Malaysia Star’s review of Floating on a Malayan Breeze

Dear friends, The Star wrote a couple of pieces about the book in today’s papers. First is a straight up book review written by Neil Khor, a friend of mine, who is a social historian and senior fellow at Think City, which manages the George Town Grants Programme. You can read Neil’s review here.

The Star also published an interview that Rouwen Lim, a reporter there, conducted. You can read that here.

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Singapore’s population policies: Book extract in the New Straits Times, Nov 5th 2012

Ahead of my book launch in KL this Saturday, Malaysia’s New Straits Times (NST) has published an excerpt from my book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, today.

Over the past few weeks, NUS Press, one of my co-publishers, and I had been lobbying the Malaysian media channels, trying to get them to feature us. Last week, NST confirmed the passage they would like to run.

When I saw which one they chose, I almost fell off my chair laughing. It’s the bit where I discuss Singapore’s flawed population policies and Lee Kuan Yew’s belief in genetic determinism. Of course, NST has also cut out the bits of the passage where I talk about Malaysia.

I’m very happy that they chose this passage. It’s one of my favourites. But it’s also quite reflective of Malaysia’s mainstream media–delighted to see a Singaporean asking tough questions of his country! I suppose it would have been politically impossible for them to run one of the passages where I scrutinise Malaysian policies. In any case, I’m sure the Malaysian audience would appreciate this more–so, from a purely commercial/marketing point of view, a good passage to attract Malaysians to my book launch this Saturday.

You can read the edited extract that NST has run on their website here or on this PDF file: NST Nov 5

Or you can read the full original passage from my book below. This is from pp. 237-40 of the book:

———————————————-

Throughout our journey, we met Malaysians, rural and urban, who couldn’t believe that we were still single, at the grand old age of 27. As far as they were concerned, we had not planned our life well. We had not given enough priority to starting a family.

Do we Singaporeans value family life less than Malaysians? Quite possibly. After numerous conversations about girlfriends, marriage and children, my sense is that there are cultural and developmental reasons for this.

My anecdotal evidence suggests that Malays treasure big families and family time more than Chinese and Indians. Many Malays I met, including Isa and Kamal, are extremely proud of their big families. Much of their life revolves around their extended families.

I found this to be less so for the Indians, even less for Chinese. This is not to say that Chinese and Indians don’t care for their families, just simply that having a big family, and maintaining close ties with the extended family, seems less a priority than it is for Malays.

When we were cycling through Terengganu, we stopped at a tiny kampung for a breather, and two very old Malay men immediately chatted us up. They were certain that all the differences between Malaysia and Singapore could be summed up in a neat parable.

Orang Melayu, bini dulu, baru cari harta.
Orang Cina, cari harta, baru bini.

Malays find a wife first, and then wealth.
Chinese find wealth first, and then a wife.

It is interesting to compare total fertility rates—the average number of children a woman is expected to have—among the different ethnic groups in the two countries.

In 2010, Malaysia’s total fertility rates were: 1.5 for Chinese, 1.7 for Indians and 2.6 for Malays. Singapore’s were: 1.02 for Chinese, 1.13 for Indians and 1.65 for Malays.

Thus, in both Malaysia and Singapore, Malays have the highest total fertility rates among the three major ethnic groups. There could be cultural and economic reasons for this. In both countries, the Malays have lower average household incomes than the Chinese and Indians. As incomes rise, people tend to have fewer kids.

This would partly explain why Singapore’s fertility rates are today so low. This is a socio-economic phenomenon the world over, particularly with the other East Asian Tigers—Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan—who have all recorded torrid economic growth alongside plummeting fertility. (Similarly, the fertility rate in Malaysia’s more developed states, such as Penang and Selangor, is lower than other parts of the country.)

What is most surprising, perhaps, is that by 2010 the total fertility rate of Singapore’s Malays was almost as low as Malaysia’s Chinese. Malay fertility rates in Singapore have dropped drastically from 2.54 in 2000 to 1.65 in 2010.

Perhaps there is something unique about Singapore’s pressure-cooker, rat-race, materialist society that has deterred young couples from having children. It is expensive to bring up children in Singapore, particularly with all the extra tuition, expensive pre-school classes, and other personal improvement programmes that parents today deem necessary.

But government policy has also greatly influenced Singaporeans’ family values. In Singapore, love and procreation have become somewhat manufactured; transformed from individual decisions and responsibilities into a national obsession. The government has indelibly shaped every Singaporean’s conception of love, marriage and children.

