The Culture and Civilisation of The Merfolk – An Allegorical Tale

One day as I lay in bed I saw a picture in my mind’s eye – I was swimming alone in the depths of an unknown ocean. My hair floated around my head in long and unruly strands, swaying with the currents as I breast-stroked my way through the waters.

Before long, an area of deep darkness appeared out of the corner of my eye; it emanated a sense of loneliness and deep foreboding, like a gaping wound one would normally avert one’s eyes from. However, I was drawn to it; there was a familiarity about it, a sense of something I had always known, but never understood.

Without skipping a beat, I swam towards the darkness, half-expecting to be sucked into the black vacuum. The prospect of being completely obliterated entered my mind; fear was nipping at my heels, but I kicked it away with each frog stroke, and steadfastly pushed forward into the darkness.

Instead of a black hole, I found a cave with strange beings – for want of a better term, I shall call them “Merfolk.” Now you may be thinking of the Merfolk in “The Little Mermaid” comprising of lithe and spirited Aerial, her triton-wielding 80’s muscle-man father and her buxom sisters. That would be completely understandable.

But in this instance, the “Merfolk” as I knew them were a sickly and pallid lot – more akin to the “poor unfortunate souls” that Ursula housed in her dank cave. They appeared to be on the verge of extinction, something I was to learn more about later on, and inspired so much pity in me that I felt it was my mission to be an anthropologist of their culture, a lone advocate for their continued existence.

The resembled humans, or rather the animated and shrunken corpses of humans but with forlorn and pendulous fish tails instead of legs. Their bodies seemed to glow with a greenish cast as they moved about in hushed tones.

Their culture and mannerisms seemed fragile and solemn – I got the distinct impression that I should not seek to know more than what they offered up because it could offend their delicate sensibilities.

I took my time and reined in my curiosity so that they would not feel threatened by my questions. I suspended all judgment – I was here to be a student, not a judge, of their ancient civilization.

Time passed, I do not know how long, because there was no night nor day in their kingdom. These Merfolk were endlessly busy; there were a myriad of rituals and symbolic communications that took place continually. As far as social organization there seemed to be very little hierarchy other than the presence of a Mer-King who sat on his fishy throne but did little else that was different. There were no death rites or birth rituals as there were no deaths or births among them. They simply were. They seemed immortal.

I tried to learn about their going-ons, but they eluded me. What motivated these people? Did they have an economy to speak of? What were their resources and where did they come from? I looked around and found nothing. All the things they needed (they did not need much) seemed to appear out of thin air as soon as they thought of it. These were mostly green stones that they would exchange while talking, yet for what reason? I could not decipher.

They did not seem to eat or need to build or create anything, yet they were endlessly busy and communicating all the time. As I leaned in to listen to their whispers, I learned a bit of their language which consisted both of spoken word and specific hand signs. While the spoken word eluded me because of their garbled and confused tones (further dispersed by the eddies and currents) I was able to discern a clear pattern in their hand signaling over time.

With my limited understanding of their hand signals, I tried to communicate with them, “Why? What? How? When?” I would ask, concerning their daily habits and routines, concerning their words and gestures and endless exchanges of green stones. But the answers were only of two kinds: “You will find out.” or I would be met with a deafening silence as they went about their business – almost as if I were not there.

In spite of the coldness of the water and the harsh and unyielding environment they lived in, they did not seem to be in any state of want or lack. How did they survive the lack of basic needs of all life forms? What was their sustenance? What was their raison d’être?

It was hard to know and understand them, and this fascinated me endlessly. As soon as I was on the verge of grasping the logic of their hand signals, I found subtle shifts and nuances in the way their fins would move and realize that this changed the meaning and import of their communications. It was confusing and mesmerizing at the same time.

