Jason Wee

2023 PhD Scholar
Goldsmiths, University of London

What I think of as undesirable isn’t the same as being abhorrent or evil; it is, unlike the latter, only disputably at the centre of our rules, principles and other apparatuses that all together encompass our wayfinding through any moral or ethical quagmire. The undesirable lives at the borderlines of those rules and principles, or perhaps the sharper analogy is that the undesirable can sometimes be found at those points when our wayfinding no longer tells us to walk on convergent or even parallel paths. I suspect it’s a matter of affect and intensity - softer in the way any person feels a tremulous vulnerability in face of rejection, and with delay rather than instant ferocity; and while it shares with the objectionable the sense of laying outside of permission (and any insistence on permission takes me closer to the question about power), the undesirable also lies on a topology where the unpopular and the short-of-ideal imperfections can be mapped.

Undesirable Publications Ordinance, 1938. Image courtesy of Jason Wee

The first Malayan laws that introduced the undesirable book as a juridical category was passed by the British in 1938. Known as the Undesirable Publication Ordinance, the legislation was substantially revised in 1955, during a time of increasing demands for autonomy and independence in the colonies. In 1967, this was revised and given expansive powers by post-independence Singapore, as the Undesirable Publications Act, a law that remains in ‘symbolic force’, in the words of Professor Eugene Tan (Financial Times, 25 November 2015).

In 1947, the British Military Administration denied circulation to thirty-seven publications. By the start of 1959, over two thousand publications were detained, most of them in the Chinese languages (as reported in The Singapore Free Press, 16 January 1959). The category of publication was numerously revised in the law over the many subsequent decades to cover all kinds of media; in 1970, for example, five pop music records were detained (The Straits Times, 4 December 1970). In 2015, Singapore approved the ‘de-gazetting’ of two hundred and forty publications, from eighteenth-century erotica to anti-colonial materials, some of which had been prohibited since the 1940s.

Singapore Free Press, 16 January, 1959, p3. Image courtesy of Jason Wee

The Quests Proud Mary album detained. Image courtesy of Jason Wee

The Quests Proud Mary album LP. Image courtesy of Jason Wee

My creative hours since I began my Goldsmiths term filled themselves with the task of writing up and revising a poetry manuscript that meditates on this history of permission and prohibition. This writing began early in 2022 when I was readying for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. I remain deeply grateful to the artist Shubigi Rao for the invitation to participate, and for standing alongside the biennale artists when their words and testimonies became subjects of contention. I drew on my experience in the past decade and a half publishing artist writings and publications, but it was clear very early on that this diary I am writing is a fiction, especially when I understood that the formal element I am working with and through isn’t the verse line as much as it is the sentence (with all that word can mean). I required the resources in documentary reports and archives, but also those in the memoir, the essay and the fictions in conceptual reconstructions.

Jason Wee, From A (Undesirable) Diary, 2024. Image courtesy of Jason Wee

From A (Undesirable) Diary is organised into three temporalities, beginning in the time just before the implementation of the laws against ‘undesirable publications’. The central section carries us into the difficulties of making books in the present, each diary entry a record of single painful incidents, each a study of our acts of reading both the printed word and the world. The final section, which was the most emotionally devastating to write, acknowledges the history of books and bookmaking as a history of foreclosures, while staying alert in the wake of compromise and catastrophe to the continued possibilities of the arts.


Jason Wee is an artist-curator, writer and researcher whose practice centres on polyphony and ‘powerless’ minor poetics within architecture, infrastructure and history. His works move restlessly between art, design histories, poetry, publishing, activism, sculpture and photography. Most recently, he is embarking on a multiyear project on the figuration and futuring of Asia and Southeast Asia.

His recent projects include the choreographies of queer secrecy in parks and shipping lanes (Asia Society Triennale, 2020) and the history of publishing ‘undesirable literatures’ in Malaya (Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2022).

Jason founded and runs Grey Projects, an artists’ library and residency. Through Grey Projects, he explores organising as an artistic principle, producing Singapore’s first island-wide open studio self-guided art tour ‘Walk Walk Don’t Run’. He is an editor for Softblow poetry journal. He was a 2005-2006 Studio Fellow at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program. In 2019, he curated Stories We Tell To Scare Ourselves With at Taipei MOCA. In 2015, he curated Singapur Unheimlich at ifa galerie Berlin and Stuttgart. He has written three poetry collections, including An Epic of Durable Departures (Math Paper Press, 2018), a Singapore Literature Prize 2020 finalist, and the Gaudy Boy Poetry Prize finalist In Short, Future Now (Sternberg Press, 2020).