Civil rights activist and social worker Jolovan Wham took to Facebook on Sunday (21 March) to point out that he was invited as the guest of honour for The Substation’s SeptFest2021: The Migrant Workers Community Museum exhibition.

He said, “I didn’t have a PA or civil servant to prepare my speech, so I just rambled on in my usual seditious fashion”.

SeptFest 2021 is the celebration of Singapore art centre The Substation’s 30th anniversary, and is happening from 4 to 28 March. The month-long event sees a celebration of art, culture and community, with the theme “In the Margins”.

One of the events conducted at SeptFest2021 is the exhibition of The Migrant Workers Community Museum, which looks at the history of migration to Singapore and everything about the heritage of such a diverse group of people.

Local playwright Alfian Sa’at, who is one of the facilitators for this exhibition, said that he came up with the idea of creating this exhibition as he did not want to come up with just a performance.

“It was my way of honouring a certain ethos at the Substation—a place where I could try something new and not be questioned on whether I had the necessary credentials or experience.

“Nobody asked me, throughout the process, “do you know what you’re doing?” If anything, it was a question that I often asked myself. The answer came from that building on 45 Armenian Street, the reason it exists in the first place: “you learn by doing, and sometimes learn best by failing”, he said in a Facebook post on Sunday.

He added that this project gave him the chance to collaborate with amazing people, which include curator and visual artist Zul Zulkiflee as well as anthropologist Vithya Subramaniam.

Commenting on why he decided to focus an exhibition on migrant workers, Mr Alfian said: “To my shame, this was an underclass that—to me at least—was so marginal that it did not register immediately when I thought about marginality in Singapore. Their invisibility was extreme; despite numbering more than a million, they lived in dorms that were located far away from the locals’ housing heartlands. On the other hand, some of the domestic workers who lived among us were so effectively hidden that they might as well have lived in underground torture dungeons.”

He added that he made it a point from the beginning to involve migrant workers in the exhibition and credited them as curators of the museum.

If that’s not all, the playwright also said that the Information Media Development Authority (IMDA) said that the exhibition is rated “Advisory” with “Some Mature Content” as it has some socio-political references.

To this, Mr Alfian noted: “But of course migrant labour issues are socio-political issues! But why advise that these issues are unsuitable for the young? I suspect that it’s because the Museum doesn’t parrot certain official narratives—we don’t mention alcohol in the “Little India riots” nor do we cast aspersions on Parti Liyani’s testimony, for example.

“But I’ve long stopped taking these ratings as a trustworthy verdict on the age-appropriateness of a work—they are more an indication of IMDA’s increasingly irrelevant ratings regime,” he expressed.

At the end of his post, the playwright urged the public to pay the exhibition a visit, which runs from 18 March to 28 March at The Substation.

Edit: The article has been edited following amendments to Jolovan Wham’s Facebook post

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