Why Do You Go Away?


Why do you go away?

If it is adventure you seek, or curiosity that guides you, then perhaps consider USE2315: Participatory Development in Southeast Asia, a USP field-based (overseas) module offered by USP Faculty A/P Peter Vail in the summer (otherwise known as the special semester in NUS).

Like many terms and concepts birthed in academic discourses, Participatory Development is neither an easy nor homogenous concept to explain, let alone execute. Sketched out in basic terms, it is positioned as an alternative to conventional, top-down approaches to developing underprivileged communities. Participatory Development seeks to involve local stakeholders in development efforts: working with grassroots, ground-up initiatives to improve poor communities.

But it is not simply money that is thrown at the problem. Unlike other “relief” or “aid” programmes the world over, Participatory Social Development focuses on the time, effort, trust and humility required to build up networks and relationships. Unlike Overseas Community Involvement Programmes (OCIP) which many Singaporean kids are so wont to go on these days, to pretend that they have done something “meaningful” with their privileged lives, the process is not a silver bullet, nor a quick fix. Knowing people and getting them to trust you can be slow work.

This USP module is not a class where students go overseas to build toilets or paint walls, in the mistaken belief that hapless villagers are unable to build toilets or paint walls for themselves.

“This is not a module where you spend your time in the library, or in front of a computer,” describes Associate Professor Vail, who runs the module “This is a class where you will go out into real communities, with real problems, and try to see if you can bring something to the table, even as you live and learn from them.”

And for more than three weeks in May and June 2014, that was what 12 NUS students did, in collaboration with Social Science students from Chiang Mai University (CMU). Having dissected and critiqued Developmental models and discourses in classroom discussions, students were dispersed and placed in five different villages across the Northern Thai district of Mae Chaem, a remote region about three mountainous hours from the provincial capital of Chiang Mai.

Whether perched upon the mountainside, or based near riverside villages in danger of being wiped out by the construction of a nearby dam, students were confronted with the sobering reality of villages utterly marginalised, and living on the farthest edges of the Thai political periphery.

As part of the practicum component of the class, students were required to work with local stakeholders (in Mae Chaem) to develop projects that would benefit local communities. To this end, students designed a variety of initiatives, aimed at audiences both within and outside their host communities.

For example, working in Baan Sop Kho, a village facing imminent destruction once the Mae Chaem dam is built, Mark Heng (Geography + USP, Class of 2015) and his teammates produced a documentary video addressing the urgent concerns of the local community.

“What kept coming up in our conversations with villagers was a desire to have their voices heard, and their stories told. Making the crisis they faced known to a wider public was a pressing concern we thus decided to address,” Mark explained. His team hence centred their project on telling the untold and unheard stories of Sop Kho village.  Mark added, “Our video is based on a narrative of the voices of the villagers of Sop Kho, and the lives and livelihoods that will be swept away if the dam is built.” Subtitled in Thai and English, filmed and edited meticulously, the video aims to reach as great an audience as it can, both in Thailand and on the international stage.

Likewise for Elizabeth Shana (Geography + USP, Class of 2017) and her team, which primarily examined Karen literacy in the village of Mae Sa, the aim was to raise public awareness about the plight that villagers living on the margins faced. Elizabeth shared, “We wanted to spread the message about Mae Sa to as many people as we could, so that hopefully, more people can come in and build on what we have done for the villagers.” To that end, Elizabeth’s team created a Karen language handbook for children in the village, which offers pronunciations and translations of Karen words into both Thai and English. The team also produced an 18-minute documentary that sought to capture the various facets of village life and the Karen people.

These two projects, along with those done in the other villages students were placed in, were ultimately meant to benefit the local community each team worked with. Yet with only three weeks to live and learn from villagers, conceptualise a plan, then execute it, the impact of these student projects could only be modest.

A/P Vail puts it in perspective, “What you want to do is plant a seed, which villagers themselves can further contribute to as time goes by.”

The aim then was not a grandiose one. In three weeks, nobody was going to defeat global warming or preserve centuries-old oral traditions. Instead, the students sought to create structures which local communities could continue to build on themselves. Mixing approaches and mediums -from print, to photography to video- the students crafted projects that told stories and delved into critical issues from local perspectives, for local purposes.

Yet “developing a project” is a deceptively straightforward description of the task, eliding the incredible difficulties students faced on the ground. Living in unfamiliar places, where people speak and even think differently proved to be a challenge, and a daunting one at that.

“Everything we were familiar with in Singapore suddenly wasn’t there anymore, and I think this forced us to reconsider a lot of the perspectives we had taken for granted in Singapore,” admitted Patrick Cho (Economics + USP, Class of 2017), whose team worked in Ban Khun Mae Yot, a village without paved roads, or even a regular water supply. Students were inevitably forced to confront their limitations and rethink not just their projects, but also their initial reservations and assumptions about many things.

There are lessons; and then there are lessons. For a class that spanned weeks in unfamiliar environments, the sheer variety and depth of experiences cannot possibly be expressed in the span of an article, or even measured in words.

How does one describe the unadulterated shock and wonder of a vast, unpolluted sky studded with stars? How does one convey the indescribable despair of watching oral traditions fade?

How does one explain the empty feeling in one’s heart when an old man laments that “our children cannot weave anymore”?

It is against the very spirit of participatory action to presumptuously speak for the myriad experiences of everyone.  But if there are key takeaways, one theme that continues to resonate is that beyond our grand towers of ivory, knowledge and academia, beyond our comfortable zones of familiarity and luxury, there remain the countless many who are struggling to live, unseen and disenfranchised. This is the social reality across much of ASEAN, whether we in Singapore elect to see it or not.

So, why do we go away?

Perhaps we go away so that we can return, and see our homes anew. Perhaps we go away seeking adventure: new experiences, new eyes and skins to see and walk in. Perhaps we go away to challenge ourselves, to come back stronger, stranger, or braver, having faced down our personal demons, venomous insects and majestic elephants.

Call it a summer class, if you like. Because there are actually no words to describe a class where we experienced a military coup on the first day we landed, eating hot grilled frogs on a rainy afternoon, watching cultures consciously fade and adulterate, beer-drinking cows, curious elephants and their elongated penises – and much, much more.

Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” | Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky 


A less acerbic and graphic version of this article was originally written and published for USP Highlights, the corporate-communications arm of the University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore. I would post a link to the original site, but the link is no longer available. 
(and yes, i actually read Pratchett’s book, and loved it. I didn’t just find this quote of Pinterest or Instagram. The quote is blue-and-red for the Nac Mac Feegle.)



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