse struck me: “A fragment of sacred duty saves you from great fear.” But fear is human and you’re not fearless, as you’ve shared in a separate interview. Would you share with us a moment/moments of fear that still feels fresh in your mind?
A: Thank you for that question. I am not fearless. I am very fearful and it would be foolish not to be fearful in some instances. In the early years of my activism, as Aware president, I worried every time I wrote a letter to the forum page of ST, challenging or criticising government policies or made any public statement. Those were uncertain times. Where were those OB markers that the politicians warned us about? Nobody could tell for sure, only those in power could. Those days were soon after the Marxist conspiracy when a number of my friends were interned under the ISA and I knew for certain that they were activists like me who were not about to overthrow the government. That episode in 1987 cast a dark shadow for a very long time.
“A fragment of sacred duty saves you from great fear”. It didn’t save me from fear but my sense of responsibility to my organisation, its values and objectives and the position I held as its president impelled me to what I needed to do inspite of my fears. I was driven by my sense of responsibility.
Q: You were President of AWARE for three separate terms. Surely, you have been witness to and actor in the many milestones of AWARE (and, by extension, Singapore). When it comes to women’s rights and gender equality, are there any particular changes or advancements that you are still hoping to see?
A: Attitudes have changed: attitudes towards Domestic Violence which has now changed much, thanks to AWARE. Before legislation was introduced to protect victims of violence domestic violence was deemed a private matter and that government should not/would not intervene to protect the victims of violence. Sexual harassment is another area of abuse that is now being addressed.
I think people, both men and women, will need to understand the power of the ideas of patriarchy and how the attitudes and norms of patriarchy impose a power imbalance in family, private and public relationships. The patriarchal norms require men to dominate or show dominance which is not healthy nor helpful in relationship between men and women and can indeed engender a kind of toxic masculinity.
It is not an indictment against individual men but against patriarchal ideology which affects the wellbeing equally of both men and women. Men need to acknowledge that. Then change will begin to happen.
Q: You wrote something that resonated strongly with me: anger and action did not come to you in an instant. Running into walls in civil society actions, you often feel depressed and fatigued. This is a feeling that I believe is shared by many activists and civil society observers, and it is easy to lapse into a kind of fatalistic thinking. What piece of wisdom would you offer to anyone who is looking to keep up hope in their fight for justice?
A: I have seen activists suffering from burnout. Activism demands a lot from activists, in addition to the fearful burdens that our legislation imposes on organisations and individuals. I was lucky. I went off to Perth to do the M.A which gave me the much needed break from AWARE/civil society activities. I came back energised. After the AWARE saga, I went for a retreat.
I would suggest a retreat of some kind which need not require a lot of funds. A network of good and trusted friends to have discussions with is a great blessing.
Q: You list a slew of fascinating reads and influences in your memoir, from Jane Austen to Salman Rushdie, Somerset Maugham, and Henri Nouwen. I am curious if you were also an avid reader in your childhood/teens. What are some of the earlier books/authors that made a lasting impression on you?
A: I am afraid my earlier readings were romances or the pollyanna type of readings.
Salman Rushdie (his essays) and Henri Nouwen came late in my life. I am a late developer and I only began my activism in my late 40s when my real education as an informed citizen began.
Q: Other than your memoir, you’ve also written a food memoir, titled Never Leave Home Without Your Chili Sauce (words I live by!), and three children’s books. You're kind of a polymath! What do you think is your biggest driver in learning, and would you share with us a subject that has been occupying your mind recently?
A: I am getting on in years, you know, so of course aging, death, meaning of life among related worries, do distract me from my efforts to live a full life. The children’s books was one effort to distract me and continue contributing to my community.
Multiculturalism, understanding multiculturalism and how we are indeed a multicultural society in spite of some policies is the impulse to writing the memoir, Never Leave Home Without Your Chilli Sauce. I attempted to trace the evolution of our eating/food habits to make a point - there is no such thing as purity of race, of culture - we are always evolving, influenced by our history, by our geography and by our associations.
Q: You’ve lived an intense, vibrant life – both in your private and civil society work. You mentioned in your blog that you are now happy to step back and become an observer. What does that routine look like now?
A: I do love the time ‘to be’ that I have. My time is my own - a late morning, a nice cup of coffee whenever I get out of bed, read, write, draw, garden - doing all in my own time.
Where I Was: A Memoir About Forgetting And Remembering is now available on Wormhole here.