One day, I stumbled on a matchstick which seemed impervious to the damp and cold; I struck the match against a piece of white marble lying next to where I found it, and it caught fire. Immediately, a cacophony of the most blood-curdling screeches sent shivers up my spine and made my hair stand on its ends. I froze and saw the Mer-folk that had been no more than three feet away from me suddenly flee with a speed and urgency that I had never before witnessed in their community. It was bewildering. As I stood holding the match with the small flame shifting and flickering in the darkness, I realized that I was completely alone; it all happened so quickly.

I walked around with the match, trying to look for a single soul to talk to, but not one came near. I waited till the match burned out and it became completely dark. That is when a faint greenish glow appeared to reveal Maek, a young Merfish I had become close to, who came to me and said, “Don’t” in a plaintive wailing tone that I had never before heard among them. It was arresting: the depth of expression that I suddenly saw in his usually placid face and his deep round eyes – like two dark oval disks limpid with fear. I had thought the Merfolk incapable of deep emotion, but in that moment I saw something deeply reminiscent of existential terror in Maek’s countenance.

Maek was pleading with me.

I then realized that they were afraid of the fire from the match. Upon further communication with Maek, the only one among them who dared to show up, I learned that they were vulnerable to the light and their entire civilization would collapse if they were exposed to it. That is why they dwelt in deep darkness.

I was stunned. First of all, I realized that I had gotten so used to the darkness that it did not seem dark. The unfortuitous discovery of the match and my lighting of it had been a freak accident.

When more of the Merfolk showed up, they came to talk to me. They were all sad, some were furious, but most of them were fearful. They wanted to know if I had any more matches, where I had found the match, and why I had lit the match. I explained that I had no intention of lighting up another match again so long as they were vulnerable to the light – I begged their pardon and explained fully that I had no idea their existence hinged on avoiding the light.

It was at this point that more was revealed to me about their Kingdom – their civilization had been under attack for centuries, they were the first sea creatures and wanted for nothing and had no natural predators. But between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic periods, there evolved carnivorous sea monsters with insatiable appetites. They had no way to protect themselves from these creatures except to retreat further and further away from the source of life – light itself. They had evolved to cope without light, even to the point that light would now wipe out their entire civilization.

This was shocking to me; I was sad to hear that what had originally given them life was now a terrible threat to their very existence. But their ability to survive in spite of the insurmountable odds against them spoke to me of resilience. There was something admirable about it, and I wanted to find out how they were still alive in spite of all the threats they had faced.

More time passed, and my hair grew longer. There was no way for me to cut it as there were no sharp objects in the kingdom, so I left it. One day I saw a faint image of myself reflected in a particularly shiny green stone. To my deep shock and horror, I realized that I had developed a greenish hue and had shrunk in size till my body and visage appeared gaunt and hollow; my hair had become sparse, stringy and matted, if it were not for the fact that I was standing in front of the glossy green stone, I would have mistaken my image for one of the Merfolk.

It was in this moment that I looked down at my feet and I realised that my toes had begun to fuse together to form webbed feet. I was in disbelief, how and when did this happen? And how was I not aware of it? As those questions came into my head, I realised that since I had met the Merfolk, not a single morsel of food had passed through my mouth. I had never felt hungry and had completely forgotten the need to eat.

I still had so much more to learn about the Merfolk and their endless communications. While I had gotten a good handle of their hand signals, I had yet to master the intricacies of their spoken language. I felt compelled to continue my co-existence with them as they were, as yet, a mystery unsolved.

But it dawned on me, with the slow horror of innate knowing, that from the perspective of the Merfolk, I was their captive.

I had forgotten who I was because I had become so wrapped up in unraveling the spell-binding mystery of their culture; I had become invisible to myself. But what did they want with me? What did I offer to them?

I could not say.

But I realized that as long as they could keep me searching for answers about them with half-truths and myths embedded in their folklore, I would forever be stuck in their kingdom, learning but never understanding, seeing but never knowing.

