Singapore—history haunts the ultra-modern state

Excerpt of my piece on Singapore’s bicentennial, i.e. commemoration of the arrival of Raffles and The British Empire in 1819, first published on Nikkei Asian Review

pioneer statues

From Cape Town to San Francisco, cities have been toppling monuments to historical figures with troubling legacies. In Singapore, authorities have opted for a more genteel way of dealing with the statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British colonialist who in 1819 chose the tiny island as the East India Co.’s new regional base.

They are diluting the imperialist’s prominence by erecting for the year four new statues of Asian pioneers near Raffles.

The government is commemorating the bicentennial of Raffles’ landing with a yearlong pageantry of exhibitions, essays and events (there may even be a national election).

It is a means to interrogate Singapore’s rich but oft-overlooked pre-independence history. Yet the process involves risks — it exposes some inherent contradictions about a global city’s identity, as interpreted by a heavy-handed state.

Compared with India and most other former British colonies, independent Singapore has always had a romantic view of colonialism.

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Shirkers, a film about Singapore and life

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Two-thirds of the way through Shirkers I was ready to shirk.

The protagonist, Sandi Tan, was not that likeable and the villain, Georges Cardonas, not that interesting. The story seemed nauseatingly melodramatic. In 1992 then forty-year old Cardonas disappeared with the raw footage of a film, Shirkers, that then nineteen-year old Tan and contemporaries Jasmin Ng and Sophie Siddique had wanted to make with him in Singapore. Distraught, they eventually get on with life, albeit without some of their “spirit”, says Siddique. In 2011 after Cardonas’s death, Tan finds the original footage he had painstakingly preserved. And thus is born Shirkers, the 2018 documentary about Shirkers, the 1992 fictional film never finished.

The original Shirkers was to be our city-state’s first indie film, one of several suggestions—that flit between irony and vaingloriousness—that Tan and crew were pioneering artistic prodigies in a hopelessly stuffy society.

Tan’s mentor, director and collaborator made off with their collective work, snuffing out her teenage silver screen dreams. Tough, even heartbreaking. But there seemed a limit to how much sympathy one could feel about a summer project by privileged students matriculating at some of the best universities in the UK and US.

In one scene Siddique writes letters to equipment suppliers, trying to sound like a seasoned, older producer. They ultimately get to use cameras sponsored by Kodak. In another the production is in danger of stalling for lack of funds—so the scheming Cardonas convinces Siddique and Tan to withdraw S$10,000 from their ATMs.

Tan presents both incidents as evidence of their steely resolve and resourcefulness. Yet both could be seen through the prism of privilege—did things come that easily to them? They could only drain their “life savings” because of, presumably, bountiful parental backstops.

I wasn’t convinced there was enough here for a film. There is a surfeit of good content out there competing for our time. The Shirkers plot is not nearly as compelling as other investigative excavations (am on The Innocent Man now). Cardonas is a cardboard character, a caricature of the talentless neo-colonial out to plunder fawning Asians. He has nothing on the gloriously complex anti-heros and nut jobs being revived on screen—like Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace’s killer. If artistic theft was the point, then Big Eyes was the better story; if artistic rehabilitation, then Searching for Sugar Man.

Shirkers seemed valuable only for its widely-acclaimed documenting of a Singapore now gone. But even that ultimately depressed me. Sure, all Singaporeans know that our city’s facade is relentlessly changing, that no structure is safe from the wrecking ball of insatiable GDP growth (except for a few holy shrines, like the one on 38 Oxley Road). Yet seeing footage from 1992 is like entering a developmental time warp—surely we couldn’t have destroyed all that in just twenty-six years?

Worse, perhaps, is the realisation that few people care. By 1992 (already rich) Singapore probably had a higher fancy-video-camera-per-capita rate than anywhere else on earth. Was nobody filming Singapore? Why is the Shirkers footage treasured like some ancient Hikayat?

I grumpily stayed awake through these grievances and somehow, in the last thirty minutes, the film came together for me. It clicked. It works. I’m a fan.

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Malaysia and Singapore: Here we go again

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Malaysia’s and Singapore’s governments at each other’s throats? We’ve been here before. One of the reasons why Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) and, until May this year, Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional (BN) have won national elections more consistently than any other party in democratic Asia is their ability to ratchet up domestic nationalist sentiment against the other.

The PAP has ruled Singapore for almost 60 years while the BN era (including its Alliance predecessor) lasted 61 years. BN may no longer be in power, but Malaysia’s current governing coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH), has as prime minister ninety-three-year old Mahathir Mohamad, a former BN leader and persistent thorn in Singapore’s side. There is a tiresome familiarity to it all.

We can be sure of three things. First, once the sabre-rattling is done, the governments will eventually resolve all aerial and maritime boundary issues amicably.

