Two weeks with “Tony”

Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at Mawell Center Hawker Food Center, Singapore.

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 Tanya Angerer, a good mutual friend, for references. (Tanya and Melanie Chan, 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.

ah hoe mee pok

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Malaysia dreaming

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This article was first published on Malaysiakini

“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.

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Singapore, the (occasional) garden city

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For a bit of context, this reflection was originally published in Suddenly The Grass Became Greener, a limited edition “book of photographs made in Singapore during her 50th year as a nation, and the coincidental death of her gardener”, by photographer Kevin Lee. Check it out here.

A friend wrote yesterday to say that she found the piece relevant given the return of the dreaded haze, so I’ve decided to publish it here.

—–

All of Singapore’s glories, successes, tensions and contradictions are played out in the green.

Surely Lee Kuan Yew deserves credit for nurturing the Garden City, but there were many other green thumbs plucking and planting. What of them? In the green, as in much else, we deify one to the exclusion of many.

We are lucky to have been born into a Garden City rather than a choking, clogged one. But how is it possible that we grew a Garden City while felling almost all of our primary forest? When we call Singapore a Garden City, it does not mean that we’ve nourished a garden out of nothingness; rather, that compared to the Bangkoks, Beijings and Delhis of the world, we’ve destroyed less.

Even as the urban jungle has grown, relentlessly, irrepressibly, we’ve kept a bit of the tropical: cow grass on which black mynahs hop and couples canoodle; bougainvilleas whose stalks droop lazily over green fences, flowers fluttering in the wind, gaily watching the morning rush; durian trees under which tycoons in Beemers slouch, bucket in hand; frangipanis that wink at you, stain the tarmac and herald the pontianak; the untamed splendour of MacRitchie, our wellspring, which sparks memories of group runs and puppy loves; and rain trees, expansive, dependable, unmistakable, a guard of honour from Changi, ushering in guests, welcoming home peripatetic residents.

There is romance in scarcity yet it is unclear if we’ve struck the right balance. Do we need so many refineries on our islands? Must we build a footpath everywhere there is none? Why do we flatten Bukit Brown while spending a billion dollars for an artificial garden on an artificial bay?

Even in our crowning green glory, the Botanic Gardens, Singaporean exceptionalism is evident. World Heritage Sites are typically celebrations of ancient, traditional culture. Singapore’s is an homage to a colonial legacy. We are arguably the only post-colonial state that is comfortable with, even glorifies, our colonial past. While other countries bicker about reparations, we worry about our English.

If Raffles hadn’t chosen Singapore in 1819, what would this island be like today? Smaller, poorer, and probably greener. A Garden City this might be, but by being among the world’s leaders in food wastage, energy consumption and carbon emissions (in per capita terms), it is clear that we are not very responsible stewards of the earth.

We squeal about smoggy air and barricade ourselves against rising sea levels, blissfully unaware of our own complicity. The irony is that if every person in the world lived like a Singaporean—like a “Garden City” inhabitant—humanity would need more than four planets to subsist (says the WWF).

While the edifice of a Garden City exists, its soul needs cultivating.

For long Singaporeans have had an uneasy relationship with nature—flora and fauna are to be manicured and managed like everything else in life. The experience of the natural world here is a distant one, mediated by buffer zones, safety signs and the closest toilet.

Yet there seems to be a growing appreciation of the oneness of life on earth. We have started muddying our feet, growing edible gardens on sky-high balconies and paying attention to our meat’s provenance. Slowly, Singaporeans seem to be realising that humanity’s fate is intertwined with every other living thing’s.

And that death, when it comes, will be a return of our ashes, eventually, to the earth, to a planet more than four billion years old.

We do not know what will be of Singapore in a hundred years, never mind a billion. Yet the insignificance of our lifespans need not dampen the significance of our lives. And even as we touch strangers far away, we love, intensely, those closest to us.

Those, perhaps, are Mr Lee’s greatest life lessons. Even in death, his heart flickered: “I would like part of my ashes to be mixed up with Mama’s, and both her ashes and mine put side by side in the columbarium. We were joined in life and I would like our ashes to be joined after this life.”