In the 1970s, fearful of a population explosion, our government told people to “Stop at 2”. As expected, we followed orders. By the early 1980s, it became clear that we were not replacing ourselves sufficiently and so, in a 180-degree turn, the government started to promote bigger families. Tax breaks were offered to parents who had a third child. It didn’t make much of a difference.

By 2005, our total fertility rate had slumped to 1.26, well below 2, the “replacement rate” required to maintain a stable population. Our government, desperate, pulled out all the stops: more tax breaks, longer maternity leave, and vociferous public campaigns.

Almost from the day he stepped into office, our prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has been urging Singaporeans to make babies. In the space of one generation, the Singaporean family psyche has been switched from big families to “Stop at 2” and back to big families again.

However, our government has tried to manipulate the population in a much more classist fashion—encouraging university graduates to marry other graduates rather than non-graduates. This reflects Lee Kuan Yew’s belief in genetic determinism.

In 1967, he said that about 5 per cent of the population “are more than ordinarily endowed physically and mentally and in whom we must extend our limited and slender resources …” Later, in 1969, he worried that “less economically productive people in the community are reproducing themselves at rates higher than the rest.”

Presumably, our government believed it could improve Singapore’s gene pool. In 1984 it implemented a programme that tried to increase the fertility of university educated women while offering subsidies for the voluntary sterilisation of poor and uneducated parents.

Singapore even set up a couple of government agencies to further this agenda. The Social Development Unit (SDU) was formed in 1984 to promote marriages among graduate singles, while Social Development Services (SDS) was set up in 1985 to promote marriages among non-graduate singles.

Sometimes it seems like our eugenics policies were implemented in a bygone era rife with classism. Actually, it was less than 30 years ago. We grew up in a society where eugenics influenced love.

Lee Kuan Yew’s views on this haven’t changed much. In 2008, he told 700-odd delegates at a Human Capital Summit that Singaporean graduates who marry nongraduates “will worry if their children will make it to the university”.

In Singapore, something so natural, so carnal, so innately human as love is transformed into a more structured, formal process. It seems like the only thing the government has yet to do is teach Singaporeans how to give head.

PAP fans love to boast about the party’s forward thinking and successful longterm planning. But when its history is eventually written (by somebody neutral), the PAP’s misguided population policies of the 1970s–80s will tarnish its legacy. Many of Singapore’s current socio-economic problems—including inequality, public transport squeezes and xenophobia—have their roots in our low birth-rate, and the government’s attempt to address it with sudden, unsustainably high immigration.

Put another way, when it comes to population policies, the current PAP leadership has created new problems by trying to correct the old problems that are partly the doing of the 1970s–80s PAP leadership.

Malaysia’s government, on the other hand, does not try to manipulate its population dynamics so meticulously. However, Malaysia’s religious police do frequently try to peer into the private love lives of Muslims in the country, to ensure that unmarried couples are not engaging in illicit physical activity—what is known as khalwat, literally “close proximity”. These khalwat raids can be quite sudden and brutal—Islamic officers are known to barge into people’s houses and rooms, looking for immoral activity.

This points to one of the great paradoxes of Malaysian society. The Malay Muslims are afforded special economic rights, but they cannot enjoy certain personal and social freedoms such as the ability to drink and engage in physical relations before marriage. On the other hand, the Chinese and Indian non-Muslims are considered second-class citizens politically, but then are able to lead much freer lives than the Malay Muslims ever can.

It does appear, however, that the Singapore government’s constant intrusions into the bedroom may have been counterproductive. At best, they have failed to achieve their goals. At worst, love, marriage and sex, glorious expressions of the human condition, have been reduced to numbers, policies and projections. Procreation becomes a mechanical response, a “national service”, akin to paying taxes.

SG Population

Which begs the question: have we all spent enough time thinking about what makes us happy? For those of us who want huge families, have we really thought hard enough about what else we could be doing with our time if we had a smaller family? Conversely, for those of us who want tiny families, are we missing out on one of life’s basic joys?

———————————————-

It’s interesting to compare this passage to the one that Singapore’s The Straits Times (ST) chose to run a couple of weeks back. Incidentally, ST had asked me to select a passage for their extract. NST read through the whole book and chose one they liked.

