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.
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.
I do not think—for now—that there is anything fundamentally cruel about eating animals; however modern, industrialised agriculture disgusts me, and we are all, collectively, to blame. We are responsible for forcing animals, sentient beings, to live lives suffocated within the conveyor belt of mass food production. One meal to the next, fatten her up for the kill. Just thinking of the lives of caged chickens sometimes pushes me close to tears.
Is free range the answer? I am not sure. Over the past few months, I’ve heard from many detractors, most of whom grumble about the fluid definitions of “free range”. For example, in Singapore, the “kampung chicken” we eat is actually reared in a small coop, and not running around a kampung, as some might think.
Taking all that into consideration, I still think free range is a step in the right direction. It might actually be just a way station on the way to full meat substitutes—I’m all for laboratory meat.
Some criticise free range as a luxury of the rich. I am not so sure. I do not intend to raise my food budget; I aim to eat less meat. It is, in any case, something I’ve been doing naturally as my body ages and is unable to process rich foods as it once did.
The real luxury is the idea, which many of us in developed countries have, that we need to eat meat every day. I hope to make meat an occasional treat, not the bedrock of my diet.
What about seafood? For the moment, I will continue to eat all. There are debates about wild versus farmed fish that are interesting but ultimately irrelevant for me now. My primary imperative is that I do not want to hurt or torture creatures; with fish it appears that there is little chance of that, given their short memories—a fish released will sometimes return to the same bait.
It gets trickier with other creatures, including the octopus, a delightful food that I learned how to cook while living in Mauritius (salad and grilled are my favourite preps). We know that the octopus is one of the most intelligent creatures around. Does that mean we shouldn’t eat it? Hmmm.
Squid is another problem because of its monogamous, long-term coupling. When a squid gets caught, apparently its companion will swim after it, trying to set it free. Should I eat an animal if that means causing underwater heartache and loss? Again, the romantic in me gets teary-eyed.
In all of the above, the influence of Ling, my doctor-cum-conservationist wife, is clear. We talk through these issues; and she helps me make better choices to achieve my own dietary goals.
Exceptions? Of course! There is very little I am religious about, and I’m not about to start with food. I already know of two broad situations in which I will have to break my free-range habit. The first is travel. As a writer I will continue to eat and drink pretty much whatever is put in front of me.
The second is Singaporean hawker food, which I cannot give up. I will of course keep looking for ways to boost my free-range ratio in hawker food, like giving my own eggs to the chai tow kway uncle, although I’m not sure how feasible all that will be.
Ling believes my exceptions will multiply. Who am I to argue with the wifey?
Life as a full-time writer
It has been four-and-a-half years now that I left my job at The Economist Group, after seven years there—my last position was with Economist Insights, the group’s sponsored research unit.
My books don’t pay me much, so I have to balance my book writing, which probably takes up about seventy per cent of my time, with other freelance work.
Yet it is only in the last year-and-a-half that I have begun to feel settled. Enough work is flowing in, from Singaporeans and foreigners, such that I can live off referrals.
I earn only about forty per cent of what I used to, but have learned how to moderate my lifestyle and consumption accordingly. It is certainly not the stable income that I would need if Ling and I had had kids. Whenever I visit my friends with kids, I get the feeling that we enjoy living vicariously through each other.
Intellectually and professionally I am also much more settled. What I mean is that I am no longer that concerned about the success of my next book or piece. Regardless of their critical or commercial success, I will continue to write, as long as there are people who continue to read, and send me messages of support. Thank you! It means a lot.
This is a journey, one I feel fortunate to be a part of, whose ups and downs continue to fascinate me.
(Perhaps this indifference is a coping mechanism to prepare for future failure. Maybe.)
More important than money, the greatest benefit of working freelance is flexibility. And that translates very directly to more time with friends and family.
I cannot put a price on that. I am able to drop things to attend a friend’s wedding overseas, or spend the morning with my wife at the zoo, where she works two days a week, or drink whisky from eleven to five on a Monday afternoon with an old friend going through a divorce.
The joke I tell now is that I’m never really fully working and I’m never really fully on leave. On a recent trip to the Gili islands, while my buddy Prem Anand was laying on the beach, I had to spend an entire day indoors finishing up my latest piece for Inc. South-east Asia. Yet it didn’t bother me much—I enjoy my work. And I had thirteen days in Bali/Gili, a luxury I would never have been able to afford in the corporate world.
Of course, there are many anxieties and stresses with being a freelance writer, from the lack of regular feedback on my book project to the endless worries from friends—and my parents’ friends—that I am “being watched” by some authoritarian police state. But it would be a bit rich of me to delve into them because they pale in comparison to the stresses that 99% of the world faces.
Life is good.
A media business?
As my book nears completion, I have one eye on my next project. Though I have in mind many other book projects—as well as a sausage business—there is a part of me that feels the time is right for a small media outfit in Singapore.
I see this not as some lucrative opportunity—media businesses everywhere are struggling—but rather a pressing social and intellectual gap that needs filling.
