a longform on Hong Kong vs Singapore

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With Joshua Wong, secretary-general of pro-democracy party Demosistō. We were both speaking at The Economist’s Open Future Festival in Hong Kong on Oct 5th 2019.

Dear friends, I just published a piece on Rice Media where I compare Hong Kong and Singapore, the “socio-economic twins but political opposites”. Click to read it there. Or, for a preview, first few paragraphs below.

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Just don’t wear black. In early October that was the pre-arrival instruction I received from friends enmeshed in that modern urban war zone, Hong Kong.

“Don’t worry, you can wear black, nobody will think you are a protestor,” rebutted Tang, the jovial cabby in his fifties who picked me up from the airport, gesturing at my brown skin. But for Cantonese locals like him, wardrobe options have indeed become limited.

Black for protestors. White for their opponents. Red for China. Blue for the police, i.e. those alleged to have tortured some “blacks”. “Also no pink, no green,” Tang joked, lest he be mistaken for a homosexual or a bleeding-heart environmentalist.

“So I wear yellow. Yellow is safe.”

Tang rattled off other jokes—“Where is the most dangerous place in Hong Kong? The police station”—while glancing at his smartphone, which beamed a digital buffet of protest updates, video clips, cabby chatter, and yes, even the occasional phone call. Tang’s calmness, coupled with the quiet on the roads, put my mind at ease.

A few traffic jams and subway closures aside, the next week would prove one of the smoothest and most enjoyable I’ve had in twenty-five years of visiting Hong Kong. I discovered new nooks, traipsing around the lush Sai Kung pier in the northeast, alongside hikers and tourists from China and the West, and slurping up beef tendon noodles draped in a rich restorative broth, in a Cantonese joint near the Aberdeen Centre in the far south, not a word of English exchanged.

The dramatic television scenes of petrol bombs, shattered storefronts, and masked protestors clashing with police seemed a world apart from my visitor’s bubble.

Hong Kong’s protests over recent years have often been led by precocious adolescents who have persisted despite the annoyance of the older generation.

This year the generational divide has narrowed. “We will be gone in thirty years,” said Tang. “They have to fight for their future.”

This includes his daughter, who has just graduated from university in Savannah, Georgia. She had wanted to return to be with her friends after seeing the million-person demonstration this past June against a proposed extradition bill, the spark for this year’s protests.

“I said sure. But you pay for yourself [her air ticket]. Is that fair or not?” he asked me rhetorically. “Fair right?”

Alongside this acceptance of youthful idealism is a more sober expectation of short-to-medium-term economic pain. “Yes, business has dropped, some days maybe fifteen to twenty per cent less,” Tang admitted. “But then there are no more mainlanders around. So am I happy or sad? Hahaha.”

It has become commonplace in multicultural societies around the world for older immigrants to cast scornful eyes at prospective ones, for instance with second-generation Indian Americans supportive of Trumpian border control. It is one of the many bizarre symptoms of a world in which liberal ideas of nationhood and identity are being seriously challenged by nativist ones, against the backdrop of yawning economic inequalities.

Nowhere is this impulse stronger than among Hong Kongers, who have turned sharply against the land of their ancestors, less than an hour’s drive away. The prejudice can be vile, expressed in physical attacks and slurs like “cockroaches”.

Indeed, some of the fiercest Sinophobia one might experience around the world occurs in two of its richest Chinese-majority territories: Hong Kong and Singapore.

The cities’ differences and similarities offer a prism through which to better understand their relative fortunes, as well as the impact of global capitalism on Asia.

Comparisons Between Hong Kong and Singapore Since the 90s

Which Chinese-majority, East-meets-West, Asian Tiger city-state do you prefer: Hong Kong or Singapore? Over the past few decades each person’s answer to that has fluctuated in tandem with China’s emergence onto the world stage.

Continue reading at Rice Media, where this was first published.

