The following is a version of a speech I gave at the launch of New Naratif, a member-funded multimedia platform for Southeast Asian journalism, art and research, on 9 September 2017 at The Projector in Singapore.
Growing up, I had very little concept of a Southeast Asian identity. I thought of myself as Singaporean, and had the impression that Singapore would much rather be aligned with cities like London or New York than the other countries in the region.
My family went on holiday to places like the US, China, Japan, Australia or Italy, but never anywhere in Southeast Asia (except Malaysia), which was seen as somehow more dangerous, more corrupt, than the safety of wealthy, comfortable Singapore. Thailand, for instance, existed in my family’s imaginations as a place where children got kidnapped and had their limbs chopped off before being sent to beg on the streets — so we never went there.
I was 21 years old the first time I set foot in another Southeast Asian country that wasn’t Singapore or Malaysia. I went to Chiang Mai, in Thailand, to attend a workshop for Southeast Asian youth. I did not get kidnapped, and I am still in possession of all my limbs. What I did get, instead, was exposure to Southeast Asia and other Southeast Asians.
A few months after this workshop I visited Laos, and spent two weeks in the jungle on the Thai-Burmese border. I spoke to people about their countries, their experiences and their histories, and began to learn about this region that was my home even before I recognised it as such.
I realised that while there are significant differences between the countries of Southeast Asia, there are many similarities too. There are so many issues that we are all grappling with in our own ways: inequality, free speech and press freedom, the environment and conservation, and even the rhetoric around drugs that leads to countries imposing the death penalty on drug traffickers. I recently found out that an Indonesian journalist and documentary filmmaker I once met in Cardiff had been reported to the authorities for defamation, because of comments he made in a Facebook post—sound familiar? Singaporeans recognise this scenario. Thais do, too. A Burmese friend tweeted me saying he thought the story had come from Myanmar. We might be separated by borders, but we fight many of the same fights.
New Naratif wants to explore these connections. We want to show that no country is alone in its struggles, and that there is much that we can learn. There are many ways in which we can support one another — but first, we need to know more about one another.
But we aren’t just interested in connecting the countries — we want to connect the people too, across different fields of expertise and experiences.
For me, the seed of New Naratif was planted in 2013, when PJ Thum got in touch to discuss an idea he had. I was a little surprised because we didn’t know each other that well back then. It was kind of like a “wow, what does this ‘revisionist historian’ want with me?”
We got on Skype; I was in Scotland, he in Oxford. PJ talked about how there was a lot of great research on Southeast Asia out there, only most people weren’t reading them — they were either behind paywalls or written in such dense language no one except other academics would want to wade through them. He had an idea of building a site that would make all this information and research more accessible to the public, and wanted to get my thoughts as a journalist on how this could be done.
I suggested partnering journalists with academics to produce stories based on their data and sources, to give the subject a more human interest spin rather than the staider academic style. PJ said he would think about it.
Five years later, we—along with a great team of collaborators like award-winning comics artist Sonny Liew, former Malaysian Insider editor Julia Yeow, and the great duo Izyanti Asa’ari and Iffah Dahiyah of the design studio Fellow—have launched New Naratif, which has built upon that vague little idea shared between two Singaporeans freezing their butts off in two separate corners of the UK while trying to figure out how to make a difference at home.
New Naratif seeks to connect people from different disciplines, to learn from each other and build upon our strengths. This will be reflected in the stories that we do. We are not interested in participating in the 24-hour news cycle, which tends to focus on events and spectacle, but not context, development or solutions.
We want to go deeper into the issues that Southeast Asian has to grapple with, and to tell stories that bring you the sights, sounds and emotions that are on the ground. We want to highlight the people who are working to change things for the better, and to provide a space for everyone to debate and seek solutions, instead of churning out news that gets eyeballs, but also leaves everyone drained and depressed afterwards.
As a platform, we are necessarily subjective. We cannot promise objectivity, because every writer, editor, photographer and artist will have their own biases that seep into their work. But we do promise honest, evidence-based work, so you can see where each contributor is coming from and make up your own mind.
Our contributors may or may not be actual citizens of Southeast Asian countries—we don’t believe in defining inclusion according to the colour of one’s passport—but they will all be rooted in and have deep love for the region. We aren’t interested in parachute journalism, where someone is flown in just for a few days, and expected to write about it as if they have lived there their whole lives.
We believe that there is so much talent across the region that parachuting someone in is both unnecessary and actually quite counter-productive. We’d rather devote our energies to being a platform for the writers and artists already in this region to grow.
Check out http://newnaratif.com to learn more about our project. New Naratif takes no advertising; we will rely on our members to sustain our operations. Membership starts at US$52/year (just US$1/week!)