The Hidden Histories of Mud Crabs and Oil Monsters in Singapore: A Panel Discussion

Aerial view on a futuristic garden with greenery and man-made structure in Singapore

Singapore is often held up as an example of a place that successfully handles the delicate balance between urban development and natural conservation. It’s also on its way to becoming one of the greenest cities in the world. You may know the city-state as the glamorous setting in Crazy Rich Asians, or you may know it as the place with that gorgeous infinity pool set against a cosmopolitan backdrop on Instagram, or, as I have been told many times, you may have heard stories about how Singapore cares so much about environmental cleanliness that it has banned chewing gum—which is a more complicated story. To me, Singapore is also home. Nevertheless, I have come to the realization that I know very little about what goes on behind the curtains in its land regulations and environmental policies.

This past summer, I sat down with Dr. Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, Neo Xiaoyun, and Yogesh Tulsi from Yale-NUS College to talk about how to conceptualize the Anthropocene in a modern city-state like Singapore. We talked about the emergence of chilli crab as a national cuisine, histories of land ethic, and anxieties about the booming petrochemical industry that has been fueling the economy of the “Garden City.”

In this interview, my intention is not only to focus on the socioenvironmental issues in the region but to highlight the generative and generous scholarly work done by faculty members and students at Yale-NUS college, which is planned to close by 2025 and to merge with a new college at the National University of Singapore (NUS). The announcement of this closure came as a shock to faculty and students at the college, given that they were not consulted in the negotiation and decision process. My hope is that this piece will amplify the voices of scholars from Yale-NUS, who are engaging in invaluable work that contributes not only to conversations in the ivory tower but also the local community they live in.

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Weishun Lu: Today we have a panel discussion of Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene, published by an indie press in Singapore in 2020. The first question is for Matthew. How did this book come to be?

Book cover illustration with a woman in profile, her head and neck filled with environmental imagery

Matthew Schneider-Mayerson: When I moved to Singapore in 2015 and began teaching, I was surprised to find that there was no book—academic or popular—that provided a comprehensive account of the state of the ongoing climate and nature crises from a Singapore-based perspective. So I set out to organize one. Of course, I didn’t have a comprehensive knowledge of Singapore to write such a book. But I’m lucky to teach at a college with really advanced and dedicated students, so I wondered if we might write that book together. In my introductory environmental humanities course, I challenged the students to write a semester-long eco-critique of some aspect of life or culture in Singapore, drawing on our readings but doing their own detailed, independent research. The following semester, I worked with the most promising students to develop and really polish their work so that it would be a genuine contribution to the scholarship but also a piece of writing that might appeal to and engage Singaporeans and Singapore-based readers.

For me, reaching out to the public was critical. At this moment of climate emergency, I wasn’t that interested in organizing a purely academic book on this subject but in reaching a broader group of readers in a way that no book about the environment in Singapore has done before. For me, this is one of the things that scholars in the environmental humanities can offer. So while it’s a very Singapore-focused book, we also hope that it can be a model for the way that presenting engaging local perspectives on contemporary environmental issues can engage diverse publics.

WL: People tend to have this impression that Singapore is a city-state that has achieved the balance between urbanization and preservation. What do you think is maybe overlooked or misunderstood about Singapore or about urbanization in Singapore?

MS-M: I can start here. On one hand, Singapore can be a very green and sustainable city but also a remarkably unsustainable country. Of course, the government and other actors can move back and forth between those two registers as they choose. One of the things that is remarkable about Singapore is really just how unsustainable it is, how dependent on fossil fuels it is.

Singapore has engaged in some truly impressive projects of containing, manipulating, and engineering nature over time. And so it’s moved from a lush jungle in the pre-colonial period to these short-lived plantations of gambier-pepper and rubber to the kind of futuristic Garden City that we’re familiar with today. It’s been this history of constant territorial reinvention and very deliberate environmental engineering. This blurred line between the artificial and the natural continues today, notably in the massive reclamation projects that continue to expand the island’s geographical size. The country of Singapore is 25 percent larger than it was in the 1960s, which is kind of crazy.

We have lost the traditional land ethic as we urbanize.

