read list: 2021-04-x02

genuinely wasn’t reading much other than work stuff, mainly because i was too deep in a fanfic binge and then ALSO decided to do a small sewing project that involved bad redesign ideas *insert crying here*

this read list edition is apparently all about that Third World-Second World solidarity as we consume First World media bayyyybeeee.

news || editorials

Soviet TV version of Lord of the Rings rediscovered after 30 years – this just skyrocketed up my weekend watch list. 

long reads

‘Neutralizing English: Han Suyin and the language politics of Third World literature’ by Fiona Lee. (Journal of Postcolonial Writing Volume 57, 2021 – Issue 2: Special Issue: Han Suyin: Literature, Politics and Translation.)

Definitely served as an introduction for me, to a writer with local connections of whom I had little idea of.  And incredibly still relevant, now that I recall the recent brouhaha over a minister’s perceived poor grasp of English (she has strong Kelantanese diction and the typical Malay English grammar tics) where a lot of people were talking past each other. It’s one thing to say Malay supremacy has enabled a sense of carelessness in English fluency, it’s also quite another to use fluency in standard English as any useful barometer of quality, or worse a signifier specific only to non-Malay races. As if to point out inherent classism of being a grammar nazi in a postcolonial country is somehow (only) Malay supremacist, as if somehow every non-Malay out there speaks perfect English, when those who don’t are well aware how little they’re thought of either. Like, a fat nazi is still a nazi, and you having to cut your stomach in half and exercise daily to lose weight doesn’t mean a non-nazi is never fat, and your privilege and innate talent and invested labour at being skinny and not a nazi doesn’t mean you have the right to call a nazi fatty and not be told that was the wrong target, genius.

Because for sure, the initial spark is the minister’s actual, demonstrated, weakness of her administrative and governance skills, so it was an easy thing to pick apart. That’s a very lofty way to say she sucks by the way. Sucks while serving a supremacist agenda. But the callout against those ragging her English is fair, imo because Najib, Khairy et al has plummy, fantastic English and they’re still motherf****rs I wouldn’t p**s on if they’re on fire.

(sorry, puasa filter on)


The writings of Han Suyin during her sojourn in British Malaya from the 1950s to 1960s are a rich archive for understanding how the Cold War’s impact on postcolonial nation-building contributed to the remaking of English as a supposedly neutral language. Han styled herself as a spokesperson for China to the English-speaking world during the early decades of communist rule. Her writings arguably helped to fashion English as a transparent medium for representing Asia, a conception of language that informs global literary publishing today. Yet her work, which was influenced by her participation in the Afro-Asian Writers Conferences organized in the wake of the 1955 Bandung Conference, as well as her experience of living in Malaya during the colonial counter-insurgency against communists, also offers insights on how English’s neutrality ought to be understood in relation to forestalled Third World movements and racialized antagonisms in postcolonial nations.


Han’s contributions to the language debates in Malaya in the early 1960s, which occurred concurrently with discussions taking place at the Afro-Asian Writers’ Conferences, illuminate the making of English as a neutral language. Drawing on archival research, I analyse her speeches, essays, and memoirs to outline Han’s evolving views on the role of the writer during decolonization and her position on the language question discussed at the AAWCs. Given that she incorporated insights from this Third World internationalist arena in articulating her views about the language question in Malaya, I suggest that Han’s work allows us to situate Malaya in relation to the AAWCs. This contextualization is significant given Malaya’s vexed relationship to the idea of the Third World primarily because the Indonesian President Sukarno, a key organizer of the Bandung Conference, saw the 1963 formation of Malaysia as a British-controlled neocolonial project, resulting in the military conflict known as Konfrontasi or Confrontation (1963–66). Precisely because of this neocolonial status, however, Malaya’s language politics can offer ways of understanding how ideas and narratives about English’s neutrality emerged out of Cold War racial ideologies.

Significantly, Han’s argument here aimed not simply to justify the Third World writer’s use of English, but also to address the challenges ethno-linguistic diversity posed to postcolonial nation-building – what she dubbed “one great headache, that Babel of languages” – experienced by nearly all decolonizing countries (Han 1962). While discussions on language at the AAWCs were largely framed around the hierarchical relation between colonial and indigenous languages, in Malaya and Singapore, there was additional concern about the status and relations between the myriad non-European languages spoken by various indigenous and migrant communities. […]  These historical conditions therefore further contributed to the perception that Malay and Chinese languages respectively signified distinct racial and political ideologies.

