MUTHU: “Ah Kow, how is your son doing over at Stamford?”
AH KOW: *slurps noodles* “Oh, brilliant, brilliant.”
MUTHU: “Have you heard the latest news about our beloved Government? The price of water, my old chap, it’s being raised again!”
“Good gracious. 70% of our native population truly enjoys being sodomized!”
MUTHU: :*clears throat, spits* “Alas, my good Ah Kow, ALAS! What native population do you speak of? We have been Infiltrated by barbarian HORDES! Truly a travesty, I tell you. Oh, I yearn for the days where all you heard on the trains was Singlish. Dear, dear, Singlish.”
AH KOW: “Is this going to be another goddamn play about censorship, now? Singaporean playwrights have got no bloody creativity, do they?”
MUTHU: “But what would you expect, Ah Kow, it’s been stamped out of them by an oppressive regime.”
AH KOW: “Get your head out of the gutter, Muthu. Thoughtless heterodoxy is no better than blindly following the orthodoxy. Let us not make excuses for what is. Let us build what isn’t.”
MUTHU: “But we are just ah peks, Ah Kow. We are not educated. We are racist, sexist, small-minded, superstitious, afraid, egoistic. What could we possibly do, other than drink Guinness at 2 in the afternoon and shake our fists at our fate?”
AH KOW: “You make me sad, Muthu. You have internalized the myopia of those lesser than you. What happened to your vision, for yourself, for the world? Where’s that fiery, passionate man I was drawn to in my youth?
MUTHU: “That I do not know, Ah Kow. It seems life has beaten him down, dragged him through fire and shattered glass. The vagaries of everyday living have conquered his soul. I do not wish to think about it. Pour me another glass, please.”
(These are a set of notes and fragments for an essay I intend to write about Singlish)
Let’s take a minute to go back to 1999. It seems like such a quaint time, on retrospect. The Euro was established. Bill Clinton was the POTUS, and Columbine shootings shocked the world, Napster and MSN Messenger make their debuts. ExxonMobil becomes the largest corporation in the world. Stanley Kubrick died. The cinemas brought us Fight Club, The Matrix and Austin Powers. And Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong chided Phua Chu Kang for being a bad influence on children.
Almost 20 years later, and wow, so much has changed.
Times have changed. Today, when you’re driving to the airport you see Huat and Lah on the signage. Mcdonald’s has “makan” on Filet-o-Fish boxes.
What happened? What’s changed?
The Government’s official stance on this hasn’t changed very much.
- Smart-alecky t-shirts. KNNBCCB. Opened the floodgates. Eh sia la, uh uh siol.
- Singaporeans realize you don’t have to be one or the other. We don’t need to pretend to be in love with Colonial…. We can be articulate AND ah lian, thank you very much.
- There’s more to it than meets the eye, though. Why are Singaporeans sudenly so patriotic, so nationalist? I was just a child in the 90s, but it seemed like those were simpler, happier times. People seemed to smile more and laugh more, fight and bicker less. Maybe it’s just a media thing– we now get to see the worst (and best, though!) of ourselves repeatedly on our screens, over and over.
- Foreigners. Foreign talent. Foreign trash. Ah tiongs. Banglas. Pinoys. There are times and places in Singapore where you can stand around and not hear a single word of English. (This happened to me while I was waiting for a friend at I think Aljunied MRT). And sometimes it happens on the train.
Not everyone has a Ph.D. in English Literature like Mr. Gwee, who can code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English, and extol the virtues of Singlish in an op-ed written in polished standard English.
It’s impossible to imagine Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in the language of the White House, for example. And nor would one want to wade through White House reports written in the fractious language of the Beats.
- Speak Good English Movement
- 2013 – Grace Teng’s answer to Why don’t Singaporeans speak proper English?
- BBC – The Rise Of Singlish 
- Straits Times – No Penalty For Using Singlish Appropriately
- The Singlish Language Reflects the Power of My People
- Redditors of Singapore, do you think Singlish is uncultured? 
