Out of all the responses I received when I told my friends about my attendance of the (then) upcoming Singapore Climate Rally, one stuck stubbornly with me: “Huh, you’re going for that performative thing?” Alas, the dirty “P” word, the lowest blow one can volley within liberal arts circles. It’s the same “P” as in “picket signs parades”, “posting self-congratulatory infographics to one’s story” or “political pick-me.” Setting foot into Hong Lim Park on the day itself, the only thing stickier than the weather (which was very on brand for the event) was that single, plosive consonant plastered in my mind.
We live in a day and age when one’s engagement with political discourse can be conveniently catergorised into: Problematic, Passive or Performative. Pick your poison—you’re either cheering for the wrong team, doing too little or doing too much. Passing through the entrance to the event, I wondered if anyone else there shared my trepidation and self scrutiny. If they did, it wasn’t immediately apparent to me. Soft rock from the soundstage drifted across the lawn, carried on an elusive breeze. Skittish dragonflies dive-bombed the unsuspecting rally-goer too engrossed in painting their slogan. Conversations on policy and the end times were diffused with the chirp of friends catching up. Despite the humidity, there was an unmistakable lightness to the air. Coaxing my guard down, I endeavored to enjoy the rally rather than to agonise over my purpose for being there.
Under the 3p.m. blaze, the knot of tension I carried into Hong Lim Park gradually began to melt, giving way to something else. Letting the issue of performativity momentarily fall to the wayside, a new lexicon of “P” words emerged. While I feel vastly inadequate in summarising all the rich viewpoints shared that afternoon, I figured that a glossary of these “P” words best capture the most illuminating highlights of the day.
P is for “Postcards to My MP”
“So, what differences do rallies actually make?” This question lies at the heart of the performativity issue. With so much energy channeled into the appearance of showing one’s support, skeptics are quick to interrogate the extent of change that such support actually realises.
To this, the Singapore Climate Rally squarely answered with their “Postcards to My MP” initiative. Upon entering the compound, emcee Fang Shawn implored that “if there is one thing you do today, let it be writing a postcard.” He touted this act of writing as the main activity of the day, the most concrete action one could undertake. “But is this all talk and no action?” My nagging cynicism chimed at the sight of the long queue before the writing booth. As if clandestinely, Fang Shawn allayed my concerns with a promising statistic: Since the first Climate Rally in 2019, the number of environmental questions in parliament tripled. By establishing a direct channel between the people and their representatives, Postcards to My MP continues to form the bedrock of fostering parliamentary dialogue to push for more ambitious change.
Sure, parliamentary dialogue does not necessarily translate directly to policy. But it does contribute to a culture that holds space for the environment inside Parliament House, a culture that is evidently already reverberating through the grassroots. It might be easy to underestimate the potential of an A6 postcard but it is much harder to dismiss the line of sweat-slicked bodies hunched over them, pens moving furiously.
P is for “Public Housing”
Another criticism of political performativity is its detachment from lived realities. Embodied most visibly in the inevitable social media presence at any rally, there is the worry that more privileged attendees might be voyeuristic to the suffering of those bearing the brunt of climate change.
Thankfully, Marlina Yased’s resounding speech on the intersection of public housing, income inequality and unpredictable weather patterns smashed any rose-tinted sunglasses one might have worn to the event. As a community worker who has lived in a rental flat neighborhood for 13 years, Marlina minced no words in sharing the experiences of her family and neighbors as they face the disproportionate impacts of climate change. Focusing on the angle of health, Marlina recounts how rising temperatures coupled with the outdated infrastructure of rental housing makes its residents vulnerable to ailments such as eczema, which in turn becomes a stressful medical expense.
Public housing occupies so much of the average Singaporean consciousness. Marlina’s speech viscerally extended it to climate concerns. As the crowd listened on in enraptured silence, it was clear that a paradigm shift of sorts was happening in real time. Climate change, as a relatively novel social cause, is commonly associated with “high-brow, Western-imported, liberal” problems that are not of our local “bread-and-butter” variety. In a few tense minutes, Marlina crushed that false dichotomy with her powerful anecdotes and redefined what local climate activism can look like. Her call to action packed a punch, especially for a government that prides themselves on being champions of the bread and butter.