Second, the big losers will be us, the citizens. In a world struggling to deal with nativism, and the dangers posed by demagogues who preen their exclusive identities at the expense of our common humanity, it has been worryingly easy for politicians to ignite dormant antagonisms against the other.

Malaysians and Singaporeans are essentially the same peoples—in both countries one finds the same ethnicities, the same religions, the same cultures, the same cendols (almost). If even we can be so easily turned against each other, what hope do other more conflicting identities elsewhere in the world have?

Politicians on both sides have exhibited passive-aggressive tendencies. Rais Hussin, a supreme council member of Bersatu, the Mahathir-led party that is part of PH, wrote an Op-Ed that combined a conciliatory call for cooler heads with a bald-faced threat that Singapore was at risk of “pain by a thousand cuts”. It was remarkable not least because one rarely sees a Malay channelling a punishment from Imperial China.

Tan Chuan-Jin, Singapore’s speaker of parliament, reposted on Facebook a potentially incendiary video that suggests Malaysia may have nefarious motivations for its actions, such as inciting racial disharmony in Singapore. He also asked followers to keep Singaporean soldiers “in our prayers”, a divine exhortation one usually associates with boots on battlefields. He ends off saying that “no one is trying to be jingoistic”, which is precisely the sort of disclaimer that makes one worry about jingoism.

***

The third thing we know for sure is that the big winner from all this will be the PAP. Continue reading

Two weeks with “Tony”

Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at Mawell Center Hawker Food Center, Singapore.

Ok, fine. I lie. I had only an hour and a half with “Tony”. Enough to be charmed.

I say two weeks because I received the WhatsApp invite from a Singaporean producer two weeks before. We want to chat with you before we decide if you’re qualified to appear on screen across from Mr X who’s flying in from the US.

Who the heck is this? Somebody so famous that he must remain anonymous while he sends an advance troop, scouts to survey the terrain? Yet also somebody who wants to come to Singapore to meet not its property developers, not its politicians, not its hawkers…but its writers?

That overlap between fame and grit. Must be a very small demographic. VICE came to mind. Ok, I said, trying to hide my excitement.

Having apparently passed the telephone interview, the Singaporean producer tells me that Anthony Bourdain is filming his third season of Parts Unknown and the first episode will be about Singapore. I had watched the show a couple of times and really liked it. Food, so long the centrepiece of his work, had become an accomplice to culture, identity, roots. I also loved the cinematography—the dark, hypnotic, Blade-Runnerish palette for bits of Shanghai hinting at dystopia.

Don’t tell anybody about this, the producer says, all very hush hush.

Seriously? That’s a bit exaggerated, I thought.

But she was right. The name Bourdain really does stir the soul like no other. I mention it to a couple of close friends, demanding their secrecy. Soon a friend who owns a restaurant starts lobbying for inclusion. Others offer their congratulations, as if this opportunity alone vindicates my writing career path.

“But why did they ask you?” cracked the more sardonic—and maybe contemplative—of my friends. Well, like so much else in life, I think it’s just luck and networks. Friends of friends. The Singaporean producer asked Tanya Angerer, a good mutual friend, for references. (Tanya and Melanie Chan, another mutual friend, appeared alongside me on the show.)

The two New York producers, Bourdain’s long-time collaborators, had now started communicating with me directly over e-mail. Can you suggest an economist? Easy, Donald Low. Of course, I declared to them my overwhelming bias: Donald’s a good friend with whom I co-authored my second book. Donald, so overburdened by interview requests that he often dithers, this time responded instantly.

And that is half the interviewee selection story of Parts Unknown: Singapore. One of their prerequisites, I later realised, was ethnic comprehensiveness. Chinese (Donald), Malay (comedian Najip Ali), Indian (me), Others (Eurasian chef Damien D’Silva), adhering to Singapore’s well-known CMIO model that guides ethnic policies.

***

“So where would you like to take Tony?” By that point I had started mimicking them, and everybody else in his immediate orbit, in just saying “Tony”. The names “Bourdain” and the fuller “Anthony Bourdain”, hitherto so ingrained in my food-writer-adoring mind, quickly slipped from my vernacular. Friends still make fun of me. “Oh, you call him Tony, izzit?” Well that’s how he introduced himself! It seemed natural, understood, not some false humility or pretentious attempt to connect with the salivating masses of self-proclaimed foodies.

I suggested a 7am breakfast of my favourite Singaporean dish, bak chor mee, mushroom minced meat noodles, at Ah Hoe Mee Pok. It ticks so many boxes. Bak chor mee, or BCM—yes, we love our acronyms—is a dish whose quality has suffered immensely from economic and globalising forces. Ah Hoe is one of the few good ones left, with the most lovely, chewy egg noodles cooked al dente—think fresh pasta tossed in vinegar and chilli—paired with a deep, rich pork broth, in which float homemade fish dumplings, pork morsels, and bits of cabbage.

ah hoe mee pok

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Malaysia dreaming

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This article was first published on Malaysiakini

“Finally I feel like a Malaysian,” my uncle, born 55 years ago in Malaysia, tells me over the phone on Friday as he speeds back to his home in Petaling Jaya, just outside Kuala Lumpur. There is a calm, unhurried pride in his voice, of a victory realised, a victory assured, of a sentence and sentiment imagined countless times before, and now, at long last, finding expression.

