What kind of animal are you?

It really depends on where I am and who I’m with. A good one would be a lion — chilling with my pride of mates under a tree on a hot day and occasionally annoying the heckling hyenas in my life.

You have a master’s degree in creative and cultural entrepreneurship. You mean you can actually learn to be creative and entrepreneurial?

Yes, you can. You can learn to be good at anything, for that matter. Being creative is just like any other skill we pick up over time, such as riding a bicycle. The more you practise it, the better you’ll become.

You published your first book even before you were in National Service. How did that happen?

I was in the right place at the right time. The publisher was looking for a designer and a photographer for a book about disability sports. He chanced upon my work through my friend during our course graduation show and hired us immediately. It helped that we were fresh graduates hungry for any kind of work.

You started with a traditional black and white documentary approach in your photography and humans were central to your work, but now you photograph mostly animals. Have you given up on people?

On the contrary, I see it as a deeper study into human beings and our practices. To begin with, it would be a huge mistake to assume that humans and animals are vastly disconnected. As human beings are the alpha species on the planet, our actions affect the ecosystem in more ways than one, sometimes in ways we do not know. So looking at animal species further down the food chain might give us some clues.

What have you learned from looking more closely at animals?

Every time I photograph a particular species of animal, I inevitably come to learn about its state in the ecosystem. More often than not, I find that the rise or fall in the population of that species is always connected to some form of human activity in the area. This could range from the destruction of orang utan habitats by palm oil companies, or the decrease in the snake population because of the increased use of pesticides. Looking closely at animals always tells us how we are impacting the environment and that’s crucial to our own well-being. What affects our environment will ultimately affect us.

The Gift Book consists mostly of images of insects. How did studying and photographing these small species compare with your previous work on fish and chickens?

You could say the main difference with The Gift Book is that this time the animals came to me, instead of me going out to search for them. They include the beetles that flew into my home, caterpillars from my garden and grasshoppers from a vegetable farm in Yishun.

In my previous work, the fishes and chickens were bred to be attractive ornamental animals, whereas with the insects, they do not necessary look appealing. In fact most people avoid creepy-crawlies. So I sought to find the beauty in whatever creatures I came across.

What about plants?

Plants are also another fascinating aspect of our natural environment that I hope to explore through photography. The process of growth and transformation in a plant fascinates me. The image of the Adenium flower bud in this project is one example – we tend to appreciate a flower when it’s in full bloom, but I feel there is more to see in the transformation of beauty than beauty itself.

Describe an ideal assignment.

One that involves wild encounters in far-flung places.

We understand that you are also a very good designer. Is that an advantage or disadvantage, to have more than one creative skill?

I can ride a motorcycle as well as drive a car. So to me, it is not about an advantage or disadvantage, but about the best way to get there.

What is the best and worst professional advice you have received and given?

The best I received: My first photo mentor Tan Lai Hock taught me never to bring cow gum to a shoot, so I won’t get ‘stuck’ in one place, and that I should always explore as much as I can.

The worst: None.

The best I gave: Follow your heart.
The worst I gave: Follow your heart.

What are some of the common financial mistakes you’ve observed among photographers?

I reckon the most common and likely the most costly one is the mistake of giving up and not trying again. If you try again and succeed on the next try, you’ve turned the mistakes into lessons instead.

You have worked with many assistants over the years. What’s one thing most of them will say about you?

That I always make sure the team eats on time. What’s more important than lunch?!

You’re a co-founder of Platform. Where do you see the group heading in the immediate future?

The casual, impromptu nature of Platform is probably one of its strengths, so I would say Platform should just continue to be spontaneous and have great fun doing it.

Are you talented or hardworking?

Neither, I reckon. I always have my head in the clouds.


The portrait of Ernest Goh was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

To purchase a copy of The Gift Book by Ernest Goh, please visit:

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You seem to have a secret desire to be a town planner or architect. Are you looking for a career change soon?

I guess you’ve asked this question because it’s coming through in the photographs that I’m making? When I was younger, one of my ambitions was to be an architect. Town planning would be fun – I like going through blueprints and re-organising things that are not planned properly. In fact, I enjoy it so much that I have done a few projects where I looked at space planning and organised some of those plans. As for a career change, well, I wouldn’t mind that either.

Which version of Photoshop did you use for this series? Or are you still making the montages in the darkroom?

To be honest, I don’t even know which version of Photoshop I’m using. I guess it doesn’t matter as what I did to the images was just to convert them into black and white, and to adjust the levels. Everything else in the image was already there!

I have stopped merging images in the darkroom for a long time now. I miss the smell of chemicals.

Are you trying to change the world through photography?

I won’t say that I am trying to change the world – that is a high calling, you know. I would not dare say that at all for any of my works. I’m at most trying to convey my messages of questioning through the use of this medium that I think suits me. But hopefully in the course of my photography, I’m able to change the way people look at the things around them and help them to think of new ideas for themselves.

I always feel that images that are most impactful are those that leave an aftertaste, hopefully a good one. Those images that continue to linger in the minds of the viewers long after they have left the gallery or put down the magazine. It is very sad when anyone goes away from a show without remembering what they have seen, because the images were just pretty pictures without any impact whatsoever.

Have you considered the possibility that some of the ‘mistakes’ you highlighted in this book were inspired by your previous series, 30th Feb? Maybe you gave the authorities some crazy ideas about what to do with these old structures – art inspiring life, right?

I have always been influenced by Surrealism and I cannot run away from that. I was deeply inspired by what David Copperfield did in his illusions and that sparked my imagination at an early age. Later I looked at the works of Salvador Dali, M. C. Escher, Frank Lloyd Wright, René Magritte and Isamu Noguchi. They all had a great influence on my work in terms of a surrealistic approach.

I always enjoy the world of illusions as I can wander into an imaginary space and discover new spaces and experiences. In practice, all my work has some hints of surrealism in them. I guess it is deeply embedded in my thought process. So, yes, I’m also inspired by the work that I did for 30th Feb. Did I give the authorities the idea to leave some of these buildings as they are? Maybe they re-interpreted my 30th Feb images and this is what resulted. I guess they have turned public spaces into surrealistic spaces for people to experience. How nice!

Are you imaginative or creative? Is there a difference?

I think there is a difference, but imagination and creativity influence and affect each other. I would say I’m more imaginative. To be imaginative is intentional, whereas to be creative is like the sudden lighting up of a bulb in the creative mind. Before a shoot, I usually stare at a scene for a long while and imagine all sorts of things happening within that frame. For example, I would often wonder what if three cars would enter the scene at that particular space? What if I have two guys walking into the frame? etc. If I think that would enhance the image, then I wait. I normally take a long time to shoot and it’s hard work. I’m very intent and deliberate when I’m imagining my images.

On the other hand, to be creative is to be able to come up with a great idea quickly and still leave the audience wondering, “How did he do that?” That’s what we call the “Eureka” moment. I don’t think I belong to that group.

You are an educator, a photographer, a curator and an administrator. If you had to choose only one, which would be your favourite role?

Wow, this is seriously tough. I think I would still be a photography educator. Can? I always see that as my primary function and it will always be. The reason I say that is because I am an educator at heart, but at the same time, I am a photographer. In blending these two, I have quite naturally wound up teaching photography.

Actually, at this point in life, I think it is hard for me to dissect the different roles. Perhaps the closest analogy is to say that I wear different hats at different times depending on what is required of me. But having said that, I think education takes up the biggest chunk in my life. Of course, I teach other stuff as well, for example, leather-making. Few people know that I do that kind of thing.

Many tertiary institutions in Singapore now offer photography courses. Do you think it’s necessary?

The various tertiary institutions are offering courses in different genres, so to me it is alright. However, educators also need to understand the different sectors of the industry and guide students accordingly. That’s critical as well, or else the students will realise only later that there’s no job waiting for them upon graduation and they’ll end up doing something else. That would be rather sad.

Assuming that there is still a need for photography education, how would you teach it?

I see photography being broken down into three portions: camera, craft and concept. That’s how I teach photography. The ‘camera’ portion, the ‘how’, is now easily found on the Internet. One can pick up, rather easily, the technical aspects of operating a camera. I think this portion will become less important in the future as one would be able to get online tutorials about how shutter or the aperture works. It is already moving towards that way.

However, I believe that teaching craft and concept are still as critical and will continue to need a platform such as a school to be carried out. This is because the schools provide a space for the students to discover, try things out, fail, think and analyse, among many other critical thinking aspects, in order for the students to grow in their craft and concept. The ‘how’ sets the foundation, but in education, we cannot just look at the ‘how’. The ‘what’ and the ‘why’ is far more important after one has hopefully mastered the ‘how’.

I’m not suggesting that the ‘how’ is not important. Rather, it is the foundation and one should not be stifled by the basics of shutter speeds, aperture and ISO, for example. But being fluent in the basics, one has to move to the greater heights of learning the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of photography.

We’ve lost count of the number of children you have, but how do you find time to do all this and also be a dad and husband?

Hahaha, I still only have four kids. The oldest is 16 and the youngest will be turning nine soon. First of all, the kids came at different times, so we’ve made adjustments throughout this process.

To make photographs, I try to wake up earlier than the family and come back before they are up. Sometimes I work around their schedule. Of course there are times when I really have to leave them for a while to concentrate on my shoots. For this series, they were even helping me to look out for ‘senseless spaces’ that I could shoot and they would tell me when they found one.

What if one of them wants to be a photographer like you?

I guess I will have to guide them properly and let them know the ups and downs of being a photographer. But so far, none of them are showing any interest.

Please tell us you have a lot of photographic chemicals stocked up somewhere because it would be sad to see someone who does magic in the darkroom retire from wet printing.

I do have various types of chemicals stocked up. I still have packets of D76, D23, Fuji and Ilford Fixers, and other stuff. Currently, the most important is sodium sulphite as that is needed for doing my PN51/55 films. I used these films for my previous series, Project 37. It is a type of instant polaroid film that delivers high resolution images. I am still using them now and then.

Have you had to tell a student that he has no talent in photography and that he is better off doing something else?