Yet, I was loathe to bring the light into these dark places because the entire civilization, which I held so dear —which I perceived as my discovery, so unique and special, would collapse. I had grown to feel something akin to love and camaraderie with the Merfolk, as different and distant as they seemed as a species.

But if their civilization collapsed, where would that leave me?

As I considered their motivation and their raison d’être, I realised that these Merfolk were merely figments of my imagination, they were lies pretending to have a life force, dignity and an internal logic of their own. I kept them alive by listening to them, paying them attention and treating them like they were real.

These were not souls or beings, these were illusions, lies dressed up as sentient creatures to keep me trapped in darkness.

They stayed alive because of my decision to keep them alive, to avoid shining the light on them. It gave me a sense of meaning and purpose, it allowed me to feel special and think of myself as an intrepid explorer, when in actuality, I was just a captive of a Kingdom of Lies – a complicit partner of the darkness.

I realized that if I were to have any chance at reversing the physical changes that were happening to me and returning to the light ever again, I needed to have no part with them. I needed to sever ties completely. I had to disavow their very existence.

I felt a lump in my throat, and my heart, which had been silent for so long, suddenly felt present; it was beating very fast. What did this mean? What would become of Maek and the Merfolk – the community that I had grown so comfortable with? I had come to spend all of my waking moments with them, and barely knew who I would be apart from them.

How could something that felt so real be a lie?

At this moment my heart pounded so hard it felt like it was going to break; what was happening to me? I lifted my hand to my chest which my heart seemed determined to jump out off. To my deep consternation, my fingers had also started to become webbed. That is when I felt a salty tear roll down the corner of my right eye. (How I knew it was a tear when I was completely surrounded by water eludes me, but I just could feel it – tear ducts do not lie.)

As my webbed hand tried to still the heart that was pounding uncontrollably, I suddenly felt something small and thin and wooden materialise in my hand, I looked down; what I saw made my entire being shudder with a deep sense of knowing. There it was, a waterproof match – it had appeared in my hand, just like the green stones that the Merfolk exchanged, without any summoning or bidding, it just showed up. I shook violently… what was going on?More tears came forth from both my eyes, and I sank to my knees, webbed feet pointing out at odd angles and body crumpled into a sad ball as the crying came in violent floods.

When my crying ceased and I felt like a dry husk, but I knew but one thing – this was not reality, and I wanted to live in reality.

So I took the match that lay in my fist and struck it against the nearest piece of marble stone that lay near me. It burst into a steady flame. I looked around, what else could I light up?

Suddenly all around, dark forms came for me; the Merfolk seemed to know what I had in mind, webbed hands grabbed me around my neck and pushed me to the ground – they were trying to extinguish the flame but I guarded it with my body. Webbed fists pounded me again and again, till I curled in on myself in fetal form.

That did not stop them. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Maek glide over – the look of sheer hatred on his face startled me. Here was the one compatriot whom I thought would know and understand me best, but he seemed out to destroy me.

He came over and lifted me up by my neck and kept squeezing it till I choked and felt faint. I was still holding onto the match. Other Merfolk were trying to grab it out of my hands but with the feeble strength I had left in me, I tipped the matchstick onto Maek. He screamed with the keening peals of a banshee and tried to pull away, but it was too late – the flame lit his body up like a rag doused in kerosene – it engulfed him and started burning through his flesh. The fire did not stop there but surged out onto the other Merfolk, swallowing each and every one of them with the relentless rage of a hellish furnace. I stood transfixed as the entire civilisation blazed with an ethereal incandescence.

Eventually the fire came for me too.

I did not run away because I wanted to be rid of my webbed feet and hands; I did not want to live if I had to live like one of the Merfolk.

The sensation of burning was strange – excruciatingly painful, worse than any pain I had ever imagined. It was a pain that demanded all of you; it pervaded your mind and feelings and arrested your soul. I found myself crying out in utter anguish to my Maker for mercy, surrendering every last ounce of my will and my life into His hands, if only, if only He would just make the burning stop.

