By Dr Kieran James
This interview first appeared in Singapore Civil Society
My interview with Ms Rachel Zeng (feminist activist and anti death-penalty campaigner), Part II, Changi Village, Singapore, 29 April 2013
“I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it” – Emma Goldman, anarcha-feminist [1869-1940]
Kieran James (KJ): Hi Rachel, I want to ask you again first of all the events in your life which led you to becoming an opposition supporter. I know you answered this before by Facebook but the in-person interview this time should allow for a more detailed response.
Rachel Zeng (RZ): When I was seven or eight [years old], I was staying at Towner Road, Jalan Besar GRC. There was a GE going on I can’t remember which year. I was crossing the road; Chiam See Tong was on the campaign lorry with a loud hailer, I was seven or eight. I asked my mom “who’s that handsome man?” Chiam See Tong was quite handsome when he was younger. She said “he’s opposition”. I said “vote for him, he’s handsome”. She said: “no, we can only vote PAP, they’re reliable”. I said “why must we vote PAP?” They cannot give me a good answer. I was a Chiam See Tong fan. That made me very curious about why people don’t vote for opposition. Basically my parents and relatives said they are PAP supporters, it made me very curious. Since then I have been very excited every time there is an election going on.
Another incident was when the whole family was having breakfast at Bendemeer Market. Then Workers’ Party was selling The Hammer. I was below ten-years-old. I can remember it was $1 or something. I asked my Dad why they have to sell papers there, why aren’t the papers at the news stand? My Dad said “it’s opposition propaganda”. I took $1 from my Dad, I took money to the volunteer, but they said “we can’t sell to children”. My Dad was curious, he bought a copy, and he read it during breakfast. I asked my Dad what it was about, it was mostly in Chinese, he said “nothing much”. Those two incidents made me very curious about the opposition.
Another random memory was my first placard, my first protest, against my parents! Once they promised to bring out me and my brother on a Sunday, they fell asleep, I felt they broke their promise. I wrote on a whiteboard “you broke your promise, we are very angry”. We sat outside their room until they woke up. I got caned for it, I was six-years-old. It was the first year my Mom went to work, my Dad was a carpenter. My Mom said “you will end up in jail if you do this”.
When I started to question I realized this was the whole system, hierarchy. It shocked me when I realized that the President did not have the decision-making powers. We were quite puzzled in social studies class when this came up. These are the main events which made me question why we can’t voice out our opinions in a free-spirited manner. I’m always a very frank and straight-forward person.
Also in social studies class when I was eleven, we were talking about money, different currencies, and poverty in some countries. We were discussing Third-World countries. The teacher was trying to develop our sense of empathy towards Third World people. I asked her why we can’t have one single trading system where everyone can be equal. She was very serious and said “this is a very dangerous idea”. The word “communism” came up somehow.
Shortly after that I got my hands on a copy of The Communist Manifesto. [KJ note: This classic pro-communist pamphlet The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was first published in February 1848 and it remains one of history’s most important social, economic, and political writings.] We spent our days at our grandma’s place. The people were very much Chinese-educated and working-class. One day I was exploring the block of flats. The Garang guni man had some books, very old books. I was reading. One was a very old copy ofThe Communist Manifesto, green, in English. I read the first chapter before the man came. He gave it to me although some of the pages were missing. I was also given some books by [Jean-Paul] Sartre. I could not understand what he was talking about back then but I remember his name.
KJ: Tell us about your poly or uni experiences…
RZ: Before poly I had to fight [just] to go to poly. We [my family] spent six months arguing after O levels. I said “I want to go to LASALLE College of Fine Arts. I’m never going to JC”. They said “in this country no-one is going to feed you, it’s not a Welfare State”. I got accepted into Marketing but I did not want to do it. We compromised and I went into Design. My Mom went to work upset and her colleagues told her to “let her make her own choice”.
I went to Temasek Poly. I was exposed to the realities behind the fur-trade. It was a course on apparel design and merchandising. I was vaguely aware about the fur-trade and the cruelty towards the animals, sweat-shops, and child labour. I didn’t understand, I saw it as unfairness. If your government is not on good terms with their country you cannot get the benefits which other countries get from free trade agreements. There were a lot of questions in my mind. I asked my parents “why don’t you listen to the other side?” I said “even a clock that stops tells the time correctly twice”. They just said “we have a stable government, much foreign investment, and Lee Kuan Yew is a good man”.
KJ: Do you remember the Marxist Conspiracy of 1987-88?
