Singapore, Bali diaries

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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.


Halimah 9:11 Facebook

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.

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Why Singaporeans need to discuss 1987’s Marxist Conspiracy

Do people become subversive after reading Animal Farm?

George Orwell’s allegory on totalitarianism was one piece of evidence Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) allegedly seized in 1987 during Operation Spectrum. Thirty years on, the arrest and detention without trial of twenty-two people accused by the government of plotting a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the state is still an episode shrouded in fog. There are good reasons today for society to embrace a more honest conversation about it.

The facts bear mention. On May 21st and June 20th 1987, a total of nine men and thirteen women, aged eighteen to forty, were arrested and detained by the ISD using powers conferred by Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA). The accused were a mix of activists, Catholic Church members, social workers and theatre performers. Some had ties to the rejuvenated Workers’ Party.

A week after the first arrests, the government released a statement tying them to a supposed plot masterminded by Tan Wah Piow, a Singaporean student activist who had gone into exile in London a decade earlier. All of the detained eventually gave written and/or video confessions.

By the end of 1987, all except Vincent Cheng, a church worker, had been released. On April 18th 1988, nine of the ex-detainees issued a statement recanting their confessions, saying they had been made under duress.

All but one, who was overseas, were rearrested the next day. They eventually reaffirmed their original statements and were again released. Two lawyers representing the detainees were also arrested, detained and later released. Cheng, the last detainee, was released in 1990.

Almost immediately doubts emerged about Operation Spectrum’s veracity. In 1991, Walter Woon, later to be Attorney-General, said “As far as I am concerned, the government’s case is still not proven. I would not say those fellows were Red, not from the stuff they presented.” In 1992, Minister S. Dhanabalan resigned from the Cabinet because of his discomfort with Operation Spectrum.

In 2001, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, personal friends with some of the accused, said “although I had no access to state intelligence, from what I knew of them, most were social activists but were not out to subvert the system.” Mary Turnbull, noted historian on Singapore, has called “the alleged Marxist conspiracy” a myth.

Despite this broad-based suspicion about what happened, the government has yet to conduct an inquiry. In 2011 the Ministry of Home Affairs reasserted its position that the twenty-two “were not detained for their political beliefs, but because they had involved themselves in subversive activities which posed a threat to national security.”

Many believe there is nothing to be gained from an inquiry into something that occurred thirty years ago. That is myopic. A nation cannot be built on collective amnesia. By conducting one, Singapore can finally ascertain the truth, strengthening societal cohesion, as well as public faith in its national security apparatus.

To understand why, it is worth first considering the allegations made by the detainees about their time in jail. Long reticent because of their fear of reprisals, some have in recent years started speaking out. Many claim they did not know each other before the arrests. The picture they paint of detention without trial, if true, is grim.

For the first seventy-two hours detainees claim they were made to stand barefoot in thin clothes while being interrogated in a tundra-like room by ISD officers wrapped in winter wear. Sleep deprived, the detainees started hallucinating.

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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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Georgetown Literary Festival, Penang: Nov 28-30

Penang bless car

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.

For general information about the festival, click here.

The two panels I’ll be speaking on are:

A Sense of Place

Saturday 29 November, 12.30pm, Lightbox @ The Whiteways Arcade

A sense of place is one of those qualities readers look for in a book, but what exactly does it mean? A poet, a travel writer, and a novelist discuss the varying effect that spaces and places have on their writing.

Panelists: Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh (Singapore), Shivani Sivagurunathan (Malaysia), Marco Ferrarese (Malaysia)

Moderator: Bernice Chauly

(click here to visit page)

&

What Are You Hiding?

Saturday 29 November, 10.00am, Gallery 2 @ The Whiteways Arcade

1 in 6 writers have self-censored. In this age of sedition, in this era of surveillance and sousveillance, of big brother and little brother, many a scribe has chosen to not write on topics that might subject them to scrutiny – both by society and by the government. Join these authors as they explore the act of self-censorship and the effect it has on both the writer and the writing.

Panelists: Ooi Kee Beng (Singapore/Malaysia), Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh (Singapore), Leila S. Chudori (Indonesia)

Moderator: Sharaad Kuttan

(click here to visit page)

I hope to see you there. My wife and I will be in Penang for four days, so if you can’t make the panels but still want to meet, do send me a note at: sudhir.vadaketh@gmail.com

P.S. The picture above is of the Shree Muniswarar Kuil, or temple, in Penang. In a longstanding island tradition, Chinese, Malays, Indians and many others alike drive their new cars or motorbikes here to bless them. It is a quaint testament to the island’s cultural and religious heterogeneity.

The Burning Man: A geographical analysis of a new-age pilgrimage

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At the top of “6 o’clock”, a main street in Black Rock City, Nevada

The folks at UC Berkeley’s library have just kindly dug out my Geography Undergraduate Honours Thesis from 2002 and scanned it. I had somehow lost every single copy, a depressing combination of hard-drive crashes and absent-minded post-graduation packing.

