The ASAA is delighted to announce that the 2021 John Legge Prize for the best thesis in Asian studies in Australia in 2020 has been awarded to Cheng Nien Yuan a graduate from the University of Sydney for the thesis titled “The Storytelling State: Performing Life Histories in Singapore.”
The judges have also awarded a runners-up prize, to a second outstanding thesis this year. The thesis on Indonesia titled “Subaltern Agency and the Political Economy of Rural Social Change”, was written by Dr Rebecca Meckelburg a graduate from the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University.
The ASAA would like to congratulate the two winners on these outstanding theses and thank all who also entered their work for consideration this round.
The John Legge Prize is one of six prize/grant schemes offered by the ASAA. This prize recognizes cutting edge research performed by postgraduates across our broad field of research. At a time when Asian studies feels under threat in this country we must continue to recognise and celebrate research excellence in our field.
Below is a citation for the winning thesis by Cheng Nien Yuan prepared by our three judges Associate Professor Michael Barr (Flinders University), Professor Devleena Ghosh (University of Technology Sydney) and Professor Anne McLaren (The University of Melbourne). The ASAA would also like to sincerely thank the judges for their time and service to Asian studies.
Citation for Cheng Nien Yuan’s thesis “The Storytelling State: Performing Life Histories in Singapore.”
In a fine display of smooth and clear prose, cunningly mixed with dry humour and wit, Cheng’s thesis illustrates how the Singapore state deploys personal life stories to manage, direct and constitute history, identity and memory, in the process shaping ideals of citizenship and delineating acceptable behaviour and aspiration. Also acutely documented are the moments where the mask slips or citizens manage minute acts of resistance and disagreement, displaying in the process her intimate and critical knowledge of the society she researches and her mastery of language and sources.
Cheng’s use of performance studies perspectives to explain Singaporean politics, culture, and society is a key achievement in its own right, but she combines this analytical trajectory with an enviable capacity for theoretical sophistication. Incisive and humorous, learned without being abstruse, Cheng moves effortlessly between the prompted positivity of carnivals or the smarm of “Singaporean of the Day” to the theoretical frameworks she uses to make sense of them. Very few indeed are the theses that offer such reading pleasure while also providing cogent applications of Althusserian interpellation.
The thesis was developed within the disciplinary frame of Theatre and Performance Studies, but it draws on critical theory and research emanating from a range of other disciplines within the humanities and social sciences, including history, media studies, politics, cultural studies, sociology and anthropology. It is as such an exemplary interdisciplinary thesis. Among its original contributions to scholarship is the introduction of Singaporean case studies to the fields of both oral history studies and performance studies, each of which has historically been dominated by Anglo-American or, more broadly, European and Western perspectives. Cheng argues persuasively that Singapore is an important subject and partner for researchers in both of these disciplines.
Cheng’s grounded analysis focuses explicitly on Singapore, but is widely applicable to the efforts of governments everywhere to craft identity through narrative. Her work provides important tools for the investigation of how states – along with corporations and other actors – narrativize citizenship and national history, deploying skills and techniques learnt from scholarly disciplines ranging from ethnography to oral history. Singapore’s modern history provides an ideal example of how contemporary states seek to construct, manage and deploy memory as a tool of governance. Cheng’s original conception of ‘the storytelling state’ – (auto)biographical storytelling at the behest of the state – opens a new frontier of scholarship, ensuring her place among the ranks of key thinkers on official history as narrative.
I am delighted to report that both prize winners are continuing their academic work.
Dr Cheng Nien Yuan is a performance scholar and dramaturg. She is an honorary associate at the University of Sydney’s School of Literature, Art and Media. Her research centres around the politics and poetics of storytelling, life histories and contemporary performance in her home country, Singapore. Nien completed her PhD with the University of Sydney’s Department of Theatre and Performance Studies. She has published in the journals Critical Stages/Scenes Critiques, Performance Paradigm, About Performance and Oral History Review. She is now a researcher at the Intercultural Theatre Institute and teaches at Singapore Management University.
Dr Rebecca Meckelburg is a research scholar and lecturer in the Development studies postgraduate program at the Interdisciplinary Faculty, Universitas Kristen Satya Wacana. Her research interests focus on Indonesian politics and social change with special focus on the study of non-elite forms of social and political organization. Her recent research projects have examined the Politics of COVID-19 responses in Indonesia at local and national levels.
The ASAA wishes them success with their future careers.
Associate Professor Kate McGregor