Picturing A City For All: Independent Photography and Democracy in Southeast Asia

Photography is a tool that has been used by many to interrogate and document life in a city. For the last five years, Zhuang Wubin has been researching and working on an upcoming book about the history of independent photography in Southeast Asia. FIVEFOOTWAY speaks to the independent researcher about the region’s photographers and how they have used it to keep their cities open.

What is independent photography?
I use this term to cut across all genres of photography. The photographer works on his or her own, and the project is initiated on his or her initiative. It can be any kind of photography, e.g. documentary, conceptual, contemporary, even photoshopped work.

But to define independent photography is not so straightforward. You might product a body of work about stateless refugees in the world. The first three works were not funded, but you eventually sold it. So when the work is sold, is it still independent? For me it is, because it is still created by you, and the selling occurs at the end.

After that, a non-governmental organisation may like the work and commission you to do something similar in a different country. I still consider this independent because it is something you initiated, and someone has simply funded you to take it further.

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At home with the community

Singapore editor Andrew Loh is building spaces for all online, first with socio-political news website The Online Citizen and now publichouse.sg

At the age of 45, he has finally found his calling.

For some two decades, Mr Andrew Loh didn’t know what to do in life. He sold insurance, served as a waiter, opened a restaurant, taught yoga and even tried out as a rag-and-bone man, but he never stayed long in any of these jobs.

That is until he started blogging. What started as a means to voice his opinions and ideas has become his career. For the last four and a half years, Loh has worked full-time on The Online Citizen (TOC), an independent alternative media outlet in Singapore.

It all started in December 2006. Frustrated with what he thought was unfair coverage of the General Elections by the country’s mainstream media, he got together with fellow bloggers Choo Zheng Xi, Gerald Giam and Benjamin Cheah to start TOC as a platform to express their views on Singapore society. They had no “big plan” nor knew anything about publishing, but they have created what is regarded today as one of the leading alternative media for socio-political news in Singapore. Last year, the site received an average of  20,000 to 30,000 views a day, and currently, TOC’s Facebook page has received over 45,000 ‘Likes’.

Despite its politically charged beginnings and reputation, TOC did not set out to be so, says Loh who was its co-editor before taking over as Chief Editor in 2009. Pointing to TOC’s tagline which he came up with, “A community of Singaporeans”, he says: “Like what the tagline says, it was supposed to be a hothouse for different interests and people to come on the same platform. It wasn’t just for a community of politicised Singaporeans.”

A huge reason for its current popularity is its anti-government editorial stance and willingness to champion causes in a tightly-controlled city-state, including fighting for the homeless and abolishing the state’s death penalty. But Loh also points out that its following is nothing compared to what the mainstream media commands, and its controversial reputation is also limiting its inclusiveness. “When you’re perceived as political, people steer away from you,” he explains.

It was this desire to create an inclusive space online that drove Loh to set up publichouse.sg in August this year. He embarked on it after resigning from TOC in June after disagreements with the team. Loh declined to say more, only that both parties have since moved on. Instead, he is eager to introduce publichouse.sg, a website that features inspiring stories of people and communities in Singapore. Comparing it against TOC, he said: “Publichouse.sg is not a political website, it’s a people’s website. I wanted to move away from being always negative and finding fault. This is something that not just I think, but others have told me about TOC,” he says. “It was very tiring inside to be honest.”

What kept Loh working on TOC all these years — surviving financially only on his savings and what little the website got through advertising and donations — was not the site’s fiery opinions against the state, but the stories it published of ordinary people struggling in society. One of his most memorable TOC story was the series they did last year on “beach communities” in Singapore. A tip-off led Loh and his team to discover a community of homeless people living in Singapore’s public parks and beaches. TOC doggedly pursued the story for months, exposing how these people had fallen through the state’s public housing policies. The issue quickly caught the attention of the mainstream media and the authorities.

“A lot of people do charity work to help others, but maybe my contribution is being able to tell their stories through writing. I can’t take care of the elderly in a nursing home, I’m not programmed that way, but I can tell stories,” he says.


Five years ago, Loh never thought he would be running his own website. He was running a restaurant with his brother when he started TOC, but unlike his previous jobs, Loh enjoyed this one so much that he left the business to work on the website full-time.

