The labour of social activism: what are we working for?

Op-eds Opinions

Decolonial activist work is not a one-size-fits-all action blueprint

Stock photo via Pixabay

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and heightened many forms of inequality, with the situation only made worse by the fact that fighting for social justice without social gatherings is that much harder. Nonetheless, it has not quelled the hopeful spirit of many activists striving for a more equitable world from their respective positions — of class, age, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, and so on — wherever they might be. 

As we work for social justice, we must remember where our social movements came from and consider what they can realistically achieve. From Singapore to Canada, considering the colonial origins of the concepts that may appear to divide us — class and race, among others — shows both the possibilities and challenges of decolonial work. 

As a recent newcomer from Singapore, I am continuously in the process of relating myself to Indigenous land struggles. In my hometown, I don’t recall the idea of Indigeneity being part of the local discourse. This is despite the historical fact that Indigenous Malay inhabitants were dispossessed of their traditional customs by labourers from China and India brought over as indentured workers for the British East India Company — hardly voluntary migrants like Canadian settlers. The theory of settler colonialism describes Canada, the U.S., and Australia, but this conception of colonialism simply does not apply to the Asiatic region and other blue water colonial contexts. 

To take my home situation as an example, the British had never intended to turn the island into a residence for white settlers. Above all, they were interested in Singapore as an imperial outpost along the Silk Road, as an exploitation colony that could ship profits back to the British Empire. Uninterested in establishing a permanent white settler presence, they entrusted native bilingual elites to suppress local labour. Ethnic and racial conflicts in Singapore, when they arise, are more about cultural differences and developmental prejudices between the local races in the CMIO system — the racial divisions of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Other that British administrators devised — than they are about our colonizers. 

I am not trying to offer an instruction manual for decolonization. I wholeheartedly believe that is impossible because our capitalist system puts people of the same politics in different arenas of action. Social movements that aim to decentre the state sometimes seem disconnected because they use different words for their activism — Indigenous, international, immigrant, women’s rights, racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, and the list goes on — which often sow discord between movements rather than gearing them towards tearing down state institutions. While I feel ill-equipped to comment on the dilemmas of decolonial activist work in Canada where I lack local knowledge, I do know that many of us spend our whole activist lives trying to reverse profound gaps in the historical knowledge of ourselves. 

White supremacy has been constructed through centuries of accumulated wealth and, in the context of colonialism, the theft of land from Indigenous peoples. The forces of white supremacy have also blinded us to the solidarity present in the subjugation of lower class peoples through colonialism and capitalism.

For instance, in the 17th century Virginia English and African plantation workers protested against their capitalist bosses. In recognizing each other as subjugated on the basis of class, the Bacon’s rebellion became a force to be reckoned with. Soon, imaginations of white superiority proliferated through the protestors and sowed division. This protest was used by white capitalists to solidify the Black-white racial divide, while ironically denying the ongoing subjugation of lower classes of whites even if they were not burdened by race. 

Now, race is a powerful source of identity that defines who and what holds power in our societies. Historically, the meaning of race was often rooted in whether someone owned property and had a respectable occupation. The myth of white supremacy was crafted by capitalism and colonialism, and continues to derail class solidarity today. 

If we understand that our colonizers had internalized notions of colonialism and capitalism in Europe before they came to Singapore, what might change for domestic politics? The events and stories in our history of race are not in our textbooks but are ones we have to educate ourselves in if we want to revise racial politics in Asia and perhaps everywhere. If Asia’s rich do not engage with this history of race and their internalized colonialism and capitalism, it is hard to be anything other than colonizers of colour.  

Because pure history is boring and tends not to excite anyone other than history majors, an example is much needed. The hit movie Crazy Rich Asians probably deserves a lot more scrutiny by (not just but especially) Asia’s rich, because its showcase of a successful “Asian modernity” is truly a moral insult to the extraordinary achievements of our civilizations before capitalism. If Asia’s elites are content with putting on a pedestal an unquestioned achievement of capitalism, how are we ever going to ask about the colonial value system that has so robbed our tribal wisdom? If Asia’s privileged immigrants were to engage in Indigenous activism, would they protect the luxury of economic multiculturalism or tribal accomplishments? If reclaiming our stolen land as private property has become the anticolonial rite of passage, a state of affairs children have been born into, what are we able to do about land ownership? 

I struggle to come up with a universal answer because there is none. Decolonial anti-state politics can be done differently and I would argue must be done differently. Some devote almost all their time to public protests while others who have direct access to capitalist scripts spend their time rewriting the codes of family businesses they were born into. No matter how far apart our concrete actions are, I believe we are on the same activist wavelength. 

Decolonial activism is a reaction to colonial systems of division and comes from within an awareness of colonial rule, so we find it impossible to turn our backs completely on everything that has colonial origins. It is a tough act to participate in property purchase knowing that unbridled wealth cannot be a leader for any worthwhile social movement. In everyday habits of activism I find myself redefining things that I wish I could do without, such as long-awaited public holidays that are friendly disguises of Indigenous massacre. When we do politics, what can we realistically do?