Ode to Mustafa

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Forget the Hawker Centre. If you want to observe what some might call Singaporean integration—others inequality—visit Mustafa.

Go at six on a Monday morning to see Mrs Nose Up-in-the-air, striding confidently to the daun kusum aka laksa leaves for her famous home-made laksa for her lunchtime group of tai tais who these days are called investors. If she returned at three on a Sunday afternoon, she might see the Bangladeshi bloke who just tiled her floor trading glances with the Filipino lady who will soon clean it.

In between Mustafa is lit by the rainbows of our time, people from the Himalayas to the far-flung islands of eastern Indonesia, backpackers from Scandinavia to techies from California. You might never know to which station each bedazzled face belongs, for in Mustafa the Rich dress down and the Help dress up.

Mirroring Singapore’s own evolution, Mustafa, in the blink of an eye, went from neighbourhood market to global emporium. There is perhaps no other place on this planet where one can, in under an hour, buy petai, the green Malayan “stinky bean”, Mexican Cholula hot sauce, a sari, a Rolex, and a sixty-inch Samsung TV.

Yet the hour will be manic, as you hustle through narrow aisles, on which star-struck Mustafa virgins dither while drawing the ire of assassins. Shopping at Mustafa is not for the faint of heart nor the sensitive of touch. For those accustomed to neat, orderly Singapore, visiting Mustafa is an arresting experience. To help, one magazine has published a “Survival guide to Mustafa Centre”.

When you enter your bags will be stored, when you walk your movements will be watched, when you pay your shopping bags will be strangled with no-nonsense plastic cable ties, and when you exit your body and bags will be surveyed. Mustafa is so chock full of goodies that it deploys airport-level security. But it is also so unmistakably South Asian. Its dispassionate enforcers always seem less concerned with you than their next chai break.

Global cities have grown to encompass parallel worlds—the crazy rich, the sane poor, the numbed middle—that bob alongside each other yet rarely overlap. Mustafa is that rare vortex that sees them crashing into each other, repeatedly. For a global city to survive, the one who eats only idli must believe that halwa is within reach.

Click to continue reading on Rice Media, where this was first published.

Top image: The Finder Singapore

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I wrote this piece a year ago for a SG bicentennial book, “We, the citizens of Singapore”. The book consists of essays written by different Indian Singaporeans, and will be published later this year. Though not for sale, it will be made available in public libraries and other community spaces. Other contributors include social activist Noor Mastura, soprano Janani Sridhar, poet KTM Iqbal and civil servant Aaron Maniam.

I am grateful to the editors for allowing me to publish the story early. We agreed that an upbeat migrant story might be appropriate now.

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Shirkers, a film about Singapore and life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

Poem: Oh, you wretched soul

Oh, you wretched soul,

You scream and you shout and you mock me,

but you know not how,

a country is built, from sampans to skylines

You sit in front of your

sorry screen, typing tirades against

the ghosts of your ineptitude,

the regrets of your childhood,

when you chose machas and ah lians

over teachers and ten-years

You finger me, but the answer lies

in front of you, with your screen turned off,

and your pride pressed deep,

into your mud-stained Bata,

dirtied in drains then

masked with paint

But truly white, you’ll never be

and truly shrug, I never will

Behold my elite, caring face

Oh, you wretched soul

~

Oh, you wretched soul,

Shallow’ed be your bowl,

Hallowed be my bowl,

Yours iron, mine gold,

Hallowed be my bowl

~

Oh, you wretched soul,

You say you deserve more, 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