some final thoughts on Oxley

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Dear reader, yesterday I published a piece on Oxley.

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 iconoclasm (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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a piece on the Lee Family Oxley Road saga

Dear reader, I recently published something on the brouhaha involving Singapore’s Lee Family in Foreign Affairs. I’m allowed to republish the first 250 words here; for the rest one must visit the site here (free signup necessary):

Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, is facing the toughest test yet of his 13 years in office. In June, his two siblings publicly accused him of abusing his power to prevent the demolition of the home of their late father—Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Although Lee Hsien Loong will probably emerge from the controversy mostly unscathed, the scandal has increased public scrutiny of Singapore’s leaders. That is a good thing, since it could herald a turn toward more transparency and public engagement in the country’s politics.

Lee Kuan Yew lived in a prewar bungalow at 38 Oxley Road for most of his life. It was there that the founding members of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) met to discuss the formation of the party in 1954. Under the PAP, Singapore gained independence from Malaysia in 1965 and grew from a colonial trading port into a metropolis. As urban development has transformed Singapore’s landscape, the house—with its weak foundations, tiled floors, and mid-century furniture—has remained mostly unchanged, a symbol of modern Singapore’s origins and of Lee Kuan Yew’s commitment to simple living.

Some Singaporeans believe that the house holds important historical value. Yet Lee Kuan Yew wanted it demolished once Lee Wei Ling, his only daughter, moves out. Lee had little interest in being memorialized by historic sites. (He once told an interlocutor who mentioned that Singaporeans wanted to build monuments in his honor to “remember Ozymandias,” the pharaoh whose ruined statue Percy Shelley commemorated in a poem on the transience of worldly power.) But that aversion was tempered…

Click to continue reading on Foreign Affairs

 

 

Why Singaporeans need to discuss 1987’s Marxist Conspiracy

Do people become subversive after reading Animal Farm?

George Orwell’s allegory on totalitarianism was one piece of evidence Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) allegedly seized in 1987 during Operation Spectrum. Thirty years on, the arrest and detention without trial of twenty-two people accused by the government of plotting a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the state is still an episode shrouded in fog. There are good reasons today for society to embrace a more honest conversation about it.

The facts bear mention. On May 21st and June 20th 1987, a total of nine men and thirteen women, aged eighteen to forty, were arrested and detained by the ISD using powers conferred by Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA). The accused were a mix of activists, Catholic Church members, social workers and theatre performers. Some had ties to the rejuvenated Workers’ Party.

A week after the first arrests, the government released a statement tying them to a supposed plot masterminded by Tan Wah Piow, a Singaporean student activist who had gone into exile in London a decade earlier. All of the detained eventually gave written and/or video confessions.

By the end of 1987, all except Vincent Cheng, a church worker, had been released. On April 18th 1988, nine of the ex-detainees issued a statement recanting their confessions, saying they had been made under duress.

All but one, who was overseas, were rearrested the next day. They eventually reaffirmed their original statements and were again released. Two lawyers representing the detainees were also arrested, detained and later released. Cheng, the last detainee, was released in 1990.

Almost immediately doubts emerged about Operation Spectrum’s veracity. In 1991, Walter Woon, later to be Attorney-General, said “As far as I am concerned, the government’s case is still not proven. I would not say those fellows were Red, not from the stuff they presented.” In 1992, Minister S. Dhanabalan resigned from the Cabinet because of his discomfort with Operation Spectrum.

In 2001, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, personal friends with some of the accused, said “although I had no access to state intelligence, from what I knew of them, most were social activists but were not out to subvert the system.” Mary Turnbull, noted historian on Singapore, has called “the alleged Marxist conspiracy” a myth.

Despite this broad-based suspicion about what happened, the government has yet to conduct an inquiry. In 2011 the Ministry of Home Affairs reasserted its position that the twenty-two “were not detained for their political beliefs, but because they had involved themselves in subversive activities which posed a threat to national security.”

