Singapore, Bali diaries


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.

This journalist apparently had considered the religious sensitivities, and decided that it was acceptable. He/she made an argument on free speech grounds, a point of view I am sympathetic to. We agreed that intolerance of speech is a growing scourge to critical thinking faculties everywhere.

Nevertheless, after my complaint, the journalist immediately removed the post (and is aware that I intend to use it as an example).

But what about journalists who aren’t as contemplative? What about miscreants seeking to sow discord?

The day after the PE a mainstream-media journalist asked me what I think the PAP could do to regain lost trust and combat criticism. My answer: first, it might give Halimah enough space to be her own person. Second, it might attempt to portray any opposition to the PE as racially-motivated. Neither is easy, but they are possible.

The inverse of that is, for the opposition, they should not make it easy for the PAP to paint them into a racist corner. In the last election, for example, one of The Workers’ Party’s proposed immigration policies made it vulnerable to accusations of being anti-foreigner. (I criticised it too.) Memes like the above, if used by the opposition, can be political suicide.

And they are unnecessary. For the opposition, this PE is like the proverbial gift that keeps on giving. Every time a PAP politician speaks on this issue, the party digs a deeper hole.

Lee Hsien Loong recently said that the reserved election is necessary because without it, “a non-Chinese candidate will have no chance” in an open election. There are two problems here. First, he is effectively accusing Singaporean voters of voting along racial lines, something for which there is little, if no, evidence. As far back as 1981, for instance, a Chinese-majority district voted in JB Jeyaretnam over his Chinese opponent.

Second, Lee is conveniently forgetting about SR Nathan, who won two presidential elections uncontested in 1999 and 2005. Far from having “no chance”, SR was so domineering that no other qualified candidate wanted to even stand against him (some were disqualified).

There are other countries, of course, where one could make this accusation. “Indians don’t cast their vote, they vote their caste” is an old maxim (albeit one whose electoral significance is disputed by some today). In Malaysia, a race-based political system has fostered communalism in voting and other areas of life.

However most Singaporeans I know want to vote for the best person regardless of race. The broad-based, cross-party-lines admiration for Tharman is proof of that.

Hsien Loong’s comments unfortunately do not square with the facts. Instead, they come across as another flailing attempt to rationalise a flawed political manoeuvre.

Or maybe, when he says “a non-Chinese candidate will have no chance”, what he actually means is that “a PAP-linked Malay candidate will have no chance.” Ahhh, there is another conversation, then, to be had about why many talented Malays in Singapore do not want to join the PAP.

Shanmugam, meanwhile, appears to be engaging in relentless linguistic gymnastics. Check out this meme created by Andrew Loh.

Andrew Loh meme

For more background to this “Policy question or legal question?” debacle, see Sylvia Lim’s and Shanmugam’s transcripts here.

On a related note, Shanmugam has gotten involved in a grammatical tussle with Cheng Bock. Shanmugam’s overly-defensive Facebook post reflects his absolute certainty (surprise, surprise) that he is right. How is it that one of our country’s top legal minds cannot see how his words are more likely interpreted in another way? Here is my comment on that post:

Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 4.24.40 PM

Though my politics probably differs markedly from Shanmugam’s, I have always admired and respected, among other things, his oratorical and debating skills. Unfortunately these comments—and some others about the PE—are enough reason to give pause.

On Malay food

The two weeks I just spent in Bali and Gili reminded me how delicious Malay/Indonesian food is—and how healthy and nutritious it can be. Never mind the vegan-fuelled nuttiness of Ubud (Jackfruit taco. Yum), my meals on Gili Trawangan, the biggest of the three Gilis, were a pleasant surprise. When I landed on this hedonistic hideaway, I was expecting party-goers to be subsisting on utilitarian fuel: bread, canned food, potato chips, Red Bull.

Instead, they were eating at the local open-air night market, where my plate of nasi campur with four veges and one meat cost Rs. 20,000 (< US$2). The vegetables had that fresh crunch, as if they had only just been plucked in Lombok—a thirty-minute boat ride away, from where most of Gili’s produce comes—chopped up, boiled and tossed. Minimal oil, and if not for the sambal I would have been crying for more salt.