It was at this very moment when I realized that my flesh had been burned away to reveal new skin – supple, fresh, unmarred skin, like that of a child’s. My body seemed to stretch and pulse and it grew larger with each passing moment.

Over the next few seconds, I found my body pushing past the subterranean landscape of the Merfolk, breaking through the darkness into a layer of water where the sunlight reached. Soon I grew big enough to break through the surface of the water into light and air. I found myself gasping for air when I surfaced.

There were miles and miles of unchartered territory everywhere I gazed and the sheer immensity of life beckoned towards me. The sunlight bounced off the choppy azure blue waters, glinting like jewels studded between the waves.

My feet were still at the bottom of the ocean floor and I looked at how far above I was towering over the water. The sun was burning in the sky, but seemed like a golden coin that I could reach if only I stretched out my arms – I could not believe how long and sinewy my arms were! I was amazed: was this really me? Could this be real?

Suddenly, I understood what was happening to me.

Henceforth, my choices were not going to be dictated by others, or by the needs and logic of any other system or entity. Now there was a blank slate before me and it was completely up to me how I was going to fill that slate.

With my newfound power and strength, I had the ability to build, create and move, instead of merely communicating, adjusting to and trying to understand other beings. I had the ability to dictate what my reality would look like, and no one else would be responsible for it, no one else except me. This felt like a weight that was almost too much to bear, but my feet were still on the ground and my eyes were fixed heavenward.

Endless possibilities stretched out before me in the blank canvas of the sky and the laughing sea. My soul felt light and I burst out into a song of praise – “Amazing Grace”

The promise of hope lay before me, and as I committed myself to my Maker, I knew He was leading and guiding me towards new horizons, to take hold of the abundant life that is truly life.

Too Many Dreams, Too Little Time…

What do you do when you have too many dreams and too little time? You blog and document every small step you take towards those dreams – perhaps those dreams will never come true, but writing about the process makes it all the more tangible and rewarding, regardless of whether the dream materializes or not.

Today I felt inspired by a little recipe book I picked up on a bus-stop in Singapore more than 10 years ago – “Seafood- Recipes from the Cliff” by Shawn Armstrong.IMG_1701

The Cliff, located on Sentosa Island, is an up-market restaurant – $$$$ on HungryGoWhere. It is a restaurant I have never been to, and one which I will probably never go to. Back then, I thought it was a cool book to have and to flip through, but never felt like I wanted to try out any of the recipes, as they seemed too involved for making in my mom’s haphazard kitchen where I had trouble even finding the basic utensils I needed. 😦

Since moving to Los Angeles, where I have my own kitchen, and where I have watched a surfeit of Masterchef for 3 years, I have been inspired to expand my cooking and baking repertoire. Every time I watch Masterchef, I shake my head at how incredibly skilled some of the home-cooks are, and tell myself I need to start experimenting with other types of meat, not just chicken and beef! Sometimes I imagine being a final contestant on Masterchef – how fun it would be to create my own take of a Singaporean favorite for Gordon Ramsey! But then I shake my head when I think about the sheer odds of making it that far, let alone the enormous time and effort it would take to get to that point!

Nevertheless, today I found myself reaching for this recipe book which has been gathering dust for years on my bookshelf in Singapore. And, almost like a nod of confirmation to me to document my dreams, I notice, for the first time, a little note the previous owner of the book left for me, ‘Enjoy The Book,” signed off in a sprawling cursive.

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Then I remembered that back then in 2006, there was a trend where people would leave books on MRT trains and buses for random people to pick up and bring home. This person didn’t just forget the book, he/she left it behind for another person to use and appreciate!

I had always felt a bit guilty about taking the book, thinking perhaps I had deprived the owner of a recipe book he had somehow forgotten at a bus-stop. But now my conscience has been completely absolved. Thus, I have every intent of taking this book back to LA, and working through the recipes in it. I like the plating of the dishes in this book, and am looking forward to creating dishes which are appealing, both to the palette and to the eyes.