 

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Lee Eng Su, chef and champion cock talker, 1979-2019

Two months ago one of my closest friends and biggest fans/inspirations/all the rest of it passed. This is a bunch of random reflections, in the disjointed fashion in which we spoke (past tense…sigh). Some of it won’t make sense. Sorry. The only part that might approximate a traditional obituary, if you’re keen, is the last section, “A suitable marriage of Singaporean idealism and pragmatism”, where I tell the story of the time Engsu hosted Lee Hsien Loong and Rodrigo Duterte, leaders of Singapore and The Philippines, at The Coconut Club

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Because I’m still in love with you, I want to see you dance again

On Thursday night, September 12th, hours before I heard the news, I was watching HBO’s Big Little Lies, after a day of walking in rural Portugal, and I thought of Eng Su. Nicole Kidman and her husband were dancing to Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, and I remembered the way Eng Su used to sing Young’s Old Man.

Those were the days when Nengks used to sing regular songs, before he decided that he had an obligation to feed our ears with undiscovered gems, that he needed to excavate Motown with the same tenacity he did his own feelings and past.

He would close his eyes and sing the chorus—”Old man take a look at me now, I’m a lot like you”—with such passion, his usual passion i guess, and I always assumed he was thinking of Uncle Eu Seng.

Now, looking back at that moment, knowing that he is gone, I realise that I see him everywhere. Outsiders know him for his food. Insiders, the many of us in his exceptionally big tent, know him for all sorts of other things. Eng Su is in my music, in my movies, in my books, in the swimming pool, in the fresh air among the redwoods, in the dirty toothbrush destined for secondary work.

On August 11th Eng Su came over to visit me in Pasir Ris, 8am on a Sunday morning. We spoke for four hours, he had many things on his mind. We marvelled at my ability to detach myself from the world and lamented his inability to, something we always do when we are alone.

Throughout our twenty-five years together he was always telling me to try and do some fantastical great thing with my life, and I was always pushing back saying I just wanted to get drunk on a beach. Eng Su wanted to change the world in a big way, to fight every injustice he saw, to overhaul entire systems. He was never satisfied just touching one person, improving just one life.

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4 Hours in Singapore: for visitors flying in

Dear friends, here is a short clip from my contribution to “4 Hours in Singapore”, a feature in the Business Traveller programme, being shown on multiple airlines right now.

I’m only allowed to share a 30s preview, but you should be able to watch the rest on the inflight entertainment system.

I look awful (the truth hurts, yes) and now regret my choice of shirt, but nevertheless it was nice to do a show where I just get to trumpet my birthplace and current home.

There is a tendency for non-establishment writers and commentators in Singapore—the precious few of us fortunate not to rely on the government for our livelihood—to be a bit critical and cynical about our lovely city in our work.

It’s partly a writer’s natural skepticism, but compounded by the fact that we constantly need correctives to Singapore’s dominant narrative—our government, the media it controls, and its numerous other thought-control tentacles generally offer highly-partisan viewpoints. (I say “generally” because there are of course great exceptions.)

So yes, it’s nice to step out of the critic’s corner I sometimes feel forced into. I had fun a couple of years back doing a show with the late Anthony Bourdain (huge fan of Singapore), and now had another fun day out showing off Singapore to James MacKinnon of Striker Productions.

A photo with buddy Patricia Lee, who works at the National Gallery, James and Jesse Chan, camera man for the day.

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on W!LD RICE’s Merdeka (Raffles must fall)

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I enjoyed Merdeka last night and would happily watch it again tonight. It’s good. However an American friend, caught between an impulse to stand and the fear of imposing peer pressure, asked me afterwards whether Singaporean audiences give standing ovations. I said sure. I’ve stood up to applaud Ian McKellen and Kevin Spacey in Singapore.

I believe Alfian, Glen and all the rest should aspire to those heights—especially when they are charging me $14 for a tiny drop of wine—so there is still quite a long way to go. Treat my below comments with that benchmark and perspective in mind. Also, pardon my ignorance on many things, I am not a theatre critic, just an armchair busybody.

I will focus on two things.

Acting

They impressed with their seamless change of roles, their singing, their power, their passion. I could watch each of them for a long time. Perhaps my main critique is that there seemed to me to be very little character development over the course of the two hours.

