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Mysara Aljaru
Photograph: Mysara Aljaru

Artist spotlight: Mysara Aljaru, a voice changing the narrative surrounding Singapore's minority community

What does it mean to be brown in Singapore?

Dewi Nurjuwita
Written by
Dewi Nurjuwita

Mysara Aljaru is a voice that can't, and won't be silenced. The writer, researcher and lens-based practitioner, ever-so-passionate about changing the narratives surrounding the minority community in Singapore – is exactly what we need during these strange, turbulent times. Lately, she's a teacher at SOTA's Faculty of Film. But she's also been a journalist and producer in her past life. Those who are immersed in Singapore's arts and culture scene have probably seen her works around, as she's showcased and performed at various institutions such as Objectifs, The Substation and ArtScience Museum. Not to mention, her words have also been published in “Growing Up Perempuan”, “Budi Kritik” and “Karyawan”. 

"Brown women are always seen as dramatic when we express our discomfort," a line that sticks out to us from her latest work, 'Brown is Haram'. The performance-lecture is a collaboration between her and Kristian Marc James Paul as part of The Substation's SeptFest 2021. It resonated so well with the audience that it sparked a revolution online – with many from the marginalised community opening up about their lived experiences growing up as a minority in Singapore. We caught up with Mysara to find out what sparked the inspiration for 'Brown is Haram', and what it means to be brown. 

Hey Mysara, can you tell us about when and how ‘Brown is Haram’ was first conceptualised? 

Kristian (my collaborator) and I were both part of the Substation's Concerned Citizens Programme in 2019. As part of the residency, we had to prepare a final showcase. While he was working on the topic of Brown masculinity, I was exploring social mobility as Brown people. We were, at that time, working on individual workshops and came to see that there are intersections between the topics that we were concentrating on and decided to collaborate and explore these two topics and explore how the brown experience differs and intersects according to gender and class. So we presented 'Brown is Haram' first in September 2020 in a small workshop setting before doing a second rendition in March this year.

The residency was the first time Kristian and I met. I think our collaboration has been an interesting and meaningful one because Brown men and Brown women don’t always have the opportunity to work together to talk about such issues. This collaboration in a way also forced us to relook at our relationship with others. How is the relationship dynamics like between Brown men and Brown women?

I am very thankful not only to be able to call him a collaborator but also someone I trust and consider a close friend as well!

How did the title come about? 

Personally, I’m interested in how we talk about crime and deviance in the community, in particular the drug issue.  And if you're Malay, you would have heard of the 'Dadah Itu Haram' or Drugs is Forbidden campaign. The word 'haram' is very strong. It indicates that things are black and white, which may not always be the case.

When you look at the idea of who a minority race is, oftentimes we have to conform to the majority's idea of who we are. We have to conform to what their idea of a successful minority is and what makes them comfortable. And anything that does not fit in this box is immediately criticized with a lack of context or understanding of the lived experience of a minority person here.

And essentially, that is what we are exploring in 'Brown is Haram' - what exactly is Brown?

You first performed ‘Brown is Haram’ in 2019. How has the second reiteration been different to the first?

There are more issues that Kristian and I explore in the second reiteration, and it’s also more personal this time around. We performed it in a different form, this time it’s a performance-lecture. So that was new for me, because a big part of the performance was very much performed like a theatre piece. Also, we got to explore ways of staging certain pieces (since the first time was performed with tighter Covid safe measure regulations), and also create spaces and boundaries that we could not the first time round. In terms of writing for me, I was also able to explore the style of writing. I played around with satire and also looked deeper into the relationship between people in my community and explored the idea of what a successful Malay woman looks like in the eyes of society, so that was pretty fun to work on.

We had an additional hands-on board this time round too, a team. We had Alfian Sa’at on board as our dramaturg who helped us visualise and execute the script in terms of flow and what should be in it. We also had Tini Aliman on board as our sound designer and she has definitely helped us create a soundscape that adds to the experience we wanted the audience to have while watching.