- Alfian Saat – Singlish 
Status in Singapore
- family office / wealth management / personal bankers
- access to private jets, yachts
- length of address
- ownership of capital
- type of credit card
- flying first class
- elite alma maters
- high % of degrees in the family
- private/expensive childhood education
- country club membership(s)
- employing a full-time chauffeur
- frequent coffee at fullerton / other hotels
- regular patronship of plays, operas, art galleries
- ownership of expensive watches, jewelry, suits & dresses
- expensive car ownership
- normalized overseas vacations
- frequent fancy restaurant patronage
- ‘parent scholarship’ (no bank loan post-graduation)
- atas pursuits (ballet, violin, horses)
- bottle service at clubs
- expensive daily lunch salads / avoiding food courts
- regular dental visits
- plastic surgery
- private/expensive hospitals
- ‘weekend getaways’ to regional beach spots
- frequent skydiving / scubadiving
- willingness to buy overpriced pastries at Starbucks and leave them unfinished
- diverse/detailed knowledge about food, wine, cheese, etc
- $4.5 bus rides
- accent & code-switching
- exclusive gyms / branded exercise clothing
- growing up english-speaking
- having cable TV (?)
- weekend brunches
- cocktail bars
- juice cleanse diets
- personal grooming (hair, nails, wax)
Why Singapore is bad
Why Singapore is the best place to live
Why Singapore is the best
Why Singapore is a peaceful country
Why Singapore is safe
Why Singapore is so awesome
Why Singapore is so attractive
Why Singapore is so advanced
Why Singapore is so Americanized
Why Singapore is so boring
Why Singapore is so beautiful
Why Singapore is so expensive – Why is Singapore accommodation so expensive?
Why Singapore is so rich
Why Singapore so hot
Why Singapore Airlines is so expensive? So successful? So cheap? So good?
Why Singapore needs foreign workers
Why Singapore dollar is falling
Why is Singapore port so busy
Why is Singapore so easy to do business
Why is haze so bad in Singapore
Why is service so bad in Singapore
Why is Singapore birth rate so low
Why is Singapore cars so expensive
Why is Singapore GDP per capita so high
Why is Singapore so conservative
Why is Singapore so cold lately
Why is Singapore so competitive
Why is Singapore so clean
Why is Singapore so crowded
Why is Singapore crime late so low
Why Singapore so many Chinese
Why is Singapore so densely populated
Why is Singapore so dusty
Why is Singapore so depressing
Why is Singapore dollar so strong
Why is Singapore so developed so fast
Why is Singapore debt so high, debt to gdp so high
Why is Singapore education so stressful
Why is Singapore education so good
Why is education so important in Singapore
Why is Singapore electricity so expensive
Why is Singapore so expensive – Why is cheese so expensive in Singapore, HDB, cars, electricity, hotels, milk
Why is singapore so famous
Why is Singapore growing so fast
Why is Singapore internet so fast
Why is food so expensive in Singapore
Why is the proportion of foreigners in Singapore is so high
Why is Singapore so good at math
Why is Singapore so green
Why is Singapore so globalized
Why is Singapore government so rich
Why is Singapore government so successful
Why is Singapore so hard on drugs
Why Singapore so important to Australia? To the Japanese? In WW2? To the British?
Why Singapore custom so jam
Why Kpop so popular, why kendama so popular
Why Singapore law so strict
Why Singapore productivity so low
Why Singapore so modernized
Why Singapore so militarized
Why Singapore so many moth
Why Singapore Prime Minister earn so much
Why Milo so popular in Singapore
Why so much lightning in Singapore
Why Singapore MRT so slow
Why is nerf so popular in Singapore
Why is Singapore so overpopulated
Why Singapore oil consumption so high
Why is Singapore so racist
Why is Singapore rainy
Why is Singapore so safe, stressful, strict, stupid
Why is Singapore tax so low
Why is Singapore so vulnerable to external events
Why is Singapore so unhappy
Why is Singapore so unique, urbanized, unemployment rate so low
Why Singapore and Brunei currency same
Why Singapore ban pig blood
Why Singapore drop F1
Why Singapore does not allow dual citizenship
Why Singapore does not accept refugees
Why Singapore riot
Why Singapore location Instagram
Why Singapore no minimum wage, no earthquake, no winter, no thaipusam holiday, no apple store, no chewing gum, no muscle car, no aircraft carrier, no need visa, navy no malay, no mustang, why cats in Singapore no tail, why singapore no earthquake, no duck egg
why singapore cannot see star, import goose, use monetary policy, reclaim land indefinitely, afford to be pushed around by china, buy kindle, control interest rate,
Why Singapore was chosen as british port, was founded, separated from malaysia
Why Singapore waste food
Originally written for Fever Avenue, in January 2012.
