The wildest Covid-19 border story I’ve heard involves a Malaysian speeding in her car towards Singapore, only to find a huge jam at the border crossing. Arriving at six in the evening, this friend of a friend had given herself plenty of time to make the midnight cut-off, after which foreigners would no longer be easily allowed into Singapore and the complications of modern travel would kick in: quarantines, swabs and stay-at-home notices. With her family and job waiting in Singapore, she had to make it back.
To be sure, there is always some traffic on the two bridges that connect the Malay peninsula to the island of Singapore. Memang jam gao gao, surely there will be a heavy jam, a Malaysian might quip, combining three languages in the most delightful creole phrase. Memang is Malay for surely. Gao is Hokkien for thick or heavy. And jam is, well, not the strawberry kind. Memang jam gao gao, but nobody expected it to be like this.
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.
“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.
By using better coconuts, can a new restaurant raise the bar for Singaporean cuisine?
Worker at a coconut processing plant, Sabak Bernam, Selangor, Malaysia
Better coconut milk will revolutionise Singaporean cuisine. That, at least, is the belief of Lee Eng Su, a Singaporean chef, who has spent months on small-holder plots in Malaysia tasting different coconut varietals.
The fruits of his search will soon be put to the test, when The Coconut Club, his new restaurant on Ann Siang Hill, launches with its two signature dishes, nasi lemak (coconut rice) and cendol (a coconut-milk iced dessert).
Coconut milk is generally seen as the poorer cousin of coconut oil and water. Coconut oil is feted as a “superfood”by many nutritionists, while packaged coconut water has become a billion-dollar industry driven by electrolyte-sapped athletes.
Coconut milk, by contrast, has a much narrower global appeal. Yet it is a fundamental ingredient across South-east Asia. In Singapore, where it is also known as santan, its Malay name, every ethnic group uses it in both savoury and sweet foods, from Chinese laksas and Indian curries to Malay desserts.
Yet decades of market-driven cost-cutting in the local food scene has commoditised it. “Hardly anybody in Singapore uses fresh coconut milk anymore,” admits Eng Su, who graduated in 2005 from the French Culinary Institute in New York—now called the International Culinary Center—and then worked in Manhattan as a sous chef before opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv (since closed).
In keeping with contemporary food movements—including single origin, heirloom and heritage—that place a premium on sourcing quality ingredients, Eng Su identified a coconut strain and worked out a supply chain that will soon deliver a freshly-squeezed, premium coconut milk to Singaporean palettes.
But, with his $10+ nasi lemak priced at more than double the market norm, the question remains: is better coconut milk worth the fuss?
[Full disclosure: I have known Eng Su and his two restaurant partners, Lee Chan Wai and Kamal Samuel, since we were teenagers. Separately, and sadly, Eng Su passed away in September 2019. I wrote a tribute to him here.]
Dear friends, I will be appearing in two events at the Georgetown Literary Festival in Penang, one of my favourite kampung-like cities in the world. It’s my first time at this festival, so quite thrilled. Friends, food and fun aside, I’m looking forward to meeting Rehman Rashid, whose classic book, A Malaysian Journey, partly inspired Sumana and my own bicycle trip around Malaysia in 2004. … Continue reading Georgetown Literary Festival, Penang: Nov 28-30
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.
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.
Fisherman, Kuala Kedah, Malaysia Dear friends, I will be taking part in a presentation on Wednesday organised by the Invisible Photographer Asia (IPA), bringing together two expert photographers, Bernice Wong and Samuel He, and one terrible one—I’ll be speaking about travelling in Malaya. When: 730pm, Wed, Apr 30th Where: Bellwethers Bistro Bar, 120 Desker Road Singapore Of great interest to me is the location … Continue reading IPA Slideshow Night Singapore April 30th 2014
“Do you think that the hatred Singaporeans feel towards foreigners is because of an identity crisis, as you suggested, or because the government has failed to provide sufficient basic services, like housing and transportation?” a young Filipino journalist asked at last week’s book launch (see here).
The crowd released a collective gasp when they heard the word “hatred”. I was shocked. I mentioned in my reply that it was too strong a word to use. Regardless, the fact that she said it bothers me, and has prompted me to share some thoughts.
These are casual observations and musings that build on the one serious analytical piece I’ve written on race, Chapter 8: Colour Matters, in Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore.
As such, please treat each of my main statements below as postulations, to which I invite discussion and debate. Any thoughts and responses are much appreciated.
Note: Though racism and xenophobia are somewhat distinct, they often get conflated in contemporary Singaporean discourse. I will therefore sometimes discuss them collectively.
1) In Singapore, the moderate voices far outweigh the racists and xenophobes
In the immediate wake of the Little India Riots, there were some anti-South Asian racist and xenophobe rants. However, there was an instant backlash from voices of moderation. Same thing with the furore over the mooted celebration of the Philippines Independence Day in June this year. In both instances, I was heartened by Singapore society’s collective rejection of racist and xenophobic strands.
I just wanted to share some thoughts from the interesting discussion I participated in last week, “The Malayan Forum, 65 years on” (see here).
Background: “The Malayan Forum was set up in London by future leaders of Malaysia and Singapore. Primarily a platform for politics, the topics would however have extended to governance and other related aspects for future independence. Key to the premise was the joint stewardship of matters relating to the lands, and hence the term “Malayan” was used. The sessions seeks to interrogate and delineate the term “Malayan” in its myriad representations, and to consider the impact of the term on the socio-political landscape, and on the arts and culture, in the period leading up to the Merger. 65 years after its inception, the forum will question the relevance and legacies it has engendered over time.”
The wide-ranging discussion was moderated by Lai Chee Kien, a Singaporean architect and good friend whom I first met in Berkeley, when I was an undergrad and he was completing his PhD. Alongside was fellow panellist Tay Kheng Soon, also an architect, but much older, more established, and famous as a social activist from the 1960s. Mr Tay has, in many ways, been a leading voice of our national conscience, on everything from the environment to language. He has also played crucial roles in specific Singapore developments.
The story of how Mr Tay lobbied for Changi as the site of our airport—publicly disagreeing with plans by the PWD (Public Works Department) to expand the Paya Lebar Airport then winning in the court of public opinion, which infuriated PWD and forced it to change its plans—is interesting not simply as a window into the history of one of the world’s most recognisable institutions, but also because it harks back to a time of remarkable democratic activism and accountability in Singapore.
Dear friends, I will be taking part in a talk entitled “The Malayan Forum, 65 years on” next week. It’s open to all—do come! When: 3pm, Saturday, March 15th 2014 Where: NUS Museum, NUS Centre For the Arts, University Cultural Centre, 50 Kent Ridge Crescent, National University of Singapore (Click here for directions.) Alongside me will be moderator Lai Chee Kien and fellow panellists Tay … Continue reading Talk on Malaya: Mar 15th 3pm