Many believe there is nothing to be gained from an inquiry into something that occurred thirty years ago. That is myopic. A nation cannot be built on collective amnesia. By conducting one, Singapore can finally ascertain the truth, strengthening societal cohesion, as well as public faith in its national security apparatus.

To understand why, it is worth first considering the allegations made by the detainees about their time in jail. Long reticent because of their fear of reprisals, some have in recent years started speaking out. Many claim they did not know each other before the arrests. The picture they paint of detention without trial, if true, is grim.

For the first seventy-two hours detainees claim they were made to stand barefoot in thin clothes while being interrogated in a tundra-like room by ISD officers wrapped in winter wear. Sleep deprived, the detainees started hallucinating.

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The santan revolution: coconuts, nasi lemak and cendol

By using better coconuts, can a new restaurant raise the bar for Singaporean cuisine?

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Worker at a coconut processing plant, Sabak Bernam, Selangor, Malaysia


Better coconut milk will revolutionise Singaporean cuisine. That, at least, is the belief of Lee Eng Su, a Singaporean chef, who has spent months on small-holder plots in Malaysia tasting different coconut varietals.

The fruits of his search will soon be put to the test, when The Coconut Club, his new restaurant on Ann Siang Hill, launches with its two signature dishes, nasi lemak (coconut rice) and cendol (a coconut-milk iced dessert).

Coconut milk is generally seen as the poorer cousin of coconut oil and water. Coconut oil is feted as a “superfood”  by many nutritionists, while packaged coconut water has become a billion-dollar industry driven by electrolyte-sapped athletes.

Coconut milk, by contrast, has a much narrower global appeal. Yet it is a fundamental ingredient across South-east Asia. In Singapore, where it is also known as santan, its Malay name, every ethnic group uses it in both savoury and sweet foods, from Chinese laksas and Indian curries to Malay desserts.

Yet decades of market-driven cost-cutting in the local food scene has commoditised it. “Hardly anybody in Singapore uses fresh coconut milk anymore,” admits Eng Su, who graduated in 2005 from the French Culinary Institute in New York—now called the International Culinary Center—and then worked in Manhattan as a sous chef before opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv (since closed).

In keeping with contemporary food movements—including single origin, heirloom and heritage—that place a premium on sourcing quality ingredients, Eng Su identified a coconut strain and worked out a supply chain that will soon deliver a freshly-squeezed, premium coconut milk to Singaporean palettes.

But, with his $10+ nasi lemak priced at more than double the market norm, the question remains: is better coconut milk worth the fuss?

[Full disclosure: I have known Eng Su and his two restaurant partners, Lee Chan Wai and Kamal Samuel, since we were teenagers.]

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Eng Su’s interest in coconuts was sparked off in late 2014 at I Eat Nasi Lemak, an annual convention in Kuala Lumpur that showcases Malaysia’s best nasi lemak vendors. Continue reading

Mauritius diary 4: Life and Food

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Chicken seller, Port Louis

A continuation of Mauritius diary 3: Conservation

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Perceptions of Mauritius among people I know tend to swing between two extremes. Some mistake it for the Maldives, imagining $1,000 per night villas overlooking crystal waters. Others think it is an African backwater without proper electricity.

While there are chichi all-inclusive resorts in Mauritius, the vast majority of the country feels like any other coastal, middle-income place, with shades of Goa, Pondicherry and Sri Lanka. Long-term rentals for two-bedroom apartments range from about US$300-US$1,200 per month, depending on the area. A street side chicken biryani—or biryani de poulet—runs about US$3-4.

Within two days of landing here, I knew I could stay. Continue reading

Mauritius diary 3: Conservation

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The ornate day gecko, found only in Mauritius (Ling: “Even their geckos are beautiful.”)

A continuation of Mauritius diary 2: On race

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When Ling first told me she was enrolling in a conservation course in Mauritius, I was half expecting to meet older hippies, perennially high, with puzzling attitudes towards personal hygiene. Most of her classmates, it turns out, are barely out of college, immensely driven, and with a millennial’s social-media consciousness—the guys have hair-straighteners, the girls occasional gowns.

