Two weeks with “Tony”

Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at Mawell Center Hawker Food Center, Singapore.

Ok, fine. I lie. I had only an hour and a half with “Tony”. Enough to be charmed.

I say two weeks because I received the WhatsApp invite from a Singaporean producer two weeks before. We want to chat with you before we decide if you’re qualified to appear on screen across from Mr X who’s flying in from the US.

Who the heck is this? Somebody so famous that he must remain anonymous while he sends an advance troop, scouts to survey the terrain? Yet also somebody who wants to come to Singapore to meet not its property developers, not its politicians, not its hawkers…but its writers?

That overlap between fame and grit. Must be a very small demographic. VICE came to mind. Ok, I said, trying to hide my excitement.

Having apparently passed the telephone interview, the Singaporean producer tells me that Anthony Bourdain is filming his third season of Parts Unknown and the first episode will be about Singapore. I had watched the show a couple of times and really liked it. Food, so long the centrepiece of his work, had become an accomplice to culture, identity, roots. I also loved the cinematography—the dark, hypnotic, Blade-Runnerish palette for bits of Shanghai hinting at dystopia.

Don’t tell anybody about this, the producer says, all very hush hush.

Seriously? That’s a bit exaggerated, I thought.

But she was right. The name Bourdain really does stir the soul like no other. I mention it to a couple of close friends, demanding their secrecy. Soon a friend who owns a restaurant starts lobbying for inclusion. Others offer their congratulations, as if this opportunity alone vindicates my writing career path.

“But why did they ask you?” cracked the more sardonic—and maybe contemplative—of my friends. Well, like so much else in life, I think it’s just luck and networks. Friends of friends. The Singaporean producer asked Tanya Angerer, a good mutual friend, for references. (Tanya and Melanie Chan, another mutual friend, appeared alongside me on the show.)

The two New York producers, Bourdain’s long-time collaborators, had now started communicating with me directly over e-mail. Can you suggest an economist? Easy, Donald Low. Of course, I declared to them my overwhelming bias: Donald’s a good friend with whom I co-authored my second book. Donald, so overburdened by interview requests that he often dithers, this time responded instantly.

And that is half the interviewee selection story of Parts Unknown: Singapore. One of their prerequisites, I later realised, was ethnic comprehensiveness. Chinese (Donald), Malay (comedian Najip Ali), Indian (me), Others (Eurasian chef Damien D’Silva), adhering to Singapore’s well-known CMIO model that guides ethnic policies.

***

“So where would you like to take Tony?” By that point I had started mimicking them, and everybody else in his immediate orbit, in just saying “Tony”. The names “Bourdain” and the fuller “Anthony Bourdain”, hitherto so ingrained in my food-writer-adoring mind, quickly slipped from my vernacular. Friends still make fun of me. “Oh, you call him Tony, izzit?” Well that’s how he introduced himself! It seemed natural, understood, not some false humility or pretentious attempt to connect with the salivating masses of self-proclaimed foodies.

I suggested a 7am breakfast of my favourite Singaporean dish, bak chor mee, mushroom minced meat noodles, at Ah Hoe Mee Pok. It ticks so many boxes. Bak chor mee, or BCM—yes, we love our acronyms—is a dish whose quality has suffered immensely from economic and globalising forces. Ah Hoe is one of the few good ones left, with the most lovely, chewy egg noodles cooked al dente—think fresh pasta tossed in vinegar and chilli—paired with a deep, rich pork broth, in which float homemade fish dumplings, pork morsels, and bits of cabbage.

ah hoe mee pok

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Malaysia dreaming

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This article was first published on Malaysiakini

“Finally I feel like a Malaysian,” my uncle, born 55 years ago in Malaysia, tells me over the phone on Friday as he speeds back to his home in Petaling Jaya, just outside Kuala Lumpur. There is a calm, unhurried pride in his voice, of a victory realised, a victory assured, of a sentence and sentiment imagined countless times before, and now, at long last, finding expression.

In tow is a karaoke machine, over which other uncles and aunties and cousins and friends will fight, as they jump from English songs by the artist formerly known as Prince to the Malay Andainya Aku Pergi Dulu and the Tagalog Anak, as they pick at dry meat curries and toast their new old prime minister whom they once cursed, as they pile up empty bottles of scotch and crushed packets of cigarettes, offerings to this technological marvel that spits out multilingual songs for the Malaysia-Truly-Asia multicultural society whose contours they can now, finally, envision.

