A reader asks, I answer (part 2)

To resume from yesterday's entry:

3. Do you still dream of becoming a publisher in New York?

No. It pays too little (it always did, but at this point in my professional life it's really way too little) and to have to start from scratch in that publishing world at a time when online media and other infrastructural factors are shaking up the industry, is just more risk and jumpstarting than I'm prepared to do right now. I'm happy as a writer and I'd rather channel those energies more into developing that career, then hopping over to something else (though it's a related field).

4. If you could turn back time to when you were 19, what would you change?

Tough question. I want to say I would tell my 19-year-old self to believe in herself more, rather than to presume there is a cut-and-dried formula for making career choices in Singapore. But I'm not sure that she had the chutzpah at that age to find ways to go on and do interesting things anyway.

I suppose the overseas education was critical in influencing a large part of who I am today and that is the one decision I wouldn't change. Whether I got there by dint of a government scholarship, parental financing or some other funding source was important too, but it's hard to say definitely right now that I would go back and tell my 19-year-old self to say no to the scholarship offer.

I don't think we get do-overs and I don't think we should dwell on them, either.

5. What do you think of Singaporeans who leave behind friends and family for overseas studies and decide to settle there permanently?

No differently than I think of people who choose to live here, be they Singaporean or not. People from many countries choose to go overseas for many different reasons; I think it's safe to say that more people today will live and die in a different place from where they were born. There's no need to pronounce judgement on that.

Someone I interviewed today mentioned the importance of being comfortable in your own skin. I don't think I've ever articulated it that way myself, but that's it, really. Be comfortable in your own skin, and leave other people to be that way too, as long as they're not threatening to hurt you or anything.

* * *

So those are the five questions I was asked. Hm ... that didn't take as long as I thought it might.

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A reader asks, I answer (part 1)

Recently I got an email from a reader responding to my essay, "Once Bonded", which was published last July but apparently continues to make the online rounds. The reader posed several questions which I thought would make good fodder for blogging and offer a break from all the other pay copy jobs I'm working on, so let's have a go at them:

1. Have the eight years of the scholarship bond changed your initial intensely negative perspectives and desire to leave Singapore in any way (i.e. tapered/balanced your opinions)?

Let's be clear about one thing: I did the eight years, then at the end of 2005 I quit being a government civil servant and I've been a full-time professional writer since. So how and what I feel about Singapore right now is tempered by a host of experiences, not the scholarship bond period alone.

Do I feel less "intensely negative" about Singapore? Absolutely. To quote what I wrote in a prior blog entry:
[...] grumpy and filled with a general animus towards towards everyone and everything Singaporean, I spent most of the first six months [after my return to Singapore] frantically calculating how much I could save of each month's salary towards paying off the scholarship bond. [...]

My mother always says that it wasn't till after I took a trip to the US at the end of that first six months, to see the then-boyfriend and college friends, that I settled down. [...] maybe what I needed was to see that the people I'd known and loved in college were moving on with their lives, for me to realise that I should do the same. Quit whining, accept the period of indenture, and get on with it. Besides, eight years is a bloody long time to be grumpy.
As for how the subsequent eight years had an impact on my attitude to Singapore and being stuck in Singapore, let me be lazy and crib from that same blog post. In a nutshell:
I made friends, settled down, got married, bought a place to live and a car, worked reasonably hard at my job, got over all the things Singapore doesn't have, appreciated anew the things it does (chief among them: being able to get good food at all hours, especially Teochew moi (porridge) with pigs' intestines and salted eggs), let my accent go and gave up on the government.
I still enjoy being away from Singapore because I think it brings some much-needed perspective. Singapore is not only a tiny country, but effectively only a city --- there's nowhere else in this country to escape to, just to catch your breath or be somewhere that feels significantly different in vibe or form. I always say I would still be grumpy today if I didn't have the opportunity to get out of Singapore for a couple of months of the year.

Would I migrate permanently? I don't know. I thought about it when I was married, but then you get older, and your parents get older, and Singapore is a lot more interesting of a place right now (despite its flaws) than I ever would've dreamed when I was a child. I think it would be nice to have a second home somewhere else, just to get that regular change-of-scenery (Hoi An is rapidly becoming a prime candidate, in that respect) without having to uproot or disconnect entirely from Singapore. But I don't feel any sense of ironic wistfulness when I say this is home.

Still, I worry about getting too comfortable in Singapore, and forgetting that the rest of the world does not (and should not) live by the same rules, and losing that desire to always want something more, for Singapore to be more, than what it is today.

2. Did government service benefit you in any way, career-wise or 'spiritually' as a human being?

Career-wise, absolutely. I picked up a lot of skills from my teaching and communications work that are still relevant to my work today. Some are specific to writing --- how to communicate clearly, how to gear up publicity or make something newsworthy --- while others are just good-to-have, like public speaking or working with people you don't necessarily have much in common with. I'm still friends (and I don't just mean Facebook-friends) with a number of former colleagues, and because almost everyone eventually moves on to other jobs or life choices, there are a surprising number of ways in which we've been able to help each other, work-wise and on a personal level, even though we're not fellow civil servants anymore.

Spiritually, well, I would say my personal experience in the civil service didn't exactly enrich my soul (perhaps several interactions with students and teaching colleagues notwithstanding). But no one says you have to be defined by your job and there are also plenty of civil servants having wonderful job experiences out there.

I often opine that working in the government carries the same risks and perils as any other job. If for some reason you're stuck in it --- and there are plenty of people who are stuck in their private sector jobs for very practical and/or serious reasons --- then you can choose to drag your feet to work everyday or you can choose to make lemonade with them lemons. My lemonade didn't turn out too badly.

* * *

Okay, so there are three more questions the reader had, but I need to get some shut-eye for tonight. Come back for part 2 later this week.

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In the quiet of the night

I got up around 4:15 a.m. I'm not sure why I did. I mean, I do, I went to the bathroom, but I don't usually do that in the middle of the night. Were the cats restless, was that what stirred me? That was what I thought after, after it became apparent from the hushed voices in the corridor that there were people hanging about outside my flat.

One downside to living alone is that it makes me uneasy to have even one person loiter outside my flat for more than a couple of minutes. There were a couple of voices now, male for sure, but I couldn't make out what they were saying, even though I did what the cats were doing and stood alert by the front door to listen.

I decided I didn't need to call the police or anything. Not just yet anyway. Then I went to the bathroom.

Then the pounding on my door and front window began --- not loud enough to make me jump out of my skin, but enough to figure something serious must be going on.

When I opened the front door --- and the reason I dared to do this was because there is a reasonably stout and padlocked grilled gate that stands between the door and the outside world --- a man identified himself as a police officer and showed me his credentials. To be honest I was still too bleary-eyed to focus clearly on what was printed on them, so you could say I took a leap of faith when I unlocked the gate and stepped outside.

And then I saw the chair, standing beside the parapet, and I knew immediately what must have happened.

(I live on the top floor of a pretty high apartment building.)

There were four police types out there, two in uniform, two in plain clothes. They asked the usual questions, about the chair and if I'd heard anything. I closed my eyes when I answered some of the questions because my sleep-hazed mind was still trying to construct the sentences properly, trying to be helpful, even though I didn't really have much to offer. They took notes and thanked me for my time.

After I went back inside the flat and closed the door, I called a friend whom I knew would be up and we talked for a while, while the cats paced curiously about because they could still hear voices outside. It took a while before I felt more settled, sleepy once more, and we hung up.

But then there was knocking on the door again. One of the police types from before, requesting that I make a formal statement about what I'd told them. Which was fine, except that in the middle of it, he asked if I would be okay to look at an image of the deceased.