Looking back, he says that this passion for publishing probably comes from his love for current affairs that began when in his 20s. He only studied until his O-Levels, but grew up reading magazines like Time and Newsweek and listened dutifully to his small radio with a long antennae as the BBC brought him breaking news of a changing world in the late ‘80s, from the unfolding conflict in the Middle East, the Tiananmen Square protests, to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Never being able to settle in a job has also turned out to be a blessing in disguise, he says. By trying anything that came along the way, Loh met people from all walks of life. “When I look back now, all this adds up to what I am doing, I can empathise with the people at the lower end of society when I do stories about them,” he says.

While he was passionate about TOC, running it wasn’t easy. The biggest challenge was not pressure from the government because of its critical stance,  as many would think, he says. In fact, Loh says they never heard from the government until this year when they were gazetted as a political association. This meant that the website had to register names of people who would bear responsibility for it, and TOC was also barred from receiving funds from foreign donors or letting foreigners take part in its events.

Rather, Loh says it was tough running a small-time newspaper with little experience and expertise. Early in the site’s history, the team ran into sagas including accusations of being a media vehicle for an opposition political party. This arose because Loh was TOC’s co-editor and also a member of The Workers’ Party. In 2008, Loh resigned from the party to put the matter to rest, although he adds that he was unhappy too.

TOC trudged on and grew in readership because of the help and support of volunteers, says Loh. “In my years there, we had some 400 plus volunteers writing pieces and supporting us. This is something I am proud of, that Singaporeans are not afraid to help us.”

But relying on volunteers is also one reason why websites like TOC have been looked upon suspiciously as part of a “cowboy town” in the online space, where only those in society’s fringes lurk. Loh disagrees, instead, he thinks Singaporeans are just not used to hearing from a diverse community. But he does agree that the online space is young and still lacks a certain level of maturity. “If you read online, it’s as if the government is wrong about everything,” he says.

With a younger generation that is more expressive and less fearful, Loh thinks Singapore will have to learn how to deal with the mess of opinions. He also feels strongly that Singapore needs a professionally-run alternative media site such as Malaysiakini, The Malaysian Insider and The Nut Graph in Malaysia. Neither TOC nor publichouse.sg qualify because both do not have the necessary resources and expertise. Sounding exasperated, he says: “We have a lot of ex-journalists and very smart people in the media industry, but why are they not starting something like that? Maybe they find it financially unsustainable or they are fearful, but I really hope there will be such a site.”

After five years of learning how to publish online, Loh is realistic about what his websites can achieve. While he believes that alternative online outlets are important because the mainstream media is controlled by the government, he admits that most Singaporeans still trust less what they read online. He also cites a recent report by The Institute of Policy Studies, a think-tank in Singapore, which concluded that despite the flurry of activities online, the Internet had little impact on the results of the state’s recent elections too.

But for Loh, creating and running online spaces like TOC and publichouse.sg have certainly changed his life and views about the community around him. “Having worked with people in the lower strata of society, you realise that no matter how hard their lives are, they carry on. You ask yourself: ‘If his life is ten times harder than yours, what gives you the right to sit on your butt and complain?’”

“If you really care about these people, the issues, and the policies that affect them, then do something. That’s where I am coming from,” he says.

A feature written for FIVEFOOTWAY magazine’s issue on EVERYONE.

The City is Her Playground


Artist Debbie Ding invents games, solves mysteries and seeks adventures to cope with the banal everyday life her city of Singapore

Daily travels in a city is a boring journey most of us endure. We distract themselves by catching up on sleep, reading a book, watching videos or playing games on our phones or media players. So does Debbie Ding, except the city itself is the text she reads and her playground for fun.

While working in a creative agency inside Singapore’s Central Business District (CBD), Debbie invented games to entertain herself during her lunchtime travels and when she needed to walk to her clients’ offices in the neighbourhood.

“I had a map where I outlined roads I walked before, and I would try to walk roads I had not every time I had to get to places. It’s kind of like the game Pac-man, where I had to walk through every single road,” she says.

It was during these walks that Debbie also began noticing circular symbols with random numbers and letters painted on the floors and buildings in the CBD. What began as a few random photographs grew into another “game” to discover what they were. Her search for these mysterious symbols even got her colleagues hooked, and they often reported to Debbie on new “sightings”. The “game” was completed when Debbie solved the mystery, correctly decoding the symbols as a language used by building contractors working on a new mass rapid transit railway line running underneath her work place.