Wasn’t the big party on Wednesday? No, Wednesday was for voting and waiting. Thursday was for recuperating and pinching oneself and hopscotching between WhatsApp groups and watching in amazement as a ninety-two-year old man exudes stamina and wit you forgot he had. Friday is when you realise that the sun has still risen and that you’ve taken back your country.

Taken back from whom?

In 2009, a year after that seminal election when Malaysia’s (previous) ruling coalition lost its two-thirds majority, I met an astute Malaysian Indian banker from Maybank. His worry was that some UMNO politicians and Malay nationalists might interpret the shifting sands not as an opportunity to reform, but to pukul habis, literally beat till it’s gone, drain the Malaysian coffers of all they can. Their last chance in the sun.

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Is enough ever enough?: a discussion this Saturday on consumerism in Singapore

i shop therefore i am

How materialistic and obsessed with status competition are we Singaporeans?

Some days I think overconsumption and conspicuous consumption are things of the past, others I feel we have just moved on from the material to the experiential, from leather bags to F&B/skiing holidays (no judgment…probably guilty of all of the above.)

Not to mention the increasing projection of status competition onto children. BYOM–Bring your own maid–one of the best terms I’ve heard recently re: kids’ party instructions.

I don’t think there are ever going to be any definitive answers to any of this, consumerism is so ingrained in the Singaporean psyche, yet is also constantly evolving with migration, technology and other trends.

Nevertheless, always good to engage in the occasional banter, so I’m looking forward to this talk at 3pm this Saturday at FOST Gallery, Gillman Barracks, alongside Chua Beng Huat, a sociologist and author of “Life is not complete without shopping”, and Li Lin Wee, director of “Gone Shopping”.

Do join us to talk shop.

“This talk is free but seating is limited. Please email talks@fostgallery.com to reserve a seat. Unoccupied reserved seats will be released 5 minutes before the talk begins.”

***

Official invite details on Facebook and below: Continue reading

on fake news

therealconse

 

Singapore recently set up a Select Committee on fake news and invited public submissions. It is encouraging to see many Singaporeans getting involved. Here is my small contribution:

Dear Committee,

There are many aspects of fake news that need addressing. I will limit my discussion here to one broad philosophical point: whether or not established media channels globally are partly responsible for creating an environment in which fake news can thrive; and what can be done about it.

Best wishes,

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, writer

***

The very idea of Singapore is founded on fake news. The modern zoological consensus is that lions never roamed around Malaya. So in 1299 when Sang Nila Utama, the Srivijaya prince, landed in (what was then called) Temasek and spotted a handsome beast, it was most likely a tiger. Singa-pura, lion city, could well have been named Harimau-pura, tiger city, in modern Malay, or even Vyaghrah-pura, in Sanskrit, in use then, and the roots of “Singa”.

Yes, Vyaghrahpore. Without fake news, our little red dot might have pre-empted erectile dysfunction’s saviour. [1]

Yet that was more a simple falsehood than “news” as we know it. One of the first instances of fake news in the mass media was in 1835, when the New York Sun published observations of the moon by astronomer John Herschel, detailing “giant man-bats that spent their days collecting fruit and holding animated conversations; goat-like creatures with blue skin; a temple made of polished sapphire”.[2]

The fake news had the desired effect—among a public hungry for galactic fantasies, the Sun’s circulation rose from 8,000 to over 19,000, making it the world’s bestselling daily.

All this is simply to point out that fake news has been around for over a century at least. It is not just some new-age digital poison spewed by greedy Macedonian teenagers, disenchanted trolls in Saint Petersburg, or others of their ilk.

Moreover it is not only dubious, fly-by-night media outfits that are prone to publishing fake news. Some of the industry’s most venerable brands are too.

It would be convenient for me to make this point by pointing out possible fake news by conservative stations, like Fox News, whose political views differ from mine.

So instead I will point out possible fallacies in two newspapers which I hold in the highest regard: The Economist and The Financial Times.

And I will do so by defending two politicians whose views I find ignorant at best: Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.

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Forty

Birthdays, for me, are less cause for celebration than reflection. I’m sharing this in the hope that it resonates with some other middle-aged fogeys out there. If it slides into self-indulgence, please forgive me.