I flinched. "How bad is it?"

"Just try, okay?" he said nicely. "We're trying to identify him." When he showed me the image on his mobile phone, he reiterated, "It's okay. Just like in a movie."

And it was. Because in the movies, we've so often seen people with that wide-eyed stare and some sort of anonymous bloody wound. They're anonymous too, most of the dead we see in movies, as was this man.

As I was reviewing the statement before signing it, the police investigator asked me what kind of stuff I write. I picked up a copy of Singapore: A Biography and handed it to him. He did a double take --- I think he was pretty much in autopilot making-conversation mode by then, and didn't expect to be handed a big, heavy book. Then he asked me what book I was writing next.

It was close to 6 a.m. by the time the investigator left. My brain was spinning again, wondering if I was imagining the distant sound of running water --- were they cleaning the area before anyone turned up at the nearby school? Would they check the deceased's prints to figure out who he was, like they do on CSI? What must it have felt like, to look upon the same view I see everyday, and then to let go?

Everything looks normal this morning.

I wonder if the cats heard anything.

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The rest of the Chinese New Year holidays

Leaf-littered stairs

Tuesday: Walked. A lot. And then it was Bukit Chandu, just in time for the annual sounding of the Public Warning System to commemorate the fall of Singapore in World War II. As I tweeted: surreal.

Tuesday night: Drank. A lot. And then it was dawn.

Wednesday: A blur. The good kind. And then the long weekend was over.

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Oranges are not the only fruit

I did not eat a single mandarin orange today. I had chok (thick Cantonese-style porridge), lasagna, pineapple tarts, bak kwa, kueh lapis, muruku, chocolates, nuts, and finally a very non-traditional dinner of lamb tagine, Moroccan mint tea and two bottles of Trappist beer to round off the day --- but not a sliver of mandarin orange.

However, I came home with eight oranges --- four for the remaining Chinese New Year visiting I have to do in the next few days, four to eat when I feel like it and because my mom thought she had too many and did her best to offload some on me. Maybe I'll toss some into the bag for tomorrow's Battle of Pasir Panjang Commemorative Walk.

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Welcome to the Year of the Tiger

Welcome to the Year of the Tiger

I was born in the Year of the Tiger. Tigers are cool, yo. None of that namby-pamby Rabbit or dour-faced Ox stuff. But of course, in the grand scheme of Chinese patriarchy, Tiger daughters are disdained. Tiger women are supposed to be fierce, aggressive. One of my aunts was nearly given away because she was born in the Year of the Tiger. In his Chinese New Year message this year, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong saw fit to remind Chinese Singaporean couples that "children born in the Year of the Tiger [...] are really no different from children born under other animal signs." I can't believe some people still need that reminder. I also can't believe (okay, yes I can, but I still wish he didn't say it) that the Prime Minister --- whose wife is the CEO of the government's leading investment company and whose deceased first wife was a doctor --- ditched a teachable moment (TM Barack Obama) about sexism for yet another expropriation of women's fertility for the PAP government's idea of national good. I wish tigers were not rapidly approaching extinction. I wish people would be nicer to animals.

This is only the third time in my life that I can remember the Year of the Tiger coming by, so pardon me if I get a little proprietary over it. I like being a Tiger. I look at my cats and I think, ah, they would be great tigers. Ink would preside majestically over some jungle, while Sisu would dart around more cautiously, occasionally sinking her teeth into your hand when you thought she was tame enough for you to pet her. The last time the Year of the Tiger swung around, I did not have any cats (nor any blog). I was also ... well, let's just say I was in a different place, then.

What's strange to think about is that I'm probably about halfway through my life now. I'm not about to get morbid (or maudlin, for that matter), but these 12-year cycles are certainly a different way of reckoning things. Since I've gone freelance, I've often felt like every year has to have something, to mean something. The museum project, the book, Vietnam, Korea --- what's this year's thing then? All the more (and I realise this isn't exactly a rational urge) because this year is my year.

My friend Cheryl is writing a book called A Tiger in the Kitchen. She's a Tiger too, so it's a clever title. I'm not quite a Tiger who cooks, but it's not like I've spent my life deliberately throwing myself against stereotypes either. I'm just not very good with the cooking, no matter how hard I try. I much prefer to just eat. Is that Tiger-like?

So it's the Year of the Tiger, and here I am.

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Talking about it

In case you haven't been following the ongoing furore over Singaporean pastor Rony Tan's comments about other religions at a church service:
  • Tan made comments about Buddhism and Taoism that, according to a Ministry of Home Affairs press statement, "were highly inappropriate and unacceptable as they trivialised and insulted the beliefs of Buddhists and Taoists". Online videos of Tan's statements were circulated on YouTube; they've since been taken down, but I watched and transcribed the ones in which he "interviewed" converts from Buddhism --- one male, one female --- in front of his congregation, and my firm impression is that Tan was behaving in a way that was flippant, disrespectful and wilfully ignorant of Buddhist beliefs.
  • The government's Internal Security Department "called up" Tan on Monday and told him not to "run down other religions" (again, I'm quoting again from the Ministry's press statement).
  • Channel Newsasia reports that Tan published a public apology on his church website on Monday. It's four paragraphs long and the apology itself reads:
    I realized that my presentation and comments were wrong and offensive. So I sincerely apologize for my insensitivity towards the Buddhists and Taoists, and solemnly promise that it will never happen again.
  • Tan met the president of Singapore Buddhist Federation and the chairman of the Taoist Federation on Tuesday to make an apology.
  • The Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng characterised Tan's statements as "clearly offensive to Buddhists and Taoists". However he said that Tan was not arrested, as three young men were for posting racist remarks on Facebook, because – as far as I can make out from the Minister's statement – someone lodged a complaint with the police against the three men, so the police had to take action. Which I guess meant arresting them if sufficient suspicions had been raised? By inference, did Tan avoid getting arrested because no one lodged a formal complaint with the police against him?
Now that the online videos seems to have all been taken down (and I wouldn't be surprised if someone's taken a hammer or strong magnet to the hard drive that held the original files), the message from the powers that be seems to be: keep calm and carry on. Which doesn't stop people from fretting over several possible issues:
  • "ZOMG we are shocked --- shocked! --- to find that pastors are saying these awful things to their congregations about other religions! We must stop them!"
  • "We need to make our feelings known! Please join this [Facebook] group to demand that Rony Tan be sufficiently punished for his religious insensitivity!" (No, really. The group is called "Embrace Religious Harmony! Disgrace to Zealots like Rony Tan" and currently has 295 members. Via Temasek Review.)
  • "No double standard! Either Arrest Rony Tan or let the three young Facebookers off with a public slap on the wrist!"
Interestingly, someone named Andrew left this comment over on the website Blogpastor, responding to the post about this incident:
I just don’t see the fairness in all this. To me it’s all always double standards. When the Da Vinci Code movie and books were popular here, it hurt many Christians and caused many to question their faith, yet the authorities did nothing about it, though we voiced our concerns. It was quickly followed by documentaries on TV that further undermined the Christian faith. It seems like its ok to ‘mock’ Christianity here, but it’s not okay to mock the other faiths. What’s up man?!
Which brings me to what I think is the crux of the entire matter. Yes, Pastor Rony Tan said some very questionable and upsetting things. But the worst thing about his entire shpiel was not that he was caricaturing certain religions. He could've been caricaturing anything, but the worst part was that his line of questioning and conclusions were so obviously flimsy, barely containing anything resembling proper logic, and yet he gets away with standing up there every Sunday and saying things that don't quite add up logically, and no one goes up to him politely and says, "Excuse me, sir, all due respect, but you're not making any sense."

