Report 05. Ugly feelings and semi-coloniality

doing radical self-help for shameful times, where's SG in regional food and ag?? Caught between the UN Food Systems Summit and Myanmar’s coup

I’m caught with some ugly feelings, and rightly so. Part of this is guilt from some lessons I am re-learning, part of it slow-boil anger, because Southeast Asian countries are being pressured by the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which Singapore has ratified) to import things that stronger trading blocs like the EU keeps out of its borders. Just for reference, only in 2018 was paraquat, an agrichemical banned in 53 countries and produced by Switzerland and then China, officially announced to be banned in Thailand beginning by December 2019. 

The UNFSS is creating a stir, with scholars listing out the ways the UN Food Systems Summit is not holding up to its aim of creating a non-partisan, neutral discussion for people, not profit. It is backed very much by profit - by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (perhaps this might change if their divorce goes through?), the African Green Revolution Alliance (AGRA). A Growing Culture has laid out the reasons why the UNFSS inspires worry, not change.

But in Southeast Asia this is hardly even a discussion point. The UNFSS is going to be well-attended by those in agbusiness circles, but other human priorities at present are:

1) Thailand’s decision to sit out of the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, or not, is being discussed as voices have expressed clear reasons that make entry to it disadvantageous for the country’s biodiversity and seeds, and its people (Bangkok Post):

Thai farmers and civil society organisations expressed concern about the impact of the new pact's intellectual property provisions, which prevent them from saving and reusing seeds that contain patented plant materials. But officials insist that farmers would still have the right to collect and reuse seeds, but only for non-commercial purposes.

Wiwat Salyakamthorn, aka Ajarn Yak, a renowned agricultural scholar and former deputy agriculture and cooperatives minister, said he strongly opposes Thailand joining the CPTPP, noting that Thailand would be required to ratify or accede to the UPOV 1991 Convention (the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants)

UPOV is a key condition of the CPTPP meant to protect intellectual property. UPOV's mission is to provide and promote an effective system of plant variety protection that will encourage plant breeders to develop new varieties.

Thailand is not a signatory of UPOV 1991. The country has the Plant Varieties Protection Act, supervised by the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry.

"Thailand is rich in plant varieties with as many as 700-800,000 varieties, thanks to its tropical climate, which led Thailand to become a leading exporter of several farm products such as rice," said Mr Wiwat, also the chairman of the Agri-nature Foundation. "Thai chillis alone have 100,000 varieties, but we have never disclosed this information to the public."

According to Mr Wiwat, the UPOV 1991 regulations will call for Thailand to let other signatory countries make use of the seeds of native plants from Thailand for research and create new plant species and have them patented as their own and resell them to Thai farmers.

Farmers are not allowed to collect the plant seeds to reproduce them in the next planting season, except for small cereals grown on the farmers' land just for subsistence.

2) Farmer killings in the Philippines continue to put pressure and strain on activists speaking up.

3) I don’t think Myanmar is in any position to discuss food system issues at the moment, but I hope that a young, outspoken and progressive National Unity Government holds promise that a shared federation of states will be able to create intersectional, inter-ethnic policies - including equitable land policies (read: community forests and commons lands) for its people.

4) Where am I, a Singaporean, in all this?

A post shared by @diane.isadora

I keep running away from this question, and with The Enclosed Garden’s performance and exhibition in Bangkok, I finally had to find a way to address it. Performance speaks more than words do, but I’m translating the essence here…

I am caught between land and no-land, my language and not mine, a culture that is shorn of its roots, a culture that sees no possibility for connection and trust. I stand on soil and sand that is literally not of Singapore. A culture that detaches and distances itself and judges itself, and one another. It is a culture of rewards for good work, isolation for doing the wrong thing. Which I am feeling, right now.

I remind myself that my feeling of guilt and shame is valid, but also self-judgement, and the lingering shame and sense of debt is a product of a neocolonialist capitalism that does not need to continue. Debt and shame causes us to stay silent where we need to speak, hold on to perceived crimes, sins, failure, and loss without moving on. It obstructs our judgement where clear eyes are most needed.

In these times I remind myself that I want to work towards preserving and expanding the sense of beauty that is possible. That what is worth doing is difficult, and I will make mistakes and feel I am grasping at straws.

So I picked myself up and reached out to people, and—when I did that, I was reminded of the work organisations are doing. I’ve listed some resources from each group that act as good introductions to their work.

In the next letter I’ll say a bit about plans I’m making… recognising Singapore’s explicit forgetting, and doing what I can to re-member.

As one might say, what are these skeletons in the closet, we cannot face? What are these ghosts in our lives that we avoid? What form of contamination do we fear? What is the nausea that arises when we face something abject?

A post shared by @fuiin

^ I had to make a thing……

What can be done?

  • Groups urgently need to speak out about these issues, to see the full picture, to know how to ensure each other’s safety.

  • Discussions need to be convened to bring awareness of tragedies and injust policies and trade relations, beyond the nation

  • These are things that need to be brought to the attention of the global community

  • More investigative work needs to be done around the business transactions being created

From Singapore:

writers, activists, scholars and journalists can focus on addressing the lack of awareness about how food is really made. We’re caught in the dilemma of being one of the world’s export economies (industrial, manufacturing, clothing, textiles, food), WHILE being a young region, getting out of the initial phase of post-colonial developmentalist growth with high focus nationalism - ridding the hills of so-called revolutionaries and communists, nationalist rooting out of detractors 

There isn’t a lot of focus on smallholders’ needs, and yet there’s a HUGE intersectional movement that can and NEEDS to happen in SEA if we’re really to get to a safer region - politically and environmentally, for the climate, for us. 

In SEA, an anglophone community of practice (educated in the western tradition) that you see in the US/EU is right next to indigenous customs, with many issues of migration to be found in SEA.

Our migration studies could already begin focusing on:

  • agricultural workers

  • food workers

  • where they’re from

  • why they are landless

  • the geographic sources of land eviction are

  • who (what political / corporate body) is responsible for these evictions

What happens on our doorstep comes in directly to our home. We are all connected - so we bear the risks together, but we can transform that into a rebuilding of trust, employment, safety for all - That’s the SG dream ain’t it?


Peasant Press Forum, 19 July - Look it up especially if you’re from the media, or from a peasant group. These groups can register interest by 28 June.

Recent shows and podcasts

The messiness of ag industry and journalists trying to uncover stories for conscious investors - reflected well in these soundbites from the April Future Food podcast:

“They're (these plant-based companies) not trying to get big meat packing broken up, because they want to get acquired by the same people. Everyone's so intertwined. It's a mess.”

—Danielle Gould

“…why aren't plant-based advocates advocating for workers in these meat plans? Why aren't plant-based advocates advocating for better regulation of these big meat companies or breaking up the monopolies?”

—Errol Schweizer

Eduardo Kohn and a host of other thinkers and writers speak to Ursula Biemann’s work, Forest Law, presented in Colombia a week ago.

“And that is why your work is ethical work. It equips us, it gives us the tools, to think with the forests that think us.”

—Eduardo Kohn, addressing Ursula Biemann on her work, Forest Law, a 2-channel video installation, with maps, documents, objects, and book publication

A society trying to work its way out of capitalist isolation cannot afford to be too self-conscious, or too self-focused, because it is not about the deeds of capitalist-competitive individualised egos. There are other things at stake, and knowing this is extremely freeing. As a friend working on the Thai-Myanmar border has been telling me, it’s now or never…. and I intend to see what working for _now_ means.
Until next time: with thoughts on performance, the long future, and the radical present. Sending love and thoughts to all of you - build spaces that can comfort yourself when you most need it! <3

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