Such playful views of the city has been a defining element in Debbie’s approach to her art and projects, which she has often described as “psychogeographical games”. These investigate the city, challenging how we see, understand and even navigate them. Her inventive nature has been with her since a child, says the English Literature graduate from the National University of Singapore says who made herself believe ‘green’ was her favourite colour when she was 10-years-old because she thought it was strange she didn’t have have a favourite. It was only when she started working in London in 2009 as a copywriter for a creative agency that she started taking an interest in cities. Despite London turning out like how the self-professed Anglo-phile had expected, Debbie felt the city was special and it while attempting to make sense of the place that she began devouring books and academic texts about cities, opening her eyes to a new way of looking at her surroundings. At the same time, she was also taught herself how to use multimedia tools like Flash.

In 2010, she brought this vision and skills back to Singapore and carried out her first major art project “\\:The Singapore River as a Psychogeographical Faultine, which explored a landmark of this city as a “site at which memories of spaces, fictional (imagined) spaces and dream spaces interact, merge or drift apart”, explains the exhibition catalogue. Held at The Substation, Debbie’s project had had drawings and an interactive multimedia booth that examined the shape or the river. There was also a game, “Here the River Lies, which visitors could write their memories — real or not — of the Singapore River on to a physical map, transforming it from a geography of the urban landscape to that of a community.

The game was inspired by a lawsuit happening then between the Land Transport Authority sued Streetdirectory.com. The latter had been sued for infringing the copyright of the transport authority’s maps, using them to run an online map service. Reading about the case, Debbie learnt that map makers often created fictitious locations on their maps as a way to protect their copyright. In the 1950s, one such location on a map of New York became real when someone set up a store there and named it after the location. “A place became real because of the map, which is quite a nice idea. That’s why I thought having people write on a map would be interesting,” explains Debbie. “It’s almost like things don’t exist unless you archive or write them down.”

As if to prove the city around her exists, Debbie has become its compulsive recorder, often walking around the city in search of her next game. While she used to draw maps of these travels on her notebook, she now does so with just her iPhone, snapping pictures and recording audio samples. Recently, she was featured in a short documentary by Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin where she talked about her discovery of a mysterious set of graffiti in a stairwell of the disused Yangtze Cinema in Singapore. What she chooses to record is largely based on intuition, she says. A fragment here and a fragment there, but eventually, Debbie puts together the pieces to make sense out of them, constructing a narrative for her projects. It’s a process she terms “psychogeoforensics” — another one of her inventions. This builds upon her playful approach to the city, turning it into a space of mystery encouraging people to let their imagination run wild, piecing together elements of the city to tell stories. It’s an approach she hopes more Singaporeans will take up, and she has set up the Singapore Psychogeographical Society and published a free guide online on how to look at the city in a manner that will help people have fun in the city again. “When you’re on holiday, you would think a place is fun, but when you’re living here, you don’t think like that at all even though a building is new,” she says. “But being able to imagine you’ve never seen something before, that would make the city interesting even if you’ve lived here all your life.”

It is at this juncture that Debbie reveals that this is how she has been coping with life in Singapore, a city which she feels lacks a sense of playful adventure and random possibilities. “Everything here is almost predictable, when you go out to meet people, they already band together based on what school they come from. I got friends who have settled down and you can almost trace their lives and chart where it is going. There’s a plan in life, and I feel like I need more than that,” says the 28-year-old. She herself was set to become of the Singaporeans she rejects now. Debbie was once enrolled with the rest of the country’s elite students in the Gifted Education Programme. But she did not do as well in her examinations and ended up in a junior college she had never heard of. It was there, without the weight of expectations, that she had the freedom to explore and think of other possibilities in life, beyond one measured by what school one was from or how good one’s grades were.

“I always thought that it is in spite of the education system that I became like that,” she says. “A lot of things I’ve done are all self-taught and I enjoy teaching myself more than being in school. So I guess the whole idea of teaching yourself is that you don’t lose the child-like curiosity of things and playing is a way of keeping it going.”

Although such a playful mind has kept Debbie occupied with Singapore all these years, she says it is become increasingly challenging to stay in such a small city.

So will there be a game over soon? Will she find another city to play in?

In what people who have spoken to her will recognise as classic Debbie-optimism, her eyes light up at these questions. “There won’t be a game over,” she says. “But there will be new games.”

A feature written for FIVEFOOTWAY magazine’s issue on PLAY