Engendering Trees: On Tembusu College, Singapore and the curious case of tFreedom


Sitting under the Tembusu tree, Sara Chong, 2012

by Jeremy Fernando


In many ways, gender — much like religion — is at best imaginary, at worse, nonsense.

For, both are attempts at categorisation: and, more than that, are attempts to frame, to enframe, something that is fluid, constantly shifting, and — perhaps more importantly — experienced, lived, written into the bodies of persons. Where, what is framed not only attempts to create borders, lines, walls — thus, delimitating what cannot quite be; or, if you are feeling more generous, creating snapshots of what is a moving image in the sense of something animated, in animation — are designations which might well be making meaning where there is none.

For, one should try not to forget that whenever we attempt to make sense, we might well be creating, bringing forth, this very meaning itself; a meaning — like all meanings — that might well not be possible without limitations. However, we should also bear in mind that — and this should always be a burden on us — to frame is to quite possibly always also accuse someone of what (s)he might not have done.

Which is not to say that — just because gender is quite possibly fictive — it should be ignored.

Far from it.

For, what captures us, takes over us, seizes us even, more than something that isn’t quite there.

And — perhaps, more importantly — regardless of whether it exists, whether it is real or not, what should hold our attention, what we should hold on to, is the fact that the ones in our care — the very people that we should be attending to, that we claim we attend to, that our very existence as a college is, as colleges are, premised on — the fact that one of the things that our students consider as important to them is the question of identity — which is always also the question of belonging, of where they belong; which, in many ways, is accompanied by the question of which category do I fit into.

Even if we think that the imperative of categories — that categorical imperatives — might well be absurd.



An LGBTQIA+ affirming community that aims to build a more diverse and inclusive college. We organise events to advocate and educate on matters regarding gender and sexuality, fostering greater awareness and understanding amongst Tembusians on such issues. tFreedom also host private gatherings for LGBTQIA+ identifing members to create a safe space for them to freely express themselves. Ultimately, tFreedom aspires to be the pillar of support for LGBTQIA+ Tembusians while actively engaging with the general college community to promote an inclusive residential environment.

Which is why — even if we didn’t quite realise it at the beginning, at the point when it happened — we, at Tembusu College, were, are, continue to be, particularly proud of the fact that our LGBTQIA+ affirming group was initiated by our students, was a call from students. [1]

This happened sometime during the latter half of 2014: when, what was initially a very small group — led primarily by two women, Junni Chen and Zann Sim — approached two of the fellows of the college, Catelijne Coopmans and Vincent van Gerven-Oei, with a concern: that despite the moniker of the college as a Home of Possibilities (one that was also coined by students, about two years prior) some possibilities were possibly being denied to members of our community who didn’t fit within, comply with, the signs of, performances of, heteronormativity.

After all, one should not forget that even as Tembusu College itself might be a fairly open, might be a relatively inclusive, space, it exists within both The National University of Singapore, which is — one could safely say — fairly conservative, and the Republic of Singapore, one of only 72 countries in the world which still, rather shamefully, criminalises sodomy.

Which means that some of our students are — by legal definition — criminals, or at least potentially criminals. For, one should also not forget that one has to be seen in order to be hauled before the law. Though, that being said, as Kafka has long taught us, the law is something which seeps into every aspect of our lives, governing us even if we might believe that we are free. Which means that, for some of our students, their lives have to — or, at least, part of their lives has to — be led in the shadows; and even there, the fear of being denounced, outed against their wills, exposed, judged, shamed, perhaps imprisoned, quite possibly shunned, constantly hangs above their heads.

Which is something that — by no means — we were, are, will ever be, willing to accept.

So, with our students, we set about attempting to address some of these concerns, some of their concerns, what concerned them, their lives, their beings, their bodies.

