Getting Intimate with History

Students across NUS, NTU, Yale-NUS, Oxford, Columbia and LSE come together to investigate how forms of intimacy have manifested in human relationships from the pre-colonial period to Singapore's recent past. Through their project entitled 'You Don’t Need Much Space to Have Sex’; Casting Singapore’s History Through Intimacies', they hope to highlight the inherent complexity and diversity in our understanding of what love, intimacy, marriage and sexuality involve. We spoke to the team to find out more.

 

You each come from different universities local and abroad. Tell us about yourselves and how you came together as a group?

Most of us became good friends in junior college through a heritage project called Becoming Bishan, which documented Bishan as cemetery and kampung, through World War II and its redevelopment process. At that time the starting members called up random people to ask if they were interested to join, and this group was formed! We worked together on an exhibition, a heritage booklet, and a Jane’s walk (community tour). We also went on excursions to cemeteries and Japanese shrines at MacRitchie for fun and to learn.

"Looking at the way intimacy has manifested over the course of history is one way to use history and specific experiences to make sense of broader aspects of our humanity."


Why were you interested to join The Future of Our Pasts?

Jing Long is a Yale-NUS student and when he heard about this grant, he very excitedly messaged Yee Ting about it, knowing that she would be interested. The two of them then gathered other former members of the Bishan team. We are a group of old friends who like each other's company, ideas and energy, and from there it wasn't difficult to build together something meaningful and interesting for all of us.
 

“Intimacies” is an unconventional topic of historical interest. What is your project specifically about, and what drew you to explore it?

It’s strange that intimacies are an unconventional historical issue because they’re pretty much a universal phenomenon, and something that people seem almost automatically interested in. While ‘intimacies’ seems like a really nebulous label, that’s kind of the point - to avoid any assumptions that might be attached to terms like ‘romance’ or ‘sexuality’ and realise that the ideas of them we might take for granted are in fact culturally and temporally specific.

Intimacies as a concept allows us to explore how people saw themselves in relation to others and to explore how emotions, rather than rationality, affected people’s actions.
 

You’ve given your project a catchy title. Why did you choose it?

We chose this title because an aspect of intimacies we wanted to look at was the interaction between the state and individuals and non-physical forms of intimacies. Despite the interference of the state seemingly restricting the scope of intimacies, there is pushback among the people, who may form communities in which intimacies are abundant, such as queer communities. Even further back into history, intimacies have formed with the efforts of non-state actors, bypassing the influence of the state. For example, the Baba community tried to differentiate themselves from Chinese by associating themselves more closely with the British.

However, we may change the title in future as we are discovering more aspects of intimacies, such as transnational intimacies, as we do our research.

"Hopefully these comparisons will give people a deeper appreciation of how complex and diverse Singapore’s population has always been, and make people reconsider what things like love, intimacy, marriage and sexuality involve."


Anything you’ve found fascinating or surprising so far in your research?

For the Orang Seletar (a group of orang laut dwelling around the Straits of Johor), Seletar Island was known as Pulau Romen (Malay for ‘Romance Island’ because couples commonly made love on boats anchored to it. This island was also their favorite fishing ground.
 

What can we look forward to from your project come 2019?

We will be having multi-sited art installations with some fringe activities like bus tours that elucidate different aspects of intimacies based on relationships between various groups of people in different points of Singapore history. You can look forward to a very thought-provoking, sensorial and comprehensive experience.


What would you like audiences to take away about ‘Intimacies’, or history in general?

I (Kwang Lin) have always been interested in history but bothered by the way that in the way I was taught, it often overlooked aspects of human experience, and discussed trends and events without ever having to understand how people’s lives might have been qualitatively affected.  Looking at the way intimacy has manifested over the course of history is one way to use history and specific experiences to make sense of broader aspects of our humanity, and we try to do this by tracing similar aspects of intimate relationships from the colonial or pre-colonial period to the recent past, like experiences of migration and state interventions in intimacy. Hopefully these comparisons will give people a deeper appreciation of how complex and diverse Singapore’s population has always been, and make people reconsider what things like love, intimacy, marriage and sexuality involve.
 

Anything else you’d like to share with us?

If you are or know of any majie or descendants of the orang laut, please contact Carol at carolyuenaz@gmail.com. We will be very keen to conduct an interview!

 

All images courtesy of the team