I mean, that's the thing about this surreal world called Singapore. In this system, we can castigate people loosely for threatening religious or racial harmony, but we can't sit down, look closely at what they say, examine it thoroughly, thinking it through, and point out, "Um, excuse me, this sentence is relying on faulty logic."

I recently re-watched the infamous "I'm on page 73" speech made by Thio Su Mien at last year's AWARE meeting and of course lots of people were heckling her even before she got to "I'm on page 73". But it intensified at that point because it was precisely the appropriate response: it was ludicrous for her to assert herself as a "feminist mentor" merely because she had been acknowledged in an AWARE publication as the first female dean of the law faculty. Benefiting from any gains made by feminism doesn't make one a feminist (exhibit A: Sarah Palin) --- that's just bad logic.

Coming back to Tan, there were countless instances of faulty logic in his comments, but instead of people having the opportunity to watch the videos and talk about them and peg him for what he is --- a poor thinker, who really shouldn't be allowed in front of a classroom of any size or age group --- he gets labelled as a religious bigot and will probably never speak of the incident again. Which means there's a very good chance that a) he'll never have to question or improve his powers of reasoning, and may go on to say other illogical things, just not necessarily about non-Christian religions, b) no one else will get to dissect his statements, check and improve their own thinking, and in future be better able to see through other specious arguments.

For instance, I think Andrew's comment above is well worth parsing. What is it, really, to mock a religion, and is the goal of society to be so happily harmonious that no religion or social group ever feels offended? I happen to be a huge fan of Dogma and a huge opponent of burning books, even the lamest Chicken Soup books, so you know where I stand on that. But I'm still saying we should have a conversation about it.

The other thing is, if the Internal Security Department gets activated every time anything drifts remotely close to a religious organisation, and/or the Sedition Act gets whipped out to police this type of speech, ordinary people are never going to learn to talk about race and religion in a meaningful way. All the more the current government and its gatekeepers will be wary of letting such conversations even happen, and we will be stuck in deliberate ignorance and with untested logical thinking skills. And then if another AWARE hijacking takes place, I'll be surprised if anyone has the presence of mind to notice that, hey, wait a minute, something's not right in the logic of what certain people are saying here ...

I don't think we should shut people up or shut them away for saying grossly bigoted things. I think we should stand up and point out (sans violence) their faulty logic and lack of compassion, and we should make it clear that their viewpoints are not acceptable in the kind of society we want to live in. I think we should train our minds to pay closer attention to what people mean when they speak. Yes, it's tiring. Yes, it's hard. But that is the only way to make sure people don't get away with saying outrageous things sidiously, moving around certain goalposts to suit a hurtful and/or hateful agenda.

Edited to add (February 13):
  • Commenter Astron has added links below for the videos on YouTube. I don't know how long they'll be active.
  • Channel NewsAsia reported on February 12 that the police have placed one of the three youths accused of starting a Facebook group that stirred racist sentiment on a "Guidance Programme", while the other two administrators of that group have been "cautioned"; none of them will have a record of criminal conviction (source: "Youths involved in Facebook racism incident to be given 2nd chance").
  • Kennethism highlights another video of Pastor Rony Tan speaking in church and making preposterous statements about gay people (again, I'm not talking about faith-based issues, merely all sorts of logical fallacies).




I feel like I've been sleepwalking through the last few days. Maybe it's because what I'm working on right now is related to, yet wildly different from, what I usually write and research about; nonetheless I seem to have taken to it like a duck to water. The most embarrassing part was walking into Borders on Monday and buying up one of every local women's magazine --- I must have looked like a freebie junkie. The most fun part was rambling about Singapore to a client from overseas over many beers. The most difficult part will be when I have to sit down and write up all this material in less than a week's time.

Sometimes, the more I write and talk about Singapore, the more I feel that it appears to be just like every other modern city in Asia --- but really isn't, upon closer examination. Or maybe it's natural to think that way about the city I've lived in for so long.

The other reason for my metaphorical sleepwalking is, predictably enough, that I haven't had proper sleep lately. Mistaking weekday nights for the weekend will do that to you.

I am also rather distractionable. Which, you know, makes me rather distracted.



Milton Glaser and more

Opening night

A Design Film Festival is on right now, featuring a slate of eight films about different aspects of design. Tonight I saw Milton Glaser: To Inform & Delight (he's the legend behind the "I ♥ NY" campaign) and tomorrow I'll be at Herb & Dorothy, "the extraordinary story of Herbert Vogel, a postal clerk, and Dorothy Vogel, a librarian, who managed to build one of the most important contemporary art collections in history with very modest means."

The overall line-up's pretty impressive, featuring films about individual designers, as well as groups and movements. Check it out.



It would seem we are still talking about this

Speaking of "mixed race" issues, here are some old but relevant links that I meant to blog, um, months ago.

If you missed them:

1. "Mixed-Race TV Contestant Ignites Debate In China" (via nimbupani)

The only thing I wish the article had gone on to parse is the extent to which the racism in question is directed at the woman for being part African-American, as opposed to being merely mixed-race. Likewise someone still needs to take a hard look at the dimensions of racism and attitudes towards race in Singapore – how different "mixtures" of race are viewed differently. Even though the government's now decided to allow parents to include both races in the child's registration information, that doesn't get around the fact that there are different social or cultural implications in Singapore to being legally identified as, say, Caucasian-Chinese vs. African-Chinese.

2. "Ward Helps Biracial Youths on Journey Toward Acceptance" (via my friend Peter on Facebook)

The "Ward" in the headline is American football player Hines Ward, who is of Korean and African-American parentage. Korea has its own murky history of dealing (or not) with people of mixed-race parentage and it's becoming a more prevalent issue as many Korean men in rural areas are marrying women from Southeast Asia. (No doubt one of the reasons why most people guessed I was Filipino or Vietnamese when I was travelling there last year.)

3. And just to round up the trifecta, "Who Are We? New Dialogue on Mixed Race", which was written in the wake of Obama's presidential campaign.

Things from this article that seem to me to be stating the obvious, but that obviously haven't been absorbed by modern mainstream thinking yet:
  • “There’s this notion that there’s an authentic race and you must fit it,” said Ms. Bratter, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston who researches interracial families.
  • “When you’re mixed, you see how absurd this business of race is.”
  • “Ultimately,” she said, the goal is “to not have to check a box.” [the last two said by people of mixed-race parentage]
Less angst about sorting people into skin-colour-driven/parentage categories, more rational discussion about what people think those categories mean and how that affects their behaviour, please. Drawing up the longest checklist of politically correct racial categories is not going to help any society make a more sensible decision when it comes to figuring out, for instance, how words like "Allah" should be used.



Hiding from the heat

Tea for two

I meant to go to a book launch today, but after fighting the unforgiving currents of Saturday traffic with sarah (it felt like all of Singapore's five million people were out on the roads) while being subjected to the full force of the tropical sun, then recovering in the cool tranquility of Papa Palheta's courtyard --- heading to the National Library was just too far to go in the heat. The farthest I could make it was to the home of some friends who lived within five minutes' walk.

Tomorrow I'm staying in.



New year, new work

I have been working hard since the work week began. No, really. Just ask the cats.

What I'm working on right now takes a lot of, um, soul-searching and brain power, so I haven't really had the energy to write anything for this blog.

For example, I was going to write about how 'mixed-race' (what an ugly term!) children are plonked into a race category by the Singapore government, but Yawning Bread and my father beat me to it. My father's letter to the Straits Times was printed today: "A missed opportunity".