Gender and Sexual Respect in Tembusu College

This document is an addendum to the Tembusu Residential Code of Conduct. The Code of Conduct is based on the principles of individual responsibility, reasonableness, mutual respect, as well as commitment to a harmonious community. This document expands on the aspect of mutual respect, particularly as it relates to gender. [2]

Sometimes, this took the form of formalising the questions of gender and sexual respect within the space that is the college — and here, I would like to accentuate the fact that even as we are attempting to give these questions a form, the echo of quest, of movement, transformation, translation, of the trans-, resounds throughout the document. For, what we wish to highlight, to continually foreground, is the fact that the notion of respect and responsibility cannot be codified, cannot be a dictum — thus, in many ways, this would well be seen as an addition to a code of conduct which calls into question the very possibility of a code itself.

For, it is quite possible that responsibility — the ability to respond itself — is hinged around questioning: a refusal to accept, at least at face value, the status quo; a refusal to accept that things must happen in a certain way just because we’ve been told that this is the way they always have occurred, that this is the way things have always been done, that this is the way things must be.

En bref, it is the opening of the space for the possibility of iconoclasm.


In terms of the Gender & Sexual Respect document, this occurs in 4 movements:

Part 1 attends to subtle (and less subtle) everyday behaviours that have an effect on the informal culture of the college, and on how inclusive, supportive and empowering Tembusu can be for its diverse members. By drawing attention to negative behaviours that often go unchallenged because they are assumed normal or normative, this document seeks to help members of the college live up to the principle of mutual respect that is central to the ethos of the college.

Part II focuses on sexual offences, including harassment and assault.

Part III focuses on discrimination on the basis of gender and/or sexuality. Denigration of, and aggression or discrimination towards, individuals because of the way they express their gender identity or because of their sexual orientation, are violations of the college’s commitment to diversity and inclusiveness.

Part IV provides information and resources for reporting and recourse in relation to any of the matters discussed in this document. [3]

But, even as there are procedures for reporting incidents, for seeking help, counseling, for seeking redress for inappropriate acts, gestures, behaviour, for violations, for recourses against injustices committed, in lieu of being a document, a policy, that polices the actions of members of the college, the primary role of the Gender & Sexual Respect document is to open a conversation on, is to open the question of, how do individuals — all of whom are singular, who do not necessarily agree with each other, who might well live diametrically opposite lives to each other, who might well have conflicting values with each other, who might have completely different ideas on what it might even mean to live — how do the persons who form the community that is called Tembusu College, even attempt to live together.

And here, we should momentarily pause to note that the aforementioned document is an « addendum » to the Tembusu College Code of Conduct. Not because it is less important, certainly not because it is an afterthought — but, precisely because it is in a supplementary relationship with the general code. And here, we should try not to forget the lesson that the French-Algerian philosopher, Jacques Derrida, tries to never let us forget: that the supplement is both what is added to and what comes from at the same time. For, the Gender & Sexual Respect « addendum » was only added to our general code of conduct precisely because it was both called for by our students, in recognition that something was lacking, that something had to be added to the general code; and written by them based on the very notion of « mutual respect » that they and the college hold dear, that comes from the very code itself.

Which means that the Gender & Sexual Respect « addendum » is nothing other than a response to the general code — a response which foregrounds both its lack, its inadequacies, its insufficiencies, and its promise-to-come, at exactly the same time.

Which also means that its status as a document is always also a challenge. For, as Derrida continues to teach us, the supplement — what is seen to be from the outside, from beyond, the seemingly insignificant — is precisely what the centre depends on, is what remains to haunt the centre.

And, as all of us know — sadly, only too well — power doesn’t like being questioned.

