Happy Birthday, Singapore

singapore_flag

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

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Last letter from India: Manipur

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin.

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A continuation of Letter from India: Gatka

The first time I hear about Manipur is when I am doing my preliminary research into Indian martial arts, and something called “Thang-Ta”, which doesn’t sound very Indian at all, shows up. Subsequently, as I travel across India, different martial arts gurus insist that I must visit Manipur to see one of the country’s finest martial arts.

Having never been there, my perceptions of India’s Northeast are superficial. I believe it is a region of hill stations, tea plantations, and a thousand separatists; but beyond that I know little. If you look at a map of South Asia, you will see that the long journey of nationalism and statehood has left India with this chunk of territory, the Northeast, connected to the rest by an extremely narrow passage, which almost looks like India’s little pinky, holding on desperately (see map). Continue reading

Letter from India: Trivandrum

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin.

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As soon as I board the plane in Changi, I regret not having bought duty-free booze. Half the Malayali men around me are carrying sealed plastic bags full of whisky and beer. “Don’t bother with Changi, just buy my Heineken beer in Trivandrum airport,” was the message Babu Uncle delivered, in his desire to minimise my beer-carrying time. “Buy as many as they will sell you. Remember, Heineken.” Sure enough, when I get to Trivandrum’s DFS shop, they have only Anchor.

Food and drink is one way to delineate the two sides of my Indian heritage. My maternal relatives, Hindu Marwaris from Rajasthan, are vegetarians who don’t drink and generally lead austere lives. My paternal relatives, Christian Malayalis from Kerala, are prone to imbibe every delight known to man. I like to joke that when I visit Kerala, my uncles won’t let me into their cars until I’ve handed over the Johnnie Black and Dunhill. The next morning, the seven cans of Anchor are still sitting on the backseat of his car. Continue reading

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?

Chinese/Malay/Indian

‘Malaysia: Death of a Democracy’, John Slimming

I’m only just getting into this book about the May 1969 racial riots, apparently it’s banned in Malaysia…written, in 1969, by this Englishman …anyways, there are lots of fascinating little passages, here’s one:

In 1950, during the Korean war, the demand for natural rubber caused a boom on the world markets; rubber prices soared. They rose to more than two dollars a pound; the highest figure that year was M$2.38. The attitudes of the three racial groups to this considerable increase were very different and highlight the differences in racial temperament.

The Chinese rubber tappers went out every day in family strength and they tapped every tree as often as they could; they collected every drop of latex they found and many of them quickly made a small fortune. They banked their money or they bought gold which they hid in their houses.

The Indians behaved in the same way, tapping as much and as frequently as possible but few of them made any attempt to save their earnings. With unexpected wealth they bought new clothes, saris for their wives, expensive brands of cigarettes; they bought refrigerators for houses where there was no electricity and then used them as cupboards; some of them bought second-hand cars to drive to the rubber fields.

In contrast to all this activity and business, the Malay villager calculated that if, when the price of rubber was one dollar a pound, he had to work twenty days in the month to make a living, then, when the price rose to two dollars it was necessary for him to work only ten days for the same money. So, while the Chinese and the Indians tapped more and worked harder, the Malays worked less and passed their time in a more leisurely manner. The Malay has an infinite capacity for enjoying the simple pleasures of his kampong life. The rubber boom was nineteen years ago. Now he is being forced to become more conscious of his country’s economy but there is still no indication that he is becoming more industrious.

The Chinese are far more numerous than the Indians and their control of industry and commerce is greater; for this reason the Malays fear the Chinese more. The Chinese have economic power which the Malays resent.