I don't entirely agree with the last couple of paragraphs as published, because I think you can be Singaporean without being in Singapore, but other than that it's pretty much what I was going to say. I've had my own (minor) struggles with the Immigration and Customs Authority to recognise my 'race', so I've long recognised the daftness of this particular government requirement.

Apropos, I also just finished reading Farish A. Noor's What Your Teacher Didn't Tell You: The Annexe Lectures Vol. 1, which has a chapter, "The Lost Tribes of Malaysia", on the meaning(lessness) of racial categories bestowed upon us by British colonialism. In grossly simplified terms: 'race' is a legacy of the colonial census, and not a very well-thought-out one at that, though today in Malaysia still effectively buttressing the colonial policy of 'divide and rule'.

I've been saying that as far as this racial labelling in Singapore officialdom is concerned, we should all just tick the 'Others' box --- and carry on.



Traditionally speaking

What little tykes wear

When we gathered for the traditional Christmas family lunch yesterday, Packrat noted that he and Ondine had snagged the next-to-last French loaves at their neighbourhood bakery that morning. The shop owner had said to them, "Yesterday, this time, no more already." Then she had added, sagely, "Christmas, a lot of people eating curry."

I kind of miss having curry at Christmas. When I was a kid, for some reason the family lunch was crowned by large tubs of chicken and fish curry, which my parents would order from their Little India restaurant of choice for that year. At some point we transitioned to having turkey and ham as the centrepiece of the meal. Now that I sit and think about it, though, nothing says Christmas to me like neat slices of French loaves and copious amounts of brown curry sliding all over a disposable plastic plate.

Later, at a friend's gathering for strays-and-waifs (i.e. for friends who don't have family in Singapore to celebrate the holiday with), there was an attempt at pong pong croquet.

Houdini lurks

But I couldn't stay and play, because there was more Christmas food waiting elsewhere. And friends too, of course. We rang out Christmas with glasses of Choya (Japanese plum liqueur), which given its alliterative attributes, seems like a fine new tradition to spread around.

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Don't say Singapore got nothing to do

If you're not the Xmasy sort and/or you're wondering how to fill the hours meaningfully this holiday weekend, here are some totally cool, totally unrelated-to-Xmas things going on in Singapore that are well worth your time:

Pretext is a photography exhibition going on at 2902 Gallery (which is at Old School). As the official copy says, "Pretext brings together nine artists who explore the interplay between text and image in art." The images happen to be all sorts of things, from grungy Singapore toilets to warm domestic images to ... well, go see lah. The exhibition is on till 23 January.

(Full disclaimer: two of the nine artists happen to be my friends: the delightfully talented Ho Hui May and Jeff Chouw.)

Nature Borne is a sculpture exhibition going on at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, also till 27 December. There are over 25 artworks by ten artists --- five Korean and five Singaporean --- exploring "the interplay between man and nature". I haven't seen this yet, but I plan to make a little ramble tomorrow.

Finally, Burma VJ is an excellent documentary about some of Myanmar/Burma's freelance journalists (by which we mean individuals armed with small videocameras, internet links and the courage to file news stories about their country that its ruling regime would throw them into harsh labour camps for) and their eyewitness account of the 2007 protests by the country's monks. The documentary is straightforward, powerful and ... Argh, words fail me, just watch the trailer.

The film came out last year and I saw it at a special screening organised by MARUAH last month. Now it's got a really short run at the Picturehouse till 27 December. More information is available at the Facebook page for Singapore screenings.



Cultural cognizance

I realise this is going to make some sound damn kentang (Westernised), but several times this week I've had to swot up on my Singlish/Asian street cred. To wit:

Leceh (troublesome)
I've been mispelling leceh (troublesome) as leh cheh (see for instance here and here). This has been going on for as long as --- well, ever since I started typing these words.

冬至 (dongzhi, winter solstice)
I did not know anything about the traditional Chinese celebration of 冬至 until I saw Adri's tweet yesterday:
Guy next door said to the only Chinese girl in the group, "don't you know it's a big Chinese holiday today?" (No.) "You from Singapore?"
Now I'm chagrined to find out I've been missing out on a lifetime's worth of annual tangyuan (glutinous rice ball) consumption. Gah!

Potong (cut) vs. curi (steal)
Yesterday I wanted to use the Malay word for 'steal' in an IM conversation. For some reason all my brain would spit out was potong and even with my miserable knowledge of that language, I knew that potong was not exactly the word I wanted. (For curious readers, a little Googling threw up this recent article from The Edge Malaysia, "What is life without 'potong'?")

Anyway I had to resort to Dicts.info's online Malay dictionary, which clued me in to curi --- and the moment I saw the word on my screen, I could hear my mother's voice saying "Sometimes people curi-curi the thing ..." I knew the word, it just wasn't there when I needed it.

All right, with all this talk of cross-cultural communication, it's fitting that I leave you with this rendition of Jingle Bell [sic], which I just received from an Indiaphile friend (not Adri, this time):

Merry Xmas, everyone!

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Get your T-shirts here!

post-museum x ampulets tee post-museum x ampulets tee

My dear friends ampulets (who designed, among other fun projects, the spiffy email advertisement for our book events a couple of months ago) have developed two very nifty T-shirt designs for Singapore indie art space Post-Museum. It's a fund-raising effort for Post-Museum, so both designs are inspired by its location and raison d'être.

If you're looking for something with a little zip and zing for that T-shirt lover and/or Singapore aficionado in your life, why not get a T-shirt (or two) for them? "2 is better than 1" (above right) is $30, "Lost Without You" (above left) is available in a limited edition of 100 and costs $35. Order both T-shirts and you get the pair for a neat $60.

More ordering information available at ampulets' website or the Post-Museum Facebook Event page. Post-Museum is a completely independent cultural and social enterprise that provides not only residencies and exhibition space for artists, but also a weekly soup kitchen for needy residents of the area. Get some T-shirts and you'll be helping them to do even more in 2010!



Space for thought

Friday night

The thing about putting together a collection like this, is that some days you find yourself having meeting after meeting, and while they are good meetings in and of themselves, and quite enjoyable in the moment, afterwards you are left feeling like your brain has left the building and why isn't there a little capsule hotel where you can crawl in and nap for an hour so.

Lucky for us, Cheng Tju came to the rescue with the suggestion of The Black Sheep Cafe, and it was very pleasant to clink glasses in an unexpected little country-style cafe on the periphery of Little India.

Speaking of Little India, the exhibition Migrant Tales has just opened at the Migrant Voices space at 65 Kerbau Road (map). It draws from the oral history archive that Migrant Voices is building up, of migrant workers in Singapore. The exhibition is evocative and provocative, and the short film Confluence of Lands is well worth the 20 minutes it asks for. Go and see!

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Be kind, Rewind

It's an odd thing to have an acquaintance come out to you as you're on your way out of a jam-packed inch-sideways-through-the-crowd gay bar --- not odd as in "I don't need to know", but odd as in I guess him seeing me in a gay bar made him think, ah, she's hanging out here, she must be okay to come out to, and so he did, half-shouting it so that I could hear him above the music and crowd noise.

Of course, it's even odder to have another friend introduce me to his gay friends at that same bar, only to follow up every introduction with an emphatic, "But she's not a lesbian." He said it's so that they know to introduce their eligible straight friends to me. I said it made me feel like I should have a disclaimer plastered to my forehead.

Not-odd was stumbling across another acquaintance's birthday party at the same bar. I didn't clink any champagne, but I gave him a hug and it was very nice to see him surrounded by the people he loves and who love him dearly.

