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.

merdeka group

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.

***

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.

my talk on identity at The Economist’s Open Future Festival

DON_4155 copy

Dear friends, click below to watch my ten-minute talk on identity and multiculturalism in Asia at The Economist’s Open Future Festival in Hong Kong on October 5th.

I cite the different approaches to ethnic/cultural identity that we find in China, India and Singapore, and give my reasons why we all need to think a bit harder about our identity choices, given current larger forces at play in the world today.

In a sense, this Economist talk is a direct product of the brownface brouhaha in Singapore in July/August this year. I made a couple of videos on brownface and race, which got passed around by some of my former colleagues at The Economist Group in Singapore, Hong Kong and London. (Read more about my work there from 2006 to 2013.)

That in itself was surprising, because I thought the videos were hyper-local, what with my generous use of Singlish. I guess it shows that these issues are quite universal, no matter my bumbling delivery.

I took that as a cue, and decided to have a Singlish segment in this Economist talk. First time I’ve used so much Singlish at a “proper presentation” overseas. It went down well, especially with Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party in Thailand, who was laughing away in the front row (and later introduced himself). I guess South-east Asians have a soft spot for our Singlish!

It was both tougher and easier than other talks I’ve given. Tougher because it’s a big topic for ten minutes; and I felt the pressure of both the live stream and the very tight timing, the clock counting down at me from a screen at my feet. I missed a couple of lines, but oh well. Happens.

But easier because I had lots of support and encouragement from the floor, including a bunch of former colleagues and bosses, some who gave me many opportunities to speak and write early in my career, some thirteen years ago now.

Also great to have Singaporean buddies Amanda and Mel in the crowd, who kindly took me out for a smashing time after. Long time since I partied in Lan Kwai Fong.

Many have asked me about whether it’s safe to travel to Hong Kong now. My response: it’s the best time! Fewer tourists, hotels are cheaper, easy to get around. The protests are very well organised and planned, so you know where to go or not, you know whether to take the MTR or taxi. I had a great time (while also acknowledging the pain others on all sides are enduring…).

And, finally, very grateful to Kaiyang Huang and Rohan Mukherjee for helping me refine my arguments.

***


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***

There were many other cool segments at the conference, including this debate between Joshua Wong, Hong Kong’s most famous pro-democracy activist, and the pro-Beijing Shaun Rein, managing director of the China Market Research Group.

 

 

On my first two videos: race in Singapore

video radio star

Please click to watch my first two videos, published on Facebook a few days ago:

Race in Singapore: We can’t trust politicians

 

Brownface in Singapore: Why the fuss?

 

Why video?

K Shanmugam. Michelle Chong. Nuseir Yassin aka Nas Daily.

Those are the three reasons why I am experimenting with video now. At a broad level video has been on my mind for a while, part of my own professional growth, reskilling, continuing media education. Writing will always be my first love but I need basic proficiency in video, especially if/when I start my own media business.

The three of them, however, have made the issue more pressing, because they have contributed to an increasingly ideologically-biased video landscape. Shanmugam is a constant video presence on big issues, for instance commenting on Preeti and Subhas. I am told, among other things, that those “interviews” are often scripted, staged, and re-shot if he doesn’t like something.

There is no pushback. Nobody would dare, for example, ask him whether the government made a mistake in publishing the Brownface ad, something journalists in any other developed country would feel comfortable doing. This is not journalism or even authentic reporting, since he can order re-shoots. It is Shanmugam TV.  I am not sure viewers really understand this.

(This is true for many political “interviews” in Singapore; I am focussing on Shanmugam simply because he is a strong and recurring presence on video.)

Michelle Chong and Nuseir Yassin, much as I like their style and some of their work, have knowingly or not become part of the PAP’s band of useful idiots. Some of Michelle Chong’s work for the government is great, I like her impersonations of Marie Kondo, for instance.

