Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedia

I used to read a lot as a kid, though it never occurred to me that it was anything unusual. If I ever seem more intelligent than anybody else, it can usually be boiled down to the fact that I’ve probably read more than them.

I used to have a collection of books called “Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedia- Super Questions and Answers and Amazing Facts”. I still do! There are 15 volumes- from “Your Body” to “Space Travel”, “Electricity and Magnetism”, “People Around The World”, and my personal favourite- “Stars and Planets and Plants”. I didn’t think much of it back then, but on hindsight those books broadened my horizons and provided me with a substantial amount of general knowledge, perhaps significantly more than my peers.

I learnt, at about 6 or 7, that our bodies were made up of cells, that there were billions of stars in the galaxy, that dinosaurs roamed the Earth 65 million years ago, that there were plants that ate insects. I learnt how solar and lunar eclipses worked, how planes were invented, about ships, televisions, pigmentation, different holidays and cultures around the world, mountains, lightning, skeletons, gravity, the seasons and photosynthesis. I remember how I learnt about sperm cells and egg cells and fertilization, but I had no idea then about how it would actually happen- the book had tactfully left the fun bits out.

I might not have completely understood everything, but it was a fairly impressive amount of knowledge for a young child (I only know this now after interacting with young children who aren’t very much interested in anything) and I developed an effective framework with incredible breadth- and this allowed me to assimilate knowledge more easily later on.

Later in life, I often found myself having remarkably accurate hunches about things, and on hindsight this was probably because I’d been exposed to a lot of valid information earlier- and much of it lingered in my subconscious- I am certain of this, because I can flip through any volume of these encyclopedias and every page strikes me as incredibly familiar. This may have played a role in shaping my personality and attitude towards learning- I was used to being right all the time.

Perhaps most importantly, I was intoxicated by what Richard Feynman describes as the pleasure of finding things out. I loved understanding things, learning about how they worked, developing a sense of awareness about the world around me.

I can’t think of many things more fundamentally important than a love for learning, and I can’t think of a better way to develop that than through reading- through conversation with a superior mind that is patient and understanding.

A conversation with Alfian Sa’at

(Edited slightly for readability)

Hey Alfian! Up so late ah?

Ya lah what to do. Nightbird yo.

Hahaha. Eh, I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a bunch of casual interviews/conversations with singaporeans, just for the sake of it. To get a sense of what people are thinking and feeling about stuff in general.

Oh, that’s a great idea. You could compile it into a book, and use it to fundraise, even.

Yeah, thinking of starting with a series of blog posts. I was thinking of starting small, like informal stuff, like this itself. Bored enough to play along anot? Anyhow whack only!

uh can lah

I had no idea you were from RI! Would never have guessed it. What was the experience like for you? Did it influence your thoughts about race and class?
Did you feel at home there?

Wow. How about I ask you a qn first lah before I answer haha

can!

How come you’d never guess that I was from RI?

I suppose on hindsight it makes plausible sense. But intuitively, you come across to me as like this “fuck-the-institutions” kind of fella…

Hahaha. You should meet my friend Isrizal, who’s also RI alumni.

Ok, to answer your questions. I was from a ‘neighbourhood school’. Tampines Primary school. I had no idea really that one day I would end up in this ‘elite’ institution. So during orientation it was… a disorientating feeling.

“You are the future of our nation!” right, all that heritage to live up to?

You see those panels and photographs, all the politicians and big names- and then you think- wow, you’re now going to be part of this hallowed tradition. And then like the whole stationery had the crest and the names all over. All the colonial trappings- the latin motto, the gryphon, the prefects wearing their black shoes… and a principal called a ‘headmaster’, haha.

It’s like a mini Cambridge!

So it did come as a bit of a culture shock lah, initially. And of course I knew that it was important to get my good grades and all.

Not bad, I wish I knew that when I was in secondary school.

But on hindsight there were some insecurities. I think my batch…around 14 malay students? So that was one thing i was conscious of.

Was it a very obvious thing? Did your peers talk about it?

Well, if you were malay… by default you had to be in the Malay Cultural Club- because number was so small! But I actively resisted.

Hahaha yeah, I was in TLDDS also.

I was very very awkward with malay guys. I was socially engineered since I was very young.

By your parents?

My mum was the kind who’d tell me, ‘Don’t make friends with the malay kids. I want your best friend to be a chinese boy.’

Wah, best.