Han’s conception of language as “form, not content”, therefore, not only countered the reductive understanding of English as a colonial, colonizing language and argued for its re-appropriation as an instrument of decolonization. It also critiqued the underlying presupposition shaping the discourse about linguistic difference in Malaya and Singapore, namely, that the relationship between language and cultural expression was mediated through the notion of race. Han was keenly aware that Malaya’s and Singapore’s linguistic diversity could very well be exploited to reify racial difference, as was the case in the education arena, where the issue of language politics was especially contentious. During the counter-insurgency against the communists in Malaya, Han (1957, 20) reports that the colonial government had expelled and detained students in whose possession modern Chinese literary works were found; she further suggests, if indirectly, that the government’s banning of Mao’s writings in Chinese, but not those in English, perpetuated ideas of Chinese as predisposed to spreading communism, and English as a politically neutral medium of knowledge.

[…] “I did not want to teach Dickens and Thackeray, worthy though they might be”, she explained. “[W]e must create an Asian type of literature; we needed something other than nineteenth-century English writers” (Han 1980, 111). Even so, in 1958, the year of the first AAWC, Han taught a course called “Contemporary Asian Literature in the Context of National Emergence from Colonialism”, introducing well-known international writers such as Pakistan’s Faiz Ahmed Faiz and India’s Mulk Raj Anand, as well as emerging Singaporean writers like Edwin Thumboo (Han 1991, 20). Han’s decision to offer the course was presumably influenced by the first AAWC, and her trip to the subsequent conference in Cairo was partly motivated by a desire to source material for her course. Despite these efforts, Nanyang University was publicly criticized by the anglophone governing elite (including Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew among others of Chinese descent) for promoting communalism and serving as a hotbed of communist activity (Huang 2006, 405–408). In response to the accusation that Nanyang University perpetuated the so-called “Chinese problem” of dividing Chinese national loyalties between China and Malaya, Han remarked that such discourse promoted the perception that “when young people receive a Chinese-language education they are automatically ‘disloyal,’ whereas students in English schools who have learnt English are ‘more loyal’ ”; loyalty in this context, she continues, referred to allegiance to the “British colonial set-up” rather than an “independent Malaya” (1960b, 1).

[…] The heated debates about language in Malaya and Singapore, particularly on Malay and Chinese, were shaped by what the historian Rachel Leow (2016) refers to as the “isomorphism of race, language, and nation” (2), the belief that language constitutes an outward expression of innate cultural essence defined in terms of race/ethnicity. Derived from 18th-century German thought, this mother tongue ideology maintained a powerful hold in mid-20th-century Malaya and Singapore, not only because colonial forms of governance ensured that race remained a meaningful social political category for managing populations. As Leow argues, the instrumentalization of language difference to signify race also stems from the anxieties of a “monoglot state” in governing its “polyglot subjects” (3). Han’s contributions, as outlined above, draw attention to how this ideology inheres in the language politics of Malaya and Singapore, and, more importantly, the selective application of this ideology to Malay and Chinese. English, however, remained exempt from any association with a distinct ethno-racial identity and could thus signify as culturally neutral, even if it also connoted economic privilege. This racially inflected language ideology is the outcome of the decades-long implementation of colonial education policy, whereby Malay-medium and Chinese-medium schools were largely delineated along racial lines, while English-medium schools comprised, in Han’s words, “representatives of all races” (1957, 20). English’s cultural neutrality is not born out of inherent linguistic features, but of the historical conditions generated by race-based policies implemented to manage multilingual environments.

[…]Significantly, the notion of English as neutral in terms of its ethno-racial affiliation (or lack thereof) marks a shift from its earlier signification as the language of the imperial state, and associated with white-Anglo power, necessitated by the transition from imperial to postcolonial rule. In order to maintain its dominance as a postcolonial language of power, English had to signal a more benign ethno-racial neutrality than white power, a re-signification aided by the anglophone multiracial elite that was primed to assume leadership positions in the new nation. 

[…] Concerns about English’s world hegemonic status today focus on its ties with class privilege and socio-economic upward mobility, because of its function in enabling globalized capitalism. Yet in tracing, through Han’s writings, the history of how English acquired its neutral significance, I have shown that to simply understand English primarily in terms of class without considering its relation to race is to miss the point that racial ideologies fundamentally shape the hierarchical relations between languages. More specifically, English maintains its dominance within the language hierarchy in the postcolony by assuming the capacity to transcend the mother tongue ideology, a signification enabled by being situated in relation to other languages deemed to express innate ethno-racial essence. English’s continued dominance in the postcolony was enabled by the re-articulation of colonial racial ideologies in light of the Cold War, which refashioned English as a politically benign language compared to Malay, now associated with ethno-nationalism, just as Chinese was with communism.

