the most stressful week of the year

The reason I haven’t written much here this year is because all my writing is now at Jom, a new magazine about Singapore that a few of us launched in August. (Haven’t heard of it? Hello-oh, where you been, macha?)

My best friend whom I’ve hardly seen of late just told me that we should do a “2022 Jom Year in Review” type thingy that seems to be so fashionable among the new media literati, and I think we should next year, 2023, once we’ve had a full year of operations, Our Books of the Year, Our Home Baker of the Year, Our favourite politician TikToks of the year, look out for that—don’t you hate it when people say ‘look out for that’ for something so far away—but in the meantime I’ll just do a very bloggy post to address everyday questions from my friends in this style that only 0.01% of you appreciate, too bad, just exercising a literary muscle that’s been left to atrophy by my editorial masters at Jom, so you can leave now but then you’ll miss the story of when Anthony Bourdain returned to haunt me through Twitter in late September.

But, first, 

January to March, 2022. As we were slowly getting Jom, which at that point may have been called Halia or Selat, off the ground, the main point of stress, which somehow manifested as a plastic ball bouncing around slowly at the back of my mind, concerned dithering public officials.

Singapore registers most businesses in a few days, if not hours. But Singapore took one month to register The Inquiry Pte Ltd, the parent company of Jom. Why? Because we’re a media company? Because we’ll also be writing about politics? Because my name is among the co-founders? I’m uncomfortable with that last question because it alludes to some degree of navel-gazing self importance, but it always, invariably, emerges from some crevice of concern. Perhaps you should change your name, one friend deadpans.

Over that one month these questions bounce…around…slowly…with some annoying plasticky sound echoing through every other conversation I’m trying to have. Why are we subscribing to Slack if we don’t even know if we’ll be registered? 

Focus. Jangan stress.

Completely unrelated to Jom, but maybe not really because I’m not sure I can do anything completely unrelated to Jom, in early February I walked into Singapore’s Supreme Court for the first time—imposing pillars, eye contact, pockets emptied, you’re clear—and entered the secretariat’s office to make a request for the case files for Law Society of Singapore versus Lee Suet Fern, which I needed for a short book on the Oxley Road saga.

Journalists? Writers? You’ll get it within a few days, says the terribly helpful woman there, emotion and humanity floating towards me, touching me, amid the cold sterility of our country’s highest court.

But she was wrong. Again, it takes a full month. Maybe one month is the Leviathan’s instinctive unconscious delay, nurtured over decades, for any request from lower beings.

There is apparently a grand conspiracy among all civil servants to uphold PAP rule, to block honest, ground-up initiatives that might somehow threaten that, to eavesdrop and spy on us. Last week, after I posted a photograph of Chua Mui Hoong, associate editor at The Straits Times, visiting Ling and me in Pasir Ris, some friends wondered if I was being watched, or if Jom might somehow succumb to some soul-sapping, stunted, form of journalism simply by virtue of having mainstream figures among our readership.

I guess there is a parallel universe where all this might be true, and I guess it would be hubristic of me to dismiss the risks off-handedly, of me to assume that Jom and I are immune from the dark forces that linger on the edges of every illiberal democracy, from the cover-backside self censorship that creeps insidiously through our consciousness, but that is not the universe I choose to live in, those are not the intentions I choose to see.

Whatever political interference there may be, whatever biases have to be unlearned, however many crooked sycophants there actually are, I’ve never perceived any grand conspiracy. Over the past year, Jom has had quite pleasant interactions with several different agencies, starting with those ACRA officers who took their time over our business registration, HDB and URA in the research for our Dover Forest essay and video, and even the Attorney-General’s Chambers, who on a Monday morning pointed out a factual mistake that we made the previous Friday in Singapore This Week, Jom’s popular weekly, and kindly requested that we change it.

Please. Thank you. Welcome.

I mention all this in such excruciating detail because my question of the year has been “Aren’t you worried that the government will try to strangle Jom?” 

Well, no.

I’m much more worried about the ever-present market risk—getting enough people to subscribe (please do!)—and the occasional risk of decontextualised clips from a five-year-old conversation with Bourdain causing a social media storm.

April to August, 2022. This was the period when our product went from concept to reality. A logo was born. A website was created. And we published our first few pieces. The delay in starting Jom, from May to August, meant that we could launch with a National Day series:

Gaze beyond the gloss: on seeing Singapore” by Charmaine

To Singapura, in time” by Faris

Reframing our traditional family unit” by Jean

Mental health: my journey and our life’s foundation” by Waye

National Service: why we need a deeper discussion” by me.

I’m glad we did this. Jom wants to foster in Singapore a more critical, meditative notion of belonging, community and solidarity. The essays also showcase the intellectual diversity of our team. 

And by putting them outside the paywall, they’ll forever be a free sample for potential customers who make up our Total Addressable Market. 

That’s me describing human relationships in a way that’s been warped by the cold, possibly dehumanising, calculus of the market—a startup, techbro-inflected vernacular into which I have been flung. I try to embrace it whenever I’m speaking with people, like potential investors, who I think will appreciate it, who might somehow help nudge Jom towards the Promised Land of Breaking Even.

