"This is my doodle": Non-Participation, Performance, and the Singapore Memory Project

Nien Cheng


Performance scholars Paul Rae and Ray Langenbach claim that “modern Singapore and the modern Singaporean have been [...] performatively produced”. Indeed, a vital element of this normative production lies in Singapore’s distinct participatory condition, where individuals are repeatedly hailed to participate as national subjects, to collectively perform their Singaporean identity in spectacular ways. This paper proposes that ‘non-participation’ should be recognised as a form of disruptive performance in the Singaporean state against the normative re-production that Rae and Langenbach speak of, using the ‘Singapore Memory Project’ as a case study. The ‘Singapore Memory Project’ (or SMP), a self-proclaimed “whole-of-nation movement” spearheaded in 2010 by the National Library Board, seems at first a shift from the state-led perpetuation of a singular, reified historical narrative from the top-down. “The project must be democratic: everyone could [sic] share their memories of Singapore. […] The more people get involved, the bigger and stronger the archive would become,” appealed Member of Parliament Irene Ng at the project’s launch. However, the project has been dismissed by local academics as an attempt to appropriate the memories of individual Singaporeans in service of official narratives and the one-party state. While acknowledging the case made by such academics, this paper proposes that beyond normative re-tellings of Singapore history, spaces of transgression lie within the SMP in distinct forms of non-participation. In this paper I analyse two such forms, first drawing from Eve Sedgewick’s notion of the “periperformative” to show how some Singaporeans have been creative in their refusals to adhere to the participatory demands of the state. Secondly, I suggest that the illusion of participation is not only perpetuated by the project’s instigators but also by its target audience: the very efforts of socio-cultural engineering in Singapore ultimately serve to undermine the state’s efforts to engage citizens in participatory ways. Ultimately, I put forth that a critical discussion of non-participation as a subtle form of subversive performance in this soft authoritarian state disrupts the image of the passive, apathetic Singaporean.


theatre; performance; Singapore Memory Project; storytelling

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