a piece on the Lee Family Oxley Road saga

Dear reader, I recently published something on the brouhaha involving Singapore’s Lee Family in Foreign Affairs. I’m allowed to republish the first 250 words here; for the rest one must visit the site here (free signup necessary):

Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, is facing the toughest test yet of his 13 years in office. In June, his two siblings publicly accused him of abusing his power to prevent the demolition of the home of their late father—Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Although Lee Hsien Loong will probably emerge from the controversy mostly unscathed, the scandal has increased public scrutiny of Singapore’s leaders. That is a good thing, since it could herald a turn toward more transparency and public engagement in the country’s politics.

Lee Kuan Yew lived in a prewar bungalow at 38 Oxley Road for most of his life. It was there that the founding members of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) met to discuss the formation of the party in 1954. Under the PAP, Singapore gained independence from Malaysia in 1965 and grew from a colonial trading port into a metropolis. As urban development has transformed Singapore’s landscape, the house—with its weak foundations, tiled floors, and mid-century furniture—has remained mostly unchanged, a symbol of modern Singapore’s origins and of Lee Kuan Yew’s commitment to simple living.

Some Singaporeans believe that the house holds important historical value. Yet Lee Kuan Yew wanted it demolished once Lee Wei Ling, his only daughter, moves out. Lee had little interest in being memorialized by historic sites. (He once told an interlocutor who mentioned that Singaporeans wanted to build monuments in his honor to “remember Ozymandias,” the pharaoh whose ruined statue Percy Shelley commemorated in a poem on the transience of worldly power.) But that aversion was tempered…

Click to continue reading on Foreign Affairs

 

 

Singapore, the (occasional) garden city

sg201309

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

 

GE2015: Final thoughts (2 of 4)

singapore_flag

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.

Continue reading

GE2015: Final thoughts (1 of 4)

singapore_flag

We are at a curious point in history. Whenever I share my electoral preferences, my PAP friends call me an opposition supporter; and my opposition friends call me a PAP supporter.

Why? I’ll come back to that at the end of these four pieces, but first I want to discuss three issues I think are important.

This is not some comprehensive analysis of this election. Just three issues that I think haven’t been given enough consideration; and that have affected my choice.

They are: the diversity of ideas in Singapore; the nexus of power in Singapore; and Singapore’s population policies.

Diversity of ideas

First, as Singapore prepares for its next phase of development, we simply do not have a sufficient diversity of ideas in the public realm. Our level of public debate and discourse is terrible. Our country is not having the conversations it so desperately needs.

Continue reading

Workers’ Party’s Manifesto: What I like and What I don’t

redwire-singapore-he-ting-ru-wp-general-election-2

He Ting Ru, one of my favourite new politicians, partly because she puts paid to the notion that opposition candidates are necessarily substandard. But more importantly, because she is a “crazy cat lady” with eight!

“The opposition has nothing new or concrete to offer.”

I am tiring of this lazy, ignorant, biased statement. So I have put my unemployment to good use and done some homework.

Having just gone through the WP’s manifesto, I have selected here the many statements that I like and also the three that I don’t like—including the one that I REALLY dislike. (Scroll to the bottom for those.)

I have selected policies that I believe are significantly different from PAP policies. Like political parties everywhere, they both indulge in a lot of waffle—so forgive me for not humouring vapid commentary about helping SMEs, boosting productivity, broadening our definitions of achievement, encouraging flexible work arrangements, enhancing healthcare systems, strengthening regional stability, assisting Singaporeans abroad, etc. etc.

Those are all noble, lofty pursuits. Below are the ones I believe are practical and implementable. (Caveat: as with many of the PAP’s proposed policies, a more thorough analysis of the trade-offs and fiscal impact is necessary.)

Note: I have read up on the WP, since it is shaping up to be the most likely opposition in a possible two-party system; if, however, I detect enough interest in this post, I’d be happy to glean the other opposition parties’ manifestos.

What I like Continue reading

Singapore’s electoral districts: How well do you know them?

Electoral-Boundaries-Changes

Dear friends, I wrote a piece on Mothership.sg about gerrymandering in Singapore.

It includes a little quiz to test how well you know Singaporean electoral districts.

Check it out here.

Life update: Leaving Singapore

Dear friends, just a note to say that Ling and I have decided to leave Singapore early next year. Destination unknown, for the moment, but we hope to travel for a bit first, and then settle down somewhere for perhaps four or five years. Have been mulling over Indonesia, Sri Lanka and South Africa. (Any suggestions???)

Just for the heck of it. We feel we have a window now, before our parents get too old, to experience another part of this fascinating world. I’ve been living back home in Singapore for ten years now…time for a change of scenery lah.