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Stalking Saint Jack

Jack Flowers stood here

I've seen Saint Jack before on DVD, but when I saw that the National Museum of Singapore was packaging a special screening of the film with a bus tour by Saint Jack expert Ben Slater (who also happens to be a friend of mine), I knew I had to be there.

The film screening and bus tour was part of the museum's 'Once Upon a Time in the Orient' film programme, which features films that were shot on location in Singapore from the 1940s and the 1970s. Saint Jack's story is a little more sordid than most: based on a Paul Theroux novel of the same name (Theroux taught for a few years at the then University of Singapore), it's about an American pimp who traffics in the seedier offerings of Singapore. The film was shot here under the pretense of a fake film synopsis because its producers suspected that the Singapore authorities wouldn't be too keen on a Hollywood depiction of a Singapore full of cheap whores, two-bit gangsters and (the worst sin of all, surely) people who don't speak proper English. They were right: the film was banned in Singapore after it was released in 1980; the ban was lifted only in 2006.

(For more riveting details, go read Ben's book Kinda Hot: The Making of Saint Jack in Singapore.)

As a Singaporean who barely remembers the landscapes captured in Saint Jack, watching the film again but on the big screen made it oddly more endearing and made the landscape come alive more than from watching it on DVD. Saint Jack's Singapore is a real character, as touchable as any of the other folks gambolling through its frames. Perhaps most refreshingly, it's a place where the streets were full of unscripted activity --- where anything seems possible.

Later, on the bus tour, I was surprised to notice that in our swanky coach of 45 passengers, excluding the handful of Saint Jack cast and crew members everyone else was either Caucasian (hence I assume foreign) or in their 20s or 30s. So when Ben was in the middle of his commentary recounting where a certain place used to be or how a building went through different incarnations (for example, the post office shown in the film is in the Fullerton Building, now the Fullerton Hotel), there really wasn't anyone on the bus other who might remember the place, other than the film cast and crew. (Ben himself wasn't living in Singapore in 1978, when the film was made.) So there we were, sitting in a really nice coach and being driven all over the downtown area, and all I could feel was a profound sense of disconnected history and lost landscapes.



Meeting the Fajar generation

Launch of "The Fajar Generation"

It is quite something to be in a room full of white-haired men and women, to watch them all greeting each other like the old friends that they were, and to realise: These were the ones who showed up. These were the ones who were lithe and eager young Malayans 50 years ago, who thought and talked about politics and showed up for meetings and rallies, in an age before cell phones or Facebook or the Public Order Act.

Some of them were also the ones who were arrested and/or detained under the Internal Security Act in 1963 and thereafter.

The occasion was the book launch for The Fajar Generation two Saturdays ago, and since then this video of a speech made at the event by Dr Lim Hock Siew --- Singapore's second-longest detainee to be held without being charged --- has been making the rounds.

I don't know what I expected when I decided to attend the book launch, other than to get my hands on a copy of the book. But hearing Dr Lim and others speak, and looking around at all the white-haired and still energetic individuals in the room, I couldn't help wondering --- in a rhetorical fashion --- why I was one of the youngest people there and where all the young people today were. Just a few nights earlier at a screening organised by MARUAH, I'd seen Burma VJ, which captures how in 2007 independent Myanmar journalists, monks and ordinary people all showed up, in the streets, where it mattered, at tremendous risk to their own lives.

During the question and answer session that followed, someone asked Dr Lim what he thought it would take for young people in Singapore to be politically active again. His answer was short: "Remove the Internal Security Act." That's certainly part of the problem, contributing to the culture of fear, but after 50 years, I think it's going to take more than that for a real political culture to germinate afresh in Singapore.



There and back again

Earlier this year, at Pin Pin's invitation I wrote the essay "Once Bonded" for s/pores. It was published in July.

Over this last weekend, the Chairman of the Public Service Commission (the government body which disburses government scholarships) Eddie Teo delivered a speech "Defending Scholarships but not all Scholars" in London.

You may come to your own conclusions.

Edited to add (4 Nov, around 2 a.m.): Apropos, the Economist has a report on "A tough search for talent", with respect to the civil service or public service in various large Western countries (via Alvin on Facebook).

Further edited to add (4 Nov, around 11 a.m.): Today there's a report in the Singapore newspaper Today on the speech: "Young scholars with an attitude" (via Phillip on Facebook).

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Neil himself

Neil himself

I didn't have a plan, but I had the kindness of friends and somehow everything fell into place, better than if I had tried to orchestrate it weeks ago.

The line I paused to scribble down in the middle of the session was Mr Gaiman's description of what it felt like to be in Singapore again:
People in Singapore are enthuasiastic – but you're all very enthusiastic in a quiet, polite and organised way.
We laughed, of course, but in an organised way.

Yesterday the planets were in alignment, the ineffable Mr Gaiman did a rollicking Alan Moore impression, and everything fell into glorious place, including the last few paragraphs of the essay I've been struggling to finish since September. I'll write more about its genesis when it's published, but for now I'm pleased that it's done.

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Reading it right

At a reading at Books Actually tonight, I ran into a friend who'd turned up 'cause she thought it was our reading for Singapore: A Biography. "Actually, that's on Tuesday!" I told her. But it was sweet, knowing that even though I don't know her that well, she had shown up on a Saturday night for what she thought was our event.

Tonight's reading was by Suchen Christine Lim, for a new 25th-anniversary edition of her first novel Rice Bowl. I haven't read Rice Bowl but now I will, because the narrative includes an account of an anti-Vietnam War march in Singapore, based on her memory of the actual event.

Lim read bits of the book aloud tonight--- for the first time in public since it was published! --- and one of the extracts was a fierce, climactic exchange between two characters: a civil servant and an idealist, the former insisting on pragmatism and realism, the latter upholding some greater notion of humanism. Lim observed by the by that it was an argument that still resonates today, where modern-day civil servants fall back on the same rhetoric her character did 25 years ago.

Afterwards, my friend (a civil servant, incidentally) and I adjourned to Chinatown for a late dinner, during which we waxed lyrical about Singapore, aspiration, ideals, hope and other big words that are more often associated with Obama than with the PAP-governed society we live in. A "typical" civil servant overhearing us would have probably rolled his eyes or muttered something about "high falutin ideas". I prefer to think of it as us considering paths not (yet) taken --- some of which we might consider now before Singapore devolves into a more calculating, consumptive society than it already is.

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I need to be working harder, but ...

I've rounded off the week with:
Oh, and then there was the photo shoot today for an alumni magazine. Let us not speak of that again (except to say that it was absolutely not the photographer's nor the magazine's fault fault – I am a horribly self-conscious subject and I do not wish the task of shooting my portrait upon any photographer).

I have to do prep work this week for the upcoming book events, as well as other pay copy work – but in a few days, I should have Singapore: A Biography in my hands. If you haven't read the book previews yet, now is a good time to start. So far we've released 'Farquhar and Raffles fall out' and 'The education of Singapore girls'. Look out on Monday for: 'Captain Mohan Singh's dark night of the soul'.

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Coming soon to a bookstore near you

Singapore: A Biography book cover art
Singapore: A Biography
by Mark Ravinder Frost & Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

Ladies and gentlemen, may I humbly present to you the book Mark and I have been working on for the past two years: Singapore: A Biography. After we worked together on the Singapore History Gallery of the National Museum of Singapore in 2006, we proposed turning the material into a book --- a lively, substantive yet eminently readable book that would do justice to the stories and make people, you know, dig Singapore's history a little more. Our narrative kicks off in the Temasek period (13th century) and winds up around the 1970s. Yes, we've got Raffles and Lee Kuan Yew, but a whole lot more as well; just take a look at the people I name-checked in a recent post on the book website.