Extract from Floating on a Malayan Breeze: The Straits Times, Oct 13th 2012

Dear friends, for those who missed the extract in The Straits Times this past weekend, click on the image below.

Or, if you’d rather just read the extract right here, here it is. From pages 173-76 of the book:

Your first instinct, when approaching the back of a truck while riding downhill, is to slam on the brakes, ratchet down the speed, and play it safe. But then, you realise the incredible slowness of these trucks and temptation gets the better of you. And you just do it. Your hand eases off the brakes, your feet spin for a while but then stop, confused, because they are no longer needed, and you let gravity race you down past the truck.

Once you’ve passed one, the confidence grows, and those fingers just clamp on the handlebar, as if squeezing tighter will make you go faster. On we went, speeding past each truck with less fear, building up a frightening momentum. Imagine a downhill race on Super Mario Kart, or Speed Racer, slaloming around giant tortoises, but worried about potholes and bumps. One error could send us flying, flailing, at more than 50 km per hour. Sheer adrenaline.

The best moments came when there were two trucks, one in each direction, and we cut between them, through a gap which was wide enough to tempt us, yet narrow enough to kill us, should we put one foot wrong.

But what a gap it is. The moment you enter the space between two trucks, it feels like you are hitt ing a vacuum, sound just dries up and gets sucked out. All you hear is a burst, similar to that when you first jump into a swimming pool. Or like when you pour Coke into a glassful of ice. A loud fizz that gradually diminishes.

No onomatopoeic device can capture this sound. Each time we treated ourselves to a Coke during the rest of the trip, we would close our eyes and listen, transported back to those few precious seconds in the truck vacuum.

The approach to Pulau Banding is dramatic. The island sits in a reservoir that is wrapped around by tall mountains, like a little droplet in a huge bowl.

As soon as we crossed the bridge into Banding, there was a jetty on our right. The boats were mostly painted the same worn and cracked light blue colour. It was late afternoon, and the placid rocking of the boats was the only activity in sight. We rested for a while there, before showering at the only petrol station, a few minutes cycle away, in the middle of the island.

Led by our stomachs, and not wanting to worry about where to sleep, we ate at a warung nearby. The sun had set, and darkness was rapidly reaching pitch black. These were not ideal tent-pitching conditions. Worse, there was nowhere to sleep at the warung where we had just eaten; we were told to leave.

It seems implausible now that one would be looking for a place to sleep around the physical premises of a restaurant, scouting the place while having dinner, but at that moment, in that frame of mind, it was the most natural thing to do. Seeing that there was no respite for the night, we went back to where we were at dusk, a jetty by the edge of the Tasik.

We walked towards the first boathouse, when suddenly two figures emerged from the darkness, coming towards us. One of them was a Malay, dressed in tight jeans, with a red cap that kept his long hair tucked behind his neck. The other was an Indian, and we could barely make out his features because of the low light. Two bulbous eyes stared at us.

“Eh, what are you fellows doing here?” asked the Indian youth, rather forcefully.

“Er … erm … we are two Singaporeans cycling around Malaysia …”

“Two Singaporeans?” He came closer and shone his torchlight at our faces. “Are you Indian?”

“Yes!” we both chorused, triumphantly, excitedly, assuming that this would be a good answer.

He flicked his torchlight across our faces once again, like an immigration officer peeking into a car. Nervous, and with a light in our faces, we just kept quiet. Finally we saw the whites of his eyes bobbing up and down, as he nodded with satisfaction. His torso relaxed, and his voice softened.

“OK, good, you guys want a place to stay? Not a problem, you can stay on the boat. Just go and tell my friend. No problem letting some machas [brothers] stay with us. Lock your bicycles somewhere also. I will be back in a while. You guys want some food?” he asked briskly, obviously in a rush.

“No, it’s OK, we just ate.”

“Are you sure? OK, I see you in a while, I have to go and make a telephone call,” Das said as he walked away, hopped onto his Malay friend’s motorcycle, and sped off into the darkness.

At that moment, a flood of relief washed over us. It felt nice to be accepted. We were also swollen with Indian pride, and immediately felt a bond with Das and every one of his friends who we had never met. We were swept up in a roaring wave of Indian communalism. It felt great.