Hm, I’m not sure that I have uttered those exact words to anyone, but I guess I might have told some people that there are other avenues in life. I do remember telling students that over the course of my teaching, I have come to terms with the fact that not all students will end up as designers or photographers even though they have gone through this path. Some will realise that they have found a new love for another profession or area of work, that there are others better than them, or simply that they have no talent actually and do not want to carry tripods all their life.

If you have a chance to put together a plan for a photography museum in Singapore, what are the first three things you will tell them?

First, get a team of well-established photographers to put their brains together for this. Second, collect local works first. It’s only after settling the first two items that we should start to put the museum together physically.

Are you happy with the progress in the local photography scene in the past decade?

In my opinion,the past decade has seen great improvements compared to the years that came before. Much has changed, especially with the different schools and private institutions, as well as the rise of digital photography which has made photography even more accessible. I attribute the greatest change to willing people who were caring enough to share their experiences and teach younger photographers.

In the past, the skills of photography were like a closely guarded secret that could not be revealed outside the ‘clan’. I had very different experiences in the 1980s with photographers who basically told me off and said that they would not want to “break their rice bowl” to teach me. But schools (both public and private), clubs, associations and other loosely formed photography gatherings have contributed to the progress of photography in the local scene.

Can you name three young Singapore photographers we should be watching out for?

I find it hard to try and name the rising stars. I would rather look at the perseverance of young photographers – those who are able to stand the test of time, rather than the one-time winner who does nothing after that. So I would prefer not to name the photographers that we should be watching out for, although I have some names in mind.


The portrait of Chow Chee Yong was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

To purchase a copy of Senseless Spaces by Chow Chee Yong, please visit:

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You seem very obsessed with the whole notion of home, what’s here in Singapore that you cannot find in New York City?

It used to be just a sense of personal history, but that has developed over time. Singapore still owns my childhood and my first kiss. Basically it’s a place I can still dearly call home.

Have you entertained the idea of ‘coming home’ for good, like setting up a permanent practice here?

I have always been doing that in various forms, such as engaging with communities and youngsters back in Singapore. Locality doesn’t make much a difference these days. What is most important is what can I offer to the people I encounter. Setting up my practice in Singapore may not be something I consider ‘useful’ or ‘purposeful’ for myself and others.

Humour us for a moment: imagine you’d never left Singapore, what might you be doing today?

Probably a hybrid of Tay Kay Chin and Darren Soh, with a splash of Heman Chong. Most likely as an educator and an active member in the Singapore art scene, but I would also definitely have a taxi license or a real estate license.

Are you a different Clang when doing commercial work and when pursuing personal work? If yes, how many other different Clangs are there?

There is only one Clang. I know when I do my commissioned work, the purpose is to finance my art projects and support my family. Having a purpose makes things easier and clearer.

What inspires you?

The Desires in Living.

Are you a typical Singaporean male who dreams about dating SQ stewardesses?

By the time I noticed these girls, I was already married. It doesn’t help that Elin always travels with me, haha …

Do you think you will be getting ‘special treatment’ from Singapore Airlines after this book?

Errrr … I sure hope not. This project says how important Singapore Airlines has been as a part of our lives.

It’s hard to talk about John Clang without talking about your wife Elin. Is it true she is a very harsh critic of yours?

We tend to have very intense discussions and to outsiders, it’s hard to believe we are still married. I constantly have to defend my new ideas in front of her, before I even photograph them. That’s why I’m pretty slow in production.

RSAF fighter pilots used Singlish to ‘smoke’ and outsmart their US counterparts in a recent dogfight exercise. Do Elin and you deploy the same trick to pass secret messages to each other?

This is easy. I just talk the way I do. No one understands except Elin.

This series of photos revolves primarily around the Singapore Girl, an icon (or some would say, a representative) of Singapore. Will you be tackling any other Singapore icons in the near future?

Not exactly, unless it serves a meaningful purpose. The “Singapore Girl” is just a disguise, an invitation to see more than just the surface.

Of all the Singapore icons, which do you think represents us the best?

The Singaporean. If you travel a lot, you will realise we are truly unique. This icon loves to talk about food, bitch about politics and complain about CPF, while the Merlion only vomits.

Some captions for the photos in this series seem rather morbid, such as “I don’t want to die. Help me.” Is this supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, or is there an underlying message I didn’t get?

This was a conversation I had with my uncle when he had terminal cancer. All the writings are conversations or events lingering in my memory.

One of your photos has this caption “No, Singapore is not China”. Did you get asked that a lot when you were in the US?

Yes, I got asked it a lot in the early 2000s. All I had to do is to mention “Michael Fay”. Right now, I just mention “the most expensive country in the world.”

When you were shooting this series, were you ever asked if you are shooting a new Singapore Airlines campaign? If so, what was your response?

People are very nice towards us when they think we are doing the campaign. It’s obvious that they can relate to it and are proud of this icon. We just tell them it is an art project, but they are probably too amused by what they see to understand what art means.

Is there one shot in this series that you wanted to make, but couldn’t (or wouldn’t)? If so, tell us what it is.

It’s very unlike me to not do it because I couldn’t, and if I wouldn’t, it must be tacky. For example, no MBS [Marina Bay Sands] in the background. That is currently the impression of what Singapore looks like in some foreigners’ eyes. I’d rather they remember Merlion.

You are mentoring a lot of Singapore-based photographers – is this your way of giving back?

I never think of it in such a way. I have also mentored non Singapore-based artists. I just think it will be very useful for the youngsters to have someone they can talk to, with regards to their practice and their daily concerns. I often wish I’d had that someone when I was younger.

Would you rather be famous or creative?

Creative is overrated and being famous is overhyped. I would rather be Clang, it is more balanced and I can focus on simply honing or crafting my vision.

You are already so established in the art world but still came back to Singapore to complete a master’s degree. You’re still a very kiasu Singaporean hor?

Next will be a doctorate degree. Dr Clang sounds right, no? I simply want to be immersed in the academic world so that my approach and belief in education can be more rounded. What I absorb will be useful to my students or mentees.

I am sure people in high places value your opinions about art and culture. Will you consider being a Nominated MP?

Yes, if it truly serves a purpose and if I can actually make a difference.

The portrait of John Clang was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

To purchase a copy of The Land of My Heart by John Clang, please visit:

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The Straits Times, Home cover, July 29, 2014

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When was the last time someone addressed you as Dr Tan? And did you feel good or bad about it?

I’m not very aware of being called Dr Tan but I think it happens quite regularly, like once a month. I feel quite neutral about it because technically I have a PhD and I am Dr Tan. I do not attach a value to that in terms of my ego.

I am sure you have gotten quite used to be described as a photographer with a PhD. How do you address such comments?

I’m quite amused by it. Some people are lawyers or doctors before they become a photographer. These are facts and do not impact a photographer’s skill or ability. I smile at such talk because my doctorate and my photography are two separate things. I do not know if people think that if I have a PhD, my photographs are better, or I am a fool to have dropped engineering for the financial uncertainty of photography. In any case, I simply did my PhD and decided not to pursue engineering.

You were considered a relatively latecomer to photography. Do you think you got to where you are today because of hard work or talent?

I definitely got to where I am today because of hard work. I came to appreciate the arts pretty late, in my twenties when I started my undergraduate degree in London. I took holiday snaps till I was in my thirties, but did not think of photography as a career choice.

What has driven my early career in photography is the love of dance and the idea that I want to photograph dance to the best of my ability. As much as I am proud of my dance photography, very few of the ideas were original. I was inspired by pioneering dance photographers. It is only in the last few years that I am beginning to come into my own, in that my photography shows signs of my own individuality.

Even then, I think that my approach is very much inspired by working with performing arts groups. The use of projections, the dramatic use of shadows and framing are inspired by theatrical staging. I cannot say how talented photographers work, but I just try putting various ideas together from the performing arts and from visual artists. And I keep mixing it up. So in my mind, it has been more a willingness to work and try things, than something that springs from ‘talent’.

Why are you so obsessed with dance photography?

When I was a shy teenager, dancing was the only social skill I had. In my undergraduate days I joined the dance society and did classes in ballet, contemporary dance and even tap dance. I never feel more alive than when I’m dancing. It is physical, it is intellectual, it is emotional, it is everything about being human put into one activity. And when this is done well, it turns into a beautiful art.

I spent a year in the London Contemporary Dance School hoping I could have a career in dance but came to the painful realisation that it was too late for me. My obsession with dance photography is my attempt to live dance vicariously through my lens. And although it is an impossible task, I try and achieve the same feeling of being alive in all my photography as I feel in the midst of an intense dance.

Why did you start the ImageMakers series? Are you also afraid of being forgotten?

I was introduced to documentaries about photography by Anders Petersen, and I have found that the insights that I get from good documentaries are important to my understanding of the photographic process. I was just appalled by the lack of documentaries on our own Singaporean photographers. Although remembering photographers in Singapore is part of why I started ImageMakers, I was also thirsty for the knowledge. And I feel that this series can be a guide for a younger generation of Singaporean photographers. We need to get beyond the “what camera and what lens” culture and discuss the photographer’s motivation and themes. We need to understand more than the technical aspects of using a camera, and consider also the refinement of a personal vision and the impetus to explore a photographic project.

It would be a lie to claim that I am enlightened enough not to want to be remembered. I take as much joy as I can in making images now and I leave memory to the whims of time.

However, to have a younger generation of photographers who can function without knowing who Henri Cartier-Bresson or Ansel Adams are, does not bode well for all the other photographers being remembered.

Are the artists you photographed for this book all eccentrics?

No. The artists that I have photographed are all unique individuals, but they are not all odd. Some of them are arts practitioners whose roles in society are very well-integrated and not an oddity either. And a few are eccentric – you will have to find out who yourselves.

What are your views on the state of art and culture in Singapore?

I think it is a mixed bag. The good side is that more people are beginning to appreciate art and culture in Singapore. So there are more opportunities to be an artist or be in the arts industry. There are certainly many more events and productions to watch than a decade ago. And the growth of art institutions is encouraging.

On the other hand, the vision of work in Singapore tends to be smaller in scale, more narrow thematically, tending towards personal narratives. Art is presented as entertainment or as a commodity for the rich. Only a small handful of Singaporean artists are engaged in a larger debate and explore larger themes. The public tends to enjoy the aesthetic and entertainment aspects of art. There is nothing wrong with that, but there does not seem to be the discourse and vision in Singapore to produce a Robert Wilson, an Anish Kapoor or a David Hockney. I feel that this is a function of the practical nature of Singaporean society.