And I guess we’ve got enough energy now such that the idea of moving to an alien place where we may have to learn a new language fills us more with excitement than dread.

I will keep writing. But probably on new topics of more relevance to our adopted home. In other words, I am planning to slowly wind down my Singapore writing…not sure if I should rename this blog or simply put up a “Dormant” sign.

Of course, the idea of going somewhere and starting afresh is a bit daunting. Many of my literary contacts and most of my readership is in Singapore. But oh well. What’s life without challenges.

Incidentally, I am still working on my China-India book, which is going well. I expect to be done with the draft by the end of this year.

So, thanks very much for reading and for all your kind (and even the not-so-kind) feedback over the years. Hope to catch some of you over the next few months before we leave.

Fiction: One day

Dear friends, it has been a long time since I tried my hand at fiction. It is a genre I would one day like to get better at. I wrote this short story a few months ago when I was applying to some writing programmes. Any thoughts, good, bad and ugly, much appreciated. Thank you!

***

Ravi’s mum woke Connie every morning. 7:01, glowed the blurry red numbers in the corner. Just like yesterday. And the day before.

Soon the sound of distant water would stop, and Ravi would come scampering out, his black curls doused, his cheeks polished, his tummy’s folds flapping as droplets bounce off it, wearing only a tiny towel pinched by his fingers at his left hip bone.

As he rushed for his singing phone, right arm outstretched, Connie would stare at his toned thigh through the towel’s slit, and marvel at the anatomic anomaly in front of her: chicken legs propping up an oblong body. As if Ravi’s legs got sent down the wrong torso line at the Human Factory.

“GBC, babes, GBC,” was his blithe explanation. “Genes, beer, cycling. In that order.” Every aesthetic inquisition ended with that joke, as stale as his Saturday morning breath, yet Connie found herself repeatedly coaxing it out by indulging peoples’ interest in that oddity named Ravi. Her Ravi.

“Hi mum,” Ravi would say, raising his eyebrows while squeezing out a smile for Connie. “Ya, ya, good. Why do you need to call this early?”

Still talking, Ravi would then walk into the kitchen and turn on his new Italian coffee machine, leaving behind a musky cloud of whatever his mum last bought him. For the next few minutes all Connie would hear is grinding, frothing, steaming.

And then all would go silent and maybe, just maybe, the mattress will relent and that warm, soft hand will reach over and grab her bum while a cavalcade of wiry hairs tickles her whole body.

Connie closed her eyes and smiled, aware that the scene she had just played out in her mind was now unfolding. This morning cocktail of schedule and surprise was intoxicating.

When Connie opened her eyes again, Ravi’s handsome face was above hers.

*** Continue reading

Nepal, Singapore, Gurkhas

gurkha-contingent

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.

Many people from many countries have contributed to Singapore’s success over the years. Perhaps the most colourful, charismatic community—albeit publicly stoic and reserved—is the Gurkhas.

I was lucky enough as a boy to hang out with them in Mount Vernon. I remember eating devilishly hot onion chilli “salsas”, sometimes with sukuti, tough buffalo meat, then marvelling at them cooking goat curry in a giant wok, using spade as spatula, above a wooden fire sitting in a freshly dug cavity.

But why does Singapore need Gurkhas for our highest-security tasks?

According to our first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew:

“When I returned to Oxley Road [Lee’s residence], Gurkha policemen (recruited by the British from Nepal) were posted as sentries. To have either Chinese policemen shooting Malays or Malay policemen shooting Chinese would have caused widespread repercussions. The Gurkhas, on the other hand, were neutral, besides having a reputation for total discipline and loyalty.”

Two other anecdotes, told to me on Mount Vernon, possibly exaggerations, went something like this.

First, the difference between Gurkhas and the local police is that the Gurkhas, if faced with that cruel choice, will shoot down their family, even wife and kids, in defence of their master. Locals won’t.

Second, like great martial artists, Gurkhas exercise incredible control over their strength and skills, preferring to defuse situations in non-violent ways. Apparently Singapore informed the Gurkhas that if they ever got into a brawl in public, our judicial system would regard their hands as “deadly weapons”.

Of course, the Gurkhas represent just some of the many Nepalis in Singapore. And of course, we should help the Nepalis like we would any other human in their position—simply because we can.

Still, it is a good time to reflect on the Gurkhas in Singapore and elsewhere. Singaporeans who want to help can give to the Singapore Red Cross or one of the many other organisations doing work there.

For those who prefer to support smaller organisations, please click here for one that is vouched for by Zakaria Zainal, Singaporean photographer who has spent much time there.

Note: This post was first published on Mothership.sg

Top photo via