Food
Over the past few years, my biggest dilemma has concerned how to modify my personal food consumption: how to balance my carnal, insatiable omnivorous lust for taste with the harsh realities of modern, industrialised agriculture; global warming; and global resource depletion.

When in college, I listened to vegans, infused with a Berkeleyan self-righteousness that I both adore and fear, preach about the importance of switching toothpaste and ditching all (animal) leather.

In Singapore, I mix with many carnivores who extol the virtues of meat, including on religious grounds (“Man to rule them all”) and nouveau dietary (the low-carb, Good Fat joes).

I do not think it fair to judge anybody because we are all, every day, trying to balance competing physical, emotional and spiritual desires. People should be allowed to move along the spectrum of conscious, sustainable consumption at their own pace.

So, after much contemplation and soul-searching, I have decided on my one fortieth birthday resolution: to switch to free-range meats. I had a brief intellectual flirtation with vegetarianism, maybe even pescatarianism, but finally settled on free range because that aligns best to my personal goals and beliefs.

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Singapore, Bali diaries

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View of Gunung Agung from Gili Trawangan, the biggest of the three Gili islands, where I was lucky enough to spend a week

Response to my piece on Singapore’s presidential election

Usually when I write about SG politics, some pro-PAP people will criticise something about my argument, as well as my character and integrity. This time, they were quiet; in fact, some sent me personal messages thanking me, and saying that now, for the first time, they are losing hope in the party.

Of course, nobody expects a significant electoral impact in the short term. Ahead of the next general election, the PAP, just like incumbent parties everywhere, will probably drop money into the pockets of Singaporeans, and all will be forgotten—the subverting of democracy and meritocracy, the flooded train lines, all will be forgotten.

This time, with my piece, most of the critiques came from non-establishment folk. Quite refreshing! While they shared my disdain for the process, they disagreed with my conclusion that it is important to nonetheless vote—if we had had the chance—for the sake of racial harmony. They felt, for a variety of reasons, that it was more important not to endorse a flawed process. (The comments on Lynn Lee’s FB post are a good summary.)

Political messaging and jousting

The below is highlighted as a negative example. Those words are copied from the post; they are not mine, and I certainly don’t agree with any of this.


Halimah 9:11 Facebook

Given my worries about sectarianism, I was appalled to see an alternative-media journalist I respect posting the above image. Perhaps there is some base humour to be distilled from the 9/11 commonality, but to compare the impact of Halimah’s walkover in Singapore to the impact of Islamic terrorists in NYC is irresponsible.

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on Singapore’s presidential election

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Farid Khan; Halimah Yacob; Salleh Marican

 

For months I have been committed to spoiling my vote.

The way the government has gone about the entire exercise is problematic. First, amending the constitution with the main intention of—most people believe—blocking a candidate it doesn’t like. Then, dressing up the political manoeuvre as affirmative action for Malays. Then organising endless surveys, forums, articles, etc. to sell it to Singaporeans, in the process draining taxpayers’ time and money.

Finally—and this is the real worrying thing—showing basic incompetence in its execution, in the definition of “Malay”, in the definition of “elected presidency”, apparently unaware of the numerous pitfalls of this manoeuvre, of the horrid racial interrogations that would follow.

Every bit of political messaging, every sound byte emanating from the Orwellian top, had me wondering: is this Pravda, is this Newspeak, am I living in some parallel universe? Does the government really think we are that stupid?

And yet, over the past two weeks I have changed my mind. I believe it is necessary, as somebody committed to multiculturalism, to endorse this reserved election and vote for a Malay candidate. Spoiling my vote could, in some microscopic way, threaten societal cohesion, as I will explain below.

Assuming there even is a vote, whom to choose? That doesn’t really matter so much, I feel. Personal preference. They are all talented and competent in their own way.

For me, I would choose Halimah Yacob, because she’s female and because she seems to be that rare politician committed to simple living—two causes I believe, in whatever small way, need to be encouraged.

Yet even if she becomes president—as seems almost certain—her presidency will always be tainted. If we, as citizens, are to have an honest relationship with her, we must never let her forget that.

#tanchengblock
I remember the moment like it were yesterday: during campaigning for GE 2015, Tan Cheng Bock strolling into a nighttime SDP rally headlined by Chee Soon Juan and Paul Tambyah, his avuncular smile moving in and out of stadium lights and shadows.