I have a quote on my wall by Picasso: “The chief enemy of creativity is good sense”. I think we need to be able to take more risks, have bigger visions of what art can be. We should dream bigger than is currently practical and not be afraid of being unorthodox or failing.

Do we really self-censor too much?

Looking at how artists work, a good part of practice is to find freedom in expression. Dancers train to have a stronger and more flexible body. Painters need an ease with the paint and brushes. We need the freedom to consider all the options and then make our own choices. Like some press photographers make a conscious choice not to take certain photographs because it is too much an invasion of the subject’s privacy. I think we need to have the unfettered freedom to consider doing the entire range of work, and then make the decision to do it or not.

I am aware that my sensitivity to what is acceptable in Singapore has stopped me from a couple of projects and also influenced how I shoot and present some of my current work. For example, when I first photographed the nude, I avoided any frontal nudes with genitalia showing. I unconsciously focused on form and shape, which is beautiful but far from a complete story. But while doing a workshop overseas, I was able to free my mind and not censor this part of being human. As normal human beings, we have genitalia and people have sex. The only reason any of us are here today is because our parents had sex. I cannot see how this is wrong or how it is perverse. What I am not supportive of is misogyny, when the act of sex is an act of abuse.

And this is why censorship is problematic for me. We turn something like sex into a black-and-white discourse when it is a natural part of being human. This is an arbitrary and hurtful exercise, when people do what is natural and necessary for our species, yet at the same time subconsciously think that it is dirty or wrong. What we need is to be able to see this natural part of being human, and learn how to respect one another. The act of censorship stops us from having the wider discussion of what is acceptable and what is abuse.

I am debating whether this has diminished the impact of my work in general. And am I a coward? Because I would rather not deal with some of the confrontations that I believe I will encounter by presenting some of the projects I have in mind. This bothers me, and I think artists in Singapore self-censor without even knowing it. That lack of self-awareness is already an obstacle to more expansive and better work in Singapore. For work to be transcendent, the practitioner needs to be unfettered by arbitrary, limiting constraints.

All artists are egomaniac. Agree or disagree?

Disagree. I know that there are artists who are simply obsessed with their art. Look at the photographer Vivian Maier for example – it was only after she died that someone accidentally discovered her work. She had no intention of being famous or known for photography. Although she is an extreme example, I can think of artists who are humble and present their work because it is a way of sharing, not because they want to boost their egos.

Tell us about a typical ‘Ngiap Heng’ sitting. When does it start? How does it end?

My photography begins with an idea I want to explore and then I search for a partner, someone who is willing to be my subject and collaborator. As I am exploring histories, or an essence of dancer’s movement, a sitting usually starts with a discussion with my subject, explaining what I am trying to explore (not what I am trying to achieve) and also preparing material like photographs from my subject’s history.

Most of my recent work is shot in my studio. I use the preparation of my studio – the setting up of a backdrop, the setting up of lights, the preparation of the camera tethered to the computer – as a routine that helps me to focus on my sitting. It is a meditation before the sitting.

I am searching for a real moment in my photographs. So my directions are minimal. I use music sometimes if it conveys a mood that I think is appropriate. I photograph many performing artists and I may ask them to play some music or say some lines. But I am not after a performance, it is not about creating drama. For me an artist playing music is like me using my preparation to focus, to discard the ego and preconceptions of what should be portrayed. When an artist is in the midst of a familiar activity which needs focus, I find that I gain access to some unguarded and real moments.

I need to adjust the lighting and framing for clarity in the image, but it arises in an organic manner. My images can be full of details, and it is important that the images are legible. But I try not to be too specific so as to force my subjects’ reaction, forcing them to perform a self-image instead of being themselves. I appreciate it the most when my subjects open up and expose their inner landscape for my camera. This takes trust from both the subject and myself. It also takes subjects who are more mature, and are able to see themselves honestly and be natural in front of my camera. My subjects also need to be comfortable in seeing themselves in my images with their blemishes clearly in sight.

My sittings come to a conclusion when I find that there does not seem to be anything more significant to add to the images that I have already made. For some sitters I may have only one image, with others I may have twenty or more. It really depends on what is possible to discover in each sitting.

If you had a choice to photograph anyone in Singapore, who will that be?

If I could photograph anyone in Singapore, it would be a death row inmate. This is someone who is completely out of my sphere of knowledge and I think it would help me better understand the human condition.

You are a mentor to some young photographers. Tell us something about the next generation of Singaporean photographers. What can we expect?

The next generation has the privilege of access. There are more galleries showing international photographic work in Singapore. The younger generation gets to travel more and see diverse cultures. In Singapore, they have access to a wealth of knowledge through our art educational institutions. The amount of photography available on the internet is huge. So the next generation is introduced to different types of photographic processes earlier in their career. I feel that they will surpass previous generations of photographers in many aspects.

The only thing that does bother me is that if so many ideas and concepts are easily accessible to the younger generation, they could be drawn into trends on the international photographic scene. Although this is not bad in its own right, it would make it harder for there to be a Singaporean style or school of photography. I can see the influences of international artists in the next generation of photographers. It would be nice to see something that is truly original, truly local.

What’s the difference between photographing a man and a woman?

That is a rather cryptic question.

There are practical details about photographing a man and a woman that are way too boring to answer. As my portrait work is about capturing moments of being with my subject, to consider him/her only based on gender is really trivial. The subject is a complex being, whose sexuality only determines one aspect of their personality. So masculine or feminine aspects may arise, and I may choose to emphasise these traits or not. It depends on the objective of the portrait and how the subject and I interact. If the focus of the portraiture is the individual, then the difference between whether it’s a man or a woman does not arise.


To purchase a copy of ARTiculate by Tan Ngiap Heng, please visit:
The portrait of Tan Ngiap Heng was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

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MatthewYour pictures give this sense that you need and want to be understood. Do you think young Singaporeans live a life that is very different from their parents’?

For this series, I reacted to however I felt in that period of my life to issues affecting me or to recent events reported in the media. It’s very unplanned until an idea hits me, then I’ll start on it as soon as there is a free slot in the studio for me to experiment. I don’t care if no one understands, likes or buys my work. Personal work is one area of photography where I just want and need to do whatever fancies me. Just making the images and sharing them makes me ecstatic.

I hope I’ll never be in a position where I need to depend on sales of my prints to survive and to make pretty photos just for that reason. I’d rather kill myself. But I do care if it offends anyone – that is not something I wish to do with my work.

I’m not sure about other Singaporeans, but my parents definitely live very differently from the way I do. My mom, for instance, had her first taste of ramen only late last year, at the age of 57.

Is the real Matthew always angry? Or is there a soft spot we don’t know about?

I’m not sure if angry is the right word. I think I’m more cheeky than anything else, and I’m also very passionate about my views. I have plenty of soft spots, and they are my family and friends who have stood by me all these years. Or it could also be eye candy that is currently catching my attention!

You seem to be very obsessed with the vices that many people would be too ashamed to be associated with. Tell us something we are too cowardly to admit.

The vices that have been seemingly celebrated in my book are pretty tame. In my generation, smoking, drinking, free-wheeling sex with multiple partners are very common. Kids younger than I am frequently regale me with crazier stories than mine.

Young punks like you are irresponsible and don’t care about Singapore – do you agree or disagree?

Hahahahaha, honestly I’m not that young anymore and I really feel the pain the next day if I drink too much. I probably party harder than most kids half my age but I’m losing the naïveté that comes with youth. If I didn’t care about Singapore, my work would not have presented any criticism of it at all. I love this place way too much to not care about it.

Who are your influences in photography?

First and foremost, TODAY staff photojournalist Wee Teck Hian, whom I’ll always admire for his crazy work ethic and how he tirelessly revisits his subjects and explores every lighting condition through sunlight, cloudy skies, rain and night until he satisfies his own set of punishing criteria. Other Singaporeans whose work I love and deeply respect are Tay Kay Chin, Robert Zhao, Francis Ng, John Clang, Jing Quek and Don Wong. I also like the works of Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki for his honesty.

Nick Knight and his statement, “If you want reality, look out of the window”, probably jolted me out of the comfort zone of merely recording my life and the people around it. I didn’t know what or how to stage my experiences and it took a number of years of soul-searching and the right platform – Calibre Pictures, the studio which represents me commercially – before I decided to start staging a series of self-portraits. I definitely will revisit my previous work as I regard them as lifelong projects.

Tracey Emin, who exercises absolutely no censorship on any aspect of her life she wishes to share with us, is a big influence as well.

You have a series of suggestive images of your ex-girlfriends. Do you photograph them at the beginning of each relationship, knowing that it will eventually end? Or do you do that when you feel that it is about to run out of steam?

I started photographing one of my partners at the age of 17 when I first picked up the camera. It was out of curiosity, an extreme urge to learn fast and emulate what I saw coming out from my heroes as well as a means of recording my time with that particular girlfriend. Everything I saw from Mert and Marcus to Juergen Teller got replicated with my partner. In a way, she was my closest companion and guinea pig. We still keep in touch as friends today. With my second partner, I was more confident and more serious about documentation. That resulted in a coherent series, Sunshine Sarahann (2006–2008). It speaks of naïveté, youthfulness, love and plenty of fun.

I only start photographing my girlfriends when things start getting serious and I’m comfortable enough to make a picture of them without them thinking I’m weird. It happens only with women whom I really love being with. One of the corny lines I tell them is, “Jialat, now I have a folder with your name in my desktop, this is getting serious.” Corny as it sounds, it does work.

Although I make a living as a commercial photographer and I shoot models and people I’ve never met before, I’m not comfortable doing it without this excuse. I can’t do street photography and that is the reason why my subjects have always been people who are close to me – my family, friends, partners and maybe even my colleagues in the future.

I tried documenting another partner who refused to let me make ugly and fun photos, and insisted she had to look good in every image I made of her. We fought all the time as this was an area of photography I retreated into, to make whatever images the way I wanted to. I couldn’t deal with the interference so I gave up shooting her. Should have broken up but oh well, I guess the sex was too good.

Can you be taken seriously?