 

Image credit: Jodarl collections

 

May 4th: Interviewing Sonny Liew

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Dear friends,

on May 4th at 630pm I’ll be interviewing Sonny Liew in Raffles Place, Singapore.

Sonny’s graphic novel, “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye”, was arguably Singapore’s most important book in 2015. The Economist called it a “brilliantly inventive work” that “does not shy away from controversial periods in the nation’s history.”

We’ll be talking about Singapore’s history, life as an artist, political storytelling through graphic novels, and much else.

Join us!

Spaces are limited, so please do register here. Event is co-hosted by the Berkeley Club of Singapore and the Harvard University Association of Alumni in Singapore (HUAAS).

Tickets are available for alumni and non-alumni (“friends of”).

Hope to see you then.

Off to Mauritius

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Dear friends, last July Li Ling and I decided that we’re going to leave Singapore for a bit. Well, we finally have a destination!

Ling is starting a 6-month diploma programme in endangered species recovery at the Durrell Conservation Academy in Mauritius, part of her efforts to switch from medical work to animal conservation. Her programme begins at the end of March. I will be in and out of Singapore before joining her properly in June.

As you can tell by the photo, it’s going to be tough…we realise we are very lucky and blessed to have these opportunities.

I plan to continue my writing there: finishing up current book on China and India; completing freelance projects; honing my drone and VR camera skills; and finally, possibly beginning work on a Mauritius book.

The place sounds fascinating not only because of its wildlife—or what’s left of it (see Dodo)—but also its human tapestry. Indians, Africans, Whites, Chinese, mostly Francophone, some Anglophone. I’ve heard their rainbow model of multiculturalism leads to much more segregation than we have here in Singapore, one of the many things I hope to learn about. Aside from the Octopus Curry.

I was going to say “Moving” to Mauritius but then I realise I may be spending only five months there, so “Off” seems more appropriate. Moreover, while last year it seemed likely that I may not return to Singapore much, it now seems, because of varied engagements, as if I will always have one foot professionally stuck here. Which is nice.

So, we may be back before long. But till then…stay in touch!

If you have any tips, or know anybody in Mauritius who can help an ignorant writer, let me know. Or if you have any ideas for a Mauritius book, do share. There seems to be precious little written on the country.

And finally, in a very happy coincidence, Air Mauritius is just about to start a direct flight. So for those looking for a holiday, it’s now a mere seven hours from Changi.

photocredit: beachcomber-hotels.com

GE2015: Three questions from yesterday’s talk

MARUAH crowd photo

Yesterday’s MARUAH post-elections forum was part analytical, part group therapy. For the many opposition voters there, it seemed a cathartic experience. VMA, as one participant described it, i.e. not Alcoholics Anonymous, but Vocal Minority Anonymous.

For me, aside from the camaraderie I felt with many people there, new friends and old, it was also an honour to be on stage with my former teacher, Braema Mathi, president of MARUAH, who taught me at St. Andrew’s Secondary School in the early 1990s.

It was also a great treat to share the stage with such a varied group of speakers, including Alex Au, migrant worker and gay rights activist and a friend for many years, Derek Da Cunha, a political analyst, Rafiz Hapipi of MARUAH, Jack Lee of SMU, and Terry Xu of The Online Citizen.

I learned a lot from all of them; and when the video recording is ready, I will post it here, so you can see what they each said (update: videos ready, see the end of this post).

But for now, I just want to share the three questions I posed yesterday during my presentation.

Did populism win or lose?

Has political apathy returned?

Do Singaporeans ever want an alternative policy platform?

The answers to these questions, I believe, will tell us a lot about the evolution of Singapore’s democracy over the next 10-15 years, if not the next five.

These are incoherent thoughts, and perhaps contradictory. But anyway, here you go. Any comments and responses of course welcome.

1) Did populism win or lose?

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GE2015 postmortem: the beauty of democracy

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There is something crude and reductive about how an individual’s complexity and preferences get compressed into a single vote once every five years.

But there is also something beautiful.

When all the chatter is done, that vote, ultimately, is the only expression that counts.

Once the results started streaming in, and words like “massacre” began floating across living rooms, close friends and family asked if I was sad. Astonished, certainly, as I sat there mouth gaping open, just like when Germany beat Brazil 7-1.