But I was absolutely shocked by her video interview of Shanmugam to help the government sell its new fake news law. The interplay between truth and fiction is a key tenet of any art form. Imagine my surprise, then, that a Singaporean artist would willingly help politicians take away that power.

I’ve met Michelle Chong once, briefly, she seems like a lovely person. But I’ve also been told that she’ll say anything for money. Perhaps it was her jealous enemies bitching about her to me, but if true, it is troubling for all sorts of reasons.

Also, it is unethical that her video did not mention that it was sponsored by the government. In other words, taxpayers like us paid Michelle and Shanmugam to make a video that ultimately just seems to be an exercise in personal branding (rather than a proper analysis of the new fake news bill). But this appears to be the way of the influencer world, take money and keep quiet about it.

I hope Michelle continues doing her great work across Singapore—but she should steer clear of certain issues. I suspect media studies departments in the future will classify her Ah Lian interview of Shanmugam as a textbook example of authoritarian propaganda. Horribly naive.

(To be clear, fake news is a big menace that must be dealt with. But we can never allow politicians from any party to be in charge, for the simple reason that they will be able to manipulate elections.)

Finally, Nas Daily videos are gross simplifications of complicated problems. I believe they are doing a disservice to the world. His superficial commentary on Singapore is proof that one can’t parachute into a place and understand it. There are a million critiques to choose from, but I’ll give you just one: it is absurd for a Muslim-Arab to call Singapore, a country with institutional discrimination against Muslims, an “almost perfect country”. But that’s what happens when you observe the veneer of multiculturalism and are wilfully ignorant about real problems.

That said, I’m delighted that Nuseir has moved here. It’s great for our country, hopefully he’ll help jumpstart our new media sector. I certainly have lots to learn from his delivery and comfort on screen. I just hope he will graduate to making more well-researched pieces akin to John Oliver and Hasan Minhaj.

Michelle and Nuseir are just two of the most prominent video personalities who are becoming dependent on government funds, which hinders their ability to act and speak freely. Many smaller media outfits in Singapore face the same challenge.

And that is why I worry that the video world is increasingly ideologically-biased. Unlike say the written word, for which Singaporeans can now access a whole range of views online.

My mistakes with these videos

Yes, I made many, including perhaps with the background music, delivery, subtitle typos. Here I will discuss the two main ones, after several days of debriefs.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading at Nikkei Asian Review

Nov 5th: Speaking in Cambridge, MA

Social inclusion image

Dear friends, I’ll be speaking at this event. Join us!

When: 5pm-7pm, Nov 5th 2015

Where: Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS) Harvard, 1730 Cambridge St, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

Description:

Singapore is a small city-state often lauded for its economic transformation over the last 50 years. Less attention has been paid to the social integration policies that brought a racially divided nation together, and the unique approaches and principles that produced them. Today, as Singapore celebrates her golden jubilee, new cracks in the social fabric are starting to emerge: class, immigration and race relations. This panel discussion series focuses on how Singapore has confronted social integration challenges in the past, and the challenges and solutions to social faultlines on the horizon.

Speakers:

Continue reading

Happy Birthday, Singapore

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Dear friends, I published an essay about Singaporean nationalism and patriotism on Mothership.sg, one of Singapore’s newer alternative news sites. Incidentally, I sit on the advisory board of Project Fisher-men, a social enterprise that owns Mothership.

Click here to read it on Mothership.

Alternatively, it is reproduced here:

Every year in the days leading up to August 9th, a maelstrom of emotions swirls deep within me. I am never quite sure how to react to Singapore’s National Day.

“But why are you singing Stand up for Singapore?” asks my Chinese Peranakan wife, who is indifferent towards the patriotism, but wholly enthusiastic about the day off. It’s subconscious, I say, a reaction to hearing the catchy tune somewhere in July, the month of cheesy patriotic jingles in Singapore.