Definitely. The issues I touch on here all revolve around my life. I’m very sure many aspects of it do not differ from people I’ve met who find difficulty juggling the same problems. Despite me conveying my hedonistic behaviour and always injecting a cheeky or rebellious spin into my work, these images are also my way of depicting all my heartfelt opinions on the current state of Singapore right now. My dearest friends know me as an party animal, but they also know how serious I get when it comes to work and my practice.

You missed out on an art scholarship and that made you depressed and upset for a while. How do you think your life would be different if you had furthered your studies?

I would’ve stayed on in the UK as an illegal immigrant after my studies and tried my best not to get caught so I don’t have to return.

I wouldn’t say I was depressed, just upset. Losing out on the scholarship meant not having a shortcut out of Singapore to experience one of the craziest places in the world for the creative industries. Plus it was the birthplace of the punk subculture, which is one of the biggest influences on my work. It was a dream then for me to be there and soak everything in. Having grown wiser and older, it doesn’t affect me anymore as I can always make a trip there to take my chances when I’m ready.

Honestly I’m not very sure, but [if I had furthered my studies] I would probably be trying my best to make a career out of photography in both the fashion and art scene. I’m still saving up to give it a go next year.

Your early series on playground punks in Bukit Batok shows us a rather different side of Singapore. Do you think you were being honest or you just wanted to shock the audience?

Those kids were people I had grown up with even before I picked up the camera. Since I’m very shy about photographing strangers on the streets, it was only natural [when I started] to turn the camera inside out and focus it on people whom I spend the most time with. Even with the friends knowing me so bloody well, it took a long time for them to warm up to my presence and not shy away or pose for the camera whenever it was focused on them.

It has never been my intention to shock or offend anyone with my images. This is me sharing a slice of my life with you, presenting it to you raw like that. In fact, I find the images boring and tame when compared to Nick Knight’s images of skinheads or Dash Snow’s crazy images of him and his friends high on drugs and orgies. My work is all about honesty and connecting with people on the streets. Nothing high-brow at all. You can even say that I’m reaching out to the masses and saying, “Hey, you are not alone in this mess, count me in too.” If my honesty is shocking, so be it.

Call me selfish or whatever you may want to, but this is the only kind of work I ever want to do for myself. I’ll never be interested in bringing your attention to poverty or oppression in a country. Only issues that affect me and my closest ones. But war and street riots, on the other hand, excite me. I’ve always loved the notion of getting up close and personal, but then again I might behave differently when I’m actually there.

What photo subjects have not been tackled in Singapore? And which ones have your name written on them?

Right off the top of my head, I’m thinking of the red light districts although I know of a friend tackling this right now. Our education system from a teacher’s or a student’s point of view would be spectacular. I wish I’d had the foresight to tackle that back in my tumultuous secondary school days. Imagine all the silly street-corner gangs and fights, glue sniffing and sex on HDB staircases. It would be very hard for me to get access like that now. I would also love to be granted access to follow a military recruit from the start to the end of his two years in National Service. I did something similar with my series Two Years of Eternity, but within a very limited time. It was too short to make something really meaningful.

I would love to document my homosexual friends next but again, it is a really sensitive topic that I need to approach carefully.

Tell us about your early works. In what ways have they changed you or your photography?

Bukit Batok Boys (2007) and Ah Pa were two of the earliest series that I worked on at the same time. Bukit Batok Boys focused on a group of boys I grew up with and life on the fringe. Most have sadly or happily grown out of that phase and are now responsible working adults who have quit drinking and even gotten themselves married! It’s sad because I rarely see them anymore, maybe just once a year on Hari Raya if someone makes the effort to organise something. But it’s happy because everyone turned out fine despite spending so much time on the streets and doing so badly in school.

From 'Ah Pa'

From ‘Ah Pa’

Ah Pa marked a turning point for me, where over a period of four years I gained my dad’s trust and I could wander into his bedroom and photograph him with a flash even when he was sleeping. It took some time for him to stop posing for the camera as well. It helped us bond as father and son. Before the series started, we rarely spoke and it was all about shouting matches and slamming doors in each other’s faces.

I had a cheeky project entitled Four Million Frowns in response to the government’s “Four Million Smiles” campaign that was launched to welcome IMF and World Bank delegates to Singapore in 2006. It was my personal take on the revolting fact that Singaporeans were being invited to smile for money. There were reports of schoolkids sent by the busloads to have their smiles photographed, willing or unwillingly.

I Still Like It Raw on the Table is one project that I really like a lot where I’ve placed restrictions on myself to document my friends, family and colleagues on and around only a table. It’s an observation of societal norms and restrictions, and surprisingly, it shows us how similar or dissimilar our behaviour can be.

Can you tell us what you do when you’re not taking photos?

Trying to split my time between the different ladies in my life who ask me out every night – I wish! I’m usually busy editing my commercial work, but you will most likely find me at a coffeeshop in Boat Quay drinking or playing mahjong in the studio where I work. I like to think that my nights are a lot tamer these days.

I need my coffee, cigarettes and the papers before I start or end the day. You can call me a news junkie, but it’s research for me as this series does show my reactions to recent developments in Singapore.

Or I could be spending time breathing in subcultures and people on the fringe of society because I love refreshing new experiences.

A lot of your images reflect a certain cheekiness towards Singapore, but it appears that underlying that is a love for the country as well. Tell us, what is your aspiration for Singapore?

I hope and pray that we will mature as a nation and be a lot more open to EVERYTHING. All the recent displays of generalisation and xenophobia disgust me. Of course I crack jokes that play on racial stereotypes all the time, but I never mean those words I say. Censorship has got to stop going overboard as well, but I do see things getting more relaxed throughout my past ten years of practice as an artist.

I feel that some areas in Singapore just have to be left to flourish and mature in grime and chaos. Geylang is one good example, I love the hustle and bustle there, the hive of criminal activities. Little India is amazing in a similar sense. If all this is cleaned up, I fear that Singapore would be way too boring.
1517505_10152066077916819_1801869949_nTo celebrate this book, I know you have gotten a new tattoo – the symbol for anarchy – behind your ear. Would you say that you are an anarchist? If so, what are you fighting for or against?

Songs by the Sex Pistols have always been a huge influence on me and my work. I love the life, energy, cheekiness and devil-may-care rebellion in their lyrics. Just sample the lyrics from their song “God Save the Queen” (1977):

God save the queen
’Cause tourists are money
And our figurehead
Is not what she seems

It created a controversy when it first came out and is now celebrated as a classic. The song blew me away with its lack of respect for authority figures and its cheekiness. Another classic of theirs is “Anarchy in the UK”.

I wouldn’t say I’m fighting against the system but rather, voicing my displeasure with policies in general. I have another image, Anarchy in Singapore Two, which has not been shown here. It’s a critique on the perceived lack of freedom as well as red tape and the ever-present yet invisible OB markers. This is something very real that I’ve experienced recently in the editing process of this book, where a certain image was rejected due to its controversial subject matter featuring the national flag and the Merlion.

Are you ever worried that your works will get you into trouble with the law or society?

Earlier, I said that I never wish for my work to offend anyone. I reserve the right to express my views or “my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins”. Honestly I do feel my works are a lot tamer than Sex Pistols lyrics.

To purchase a copy of A Little Bit of Me from Everything Else by Matthew Teo, please visit:
The portrait of Matthew Teo was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

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RobertZhao copyCan you tell us who is the real Robert Zhao? Where was he born? What was his childhood like?

I am Robert Zhao Renhui, and I was born in Singapore. I cannot remember much of my childhood because there weren’t a lot of photographs taken. My dad had two Yashica cameras, which came in handy when I was in Primary 5. I started taking photographs in the classroom, and I added ‘spirits’ to the images by using a felt tip marker to draw random small shapes on the film. I brought the photographs to school and the reactions from my classmates had a profound effect on me. This is one version of the story.

I also remember growing up near a fish farm, which explains my interest in animals. One thing I am sure of is that after I turned 12, my father took me to Tuas to fish. I must have walked on the reclaimed land for hours, seeing people fly their model planes, without quite reaching anywhere. The place was just sand without end.

Do you think you can tell us how we know when you are telling us the truth and when you are taking us for a ride?

In real life, I’m not good at telling lies, my friends know immediately when I am lying. I usually dramatise the truth, which is much easier. In the same way, my work usually starts with facts and my direct observations. Along the way it gets twisted and distorted into something else. For example, “View of Marina Bay Sands”, the print that we are offering for my book, is a scene that will never happen. Some people can’t tell and have asked me how I shot the photograph. I don’t blame them – Singapore changes very fast, so our memory of its landscape is often vague. The picture is a composite of two cities from Japan and the United Kingdom, two countries which have shaped how our island looks today.

Do you always get irritating questions similar to the previous one?

Even if I do, I try to be polite. Usually I learn something about myself with every question.

The Institute of Critical Zoologists is a grand-sounding name. For someone who isn’t familiar with your works, they might believe this establishment actually exists. Do you often get contacted by real zoologists?

Most of my work is ‘performed’ through the context of an institution, which takes the form of my website, I’ve received emails inviting me to be on the peer review panel for academic journals of zoology. Some artists have also enquired about the possibility of working with the institution. Once, I was contacted by a photo editor of Discover magazine, a popular science and tech journal. They published one of my pictures showing a very well-camouflaged leaf insect perched on a plant. The image was from my series called The Great Pretenders, which explored ideas of mimicry and authenticity in photography. So basically, in those pictures, there were only leaves, and no insects.

After the image was published, a scientist from Germany who had spent his life studying leaf insects wrote me an email. He said, “I couldn’t recognise the species in the image until I went to your website. I finally understood why.”

You have gone from being criticised for your earlier works such as Wu Xiao Kang (with artist collective A Dose of Light), to being celebrated as one of the most exciting young artists in Singapore. What has the journey been like?

It is still too early to tell. In a lot of ways, I’m still starting out. It was difficult in the beginning, when my Wu Xiao Kang fictional narrative upset some people. That was a good lesson in managing responsibility, expectations and trust. I do what I do to survive and to fuel my art practice. It’s like a monster that just keeps getting bigger. You expect more of yourself after each project. In a way, despite my initial struggles, the easiest period was the beginning, when art wasn’t really a job.

Are you afraid that in time to come, you may not be able to tell the difference between truth and lies?