Singapore is very green. Whether it grows on public or private property, every patch of grass in Singapore is scrutinized for adherence to the appropriate shade of green. So to the extent that nature exists today in Singapore, it exists as a final product of a very deliberate process: first as this kind of economic strategy to try to bring in investment by showing how green the country was and how good the quality of life is, then as a kind of national priority, then as a set of policies and architectural plans. Nature exists here as an entry in a database for maintenance tended primarily by migrant laborers on temporary work visas. It’s fascinating to think with Singapore at this moment in time and to think of it as a place that is one possible future for life in the twenty-first century.

Neo Xiaoyun: I have been focusing on crab as a microhistory to show this broader thing that happened in Singapore. The Orang Laut are communities that have lived on the coast before these lands were cleared. They caught crabs, fish, sea cucumbers, turtle eggs and turtles for consumption and also for trading. The Orang Laut lived on the coast as recently as just two generations ago, in the 1980s, until the government compelled them to move away from the coast and into Housing Development Board (HDB) flats. So they were forced away from living on their houseboats or moving between the coast of Malaysia and Singapore. They had no passport, no nationality, because they didn’t need to, they just identified with the water. So resettlement disrupted this land ethic that had been in place for so long for these people, since the early nineteenth century.

Three clear jars containing crab specimens floating in a liquid
Orange, purple, and green mud crabs, the three locally available species of mud crabs caught by the Orang Laut. Exhibit at the National Library Board, Singapore. Photo by Neo Xiaoyun, 2021.

Very interestingly, the Orang Laut were moving away from the land (because the government was trying to develop Pungol and Sembawang in the north coast of Singapore) around the same time as the Singapore Tourism Board was playing up the chilli crab as the national dish. Basically, the chilli crab is related to the crab that the Orang Laut would catch, but it is bigger. This type of crab can grow up to 30 centimeters, and they are all imported. The old way of relating to the crabs has changed, and now it’s really focused on consumption.

I think it goes to show that we have lost that land ethic as we urbanize. But at the same time, I think that traces of the old land exist on the periphery of Singapore. For example, Ubin, an island that is off the northeast coast, is known for still retaining the village life that used to be in Singapore as recently as 1960s. People there still go into the mangroves and hook crabs out of the crab barrels. A local newspaper interviewed a guy who goes into the mangroves and catches crabs. He said, “I still practice the old ways of harvesting, where I drop off a crab if it’s too big.” So these ways of life do exist, but there’s not much attention paid to these stories.

WL: I’m glad you brought up the implications of land reclamation—it’s definitely not something that outsiders know about. Yogesh, in your work, you also talk about urbanity versus the kampung. Can you explain what that means in the Singaporean context?

Yogesh Tulsi: My essay really focused on the period after World War II in the 1950s, right before Singapore gained independence in the mid-60s. It’s an in-between period, between colonial Singapore and post-colonial Singapore. During this period, Singapore was rapidly beginning to urbanize. The newly forming state tried to get everyone out of the villages—out of the kampung—into residential flats. So you see this kind of displacement happening, where residents of villages are being asked to leave their traditional homes and move into new flats created by the new government.

Film poster showing two women and a man in black-and-white, with the title "Sumpah Orang Minyak"
Poster of the 1958 film Sumpah Orang Minyak (The Curse of the Oily Man), which depicts the terror of a monster doused in crude oil.

There was some resistance from Indigenous people—people who are attached to traditional ways of life, people who have lived in their villages, in their homes, for generations. When we talk about urbanization during this period, there’s conflict. It’s not a smooth process. There’s a reluctance to move, and the government had to really push people to make the transition.

A lot of the films from this period in the 1950s actually deal with this tension and try to imagine what a Malayan modernity would look like. They tend to play up this tension between the kampung (or the village) and the city. In my work, I look at two horror films of the time that deal with this monster, the Orang Minyak—the oily man—who threatens the village. I read the Orang Minyak as a representation of modernity, with oil as a synecdoche of modernity.

It’s an interesting monster. While all the other monster movies of this period tend to draw on older myths, the Orang Minyak has no Malay precedents. So it becomes a modern monster, a petro-modern monster, if you will, which represents growing anxieties, growing fears, but also growing promises for modernity at the same time.