But I worry that such vendor-customer language might slowly change me, change us. 

Let me try again.

I’m glad that Charmaine, Faris, Jean, Waye and I made our essays freely available because that way we can communicate our thoughts on important issues to any interested person.

I hope that Jom’s “customers” and “subscribers” understand that, when I scrub away the veneer of our market identities, they are actually our readers, our friends, our family, our fellow human beings, and if we lived in a different era we might actually just exchange our gift of communication for one of your many gifts, but living as we do in this moment our relationship is necessarily mediated by a website, pricing tiers, and Stripe-processed payments.

The bartering socialist in me, the utopian identity that comforts me like a warm blanket in the winter of late-stage capitalism, wants to remind you that Jom is aware that some people cannot afford our base S$10 per month. Just write in to us and we will see how we can help you.

This is all stated on Jom’s “Our values” page, which gets to my last point about this five-month period. At Jom’s launch party a few weeks ago, somebody asked about our favourite pieces. I should have mentioned the two pages, “About us” and “Our values”, that describe our mission, our values, our approach to journalism, our editorial philosophy, and much else.

In many ways, these words required the most intense, collaborative effort by a large group of people, not just colleagues but assorted advisors. We debated individual words. We deliberately decided on this particular sequencing of Our Values (Independence, Humility, Solidarity, Diversity, Inclusivity). We essentially had to get buy in from every single Jomrade for every single word. As much as anything, it was an exercise in crystallising shared beliefs and values. We took about four months to complete those two pages. 

They now serve as our moral and professional compass. I know that one Patron ($950/year, the highest tier of Jom membership) subscribed purely based on the words there. 

Even if Jom fails, there will be things that I hold dear, that outlast the fiction that is a business: the friendships, mostly, but also the words on those two pages, words to live by.

Sunday, September 25th 2022. A Singaporean in New York City messaged me. A few hours later, so did an old American college friend in San Francisco, somebody who rarely uses WhatsApp or social media. That two people from such different social circles were saying the same thing—they’ve seen my image making the rounds on Twitter—worried me. Thus began the most stressful week of the year.

The backdrop to this is a 2017 conversation with Anthony Bourdain for Parts Unknown: Singapore, an event I wrote about after he died. Two female friends were part of the conversation. One of the things we spoke about were the injustices of migrant worker life here. We focussed on domestic workers, and the unhealthy dependency on them that many Singaporeans, including ourselves, have developed.

As soon as the show aired on CNN in the US in late 2017, I heard we looked a bit stupid, a bit spoiled, a bit entitled. Oh well, I told friends. If the three of us have to be caricatured to shine a spotlight on an urgent issue, so be it.

I thought that was that. 

But damn, the Internet never forgets, the Internet never misses a chance to grab more eyeballs on a recurring rollercoaster ride. So in late September 2022, when Urban Hawker, a Singapore food court that was the brain child of Bourdain and KF Seetoh, opened in Manhattan, that prompted some American commentators to dig up old stuff on Singapore.

That clip, first truncated by Bourdain’s production team, was then further cut up for Twitter consumption. See it here. This sparked a whole “Look at how arrogant, assholic Singaporeans treat the Help” conversation. The clip had all the ingredients for contemporary virality, including a highly emotive, triggering topic of conversation, mediated by a provocative, no-nonsense host and interviewees seemingly so self absorbed and oblivious to their privilege in a grossly unjust system. 

By most accounts, my two friends look relatively bad and I look like the quiet condoner, guilty by association. I felt really bad for them. They are two of the most generous employers I know. Their helpers have hung out with us whenever I’ve been over. Still, it was an instance of having to take responsibility not only for intentions but also impact, outcomes.

Still, I didn’t think too much of it all, and I know that I didn’t say anything too bad, so I just did what I usually do on a Sunday night. I had a few drinks and went to bed. It’ll soon pass, I thought.

Monday, September 26th 2022. Mothership called me in the morning seeking a comment. Shit.

Tuesday, September 27th 2022. Messages kept pouring in. Jom was on a recce through Dover Forest with Chua Chin Tat, protagonist in our essay and video, and Weilee Yap, a videographer, when I finally got on the phone with one of the women in the video after several missed calls. Are we in crisis comms mode yet? Nobody knows. It’s the fog of war. 

Aside: maybe “situational blurness” is better than “fog of war”, one point of literary self-cultivation this year is to reduce the use of adversarial words to discuss relationships and social change, like “the next fight” or “the next battle” in discussions about gay rights. WIP.

Over the phone, there seemed to be a slight worry about professional repercussions. The first thing I did was remove their two names from my blogpost on “Tony”. The whole thing had never bothered me personally, but then I started to worry about any reputational risk for Jom.

And at that surreal moment, as my eyes saw Chin Tat and Weilee discussing banyans and tarantulas in a humid forest that would soon be destroyed, for a piece that had yet to be scripted, while my ears heard an old friend’s worries about being “cancelled” for a five-year-old video that had just resurfaced, I wondered if this is what being a media boss is all about.

