Hello, from Chiang Mai! Three Jomrades are here for the annual Splice Beta media festival, which brings together over 150 media firms from 56 countries. Organised by Alan Soon and Rishad Patel from Singapore, it’s an antidote to typically stuffy traditional media conferences featuring lots of suit-wearing “manels”. Many of us, including founders and aspiring entrepreneurs, are in t-shirts and shorts, as we move in and out of lecture rooms at Chiang Mai University—I’m a student again!—learning from each other about this scary but exciting new media world.
“How transitioning genders and joining a startup after 60 helped me rethink news, newsrooms, and covering marginalised communities” by Singaporean Gina Chua of Semafor, arguably the most decorated journalist here, was a highlight. Yet just as fulfilling, and humbling, have been the dialogues with lesser-known journalists facing repression at home, particularly those forced into exile.
We met Russians who left home for Germany and Spain after the war began there, valiantly trying to get the truth back into the country: “You can tell my story but don’t use my name,” one woman told me, fearful about reprisals against her parents still living in Moscow. There are many Burmese journalists who’ve been doing the same from Chiang Mai since the coup in 2021. The real heroes, said Ole Chavannes of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), are the “James Bond journalists” still on the ground in Myanmar, covertly sneaking text, images, and video out via their mobile phones, at risk of death.
I was reminded of a recent obituary in The Economist, of Rushdi Sarraj, a Palestinian photo-journalist and film-maker, killed in an Israeli missile strike. When you see content from Ukraine, Myanmar, or Gaza, how did it get to you? Who created it, and are they still safe? It’s made me think harder about the labour, all across long global supply chains, that produces the goods and services that we each consume every day.
Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, in her first piece for Jom, offers us an intimate portrait of one such forgotten worker: Dave the Potter, who lived in South Carolina in the mid 1800s. Yu-Mei, a renowned Singaporean writer, first pitched the idea for a postcard from Boston, where she’s based, early this year. It’s cool to see how she’s slowly shaped it over the months, clearly with the same care and compassion Dave would have shown with his clay.
“Around 1857, Dave was again forcibly separated from his family, this time his wife and children, who were sold at auction and moved to a different state…That year, he wrote on one of his immense jars: I wonder where is all my relation / Friendship to all—and every nation. The first line is poignant and unanswerable, swiftly counterbalanced, or cloaked, by the second line’s expression of general goodwill.”
By connecting Dave’s story to systems of oppressive labour that exist today, Yu-Mei forces us to interrogate our daily lives, which often depend on the sacrifices of others. When we walk through a mall in Singapore, think of the South Asian construction worker; when we hold our smartphones, of the Congolese miners poisoned by cobalt and the Chinese factory workers driven to suicide; when we…we could go on.
Depressing as it all might be, there’s hope in our ability today to connect the dots like never before, to hear of tragedies as they are occurring, and to use our language to prod mindset shifts.
Labour. Supply chains. Produce. Consume. These are the words that help this system run, that help us forget that Dave’s story could be our story. Recognition of that offers us a way forward. So thanks, Yu-Mei, for your “Postcard from Boston: potters once known”.
In “Singapore This Week”, we talk about Lee Hsien Loong’s plans to step down, behaviours that annoy Singaporeans while commuting on public transport, multilateral efforts to end the illegal wildlife trade, Prince William in Singapore, the Ethos Books Festive Market in December, and more.
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