Which has led to us being accused of harbouring ‘Western views’; an accusation which is not only historically inaccurate, but hilariously ironic, considering the fact that Article 377A — the supplement to the law which criminalises sodomy — is a relic of the Victorian values which British colonialism shipped to our shores in Singapore. Or, even worse, that our document — and our stance on the right of consenting adults to be with whomever they wish to be with, with whomever they desire — is a manifestation of liberal thinking gone mad; and that — since the two founding faculty members happened to be Dutch — there is some sort of imposition of the excesses of the European Enlightenment on the fragile minds of our students. Or, even worse than that, that it is some bizarre version of unbridled neo-Dutch East India Company liberalism where nothing is sacred any longer, where all values are abstracted and equalised (and here, one might note that the latter accusation oftentimes comes without any sense of irony from within a university so neo-liberal that Frederick Hayek himself might blush.)

However, it would be far too easy to dismiss these accusations as being baseless — and much less fun to do so really.

What would be more interesting is to play around with them, and to show — as my old teacher, Slavoj Žižek, is rather fond of doing — how in spite of themselves, they might have a point; that they are so wrong that they might as well be right.

Particularly on the notion of enlightenment:
not in the sense that what we do at tFreedom brings into light some sort of truths — nothing that banal.

But, in the precise sense of aufklärung — which, as Immanuel Kant teaches us, is the movement away from private reason; a reason that is contingent on presuppositions, situations, and so forth. Where, what tFreedom is attempting to do is think the possibility of a public. And here, it might be helpful to — at least for a moment — return to Slavoj and his reminder of « what Kant, in the famous passage of his ‘What is Enlightenment?’ means by ‘public’ as opposed to ‘private’. ‘Private’ is not one’s individual as opposed to communal ties, but the very communal-institutional order of one’s particular identification; while ‘public’ is the transnational universality of the exercise of one’s reason ». [5]

Which is not an attempt at any universalisation, or codification of some sort of totality, but the creation of, the bringing forth of, a space — a public, a commons — in which these very relationships, responsibilities, questions, can be attended to through and, at the very same time, beyond an individual perspective, take, bias.

Which might well be an impossibility.

But, if it were already possible, there would be no need for tFreedom at all, would there.

For, what we are trying to do is to attend to the possibility of opening our imaginations — to something, to a possible world, a community, maybe a college, to what being collegiate might be — beyond what we already know; that is, opening a space in which everyone, including ourselves, is a little more open.

And like all imaginary pursuits, pursuits of the imagination, they entail their own risks.

For here, one should try not to forget that the first to be shot are always poets and writers. Not because they actually do anything, but that precisely by doing nothing they give — allowing all echoes of gift to resound — they open, the space for us to imagine something else, something other.

And if it is an opening to something beyond, this also means that it is always also un pas au-dèla; a step beyond and a not-beyond, at exactly the same time. Thus, quite possibly a community that never quite knows — that can never quite say that it knows — not only what it is doing, but even what it is.

En bref, an inoperable community.

For, we should try not to forget that, by entwining imagination with use — by reducing it to utility, to practicality, or, even worse, by insisting on accountability, which is nothing other than a code-word for measurability through particular metrics, impact-value, key-performance indices, and so forth; that is, precisely what many universities are doing at the moment — all that is done is to tie imagination down, to enchain it to the state.

And here, we should also perhaps bear in mind that to teach, that the role of the teacher is, our roles are, distinctly anti-polis. For, as Socrates reminds us, the role of philosophy is the corruption of youth — not by turning them away from what is good (after all, the one who loves wisdom is also a lover of beauty and truth) but by opening the love of wisdom, by opening thought, thinking, questioning, in them. And love in the specific sense of philia: two way, in relation with, whilst never claiming to fully know another, whilst being open to the possibility of the other. Which suggests that this is a relationship that is reasoned, reasonable, within the boundaries of rationality; but at the same time always also open to the potential unknown, to the potentiality of unknowability. For, we must try not to forget that even though this is a relationship of love, it is not haphazard, not completely reliant on chance: there is craft, and discipline, involved. But, even as there is craft in thinking, even as there is method in this journey of thought (meta hodos; over a path), Socrates teaches us that wisdom only comes to one from elsewhere, from beyond; only comes to one at the point where the daemon whispers in one’s ear. Which means that even as one can attempt to teach another, that even as one might be able to be taught, the teaching is limited to the manner in which one might approach wisdom, and not wisdom as such.