But not sad. The results are enlightening, informative, and should give each of us, whatever our political inclinations, a humbling sense of where we stand in the larger Singaporean community.

In Singapore, we don’t have the luxury of regular sentiment polls, and so elections are, even more so, those wonderful, occasional snapshots. I savour them.

What does sadden me, however, are suggestions that certain groups of voters are silly, ill-informed, ignorant. This election campaign has certainly seen its fair share of wacky commentary. One of my favourite strands was the conflation of the PAP and Christianity. Some WhatsApp messages compared the WP to the devil; the hammer, apparently, was going to rise up from the fiery pits of Hell to destroy everything Singapore had built.

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GE2015: Final thoughts (4 of 4)

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This is part 4 of 4. To read part 3, click here.

Conclusion: GE 2015

Over time, the PAP has become a party more for the rich and for the elite. Yes, it will do things for the lower- and middle-income citizens. But more because it wants our votes to stay in power. I’m not convinced it genuinely, compassionately considers every Singaporean as an equal human being. Maybe a long time ago it did; but not anymore.

Some government critics think the party is corrupt and is enriching itself at our expense. Again, I don’t buy that argument at all.

I just think the PAP has become so fixed in its ways, in its belief in a natural aristocracy, that the best way for society to progress is by nurturing the elites.

Which many of us don’t agree with. So, in 2011, I thought, OK, if the PAP loses one GRC, it’s going to reform.

Sadly, no. A few tweaks here and there, but it’s the same old party with the same archaic beliefs. Does the PAP have the ideological adaptability to lead Singapore in our next phase of growth?

I have serious doubts. The demands of the next fifty years are immeasurably different from the last. The PAP’s perennial, indefatigable, prioritisation of growth over distribution, and its aversion to welfare, are ill-suited for an ageing population, slower growth, rising income inequality and wage stagnation.

On a related note, one of the many problems governments around the world are grappling with today is striking the right balance between national priorities and the demands of transnational corporations/the global elite. The PAP has always been far too accommodating of both constituencies. (And, as mentioned, all its leaders probably belong to that global 0.1%.)

How I think about my vote

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GE2015: Final thoughts (3 of 4)

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This is part 3 of 4. To read part 2, click here.

Population policies

It saddens me that racism and xenophobia have been on the rise over the past few years.

But we need some perspective. Xenophobia is on the rise across the world. Consider the UK. From 2001 to 2010, the UK’s net annual migration rate averaged 0.3% of the population.

What happened there? Nationalism, xenophobia, the rise of Nigel Farage. Right now, there is a refugee crisis in Europe, and the UK is the most obstinate of all.

How about Singapore? Well, from 2001 to 2010, our migration rate was more than six times the UK’s.1  Six times!

This is not an apology for racism and xenophobia. We must always fight it. But we need to understand why these feelings emerge.

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GE2015: Final thoughts (2 of 4)

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This is Part 2 of 4. To read Part 1, click here.

The nexus of power

Conflicts of interest in turn point to the dangerous nexus of political, policy and business power in Singapore.

Before I begin describing this and highlighting why it is bad for Singapore’s future, I want to emphasise three points. First, my arguments here are about conflicts of interest; not cronyism or nepotism. There is no evidence that cronyism or nepotism afflicts Singapore in any significant way.

Second, I have chosen to name certain public figures below simply because there is no other way to show the existence of these close networks of families and friends in power. Naming them in no way implies that they or their families/friends have ever been involved in anything illegal.

Third, this point is a non-partisan one. Though all the names below are of people close to the PAP—owing to our country’s unique political and institutional history—my broader argument is that Singaporeans should, from here on, vigilantly guard against the emergence of these networks. Today the PAP; tomorrow perhaps the WP.

Every time I think I finally comprehend how closely-knit our leaders in Singapore are, I learn something new that shocks me. This time, it is the network of a new PAP candidate in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, whom I will eventually get to.

But first, we need to start at the top: Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Hsien Loong and Ho Ching. Though all of you are aware of this trio, it is important to reiterate its existence and continued power in Singapore today, albeit without the late Mr Lee.

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