The people around me, tiptoeing on soft earth, flag-waving arms growing weary, went ballistic. Thunderous applause and cheers, yet different from before. This was a self-affirming chest bump, the kind offered to high-profile converts anywhere, and for the demure-looking political virgins there who still believed that even uttering “S.D.P.” might be a crime, here was their ultimate vindication.

The man of the people, the former insider and newly baptised insurgent.

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Yayoi Kusama in Singapore

Yayoi Horse.jpg

Horse Play Happening in Woodstock, 1967

 

Embrace narcissism.

When you recover from the invasion of polka dots on your smartphone—yellow-and-black, primary colours on white, pixelated stardust from some neon galaxy, arresting but soon annoying, with the never-ending shower of selfies, with Singaporean FOMOness suffocating all sensibilities—when you recover from that all, remember that Yayoi Kusama probably wanted you to embrace narcissism.

How else to explain the alleyway of convex mirrors, where you are forced to either stare down or stare at your reflection, sidestepping couples waiting patiently for a break in traffic. Or the Infinity Mirrored Room—Love Forever, into which you pop your head and see your friend’s face, and endless reflections of yourselves lit up by psychedelic lights.

And how else to explain the most popular exhibit, Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, a hanging-LED infinity mirror room, into which you walk, and immerse yourself in some glittering self-absorbed universe, trying not to think of the next person in line and the usher outside timing you, for precisely thirty seconds, with a stopwatch. (“It’s the only fair way.”)

“Up till Kusama, there were many artists from the Renaissance on, who were involved with perspective and infinity but it was all a fake because you knew, you were the viewer you were always aware that you were the master,” said Richard Castellane, a former gallerist, in a documentary on her.

With her infinity rooms, Kusama fools us in a way never done before. Does “Infinite You” prove your infinite worth or your infinite irrelevance?

The Singaporean, a species engaged in perennial status competition, is the perfect subject for her play. Over the years, we have become far more sophisticated in our social media mating dances. The garish displays of branded leather are disappearing. Today there is a new battleground: travel.

So we are treated to selfies that say nothing more than “I am here.” Of course, all this is not the preserve of the Singaporean, arguably less cultural than generational, of Xs and Ys. Still, as with most money-fuelled pursuits, Singaporeans tend to go the extra mile. (A photo of your holiday business class seat? Are you trying to show off your carbon footprint?)

No surprise, then, that Yayoi’s dots have colonised our smartphones. Yet now that the torrent has slowed, one hopes her audacious aesthetics are not the only thing we remember.

***

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Singaporean fornications

tharman_conqiang

A Singaporean pro-government, ultra-rightwing group today accused China of interfering in the country’s domestic politics. This came after China’s premier, Li Conqiang, met Singapore’s deputy prime minister, Tharman Shanmugahentak, in Dalian, China. In what is seen as a thawing of the prickly bilateral relationship, Mr Li accepted an invitation to visit Singapore from Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, which was conveyed by Mr Shanmugahentak.

However, supporters of Mr Lee are concerned that Mr Shanmugahentak’s public success will boost his popularity in relation to Mr Lee. Though he has often downplayed his own political ambition, Mr Shanmugahentak is seen as the most obvious challenger to Mr Lee’s leadership of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). His success in wooing the Chinese stands in stark contrast to Mr Lee’s numerous gaffes in dealing with them.

“Why does China ignore Lee Hsien Loong but then show face to Tharman?” asked Jerkoff Chua, founder of the extremist organisation, Fornications Within The PAP. “They are trying to show that the centre-half is better than the striker. They are trying to show that race doesn’t matter. But Singaporeans are smarter than that. We know that race matters. We know that Singapore is not ready for an Indian prime minister.”

This is not the first time China has interfered, claims Jerkoff. He says that prior to the 2011 Singapore General Election, China paid Taiwan-based lawyer Chen Show Mao “shitloads” of money to return home to Singapore and join the opposition Workers’ Party. “In terms of the worst ever Chinese overseas investment, Show Mao is second only to Forest City in Johor,” laughed Jerkoff.

The meeting coincides with the most serious test of Mr Lee’s leadership to date, as he fends off accusations of abuse of power from his two siblings.

Yet not all pro-government forces are worried. “Tharman cannot rally Indians, lor” said Xiu Xi, a Singaporean vlogger known best for her ability to colour her hair. “Tharman don’t even sound Indian! The Mama accent damn funny one. But Tharman don’t have it. He want to be actor but our world-class director Jack Neo neber hire him. Tharman is a Power England kind of Mama.”