Yea, so that did shape me all through kindergarten and primary school. She was of the cultural deficit theory school, ie. that malays were just not as hardworking as their chinese counterparts- and to advance one had to adopt their value system.

So were your parents university educated? Or were they hardened by negative experiences? What made them different?

My parents both went to malay school. One of the reasons for my nostalgia for a pre-separation Malaysia/Singapore: I always imagine what their lives might have been like if separation did not happen. My father was head prefect, my mum the vice-head. They were like the golden couple in school. After separation, their certificates were useless. So dad became a policeman, and mum started working in a factory.

That’s actually really fucked up. I never thought about that.

But this narrative also–a lot of the Chinese-educated went through the same thing after the closure of Nantah. So there was this whole period of social trauma, really. Displacements of identity.

I don’t think kids these days have any idea. I mean we learn about it in school, in the abstract sense- but there’s no case study of an individual’s life before and after, nothing to make us really feel it.

So anyway… I never hung out with malay kids in primary school. At first this was my mum’s attempt to make me pick up english (because I wouldn’t be using malay with the non-malays). And of course it worked, because english is such important social capital in our ‘meritocratic’ system. But i was always estranged from the other malay kids. I did well in malay at school- but it was a formal malay, classroom malay. I couldn’t do ‘street’!

Yah, i’m like that with tamil too. So how would you put it- your mum pushed you down the english-speaking path because… ? Do you think they were resentful at suddenly having their worth in society diminished?

Because she really did at some level subscribe to the ‘if malays hang out with each other then it will reinforce whatever value system they are naturally predisposed to, which means idling and lepak-ing and relak-ing one corner etc’. My mum’s also a bit complicated because she’s half-Chinese. As in my grandma’s adopted.

Oorhhhhh. That could have made all the difference maybe?

So if you just give her a little bit of LKY’s theories on eugenics she’ll just run away with it. LKY says intelligence comes from mother, and that chinese genes have higher IQ. She can just conclude that I did well in school because of my one quarter chinese genes. Hahaha.

Your dad was a bit indifferent in comparison, ah?

My dad is so aloof lah. Hahahaha.

Too cool to care! 

That was another problem also. I spoke english with my non-malay friends. Most of my malay, I practised with my mum- because my dad just didn’t talk to us kids much.

like i wouldn’t know how to swear in malay, which was such an important marker of group inclusion.

Hahahaha!!!

‘Alamak, macam sial lah lu’ that kind lah. I couldn’t do.

Eh, so what were the other malay guys in RI like, then? They would have bandied together right? Inevitably happens in all communities, I find. Recess time sit at the same table…

A mixed bunch lah. Some sporty, some nerdy. But as I recall, not really cliquish.
Maybe friday prayers go together, or meet during malay class.

So nothing particularly noteworthy ah? No secret gatherings all

Some join band, some join rugby, some join soccer… don’t have lah, secret gatherings!

Hehehe. Indians got one. I never go lah, but got.

Hahaha, really?

Typically involving alcohol. Everyone knows everyone.

I’ve always found indian community interesting. Not too sure about in Singapore, but in M’sia really got two main strata, man.

The gangsta and the normal folks ah? 

There’s the more ‘working class origins’ one, and then there’s the more atas class, whose forefathers were the anglophone indians- who came with the colonial legal and administrative service. Typically sinhalese, ceylonese tamils, malayalee…

Ah, ah, I know! The pillais and chettiars etc. More atas one. Compared to the run-of-the-mill kling kia.

My class had a lot of indian boys back in RI. And i dunno why lah, ah, but if you wanted street cred you hang out with them.

YAH SIA I also dunno why! Everywhere know, even today. Everyone needs the token badass indian friend who just doesn’t give a fuck.

I remember they’d always be relied on to tell the funniest jokes.

They’re somehow the most irreverent.

It’s very weird, it’s like how white America perceives black people. Like they got soul, lah. Or like alice walker says, they ‘possess the secret of joy’.

I remember reading something where Karl Lagerfield was describing how even the abject poor in India will have some degree of pride- and like at least one pretty sari and a couple of bangles or something. Dunno how true that is lah, but you get what he’s getting at!

Haha!

Somehow there’s always that element of pomp and flair and grandeur. So you hung out with the indians ah?

Some authenticity also lah.

Indians are rather famous for speaking their mind; very politically aware culture.