Anyway, writing this book took, um, a little longer than we bargained, but the book is at the printer's as we speak and our publisher has promised that I will have crisp new copies in my hands in one week's time. Hurrah!

If this sort of thing interests you, please come and hear us talk about history, literature, Singapore and our book at the following events:
For more event details, check out this lovely e-direct mailer (thank you, ampulets!).

If you're in Singapore, you should see the book in stores in about 10 days or so. Outside Singapore, the book is schedule to hit Hong Kong, China and Australia in late October. It'll be distributed in the US and the UK in early 2010. For pre-orders (20% off retail price, i.e. S$40 instead of S$50 for a hardcover 400-page book) or other inquiries, please contact me.

Am I excited? Oh yes. I think I will squee when I first see the book, and possibly a few more times after that. I was just reading several sections aloud to myself today (test-driving them for the upcoming readings) and I'm so pleased with the book turned out.

Please tell your friends and please come to a book event! We promise to pronounce "Farquhar" correctly.

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Play nice

One of the unexpected perks of where I live now, is that there's a playground and basketball court right beside my block, and every evening there are boys playing soccer or basketball there. Even though I live on a really high floor, I can hear the ring of kids' voices every evening --- I can hear them now as I type this --- and it makes the neighbourhood feel lively and lived-in more than a dozen "grassroots activities".

To my knowledge, there are no rules about having to book the playground or the basketball court for games. Every evening, kids and teenagers just show up with their mates, and they knock a ball around for a couple of hours. There are no referees, supervisors or security guards, but there is some form of organisation. The boys have figured it out themselves --- they play in teams and it's not a wild free-for-all. One weekend there were more than 30 young men at the basketball court, playing in some kind of tournament of their own. I have yet to see or hear of any fights, though sometimes the younger kids will squabble lightly among themselves.

Build it and they will come?

* * *

Last week I passed a beautiful wide plain in the middle of a residential area. It was the kind of wide plain you can imagine dogs bounding across, which I hear is what you'll see there on weekends. There are no paths, no benches, no "landscaped areas", no signs because there's nothing to point to. Just plenty of space for all to run.

Is the place havoc on the weekends, then? From what I understand, no. People walking their dogs make sure the animals don't bother people out for a walk or a jog. There's even a regular coterie of hobbyists who show up with their remote-control planes and conduct themselves over in one section of the field, without endangering any passing cars or passersby.

Space. If you've got it, use it (nicely).

* * *

Given all the recent hand-wringing about race (ethnicity) and social integration in Singapore, it's also nice to see that the main group of soccer-playing boys (primary school-aged) in my neighbourhood is an ethnically diverse group. Nobody appears to be forcing them to play together; they just are.

On the other hand, the basketball players are pretty much all Chinese (by which I mean their apparent ethnicity, not country of origin). They're also older --- at least 16 years old, if not up to 20 or so.

The older you get, the more you stick to your own kind? I hope not. Plus I wonder: where have all the girls gone?

* * *

Of course, I'm not advocating that someone march up to the basketball players with a Golden Baton of Racial Harmony and force them to "integrate" their games. They're not doing anything socially disruptive, and if hanging out in a monocultural group were ever considered disruptive behaviour in Singapore, there'd be many larger groups (and some of them less tractable) that would need policing too.

Mostly, I think, it's such a novelty to find such dedication to play --- particularly from young people of school-going age --- that it'd be great if they just carried on. They're not going jogging because it's good for their health. They're not taking up a sport because they might win gold medals for their school or want to "learn to work as a team and to be resilient". They're just at play, 'cause it's fun and they like it.

Play on.



A little fogged up

Kite flying at Marina Barrage

As I told sarah earlier today, I spent this afternoon trying to write something, a very nebulous idea that is taking its time to unfurl out of my sluggish brain. The idea is going somewhere, but very much at its own pace. It will not be forced, only coaxed, and I am a little afraid that at the end of it, it will be a very bad piece of writing despite all this hard work.

Oh well, you never know till you try.

In other news, for a weekday there were a surprising number of people flying their kites at the Marina Barrage this evening, and quite a few of them were teenagers. As the haze settled over the city, it was all so very surreal.

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On peering at the Dead Sea Scrolls

On Sunday I took my parents to see the exhibition The Dead Sea Scrolls & the Ancient World, which as I remarked on Facebook, would more accurately have been titled Cool Old Copies of Biblical Scripture and Other Ancient Texts. Because while there were many old copies of Biblical scripture, including many olde Bibles themselves, of the Dead Sea Scrolls there were truly only four fingertip-sized fragments, and not much to go on by way of historical and cultural context.

As I anticipated, the exhibition was filled with church-going folks, a number of whom were talking about next week's worship session or pointing at extracts from the Biblical book of Isaiah with sagacious expressions. What I didn't anticipate was that after one of the American exhibition curators delivered a short lecture on the place of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the context of the history of Judaism and Christianity, a young man next to me muttered, "Interesting --- the guy is not a believer."

So only believers in the Christian faith (who tend to use that term "believer" in the first place) would be interested in an exhibition on the Dead Sea Scrolls and other cool antique Bibles? Admittedly the curator did refer to Jesus as something of a mythological figure, depending on what you believe (I'm not quoting him verbatim here). But for someone to think that without some kind of religious connection, academics or curators or ordinary visitors like me would have no cause for seeing or studying these very old and precious bits of writing --- argh. I can't even begin to articulate why overhearing that kind of parochialism bugs me. It just makes me arghy and --- argh.

Writing, ideas, ideology, even one you don't agree with --- the evolution thereof matters, particularly what scant evidence has survived to this day. Religions and ideologies have an impact beyond that on their adherents. People don't pack the National Museum to see Greek Masterpieces from the Louvre because they believe in Zeus or Aphrodite. You don't have to be Christian or Jewish to be curious enough to shell out $20 to see remnants of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And likewise I'd like to think that more and more, people are willing to see examples of other faiths than their own, because faith is this thing that takes so many forms, and --- argh.

And the fact that the curator speaks about the Scrolls with such enthusiasm and respect, the fact that people with no faith (i.e. me) show up to wait their turn and squint down at these iddy-biddy bits of animal-skin parchment --- does that not suggest that there is a place for faith but also for those without faith, that there are many levels on which words of faith can be appreciated and valued?

I get why the exhibition was advertised as The Dead Sea Scrolls. I get why the church groups show up. I just wish more people would get --- argh.



Incidental inspiration

When I wasn't thinking about Korea these couple of weeks, I was thinking about:

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Everything's happening right now

Making a list

The list I've made in my notebook:

1. Paradise Lost (documentary photography)
2902 Gallery
till 30 August
11 a.m. - 8 p.m., Tue-Sat
1 p.m. - 6 p.m., Sun

2. I, Polunin
NUS Museum
till 3 January 2010
10 a.m. - 7.30 p.m., Tue-Sat
10 a.m. - 6 p.m., Sun

3. Hunters & Collectors (colonial naturalists/collectors of Southeast Asian specimens and artefacts)
Asian Civilisations Museum
till 21 September
1 p.m. - 7 p.m., Mon
9 a.m. - 7 p.m., Tue-Sun (till 9 p.m. on Fri)

4. A Story of the Image (Flemish art)
National Museum of Singapore
till 4 October
10 a.m. - 6 p.m. daily

5. The Image of Our Landscape (19th-century landscapes of Singapore)
National Museum of Singapore
3 September- 29 November
10 a.m. - 6 p.m. daily

6. Curating Lab: 100 Objects (Remixed)
Helutrans (Tanjong Pagar)
till 30 August
11 a.m. - 7 p.m., Tue-Sat
11 a.m. - 3 p.m., Sun
Free shuttle bus runs from the bus stop next to Adelphi, Fri-Sun

7. Drawing as Form (by The Artists' Village)
Sculpture Square
till 28 August
11 a.m. - 6 p.m., Mon-Fri
12 p.m. - 6 p.m., Sat-Sun

Not in my notebook but I bought tickets to bring the parentals already:

8. The Dead Sea Scrolls & the Ancient World
The Arts House
27 August - 20 September
10 a.m. - 10 p.m. daily

Who say Singapore got nothing to do?