In tow is a karaoke machine, over which other uncles and aunties and cousins and friends will fight, as they jump from English songs by the artist formerly known as Prince to the Malay Andainya Aku Pergi Dulu and the Tagalog Anak, as they pick at dry meat curries and toast their new old prime minister whom they once cursed, as they pile up empty bottles of scotch and crushed packets of cigarettes, offerings to this technological marvel that spits out multilingual songs for the Malaysia-Truly-Asia multicultural society whose contours they can now, finally, envision.

Wasn’t the big party on Wednesday? No, Wednesday was for voting and waiting. Thursday was for recuperating and pinching oneself and hopscotching between WhatsApp groups and watching in amazement as a ninety-two-year old man exudes stamina and wit you forgot he had. Friday is when you realise that the sun has still risen and that you’ve taken back your country.

Taken back from whom?

In 2009, a year after that seminal election when Malaysia’s (previous) ruling coalition lost its two-thirds majority, I met an astute Malaysian Indian banker from Maybank. His worry was that some UMNO politicians and Malay nationalists might interpret the shifting sands not as an opportunity to reform, but to pukul habis, literally beat till it’s gone, drain the Malaysian coffers of all they can. Their last chance in the sun.

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Is enough ever enough?: a discussion this Saturday on consumerism in Singapore

i shop therefore i am

How materialistic and obsessed with status competition are we Singaporeans?

Some days I think overconsumption and conspicuous consumption are things of the past, others I feel we have just moved on from the material to the experiential, from leather bags to F&B/skiing holidays (no judgment…probably guilty of all of the above.)

Not to mention the increasing projection of status competition onto children. BYOM–Bring your own maid–one of the best terms I’ve heard recently re: kids’ party instructions.

I don’t think there are ever going to be any definitive answers to any of this, consumerism is so ingrained in the Singaporean psyche, yet is also constantly evolving with migration, technology and other trends.

Nevertheless, always good to engage in the occasional banter, so I’m looking forward to this talk at 3pm this Saturday at FOST Gallery, Gillman Barracks, alongside Chua Beng Huat, a sociologist and author of “Life is not complete without shopping”, and Li Lin Wee, director of “Gone Shopping”.

Do join us to talk shop.

“This talk is free but seating is limited. Please email talks@fostgallery.com to reserve a seat. Unoccupied reserved seats will be released 5 minutes before the talk begins.”

***

Official invite details on Facebook and below: Continue reading

on fake news

therealconse

 

Singapore recently set up a Select Committee on fake news and invited public submissions. It is encouraging to see many Singaporeans getting involved. Here is my small contribution:

Dear Committee,

There are many aspects of fake news that need addressing. I will limit my discussion here to one broad philosophical point: whether or not established media channels globally are partly responsible for creating an environment in which fake news can thrive; and what can be done about it.

Best wishes,

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, writer

***

The very idea of Singapore is founded on fake news. The modern zoological consensus is that lions never roamed around Malaya. So in 1299 when Sang Nila Utama, the Srivijaya prince, landed in (what was then called) Temasek and spotted a handsome beast, it was most likely a tiger. Singa-pura, lion city, could well have been named Harimau-pura, tiger city, in modern Malay, or even Vyaghrah-pura, in Sanskrit, in use then, and the roots of “Singa”.

Yes, Vyaghrahpore. Without fake news, our little red dot might have pre-empted erectile dysfunction’s saviour. [1]

Yet that was more a simple falsehood than “news” as we know it. One of the first instances of fake news in the mass media was in 1835, when the New York Sun published observations of the moon by astronomer John Herschel, detailing “giant man-bats that spent their days collecting fruit and holding animated conversations; goat-like creatures with blue skin; a temple made of polished sapphire”.[2]

The fake news had the desired effect—among a public hungry for galactic fantasies, the Sun’s circulation rose from 8,000 to over 19,000, making it the world’s bestselling daily.

All this is simply to point out that fake news has been around for over a century at least. It is not just some new-age digital poison spewed by greedy Macedonian teenagers, disenchanted trolls in Saint Petersburg, or others of their ilk.

Moreover it is not only dubious, fly-by-night media outfits that are prone to publishing fake news. Some of the industry’s most venerable brands are too.

It would be convenient for me to make this point by pointing out possible fake news by conservative stations, like Fox News, whose political views differ from mine.

So instead I will point out possible fallacies in two newspapers which I hold in the highest regard: The Economist and The Financial Times.

And I will do so by defending two politicians whose views I find ignorant at best: Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.

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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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