K-Pop Mahburani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Apology, wanted to say just three things: “China is big; Singapore is small; the Old Man is gone.” K-Pop volunteered his opinion on the sidelines of a MinLaw documentary entitled “Hantam academics to distract public from ownself problems.”

Prime Minister Lee appears unbothered by these suggestions that China and Mr Shanmugahentak are in cahoots. “We do not take these accusations of meddling seriously,” said Cha Ching, representing the Prime Minister’s Office (Cha Ching is Mr Lee’s wife and the head of Termasak).

When we visited Cha Ching at 838 Oxley Road, she was in a relaxed mood as her twenty bulldogs, released from their Cabinet, helped her gather items strewn around the compound. “These aren’t nobodies,” said Cha Ching, stroking her obedient pets. “They are dogsbodies.”

Most Singaporeans surveyed said they don’t care about politics; but are happy that Mr Shanmugahentak has secured access to our Chinese lifeblood—Taobao.

Mr Shanmugahentak himself was not available for comment. According to his spokesperson, he is currently in Alor Setar, Malaysia, “learning how to wear a songkok and speak Malay”.

***

The above is satire. Original news article here.

Hat tip to Mr. Brown.

“Government bans ’69’ sexual position”, one of my older satires, is here.


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some final thoughts on Oxley

38 Oxley GPox21304

Dear reader, yesterday I published a piece on Oxley mostly for a foreign audience.

During my research, my conversations with numerous people threw up lots of fascinating insights into personal motivations, characters, the way Singaporean institutions work with each other, the way power is deployed, and so on. Much of the juicier, hearsay stuff should probably be saved for coffeeshop talk, but here are a few issues—separate from the ones I address in the piece—worth pondering:

Let’s not talk about it? First, the most worrying thing. If Singapore ever faces a serious corruption problem at the top, we now know there are many Singaporeans who won’t bother. A corrupt leader may simply be able to waltz off with the family jewels.

Think about it. The prime minister’s own siblings had accused him of abuse of power. Instead of simply being curious about the incident, never mind calling for an investigation, many Singaporeans shot the messengers—please don’t air your dirty laundry in public.

Worse, there were suggestions that Singaporeans shouldn’t talk about this because it damages our country’s reputation. People were more concerned about face than abuse of power. Let’s just sweep everything under the carpet, now. That’s the mature way to deal with problems.

The Old Man. Shouldn’t LKY shoulder at least a bit of the blame? For somebody so decisive in life, he has proved frustratingly ambiguous in death. He flip-flopped over including the demolition clause in his will. He gave each kid an equal share of his estate; but, knowing that they disagreed over the fate of the Oxley Road house, he gave the property to Lee Hsien Loong but placed his demolition desire, legally, in the hands of the executors, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, the only one to live there. Settle your differences, he seems to have been saying.

The Old Man, clearly, was never able to reconcile his two competing morals: on the one hand, shunning monuments (destroy the house), and on the other, realising that the state’s interests must always supersede the individual’s (let the government decide).

I suspect, given what we now know about his squabbling children, that he may not have died in peace. Which is sad.

On a related note is LKY’s fabled belief in simple living. It’s all quite ironic, isn’t it? This was a man who inspired a country of materialists. So while the rest of us have been upgrading our shoes, phones and TVs every chance we get, the founder was still chilling in his midcentury wooden chair. And now we want to preserve it all.1

Sarojini Naidu, a poet and political activist, once joked that it cost India a fortune to keep Gandhi in poverty. She was referring to, among other things, the fact that while he travelled in third-class in his homespun dhotis, lots of money had to be spent on buying up tickets to clear up the cabin and ensure his security.

Observing the fracas over 38 Oxley Road, one wonders if we might one day say the same about LKY’s simple living—that it ended up costing us a fortune.

The squabbling children. With Hsien Loong, his motivations seem fairly clear. The house offers a physical link to his father, from whom he derives much legitimacy. It is fairly well accepted that if Hsien Loong were not his father’s son, there are others in the party, including George Yeo and Tharman, who might have posed a bigger challenge. (That said, let’s acknowledge that Hsien Loong was born with a challenge, with shoes to fill, beyond our wildest.)

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