I’ve had some pretty unique opportunities in my life to experience things that not all of my peers do. (I’m not sure how unique that makes me- I don’t know as much about others as I’d like to, because not everybody is as vocal about their individual experiences.) My National Service has been an interesting and bumpy ride, and for some pretty unusual reasons. Most interestingly of all, perhaps, it has provided me with the opportunity to renew and strengthen one of my most fundamental convictions- which I shall describe later.
I remember when I went for my medical check-up a few months before I enlisted. I struck up some casual conversation with the guy beside me, and we got along really well. We spent several hours together, doing test after test. I believe he was from Catholic JC. We had lunch together later on at a nearby hawker center. We exchanged emails, and he’s on my MSN contact list somewhere- but I can’t remember who exactly he is anymore. After all, we only interacted at a superficial level for the briefest of moments. But we clicked. It would have been highly likely that we’d have enlisted at the same time, perhaps in the same batch. Perhaps we would have been buddies. A bizarre twist of fate led to me being slapped with the suspicion of having some strange heart disease. (I don’t have it.) As a result, I enlisted in a completely different batch, and lost touch with him completely.
Over at Tekong, I met a rather eclectic mix of people, including, naturally- a couple of guys that I really clicked with. But we only spent 5 days together, and we never did much apart from attend lectures and eat meals together. We did have some fun, and I think I remember a couple of poignant moments smoking (illegally) with one of them in the wee hours of the morning… but after 5 days, we parted ways. We became “Hi, how are you doing, how’s everything been, what unit are you posted to, how’s NS been treating ya, can’t wait to ORD man, okay take care, gotta go!” friends.
Then I got posted to my unit (I still call it “my unit”, though I’m not there anymore, because that’s where my heart is)- I was to be a storeman at Hendon camp; home of the Commandos. There I got to mix with some people who I would never typically encounter in my regular social circles. Initially, they seemed a bit cold and distant, but after a while they warmed up to me. I especially enjoyed getting to know the regulars, many who were well-adjusted, competent and decisive older men who I grew to admire deeply. I liked pretty much all of them- they were fit, confident and just plain awesome. There were many women, too- the parachute riggers- all of whom were pleasant to interact with. Most of them were heavy smokers!
I remember some funny moments, some ridiculous moments getting scolded unnecessarily by our grumpy superior, lots of waiting, lots of sitting around- sometimes in listless boredom, sometimes in profound, meditative states. I mostly saw my colleagues as people I co-existed with- I was a little bit closer to the guys I’d smoke with. None of us ever had particularly deep conversations- it was jokes, complaints, the usual stuff between colleagues, I suppose. We did get closer after we had drinks and a barbecue at someone’s place- we learnt to see each other as people who were more than the roles we played in camp every day. It made life in camp a lot more tolerable- knowing that we were all human.
Out of the blue, I had my vocation changed for me because of some administrative stuff, and I found myself shipped off to another side of camp. I had to clear out my cupboard without any warning, and ended up leaving a few things behind. I never really got to say goodbye to the guys who would then ORD before me- one of them does talk to me on Facebook from time to time, about little nothings.
Before I knew it, I found myself uprooted and moved to a new environment- new office, with new storerooms, new responsibilities, and a whole new range of items to worry about. I clicked quite well with the guys, who were a little more educated- one guy played guitar, a couple of them smoked occasionally. I remember commiserating with one guy about his girlfriend problems. We had some funny moments, and we bonded over work and bumming around together. I knew I wasn’t supposed to stay there long, though- I was only supposed to be there until my signals course came around.