I also had one of the best chicken satays ever; lean and juicy, presumably from one of the local kampung chickens—real free range, not like the “kampung chickens” we get in Singapore, reared in coops in which they can move a bit. The only bit of decadence on that plate were the purposefully-added morsels of chicken skin. Yum.


The ketupat was soft as sponge. On a related note, within Bali’s incredible universe of fabulous fresh produce, I have long been unsure which I consider best. Balinese pigs and tamarillos (terong belanda, literally Dutch eggplant) are up there, though I think I have decided to plonk for rice. Beras Bali (the best white strain) and the costlier Beras Merah (red). Could eat them all day; carried home two kilos each.

Also available at the Gili night market is fresh seafood, from snapper and tuna to squid and lobster, most caught, I learned, in the seas around Sumba to the east. (Gili’s waters are in a marine-protected area—incredible snorkelling.)


I ate a barbecued trevally while billows of smoke from crackling charcoal fires flew past me, the only downside of choosing the night market over an atas Gili restaurant. The meal was again, simple, clean, and if one forgives the carcinogens, seemingly healthy.

Around Malaysia I have eaten similarly nutritious meals, from the ikan bakars along the Pahang coastline and the herb-flecked nasi ulams of Kelantan to the mind-boggling array of fresh fish in Langkawi.

The obvious question, then, is why do Singaporeans not have easy access to this healthy, nutritious Malay food in our own city?

The background to this concerns Singapore’s current efforts to stem the rising incidence of diabetes. One simplistic article by the government-controlled media suggested that there is something inherently unhealthy about Indian and Malay foods and diets and thus their higher diabetes rates. One of my favourite lines: “However, to truly nip the problem of unhealthy food habits of the ethnic minorities in the bud, more needs to be done…”

The article says nothing about underlying dynamics. What role does income play? In most societies, as people first enter the middle class, they tend to eat richer food—see China and India right now—leading to a higher incidence of so-called rich-country diseases. When they get even richer, however, eventually gym memberships and kale shakes become more prevalent, if not de rigeur (one t-shirt slogan in Ubud: “Namaste, bitches”).

Also, one of the main reasons lower-income people around the world cannot prepare healthier food at home is time; when you are juggling two jobs—one of which could be housework—it is often easier to wolf down a hamburger than prepare a healthy, homemade soup (not to mention the cost of good vegetables).

So, in Singapore, what is the role of income in explaining the relative diets between the (higher-income) Chinese and the (lower-income) Malays?

What roles do geography and urbanisation play? Singaporean Malays do not have access to the coastal, kampung diets some of their brethren in Malaysia/Indonesia enjoy. A young unemployed man from Nenasi, a beach town in Pahang, whom I wrote about in my first book, spent much of his day fishing off the beach. He had very little yet seemed to enjoy a much better diet than low-income urban Malays, whether in KL or Singapore.

What role does genetics play? I know some Indians are predisposed.

Finally, market forces. Let me illustrate this by talking about Ubud, which has developed so much since I first visited many years ago. Every time I find myself having to stay further and further away from town for solitude—this time, a lovely Airbnb in Goa Gajah. Among the many other brand names that have infiltrated town, Virgin Coconut Oil and Polo Ralph Lauren seem to be on every other street corner.

So does Bebek Goreng (fried duck), whose name now dances across signboards like some carnivorous rebuke to the vegan insurgency. There was a time when I could count on one hand the places that sold bebek goreng in Ubud. Now every other small shack recognises it as an essential marketing hook.

Does that imply that the Balinese have become unhealthier and are eating bebek goreng every week? Of course not. (Bebek betutu is far better.)

It is not a perfect parallel, but it strikes me that something similar may be going on in Singapore. When diners, local and foreign, go out for Indian or Malay food, it seems to me they are often indulging in some decadence. Why is greasy roti prata so much more popular than a clean capati? Why has nasi lemak plunged into a deep-fried rabbit hole in Singapore? Would the Singapore market, locals and visitors, appreciate healthy Indian and Malay food?