Moreover, we felt like insiders because he had called us macha. Machan, often pronounced “macha”, means brother-in-law in Tamil, but is used colloquially to refer to friends. It connotes a bond stronger than just “friend”. We used it in secondary school, both among Tamils and some non-Tamils, but rarely since then. Like so many of Singapore’s other vernacular treasures, “macha” seems destined for extinction. It is being replaced, quite worryingly, by “dude”.

Filled with gratitude, we quickly locked up our bicycles next to the boathouse, unhinged our bags and brought them onboard. A fat, bearded Indian youth dressed in a white t-shirt and black football shorts was seated in front of a wooden island in the middle of the boathouse, just behind the rudder. He appeared uninterested in us, and the three of us barely talked; the TV proved a welcome distraction, as we focused on a Copa America game in which a young Gabriel Heinze was about to partake in the last act of the drama that is a penalty shoot-out.

In the following days, months and years, as we pondered that racial examination we had been thrust into, it has always filled us with a mix of emotions. What if we were Chinese? Would he have kicked us out? Why did we feel such strong Indian pride? Or was it just relief? Do those communal sentiments linger somewhere deep inside all of us, waiting for the right situation and circumstances?

My first ever book launch: The Ups and Downs

Dear friends, thanks for all the support and encouragement. It’s still a bit surreal holding my very first book in my hands. In some ways, it seems like just yesterday that Sumana Rajarethnam, my best friend, and I were telling people that we wanted to cycle around Malaysia on RM10/day, and most responded that we’re nuts.

But the anguish and self-doubt we went through then also seems very far away when I look at the book. Now, it seems almost self-evident that we would end up with something. “It always seems impossible until it’s done,” as Mr Mandela says. Not that writing one book is that big of a deal…but it was a mountain for us.

I thought I’d just share a few thoughts about the actual launch itself because the day was both exhilarating and harrowing. I will try my best to tell this story without it becoming a bit of a Sandiwara. Not easy, given the details you’ll read, but I’ll try.

I returned home on Tuesday morning from a 10-day trip abroad–a holiday my mum had planned in January, well before I knew about the dates for the book launch. I was in pretty good shape, went to work, and then returned home in the evening, looking forward to preparing my notes and slide deck for the launch on Wed evening.

When I returned home, I found out that my dad had been admitted to hospital. Nothing too serious, he had been down with flu on the last day of our holiday. But still cause for a little bit of concern. Given that he wasn’t too ill–“just observation”–the main disappointment here was that he would not be able to attend the launch the next day.

Soon after, I found out that my uncle in KL had just passed away. I wouldn’t say I was super close to my dad’s cousin, but neither were we far–I always had a good laugh with him whenever we met, and often sung songs together.

Regardless, these double shocks meant that despite being quite tired from the trip and the whole day at work, I just wasn’t able to sleep. I slept for 3 hours, and then woke up at 2am, and couldn’t get back to sleep. From 2-7, I was just lying in bed, a million thoughts racing through my head. “Should I postpone the event? Should I go to KL for the wake? Should I visit my dad in the morning?” etc. etc.

The most immediate problem, of course, is that I had a Channel News Asia interview scheduled at 8.20am. Up till about 7.15am, I thought I might cancel it. But I was also worried about the repercussions, especially after the planning the CNA production team had done–reading the book, writing up questions for the anchors, etc. If I cancelled, would CNA ever call me back? How bad would it look for the book if I wasn’t there? How many people would  I be letting down?

So, I got up showered, chugged two big mugs of green tea, and headed over to Caldecott. It seems like only a few people who knew me well could tell I was tired, so overall, not too bad. You can watch the interview here.

The next problem is that I had to go to work, but I could hardly sit up after the Live TV energy-boost had worn off. So, at around 9.30am, I spoke with my boss and applied for urgent leave. Always understanding, she told me to take it. I worked for about an hour, some urgent emails and calls, and then collapsed in bed.

I woke at around 2pm feeling fantastic. From that point on, the day was a breeze, actually. Sumana, my wife and I headed down to the Esplanade at around 5.45pm. The folks there were setting up, so we just hung around waiting.

The next few hours passed by so quickly. Before I knew it, some guests had arrived and were asking for the books and my signature. From then on, I was moving around, saying hello, signing books, getting dragged back into the studio and asked to “relax and prepare”. I didn’t really need to, because I am quite comfortable speaking in public. In fact, people around often have the opposite problem–getting me to shut up.

Many people asked me how I was feeling. I said great, but that I had had a real moment of crisis and panic in the morning. Before I could explain why, I was whisked off somewhere. It was all a lot of fun, but also quite chaotic.

