Singapore, the (occasional) garden city

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For a bit of context, this reflection was originally published in Suddenly The Grass Became Greener, a limited edition “book of photographs made in Singapore during her 50th year as a nation, and the coincidental death of her gardener”, by photographer Kevin Lee. Check it out here.

A friend wrote yesterday to say that she found the piece relevant given the return of the dreaded haze, so I’ve decided to publish it here.

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All of Singapore’s glories, successes, tensions and contradictions are played out in the green.

Surely Lee Kuan Yew deserves credit for nurturing the Garden City, but there were many other green thumbs plucking and planting. What of them? In the green, as in much else, we deify one to the exclusion of many.

We are lucky to have been born into a Garden City rather than a choking, clogged one. But how is it possible that we grew a Garden City while felling almost all of our primary forest? When we call Singapore a Garden City, it does not mean that we’ve nourished a garden out of nothingness; rather, that compared to the Bangkoks, Beijings and Delhis of the world, we’ve destroyed less.

Even as the urban jungle has grown, relentlessly, irrepressibly, we’ve kept a bit of the tropical: cow grass on which black mynahs hop and couples canoodle; bougainvilleas whose stalks droop lazily over green fences, flowers fluttering in the wind, gaily watching the morning rush; durian trees under which tycoons in Beemers slouch, bucket in hand; frangipanis that wink at you, stain the tarmac and herald the pontianak; the untamed splendour of MacRitchie, our wellspring, which sparks memories of group runs and puppy loves; and rain trees, expansive, dependable, unmistakable, a guard of honour from Changi, ushering in guests, welcoming home peripatetic residents.

There is romance in scarcity yet it is unclear if we’ve struck the right balance. Do we need so many refineries on our islands? Must we build a footpath everywhere there is none? Why do we flatten Bukit Brown while spending a billion dollars for an artificial garden on an artificial bay?

Even in our crowning green glory, the Botanic Gardens, Singaporean exceptionalism is evident. World Heritage Sites are typically celebrations of ancient, traditional culture. Singapore’s is an homage to a colonial legacy. We are arguably the only post-colonial state that is comfortable with, even glorifies, our colonial past. While other countries bicker about reparations, we worry about our English.

If Raffles hadn’t chosen Singapore in 1819, what would this island be like today? Smaller, poorer, and probably greener. A Garden City this might be, but by being among the world’s leaders in food wastage, energy consumption and carbon emissions (in per capita terms), it is clear that we are not very responsible stewards of the earth.

We squeal about smoggy air and barricade ourselves against rising sea levels, blissfully unaware of our own complicity. The irony is that if every person in the world lived like a Singaporean—like a “Garden City” inhabitant—humanity would need more than four planets to subsist (says the WWF).

While the edifice of a Garden City exists, its soul needs cultivating.

For long Singaporeans have had an uneasy relationship with nature—flora and fauna are to be manicured and managed like everything else in life. The experience of the natural world here is a distant one, mediated by buffer zones, safety signs and the closest toilet.

Yet there seems to be a growing appreciation of the oneness of life on earth. We have started muddying our feet, growing edible gardens on sky-high balconies and paying attention to our meat’s provenance. Slowly, Singaporeans seem to be realising that humanity’s fate is intertwined with every other living thing’s.

And that death, when it comes, will be a return of our ashes, eventually, to the earth, to a planet more than four billion years old.

We do not know what will be of Singapore in a hundred years, never mind a billion. Yet the insignificance of our lifespans need not dampen the significance of our lives. And even as we touch strangers far away, we love, intensely, those closest to us.

Those, perhaps, are Mr Lee’s greatest life lessons. Even in death, his heart flickered: “I would like part of my ashes to be mixed up with Mama’s, and both her ashes and mine put side by side in the columbarium. We were joined in life and I would like our ashes to be joined after this life.”

 

Photo credit: Jodarl collections

 

An Australian farm stay

Pony ride_Small

Below is a travel essay I published in The Straits Times on May 22nd. This is the original, unabridged version.