RZ: I was too young; I remember their pictures in the papers. [KJ note: RZ was about eight-years-old at this time.] I just vandalized their faces. They were supposed to be “bad people” but nobody told us what they did wrong.
KJ: How did you get involved in feminism?
RZ: It had to do with my brother. When he was born the treatment shifted. I thought he was getting treated better because he was a boy. It’s like a fight. I have been doing this my whole life since he was born. Because he was obese and I was underweight my neighbours would joke to my parents that they treat boys better than girls. That made me very angry. My Mom taught me to wash dishes and sweep floors while my brother did nothing. I confronted my Mom. She said: “you are a girl so it’s your responsibility”. But my Dad helped with the household chores and did his part equally, it’s a contradiction. I just didn’t get the girls’ responsibility thing.
Later on in life there was an incident, in secondary school after Sec 2 streaming. I chose to go to the arts class; I could have gone to the science class. I insisted on doing arts. My kind class-friend’s mother heard about it. Being a busybody she called my mother. She said “how could you let her ruin her life?” My Mom was supportive and said “that’s what she likes to do”. The reply was “well, she’s a girl; she can marry a rich husband”. I was furious. In my head I thought “man and woman are equal and I can support myself until I die, I don’t need a man’s support at all”.
KJ: What do you think of the HDB [Housing and Development Board] rules where government flats can only be sold to legally married couples and singles aged over 35?
RZ: Horrible! … I was reading a lot of books along the journey. I realized what I was doing was called feminism, and then I read different branches of feminism.
KJ: Did any particular authors inspire you most?
RZ: Emma Goldman [1869-1940], anarcha-feminist, and Simone de Beauvoir [1908-1986], I read her first before Goldman. I have always asked myself how it is possible one person can love a single individual for the rest of her/his life. It is a very oppressive idea, it’s not possible. For me if two people want to be together it’s none of their families’ business. But in this culture if you marry then you [also] marry the family. I heard a lot about being a good daughter-in-law. I cringed a lot; I thought “that’s not me, that is not what I’m going to do”.
KJ: Were you involved in any opposition campaigns then?
RZ: No, just the research for my degree. I did a research [project] on how gender stereotypes in books influence children’s thinking and how to counter stereotypes. I and my research partner had discussions with children. The whole class of six-years-olds [then] decided it’s OK for boys to like dolls and girls do not need to like dolls or wear pink.
KJ: Yes, that seems to be the age when the impact of gender stereotypes on children is greatest…
RZ: Their conversation and behaviour changed [after our interactions with them]. In future I’d like to do similar research on a larger scale; I will see how it goes…
KJ: Have you got any other projects planned?
RZ: I am attempting to begin a book on that using this research as a beginning. There have been female leaders in the past in Asian societies and tribes which have systems which are not patriarchal, they are very equity based. The stories behind these tribes are not being told. These examples are what I want to present.
KJ: Do you see yourself being inspired by communism or Marxism?
RZ: I’m more of an anarchist. It’s strange isn’t it living in a capitalist society and being an anarchist? It’s very difficult. That’s my dilemma as well – saving for an Iron Maiden ticket [KJ note: concert by legendary British heavy-metal music band Iron Maiden in Singapore] when I know others cannot [afford to] see. I was fighting the dilemma. I told myself “life is very short”, one thing I wanted to do was see the bands I like perform as much as possible.
KJ: What are your favourite bands?
RZ: Nightwish, that is I mean the previous Nightwish, Sentenced, Cradle of Filth, Metallica up to the “black album” [KJ note: the “black album” is the popular name for Metallica’s self-titled album of 1991 which has sold 30 million copies worldwide as at 14 May 2013], punk rock, indie music as well … Have you heard of the band Journey? I like them as well, I really like Paul Gilbert, guitar.
KJ: What do you think of Singaporean society today?
RZ: So oppressive [laughs] … at another level. You still feel the Government trying to censor you. On the internet people put your photo on forums and talk crap about you. People give you crap and insult you about your boyfriend not being the same race as you. It used to hurt me a lot but now it doesn’t bother me so much. I’m a private person; I don’t like my details going into the public. I don’t know if I told you this before, but it [Singaporean society today] is like a bunch of lions locked up for years then let loose, they don’t know what to do [when released]. Even friends can’t accept that others think differently from them.
KJ: What are your comments on the opposition parties at the moment?
RZ: I’m not so close to them nowadays. In the first place I don’t believe in party politics. I hanged out with SDP [Singapore Democratic Party] because they were really supportive of me. All my life people thought I was a strange person. Why can’t you fit the system? When I hanged out with SDP I didn’t feel that way, it was really good. At that time, to be honest, SDP was not behaving like a political party; they were down-to-earth, activists, like a big family. After a while things changed I guess, directions changed.
