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.

2017 UPDATE: After eight wonderful months in Mauritius, we moved back to Singapore in December 2016. It now seems like we’ll be here for the foreseeable future. I would love to live in Mauritius again at some point…see here for my writings on the place.

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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

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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

Two pieces on Lee Kuan Yew

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Image credit: Lyn Ong for POSKOD.MY

Dear friends, I recently took a break from my China/India book to write two pieces on the great man.

The first is on POSKOD.MY, a Malaysian outlet that had the neat idea of publishing two reflection pieces, one by a Malaysian, one by a Singaporean. I was asked to respond to “What LKY means to Singaporeans”.

Mine is here. The other, by Malaysian Ahmad Fuad Rahmat, is here.

My second piece is on Mothership.sg. Here I had to write more of a traditional obituary. But rather than a comprehensive sweep, I chose to focus on some of his seminal life events and influences, such as his wife.

You can read it here.

As you might imagine, it is both easy and difficult writing about this complex man. Easy because there is so much good material. Every time I poke my nose into one of his books, I come away with a memorable quote.

But therein lies the problem. Continue reading

Happy Birthday, Singapore

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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.

Click here to read it on Mothership.

Alternatively, it is reproduced here:

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.

Continue reading

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

 

Should Singapore tax the wealthy more?

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This year’s Singapore Budget has garnered accolades for its focus on lower-income groups and the so-called Pioneer generation. One glaring omission, however, is in efforts to redistribute wealth. That is a missed opportunity; Singapore needs to address its drastic wealth inequality in order to, among other things, reduce social tensions, improve social mobility and maintain its commitment to building a fair and just society.

The distinction between income and wealth inequalities is important. In Singapore, a person can have immense wealth—inherited property, for example—with very little traditional income. This creates the somewhat perverse situation where some very wealthy people also own HDB flats and qualify for huge healthcare subsidies while simultaneously investing in stocks and second properties, furthering their wealth advantage over the poor. In order to properly address social inequities, both inequalities—income and wealth—have to be reduced.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Speaking at the Singapore Biennale, Jan 25th

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Dear friends in Singapore, if you have nothing better to do on Jan 25th, do join Dr Khairudin Aljunied, a Malay Studies professor, and me for a discussion on Malaysian and Singaporean history, as part of the Singapore Biennale.

I will be chatting about themes related to my first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze. He will look at “History as Controversy:….in an increasingly digitised and globalised world, there is a need to confront – rather than sidestep – historical themes and topics that may be viewed as “controversial” or “sensitive” in the study of history…”

When: 2-430pm, Sat Jan 25th
Where: Visitors’ Briefing Room, Level 1, National Library Building
Cost: Free! But you must…
Sign up: Send an email to education@singaporeartmuseum.sg with Subject line: RSVP: SG Biennale Mapping Series (Sat 25 Jan 2014)

There are more details of the event here. Unfortunately, the online ticketing function there is faulty. Just ignore it. If you would like to attend, send an email as per above.

Hope to see you there!