Kristian also brought on board Myle Yan Tay to help direct us and Yan has been amazing in helping us put together this performance in a way both of us feel safe and comfortable, especially at parts where we are required to be open and vulnerable. Yan is also now part of it and Brown Is Haram is now a trio, so the dynamics of how it started has changed in that way as well, and I’m very thrilled to see how it has grown thus far!

Is there a part III in the works?

The three of us are exploring ways to expand this project in different ways beyond performance lectures. So all I can say now is that there are things to look out for from us in the future! 

What motivates you to do the work that you do?

Having worked in the mainstream media and growing up in Singapore as a minority woman, I’ve always been interested in understanding how narratives about a marginalised community are formed, and how that affects not only how others see us, but how we see ourselves. And sometimes whether we realise it or not, such narratives imposed on us as minorities can become self-fulfilling prophecies. It becomes a vicious cycle.

When I left the media to pursue my Masters, where I am currently researching mainstream media’s discourse on Malay development, I had the privilege and resources of understanding the impact of such narratives on my community.

I became interested in working on the intersections of academia and art. I wanted to break down theory which isn’t always accessible for everyone, into something that everyone – especially minorities – could understand. This also came about because as a minority, your experience is often dismissed, and you find yourself second-guessing yourself even though you know what you have shared is valid. You are expected to intellectualise your anger or are even tone policed. I became interested in finding the intersection to also have better use of the research and theory that I already have learnt. I think at the end of the day, what motivates me is really to break harmful narratives imposed on minorities that I myself grew up with, by using art as a medium of change.

So, what does being brown mean to you?

Brown is resistance. Brown is also joy and love. It’s learning to love yourself, your history, your culture and allowing yourself to exist despite the complexities and beyond the limits of what society has imposed.

What do you love about your brownness?

Everything. Whether it’s being loud and proud of the tradition, cuisine and rituals, or appreciating the gentleness of the Malay language, there’s always something to fall in love with about being Brown (in my case, a Malay woman) every single day.

We’re sure you’ve faced many challenges as a minority in Singapore. Can you tell us about one instance?

I think ultimately a lot of our experiences as minorities happen is a bigger reflection of the systemic failures in providing a space that is safe for minorities. And these systemic failures and racism allow space for us to be disrespected, whether intentional or not. I’m not going to pin to one instance, but ultimately to be a minority here, it’s a constant battle of unlearning what you’ve internalised about yourself and your community - that to be a successful minority, you are still conforming to what the majority race defines as a successful minority.

That is something the majority race will not have to face. While they may face pressures from society, their race will never be an issue. Their race is not seen as an inconvenience, nor do they have to feel like they have to compromise their identity to ‘fit in’.

Growing up Malay, you often see people in your community distancing themselves from being identified as Malay and you wonder why. The idea of loving my identity didn’t always come easy nor did it come early and it took lots of understanding and unlearning what society sees me as.

Being a minority here, you also learn that some things will never be meant for you, so you learn to craft your own space and learn to pick your battles - not everyone is worth your energy, and you learn to celebrate successes in your own way. When you’re a majority and have crafted your path in a non-conforming way, you’re seen as a risk-taker. When you’re a minority, you’re seen as deviant.

How do you think we can be more inclusive as a society?

I would like to change the question to - Are we really inclusive? I think the fact that we are having such conversations now is just another reflection that there are a lot of things that need to be changed. I believe before we can talk about how we can be more inclusive, we need to start by acknowledging that we are not inclusive in every way we can, and we need to question why that is the case.

There are a lot of hard and difficult questions that need to be addressed before we can even begin tackling the idea of being inclusive. Can we truly be inclusive when all we’ve thought is to be tolerant? You cannot be addressing an issue that has not been completely acknowledged by people who hold power. A system that is not built for us will never be a fit for us.

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