My fundamental problem with National Day has nothing to do with Singapore per se. Rather, I am generally skeptical about nationalism and patriotism, and their expressions anywhere in the world. Nationalism’s slippery slope to fascism — from Adolf and Idi to Perkasa — seems to far outweigh any benefits.

I prefer to exist, naively, in an idealistic parallel universe where borders are fluid and the oneness of humanity is cherished. With ethnicity, religion and culture already dividing the peoples of the world, why cloak ourselves with another layer of differentiation?

There are also particular, localised reasons for my ambivalence. And it is, indeed, ambivalence, not just doubt, because National Day has first always made me warm and fuzzy inside.

Continue reading

Second book launch: Hard Choices

Hard Choices Front_Ver 2

Dear friends, I just wanted to share some thoughts from my second book launch this past Tuesday. If you want to find out more about the book’s content and cover, please see my earlier post here.

I really enjoyed the launch. As in, it was genuinely fun. Lots of banter up on stage between Donald Low, my co-author, David Skilling, the moderator, and myself before the event. Engaging conversation and audience questions throughout on a range of important and sometimes emotive subjects, from Goh Keng Swee’s doubts in 1972 about Singapore’s emerging economic model to the recent uproar over the mooted Philippines Independence Day Celebration in Singapore this June.

If you are keen to see what you missed, here is a 22min video of the session.

Continue reading

Poem: What the papers white out

Projections, pronouncements, proclamations.

They herald the march forward, the fattening of the cow,

the building of ornate temples, and the bringing of capitalist Gods.

And yet they never tell you, my fellow kiasu,

about the end of your childhood, the place you once knew.

We are never told what the papers white out.

~

We are not told about the last makcik Continue reading

Diamonds, Gold and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa

I’ve just finished this excellent book by Martin Meredith, and thought I might record some choice quotes and passages. For future reference.

“It often strikes a man to inquire what is the chief good in life; to one the thought comes that it is a happy marriage, to another great wealth, and as each seizes on his idea, for that he more or less works for the rest of his existence. To myself thinking over the same question the wish came to render myself useful to my country. I then asked myself how could I and after reviewing the various methods I have felt that at the present day we are actually limiting our children and perhaps bringing into the world half the human beings we might owing to the lack of country for them to inhabit that if we had retained America there would at this moment be millions more of English living.

I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives. I contend that every acre added to our territory means in the future birth to some more of the English race who otherwise would not be brought into existence. Added to this the absorption of the greater portion of the world under our rule simply means the end of all war.”

– Cecil Rhodes, June 1877 (p. 127)

“The ‘native question’, he said, was the ‘big test question for South Africa’. He had arrived in the Colony, he said, as ‘the most rabid Jingo’, but he now considered that the Cape had allowed too many Africans the vote. ‘As long as the natives remain in a state of barbarism we must treat them as a subject race and be lords over them’.”

p. 200

“Once more, the Swazis were given no hearing. On 10 December 1894, Britain agreed a third Convention consigning Swaziland into the hands of the Transvaal as a ‘Protectorate’. According to Loch, this was ‘the price which must be paid to avert war between the two white peoples of South Africa’.

The Swazis remembered this passage of their history as a time when ‘the documents killed us’.”

p. 243

“As we travelled along, Rhodes kept on asking, ‘What building is this?’ ‘What building is that?’ He made no comment, but I could see he felt depressed on his first arrival. It was only when I pointed out to him the foundations of the Jewish Synagogue that he became cheerful once more and quite excited.