I tend to think everything is a lie, ha! Anyway, I believe that my Singapore landscape work will feel different over time. It will take on a different life, like all photographs, which get harder to read with time. Especially in Singapore, where the landscape changes so rapidly and it’s hard to remember what really happened to some places. Anyway, a photograph is always lying in some way and we must be careful not to look for an absolute truth in such a precarious object.

Your girlfriend is also in the creative business. Is she as crazy and imaginative as you? Does she always trust you since you are rather good at confusing others?

I think she is crazier than me. I would have never given up a stable job (she was an arts writer) to pursue my own dreams! She is working on her own short stories at the moment and I think there’s a certain craziness in her writings and she is definitely more observant and sensitive than I am. This in turn brings out interesting perspectives on things that happen around us. She can read me very well and she doesn’t understand why I still bother to lie to her for fun. I think she trusts me.

Do you think your works are political in any ways?

I always think there are enough overtly political works around and I am not the best person to contribute – it’s not my natural inclination, so why force the issue? What I’m obsessed with is humankind’s interaction with nature. When I look at landscapes, I am looking at the impact we make on nature and the narratives we create when we have the ability to create artificial waterfalls, sand dunes, air-conditioned parks, zoos and natural history museums.

But these stories that we spin aren’t divorced from politics. (Obviously it’s hard to find anything that is untouched by political forces.) So if politics come into my work, it’s by sneaking in through the back door. In Singapore, for example, we are very green and pruned. This is a political decision. This is a way to show that we are in control, that even nature can be controlled. So when anything grows too wild in our Garden City, I tend to visit these spaces.

Do you use photography to comment or criticise?

My photographs are usually of situations that I find interesting. So it’s more of an observation. It’s a picture. It’s visual. It’s not about saying one thing or another. I don’t set out to talk with my images.

Can you help us imagine two possibilities? First, a Singapore you can be proud of in the future. Second, a Singapore you cannot be proud of in the future.

My main concerns are with nature and how we co-exist with it on our really small island. A Singapore I would be proud of respects the little wilderness we have as part of the history and make-up of this land. There is only so much pruned nature we can enjoy.

A Singapore I can’t be proud of – so many ways for us to go wrong, where do we start?

In a way, Singapore today makes me both proud and ashamed. Take that eco-bridge we just built over the Bukit Timah Expressway for animals to move between two nature reserves which we separated [with the expressway] many years ago. Every time I drive under the bridge, I cannot help but ask myself: Do animals really use the bridge? Was the bridge built for them, or was it just a project to show that we care for nature? What will happen when they start using the bridge since these two habitats have already been separated for so long?

Where do you find your inspirations and ideas? Is it true that you have a lot of imaginary friends?

I use Google Alerts for subjects that I am interested in to see how these subjects come up in news items and academic discussions. I put alerts on things such as “wildlife conservation”, “extinction” and “animal traps”. I am also on a constant look-out for images on the Internet and in flea markets. At the moment I am collecting images from all the natural beach sand dunes in the world to try to construct an alternate history of Singapore’s own sand dunes.

In my institute, I work only with imaginary collaborators. A few people presenting an idea to you always seems more convincing than someone doing it alone. It is like how this project has 20 photographers, which adds depth to the investigation. It’s the same idea.

Were any animals ever harmed in the creation of your works?

I don’t believe any animals should be harmed for art. I worked with cockroaches once, but those roaches were going to die anyway. I persuaded my friends to surrender their house cockroaches to me – after being killed by insecticide instead of being smashed with a shoe. I prefer working with dead or stuffed animals. I tried photographing my friend’s cat once and it was impossible. I usually just visit the zoo or use discarded dead birds or fish from local pet shops.

What were the best and worst things you have heard about your works?

I try to avoid hearing or reading anything people say about my work. Sometimes I get wind that people feel betrayed by my works. This should happen, it’s not a bad thing to me.

If you can spin a story, however absurd it may be, about Singapore’s past, present or future, what would it be about?

Over the years, Singapore has had all kinds of temporary sand dunes, imported from neighbouring countries for land reclamation purposes. It’s about time we have a sand dune that stays as it is. It should be a permanent monument to Singapore’s success story of creating new land.

What if one day you wake up and realise that you’ve lost the ability to imagine, what would it be like for you? What do you think you would be doing?

This is a real fear that I have whenever I am near the completion of any project. A fear that I have run out of things to say. I just hope it never becomes true. If it does happen, I guess I’ll become a tour guide. I’ll still be telling stories, but other people’s stories.

Are you famous?

At the moment there are 678 likes on my Facebook page and about 1,200 followers on my Instagram account.

Help us picture Robert Zhao in 2025. What can we expect?

Hopefully he’s creating better photographs than he is now. invited some of our friends to send questions to Robert. Here are the two that he chose to answer.

Steffi Koh, undergraduate, Nanyang Technological University: As you’ve had encounters with wild animals, dead animals and animal activists alike, how do you see animals and their place in your world?

I am trying to see things not from my point of view, because I’m human and tend to complicate things. I believe the world works in much simpler ways. I like to see things from the perspective of animals or plants, and wonder what they would think of all these things we do such as wildlife conservation, pollution and extinction. We are all in this together.

Daniel Boetker-Smith, founder, Asia-Pacific Photobook Archive: I see your work as being very politically motivated, but in a very subtle and smart way. Can you tell us about how politics influences your work, and how important is it that photography makes us think beyond the borders of the image – about society, truth, the future, etc.?

My motivations are actually much more selfish. My work usually starts with curiosity and a burning desire to photograph a particular subject.

Singapore’s borderlands, where the huge ‘sand scapes’ are, form one of these subjects. I’ve been going there for 15 years. I was trying to find a way to photograph this vast landscape and couldn’t find a good way to do it.

It was only after I started reading about some of the ecological consequences and political motivations of the act of land reclamation, that I started to appreciate the space with a different perspective. I was attracted to the space because it was a form of wilderness that happened by accident. It wasn’t a planned landscape like many of the neighbourhood parks and gardens and reservoirs we have in Singapore.

So when I started to shoot these sandy landscapes again, although I was informed by some of the political reasons why these spaces existed, I just wanted to pose some simple questions. When does sand become land? When does land become country? What really happens when we have so much new land? I try not to impose a very strict political lens on my work. I find that images, when they are good ones, tend to be richer and more mysterious.
As for what photography can do outside of itself – I don’t think about that so much. I just like to wonder what people will think when they pick up my images at some flea market in the future.

To purchase a copy of Singapore 1925 – 2025 by Robert Zhao Renhui, please visit:

The portrait of Robert Zhao Renhui was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

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As a kid growing up in the little village of Baktabali in Bangladesh, Salim Javed often wondered about life on the other side of the Dhaleshwari River.

Why did so many people from his village take the five-minute ferry ride across the 1.5 kilometre-wide river every day? And why did they always seem to come back with so much more?

Why was Shidullah, his older brother, always trying to move away permanently?

“When I was a student, I used to swim across.”

“There is no swimming pool in our village, so this was the only way for me and my friends to enjoy the water.”

To many villagers, crossing the river and not turning back is one of the easiest ways to a better life.

Looking at the choices available in Baktabali, which lies about 20 kilometres south of the capital Dhaka, it is not hard to understand the villagers’ sentiments.

When he was about 14, Salim was a fisherman for about two months. After that, he also had a short stint on his father’s farm.

The other possible places where he could have worked were the brick-making factory or the jute mill. He also contemplated jobs such as food seller, rickshaw puller, barber, carpenter, boatman.

But none of this would have paid anything close to what he earns today, as a construction foreman in Singapore.

In retrospect, leaving Bangladesh to come to Singapore in 1996 was more like a spur-of-the-moment thing – one fuelled in part by a long-standing disagreement with his brother over life choices.

Older than Salim by 13 years, Shidullah, now 48, married a woman from Dhaka and moved out of the village many years ago.

“He was always talking about doing business and getting rich, but he never finished what he started,” Salim explains.

“I got tired of hearing his excuses, so I decided to go overseas and prove to everyone that it was useless to just talk and complain.”

There was one other big thing that separated the two brothers – what they were looking for in an ideal wife. Salim, now 35, always wanted a woman who would stay at home and help to look after his ageing parents. His brother preferred someone more worldly.

“Family is most important to me,” Salim says many times.

Perhaps he always knew that he would have to work overseas one day, and that marrying a woman who was willing to give up everything else to become part of his family would be the most important criterion.

Money was of course another issue that contributed to the lukewarm relationship.

To finance his dream of working in Singapore, Salim borrowed a few thousand dollars from his father, who had just sold a few plots of family land.

He also received help from Soma – a cousin, immediate neighbour and close friend – who had worked in Singapore a few years earlier.

When Salim arrived in Singapore in March 1996, he focused on earning money and led a thrifty life, saving most of his earnings and sending them back to his parents.

A substantial amount of his salary also went to support his younger brother Shamin’s tertiary education.

With a bank loan and a design by Shamin, who graduated with a degree in civil engineering a few years ago, Salim also managed to build a house across from his parents’.

Although the original plan was to have two storeys, with the upper floor reserved for Shamin and his future family, Salim had to postpone the second phase as he ran out of money.

Putting his family first also meant a conscious effort to avoid falling in love.

“Many foreign workers in Singapore have girlfriends,” Salim says, “but having a girlfriend costs money and I cannot afford it.”

Even if he had fallen in love with someone in Singapore, there could not have been any happy ending. She would most likely have been a transient foreign worker like himself and they could not have married as long as they were in Singapore.

His only opportunity would be with a woman from home – but how was he going to meet anyone and start a meaningful relationship when he was here and she was there?

Three years ago, after nagging from his family, he finally agreed to marry Jorna, then a 20-year-old village girl his anxious mother had found through matchmakers.

“My mother was going to give up on me after many tries.”

“She said that if I rejected her again, she would stop trying.”

To Salim, romance or courtship are over-rated.

“Of course if I have a girlfriend who likes me and I like her, then it is very good.”

“But it is a problem if she doesn’t get along with my family members.”

While he was in Singapore, his parents presented a ring and other gifts to Jorna’s family.

Several months later, in February 2011, he flew back to meet and marry her. They both have good memories of their first real meeting.

