Reading for Oil in Singapore and Beyond

Joanne Leow, Assistant Professor of Transnational, Diasporic, Decolonizing/Postcolonial Literatures, University of Saskatchewan


Southeast Asia and the Transboundary


Singapore is a key node in Southeast Asia’s extractive zones as the region’s largest and most prolific refiner of petrochemicals. Its refineries are all situated in offshore islands that were once home to indigenous communities who were displaced and then amalgamated through land reclamation. These corporatized spaces are now staffed by a large percentage of the 750,000 migrant workers who work in the island-state, supervised by American, European, and Australian expatriate managers—a clear example of what Amitav Ghosh has noted: that the spaces of oil are often suppressed, invisible, deterritorialized, and linguistically heterogenous. This paper examines the transboundary traces of oil in contemporary Singaporean coastal photography, art, and documentary that exist in spite of the country’s glossy City in a Garden exterior. I examine how photography, art, and even official documentary forms offer us alternate, affective methods of accessing what is an often-elided aspect of Singapore’s postcolonial economic success. Read contrapuntally, texts like Darren Soh’s night photography of oil refineries, visual and site-specific performances at littoral zones, and official state narratives like the Channel NewsAsia documentary “The Islands that Made Us,” depict cross-border, generational, and familial complicities in Singapore’s energy industries. Thus, my work posits a more intimate look at oil as it has affected the ways in which reclaimed land, migrant labour, and national community are represented in the island republic.

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CCSEAS Conference 2021 |