Over the past week Singaporeans have been debating the definition of racism. Many within the establishment appear eager to define it narrowly: only crude, interpersonal racism qualifies.
So, if somebody professes the inherent superiority of one race over another, or uses a racial slur—“Kiling Kia”, “Cina Babi”, etc.—that’s racist. Anything less obvious, so it goes, does not deserve the racist label.
The desire not to call something racist has sparked a cottage industry of euphemisms: “racial preferences”, “cultural insensitivity”, “racially problematic” and so on. Racism is Singapore’s Voldemort.
In particular, there is an unwillingness among conservatives to address structural and institutional racism in Singapore. Part of the reason is that their negative effects have not been adequately studied.
Another is anti-Western bias. Structural and institutional racism are often examined in the West using Critical Race Theory (CRT), a relatively new and still evolving field. CRT has, both in the West and in Asia, been lampooned as leftism—or “woke-ism”—gone mad.
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.
Mexico ’86 was the first full football tournament I watched. The excitement began well before, when every recess time a bunch of us nine-year-olds would huddle in the Saint Andrew’s School canteen, sometimes near the char kway teow uncle’s corner, sunlight creeping in to light his halo.
Two years ago, when Li Ling, the kids and I moved out of my parents house in Bukit Timah to our own flat in Pasir Ris, it was hardest on Gorby.
Ling and I had the benefit of time, foreknowledge, active hands in the process. Blooby, Gorby’s sister, had by then retreated to a familiar sedentary life of eat, sleep, and the occasional lizard, dragged in leaving a trail of blood, body parts strewn across the terrazzo floor.
But Gorby was still Mr Bukit Timah. We would spot him prancing around the actual Bukit Timah Road, near the Tessarina Apartments and Tan Chong Motors, a full two-hundred metres from our house. Unlike us, Gorby had two channels of entry/exit: regular sidewalk when pesky humans weren’t around, or the wide drain when we were.
Once Gorby went missing for a full eighteen hours. It was his first full night out. We grew anxious. When he returned the next morning, smelling of stale beer and garbage, I saw my younger self in him, remembering my own adolescent nights of too many Graveyards at Zouk, slobbering up the driveway after stumbling out of the cab.
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.
The Air Mauritius inflight safety video is your first sign that Mauritians are different.
I generally dislike these videos because I miss what they replaced—inflight crew members acting out routines, some with the clarity of synchronised swimmers, others the coordination of a blind macaque. This little fandango was always the best indication of the kind of inflight service to expect.
The Air Mauritius video implores you to watch. It opens with three crew members standing, rather incongruously, in full uniform on a gorgeous beach as the sun sets.
A later scene shows a husband and wife on deck chairs by another beach as their son builds castles in the sand. Suddenly, two yellow oxygen masks drop from the palm trees above, and they nonchalantly strap them over their unimpeachable holiday grins.
Another scene shows them inflating yellow life jackets, except they are not about to evacuate an airplane, but jump twenty feet over an idyllic Mauritian waterfall into its wading pool. The actors look like they are being paid to have fun.
Even the tutorial for adopting the emergency brace position before a crash has been turned into an eco-tourist fantasy, set by a gentle creek in the rainforest.
The message throughout is clear: even when the world around is collapsing, Mauritians can maintain their relaxed, carefree, smiling disposition. It is all in the mind.
By the end of the video, I’ve been introduced to several Mauritian attractions, but am still clueless about the plane’s emergency exits.