All I wanted was plain-vanilla chocolate

When I found cheap strawberries at the supermarket this week, I immediately knew that I wanted chocolate ice cream to go with them. It used to be you could just waltz up to the ice cream freezer and scoop a tub off the top of the pile, but now that we have rucola, fresh peaches and couscous in our supermarkets, it turns out that it's harder than you think to rustle up a tub of plain, simple, ungarnished chocolate ice cream.

I wasn't about to pay $14 for Haagen-Dazs. Ben & Jerry's (almost as expensive) doesn't do a pure chocolate. Working my way down the price chain and through the ice cream freezer to the very cheapest brands of Walls, Magnolia and Kings, I was still left empty-handed. There was Rocky Road, plenty of Neapolitan and many other concoctions that ran along the lines of chocolate-chip-superfudge-chunky-chocolate-with-cookie-dough. But no plain chocolate.

Not at Cold Storage, not at NTUC. Not even the Haagen-Dazs brand.

I eventually settled for Wall's triple chocolate. As a point of comparison, it was 1.5 times the size and less than half the price of a pint of Haagen-Dazs. Admittedly it's also described on the packaging as a "chocolate and malt-flavoured ice confection".

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The best Singapore blog you're not reading

A Singapore Taxi Driver's Diary --- not updated that often, but there's a good trove of stories already that has some nice nuggets about living in Singapore today.

(Via Heman Chong on Facebook.)

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A little art interlude

Lookit that horse

So tonight I broke my self-imposed isolation and went to the opening of "A Story of the Image", a visiting exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore with art from Antwerp --- from big names like Ruben and van Dyck, to contemporary artists I've never heard of but, from what I glimpsed tonight, seem to be doing interesting things.

And that's all I managed to do tonight, glimpse things, because holy crap, I was not prepared for how big this exhibition is. I'm used to temporary exhibitions in Singapore being small because they're travelling shows and our museums have limited space. But this one takes up the entire temporary exhibition space on the basement level of the museum. After the first couple of galleries, I gave up at trying to look at the art properly because the place was supposed to be closing in 20 minutes anyway. I'll go back another day and take my time at it. Yes, I'll have to pay $8, but damn if it isn't going to be $8 well-spent. When was the last time you heard "16th-century engravings" and "Singapore" in the same sentence?

Suzie and TOHA (The Other Half of Ampulets) were there tonight too, and TOHA remarked that watching people respond to the artworks reminded him of the New York Times article I Facebooked last week, "At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus" (via Hwei Shan). At exhibitions there are always people who walk through studying their guidebooks and catalogues diligently, and there are people diligently taking photos of everything they see or like or feel they ought to take a photo of, and there are people who trudge through 'cause someone made them do it. There are people who sit and sketch, and and there are people who wander, well, wherever. There are people who check it off a list.

There were no sketchers tonight, but let's see if any turn up the next time I pop into this exhibition.



O Cedele

If you were wondering how to pronounce 'Cedele' (the name of a bakery/restaurant chain selling rather tasty eats in Singapore), here is the answer from deafknee (via Stripes and Butterflies), who wrote to them to find out. Now you know.

I wish there was a better story behind the name, but hey, I never got round to making up a good story about why I use "Tym" either.

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Watching the NDP

So I watched the National Day Parade (NDP), because I was staying home to write anyway, and I'd been told that with Ivan Heng as the parade's creative director, there were gonna be pole dancers and Koh Chieng Mun singing "I Will Survive".

As it turns out, this was all the writing I managed to do.

5:55 p.m.
Time to switch on the TV. Oh look, it's Anthony Bourdain waxing lyrical about Singapore food on Discovery Travel & Living. A very appropriate broadcast for National Day --- except that he's swigging down Heineken instead of Tiger.

5:57 p.m.
Bourdain's done; over to Channel 5 for the parade telecast. Except that before that starts at 6:15 p.m., it's the prime minister's National Day Message. Clearly, this is why the mute button was invented.

6:08 p.m.
Every time I glance up, the Prime Minister looks like he's trying really hard to perform for the camera. Which is, you know, a lose-lose proposition.

6:09 p.m.
Oh good, it's over. But I'm still muting the simpering National Day song that they're playing next.

6:20 p.m.
Everyone loves parachutists.

6:23 p.m.
There are commercial breaks in the telecast of the parade?! [Edited to add: It turns out this was the only one.]

6:26 p.m.
Good thing the sound of helicopters flying back for the parade drowns out the commercial break.

6:29 p.m.
I always like watching our politicians to see what they make of all this. Especially Uncle Lee.

6:30 p.m.
Look! Our Members of Parliament can strike a drum-like toy in sync!

Here comes the Cabinet. Do they always walk through a public area where they can deliver handshakes? Reach out and come together, yo.

6:32 p.m.
They're playing Singapura, O Singapura as Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong enter. It's not quite the same without the rousing military fanfare.

The commentator says something like: "Lee Kuan Yew ... 85 years old ... still lending his expertise to the nation ... Goh Chok Tong, our prime minister from 1996 to 2004." Hm.

6:33 p.m.
Birthday greetings from around the world. *mute*

6:35 p.m.
Lee Hsien Loong gets what mr brown would call "ooom-ch'-ooom-ch'" music. I really miss the military fanfare.

6:39 p.m.
I heart the giant Sang Nila Utama puppet. It reminds me of that that old German Telematch TV show they showed on Channel 5 in the 1980s, with competitors in colourful costumes running around the field with joker puppets and other giant props.

6:41 p.m.
Sisu is very curious about those helicopters hovering outside.

6:42 p.m.
Sang Nila Utama looks a little, um, Caucasian.

6:43 p.m.
I also heart Singa the courtesy lion. He needs to have his own TV show. Of course, his Twitter is good too.

6:45 p.m.
"Line-dancing lion dancers" --- of course the pun is intended. Who wrote this script?

6:46 p.m.
Holy crap, in what universe is it cool to include terrorists and simulated chemical attacks in the National Day Parade? Did the parade only take half an hour to jump the shark?

6:48 p.m.
The audience looks a little dumbfounded at the simulated terrorist attack. Bring back the parachutists and Black Knights!

6:49 p.m.
Now there are Navy boats chasing "bad guy terrorists" on jetski past the Merlion. I feel like I'm at an SAF Day show, not the National Day Parade. Bring back the marching contingents and guard of honour!

6:50 p.m.
It's not exciting to watch people get chased when a) you know the inevitable outcome and b) there are no Black Knights involved.

6:51 p.m.
Ooooohhh ... Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries for the Chinooks' arrival. I am seeing Apocalypse Now in my mind.

6:53 p.m.
Underwater camera footage of the rather cool Navy divers, though they look less cool when it looks like pre-shot (not "live") footage meant for a computer game.

