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

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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

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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

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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 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