Humans have evolved to suck on nipples, not fondle them. That is my sobering conclusion after a morning spent pulling vainly at the sausage-like extractions on Zynya, a nine-year-old, off-white cow at the Cedar Glen Farmstay, ninety minutes from Brisbane, Australia.

The day had begun with relative success. Ten of us from the two families on the ranch had strolled around its undulating grass-gravel grounds, feeding a succession of hungry animals. First a clutch of chickens including the unidentified miscreants who had woken us two hours prior. Then a herd of salivating sheep which rushes towards us, causing Amaia, my two-year-old niece, to take cover behind her father’s calf. Aren’t sheep supposed to be sheepish?

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May 4th: Interviewing Sonny Liew

GN-CharlieChan-CVF-300

Dear friends,

on May 4th at 630pm I’ll be interviewing Sonny Liew in Raffles Place, Singapore.

Sonny’s graphic novel, “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye”, was arguably Singapore’s most important book in 2015. The Economist called it a “brilliantly inventive work” that “does not shy away from controversial periods in the nation’s history.”

We’ll be talking about Singapore’s history, life as an artist, political storytelling through graphic novels, and much else.

Join us!

Spaces are limited, so please do register here. Event is co-hosted by the Berkeley Club of Singapore and the Harvard University Association of Alumni in Singapore (HUAAS).

Tickets are available for alumni and non-alumni (“friends of”).

Hope to see you then.

Off to Mauritius

mauritius-le-morne

Dear friends, last July Li Ling and I decided that we’re going to leave Singapore for a bit. Well, we finally have a destination!

Ling is starting a 6-month diploma programme in endangered species recovery at the Durrell Conservation Academy in Mauritius, part of her efforts to switch from medical work to animal conservation. Her programme begins at the end of March. I will be in and out of Singapore before joining her properly in June.

As you can tell by the photo, it’s going to be tough…we realise we are very lucky and blessed to have these opportunities.

I plan to continue my writing there: finishing up current book on China and India; completing freelance projects; honing my drone and VR camera skills; and finally, possibly beginning work on a Mauritius book.

The place sounds fascinating not only because of its wildlife—or what’s left of it (see Dodo)—but also its human tapestry. Indians, Africans, Whites, Chinese, mostly Francophone, some Anglophone. I’ve heard their rainbow model of multiculturalism leads to much more segregation than we have here in Singapore, one of the many things I hope to learn about. Aside from the Octopus Curry.

I was going to say “Moving” to Mauritius but then I realise I may be spending only five months there, so “Off” seems more appropriate. Moreover, while last year it seemed likely that I may not return to Singapore much, it now seems, because of varied engagements, as if I will always have one foot professionally stuck here. Which is nice.

So, we may be back before long. But till then…stay in touch!

If you have any tips, or know anybody in Mauritius who can help an ignorant writer, let me know. Or if you have any ideas for a Mauritius book, do share. There seems to be precious little written on the country.

And finally, in a very happy coincidence, Air Mauritius is just about to start a direct flight. So for those looking for a holiday, it’s now a mere seven hours from Changi.

photocredit: beachcomber-hotels.com

The King’s reign ends in twelve days: squid ink curry aka black sotong curry

Black Sotong Official

Singapore is soon to lose one of its great chefs and personalities when Rajah’s Curry closes—its last day of operations is Dec 13th 2015. Mr Rajah is planning on retiring and moving his business to Perth.

Mr Rajah is the man who revolutionised South Indian cooking in Singapore in 1972 by declaring “No MSG, No Coconut Milk and No Yogurt in any of his cooking”.

Though he has a broad repertoire, and his fish head curry is justifiably popular, I want to focus on my favourite dish.

There are many expressions of squid ink around the world—in paella, pasta, risotto, and more—but for me it reaches its apogee in squid ink curry. I am partial, however, to the intense South Indian variety, not the much milder Malay sotong masak hitam.1

It delivers a roundhouse kick to your senses, as sharp acid notes and fiery spice, from the various chillies and the black pepper, enliven the earthiness of squid ink. Depending on your palette’s sensitivities, it can cause you to scrunch up your face or gasp for air. Often, both.