WL: I want to ask about genre and environmental studies. What got you interested in horror movies? It’s not typically the go-to genre for people to “learn about the environment.”

Singapore can be a very green and sustainable city but also a remarkably unsustainable country.

YT: I’ve always been interested in horror in genre films and in pop culture because of how it reflects and refracts the concerns of the day. In horror film, you get these ideas of the abject and the Other—an Other as opposed to how Singaporeans of the day saw themselves. A lot of these films are invested in values of solidarity and community, while the Orang Minyak presents itself as a selfish, greedy force that’s obsessed with itself and its own wealth. When you watch the film today, it becomes a representation of petrochemical companies and a potent symbol of our relationship with oil. There’s our obsession with growth at the expense of traditional ties with the land, as well as traditional relationships with the nonhuman world. That was my gateway into these films: trying to reframe these horror films as also responding to and commenting on modernity.

WL: Many of the essays in this book gesture toward the potential for collective efforts to tackle the current climate crisis. But what does collective responsibility look like?

NX: For my project, the broader question is actually to get Singaporeans to think about what a transition to a low-seafood and low-meat-consumption lifestyle could look like. Now, a bit more concretely, I think there needs to be action and a change in priorities at the institutional level. But at the same time, there’s also opportunity for ground-up initiatives.

YT: For me, we need to make oil visible. We need to be actively talking about a transition away from oil. It’s kind of a well-kept secret that Singapore is very dependent on its oil refineries—we are home to some of the world’s largest oil refineries built on reclaimed land. At the same time, there’s a lack of petrofiction. My work is geared toward this idea that we need to push ourselves and to push our leaders to transition away from oil, and as a part of that, I’ve been part of the Singapore Climate Rally.

View of chimneys and industrial-looking buildings by the coast of Singapore at night
Oil refineries on Jurong Island, Singapore. Photo by Kunal Mukherjee, 2009.

MS-M: I also think it’s important, as your question is gesturing toward, to recognize that awareness is just the first step. We professors, and perhaps grad students and undergrads, tend to fetishize knowledge and awareness. But, of course, awareness is only useful if it leads us somewhere. This question of what collective action looks like is tricky in Singapore, where some climate-concerned people feel disenfranchised in a country where any public protest is highly regulated and is therefore very rare.

I often assign Margaret Klein Salamon’s Facing the Climate Emergency. It’s a climate self-help book that asks people to move into what the author calls “emergency mode,” where our ideas about success, our priorities, and our values focus on the incredible challenge that we are currently facing collectively. This book pushes its readers to rethink their own life stories—where their lives are going with climate change in mind.

Featured image: Gardens by the Bay, which is built on reclaimed land in central Singapore. Photo by Eiti Kimura, 2016.

Matthew Schneider-Mayerson is assistant professor of environmental studies at Yale-NUS College. His research employs literary criticism and empirical social science to examine cultural and political responses to climate change, with a focus on climate justice. He is the author of Peak Oil: Apocalyptic Environmentalism and Libertarian Political Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2015), co-editor of An Ecotopian Lexicon (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), and editor of Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene: Environmental Perspectives on Life in Singapore (Ethos Books, 2020). Twitter. Contact.

Neo Xiaoyun is a policy officer with the Singapore civil service. When the office hat comes off, she contributes to regenerative farming and community placemaking efforts and is also an avid outdoor and biodiversity educator. She authored the title essay in the anthology Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene (Ethos Books, 2020). Her latest work examines the anti-environmental values education within Singapore’s secondary history curriculum. She has a B.A. from Yale-NUS College. Instagram. Contact.

Yogesh Tulsi is the author of “An Oily Mirror: 1950s Orang Minyak Films as Singaporean Petrohorror” in Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene (Ethos Books, 2020). He has a B.A. from Yale-NUS College and is interested in popular culture, Indian Ocean studies, and the environmental humanities. He currently teaches English and creative writing, volunteers with the Singapore Climate Rally movement, and posts reflections on thought-provoking reads on his Instagram. Contact.

Weishun Lu is a Ph.D. candidate in literary studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research focuses on contemporary poetry, affect theory, and the place of ethnic studies in a neoliberal multicultural environment. Contact.