‘My country’s all right,’ he kept on exclaiming. ‘If the Jews come, my country’s all right.’ ”

p. 275

“A young chief who might best be described as insolent to the elders of his tribe and particularly so to the white men put in a pertinent question. ‘Where are we to live when it is over?’ he said. ‘The white man claims all the land.’ Rhodes replied at once, ‘We will give you settlements. We will set apart locations for you; we will give you land.’ The young chief shouted angrily, ‘You will give us land in our own country! That’s good of you!’ ”

p. 360

” ‘The Lord will protect us,’ Kruger told the Volksraad. ‘The Lord orders the flights of bullets. The Lord gave us the triumph of the War of Independence and the capture of Jameson. The Lord will also protect you now, even if thousands of bullets fly about you.’ ”

p. 422

Appeals went out for funds to support soldiers’ dependants and for gift of clothing, tobacco, cigarettes and ‘delicacies’ for the men. The most potent appeal of all was made by Rudyard Kipling:

When you’ve shouted ‘Rule Britannia’, when you’ve

sung ‘God Save the Queen’,

When you’re finished killing Kruger with your mouth,

Will you kindly drop a shilling in my little tambourine

For a gentleman in Khaki ordered South?

He’s an absent-minded beggar, and his weaknesses are

great —

But we and Paul must take him as we find him —

He’s out on active service, wiping something off a slate —

And he’s left a lot of little things behind him!…”

p. 429

“Other officers thought the results were justified. Captain R.F. Talbot of the Royal Horse Artillery wrote in his diary:

I went out this morning with some of my men ostensibly to get vegetables, but joined the provost marshal and the sappers in a farm burning party, and we burnt and blew up two farms with gun-cotton, turning out the inhabitants first. It is a bit sickening at first turning out the women and children, but they are such brutes and the former all spies; we don’t mind it now. Only those are done which belong to men who are sniping or otherwise behaving badly.”

p. 452

“He (Alfred Milner) envisaged two principal methods of achieving this foal. The first was large-scale immigration of people of British descent. ‘I attached the greatest importance of all to the increase in the British population,’ he told the Colonial Office. ‘If, ten years hence, there are three men of British race to two of Dutch, the country will be safe and prosperous. If there are three of Dutch to two of British, we shall have perpetual difficulty….We not only want a majority of British, we want a fair margin because of the large proportion of cranks that we British generated and who take particular pleasure in going against their own people.’ ”

p. 482

“In parliament, the Liberal opposition criticised the use of low-paid Chinese labour in the gold mines, claiming it was tantamount to ‘Chinese slavery’. What made matters worse was the discovery that Milner had authorised the flogging of Chinese labourers–without reference to magistrates–in cases of violence and unruliness. ‘At the time,’ Milner told his successor, Lord Selborne, ‘it seemed to me so harmless that I really gave very little thought to the matter.’

p. 493

“Lord Milner gave short shrift to African protests. ‘A political equality of white and black is impossible,’ he said. ‘The white man must rle because he is elevated by many, many steps above the black man; steps which it will take the latter centuries to climb, and which it is quite possible that the vast bulk of the black population may never be able to climb at all.’ ”

p. 495

” ‘We rather congratulate ourselves,’ a government minister, Frederick Moor, told the South African Native Affairs Commission, ‘that our Natives are the best-mannered, and the best behaved, and the most law-abiding people that we have got in South Africa.’ ”

p. 499

” In searching for the underlying causes of the rebellion, Natal’s white community placed much of the blame on mission-educated Africans stirring up trouble for their own purposes rather than on the harsh impact of white taxes, fines and land-grabbing. Most whites tended to distrust Christian African–kholwa, as they were known–far more so than ‘traditional’ Africans whom they believed to be more respectful of white rule. A Natal police commissioner attributed African discontent and the 1906 rebellion to education and missionary influence which, he claimed, ‘tends to inculcate an equality between black and white, which is a dangerous doctrine in Natal, and must result in discontent in the subject race.’ ”

p. 502

“With the help of Afrikaner academics, it fashioned a new, hardened version of Afrikaner ideology. Christian-Nationalism, as it was called, was essentially a blend of the Old Testament ad modern politics, influenced in part by the rise of European fascism. At its core was the notion once expounded by Paul Kruger that Afrikaners were members of an exclusive volk created by the hand of God to fulfil a special mission in South Africa.”

p. 524

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?