“She came to the airport to greet me. I think she has a good heart. I like her.”

Jorna’s first impression was that “he is more handsome in real life”.

Before that, he had only seen her photos but they spoke daily on the phone, often for hours.

Salim’s views about marriage are not without reason or merit.

“I work overseas and my brother also intends to work overseas,” he elaborates, “so it is important that our wives are good girls who can look after our parents.”

And the definition of a good girl, in Salim’s book, includes the willingness to give up her own dreams.

“She will stay home and look after my parents lah.”

That, and to make many babies.

Salim’s views represent those of most people in his village, which has been an active exporter of labour to Singapore, Dubai, Saudi Arabia – indeed, anywhere with jobs.

Even his 22-year-old cousin Katha, a fine arts and theatre undergraduate who considers herself quite progressive and liberal, thinks there is nothing wrong with her cousin’s logic.

As for Jorna’s family, her father Ahsanull Faker worked in a toilet bowl factory in Singapore from 1996 to 2000. His two sons still work in Saudi Arabia and his other son-in-law also used to work there.

While there aren’t any official records, Salim thinks more than 100 men from his village have worked in Singapore, with the first arriving as early as the mid-1980s.

Most still talk passionately about their time in Singapore, although not everything they experienced was positive.

Salim’s brother-in-law, Md Jahingir Alam, 38, spent five years working in Singapore’s shipyards, including a stint in Keppel FELS.

“The money in Singapore was good but I never saw my son,” he says.

“My wife and I talked about it, she cried, then I cried.”

“In the end, she said, ‘Lots of money we don’t need, you come home first’.”

But he hopes to return to Singapore to work again in a few years’ time, armed with newly acquired skills in electrical wiring.

He even wishes to move to Singapore permanently with his family, but at the moment, just getting himself a job here may not be as easy as before.

That probably explains why everyone looks up to Salim, who is, in the eyes of his villagers and relatives, the perfect son who has made good in Singapore.

By his own admission, he makes more than his fellow villagers, but most people also think that he deserves it because he is hardworking and trustworthy.

In Singapore, Salim has worked with the same small construction company for the past eight years. He is now a trusted supervisor, with a small army of workers under his command.

His boss, Michael Soh, considers him more a family member than an employee.

For his wedding, the company directors gave him extra money, which came in really handy.

The lunch that Salim’s family hosted for relatives and friends cost S$3,500, the decorations at his family compound S$500. Salim spent another S$2,500 on new clothes for relatives and S$10,000 on gold for his wife.

Three months after his wedding, Jorna arrived in Singapore for a one-month visit. Again, his employers gave him extra money and helped with her visa application.

Mrs Habibah Mahmood, a kind, elderly Singaporean whom Salim had befriended while working on a project in Opera Estate, offered the newlyweds a nice bedroom in her house. She even decorated it to look like a wedding suite and made sure they had home-cooked meals.

To let them have the maximum amount of time together, Salim’s bosses also gave him flexibility with his schedule.

They knew that he would repay their kindness many times over and he did.

In March 2013, Jorna came back again for a longer visit and this time, Salim’s employers rented a small flat in Little India for them.

Soon after she returned to Bangladesh, Salim found out that she was pregnant.

“Made in Singapore,” he jokes, “I think I know which day and where.”

While it was planned and welcome news, having a new family member also means more expenses to come.
But Salim wants only the best for his family, at least to the best of his financial ability.

While he doesn’t have a television set in Singapore, he bought a 32” Sony for Jorna to bring home when she last visited.

“Even after paying $300 tax, it was still cheaper than buying one in Bangladesh.”

Salim also helped to finance part of his father’s pilgrimage to Mecca.

Instead of going to a public hospital, Jorna delivered at a private hospital in Narayanganj, the big city across the river.

Private hospital is better, Salim says, because it means seeing the same doctor for all her check-ups.

The hefty bill left him with much less for the rest of his family when he went back in late December 2013, three days after his daughter Samyra was born.

Some relatives, who were used to Salim’s earlier generosity with his money and time, became a little unhappy with the new father, and they didn’t hide their displeasure.

A few days before he left Singapore for home, an aunt called to ask for a new blanket. Others also called with different requests.

“I don’t have much money to spend this time,” Salim told them, ”maybe only around $1,000.”

“I already spent a lot on the baby.”

On the first morning of his recent home visit, Salim found himself in an uneasy argument with his mother, who had not seen him since his wedding.

In between peeling potatoes and chopping up chickens for lunch, she was sobbing and complaining, and occasionally lifting her head to glance at a few other relatives who had come to see Salim.

She would also look at him from time to time, and her expression could be described as bittersweet.

It was clear that he was getting an earful, and equally clear that everyone else appeared to agree with his mother. But they were also trying to defend him.

All things considered, it was not a big argument.

Nurjahanbegum (in Bangladesh, ‘begum’ is an honorific added to the given names of married and widowed women) had missed her son, but she also needed to tell him about the pressure she had been under during his absence.

That morning, the conversation centred around the complaint she had been hearing non-stop from Salim’s mother-in-law.

“She tells everyone that you never call her.”

To an outsider, it sounded like a really petty issue, some would say even an unreasonable one.

“Why should a son-in-law call his mother-in-law regularly?” Salim wondered.

“I have to work and I can get really busy,” he tried explaining. “Besides, I call my wife everyday, a few times a day, and very often, we talk for hours.”

But that was not his mother’s point.

“You were matchmade, and I promised Jorna’s parents that you are a good son. But you never call them.”
“I call my wife daily, that is more important.”

Like all doting mothers, Salim’s mom agreed and sympathised with her son.

Just having to bring up this topic pained her.

She knew that the sacrifices he has been making for the family were necessary, and that they had all benefited. She knew she should not complain again. After all, he was just back for a short visit.

“Working in Singapore is easier for me,” he says jokingly. “Back here I have to make many people happy.”

“Everyone wants to see me, everyone wants me to go his house.”

He could not have visited one cousin and not another. So even if it meant popping by for five minutes, he had to do it.

For the first two days of his recent visit, his sister Sume avoided him and Salim thought that she was upset that he seldom called her. But there could have been other reasons, such as the fact that he had not been able to help her husband get a job in Singapore.

For his cousin Fatima who lives down the road, seeing him was a chance to get updates about her son Hussain, who also works in Singapore.

In her modest house, a portrait of young Salim occupies a central spot. She sleeps better each night knowing that Salim will help to look after her son.

In turn, Hussain’s twin sister Pinke helps to look after Jorna, and now baby Samyra as well.

With many husbands, sons and brothers from the village working overseas, those who are left behind have learned to help each other. The migration of the male population in the village often means the reconfigurations of family lives and roles.

The family of Soma, the man who helped Salim move to Singapore in 1996, lives between Salim’s parents and the new house Salim built.

Hussain, Soma’s 21-year-old son, worships Salim like a hero. Now training to be an engineer in the merchant navy, he sobbed uncontrollably at Salim’s wedding, for fear that he would have no place in Salim’s new family.

Soma’s youngest son, six-year-old Albi, sees Salim as a father, clinging onto him wherever he went during Salim’s recent visit home. He recently even phoned his dad to say that “from now on, I will call you ‘Uncle’, not ‘Daddy’.”

“Albi often spends time with Jorna, so whenever I call her, I also get to speak to him,” Salim explains.
Soma, 44, certainly doesn’t mind that his son seems closer to Salim because it means having an extra adult to help look after the boy.

He tells Salim, “Albi can be your son, no problem.”

Salim says, “Of course Soma always calls home, but not as much as me lah.”

Mimi, Soma’s daughter and a college student, babysits Samyra whenever possible and runs errands for Salim’s parents.

The two families share a kitchen and cook for each other.

Young Albi has also decided that Samyra is his new sister and that he needs to protect her.

When the people of Baktabali look at Salim, they see a model of success – someone who has made it abroad, an example to be followed. As long as one can cross the river, he can have access to Dhaka, and through Dhaka, the rest of the world.

It is not difficult to understand such feelings when it is clear that for every one male adult working in Singapore, it means a family of six or seven not having to starve in Baktabali.

In the village, a brick worker earns S$5 per day, or about S$150 each month. The goat that was sacrificed to celebrate Salim’s daughter cost close to that monthly salary. There was no way an average family in the village would be able to afford that.

But being separated from their loved ones is a reality that Salim and many of his friends have learned to accept.

Getting time off from work to go home for these guest workers is rare, so whenever they are back in their villages, they scramble to do as much as possible.

In the two weeks that Salim was home in December 2013, a lot had to be accomplished.

Even if they had wanted it, Jorna and Salim hardly had any chance to be alone together. Traditionally, a new mother must be surrounded by friends and relatives, so their room was always full of other people.
So Salim did what he does best – helping people and making people happy.

The locks for the new house had not been installed for the past two years because Shamin is now a teacher in a small town seven hours away. Salim got them done in the first week he was home.

It is also traditional to buy new clothes for female relatives on such a happy occasion. Salim trooped down to the bazaar near the river with his sister and Soma’s wife Ohidabegum, and paid for eight new pieces of clothing.

An elderly aunt was warded in the same hospital where Jorna had given birth, so he popped in for a quick visit.

Despite his many obligations, there was no doubt that Salim was happy to be home.

In fact, given a choice, he would not have returned to Singapore.

Everything he needs to be happy is in Bangladesh but he also needs the money even more now.

“I will work in Singapore as long as my bosses need me lah,” he always says.

His father prefers to leave it to God when asked whether he would like Salim to stay in Bangladesh. His mother thinks that he should do it for another two more years.

Jorna more or less agrees with her mother-in-law, although she was also quick to tell Salim that now that they have a baby, she won’t have too much time to miss him.

Perhaps it is her way of reducing his worries.

Besides, they really do need the money.

Salim makes no pretence about where he wants to be eventually: back in his village, where his wife and other family members are.

“Jorna doesn’t like to live in Singapore anyway.”

“Visit okay, but to stay, no.”

For now, he has to make sacrifices, work hard in Singapore, and deal with the loneliness of being away from his loved ones.

When the opportunity arises, the couple also hopes to have another baby, preferably a boy.
When he eventually goes home for good, he wants to build houses with Shamin, for clients as well as for speculation.

“Property is good investment, sure make money.”