The diversity of the crowd was wonderful. On the one hand, there were people who have known me since I was in diapers, and friends who had been there right from the start–they had bade farewell to Sumana and me in 2004, as we cycled off. I felt so happy that they were there to witness the end of the long journey. On the other hand, there were quite a few new friends–people I had just met, some others who I was meeting for the first time, people who have followed my blog writings and had come down to support me. I was humbled.

One of my big disappointments of the night was the organisation. There were long queues of people waiting to get into the Studio, waiting to buy the book, waiting to get my signature. I don’t think this is necessarily anybody’s fault, but just a confluence of factors.

The Esplanade is extremely stringent about all sorts of things. All guests must have a ticket before they enter. We are allowed to issue only 245 tickets (the capacity of the Studio). Guests are allowed in only after 730pm. etc etc.

On top of that, my publisher, NUS Press, was also a bit under-resourced for an event like this. I know they were all trying their best, but many guests entered the Studio feeling tired and frustrated after what must have seemed like an unnecessarily laborious entry process. As the author, I felt quite bad.

Note to other artists/authors: The Esplanade, while a lovely venue with a great location, has soooo many regulations and rules. It would take me an hour to list them all, but here is one: no outside mineral water bottles allowed because of product placement rules.

What did this mean for us? Well, Christine from NUS Press had brought 3 bottles of Evian water and placed it next to the panellists chairs. Before the event started, an employee from The Esplanade went around removing the labels from around the bottles. No big deal, but just another activity in the rush to set up. If you’re interested, The Esplanade has its own water–of course–that you are welcome to buy and use there.

Nevertheless, strict rules and guidelines can be the bedrock of efficiency. Another good thing about The Esplanade is that everybody there is very professional and competent, and their systems seem to be working perfectly.

So, once the guests had finally sat down and the proceedings were underway, everything went off flawlessly.

The rest of the evening went by in a blur. First Mr Nathan made a speech that had been largely written by Sumana. Then I spoke for about 20mins. Then Donald Low, Manu Bhaskaran and myself had a panel discussion, with lots of audience participation. (For those who are wondering why and how I asked Mr Nathan, Donald and Manu to join me, please read this other piece, The politics of personalities.) Then everything was over and I was outside signing books. And then, finally, I was downstairs at Sauce, having drinks with friends and family.

By that point, the stress of the early morning seemed so, so far away. It was quite thrilling, really, to be celebrating with friends, new and old. A good friend bought me a Flaming Lamborghini, something I hadn’t had for a long time. As the bartender lit the drink up, he said, “This will help you float on a Malayan breeze.” It did.

In a way, all this is a bit anti-climatic, because I had actually finished with the manuscript in April, and for the past month have actually been thinking a lot about my next project. That said, it still feels quite good to know that an 8-year project has finally come to an end. This is the longest piece of work I’ve been involved in. At many points I felt like giving up.

When I started it, I was single, still in college, and wondering what I was going to do with my life. Now, by the time I’ve finished, I’m married to my darling wife, working in a job I like, and….still sort of wondering what I am going to do with my life.

Now that it’s all over, I actually feel a bit of a void.

The politics of personalities: Book reviewers and panellists

Dear friends, some of you have asked me how and why I asked George Yeo to write a review for the book, SR Nathan to be the guest-of-honour at the launch, Donald Low and Manu Bhaskaran to join me on a panel, etc.

There was actually a lot of thought put into all this by the publishers–the Hong Kong University (HKU) Press and the National University of Singapore (NUS) Press–and myself. And at the end of the day, we are all absolutely delighted with the kind words and support we received from these distinguished people.

Let me start with the reviewers of the book. We had initially wanted to get three reviewers–one foreigner, one Singaporean, and one Malaysian.

The first person I approached was Simon Long. Simon is a very senior journalist at The Economist. He was the Asia editor when we first met, and commissioned my very first few pieces for the newspaper. Today he is “Banyan”, writing our paper’s Asia column. Simon readily agreed, much to my delight.

While it was great to have Simon’s review on the book, we knew we couldn’t just have “one white guy”. We didn’t want the book to be perceived as some Western, neo-colonial interpretation of Malaysia/Singapore.

So I was thrilled when George Yeo agreed. Mr Yeo is probably the politician in Singapore with the broadest appeal across the political divide. He is also highly respected the world over, both regionally and internationally.