This is not a dish easily found. Though I first tried it in Malaysia, I actually don’t even know of any other Indian shops in Singapore which make it.2  When I first tried Rajah’s version in 2006, I wanted to cry.

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Nov 5th: Speaking in Cambridge, MA

Social inclusion image

Dear friends, I’ll be speaking at this event. Join us!

When: 5pm-7pm, Nov 5th 2015

Where: Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS) Harvard, 1730 Cambridge St, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

Description:

Singapore is a small city-state often lauded for its economic transformation over the last 50 years. Less attention has been paid to the social integration policies that brought a racially divided nation together, and the unique approaches and principles that produced them. Today, as Singapore celebrates her golden jubilee, new cracks in the social fabric are starting to emerge: class, immigration and race relations. This panel discussion series focuses on how Singapore has confronted social integration challenges in the past, and the challenges and solutions to social faultlines on the horizon.

Speakers:

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Oct 11th: A book table with Sonny Liew

GN-CharlieChan-CVF-300Book Cover

Dear friends, Sonny Liew and I will be sharing a book table at Mabuk Market, a “hybrid boozy flea art market” on October 11th at Keppel Bay.

Drop by to hang out, chat about graphic novels, literature, travel, politics, whatever. No program, no speeches, just a chill session. We’ll have a few copies of our books for sale.

For those who don’t know, Sonny has written/drawn arguably the best Singaporean book this year, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Come see what all the fuss is about.

The flea market will be held in a giant air-conditioned tent, haze-free, family-friendly (bouncy castle!). Check out the event’s Facebook page.

Romba thanks to the kind people at The Haywire Handymen, Dreamfields and Good Citizen for hosting us.

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When: Sunday, October 11, 11am-9pm

Where: Marina At Keppel Bay, 2 Keppel Bay Vista, Singapore 098382

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Mabuk Market

Full text from organiser:

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GE2015: Three questions from yesterday’s talk

MARUAH crowd photo

Yesterday’s MARUAH post-elections forum was part analytical, part group therapy. For the many opposition voters there, it seemed a cathartic experience. VMA, as one participant described it, i.e. not Alcoholics Anonymous, but Vocal Minority Anonymous.

For me, aside from the camaraderie I felt with many people there, new friends and old, it was also an honour to be on stage with my former teacher, Braema Mathi, president of MARUAH, who taught me at St. Andrew’s Secondary School in the early 1990s.

It was also a great treat to share the stage with such a varied group of speakers, including Alex Au, migrant worker and gay rights activist and a friend for many years, Derek Da Cunha, a political analyst, Rafiz Hapipi of MARUAH, Jack Lee of SMU, and Terry Xu of The Online Citizen.

I learned a lot from all of them; and when the video recording is ready, I will post it here, so you can see what they each said (update: videos ready, see the end of this post).

But for now, I just want to share the three questions I posed yesterday during my presentation.

Did populism win or lose?

Has political apathy returned?

Do Singaporeans ever want an alternative policy platform?

The answers to these questions, I believe, will tell us a lot about the evolution of Singapore’s democracy over the next 10-15 years, if not the next five.

These are incoherent thoughts, and perhaps contradictory. But anyway, here you go. Any comments and responses of course welcome.

1) Did populism win or lose?

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GE2015 panel discussion this Sat, Sep 19th

UPDATE! Venue and (slight) time change due to demand. New details:

Date:   19 Sep 2015 [Sat]
Time:   3pm – 7pm
Venue: 9 Penang Road, #13-03 Park Mall

Please remember to sign up here.

Original post:

MARUAH

Dear friends, I will be taking part in a dialogue at Bras Basah Complex this Saturday at 230pm alongside Alex Au, Braema Mathi, Derek Da Cunha, Jack Lee and Rafiz Hapipi, organised by MARUAH, a Singapore Human Rights NGO (no, that’s not an oxymoron).

Please sign up here. For those interested, my two books, Floating on a Malayan Breeze and Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, will be available there.

Hope to see you!

More details from organiser:

Post-elections forum – What’s at Stake?

On 11 September 2015, Continue reading

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