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 … Continue reading Off to Mauritius
It seems like Nepal has faded quickly from our thoughts. More than 5,000 have died and one million children are in urgent need of help following a 7.9-magnitude earthquake that hit on April 25, 2015. That was followed by dozens of aftershocks and tremors registering more than 4 on the Richter Scale. The earthquake’s epicentre was in Gorkha, the district from where Gurkhas historically come. … Continue reading Nepal, Singapore, Gurkhas
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.
At a book event at BooksActually two weeks ago, I was making a point about Roy Ngerng—that what he insinuated about Singapore’s prime minister was clearly wrong, but I still sympathised with his predicament—when Jen Wei Ting, moderator, good friend and fellow scribbler, interjected and switched topics.
I later realised why. Roy was actually there, standing in the back. Some of my former colleagues at The Economist had just been interviewing him, and decided to drag him along to the event. (Click here to read the piece they wrote, which gets to the heart of “the Roy Ngerng case”.)
Wei Ting had perhaps wanted to cut me off before I said anything too critical about Roy. She needn’t have worried. Roy and I met after the event and he told me he had enjoyed the talk. I regret not taking a photo with Singapore’s latest enfant teribble; just for the heck of it, not that he needs any further attention.
What a meek, innocuous figure he cuts. With his disarming smile and diffident touch, he looks hardly capable of harming an ant, much less the great and mighty Lee Hsien Loong. Roy’s appearance and demeanour may seem irrelevant here, but in what is quickly turning into a PR disaster for the government, they will fuel the perception of an irascible prime minister bullying a harmless, hapless citizen.
My heart goes out to you, Oh Roy, not for your defiance, but for the deep-seated informational, data and communication asymmetries and imbalances that underpin this country’s drastically unequal social power structure.
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.
The best part about being on a long research trip is that I get to meet so many fascinating people. Every day. All the time. It is actually both a blessing and a curse, because I spend hours agonising over which people to spend more time with, which ones I may develop into character profiles for the book, which ones must be interviewed right there and then, which ones can wait till a later trip/phone call, etc.
As I went through the first editing process for Floating on a Malayan Breeze in late 2010, I had to omit, with great sadness, many different characters about whom I had already written. There was “Penang Lyn”, who ran Sweet Manna Matchmaking, helping, among others, Singaporean Chinese guys looking for Penang Chinese girls, in demand because they are apparently less materialistic than KL and Singapore girls.
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 “Letter from India: Trivandrum”