Finally, we wanted to get one Malaysian to write a review. Given the occasional animosity between Malaysia and Singapore, we don’t want the book to be perceived in Malaysia as an ivory tower, Singapore-centric view of the region. I have spent a tremendous amount of time on the ground in Malaysia, interviewing hundreds of people, but that hard research could be undermined by negative perceptions.

However, the problem is that Malaysia currently faces the worst ideological divide in the country’s history. According to everybody I spoke with, every prominent Malaysian has stuck his/her flag on one side of the political divide. There is no famous person with appeal akin to George Yeo in Singapore.

And so–we made the decision not to have any Malaysian reviewer on the back. In our assessment, the risk of being seen as aligned with one side or another was higher than the risk of being seen as a Singapore-centric narrative.

I hope I don’t come to regret this. (You can read the final reviews here).

For the launch itself, the first two names almost wrote themselves: Donald Low and Manu Bhaskaran, who have become good friends and inspirations over the past few years. We’ve spent a fair bit of time shooting the breeze, talking politics over beers, so I was confident our rapport would make for a good session.

However, after chatting with a few people, I realised that I also wanted to invite somebody a bit closer to the establishment. Donald, Manu and I will probably all be regarded as non-establishment (not necessarily “anti”, but just “non”).

And so I was absolutely chuffed when Manu invited SR Nathan on my behalf, and he accepted.

There were several people who questioned the choice of Mr Nathan as guest-of-honour. I think they have an aversion to anybody perceived as close to the PAP; they would have rather just had Donald, Manu and myself speaking about my book. But that would have been a slightly narrow field, given the similarities in our socio-political views.

My feeling is that it is best to always have as broad and inclusive a conversation as possible. That means involving people from different points of our political spectrum: non-establishment, and establishment. As with my writing, I hope that any events I organise and participate in will always be balanced and reasoned. Most importantly, this will make my writing appeal to as wide an audience as possible, which is what I hope for from an intellectual point of view–and, no doubt, it’s what makes good commercial sense too (that said, one might argue that partisan channels and viewpoints, not moderate middle-of-the-road ones, are currently more successful in some democracies such as the US).

In any case, Mr Nathan made a wonderful speech that Sumana, my best friend, helped write. 🙂

On his way out, Mr Nathan just jokingly scolded me about one thing: he didn’t like my portrayal of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). He felt I was a bit too sympathetic towards them. He says he wants to have a word someday. I look forward to it.

Book interview: The Kent Ridge Common

Dear friends, a student reporter from The Kent Ridge Common, an independent online publication run by NUS students and alumni, came to interview me the other day. In his words, we “chatted for a little over an hour about everything under the sun, from education to economics, from interests to career.” Please click here to read the interview.

Post-bicycle trip, starting to write. Aug–Dec 2004

Dear friends, I won’t spend too much time discussing the actual bicycle trip here, as many of those stories have found their way into the book–please read it!!! 🙂 

However, I shall chat a bit about the period immediately after we returned from the trip, and as the actual book writing began. When we got back to Singapore, after 30 days on the road, living on RM10 (US$3) per day, we were obviously tired physically, but we were also energised. We had fabulous memories! Lots of good stories! Photos! Reams of illegible handwriting! We had a book to write. A few weeks later, we were on a plane back to the US to start the Fall semester of Masters’ programme second year.

All along, Sumana and I had been pretty confident about writing a book. We had written articles and papers our whole lives. Surely just a small leap? Then, as we actually sat down and tried to make sense of all our notes, the enormity of the task stumped us. How foolish we were. There were just so many questions. Do we write a straight travel narrative, a historical memoir, or do we attempt some form of gonzo journalism, inserting ourselves liberally and comically within the story? First person or third person? Chronological or thematic? Do we just touch on the lighter issues, such as beaches and Singlish, or must we address those thorny cans of worms, such as race, religion, and where the best durians are found?

Then, what tone do we want? Academic? Casual? Journalistic? To answer these questions, as with any product I suppose, many people told us to figure out who exactly our audience is. Gosh, we hadn’t even thought about it. All we knew is that we wanted to write a story about Malaysia and Singapore from the ground-up. For too long we had been listening to our governments, and our governments only. Who would read our book? No idea. Everybody, we hoped.

But how would we coordinate? Sumana was based in Ann Arbor, Michigan and I in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Who would write what? How would we work together? Who edits first? Too many bloody questions.