I packed up everything I had and went to the faraway Stagmont camp, where I met a whole new bunch of guys. I befriended several of them quickly. Many of them were fresh enlistees who just completed their BMT. The sergeant in charge of us was going to ORD really soon, and he was as light on his feet as you would expect such a man to be. We had lunch together, went to our bunks, made our beds. I flipped through the manuals, and I found them quite interesting! (I can’t talk about them here. Heh.) I got to know the smokers, as usual. One of them had an incredibly thick foreigner’s accent. Just as I was just getting a little comfortable, I received news that I was to report back to my previous unit- I could not do my Signals course without having done at least a PES C BMT- and I had only done the PES E “Residential Induction” course. So I went back to Hendon. It was drizzling heavily as I left, lugging my large black bag with me. I caught a cold and started sneezing in the rain, as I found myself lost- in more ways than one- in the middle of nowhere on the opposite end of the island. It was a rather dark moment, and I felt like a helpless pawn being thrown around by unsympathetic forces beyond my control.
I spent a few more weeks with my buddies at the signal office before the notice came around. I was to go for basic military training- the proper one, which I had been denied the opportunity to experience earlier. I headed over to the SAF Ferry Terminal with the big black bag they had issued me when I first enlisted, my uniforms, some clothes and supplies. I hadn’t, after all, been issued a field pack, helmet or load-bearing vest, being certified unfit for combat. I chatted with another guy who I met at the bus stop, and before long we accumulated an entire posse of recourse soldiers. We spent several hours talking about life in our previous units, shared some laughs on the ferry ride to Pulau Tekong, and found ourselves sitting around with more waiting. Some of us sneaked off to a smoking corner at some company I don’t remember (we hadn’t yet known which we were going to be posted to). As I began to get to know them, I received word that- you guessed it- I was to return back to my previous unit, because I lacked the items that I wasn’t issued, and I would have to get them from my previous unit instead. I clearly remember thinking- man, I was looking to have some serious fun with those guys. I was pretty sure that some of us would have become really good friends. It wasn’t meant to be. I wouldn’t recognize any of them if I saw them today. But had we perspired, cried and bled together, some of us might be attending each other’s weddings.
Finally, after lingering around for another couple of months at my office at Hendon, I found that I was to be posted for yet another BMT Recourse- for real this time. Amusingly, I had a dental appointment on reporting day. I seriously contemplated trying to get out of BMT again- I was thinking about how I’d have to miss Paramore’s 2nd concert in Singapore, and my girlfriend’s 21st birthday. But I decided that I was going to man up and confront my circumstances head-on. I went to Tekong after my dental appointment, chucking together what equipment I had (barely 50% of what was required!) just an hour before heading there. My section comprised entirely of recourse soldiers- the only recourse folk in the entire company. We would go on to have a heck of a ride- challenging, fun, tough, meaningful. I have so many wonderful memories and I’ve become good friends with many of my buddies, and we chat regularly on Facebook. We’re definitely going to meet up in the future for drinks and whatnot. I struggle to describe what the experience felt like- let’s just say that I felt more alive in those few weeks than the whole time I was in JC.
After I completed my BMT, I returned to Hendon to find two of my favourite colleagues missing- they had completed their service while I was busy doing pushups and firing rifles on an off-shore island. I couldn’t make it for their farewell dinners. I imagine we’d have a chat if we bumped into each other in the future. But before I could get much closer to the new guys- within a week, actually, I found myself posted back to Signal Institute. Again.
Over at Stagmont Camp (again), I found, to my pleasant surprise, 3 of my platoon mates from BMT. I also bumped into a fellow local musician, a junior of mine from secondary school, and a guy who helps out at the coffeeshop that I hang out at all the time. A week later and already we began to click. Already I sensed that we were going to have some pretty hilarious memories. And we’re just a random bunch of guys, really. There’s a half Japanese guy in my bunk, and a cell group leader. Quite the motley crew. We were going to have lots of fun, and then we were going to take a picture for memory’s sake, and then go our separate ways.