[…] As noted earlier, exchanges on the language question in the conference proceedings and publication venues of the AAWB are largely framed around the choice between writing in imperial or indigenous languages. Duncan Yoon (2015) notes that debates about language at the conferences were less about a predisposed bias against imperial languages per se – after all, their proceedings were conducted in English and French – than concerns about the reproduction of language hierarchies and the exclusion of a large proportion of audiences in Asia and Africa from accessing such literature. Similarly, Tobias Warner (2019) rightly warns that it is reductive to frame the language debate as a choice between “an essentialist, nativist return to the vernacular or a more cosmopolitan strategy of appropriating and subverting the former colonial language” (4). Han’s views, as outlined above, similarly reject this framing, though her discussions of language usually avoid invoking the notion of cultural authenticity that would occasionally appear in arguments at the AAWB promoting the use of indigenous languages. Perhaps the most prominent of such arguments is articulated in the essay “The Language of African Language” by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa’ Thiong’o, who was awarded the Lotus Prize by the Permanent Bureau of Afro-Asian Writers in 1973 and who, after publishing several novels in English in the late 1960s, publicly announced that he would write primarily in Gikuyu. In that essay, now a key text in postcolonial literary studies, Ngũgĩ (1985, 126) argues that colonial language education had caused the colonized subject’s alienation of the self from their culture and that a return to the mother tongue would enable “the restoration of the harmony” between colonized peoples and their cultural environment. Even while not intended to espouse the mother tongue ideology, Ngũgĩ’s recourse to the rhetoric of alienation and restoration underlies the difficulty of disentangling discourses of language from race, especially since returning to the native tongue responds to the racialization of the colonial subject through the imposition of English.

Han was well aware that in Malaya, language served as a barrier between non-English speakers and the English-speaking colonized elite, whose ignorance of the multilingual worlds around them was compounded by the privilege they enjoyed from using a language that granted them access to power. However, rather than describe the stakes of surmounting these language divides in cultural terms, as arguments like Ngũgĩ’s do, Han argues instead for the need for the anglophone elite to develop political literacy. Hence, when speaking with English-educated students, she delivered the same message as that given to the AAWC in her earlier-mentioned lecture to Singapore journalists; that is, to look beyond their immediate privileged environments and be attuned to the complex political forces that were shaping the world around them. If there was indeed a language problem, then for Han it was not a debate about which language best served as a vehicle for decolonization, but how to read the politics of language and race, and how to cultivate such literacy amongst the different groups in Malaya and Singapore so as to demystify the workings of neocolonialism.

Han arguably devoted her literary career towards achieving these aims and sought to show how writing in English could demystify the Cold War’s re-articulation of race and language politics in the postcolonial world. Yet identifying and writing about a problem did not necessarily mean escaping it. Han’s self-fashioned position as a Third World spokesperson through her writings was made possible by her elite connections to heads of state and gatekeepers of the literary publishing industry. That her work was often described as providing a window to the east or a bridge between east and west (in part because of her Chinese European ancestry) further suggests that it too fed into the idea of English as a transparent medium of knowledge. Han’s writing career might thus be said to exemplify rather than resolve the intractable problem of English’s racializing function, one that continues to permeate the discourse of contemporary postcolonial writing today. In archiving the underlying Cold War racial structures that continue to shape world literature today, her work is a valuable site of study for our times.

Renouncing Islam in Malaysia Is Dangerous. We Spoke to Those Who Did It – Vice

Not particularly long; sharing to bear witness to their struggles. I see you, and I stand by you.

Documenting China’s U.S. Capitol-inspired buildings – Starting in June 2019, photographer Wu Guoyong began traveling across China to piece together a strange collection of photographs: buildings inspired by the U.S. Capitol Building. He calls the series “China’s White House.”

And I thought the Cicakman fantasy of ‘what if Malaysia but only Malays and always at 10°C’ was peak gwailo fetish. The imperial Temple of Heaven-White House mashup (in an abandoned unfinished theme park no less) is definitely *chef’s kiss* though.

random shitposts from the meme mines

this sketch comedy troupe is extremely male and hetero so when they miss for me, they REALLY miss for me. which is too bad, because their comedy is sharp as a tack. And recently they’re dabbling in using horror/thriller tropes ala Key & Peele, so I’m really hoping for a bright future ahead for them.

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