P is for “Pulau”
Performativity exists on the surface level and perceives issues with short sightedness. Rarely does it ever turn its gaze to the past, to uncover the long forgotten roots of contemporary problems. To this, Wan, founder of “Wan’s Ubin Journal ”, took centre stage to interrogate the very basis of how Singapore perceives its natural landscape. While the image of a diamond-shaped landmass typically comes to mind, Wan urged the audience to dig deeper into our collective memory to remember that “more than just an island nation, we are a nation of islands.” Beginning by transporting us back in time to his mother’s early years spent amidst the lushness of Pulau Ubin, Wan lamented that the plight of our islands today is twofold—firstly, the physical displacement of the Orang Pulau from their homes and its irreversible blow to their culture (“while my mum could live her heritage, I could only learn mine,” Wan wistfully remarked); secondly, the symbolic erasure of the Orang Pulau from the dominant national narrative. Regarding this second point, Wan illustrated how any associations one might have in relation to our islands are modern ones that obscure the Orang Pulau.
For instance, Pulau Tekong is singularly known for being the site for Basic Military Training. Meanwhile, its historical role as a settlement for the Pahang Malays during the Pahang Civil war is barely heard of. The impact of Wan’s unique perspective as a descendant of Orang Pulau was palpable amongst the majority “mainland” listeners who (just like myself) take the fundamental geographic understanding of Singapore for granted. In tandem with the conservation of biodiversity on these islands, Wan added that the history of these islands should be taught in schools.
P is for “Performative”?
In conclusion, I shall return back to the very word that spun off this entire reflection. Was the Singapore Climate Rally performative?
Of course it was. There were live music performances (ranging from indie singers to math rock bands), the chanting of slogans and a collective “rain cheer” led by theater practitioners as its penultimate activity.
Yet despite the performance, I never once felt that the people around me were performing. Yes, I’m certain the vast majority of people were delighted to snap pictures of themselves by the “This Barbie is Anti-Capitalist” photo booth (just one of the many tongue-in-cheek signages). Yet, I struggled to locate the archetypal self-aggrandising activist in the crowd.
What I experienced was quite the opposite—down to earth dialogues occupied the boothing area; the skeptics and the spiritual shared a picnic mat; bright-eyed children waddled across the lawn with cardboard signs bigger than their bodies as their amused parents trailed behind them; many nonchalant first-time rally-goers were simply roped in by their friends interning with green organisations. Where one might expect hordes of tree-hugging activists, the crowd was instead overwhelmingly… ordinary. From one end, there was humility, an openness to experience, the honest admission of “I don’t know much and perhaps I don’t care as much as I should.” From the other end, there was warm reception, patience and the non-judgemental reply of “well, I’m happy you showed up either way.” The common denominator was sincerity, a sincerity so ordinary and straightforward that no one present could be bothered to perform it.
Panning out to the larger discourse of political engagement in Singapore, the word “performativity” occupies a more interesting context than its broadstroke application in global cyberspace. If one were to speak of performativity, one should also consider the availability of stages to put on these shows. As it stands, Hong Lim Park remains the only venue in this country where demonstrations can be staged without having to obtain a prior police permit. With this scarcity of local theaters for political action, to who’s disadvantage is it when we write off others for simply showing up?
Besides political stakes, a third viewpoint on performativity considers its ecological stakes. While the theme of the rally centered around the specific angle of climate justice, the overall zeitgeist of climate activism was palpable—the house going up in flames, the race against time. As indie performer Rene crooned that late Saturday afternoon, “we’re gonna die anyways.” So, what do we stand to lose from performing? What is it compared to what we stand to gain?
We are well into the anthropocene. Wildfires are licking at the velvet curtains and floodwater is seeping into the floorboards of the stage. Might as well put on a good show while we still have a theater.