DIALOGUES: Towards Decolonizing Music and Dance Studies

Kopi One! How to Ownself-Check-Ownself

Chatting about Singaporean/Chinese Privilege in the Lion City and Beyond


Shzr Ee Tan (Royal Holloway University of London)


Shzr Ee Tan




Muhammad Noramin bin Mohamed Farid (Royal Holloway University of London)
Shzr Ee Tan
Jarrod Sim (Australian National University)
Alicia Joyce De Silva (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts / National Institute of Education, Singapore)
Gene Lai (Wesleyan University)

The topic of privilege is one that crosses most conversations about race, class, gender and politics. Parallel to ongoing discourses about decolonization as shaped by global movements such as #BlackLivesMatter is the ever urgent need to highlight the voices of marginalized peoples. In 2020, Singapore was equally faced with critiques regarding its colonial hangover and tokenistic treatment of minority and migrant peoples.

Using the online padlet as a communication medium, we hope to provide a tool in which conversations and pointers are not merely fleeting verbalisations but also documented collaboratively. Via text/audio/visual prompts and responses on our site [https://padlet.com/kopi1ownselfcheckownself/Bookmarks], facilitators will begin non-linear conversations with each other, and also invite general members of the ICTM community to weigh in on the complexities of Chinese privilege (however defined) in music practice and research. We see such (gentle or otherwise) provocations and interventions as ways of destabilizing hierarchies and authorial speech as acts of decolonization, too! Activities and talking points generated by these posts/interactions/contributions are consolidated in our two-hour session. We hope these sharing sessions will continue beyond our official ICTM Dialogues session as we continue to update the padlet.com site with future responses for a month and maintain it for a year.

Taking an intersectional approach to understanding decolonization through layered histories and political hierarchies of neo/coloniality, we interrogate an ‘elephant-in-the-room’ issue of Chinese/Singaporean privilege in Southeast Asia and beyond. We target the making of music as well as research communities themselves. Particularly, we look at both postcolonial and neocolonial positionalities of musicians and scholars who are able to, as well as not access, the oft-described socio-economic (and in some cases politico-hegemonic) privilege of an ethnic Chinese and/or Singaporean background. This is however the background may be defined – whether transnational Chinese in Southeast Asia vs Europe, Malay/Eurasian in Singapore, or China-passport-holding in the Global North and South. Additionally, we locate these discussions within divergent understandings of precolonial, postcolonial and decolonial Southeast Asia as maritime cultures in flux, rather than static island or regional ‘blocs.’ On a practical level, for example, intersectionalities operating at all stages of music-making and research will be interrogated – from the politicized choice of research subject, to access to educational infrastructure/research and conference funding, and situational hierarchies formed between consultant-collaborators and researcher-practitioners in the field. Some of the more awkward questions we ask include:


Further References

Kathiravelu, Laavanya, Lily Zubaidah Rahim, Alfian Sa’at, Kwee Hui Kian, and Ian Chong. 2021. “Webinar: Race, Discrimination, and the State.” Roundtable, Symposium of the Malaysia and Singapore Society of Australia, November 14. https://www.academia.sg/events/race-webinar-massa, accessed Jan 12, 2022.
Lum, Chee Hoo ed. 2013. Contextualized Practices in Arts Education: An International Dialogue on Singapore. Singapore: Springer.
Lum, Chee Hoo. 2017. “My Country, My Music: Imagined Nostalgia and the Crisis of Identity in a Time of Globalization.” International Journal of Music Education 35 (1): 47-59.
Saharudin, Hydar. 2016. “Confronting ‘Chinese Privilege’ in Singapore.” The New Mandala, November 2. https://www.newmandala.org/brief-history-chinese-privilege-singapore, accessed Jan 11, 2022.
Tan, Shzr Ee. 2018. “State Orchestras and Multiculturalism in Singapore.” In Global Perspectives on Orchestras: Collective Creativity and Social Agency, edited by Tina K. Ramnarine, 261-281. New York: Oxford University Press.
Weiss, Sarah. 2020. “Negotiating Singaporean Identities: Observations from Study at an Academy of Indian Music and Dance Performance.” In Understanding Musics: Festschrift on the Occasion of Gerd Grupe’s 65th Birthday, edited by Malik Sharif and Kendra Stepputat, 293-312. Düren: Shaker Verlag.
Weiss, Sarah. 2017. “‘Last time, in the Kampong, Chinese Wayang, Bangsawan, and Kroncong, All One Place’: Nostalgia, Anecdote, and History in Discourse on Singaporean Performance.” In Out of Bounds: Ethnography, History, Music-Essays in Honor of Kay Kaufman Shelemay, edited by Ingrid Monson, Carol Oja, and Richard Wolf, 161-184. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Zainal, Humairah, and Walid Jumblatt Abdullah. 2021. "Chinese Privilege in Politics: A Case Study of Singapore’s Ruling Elites." Asian Ethnicity 22 (3): 481-497.
[See also response from: Goh, D.P. and Chong, T. 2020. “Chinese Privilege as Shortcut in Singapore: a Rejoinder.” Asian Ethnicity 1-6].