KJ: Do you view yourself as being with SDP at the moment?
RZ: I was not happy when they started this Woman’s Wing. It was going backwards. Female participation has always been there. After the [creation of] Woman’s Wing it’s like telling women “go to your corner, you need your comfort, you need your space, but men don’t”.
KJ: Like women’s meetings in a church on a weekday morning…[RZ nods.]
KJ: So you will not be involved?
RZ: The GE [May 2011] really distracted me from the death-penalty cause in (and) my life. I was feeling very stressed out. I had to do my work and help them [SDP] out in the GE. I knew I had to [give] priority in my work. I realized working against death-penalty is my priority. I realized I’m not concerned with [i.e responsible for] anyone’s political survival. I must do what means most to me.
KJ: Why is the death-penalty issue so important for you?
RZ: No-one has the right to take away another person’s life not even the government.
KJ: So you don’t believe in death-penalty for anything not even for serial-killers?[RZ shakes her head.]
KJ: What are your comments on Workers’ Party victory in the Punggol East SMC by-election?
RZ: It was expected. I didn’t like SDP’s behaviour.
RZ: All the hype about running the BE then when people ostracized them on internet they said if they win the seat [RZ trailed away at this point] … they had a strange proposal – SDP can go into parliament and WP can run the town council. It was so naive. Everyone knew that WP would not reply. That was the moment of disillusion. It was so damaging. After volunteers had worked so hard on the ground then they pulled out.
KJ: Did you do any volunteer work?[RZ shakes her head.]
RZ: At that time my stand was if the person has affair [referring to Michael Palmer, PAP incumbent in Punggol East] it doesn’t mean he can’t be a good MP.
KJ: And the same logic applies to the case in Hougang SMC?
RZ: When YSL [Yaw Shin Leong] case happened I said the same. Look, Michael Palmer is far more intelligent than Lim Swee Say [KJ note: Minister in Prime Minister’s Office, Secretary-General of National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), and PAP MP for East Coast GRC]. Lim Swee Say can stay but Michael Palmer resigned just because of an affair.
KJ: What will happen in the next GE?
RZ16: Hmmm, if LKY [Mr Lee Kuan Yew] dies in the next couple of years there might be sympathy votes. I might be wrong. Singapore is very strange and people when emotions are high for a particular person will remember all the good things he has done [instead of taking a more balanced view]. Someone’s death is a good opportunity for the propaganda machine to start working overtime. [On the other hand] WP may have more seats in the parliament which is annoying…
KJ: Why annoying?
RZ: Because when WP gets more seats they may become more arrogant. They are not much different from PAP anyway. I did appreciate when they raised certain issues about death-penalty in parliament but I don’t appreciate overall attitude of the party towards other parties I guess, they don’t really talk to each other…
KJ: It’s very corporate-style politics now even with the opposition?[RZ nods.]
RZ: And also within the party all members are required to toe the line very strictly and I don’t think this is very different from PAP. A lot of group-think is going on.
KJ: What do you think of Singa Crew’s book Singapore Sucks? As you know I was helping him edit the English for the second edition when I was here late last year…
RZ17: I have to promote it, right [laughs]? He is very inspired by James Joyce’s Dubliners , it is our favourite book. He is trying to do the Dubliners-thing in the Singapore context. I appreciate that it’s so rare to get someone [here] who reads Dubliners. I love the title of his book too [Singapore Sucks].
KJ: What do you think the activist community needs to do to make more changes here?
RZ: We have paid activists and some who are not paid. Paid ones work on a regional platform and are full-time. I hope they make it as a career but it’s all about fighting for rights of people and animals. It would be great if they become part of the solidarity process. The civil society here is very divided. It would be great if we could all see the actions and values of others … and be there [for each other] when shit happens. Change will happen when you stop having party politics here. Individual representation would be much stronger not having to toe the party line outside and also inside the parliament.
KJ: Any other comments on any topic?
RZ: When I was sick I was reading the paper. I saw a group of activists in Japan protecting against the fur trade. I saw the word “activist” below the picture. I thought “that’s interesting; I want to be an activist”. I told myself (I was very sick) “if I can survive this I want to do something meaningful in life”. That picture really helped. (I was nine-years-old.) It was in the New Paper. [KJ note: When she was nine-years-old RZ had chronic gastroenteritis and was in and out of hospital for a few months.]