I had a couple of indian friends. The usual lah, opinionated, good debaters all.

I think we are statistically overrepresented right, in parliament?

Yeah and among lawyers too! Things about RI is that the Chinese were a bit- how do I say this- ‘deracinated’, maybe? And because of that, there was this sense that the malays and indians were more grounded.

As in, they were less cheena also?

They were mostly english educated- and anything chinese was communist lah, chingchong lah, etc.

Like you identify yourself as Singaporean or Rafflesian before your race? Everyone eager to kind of select their own identity, rather than accept what’s expected of them?

But I think I also developed class consciousness in RI. I didn’t know how to articulate it at that time, but it was this one day when I was passing the canteen, and there were a group of malay men sitting on the kerb near the car park. I realised they were all chauffeurs waiting for my fellow students. And when you’re that youngm you feel torn, you know… The malay part of you stands in solidarity with all these men, but another part of you, which you don’t know how to define, puts you in the same category as the other students.

I can sort of relate to that. My dad runs an industrial waste disposal company,
so I come from a family very familiar with garbage and other blue collar work. Then I went to the GEP, where my peers were like minister’s children and other rich high fliers. 

Haha the GEP. Yes. When I went for the creative arts programme, I was the only non-GEP guy in the whole cohort. And it was weird, because already RI so elitist, and then got this another layer of elitism.

So my dad would send me to school in the pickup truck- I used to be embarrassed about it. But on hindsight actually everyone thought it was kinda cool.

My dad used to drive me to school in a really old car. and i’d be embarrassed with *that*… and often I’d ask not to be dropped at the school porch, in case my friends saw me.

Anyway at CAP i recall being served catered food. And it was OK lah, plain rice with meat and veggies. But the GEP kids kept complaining about it. One day, one of them found a weevil or something in her rice. And then the next day in the internal publication people were writing poems about weevils, etc. And I felt very indignant about it, that this became a running joke for them.

I remember eating and looking at the caterer- this chinese couple, being oblivious of the scorn being heaped on their food. And then I remember getting myself some orange juice, and the lady looked so happy, and asked me to fill up more, and she asked whether the food was nice, and I said it was, and she kept on beaming…

And i went back to my room and wrote a poem about it. I think that was the beginning of all the leftist leanings in my writing, hahaha.

When did you start writing at all, anyway? I remember my English teacher in GEP used to give us your poems from time to time!

Primary school, maybe? I’d write compositions that were 20 pages long in exercise book.

Was there a moment that made you decide, or did it just always feel like a normal thing to do?

In primary school it seemed really normal. And it was mostly prose- poetry came later. Plays first, then poetry. I think when Haresh Sharma mentored me at 15, I started taking playwriting seriously. Then all the drama fest stuff, which gave me an outlet.

How did you end up meeting him?

Oh, during the creative arts programme. It was so weird- I was very demoralised after CAP, because i thought everyone else was so clever. So I never handed in a post-CAP portfolio to be considered for mentorship.

Haha!

Yea, and apparently I made an impression on Haresh- because I wrote dialogue in Singlish during one of his workshops. Everyone else it seemed, wanted to write ‘clever’ dialogue in proper English.

No soul.

But I don’t know- I have a faint suspicion ya, that being one of the very few non-chinese participants at that time might have played a part. For all I know, Haresh was exercising affirmative action hahahahaha!

Haha! Ever asked him about it?

I haven’t… I should, actually.

I think I might wanna kaypoh him too, at some point…

Yea you should! What are you doing currently? Army?

Yep, in a very slack vocation! 4 more months to ORD.

Yaaaaay. Do this interview series lah. Sounds like a very worthy project. I’m playing with the idea of interviewing ex-ISA detainees for a book also. But aiyoh I have so many things i want to do la.

Nice, heavy stuff! Eh, one of your poems hit me hard when i was a teenager- Chia Thye Poh.

Ah… They refused me a publishing grant for that book. NAC. And the chia poems were part of the reason. They weren’t happy with the Josef Ng poems also.

Damn. I think nowadays new media got a lot more potential, leh. But people haven’t gotten around to exploring it properly yet. New business models forming up slowly that bypass the publisher chain…

Yea I think so too. I’m quite heartened lah, to see how information is becoming more free…

Do you remember what books you read like as a wee lad?  It occurs to me that it’s possible that a lot of my philosophy might have been shaped by Calvin and Hobbes comics, and Enid Blyton… Don’t know whether I was drawn to them because my personality already like that, or my personality was shaped by those things. Probably both. You leh?

