How does land shape us? — issue #40

How does land shape us? — issue #40


I was having dinner with my family one day when the topic of ghosts came up. By then, it had been almost two years since I migrated to Dubai to be with my parents. My uncle and aunt were visiting from Singapore, and my dad and his brother found themselves reminiscing about their childhood kampong days and encounters with the supernatural.

The hair-raising stories were always a thrill for me to listen to, but two things struck me: one, my family, and arguably Singaporeans, spend a considerable amount of time discussing and engaging with the supernatural realm even while abroad, and two, the stories we tell, including the characters and symbols within them, are very much shaped by land.

One time, my uncle and his friends were having silat practice in a forest clearing, when he saw an old woman, or nenek kebayan, walking from tree to tree. My grandmother was at the back door of their home when she saw an orang minyak sitting in her cassava field. Or the tales of orang bunian marrying humans from the village—these mythical Asian elves who had special powers and were often seen dressed in ancient Southeast Asian garb, were thought to live in their own large communities in the deep forest. In some parts of the region, indigenous tribes protect sacred land thought to be inhabited by the orang bunian.

A generation later, although the land around me looked starkly different from the time of my elders, I could not shake the feeling that the land way beneath my feet had not changed at all. After all, it still bore the same fruit, kept us cool in the tropical sun, and conjured up similar tales closely associated with our surroundings. It evoked the feeling of rootedness and belonging, and connections to other human and non-human beings that call the land home too.

This year, Kontinentalist intends to tell more stories about land and the communities tied to it. How does land relate to our sense of identity? How has its transformation changed us? What are the stories we tell of our land now?

We welcome thoughts and ideas on land that could inspire a cool data story, project, or event. If you have one, send it our way at We’d love to hear from you.
Written by Zafirah
Landing page of the story Seeded in Singapore
This week, we *finally* published the second instalment of our Rubber series, investigating the labour systems and land policies that facilitated the rubber industry. We had initially planned to do only one story, Seeded in Singapore, which we published in August 2021. But in the process of researching Singapore’s rubber history, we came across interesting material, and had burning questions that propelled us to write the second instalment.
Promotional picture of Stepping Out; an image of a man and a woman dressed in traditional Chinese clothing sharing an umbrella under the rain
Promotional picture of Stepping Out, a 1999 mandarin drama produced in Singapore.

I’ve personally been fascinated with the “Singapore Story” for a long time, having studied it intensely for my thesis nearly a decade ago. How does Singapore as a nation remember its past, and how does that connect with its citizens’ identities? The story of rubber in Singapore’s history is one of hardwork and enterprise. This narrative of coolies labouring in plantations, and benevolent plantation owners, was perpetuated by beloved Chinese TV dramas such as Stepping Out. More recently during Singapore’s controversial Bicentennial celebrations, commemorative videos were made about rubber and significant persons’ contributions to its evolution as a cash crop.
Collage of different journal articles
Some of the journal articles on labour and land policies during the colonial era that our team read to produce this story.
Screenshot of a colonial office record in black and white
Our team spent quite some time sifting through microfiche records like these. This is a screenshot of the Blue Book, a Colonial Office Record, detailing the wages of rubber estate labourers.

After reviewing these materials, we got the answers to our questions, and the picture that was eventually formed was not pretty. These datasets and journals formed the bulk and foundation of our story, and they investigated the British’s discriminatory labour practices—how they tweaked land policies to line their own pockets with opportunity while intentionally keeping the local communities out. More insidiously, we also learnt about how plantation owners kept families across generations on their estates, but failed to provide a decent education that could lift them out of poverty.
Two final artworks
A lot of this history was described in these papers in academic language, and it took time and patience to read and sift through to get a clear picture. Just repeating this information in our story did not feel satisfactory, and did not feel like we would give these stories justice. That was why our team decided to illustrate these historical events and conditions into short comic-like strips, hoping that we can bring to life the texture and environments that these labourers lived in.
Screenshot of wireframe and sketches
Munirah and Griselda’s wireframe and sketched designs for this story.

This second instalment was on our editorial calendar for more than a year, and faced many delays. The time needed to read through the research materials and create the story definitely hindered the process, but a larger reason was that we didn’t feel confident enough about our approach. How do we make this highly historical, academic, and qualitative piece engaging for our audience? I hope we did it justice, and I invite you to read it and give us your thoughts and feedback!
Written by Pei Ying
...more from us
Seeded in Singapore
How did the rubber plant forever transform Singapore’s landscape and economy? Find out in the first installment of our series on rubber.
Where got ghost?
Have you seen a ghost? You’re not alone. Check out this in interactive map we made on spooky sightings in Singapore.


2023 Data Storytelling Workshop
If you’re interested in learning more about data storytelling, how we use data viz tools, our principles, and some of our tips and tricks to create impactful data stories, you’re in luck! We're back with our public data storytelling workshops—this time with an in-person two-day session in Singapore. You can sign up for either our one-day virtual workshop on 17 Feb that’s basically a Data Storytelling 101 course, or our two-day in-person workshop from 16 to 17 March, where you will learn how to create your very own data story, with support and feedback from our team.

Tickets go for S$320 for our one-day workshop and S$600 for our two-day one. We want to ensure that our workshops remain accessible for all, so if cost is an issue for you, write to hello@kontinentalist and we'll be in touch. Grab your tickets now at!

Aishah, our front-end tech lead, wrote a complementary article on how to integrate Flourish-made visualisations and charts in your data stories. She coded a data story for our inaugural workshop participants using a simple dataset of their likes and dislikes. You can view her work here, and read the article here.

“In my first year of web development, I ruefully admit that I was rather snooty about low-code tools like Flourish Studio. I preferred hardcoding even simple bar charts in D3. While I did get better with D3 over the years, I’ve also come to value low-code tools like Flourish Studio and Datawrapper which help me visualise my data very quickly. ”

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Did you know?
Image of two women standing back to back, with the female spirit Pontianak on the left side, and a Malay woman on the right side.

A female spirit called Pontianak is well known among locals in Singapore and the wider Malay archipelago. Dressed in a bloodstained white robe with long scraggly hair, the Pontianak is believed to be a Malay woman who died during childbirth and resurrects as a monstrous spirit who resides among the trees and haunts the living. She is known by many names in different countries within the region, including Kakak, Kuntilanak, Kak Pon, Kakak Cantik, and Fatimah Rocker. The tale of the white-robed spirit has been re-told in films and novels, and passed down orally through myths and personal encounters.