A fluid, relatively unstructured sharing session in regional/local/colloquial languages and accents can be a useful format for engendering inclusive conversations, in conjunction with formal, structured academic papers.

Self-accountability and mutual accountability are crucial to our work as artists, educators, and good citizens of multiple communities. We need to practice better understandings of intersectionality, and in working towards more equal playing fields we need look for the subtle differences between being asked to ‘lose one’s privileges’ (for example, no longer being at the front of arts funding queues) and ‘experiencing systemic injustice’ (for example, becoming a victim of hate crime).

As the world changes – along with its constitution of dynamic, systemic, and intersecting inequalities – new notions of privilege and marginality will emerge via the rise of new sectors in society, and re-understandings of historical processes. We will need to learn and adapt with empathy to these sweeping changes, while also looking at future fissures (for example, new inequalities emerging through climate change).

As BIPOC academics, it is our responsibility to make a continual effort to ensure that all levels of privilege (in its broadest sense) between all parties are acknowledged and addressed. We need to be even more sensitive with our application of western-based/developed theories, methods, and methodologies that we frequently utilize, and the potential colonial vestiges attached to them. This is substantial given that most of us receive(d) our educational training through a western model and tend to apply certain concepts without thorough consideration. By doing so, we can ascertain whether certain approaches are appropriate, relevant, or applicable to the contexts of the communities being written about.


Questions to Consider

How can we incorporate more grounded understandings of Chinese (and emerging privileges) into the ways we learn/make our sounded worlds and our arts/education practices?

What can scholars, educators, performers, and arts lovers who identify as Chinese do in order to better reflect on our/their positionality in our/their own practice? What concrete steps can ‘Chinese’ persons take with regards to issues of structural inequality and incidents of race-based discriminations in work and living places?

How can Chinese-identifying arts practitioners and educators be better allies?

How can one nuance Chinese privilege in transnational terms, alongside understandings of East Asian privilege(s)?

We would like to call Chinese-identifying as well as white-identifying members of the ICTM membership at large to reflect on the intersectionality of white privilege alongside Chinese privilege (and other emerging privileges, as well as emerging marginalities). Concerns at our session arose regarding the notion of ‘Chinese privilege’ being weaponized (by white communities) against Chinese communities amidst the beginnings of a ‘new Yellow Peril’ with the politico-economic rise of China. We would like to ask our network(s) for a renewed commitment towards self and mutual accountability alongside a call for care in the community/communities of learning, scholarship, and culture-making.

What are the varying degrees of privilege between Chinese-identifying communities around the world and how can we generate constructive conversations and awareness among these groups?

What steps are required for national-level arts councils to achieve a truly meritocratic system of awarding funds to performers and researchers of ethnic-based traditional arts?

Should we reconsider and re-evaluate Chinese diasporas such as the Peranakans who position themselves off-center from the hegemonic sociocultural structures often associated with Chinese privilege? What are the roles of all the stakeholders involved? Is there a Peranakan privilege?

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