There are eight Brits, three Australians, two Malagasies, two Mauritians, a Canadian and a Dutch (Ling is the only Asian). It’s been a lot of fun hanging out with them. I’ve learned about everything from bat behaviour and Newfoundland to Black Stone Cherry, an American rock band I’ve started listening to.

This is the generation for whom conservation is an actual, mainstream career choice, not something esoteric pursued by uniquely talented animal-lovers and jaded mid-career professionals. Yet the industry is still very immature and many of the students’ daily concerns revolve around the scarcity of paid jobs and project funding.

People who work in conservation, it seems to me, need to be comfortable oscillating between two mood extremes—on the one hand, the hope from rehabilitating a species, and other local victories; and on the other, the despair that whatever they do is never enough, amid global challenges, such as deforestation, that are immense, complex and relentless.

I know that many people consider a “conservation course in Mauritius” to be a holiday. Yet Ling’s six-month diploma in endangered species recovery seems to alternate between the pressures of academia—with frequent essays, exams and journal papers—and the stresses of the wild.

Ling spent nine days on Round Island, Continue reading

Mauritius diary 2: On race

A continuation of Mauritius diary 1: Friendly people

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Though the Arabs and others had visited before, in 1638 the Dutch became the first inhabitants of Mauritius, which they had earlier named after Prince Maurice van Nassau.

Ecologically, one can only wonder what it must have been like. Without humans or other big predators, unique flora and fauna thrived, most notably the dodo. They were severely affected by habitat loss and the introduction of non-native species such as pigs and macaques. The last sighting of the dodo was in the late 17th C.

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A dodo, a one-horned sheep, and a red rail (all extinct), 1624 Dutch painting

In 1715, five years after the Dutch abandoned their colony, the French established one, renaming the island Isle de France. It became a key strategic outpost as well as a trade port for ships travelling between Asia and Europe. Amid the Napoleonic wars, the British won control of Isle de France in 1810, and revived its former name, Mauritius. They would rule till independence in 1968.

Importantly, a compromise was struck between the incoming British rulers and the French settlers, who were permitted to keep their land, the French language and French law.

Hence Mauritius today has a schizophrenic colonial heritage, with English as the official medium, including in parliament and school, and French Creole as the popular one—in a country named after a Dutchman.

During the recent Euro 2016 football tournament, “Franco-Mauritians” supported France while most Hindu-Mauritians supported England. When England seemed on the verge of playing France, I was told to ready myself for the sporting occasion of the year, a night when the whole country would shut down.

But then the plucky Icelanders ruined the party by beating the English to set up their own meeting with France. Football fans in Mauritius groaned.

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Mauritius diary 1: Friendly people

The Air Mauritius inflight safety video is your first sign that Mauritians are different.

I generally dislike these videos because I miss what they replaced—inflight crew members acting out routines, some with the clarity of synchronised swimmers, others the coordination of a blind macaque. This little fandango was always the best indication of the kind of inflight service to expect.

The Air Mauritius video implores you to watch. It opens with three crew members standing, rather incongruously, in full uniform on a gorgeous beach as the sun sets.

A later scene shows a husband and wife on deck chairs by another beach as their son builds castles in the sand. Suddenly, two yellow oxygen masks drop from the palm trees above, and they nonchalantly strap them over their unimpeachable holiday grins.

Another scene shows them inflating yellow life jackets, except they are not about to evacuate an airplane, but jump twenty feet over an idyllic Mauritian waterfall into its wading pool. The actors look like they are being paid to have fun.

Even the tutorial for adopting the emergency brace position before a crash has been turned into an eco-tourist fantasy, set by a gentle creek in the rainforest.

The message throughout is clear: even when the world around is collapsing, Mauritians can maintain their relaxed, carefree, smiling disposition. It is all in the mind.

By the end of the video, I’ve been introduced to several Mauritian attractions, but am still clueless about the plane’s emergency exits.

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Mauritius is a tropical island state Continue reading

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.”

 

Image credit: Jodarl collections

 

An Australian farm stay

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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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