Thus, a teaching that not only cannot be quantified, measured — so, to hell with learning outcomes and such rubriced sophistry — but one in which the one who calls herself a teacher cannot even know, with any certainty, that (s)he is even teaching.

Which perhaps leaves us with this question:
if we are creating, bringing forth, a space, a place, with — alongside — our students, then what is this inoperable space, what is this place that we might not be able to avow, at least not in any positivistic sense, called?

Which is the question of: when we, at Tembusu College, call it by the name tFreedom, what are we naming, which is also the question of, what does this name call forth?

For, since one cannot know — at least not in advance — what we are responding to (for, all response is singular) then it cannot be a freedom from, or a freedom to, that we are attempting; as those would already be pre-defined, codified, conditioned by, framed through, a heuristic.

So, perhaps always only a freedom as such:
which means that it can only be a freedom from itself, a freedom from knowing what freedom itself is — thus, a freedom-to-be (as in, one that is to-come) and an unfreedom-not-to-be. For, without this negation — which is a negation which does not negate itself, which only shimmers there in its potential negativity — we would merely be back to being prescriptive.

But, at the same time, we cannot not-name
otherwise, there would not even be the possibility of this freedom we speak of.

Thus, at best, a proscription:
where, all we can say is that at tFreedom, we will not be unfree, that we refuse to be not-free.

Keeping in mind that this is a refusal by a we:
but one which never pretends to know who we is — one which only attempts to move away from any individual, private, understanding of freedom, to the possibility of being free as a community, to bringing forth the possibility of a common freedom.

Which also means that this movement, this aufklärung, might be an attempt to head towards a light of sorts, but where light and darkness are not antonyms — where darkness is always also a part of light.

Where, it might well be that it is only in darkness
in which there is a possibility of light.

Which is precisely where we come in:
for, since the LGBTQA+ community in Singapore is scrutinised, judged, marginalised, discriminated against — structurally, institutionally, legally, culturally —  we are called to be shadow-makers, creators of darknesses, for our students, our peers, our friends, so that they can live in light whilst being unseen.

And here, I must proffer my thanks, offer my immense gratitude, to the founding faculty members of tFreedom — my dear colleagues and friends, Catelijne and Vincent — who, even though they have since left the college, continue to leave us with a legacy of their lessons.

For, there might well be no better example of the one who questions institutions from within — particularly in the South-East Asian context — than the great Max Havelaar. [5]

The very same one who is also later accused of contaminating, infecting, Dutch colonialisation in Java — resulting in a disastrous end to his career in the civil service, ending with his eventual destitution, his days spent roaming the streets of Amsterdam, penniless, without even his own name to be known by.

But that is the risk that one takes.


The absolute rule, that of symbolic exchange, is to return what you received. Never less, but always more. The absolute rule of thought is to return the world as we received it: unintelligible. And if it is possible, to return it a little bit more unintelligible. A little bit more enigmatic.
— Jean Baudrillard [6]

Whenever we speak of multiplicity, diversity, inclusiveness, we are often told to be realistic, to get real, to stop dreaming.

But why can’t we dream —

for, it is not as if categorisation, division, separation, were ‘natural’ to begin with: such things are ideas, are abstractions; perhaps even more so than dreams, which are shaped by, influenced by, quite possibly even come through, experiences, lives, bodies, disappointments, hopes.

So, fuck reality,

if ‘being real’ means accepting things as they are.

Not so much ignore it — not as if one can.

For, trying to keep it out of one’s mind is akin to not thinking of Freddy on Elm Street. Moreover, any response is a conception, every response conceives; thus, manifests, is always already material, matters.

But, fuck it:
in the precise sense of engender it — allowing all the echoes of seminar, dissemination, semen, seed, planting, germination, growth, to echo here — inseminate it with possibilities, divergences, lines of flight.