Somewhere along the line, it hit me. That’s how it works. All of this is incredibly random. The randomness of it all isn’t so immediately obvious if you’ve had a fairly straightforward path in life, because then your illusions of fate, soulmates and BFFs or what-have-you might not be challenged. But if you hop schools, travel around or seek some other form of breadth of experience, you’ll learn a simple truth- people everywhere are pretty much the same on the inside, and pretty much everyone’s capable of having meaningful relationships with others. (There are always exceptions, of course, but that’s beyond the scope of this particular piece.) BMT will be memorable regardless of who the guys are around you- as long as you go through the experiences together. That’s what counts.
Everything is incredibly fleeting, fragile, improbable. All our relationships, everything we value. That we exist at all. We never realise it most of the time. The stranger who passed by you on the street earlier could have been your best friend, if only something happened just slightly differently. People come and go. All we can do is appreciate the light while it lasts. It might not seem like much, but most of us never even do that- indifferently assuming that our lives are somehow stable, our relationships meant to be. We couldn’t be further from the truth. The universe is dripping with infinite possibility, and that makes every single interaction an incredibly precious opportunity.
PS: Here’s a fun story. During my Signals course, there was a day where we were supposed to make these wire joints- 20 per person. Quite labour-intensive, especially if you’re a beginner (as we all were). My bunk was the designated “duty” bunk that day, so we were doing area-cleaning, and didn’t have enough time to complete them. (I couldn’t even get started; I’m terrible with small-scale precision.)
The rational thing to do would have been to call our commander or course sergeant and ask for an extension. Instead we prepared an elaborate setup, hung our flashlights from the ceiling, and sat together chatting as we helped each other, labouring late into the night. It felt like some sort of covert operation, us against a cruel, irrational world. We were just co-existing till then; we became buddies that night. As luck would have it, the sergeants were doing rounds that night, and we were caught for not sleeping past lights-out. I’m not sure who it was who asked us the next day- “Was it worth it?”
My answer now is the same as it was then, and the same as it was for sneaking out of school, and all that other stuff that I’d love to share with you but I don’t think I should write about. Totally worth it.
We crush our caterpillars, then complain there are no butterflies.
Jun 2012 – DPM Teo
March 2014 – Singapore Budget 2014: Young lack passion in pursuing work excellence, says NMP – “More often than not, they place emphasis and give priority to work-life balance, a high salary or other benefits, and are quick to leave if they sense better conditions elsewhere.”
My response – This behavior is learned. Think about where they learned it from.
October 2015 – Singapore needs our own Enid Blytons and Roald Dahls: Grace Fu – Well, where are we going to get them?
Recently a bunch of professor types got together at a forum to admonish civil servants for not speaking up. “Singapore needs more naysayers,” they said.
I can’t help but think of all the people who’ve spoken up over the years only to be told that they said the wrong thing. They get arrested, detained, searched, have their computers confiscated. This very obviously has a chilling effect on everybody else, and I think it’s intellectually dishonest for “thought leaders” to avoid examining the institutional forces that keep people fearful. There were plenty of naysayers in the 1960s, what happened to them?
Nobody (as far as I know) teaches you to dissent elegantly. [EDIT: check out dialectic.sg] Most of the people I know who takes the trouble to speak up against the status quo do it because they have strong convictions and beliefs – and so they tend to be rough around the edges. (This is why there are so many opposition parties. If they were able to compromise on the issues they disagree on, they would’ve have joined the ruling party.)
When I look at someone like Amos Yee (just picking a recent public example), I see a dodgy rocket engine shabbily put together with duct tape. It’s never going to meet safety standards, and it’s definitely going to blow up and cause some damage here and there. But what do you think Steve Jobs was like as a teenager? Can you imagine being Shakespeare’s English teacher?
I think 99% of naysayers are almost necessarily sassy smartass types. They’re pranksters, tricksters, clowns. Cheeky. Mischievous. You can’t really have it both ways. I’ve never met a compliant, well-behaved naysayer who has perfect knowledge of precisely how and when to criticize.
Anyway the point I’m circling around is this: I think our elites are being naive or intellectually dishonest when they bemoan that Singaporeans are uncreative, afraid of failure, of losing face, of dissenting or speaking up. They should be talking about the conditions that created the culture.
We crush the caterpillars and complain there are no butterflies.