The Malay Heritage Foundation

Zinnurain Nasir: Teman Warisan Recipient 2023

Young and Visionary: Zinnurain Nasir, Dynamic Curator at Malay Heritage
Centre and Sahabat Sastera, Illuminates Singapore’s Rich Heritage Through
Innovative Research and Digital Curation

ln the vibrant realm of cultural preservation, Zinnurain Nasir stands out as a dynamic curator, currently lending his expertise to the Malay Heritage Centre. Specialising in the heritage of Jawi-script magazines and delving into microhistories of urban spaces, Zinnurain is on a mission to unravel the layers of local Singapore history through his meticulous research. He not only explores traditional avenues of heritage but also dives into the intersection of technology and curation, passionately examining the impact of digital platforms on preserving and showcasing cultural legacies.

Recently appointed as Teman Warisan, Zinnurain Nasir brings a unique perspective to the role, blending his scholarly pursuits with a hands-on commitment to safeguarding Malay heritage. In our recent meeting with Zinnurain, we delved into his multifaceted interests, from the intricacies of Jawi-script publications to his forward-looking approach to utilising technology for effective digital curation. This young curator embodies a harmonious blend of tradition and innovation, making significant strides in unravelling the rich tapestry of Singapore’s cultural history.

Capturing a Glimpse of Early Malay Modernity through the Lens of Jawi Periodicals: (📸 Credit: Zinnurain Nasir)

Q: As a curator with the Malay Heritage Centre, could you share a bit about your journey and what inspired you to focus on the heritage of Jawi-script magazines and microhistories of urban spaces in Singapore?

I think we can all agree that scholarship on the Malay world, as well as the region of Nusantara, can be expanded. From textiles to scripts, the material culture study of the wider Malay world is vast and diverse and honestly, I think there can be no end to it. I think this was and still is my main motivation to focus on Jawi magazines and then, yes, eventually, microhistories of urban spaces in Singapore. For Jawi-script magazines, I have always believed that they are our windows to various histories of an ever-changing urban community. This was a rather brief period in Malay history (from the 1930s to 1960s) where various ideals of urban-hood and modernity were discussed, debated and dissected. Of course, bonus point: these magazines showcased some of the earliest photographs of urban and (what was considered) modern Malays, thanks to some budding journalists of the time!

Q: How do you believe your research contributes to a deeper understanding of local Singapore history, and what insights have you gained from exploring these niche areas?

Personally, I do not believe my research makes a dent in any great scholarship, but if my writings and publications have made an impact on just one person, then I guess I am eternally grateful. But I hope that this ongoing research opens up more unanswered questions, not just for me, but for anyone who would be interested in this area of discourse. To some, exploring Jawi-script magazines may be niche but there are many layers which connect us to a wider Malay/Singapore/regional history. This medium of material culture actually presents us with some of the more interesting episodes in Singapore’s history and various threads of discussions within the Singapore-Malay, Straits-Malay and Malay-Muslim communities of that time.

From Physical Spaces to Digital Frontiers: Zinnurain on Reimagining Exhibitions. (📸 Credit: Zinnurain Nasir)

Q: Your interests extend to digital curation and the impact of technology on heritage preservation. How do you envision technology’s role in shaping curation’s future, especially within the context of preserving cultural heritage?

I think technology is still undervalued and underrated. Many see its flaws and I think many still do not seek out the questions which have not been asked. I try to think of these questions; for example, how can technology help us in talking about curation for the Malay world? (Curation for the Malay world is very different as compared to curation for the European world, for example). Technology is very much embedded, and I think there is still much room for improvement to make technology seamless for museum-making and curation. Of course, museum exhibitions and displays centre around their audience, too, so there are challenges there. So we need to make small steps in the right direction to ensure that, slowly, elements of cultural heritage are digitised. I am not advocating for a total 180 here in the digital realm but I think if there is reception (from the audience) to digital curation, then curation itself can have a wider playing field.

Q: Can you provide examples of how you’ve utilised digital platforms in your curation work and what challenges and opportunities arise when curating for the digital space?

First of all, I do try to seek out and see what is available out there in terms of the tech platforms. Of course, NHB is lucky as we have our own IT Department and the Office of Design and Innovation to help us source out these threads, so it becomes totally our prerogative to embrace those tech platforms/ mediums in our heritage. Of course, the greatest challenge is to convince first, your bosses and then your audiences in whether the tech direction is the direction to go. However, I do see this as a key opportunity to address and ask more questions about how we can better prepare ourselves for the future. It is truly the only way through which we can better exhibition ideas and exhibition-making for our discourse. An example of how we have tried to make use of existing technologies and opportunities was our embrace
of 3D photogrammetry to 3D-scan our special exhibition. That was a really great way to see how online 3D exhibitions can aid future learning away from the museum and into classrooms.

Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow: Zinnurain’s Vision for a Living Malay
Heritage (Combines cultural preservation with future-oriented thinking) (📸 Credit: Zinnurain Nasir)

Q: As a newly appointed Teman Warisan, what does this role mean to you, and how do you plan to contribute to the broader mission of preserving and promoting Malay heritage?

First of all, I think I am truly honoured to be getting this award. I have seen previous Teman Warisan recipients, and they are cultural experts in their own right, so I still truly doubt my own place here amongst them! But I deeply thank those who have nominated me. I do think that the promotion of preserving and promoting Malay heritage does not happen at a specific place and time. It does not happen only during exhibitions or projects. I think it is very much quotidian. I hope that my future projects, publications and exhibitions on the Malay world will seek to plant insights and inquiries for future audiences. I also hope to learn more from like-minded individuals, fellow writers, readers and museum-goers on what can be better for the world of Malay/regional museum-making. I hope to learn from more conversations
and collaborations.

Q: In your opinion, what are some crucial aspects of Malay heritage that need more attention and emphasis in contemporary discourse and preservation efforts?

I think there is a need to acknowledge intangibility; not everything is performed or physical; and sometimes, not everything is documented (due to lack of practice and enthusiasts). There is a need to advocate and, better, to document the intangibility side of Malay heritage. For example, I refer to the practice of Malay medicine or even the documentation of the aesthetics of Malay craftsmanship. These forms of Malay heritage have instructions and a ‘guide’ of some sort; so I do think there is a need to acknowledge its practice; knowledge, and aesthetics. Additionally, I also feel that in addition to this, the preservation of Malay heritage also depends on wider audiences, as well as cultural enthusiasts, as museum making and heritage preservation are also very much dependent on how audiences and heritage practitioners look, see, feel, reflect and contribute (back). It has to go beyond books and desktop research.

Engaging the Audience: Zinnurain answers questions on Haj & Umrah at the Sembang Ilmu Series. (📸 Credit: MHF)

Q: Your work involves uncovering micro-histories within urban spaces. Could you share a particularly fascinating discovery or story that emerged from exploring these lesser-known historical narratives?

Wow! There are certainly plenty, to be honest; I just think that generally, these ‘discoveries’ were also realities and truths; they are bits of historical knowledge that are mostly not documented (be it a lack of research or just not seen as important as knowledge in history).

I think one piece of knowledge that stood out was the extreme challenge that came during the preparation of MHC’s Banjar exhibition. There was a dearth of secondary source documentation, and in addition to that, primary sources were lacking too. We had to go rather traditional and go via oral sources. We went from one person to another and to be honest, it was one of the finest joys in terms of research. I found out how vibrant the Banjar community was. They settled in various sites in Singapore and had ‘created’ a rather wealthy, self-sustaining, tight-knit community. We still have unanswered threads from that exhibition! Why was there a Kampong Banjar from a NAS 1921 map? I have also found it always fascinating how the Banjar community were just established diamond traders and entrepreneurs in that field; why the attraction to Singapore? These are just some of the more fascinating threads of research that I think should be delved into further.

Q: How do you balance the traditional aspects of heritage preservation with the innovative and ever-evolving landscape of digital curation in your work?

As I said earlier, we should treat technology not as a chore but more as a complement. We are already embracing technology every second of our lives, and I think there can be some room to change the way we see exhibitions and exhibition-making. I do not intentionally attempt to balance out, but I do try to think of questions on heritage preservation as and when it happens. It does help when a certain piece of tech/ medium of technological work is making waves, so that helps me a lot in thinking about how I can adopt or embrace that piece of tech into the heritage work that I do. Additionally, digital curation is new (as compared to digital artwork), and there is room to expand this discourse.

Juxtaposition & Creativity: Zinnurain’s Vision for Engaging Malay Heritage. (📸 Credit: MHC)

Q: Looking forward, what are your aspirations for the future of Malay heritage preservation, and how do you see your role evolving in contributing to this ongoing mission?

I think at the base of the matter, the advocation for Malay heritage preservation should continue; be it through basic exhibitions, educational programs or performance-based displays/ works. I do hope that we can be more receptive towards our notion of exhibition and exhibition displays with regard to Malay heritage. There should be an appreciation towards contemporary response as well as an acknowledgement towards what makes us Malay; values such as arif, santun, kasa. Contemporary responses from diverse audiences encourage participation and contribution, and through these, there can be better ways to engage the wider public. I do hope that I can bring innovative and fresh ideas towards how we see heritage preservation and responses to history. There should be a juxtaposition, creative response and freedom to think. Of course, I am biased but I am also very hopeful of how technology eventually plays a key role in heritage preservation. I do hope I can play a small role in bringing this discourse forward.

Q: Describe yourself in three words.

Idealistic (sometimes too much, haha) – Expressive (I do not care if I am wrong, to be honest! I just want to try) – Creative (Some say I am passionate about what I do and what I want to do, but I think I just care a lot about the subject matter).

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