There are so many video clips in this "parade", I'm wondering why they didn't just make a feature film and be done with it.

6:55 p.m.
Ah, armoured vehicles rolling into the parade square. It's like an amped-up version of the 1969 parade, when Singapore rolled out its very first tanks.

6:55 p.m.
Naval divers approaching the politicians' seating area with weapons. If this were a movie with Bruce Willis, someone would be getting shot any second now.

6:56 p.m.
Stop referring to them as military "assets". It just sounds stupid.

6:58 p.m.
The SIMULATED TERRORIST ATTACK (it really merits the caps) is over. I hope they bring back the Sang Nila Utama puppet.

6:59 p.m.
Drummer boys are always cool.

7:00 p.m.
Yay, parade commander Regimental Sergeant Major! Cepat jaaaaaaaaalan!

Owwwhhhhh ... the parade contingents have to sing a cheesy song as they march in. O the indignity.

I have been reliably informed that the crazy shit happens between 7:30 and 8:15 p.m.

7:04 p.m.
The traditional marching contingent bit of the parade seems to be in full swing (and no more singing, whew). This has always been my favourite bit.

7:07 p.m.
We interrupt this perfectly delightful parade marchpast to wonder, why is there a giant eye-shaped screen looking down on everything? It's a little creepy and cult-like.

7:10 p.m.
The President arrives. He does not get "ooom-ch'-ooom-ch'" music.

7:11 p.m.
It's the Majulah and I'm too lazy to get up from the couch. Ink is standing up, though (he wants food).

7:16 p.m.
I've always wondered what small talk the President makes with the soldiers he stops to chat with in the guard-of-honour contingents.

7:19 p.m.
Talk about distortions of reality. The commentators just said President Nathan is "well-loved by every Singaporean".

7:20 p.m.
The feu de joie is one of those things better appreciated at the event itself.

7:25 p.m.
The Marina Bay venue isn't grand enough for our marching contingents.

7:28 p.m.
After the SAF marches off, comes the Singapore Civil Defence Force, then the People's Action Party, "the first of our civilian contingents," said the commentators. Hm.

Followed by SembCorp Marine. "Economic defence is what they're representing." Double-hm.

7:31 p.m.
After a slew of uniformed youth organisations, comes CapitaLand. *boggle*

7:33 p.m.
So the civilian contingents consisted of representatives of:
  • the ruling political party
  • SembCorp Marine, which is part of the government-linked company SembCorp Industries
  • a group of teenagers in the Scouts, Girl Guides, various first aid and paramilitary organisations
  • Capitaland, "one of Asia's largest real estate companies"
  • the National Trades Union Congress
What. The. You-know-what.

7:37 p.m.
Traditional dancing ensues. I never have strong feelings about this part.

7:40 p.m.
Peranakan Chinese culture "is being represented here for the first time!" Delivered by a bubbly commentator with no trace of irony.

The giant puppets in the audience are pretty cool. More Telematch, less terrorist attacks!

7:43 p.m.
There are green Barneys! (Okay, they're supposed to be crocodiles.)

7:44 p.m.
Cheesy Chinese music with psychedelic costumes. Now this is what the National Day Parade oughta be about.

7:46 p.m.
And then there were Singapore Girls and disco music. Embrace the kitsch. Pity they cut it before the line "play that funky music, white boy".

7:47 p.m.
Oooh, "Shout"!

7:48 p.m.
Music remix tracklist:
  • "Tell me what you want, what you really want"
  • "Free your mind"
  • "Everybody dance now"
  • "Macarena"
  • "Come on, vogue"
  • [Pole dancers acrobats!]
  • "I like the way you move"
And then cue old-school Uncle Lee. Perfect.

7:54 p.m.
Traditional pipa music with a modern beat and robotic dancers to represent Total Defence.

7:57 p.m.
Koh Chieng Mun does "I Will Survive" with Military Police doing their awesome gun drills around her. She should've had more airtime.

7:59 p.m.
Okay, the kids doing "When I grow up, I want to be ---" was pretty sweet.

8:00 p.m.
Uh-oh, mopey National Day songs. Time for a bathroom break.

8:04 p.m.
Wong Kan Seng has funky new glasses. Lee Kuan Yew looks --- I really wonder what's going through his mind.

All the musical medleys in the world cannot save truly crappy National Day songs from years past.

8:05 p.m.
The heart-shaped mass display formation and heart-shaped balloons floating up to the sky makes me wonder why we don't do something like this for Valentine's Day.

8:06 p.m.
An old news clip of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loon reminiscing about the very first 1966 parade. Ah, the good old days, when if you didn't have heart, you didn't have nothin'.

8:12 p.m.
A float! That's old school.

8:13 p.m.
Nice juxtaposition of sports heroes old and new, Li Jiawei (did I get the name right?) vis-a-vis Fandi.

8:15 p.m.
There's an awful lot of nostalgia in this year's video footage.

8:19 p.m.
The camera sweeps across the front row of politicians during "Stand Up for Singapore" and I'm thinking, it's an awful long time for some of them to be standing up.

8:20 p.m.
There are now so many National Day songs, the medleys can go on for more than 10 minutes and counting, even with using only short bits of each.

8:23 p.m.
When the evil eye screen flashed "The pledge --- you know the words", I really thought they were going to go through with not showing the words on the screen. After 44 years of indoctrination, people ought to know the damn pledge.

Ah, the arrangement of the National Anthem that just might be the least martial one yet.

8:25 p.m.
Clearly, fireworks are the key element to getting everyone psyched up when they take the National Pledge and sing the National Anthem.

8:28 p.m.
And we're out. I wonder if there's a giant dance party at the parade venue now. That seems appropriate.

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Night and day

I. Night

On Monday, I had dinner with a friend from Seoul. She worked in Singapore for a year and a half and moved back to Seoul recently, but can't wait to land a job that will bring her back here again. At dinner also were her friends from France-via-Réunion and Morocco, who have lived in Singapore for three years and counting. "We love it here," they said. "Everything's so easy."

On Tuesday, I had dinner with a former student who now works in New York City. He said he'd come back to Singapore to work if the right job came up. "Why come back to Singapore?" I asked, not provocatively, genuinely curious. He shrugged loosely. "It might be interesting. For a while."

On Thursday, at Polymath & Crust, I eavesdropped on a woman (I think she was French) talking about having lived in Singapore for over twenty years. "It's much better now than it used to be," she averred, "but things keep changing. I can't recognise some places anymore."

On Tuesday after dinner, I walked from Robertson Quay along the Singapore River over to Zouk (yes, I know no one goes there on Tuesday nights, that was kind of the point). The river seemed particularly shimmery that night. I looked across the river, seeing sparkling condominiums, seeing the ghosts of old godowns that used to define the riverbanks. I love my city, mixed-up as it is.

II. Day

I've been assured that there's been a wave of responses to "Once Bonded", though many must be invisible to me because they're on Facebook and non-public Twitter pages. At any rate, the comments that are public and the responses I've received have been plenty to digest. The essay seems to have tapped into what I've been calling a vein of unarticulated dissatisfaction --- though now that I think about it further, I'd rather describe it as a disquiet that dare not speak its name.

The spectrum and tenor of the responses are also fodder enough for another s/pores essay, but I'm not sure yet if I'll write that one. Maybe when there's been some distance and fresh perspective between this essay and the next.

I haven't added anything to the comments because I've said all I want to on this subject already. It's most welcome and intriguing to hear from readers, but hey, even if I were still a teacher, I'd say go talk about it among yourself and work out your own conclusions.

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