One of the founders of the zine The Local Rebel (TLR) was getting on a public train in Singapore one evening when they noticed someone running up to them. They did not know who it was, but the stranger recognised them and went on to gush about how relatable TLR is, while rapidly scribbling a note to pass on to the indie publication’s Editor-in-Chief Irie Aman.
“I never even got around to getting the letter,” Irie, 22, told VICE. “But hearing about it moved me so much. I felt recognised for the work we’re trying to do.”
TLR started in 2015 with the goal of telling the stories of those who are routinely underrepresented by the island’s major media outlets. The zine, made with thick paper and adorned with minimalist graphics, has the slogan “Educate and Empower” on its cover. Everything is done in-house by Irie and teammates Dhya Syarah, 22, Qis, 23, and Myrah, 21, who chose not to give their full names.
The four take care of everything from the production to the writing and photography. “It’s all very DIY, like most zines are,” said Irie.
The first zine is said to be a sci-fi publication by the Science Correspondence Club in Chicago published in the 1930s. They’re often political, unapologetic, and niche. In Singapore, they started in the ’60s but are experiencing a revival today, with the shared motive to cover topics mainstream Singapore media does not.
TLR, for example, focuses on intersectional feminism and interweaves this with topics like race, sexuality, mental health, and other issues young Singaporeans face. Its writers don’t hesitate from working on stories like “Gentrification and Other G Spots” and “We’re All Migrants.” Their spotlight on the youth never dims, touching on everything from the struggles they face day-to-day to the activism of 20-somethings who want to make a difference.
“In Singapore, many issues lie just under the surface, and to never address them is to let them grow,” TLR’s founders declare on their Tumblr page. Irie said race is one of their biggest concerns and the most under-discussed issue in Singapore society.
“In Singapore, racial discrimination is such a big problem but no one talks about it,” they said. “If you’re Indian or Malay, you face a lot of racism growing up. Some of us were even told we would never make it in Singapore. We are excluded from Singapore’s community. But there’s no avenue to talk about things like that.”
Stories such as “Here’s Your Daily Dose of Decolonial Detox,” for example, illustrate the multicultural yet divisive nature of Singapore. In bold white letters, the team wrote about the whitewashing of Singapore’s history over a darkened image of Singapore’s gleaming skyscrapers.
TLR is but one of many. Home-grown self-published zines are growing in Singapore, with many making their way into e-shops and independent bookstores across the island like BooksActually. One of its employees, who chose to remain anonymous, said that there aren’t crazy amounts of zine readers but that they have loyal followings.
There’s Sand, which looks at art and culture from different perspectives. The Ideology, on the other hand, is a small zine covered in delicate pencil illustrations that discusses politics, philosophy, and art.
Then there are the movements, collectives, and events dedicated to zine culture. Queer Zinefest SG was the first festival dedicated to zines about Singapore’s LGBTQ+ community. Held in July 2018, it brought together the “queer DIY community” for a series of workshops and talks. Another one is coming up next year.
Squelch Zines, meanwhile, is a collective of five people who aim to bring zine culture to the surface of Singapore media by bringing together “zinesters” across the island. Founded by Nicholas Loke and Janice Chua in 2013, there are three other members now: Hafiz Syukuri, Alif Seah, and Chun Yee. They host a curated library of over 300 zines by local artists and writers. The collective also hosts pop-up stores and exhibitions, and participate in the annual Singapore Art Book Fair. This past April, they spoke at the fair about the power of zines and why young students and artists are creating them.
And the community is growing.
“There are still people who don't understand the whole zine culture and movement, but more and more people have become receptive and interested over the years,” Janice said in an interview with VICE. “There's been a noticeable increase in submissions.”
The clear emphasis on aesthetics makes zines appealing even to the most casual of magazine readers. Every zine in the Squelch Zines library is visually striking. They never look like mainstream magazines–no celebrity or politician on the cover here–and always have a distinct style.
“Zines today aren't the same as the ones from the 60s or 90s,” said Janice. “The versatility of this medium has also become a form of art in itself. It's more than an expression, a voice, or a messenger.”
While readers first come for the art, many stay for the content. LGBTQ, mental health, and race-related stories speak to a very specific community in Singapore that is thirsty for quality stories that understand them.
“Younger people today are more verbal and have stronger views on modern society, and zines are used to discuss these issues and raise awareness,” explained Janice. “It’s a form of freedom of speech, in an easier-to-digest format.”
This means a lot, especially for a country that is routinely placed at the bottom of the annual press freedom index by Reporters Without Borders. In 2019, the organisation ranked Singapore at 151, writing that the government is “always quick to sue critical journalists” or “even force them to leave the country.”
Singapore journalists have tried to fight this for years but young zine creators like Irie, who are addressing the problem with a fresh perspective and an activist outlook, might be the answer to this long-standing problem.
“It’s really about asking ourselves what we don’t see in mainstream media,” they said. “We never saw ourselves in the Singapore story, and as a part of it. Those are the stories we try to tell.”