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.
The visit to Uncle Sushil’s grave offered me a chance to think more broadly about our loved ones far away. Not being able to see them, for those of us lucky to avoid the worst, has been one of the central tragedies of the pandemic. In a world of restricted travel, how do we maintain those bonds?
When borders first closed, I immediately thought of my mum’s mum in Indore and my father’s brother in Toronto. Nani is over ninety and Uncle Sushil had experienced a number of recent health issues and scares. Pre-Covid I had always imagined that if they were nearing the end, I’d just hop on a plane to see them.
I don’t mean from within, but from without, two-and-a-half kilometres away, from the public balcony of our condo in Pasir Ris, which offers a grand view of Ubin in all its greeny, islandy, stuck-in-the-nineteen-fifties glory.
Between the Pasir Ris beach on the mainland and Pulau Ubin is a narrow bit of the Johor Strait, which separates Singapore from Malaysia. If I look to the right, eastwards, I can see it opening into the South China Sea. If I look to the left, I see it leading to Pasir Gudang, Johor, an industrialised port and petrochemicals hub, from where palm oil and other biofuels are shipped around the world, and whose containers and cranes and chimneys with nighttime flares offer a stark, Mordor-like contrast to the serenity around.
From the Pasir Ris beach, in other words, with a little turn of the head one is presented with two visions of planet earth. Pulau Ubin is the pre-industrial, bucolic paradise that our hearts pine for; Pasir Gudang the post-industrial ugliness that our lifestyles demand. The world that we miss, and the world that is.
Book review. The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India, Manan Ahmed Asif.
The first time somebody called me a Hindustani was in 2004, in a small village in Pahang on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, not far from the tropical Malayan rainforest, not far from the warm waters of the South China Sea.
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, … Continue reading Ode to Mustafa
Ok, fine. I lie. I had only an hour and a half with “Tony”. Enough to be charmed.
I say two weeks because I received the WhatsApp invite from a Singaporean producer two weeks before. We want to chat with you before we decide if you’re qualified to appear on screen across from Mr X who’s flying in from the US.
Who the heck is this? Somebody so famous that he must remain anonymous while he sends an advance troop, scouts to survey the terrain? Yet also somebody who wants to come to Singapore to meet not its property developers, not its politicians, not its hawkers…but its writers?
That overlap between fame and grit. Must be a very small demographic. VICE came to mind. Ok, I said, trying to hide my excitement.
Having apparently passed the telephone interview, the Singaporean producer tells me that Anthony Bourdain is filming his third season of Parts Unknown and the first episode will be about Singapore. I had watched the show a couple of times and really liked it. Food, so long the centrepiece of his work, had become an accomplice to culture, identity, roots. I also loved the cinematography—the dark, hypnotic, Blade-Runnerish palette for bits of Shanghai hinting at dystopia.
Don’t tell anybody about this, the producer says, all very hush hush.
Seriously? That’s a bit exaggerated, I thought.
But she was right. The name Bourdain really does stir the soul like no other. I mention it to a couple of close friends, demanding their secrecy. Soon a friend who owns a restaurant starts lobbying for inclusion. Others offer their congratulations, as if this opportunity alone vindicates my writing career path.
“But why did they ask you?” cracked the more sardonic—and maybe contemplative—of my friends. Well, like so much else in life, I think it’s just luck and networks. Friends of friends. The Singaporean producer asked T, a good mutual friend, for references. (T and M, another mutual friend, appeared alongside me on the show.)
The two New York producers, Bourdain’s long-time collaborators, had now started communicating with me directly over e-mail. Can you suggest an economist? Easy, Donald Low. Of course, I declared to them my overwhelming bias: Donald’s a good friend with whom I co-authored my second book. Donald, so overburdened by interview requests that he often dithers, this time responded instantly.
And that is half the interviewee selection story of Parts Unknown: Singapore. One of their prerequisites, I later realised, was ethnic comprehensiveness. Chinese (Donald), Malay (comedian Najip Ali), Indian (me), Others (Eurasian chef Damien D’Silva), adhering to Singapore’s well-known CMIO model that guides ethnic policies.
“So where would you like to take Tony?” By that point I had started mimicking them, and everybody else in his immediate orbit, in just saying “Tony”. The names “Bourdain” and the fuller “Anthony Bourdain”, hitherto so ingrained in my food-writer-adoring mind, quickly slipped from my vernacular. Friends still make fun of me. “Oh, you call him Tony, izzit?” Well that’s how he introduced himself! It seemed natural, understood, not some false humility or pretentious attempt to connect with the salivating masses of self-proclaimed foodies.
I suggested a 7am breakfast of my favourite Singaporean dish, bak chor mee, mushroom minced meat noodles, at Ah Hoe Mee Pok. It ticks so many boxes. Bak chor mee, or BCM—yes, we love our acronyms—is a dish whose quality has suffered immensely from economic and globalising forces. Ah Hoe is one of the few good ones left, with the most lovely, chewy egg noodles cooked al dente—think fresh pasta tossed in vinegar and chilli—paired with a deep, rich pork broth, in which float homemade fish dumplings, pork morsels, and bits of cabbage.
View of Gunung Agung from Gili Trawangan, the biggest of the three Gili islands, where I was lucky enough to spend a week
Response to my piece on Singapore’s presidential election
Usually when I write about SG politics, some pro-PAP people will criticise something about my argument, as well as my character and integrity. This time, they were quiet; in fact, some sent me personal messages thanking me, and saying that now, for the first time, they are losing hope in the party.
Of course, nobody expects a significant electoral impact in the short term. Ahead of the next general election, the PAP, just like incumbent parties everywhere, will probably drop money into the pockets of Singaporeans, and all will be forgotten—the subverting of democracy and meritocracy, the flooded train lines, all will be forgotten.
This time, with my piece, most of the critiques came from non-establishment folk. Quite refreshing! While they shared my disdain for the process, they disagreed with my conclusion that it is important to nonetheless vote—if we had had the chance—for the sake of racial harmony. They felt, for a variety of reasons, that it was more important not to endorse a flawed process. (The comments on Lynn Lee’s FB post are a good summary.)
Political messaging and jousting
The below is highlighted as a negative example. Those words are copied from the post; they are not mine, and I certainly don’t agree with any of this.
Given my worries about sectarianism, I was appalled to see an alternative-media journalist I respect posting the above image. Perhaps there is some base humour to be distilled from the 9/11 commonality, but to compare the impact of Halimah’s walkover in Singapore to the impact of Islamic terrorists in NYC is irresponsible.
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.]
Perceptions of Mauritius among people I know tend to swing between two extremes. Some mistake it for the Maldives, imagining $1,000 per night villas overlooking crystal waters. Others think it is an African backwater without proper electricity.
While there are chichi all-inclusive resorts in Mauritius, the vast majority of the country feels like any other coastal, middle-income place, with shades of Goa, Pondicherry and Sri Lanka. Long-term rentals for two-bedroom apartments range from about US$300-US$1,200 per month, depending on the area. A street side chicken biryani—or biryani de poulet—runs about US$3-4.