“But I have little cash now, I must work some more.”

Years of working in Singapore meant that when it was finally time for him to tie the knot in 2011, Salim could afford to present Jorna with a house designed by his brother Shamin, whose university education had been financed by Salim. He could even indulge in some luxuries, such as a bridal bed filled with roses, decorated by his good friend Rajo. After the wedding, Salim preferred Jorna to stay at his home and help care for his elderly parents in his absence. However, he also understands when she goes back for longer visits with her parents, who live about 30 minutes away on foot.

Boktabali, Bangladesh
Separating Baktabali, Salim’s village, from Narayanganj, the big city – and in some ways, the world – is the 1.5 kilometre-wide Dhaleshwari River. To get to the other side, where the bright lights and action are, villagers usually take the five-minute ferry ride. On most days, visibility is poor because of the pollution from the brick fields, as well as other factories along the river. That ‘fog’ makes life on the other side seem even more mysterious and appealing to the young people, who often dream of leaving the village in search of a better life. When the Muktapur Bridge, located southeast of Baktabali, opened in 1991, it provided an alternative route to the big cities. However, it is still rarely used because the journey takes two extra hours; moreover, very few villagers can afford to own a car.

Salim returned to Singapore two weeks after his wedding in February 2011, but the couple was soon reunited when Jorna arrived for a one-month visit that May. To facilitate her visa application, which is more complicated because she is an unemployed dependant of a transient worker, Salim’s employers acted as her guarantors. In general, visits from spouses of foreign workers are rare because it is expensive. In addition, because the workers are mostly housed in dormitories with other men, accommodation during such visits is problematic.

When she heard about Jorna’s visit, Mrs Habibah Mahmood, an elderly Singaporean whom Salim had befriended while working on a project in Opera Estate, offered the newlyweds a nice bedroom in her house. Although she had never met Jorna before May 2011, the widow, who is in her early 80s and has children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in different parts of the world, welcomed her with open arms. She treated the couple like her own children and made sure that they always had homemade meals. During Jorna’s visit, with the blessing of his employers, Salim stayed with Jorna instead of at his dormitory.

In his 18 years in Singapore, Salim has resisted the lure of the bright lights, choosing to lead a simple life. While he doesn’t even own a television set for himself, he bought Jorna a 32” Sony TV to bring back to Baktabali when she last visited. With many mouths back in Bangladesh to feed, he spends as little as S$300 per month on himself. He seldom eats out, preferring to prepare his own meals in his dormitory, which is usually just a bed in a house being built by his company. “My bosses also give me extra money for things like transport and lunch,” he says, “so I don’t have to spend much.”

Salim is a role model to many young people in his village and their conduit to the outside world. Through him, they learn about new things, new words, new technologies. At Salim’s wedding in 2011, his cousin’s son Hussain (right) was visibly affected and worried that his hero would no longer have time for him. But in the last two years that they have been apart, the teenager has matured into a young adult, and is now an engineer-in-training for a merchant navy. To welcome Salim back last December, Hussain took time off from his company and met him at the airport, together with a few young kids from the village.

Eager to see Jorna and their newborn girl Samyra, Salim headed straight to Medistar General Hospital in Narayanganj, immediately after touching down in Dhaka. Although the private hospital is further away from their village and more expensive, Salim insisted on sending them there because it meant that Jorna was able to see the same doctor for all her pre-delivery check-ups. Baby Samyra, who was conceived in Singapore during Jorna’s two-month visit, was born three days ahead of schedule, when Salim was busy building another home in Singapore. Her name, which means “pleasant community”, was picked by him, from three names Jorna had shortlisted.

Boktabali, Bangladesh
Salim’s mother Nurjahanbegum (in Bangladesh, “begum” is an honorific added to the given names of married and widowed women) spends most of her time in the kitchen, preparing meal after meal for the family, and interjecting her daily routine with passionate conversation about her children, especially Salim. Although she thinks that he should return to Bangladesh permanently in two to three years, she also understands that it will be very difficult, especially now that he is a father and has more mouths to feed. Nurjahanbegum is 67 and has some minor health problems. With her eldest son living in Dhaka, Salim in Singapore and her youngest son teaching in a village seven hours away, it is rare for her to be able to see all her sons at the same time. Fortunately, her husband Abdul Ali, though 73, is still relatively healthy and able to run the household.

Childbirth is a big family affair, and Salim and Jorna are lucky to receive help from both their families. In the private hospital where Jorna gave birth, her mother and grandmother, Salim’s sisters, as well as their cousins all took turns to stay over. On the map, the Medistar General Hospital in Narayanganj looks like a short ride from their village, but the actual journey, in a van Salim had rented, takes more than three hours each way. They could have saved 1½ hours on the journey by taking the ferry across, but Salim would not entertain the idea of putting his wife and baby through the crowded and uncomfortable journey.

Compared to the older buildings in the village, Salim’s new house is modern-looking and includes facilities not commonly found in other homes, such as a flush toilet and hot water. Designed by his younger brother Shamin, and funded by Salim’s savings as well as loans, the house has three big rooms on the ground floor, one of which is his and Jorna’s. The plan for the second level, meant for Shamin and his future family, has been shelved due to a shortage of money. Staying by herself in such a big house is lonely, but Jorna is lucky to be surrounded by Salim’s family members. However, before her delivery and Salim’s return, Jorna went back to her parents’ home for an extended stay, as her own mother is younger than Salim’s and therefore physically more capable of taking care of her.

Boktabali, Bangladesh
Abdul Ali, Salim’s father, is a local landlord, businessman and farmer who never goes anywhere without his red and white keffiyeh. He uses this path linking his village and the Baktabali bazaar near the river almost daily. Lined with houses and potato, canola and parsley fields on both sides, the unpaved mud road is also surrounded by brick fields, many owned by locals who have returned from long working stints in Singapore. Though the soft-spoken Abdul Ali is 73, he still walks spritely and only hires a pull-cart when he has a lot of things to carry.

Esti, Salim’s young nephew, has always been able to find ways to amuse himself and he becomes even more animated in the presence of visitors. But his parents – Salim’s sister and brother-in-law – hope that his world will be bigger and more exciting than just climbing trees and performing multiple somersaults outside their house. They worry that if Esti stays in the village when he grows up, he may be stuck with a low-end job such as being a brick worker, who makes only about S$150 monthly – approximately the price of the goat that was sacrificed to celebrate the birth of Salim’s daughter. Esti’s father worked in shipyards in Singapore for five years and knows about the opportunities available overseas. He hopes to return to Singapore to work soon and even dreams about moving the whole family here.

Boktabali, Bangladesh
In the villages where the men work overseas, the women stay behind to raise the children and look after the family. Despite their exposure to the outside world, local society remains rather traditional and conservative, and gender roles are clearly defined. When Ohidabegum (extreme left), Soma’s wife, and Taslimabegum (second from right), Salim’s elder sister, go to a public place, such as to the bazaar to choose new saris for the family, they have to don niqabs, but their children, Albi (second from left) and Shanta (extreme right), are exempted.

Boktabali, Bangladesh
As a student, Salim took this scenic road to school every morning. On his trip back in December 2013, when his former teacher from secondary school invited him to visit, Salim took Albi, the six-year-old son of his good friend and cousin Soma. Now 44, Soma arrived in Singapore two years ahead of Salim and was instrumental in helping the latter settle in. He doesn’t mind that his son seems closer to Salim because it means having an extra adult to look after him. Similarly, Salim will not be there when Samyra takes her first steps or has her first tooth, and he will have to rely on his relatives to step up and play a bigger role in his absence.

Boktabali, Bangladesh
As a transient worker, Salim is used to sleeping in makeshift places, but he didn’t expect to be sleeping on a sofa during his last visit home. Despite building a new house with his hard-earned money, Salim found himself room-less because many relatives came to visit and he wanted everyone to be comfortable. In the end, he slept on the couch in his living room for several nights, entertaining himself with games on his mobile phone when he couldn’t fall asleep. When she could tear herself away from their baby, Jorna would sneak out of her room and sit next to him, and the couple would chat into the wee hours, something they also do on the phone when they are apart.

To purchase a copy of Made in Singapore by Tay Kay Chin, please visit:

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It’s interesting to note that your book, while titled Made in Singapore, was captured almost entirely in Bangladesh, about a non-Singaporean. What makes this a Singapore story?

The protagonist in Made in Singapore is Salim Javed, who is from Bangladesh and has worked in Singapore since 1996. While I used the title Made in Singapore to refer to the baby girl his wife Jorna conceived when visiting Salim in Singapore, I realised along the way that he came here to make life better for himself and his family, and it is no exaggeration to say that many of these dreams were ‘made’ in Singapore. The money he earned here as a construction foreman is much higher than what he could have made back in his village, and it has certainly benefited his loved ones. Salim is a representative of the thousands of migrant workers who work here, and I certainly believe that they are part and parcel of the Singapore narrative.

You met Salim five years ago when he helped to build your house. But there were other workers involved as well. Why the interest in Salim?

Among all the workers, Salim spent the longest time at our house because he was the foreman for the project. For months, he slept in what is now our living room. The makeshift kitchen where he used to cook is now our patio. I met him almost every day during the building process and he talked to me the most. By the time the house was near completion, I knew quite a lot about him.

One day after we moved in, he popped by to do some small repairs and took the opportunity to tell me that he got engaged. I jokingly told him that I would go to his wedding in Bangladesh if he invited me, and he took it seriously. So when he really invited me, I could not refuse.

Over the years, Salim has also become the guy our builders send over whenever we need something added or fixed. After photographing his wedding, I felt that there are a lot more stories about Salim and his family that I want to share with others. We are so used to chatting with each other now, that I think it has become second nature for him to update me about his life.

From your introduction to this book, it appears that you have quite an in-depth understanding of Salim’s family, and the relationship between him and the villagers. Do you feel like an intruder in his life?

Everything that I do as a photographer is a form of intrusion, but I believe that I have, over the years, earned Salim’s trust and therefore access. However, there were times when I had to refrain from asking some difficult questions, and there were times when I stopped myself from making certain images.

For instance, I had asked many times about being in the delivery room with his wife, but Salim was always diplomatic in his replies, which ranged from a smile to “see how lah” to “cannot lah”.

