On Star Wars


For anybody who lives in a drastically unequal city, where every day the rich and the poor collide, our introduction to Rey of Jakku in the early scenes of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) can be humbling.

We first see a masked prospector rappelling down a cavernous wreck, a cool blue headlight adorning his/her ski goggles. Having gotten the treasure, the person walks out into the desert sunlight and exposes her face: a pretty girl. She’s carrying a staff, looks like an adventurer. A latter day female Indiana Jones, perhaps. (Or, rather, an ancient one, since Star Wars is set “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”)

Rey then sand boards down a giant dune. What fun. At the bottom she gathers her things and mounts a nifty speeder—what one might expect if Ducati designed hoverboards—and then zooms across the stunning desert, the massive Star Destroyer she was plundering in the backdrop.

I want her job.

Moments later, the image is shattered. We see Rey interacting with Unkar Plutt, a grotesque junk boss. When he offers Rey a “one-quarter portion” for her bounty, everything we need to know about the political machinery, her position in the economic food chain, is captured in her expression.

Rey is no Indiana Jones; she is just one of those slum rats living on rubbish mountains.

In this world’s dense, unequal cities, the privileged sometimes parachute themselves into the lives of the destitute for a fleeting glance, perhaps in a bid to empathise, but more likely to rationalise social structures.

In Singapore, I have met car-owners who’ve jumped onto public buses and trains around lunchtime. “Car’s in the workshop!” is their opening cry, as if, like the prince spotted outside the palace, some justification is needed for their descent to the commuting doldrums. What follows is more worrying.

“This is like being on holiday! Singapore’s public transport is great.” Only a few seem self-aware enough to process that a one-off ride in the middle of the day is quite different from a daily slog through rush hour. Most return to la-la-land with an even deeper conviction that those below them are irredeemable complainers.

For their condescension and ignorance the elite have, of course, Singapore’s best and brightest as role models. Just a few months before The Force Awakens was released, Tan Chuan-Jin, then minister and now speaker of Singapore’s parliament, popped in to visit the city’s cardboard collectors.

These are the workers in Singapore, one of the richest cities on earth, who most closely resemble scavengers. A 75-year-old recently said that for the cardboard he collects after working all night, he earns S$3.10, barely enough for a meal and drink. Tan, with an annual salary of well over a million dollars, earns more in one minute than the 75-year-old does in one night shift.

Tan’s breezy take-away was that the cardboard collectors’ lives are not half bad; and that some of these geriatrics collect cardboard “as a form of exercise and activity”.

This is what happens when you observe Rey of Jakku and think she’s having fun.



It is hard to overstate how influential Star Wars has been for many Singaporeans of my generation. My journey began in 1983 when I watched Episode VI: Return of the Jedi at the Cathay cinema on Orchard Road, my first ever show on the big screen…

Click to continue reading on Rice Media, where this was first published.

Top image credit: Slashfilm.com

Malaysia and Singapore: Here we go again


Malaysia’s and Singapore’s governments at each other’s throats? We’ve been here before. One of the reasons why Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) and, until May this year, Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional (BN) have won national elections more consistently than any other party in democratic Asia is their ability to ratchet up domestic nationalist sentiment against the other.

The PAP has ruled Singapore for almost 60 years while the BN era (including its Alliance predecessor) lasted 61 years. BN may no longer be in power, but Malaysia’s current governing coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH), has as prime minister ninety-three-year old Mahathir Mohamad, a former BN leader and persistent thorn in Singapore’s side. There is a tiresome familiarity to it all.

We can be sure of three things. First, once the sabre-rattling is done, the governments will eventually resolve all aerial and maritime boundary issues amicably.

Second, the big losers will be us, the citizens. In a world struggling to deal with nativism, and the dangers posed by demagogues who preen their exclusive identities at the expense of our common humanity, it has been worryingly easy for politicians to ignite dormant antagonisms against the other.

Malaysians and Singaporeans are essentially the same peoples—in both countries one finds the same ethnicities, the same religions, the same cultures, the same cendols (almost). If even we can be so easily turned against each other, what hope do other more conflicting identities elsewhere in the world have?

Politicians on both sides have exhibited passive-aggressive tendencies. Rais Hussin, a supreme council member of Bersatu, the Mahathir-led party that is part of PH, wrote an Op-Ed that combined a conciliatory call for cooler heads with a bald-faced threat that Singapore was at risk of “pain by a thousand cuts”. It was remarkable not least because one rarely sees a Malay channelling a punishment from Imperial China.

Tan Chuan-Jin, Singapore’s speaker of parliament, reposted on Facebook a potentially incendiary video that suggests Malaysia may have nefarious motivations for its actions, such as inciting racial disharmony in Singapore. He also asked followers to keep Singaporean soldiers “in our prayers”, a divine exhortation one usually associates with boots on battlefields. He ends off saying that “no one is trying to be jingoistic”, which is precisely the sort of disclaimer that makes one worry about jingoism.


The third thing we know for sure is that the big winner from all this will be the PAP. Continue reading