Fuck. I miss my old life.

Wednesday, September 28th 2022. More messages of concern. More people tagging me on Twitter, a platform I hardly use. If in February my thoughts were bothered by the slow bounce of an annoying plastic ball, in September they felt at the mercy of incessant digital fireworks, the pew-pew-pew of notifications and DMs and tags. (Still too warlike?) I dreaded looking at my phone. I savoured my existence in the offline world.

Some commentators I know who had started sharing and commenting on the clip reached out, somewhat apologetically. Don’t feel bad, I told them. Say what you want to. It’s important that you express yourself.

Thursday, September 29th 2022. By this morning it was clear that I would have to respond. The person who writes Jom’s Internet Culture blurb said we cannot avoid the topic. They will write something and I will write something too. I mentally embraced my walk from the shadows to the stage.

How should I criticise our actions on the show while also being true to what we were trying to tell Bourdain (about foreign domestic worker exploitation)? Should I speak about the three of us in the same breath or try to make moral distinctions between our relative actions and words? Do I respond on Twitter itself or simply on Jom’s website?

Friday, September 30th 2022. In the end we wrote something fairly succinct:

“A clip from Anthony Bourdain’s 2017 visit to Singapore has gone viral on Twitter. The video features Bourdain at dinner with locals, Jom’s editor-in-chief among them, while they talk about helpers being the “opiate of the masses”. Reactions online have been chiefly critical, taking aim at one woman’s flippant characterisation of employer-helper relations that are often exploitative. The post has made an international audience aware of Singapore’s reliance on foreign domestic labour, and has sparked a larger conversation about how these arrangements are often exploitative and even dehumanising.

Editor-in-chief’s note: I’m glad the issue of foreign domestic worker exploitation in Singapore is in the spotlight. Over dinner, we raised it to Bourdain, highlighting systemic issues, such as inequality and stratified wage structures, which lead to helper abuse and other forms of bigotry. Many Singaporeans are implicated. It would have been disingenuous to ignore our own privilege and dependency on help. Part of that involved some (unwise) attempts at self-deprecating parody, which the producers focused heavily on. I guess the caricatures make for better TV, more so when chopped up on Twitter.”

I reposted it as a Twitter Thread, tagging the original American commentator. 

Some thought I should have criticised my two friends more. One person felt that I was blaming the producers for everything. (No. Blaming the format and the system, surely, not the individuals.)

To me the epistemological aspect of the entire process is fascinating, beginning with the fun, honest, deep conversation between four individuals in 2017. Did Bourdain understand us, did he get the self-parody and the self-criticism, did our language communicate our inner truths? I certainly felt so.

Over the course of five years, that basic human connect got transformed by different forms of media such that meaning and truth drifted off in a multitude of directions to a galaxy of observers. Or maybe I’m being too kind to the three of us, maybe the final digital snapshot does offer the most glaring, piercing, and damning insight into our souls. I think that’s why I ended the Twitter thread with this: “You’ve offered many of us another chance to look in the mirror.”

Anyhow, if I remove our personas and egos, I feel the same way I did in late 2017: the clip has focussed attention on an urgent issue in Singapore, and for that I am eternally grateful. On that note, please check out this Migrant Worker Death Map that is the product of great research and journalism by a group of young Singaporeans.

Even now, having written the words you’ve just read, I still wonder if the whole Twitter-Bourdain thing was just a storm in a teacup. Many of you wouldn’t have even known about the incident. Perhaps the gaze of social media prompted my solipsism, maybe the fact that I call it the most stressful week of the year reflects some bizarre egocentricity.

There was so much more this year for me to be stressed out about, including Ukraine, Qatar and Princess Bluebell, who a few times this year appeared to be ready for end-of-life care.

Friday, December 2nd 2022. Jom’s launch party. A part of me regrets not recording the fireside chat with the co-founders, when teenagers to septuagenarians were listening, were peppering us with questions.

I’m still processing that joyous occasion, though I certainly felt the early beginnings of some really cool Jom community.

Maybe if we recorded it the dynamics in the room would have changed and I wouldn’t have felt that.

There is always some beauty in the ephemeral.

Read more of my work, and that of my colleagues, at Jom.

The only reason I have used these photographs is that over the last week Ling and I have spent a restorative week in Abu Dhabi staying with old friends from Singapore. Cooking, makaning, hanging. We didn’t really leave the house much. We did spend one night in the middle of the desert. Far, far away from everything. I miss the quiet, the solitude.

Oh, and Ling offered to read this before I publish, as she always does, but I decided that I wanted to write one thing completely unvarnished, unverified and unvetted this year. Haha.

One thought on “the most stressful week of the year

  1. keep writing to your truth self
    nothing more satisfying than knowing you have done your best
    on hind sight regarding Bourdain’s piece,
    He has such foresight to speak his mind and no one dared to say anything
    This I admired very much.
    Not many Americans can do that !!
    may he rest in peace
    Keep up your good work
    I will surely subscribe to JOM

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