Haha! Grew up with a lot of Enid Blytons, and then by secondary school it was Asterix comics- and then strangely enough, Ray Bradbury, who’s more of a scifi writer. Inever got into tintin though. Dunno why. And then later it was poetry. Started with Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath- and then my gosh, in Junior College it was so depressing- Philip Larkin, whom i adored. Such a miserable man.

i always wonder ah, with this kind of nihilism. Do they really mean it, what they’re saying? Surely underlying that cynicism, I imagine, there’s this slight sliver of hope
otherwise- what’s the point of writing at all?

It’s a fallacy to think that a poem could be a person’s absolute article of faith-

Is it like, an impulse, have to write, fuck care all else? It could be just how he was feeling at that time…

Hahaha, Bingo. And within any writer’s corpus, you’ll find abrogations and contradictions and renunciations anyway.

As we’ll find in the human condition itself!

(To be continued.)

The Book Project

Books have always been a huge part of my life. I haven’t always been reading, though- I read a lot as a child, and then it sort of tapered off in my teens, and I recently got around to picking up the habit again as a young adult. (I’ve explored this before in an earlier post, but I can’t seem to find it.).

I owe a lot of my mind, my ideas, my worldview, everything- to the books I’ve read. It’s nice to think about how the authors who wrote those books would probably say the same thing- so we’re all part of this huge process that persists through time and space, that was around before us and will be around after we’re gone. I like to think of it as a great well of human knowledge, like a sort of massive city, but more than that. It’s quite literally the greatest thing about humanity- the development of human knowledge as a self-organizing entity at a massive scale, emergent from books, conversations, art, everything. If you can visualize it as something real (even though you can’t actually touch or feel it), you’ll find that it boggles the mind, and humbles the individual. We’re all servants to this greater Being that is our knowledge- we’re like ants or termites building and being built by our Hive. The symbiosis is elegant and beautiful.

It’s also fun to think about how Knowledge went through massive leaps with the development of the printing press, and now the Internet- Wikipedia, YouTube. It’s fair then to say (for more reasons than this specific one, actually) that we live in the most exciting time of human history. Because it no longer takes decades or centuries for a powerful idea to slowly spread from a few wise people to others- all of that has been flattened, compressed, simplified- most of our limitations- time and space- have been greatly diminished. A lecture a hundred a years ago could have inspired a hundred people- today it can inspire millions. Progress is about to accelerate faster than it ever has before. (One can only hope that this will also apply to our heuristics- that we will learn to resolve our problems in a more sustainable and effective way.)

That said, it’s hard to figure out what our roles are in such a massive system. It’s so easy to feel irrelevant and inconsequential- the world most certainly goes on without you. It feels like we’re individual cells- maybe a flake of skin, a single neuron, a single ant or bee in a hive. Except that those particular bits aren’t exactly self-aware- they don’t really have the time to ask themselves if there’s any point doing what they do- they don’t really have a choice in the matter. So human beings really have the most interesting, complex and challenging opportunities on this planet. That’s self-evident, sure, but how many of us go about each day thinking of it that way?

But explored a little further, we’re not actually like single neurons or ants- we’re obviously somehow more than that. Because individual ants and neurons are limited in their roles- they can only ever do so much. They don’t have the freedom to decide for themselves what they’re going to do. Ants and neurons live in Mediocristan (Nassim Taleb’s idea), where life is boring, simplistic, predictable. We, on the other hand, live in Extremistan- a single individual could go on to change Humanity as we know it. Every one of us has the potential to transcend our circumstances (which appears to be a uniquely human opportunity), to hold the universe in our hands and to grasp infinity in an hour. There is hope, there is possibility. Again, in our weakness lies our strength, our greatest gift is shrouded shabbily in fear and terror.

Back to Earth. Books are a huge source of knowledge and wisdom- they’re like crystalized elements of the Lifestream (a Final Fantasy VII concept). If everybody spent a little more time and effort reading good books- and really reading them, having conversations with them- I believe it would change our collective behaviour for the better, at least marginally. I believe that I’ve read a pretty unique mix of books that have contributed substantially to my worldview, and if I could get those of you who come here regularly to be interested in reading them as well, I would be a step closer to my ideal- an enlightened, civil world. It’s not spectacular, but it’s something- it’s a start.