I do not know the answers to any of these questions. Over the past few weeks, Indians and Malays I’ve spoken to have different views on the subject. “The Malay food in Singapore is so unhealthy!” declared a Singaporean Malay dentist who migrated to Christchurch 15 years ago, who was my cabin mate on a flight last week SG-London, where he is visiting his daughter in med school.

All my suggestions, particularly the last few on market forces, are speculative. But they are questions that need to be asked.

If Singaporeans are to better understand each other’s cultures, we need deeper and far more sophisticated conversations than our politicians and food bloggers and mainstream media have been, ahem, feeding us.

So, apa macam, Halimah? Can you organise a Malay Health Food raya at your next open house? (Or you prefer Indian?)


A Singaporean in Ubud

Not the first time this has happened, but a Facebook post while abroad in Bali led me to a new Singaporean friend who works there.

And quite a rare breed. Teck Heng is a few years older than me; a Bahasa-speaking, former government scholar turned hotellier, who was in Ubud ahead of the opening of his second property there, SereS. (I later discovered that Teck Heng is married to a Malay JC yearmate of mine.)

When he heard that I might get stranded in Bali, Teck Heng offered me a room and whatever other help I needed. Very nice of him. Since Agung didn’t erupt then, I didn’t need to burden him, but we did meet for a tour of his almost-finished property and a meal at the first one, SenS.

I have been recently half whining to friends about the amount of time I’ve had to spend on our Pasir Ris flat renovation (just got sucked in, quite fun), so was a bit humbled/embarrassed to see Teck Heng whizzing around the property, doing last minute checks, whispering hellos and instructions in Bahasa and English to colleagues. I learned a lot from him, on everything from the Balinese craftsmen’s abilities, to the impact on Ubud of Chinese mainland tourists.

Teck Heng is one of an increasing number of former-scholar Singaporeans who have ditched lifetime employment and lavish salaries in government jobs to try their luck outside. Nice to see—the public sector’s monopoly on talent ended, rightfully, many years ago. (But hopefully they don’t all leave!)

And it’s also nice to see the ease with which he works in Indonesia; there was always some fear that my generation of Singaporeans would be more comfortable in, say, Shanghai or London than South-east Asia, but I’ve met several recently who are doing very well in places like Bangkok, Jakarta and KL.

Singapore’s  young and old entrepreneurs—I’ve been meeting many more since I started writing for Inc.—give me lots of hope for the future.

Teck Heng SereS_20170927_201447

SereS stonework_20170927_202441

This intricate stonework on a curved wall requires quite a specialised skill, apparently

Betutu at Sens 20170927_211632

One of the best bebek betutus I had on this trip, at SenS. So much so that I finished everything on the oversized portion #NotHealthy


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* On intolerance of speech, check out this nice piece in last week’s Economist, Free speech at American universities is under threat, which has the most delightful sub-heading: But fears of a pandemic of snowflakery are overwrought.

* Though I cheer coastal diets, I don’t want to romanticise the Malaysian countryside; In 2004, when I visited, Nenasi was plagued by drugs and mat rempit motorcycle dare devilling; and in nearby southern Pahang, a tobacco farmer and his emaciated child were some of the most destitute people I’ve met anywhere.

* Please forgive me for using the Malay/Indonesia umbrella term here for a quite diverse region and people. I have travelled extensively across Malaysia and Indonesia, and have been lucky to taste the spice of Terengganu’s cuisine, the sweetness of Kelantan’s, the pigginess of Hindu Bali and the beefiness of Muslim Gili (Lombok). I do not know which collective of Malay/Indonesian cuisines influenced Singaporean Malay cuisine, but suffice to say that whichever they may be, my points on taste and nutrition will probably hold true. Indeed, I have used the same shorthand “India” here to represent a gazillion cultures. Why can’t we get India’s vegetarian diversity in Singapore? Sadness.



From left to right: Gunung Batur, Gunung Abang and Gunung Agung, as seen from Kintamani. The blackened foothills of Batur, which last erupted in 2000, serve as a reminder of what to expect.

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