Hanna Holborn Gray Fellow Silvan Sooksatan (HC '21)
The Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowships offer funded independent research in the humanities. We're highlighting the research of this year's fellows in a series of online profiles
Silvan Sooksatan (HC '21), Growth and Structure of Cities: "Tension, Co-Option, and Nation-Building through Narratives of the Post-Colonial Elite."
Abstract: My project analyzes the role of mixed identity within the post-colonial nation-building process, specifically in Singapore. I rely on Pankaj Mishra’s notion of indigenous modernity, an assertion of modernity, often championed by native intellectuals, that looks to take the colonizer out of national culture by centering community and self-determination around modernized and rationalized traditional cores. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s "founding father" and ideological figurehead until his death in 2015, has employed his form of indigenous modernity in complex and somewhat contradictory ways. While relying on Western investment and the primacy of English, he decenters former colonizers, seeing English rather as a crucial buffer in a multiracial state and emphasizing "Asian values," Confucian morals, and the mother-tongue as a traditional anchor against western ills. His 1998 memoir, The Singapore Story, thus serves to valorize the mixed identity as a bearing for future Singaporean progress and harmony. Lee draws upon characteristics from both washed colonial authorities and passionate, yet compromised anticolonial movements to inform his rational, dedicated, and tolerant perspective. Yet, at the same time, his work places alternative indigenous modernities and community centered anti-colonial ideals in empty homogeneous time, a one-sided stepping stone towards Singapore’s progress rather than as part of an active, legitimate, and ongoing sentiment.
Was there anything surprising about the work you did for your project?
I was surprised that it turned into more of a history research project rather than a cities one. I think I went in to the HHG too ambitiously and I was excited to explore post-colonial leaders and how their hybrid identities and forms of modernity fed into the creation of space. I realized that I needed to separate these ideas. Singaporean history is so complex and the contradictory ways that Lee Kuan Yew has relied on colonial structures to inform nation-building goals was difficult to wrap my head around. My analysis demanded a lot of context and a deep reading of his autobiography, so I decided to focus on how his form of modernity emerged and is valorized through text rather than trying to wedge in space at the end. I think it does the project justice and gives me both a clearer understanding of Singapore and a theoretical framework to orient a discussion on space. The full scope of my project will hopefully be completed through my senior thesis
How will you use your research in future studies?
The HHG summer set me up so nicely for my senior thesis and I don't think I could have partaken in such a project without the information and history I learned during the fellowship. For my thesis I'm looking at the transition and removal of urban kampongs in favor of public housing in Singapore that happened almost immediately after Lee Kuan Yew gained power. Urban kampongs, which were cheap, dense, and often wooden housing villages were officially recognized as "squatter settlements"; during colonial rule these spaces were associated with societal ills of crime, secrecy, and uncleanliness. I'm interested in how LKY plays into these colonial characterizations and rejects/modernizes such ideals. Kampongs were replaced by public housing, emphasizing clean, green, and open spaces, connected to state facilitated resources and overwatch. He inverts the colonial characterizations while also playing into them. I'm interested in the memories of these kampongs, what populations inhabited them, how they developed structures of community that scared the colonizers and how these memories have been replaced with Lee's conception of nation and community. My thesis definitely draws a lot of parallels to my summer project and I'm very excited.
How did you choose your research topic?
I chose to look at Singapore during my time abroad. I was doing a project about connections with the state and neoliberal speculation and I focused on this bridge in Seoul, South Korea, that used neo-confucianist ideals in its built form. The area around it subsequently gentrified and the bridge was integrated into a global economic sphere. I was really interested in how the nations appropriated traditional forms and used them to help shape ideas of nation and identity in ways that also intersected with economic interests. I also had done a project for my colonial cities class on the biographies of the native intellectual elite in Hong Kong and Vietnam, so I decided to mesh these interests into one, looking at elite post-colonial figures and how they created hybrid forms of modernity in service of a national culture and identity. A professor recommended looking at Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and it's been non-stop learning ever since.
The Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowships offer funded independent research in the humanities. Each summer, Bryn Mawr College awards up to 15 students a summer fellowship of $4,500 to undertake an independent research project in the humanities or humanistic social sciences. The research may either be the beginning of the senior thesis or a project that stands alone, but is relevant to their intellectual interests and must be supported by a faculty advisor.