This year’s events have shown that Singapore’s current media outfits, including the mainstream media and the alternative media, are simply not doing a good enough job for a global city.
There were two major events of national interest—Oxley and Halimah—and in both cases our media failed, IMHO, to provide us with the incisive analysis needed to serve the public. Instead Singaporeans had to rely on many others, including Zuraidah and Bhavan at the SCMP doing wonderful national service from afar.
In particular, The Straits Times’s failure to articulate a reasoned critique of the reserved presidency is proof, I think, that when push comes to shove, it is more likely to serve its political masters than the Singaporean people (no surprise, some might say).
An ethnic maelstrom was brewing; and nobody at ST was able/willing to call it out. When racial interrogations into Halimah’s background ensued, it was as if everybody was caught by surprise. “Oh, you mean the reserved presidency might actually worsen racism?”
To be clear, I don’t blame any individuals at these places; I know many, their hearts are in the right place. But there are institutional and structural forces constraining them. The vogue for clicks and eyeballs also does not bode well for serious journalism; I worry that a generation of writers is being schooled in listicles at the expense of critical thinking and writing (a global challenge, no doubt).
Some friends have told me that the time for talk is over. Singapore does not need any more discussion forums or publications; what we need is “action”, however one defines that.
I’m not so sure. There’s a lot of talk, sure, but I believe much of it is biased and superficial. Singaporeans need to be having more articulate, mature national conversations regularly. We don’t need our journalists or politicians dumbing down things for us.
What’s the answer? I think a good Singaporean weekly or fortnightly e-magazine might do the trick; a sort of New Yorker shrunk to 1/20th the size. Covering not just politics and current affairs but culture, lifestyle, art, food, etc.
Anyway, this is just an inchoate idea. There are obviously significant roadblocks. Many others have failed before, so there’s no obvious reason why I should succeed.
I’m just putting it out there because it seems like the sort of grand career prospect one should ponder on the fortieth. I’d love to hear any thoughts from readers or potential co-conspirators.
Moving to the East!
Ling and I will soon be moving out of my parents’ home in Bukit Timah—where in Singapore we have lived since we got married in 2008—to our own place in Pasir Ris.
We bought a unit in an HDB Executive Condominium, which is like the higher-end of Singaporean public housing.
The running joke from friends, near and far, is that “Congratulations, you’re turning forty and you’re finally moving out of your parents’ home.”
Living with family has been wonderful, not least because I’ve gotten to spend much time with my two lovely nieces. And the low rent my parents charge Ling and me (S$500 each per month) has meant that we have had a bit more of a cushion to jumpstart our alternative careers.
Though it will be a bit sad to leave, we are also excited about having our own place. We got a brief taste last year when we were living in Mauritius. It was fun.
This year, every non-writing moment has been a blur of tiles and colours and light fittings, as we convert our four-bedroom Pasir Ris condo into a one-bedroom one—a design decision that has, among other things, muted inquiries into our fertility (the proposed cat tunnel is salt in the wound).
One thing that has been interesting about the move is that nine out of ten Singaporean friends ask “Why Pasir Ris?”
Many see it as some sort of downgrade, as if Ling and I are moving to the boondocks, in the wrong direction on the great Singapore property escalator—my highest-earning high school classmates have graduated to bungalows.
Well my response to them is simple: it’s one of the few places in Singapore we can afford!
Ling and I are happy about the fact that we have worked hard, saved, and paid our entire downpayment and mortgage on our own. It’s important if we are to show that alternative careers are possible here. (That’s not to discount the numerous privileges we’ve had throughout our lives, including university education funded by parents.)
Nothing is certain; if our careers stall, we may indeed have to sell this place at some point and move to a cheaper country, like Indonesia or Thailand. But for now it feels good to be putting down more roots in Singapore.
While cost was a major motivating factor, I have actually grown quite fond of Pasir Ris. It’s green, airy and seems to have a much lower population density than other new towns like Punggol—I believe there are height restriction on Pasir Ris buildings because of nearby Changi Airport.
When I get on the train at Raffles Place and get off at Pasir Ris, it feels like life has slowed down. People walk more casually and seem more chill. Not something I’ve experienced in many Singaporean neighbourhoods.
It’s also been fun working with Ling on a long project. I know of couples who can never agree on a single interior deco decision, but in our case the journey has been filled with many healthy tensions and happy compromises.
As always, thanks for reading. I’ll leave you with a funny story from this year’s Pink Dot that relates to my birthday resolution.
For two years I’ve worn the same t-shirt to Pink Dot.
After standing up and chatting with buddy Jolene (below, next to me) for about fifteen minutes, this Indian couple approaches us.
“Oh, we’ve been watching you from afar, and we just wanted to say how much we love your t-shirt. We would love to buy some of those…so do you really believe in what the t-shirt says?”
I look down again at the words. “Yes, yes, absolutely I believe in the message.”
At this point the man comes a bit closer and stares. “Oh. I only just saw the second line.”
Turns out he is the president of the Vegetarian Society of Singapore. Most awkward pickup at the Dot this year…