And so, in this blur of uncertainty, we decided to just do what we do best. Write. So we wrote and wrote. We remembered and recollected all the crazy, funny stories–Puru, the former Motorola executive who had retired to his own beach chalets in Cherating, Pahang. He let us stay two nights, and regaled all us with all sorts of ridiculous stories, all the while sneaking off to get high away from the prying eyes of his wife. And the glassy-eyed Uzbek who had let us stay in a mosque in Sungai Golok, a border town in Southern Thailand, where bombs were going off every few months, and Muslim men from ultra-strict Kelantan were soliciting Thai hookers every night.

To augment each story, we had written historical and political essays next to every one. That’s what the reader wants, we were convinced.

By Dec 2004, we had exchanged stories. They read beautifully. We patted each other on the back, laughing at the memories.

We let a couple of other friends read our work. They hated it. Too academic. Not insightful. Missing the forest for the trees.

Shit. It would take another three years for us to find our voice…

Preparing for our bicycle trip, May-June 2004

Once Sumana and I had made up our minds to spend 30 days cycling around Malaysia on RM10 (US$3) per day each, we had to prepare ourselves physically, emotionally and intellectually.

Physically, because we had no idea how our bodies would react. The most we had ever cycled was some 50km around Singapore. What would happen when we tried to cycle 80km every single day continuously? So, we just started cycling around Singapore. First,with nothing on our bikes, then with our panniers mounted and filled. When I look back at this period, the one enduring memory is of Singapore’s roads–they were far less congested back then, just a few years ago in 2004, and motorists were much more patient and aware of cyclists. After a 7-year hiatus, I started cycling seriously again last December, 2011. Oh boy. There are times now on Singapore’s roads I feel like one of those runners in Pamplona, panting, sprinting foolishly alongside raging bulls, unsure who is supposed to tag who.

Emotionally, because as cocksure as we pretended to be, we were still scared. At a larger level, what if this whole trip was just a bloody waste of time? We weren’t looking forward to failure, stumbling back to Singapore to face the chorus of told-you-so’s. At a more prosaic level, the daily uncertainties worried us. Would we really be able to live on just RM10 a day? Where were we going to sleep every night? How the heck could we get through a month without home-cooked food? Worse, a month without drinking?

And intellectually, as we dusted off our Malaysia history books and Kamus, the Malay dictionary. Sure, we had gone through 12 years of Malay as second-language in Singapore’s schools. Sure, we had passed Malay at ‘O’ and ‘AO’ Level. But in early 2004, having just spent 4 years at undergrad in California, Sumana and I spoke better Spanish than Malay. And so, painful as it was initially, we started reading Malay newspapers, talking to each other in Malay, and watching Mat YoYo.

So, in short, we passed those days in May and June 2004, after we had returned to Singapore from Year 1 of our Masters programme in the US and before the start of our bike trip, mostly cycling, worrying, and trying to memorise the Malay phrase for “hungry cyclist”. It was actually quite fun.

One of the toughest trade-offs we faced was between our bicycles’ simplicity and performance. Our intention was to travel as inconspicuously as possible. We had chosen to cycle, after all, partly because we didn’t want to be seen as the Rolex-touting Singaporean barrelling through Malaysia in a Mercedes. We certainly didn’t want a high-tech, flashy mountain bike.

However, our desire for simplicity had to be balanced with the need for a machine that could get us through thousands of kilometres of Malaysian sand, jungle, road and mountain. In the end, we erred on the side of performance.

As a result, amidst thousands of single-geared bicycles, our 24-speed Giants stuck out like sore thumbs.

We also wore ridiculous helmets—shunned even by Malaysian motorcyclists—another sure sign that we were slightly out of mind, and definitely out-of-town.

The other major dilemma revolved around our pre-trip dietary plans. I was fairly convinced by the “protein diet” craze that had swept the US, and so decided to cut down on carbohydrates. The aim was to slowly reduce my food intake and therefore shrink my stomach to prepare for our journey where we would be eating much less than normal.

Sumana, a student of the camel school of consumption, had decided that the only way to prepare for reduced consumption was to eat as much as possible and thus fatten himself up to pre-empt the effects of weight loss. We took to our diets with dogged determination, intent on proving the other wrong. The result of all this waffly nutritional science is that Sumana often felt hungry and I weak.