I would have liked to see the members of the reading group growing, maturing in some way, as they took on one chapter of history after another, as they revelled in some group realisation about Singaporean history and identity. As each told their story, the others became aware of new facts, sure. But there was not enough sense of wonder, of discovery, of change in the person (that cute little Chinese romance aside).

For instance, the seeming reconciliation of differences between the two actresses, Chinese and Malay, seemed terribly forced, especially the awkward apology from the Malay lady for her earlier snide “Chinese girlfriend” comment. I liked the initial, off-the-cuff, fiery comment—not the mawkish, tailored-for-strawberries retreat.

I have no experience in the craft of playwrighting, but I wonder if part of the issue is an over reliance, especially in the beginning, on large chunks of recorded text, rather than the individual character’s own voice.

Then again, perhaps there is so much fine detail packed into the play, which is necessary, which is informative, in this history-starved and -biased country of ours. So perhaps I am asking too much, I should be happy that each took on so many roles, that each served as wonderful interlocutors of history.

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Story

At at a high level, I believe an important missing ingredient is the complicity of Singaporeans in colonialism. To put it glibly, the reason Raffles CAN’T fall is that we have all become Raffles. We are all the children of Raffles.

There was not enough in this play about how “the Singaporean” evolved from the early 1800s to be a handmaiden to the British, a bupati, a willing participant to foreign enterprises, EIC and otherwise, as we, collectively, exploited Asia.

To use a traditional decolonisation lens, the abuser and the abused, is inappropriate for Singapore. Other ex colonies, the Indias of the world, had sizeable indigenous populations with rich cultures and definable identities before the colonialists arrived. Singapore, like Mauritius, did not. Raffles may not be the “founder” of anything, but he certainly sparked the creation of “the Singaporean” as we know today. (Controversial assertion: please see notes and comments below for fuller picture.)

Singapore, as a trading hub of the British Empire, was the varnished administrative center, a glittering front that sheltered its inhabitants from tragedies elsewhere. Singapore, and Singaporeans, became rich off colonialism.

Not all of us, for sure. Yes, it is important to remember the fallen and the beaten and the skeletons paraded around town, especially given our whitewashed dominant narrative. But Singaporeans must ask the question why the colonial-era abuses in Singapore were negligible compared to those elsewhere, not least in Jogya just years before Raffles landed here.

I stress this not only for introspection and historical appreciation but also because not much has changed. Singapore, the Switzerland of the East, continues to preach about incorruptibility at home while gleefully welcoming (suspected) drug lords from Myanmar, bigots from Zimbabwe, absconders from Indonesia. We routinely underpay and abuse Bangladeshis and Filipinos—or ignore their abuse en route to Singapore—appeasing our conscience with neoliberal yarns about providing opportunities to the downtrodden.

Every time the Indonesian haze blankets us, we fall back on ignorant, superficial critiques of corrupt governors and lazy farmers—rather than taking aim at the real power mongers, the ones domiciled in Singapore itself: the unscrupulous palm-oil companies engaging in land grabs, and their bosses (I don’t believe all are unscrupulous but some surely are.)

Decolonising the mind, for Singaporeans, should not simply mean a rejection of the West or Western figures or the use of the name “Raffles” around town, but a rejection of the exploitative attitudes that still run through us all.

But then again, that would also imply a fundamental reform of core practices—free and open trade!—that make us economically successful, that were the very basis for the entrepôt.

Perhaps we are not yet willing to look so closely at ourselves, at what we’ve become.

Not even W!LD RICE.

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Notes:
On the creation of “the Singaporean”. There are at least two important, perhaps overlapping, caveats here worth further exploration: the extent to which the Orang Laut, as part of a broader maritime geography, comprised a cohesive “Singaporean” or “Straits” identity; and the extent to which pre-1819 Singapore was already part of a Malay-led commercial network that perhaps, among many other things, already had exploitative elements around South-east Asia.

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Finally, here’s a piece I wrote for Nikkei Asian Review on Singapore’s bicentennial commemorations, with some related thoughts.