It was interesting for me to reread it now, both for reminiscence sake and to ponder how my writing has changed over the years.

The Burning Man is a yearly festival in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Dessert that I have now attended thrice: in 2002 when I was walking around with a notebook interviewing people; in 2003, sans notebook, to partake in all the art, joy and partying that I had missed the year before; and in 2009 when my sister, brother-in-law, cousins and very good friend wanted to go for the very first time.

The Burning Man is very close to my heart, partly because of the great art on offer and partly because by living for a week in “the gift economy”, where money can’t buy you anything, one learns to appreciate labour and human interaction outside the mental confines of commerce. (One also learns to appreciate just how long the human body can go without a shower.)

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Five notes from The Malayan Forum

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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.

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Talk on Malaya: Mar 15th 3pm

Dear friends, I will be taking part in a talk entitled “The Malayan Forum, 65 years on” next week. It’s open to all—do come!

When: 3pm, Saturday, March 15th 2014

Where:
NUS Museum,
NUS Centre For the Arts,
University Cultural Centre,
50 Kent Ridge Crescent,
National University of Singapore
(Click here for directions.)

Alongside me will be moderator Lai Chee Kien and fellow panellists Tay Kheng Soon, one of Malaya’s most famous architects and Syed Khairudin Aljunied, a Malay Studies professor at NUS.

We will “reflect, weigh and provide contemporary perspectives on Malaya, using the Malayan Forum of 1949 as an entry point”.

The talk is being held in conjunction with a very interesting exhibition on “Malayan Art”.

“In 1963, Marco Hsu, art critic and regular columnist who contributed articles about the history of Art in Malaya, published a series of essays on the cultural history of the people of the Malayan Peninsula, which were compiled into a book published in Chinese in 1963, A Brief History of Malayan Art. The NUS Museum revisits the book on the 50th Anniversary of its publication with this exhibition. Using artists and artefacts referred to by Hsu, the exhibition highlights questions of cultural identity and nation building raised on the eve of the creation of a merged, independent nation.”

Malayan Forum

 

Letter from China: It’s Wu-dang!

Note: This is a blog post about my six-month journey across India and China. To find out more about why I went on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, I am not publishing this “from China”, but Singapore, where I am back now.

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A continuation of Letter from China: Guangdong and Fujian

Depressed in Shanghai

In early November, I return to China for the last major leg of the trip, a six-week journey—the longest so far—that will take me from Shanghai – Nanjing – Wudang – Xi’an – Shaolin – Weifang – Beijing.

Even though the hallowed Shaolin awaits, I am not looking forward to this trip. I need all my discipline to board that flight from Singapore to Shanghai on Nov 6th.

There are several reasons for this. The first is simply fatigue. After more than four months on the road, having covered more than 15,000km overland, I am just bloody tired. I am tired of searching for cheap hotels and the most cost-efficient overland journey. I am tired of packing my bags every four days and moving to the next place. I am tired of carrying around my voice recorder, camera, GoPro, phone and notebook wherever I go. I am tired of repeating my damn shpeel about Kerala and Shaolin. I am tired of looking at every person on the street as an interview subject. (I want to just look down and walk past you!) And I am tired of watching over my two team-members: as fun and independent as they are, I always worry about them, feeling somewhat responsible for their safety.

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Letter from China: Guangdong and Fujian

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin

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A continuation of First letter from China: Sichuan

Ip Man small

Bust of Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s shifu, in Foshan, Guangdong

Buses

When we try to leave Sichuan for Guangdong (Canton), Jeffrey Chu, my Shanghai-based Taiwanese-American friend, Kirit Kiran, the Delhi-based photographer, and I are faced with the contemporary traveller’s worst scheduling nightmare: the Chinese national holidays. Our journey comes near the end of the weeklong holiday around October 1st, the national day of the People’s Republic of China, when in 1949 Mao Tse-Tung declared that “The Chinese people have stood up!”

There is certainly a lot of standing to be done. We stand in Emei, as hordes of domestic tourists—some with walking stick and camera, others dressed to the nines—flood the usually peaceful Emei shan, mountain. When we reach Chengdu, we stand outside the quaint boutique hotel I booked through booking.com; they are overbooked, and don’t have a room for us, and so after two hours of calling around they find us another hotel thirty minutes away.

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Last letter from India: Manipur

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin.

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A continuation of Letter from India: Gatka

The first time I hear about Manipur is when I am doing my preliminary research into Indian martial arts, and something called “Thang-Ta”, which doesn’t sound very Indian at all, shows up. Subsequently, as I travel across India, different martial arts gurus insist that I must visit Manipur to see one of the country’s finest martial arts.

Having never been there, my perceptions of India’s Northeast are superficial. I believe it is a region of hill stations, tea plantations, and a thousand separatists; but beyond that I know little. If you look at a map of South Asia, you will see that the long journey of nationalism and statehood has left India with this chunk of territory, the Northeast, connected to the rest by an extremely narrow passage, which almost looks like India’s little pinky, holding on desperately (see map). Continue reading