Another instance was on our last night in the village, when Salim and Jorna were having a long chat on the couch outside our room. He had become room-less because Jorna’s friends and relatives were staying in their room, and Salim had kindly given the two other rooms to my partners Samuel and Juliana, and me.

It was a very intimate moment between Salim and Jorna, and one of the few times they had a chance to be alone together. I forced myself to get out of my room with my camera and shot a few frames, all from a distance. When I returned to my room and looked through what I had photographed, they were not very satisfactory. Samuel, who had travelled to Bangladesh with me to make a documentary, kept egging me to go out again and try photographing from the reverse angle, but I procrastinated. In the end, I went to bed obsessing about what I could have done. I still think about the possible images, but I’m kind of glad I didn’t intrude in this instance.

I have never assumed that I have a right to poke my nose into every situation, and I am thankful every time someone grants me permission.

How did the rest of the villagers treat you when you were in Baktabali with Salim?

Bangladeshis, especially those in rural areas, are really hospitable folks. We could walk on our own freely because the whole village knew who were and most people felt that it was their collective responsibility to ensure our safety. A few of the kids who knew me from my previous visit also saw themselves as our guardians and would chase others away so that we could work.

However, as a foreigner, I always stood out. The people’s friendly nature and a genuine curiosity about me were a very potent combination. It could become very difficult for me to work because I do not believe in staged images and I generally do not like pictures of people staring right into my lens. So without being rude, I had to figure out ways to avoid getting myself into that kind of situation. Fortunately, on the last trip in December 2013, my two partners took some attention off me, so it was often possible for me to sneak away and do my own work.

We were really treated like VVIPs everywhere we went. I could try food from the hawkers and they were mostly happy to let me eat for free. Salim would also fight to pay for me. Because the amounts involved were very small, it would have been petty and impolite for me to argue over such acts of kindness. After many years of debating whether giving money to our subjects is ethical, I have decided that I am more interested to be a human being and friend first, a journalist later. So I have given Salim small amounts of money on the side because I am 100% certain that this was not the reason why he granted me access to his life.

When I was going to Salim’s wedding in 2011, I didn’t tell him until I was already in Dhaka. In fact, I lied and told him I couldn’t attend, because I was really afraid that my visit would drain their resources. I knew that everyone was already busy with the wedding preparations and the last thing I needed was for them to have to worry about my well-being. But funny enough, I ended up sleeping in the bed where all the wedding rites were held. I didn’t get much privacy because the ceremonies were lengthy and lasted late into the night. I think when they finally realised that I was sleepy or needed to work but couldn’t because they were actually ‘in my way’, they felt bad. But seriously, I was the guest and I was the one inconveniencing them. In situations like this, I often had to remind myself not to be a typical complaining Singaporean.

In comparison, city dwellers like us are horrible hosts. We could walk in and out of Salim’s house as if we owned it, but the same cannot be said of the reverse scenario. It’s kind of embarrassing, but I doubt they expect us to treat them as equals. I guess we can’t change that attitude totally but I believe we can at least try to be nicer.

Do you think that your documentation has benefited Salim and his family in any way?

I don’t really know, but I dare say it benefits me more. I am very sure they don’t talk about it or think about how they can benefit from this. They are not calculative or opportunistic people.

Do you regularly keep in touch with Salim in Singapore?

Unfortunately, not as often as I should, and it is not something I am proud of. He still comes over when we need help fixing stuff, so I see him two or three times a year. But we get along with his bosses and we like their workmanship and professionalism, and we have recommended them to many friends. So once in a while, I will also hear about him from friends and seriously, everyone loves him.

Occasionally, he calls me with updates about his family. His parents want me to attend his younger brother’s wedding and they have said that they will plan the wedding dates around my schedule. Fortunately, I don’t really have to worry about this now because Shamin is still looking for a suitable woman. On this issue, the two brothers have also ‘fought’ because Shamin, being a college graduate, is looking for someone similar, but Salim still believes he should just find a village girl. But I will be happy to attend the wedding when the time comes. It will be a good time to do a follow-up on Samyra too.

From your introduction, there seems to be a interweaving web of relationships between the people in Baktabali and those who work in Singapore. Do you intend to explore Salim’s relationship with his friends?

Most certainly. This project has barely started and you can expect to see more in future. My title for the original project was The Hands That Built Our Home, and Made in Singapore is only a small instalment of the bigger things to come.

As someone who has studied and worked overseas, do you see a part of yourself in Salim, who is working away from his loved ones?

When Salim was back in Bangladesh, he was always in a hurry to get as much done as possible. There were so many things he needed to fix, so many people he had to visit. Some of the things, I am pretty sure, could have been done by others but they were left for him because there is a special feeling attached to certain tasks and they wanted to wait until he was back.

On my part, I remember vividly that when I was back from the US in Singapore during one of my school holidays, I had to untangle some wires from the back of a cabinet, a task that appeared very simple. My father said to me after I was done, “Only you could do this.”

I don’t think I understood the full extent of what he meant then, but after observing Salim’s interactions with his family, it became very clear that the message was pretty much the same: “We’re really glad you’re home – the family misses you.”

In a way, the tasks that we are asked to do when we are home for short visits are also opportunities for us to feel less guilty for having ‘abandoned’ the family. For Salim, it was as if he was in a race to make up for the time lost.

When I was studying overseas and something happened at home, I couldn’t be at home in person to help and that was very frustrating. But my family always bent backwards to make me feel okay because I was overseas, I didn’t really have a choice. I reckon it is the same for Salim.

Being away can make one feel very hopeless and detached. Family members will, often out of good intention, cushion us from certain news from home because they don’t want to burden us. But eventually, we have to face the problems. I think the long exchange Salim had with his mother is one such example.

What was the most challenging aspect when creating Made in Singapore?

Editing the project down to 15 images is a mad idea and that really taxed me to the maximum.

As an educator and photography advocate, what do you think is one thing that is lacking in photography in Singapore?

Since you only asked for one, I will have to say “The Singapore Voice”. While it is perfectly okay for photographers to emulate others and attempt spin-offs or follow-ups from internationally famous projects, I am worried that this will distract from what we really ought to be doing with our own photography, which to me is to have our unique voice that can be heard and recognised worldwide. I am less concerned about the style, more concerned about the content. There are many internationally prolific Singaporean photographers out there, but they are not necessarily known for their Singapore-centric works. I am not saying that winning these big accolades is not important but I hope that someday, more Singaporean photographers can tackle Singaporean materials without having to worry about them being too parochial. What I am thinking about is the photography equivalent of Anthony Chen’s film ILO ILO (2013) – a Singapore story that can have international appeal.

The good news is that the Singapore scene has changed quite a bit in the past 10 years and we are closer to that ideal now. It’s fantastic that a few photographers I respect are using their acclaimed place in the international arena to tackle Singapore projects. With their standing in the global community, their ‘local’ projects may not be considered ‘too local’ for much longer.

So I really hope that photographers like Darren Soh will not stop photographing vernacular buildings unique to us and I hope Clang’s forthcoming contribution to will also get global attention. I think Jing’s crazy portraits of Singapore groups will also be important documents in the future. These photographers have some clout with international editors and that will make a difference in getting The Singapore Voice heard by a bigger audience, and on a bigger stage.

Eight years ago, you embarked on a project, National Day Babies, documenting 40 Singaporeans born on National Day. Is Made in Singapore your gift to the nation for its golden jubilee, or can we expect more to come?

If you consider the initiative one of my babies, then I think there are plenty more. As for my personal projects, I never stop thinking about them. But whether I can deliver or not is another question.

You are the same age as Singapore. Tell us, what is one thing you would wish for yourself and the country?

The one wish I have for myself is very simple – don’t stop dreaming. For Singapore, I will be very happy if people are kinder to each other.
To purchase a copy of Made in Singapore by Tay Kay Chin, please visit:
The portrait of Tay Kay Chin was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

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For a change, the introduction to Two People by Sean Lee, TwentyFifteen 04/20, is not written by the photographer, but by his younger sister. Talk about keeping it in the family.

by Pearl Lee

“What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”

These were the words my brother chose as a caption for one of the first few photos he took of my parents. Although the photo is not included in this collection, it remains a personal favourite of all the images my brother has shot of them. I remember asking him once why he had chosen that caption and what it meant to him. I thought it was a strange way to describe our parents. I thought that he, like me, must have been fully aware of the marital problems our folks had gone through in our younger years.

My brother replied that he had chosen that caption as it was what he wished for them. I think we both know that the relationship between our parents was far from ideal. It is a flawed love that, over the years, has made its fair share of mistakes. My brother said then that his intention was not to describe my parents’ relationship, but that he hoped that they would continue to stay together, come what may.

Growing up, my mother was always the more involved parent, and my father, often absent. While all of us shared a good relationship with my mum, it was not the same with my dad. I hardly spoke to him, and when I did, I always sounded either detached or rude. Things only got better when I was midway through university. It was also around this time that my brother started making images of my parents.

When he first got them to pose for his photography projects, it was probably one of the rare few things my folks had done together in their lives. They had to hold awkward positions – mostly touching and being intimate with each other – while my sister and I watched and laughed as they tried to look as solemn as possible for the camera.

Sometimes, we got to be part of the image as well. I remember my parents, my brother and I huddling under a piece of cardboard on which my brother had dumped soil. He balanced the cardboard on the four legs of an upturned table, and all of us huddled into the small space below it and stuck our fingers into the holes that my brother had made in the cardboard. It was a warm day and I could hear my parents breathing right next to me. It was probably the first time I had been so physically close to them since I was a child in primary school.

Today, a few years on, such events are the norm in our household. My folks now pose readily when my brother wants them to do a shoot. They even support his crazy ideas of painting the floor tiles in his room grey or doodling on the walls of our flat. It is no longer uncommon for the three of them to share a conversation in the living room about my brother’s art.

Perhaps this was what he meant, when he chose that biblical phrase years ago for that photo of my parents, which he now has stuck on the wall of his room. To me, it is also the greatest gift my brother has given to the family. We may not understand the meaning behind every black-and-white image he has made, or be able to articulate the larger meaning of his art. But we are changed by his work, bit by bit, every day.

Pearl Lee is Sean’s younger sister and a newspaper journalist.















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