Intersecting Spaces

Global South/Malaysia

ZeYi Lai

Dissertation Title

Visualising Wawasan 2020: Aspirations for a Modern Malaysia

Symposium Panels:

My research explores late twentieth- and twenty first- century material and visual culture in Malaysia, with a broad interest in Asian design, archival practices, and alternative modernities.

This year, my first essay explored the textured history of a shipwreck artefact in the V&A’s ceramics collection, the Sea Sculpture: 3 separate pieces of 18th-century porcelain fragments fused together with barnacles as it sat under the seabed for over 280 years. Over its history, the Sea Sculpture transformed from a group of utilitarian objects used in China, Batavia and Europe, to a valuable sculpture mythologised by the V&A as a rich and curious product of nature-as-artist. I demonstrated how the meaning of the sculpture continuously evolved according to the values of the institutions which claimed ownership of it.

My final dissertation explored the design of Malaysia’s flagship development programme, Wawasan 2020 (‘Vision 2020’). Launched in 1991, Wawasan 2020 proposed to make Malaysia a ‘developed’ nation by the year 2020. Whereas previous research looked at the programme as a political-economic project, my research analyses the programme as a collection of designed alternative modernities. These included the grand vision of a distinctively Malaysian modernity constructed by ruling politicians as well as the responses of Malaysian citizens, who manifested their own visions of modernity, both celebratory and critical. Understanding Wawasan 2020 as a modern design phenomenon demonstrates how, beyond state policies and promises, images and objects were central to the speculation of an alternative future for Malaysian development which simultaneously borrowed from and rejected the model of Euromodernity.

Building from this research, I have collaborated with the Malaysia Design Archive to acquire and preserve a physical and digital archive of images and objects which represent Wawasan 2020’s expansive cultural footprint. MDA is a non-profit archive of visual culture in Malaysia based in Kuala Lumpur and is the largest digital repository of cultural material relating to Malaysia. As well as providing an insight into one of Malaysia’s central political projects post-independence, it is hoped that the archive can contribute to a broader discussion of the role design plays in national development programmes across the Global South. The rich diversity of design surrounding Wawasan 2020 is a reminder that these programmes can be fruitfully understood as lively design phenomena.

Material History /Virtual World

The V&A/RCA History of Design MA is offered jointly by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal College of Art. It encourages interdisciplinary, innovative and critical approaches to the history of design across a range of mediums, places and times. Students work closely with the collections and curators at the V&A, as well as participating in the creative community at the RCA.