Keeping in mind that openness to possibilities might well be nothing other than another name for art itself.

Where art — returning, retuning ourselves, once again to the echoes of Immanuel Kant, in particular that of the sublime, which continue to haunt us — in which art which is a possible opening, a potential rupture, peut-être même un éclat, is quite possibly beauty without being beautiful, an experience of beauty without quite being able to call it beautiful, without subsuming it under any prior conception of the beautiful; where beauty remains a name naming quite possibly nothing other than an aisthesis which overwhelms us.

That is to say, in which even as there is tekhnē involved in crafting a space, creating a place, of freedom, of inclusion — even as we might have to be crafty in doing so, in order to do so — we can never quite know what we are doing, making, bringing forth.

But where — in responding to, by attempting to respond to, the situation that we are facing, to the situations that we encounter, to the people and the situations they face — we might have to acknowledge that the responsible thing would be to do, to make, to bring forth, whilst maintaining the fact that we quite possibly know not what we do. Particularly if our responsibilities lie with our students, with people, their lives, and not with institutions, with the powers-that-be, with our so-called careers — for, we might not only be unable to account for our time given to attending to these encounters, situations, persons, and we might well not only be accused of being unproductive, of not generating what the university deems worthy, but that our work itself, and by extension our beings, our way of being with, is seen as, is treated as, a threat to the institutions in which we work, the countries in which we live.

That we are seen as the ones abetting darkness —
and thus, we are now also beyond the pale.

So, even if, in many ways, religion — much like gender — is, at best, imaginary, at worse nonsense, that hardly matters.

And, not only because our conception of them — or, and here I should take responsibility for my position; my conception of them, the manner in which I conceive of gender and religion — is irrelevant. But, more importantly, it if one takes seriously the possibility of response, then surely it is the call of the other, what matters to the other, that should matter.

To sympathise with another, by being with the experiences, the feelings, of the other.

Even if actually knowing what another feels, thinks, goes through, is impossible.

But that we could well respond as if we can:
at the risk of being completely off the mark — fully aware that we would be exposing ourselves to being accused of wasting time, of being a waste of time.

Of making love out of nothing at all.

Of being utter nonsense.

But, as the writer, cartoonist, poet, animator, screenwriter, filmmaker, philosopher, amongst many other things — the inimitable Theodor Seuss Geisel — might say, « I like nonsense, it wakes the brain cells ».

With great regret I see that I have now bumped against the frame delimiting my essay, leaving me with the tragic conviction that many things I most definitely wished to point out have now gone unsaid.
— Robert Walser



[1] Tembusu College is a residential college within The National University of Singapore.

[2] This excerpt is taken from the Code of Gender and Sexual Respect in Tembusu College (NUS) document which every student in the college receives.

[3] ibid

[4] Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile Books, 2008, 122.

[5] Multatuli, Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, translated by Roy Edwards. London: Penguin Classics, 1995. 

[6] Jean Baudrillard, ‘Radical Thought’, translated by François Debrix in CTheory, April 1995:


About the Author:

Jeremy Fernando reads, and writes; and is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at The European Graduate School. He works in the intersections of literature, philosophy, and the media; and his, more than twenty, books include Reading Blindly, Living with Art, Writing Death, in fidelity, and resisting art. His writing has also been featured in magazines and journals such as Arte al Límite, Berfrois, CTheory, Full Bleed, Qui Parle, TimeOut and VICE, amongst others; and has been translated into French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish and Serbian. Exploring other media has led him to film, music, and the visual arts; and his work has been exhibited in Seoul, Vienna, Hong Kong, and Singapore. He has been invited to present his work at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin in September 2016; and in November 2018, to deliver a series of performance-talks at the 4th edition of the Bienal de la Imagen en Movimiento in Buenos Aires. He is the general editor of both Delere Press and the thematic magazine One Imperative; and is a Lecturer & Fellow of Tembusu College at The National University of Singapore.