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Speaking of which, I was recently inspired by a picture of pretty tarts I saw on Pinterest.

 

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I noticed the different components in it, and decided to try my hand at an iteration of it.

 

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I made some small strawberry meringues by adding a homemade strawberry coulis to a basic meringue recipe (it was my first time making meringues!). I defaulted to Paula Deen’s famous recipe for the tart base, and made basic pastry cream (also for the first time). To the tart, I added raspberries and meringues, as well as fresh cream whipped-up with confectioners sugar and pink coloring. Finally, I plated the tart and included a flourish of passionfruit juice reduction on the side (you can’t see the reduction in this picture). I loved the different textures and complementary flavor profiles of all the various elements! My husband and the two guests we had over enjoyed it so much that they suggested I compete in Masterchef, or, at the very least, Chopped! *lol*

I have to admit that while it definitely needs work in the visual department, the flavor profile was stunning.

It was perfect with a glass of fruity white wine from Trader Joe’s.

Cheers to all the dreams which we cherish and pursue, but may never actually achieve! New ones unfold each day.

 

Happy Pi Day!

Everybody! Happy Pi Day! This is truly a glorious day to celebrate, sadly it often goes by unnoticed and unacknowledged. I never knew about Pi Day until I came to L.A. The first few numbers of Pi are 3.14, which correspond to today’s date in America. Here, the date is written with the month preceding the date i.e. 3.14.17. In Singapore however, the custom is to write it with the day preceding the month, i.e. 14.3.17, which explains why I never knew about Pi day, since there are only 12 (and not 14) months. Thankfully, National Pi Day was brought to my attention exactly two years ago in 3.14.15, which was especially significant because those are exactly the first 6 numbers of Pi!

For this very special day, I intend to celebrate with a post on a delectably tart and crumbly melt-in-your mouth Cranberry Apple Pie that I cobbled together a couple of months ago. But before diving into that, I feel that it is only right to tip my hat towards the very special number we are celebrating today.

What is Pi or rather π ?

π is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, it is also an irrational number, meaning that it CANNOT be expressed as a fraction. “But wait,” you may say if you were paying attention in High-school Math Classes, “isn’t π =22/7?”

Interestingly, the fraction 22/7 is only an approximation of the number, as is 3.142, which you may have used in many of your math calculations as a student. The actual value of Pi goes on with no discernible pattern, past the decimal point, all the way to infinity. Because there is no way to reduce Pi to an exact number, the exact value of Pi is inherently unknowable, and it is this nebulous quality about Pi that has intrigued and frustrated Mathematicians throughout history.

If you ever watched the movie “The Life of Pi” you may recall that there was a scene where the main character, Piscine Molitor Patel, in a clever bid to stop his classmates from calling him “Pissing,” declares to his class his new adopted name, “Pi.” He goes up to the board to explain its significance and writes out the number, starting at the top corner with “3.1415…” and going on and on with a sequence of patternless numbers till the board is filled and the school bell rings, and the students start to get ready to rush off to the next class.

However random the number Pi may appear to be, it is anything but random in its actual relevance and use in life.

The number appears everywhere in the natural world where there’s a circle, and can be used to describe natural phenomena in our physical surroundings, such as the disk of the sun, the spherical design of flowers, and the concentric rings that travel outward when a stone hits the surface of a pond. Pi also governs the mysterious inner workings of our own bodies, from the spiral of the DNA double helix, to the pupil of the eye, to the rotation of our elbow joints.

Because of the prevalence of circles and circular movement in all aspects of life, Pi has many practical applications. It is used in modern engineering and math, in the physics of waves, in nuclear research, probability and statistics, in human biology and even in astrophysics! Imagine, without Pi, we wouldn’t have been able to launch the first man into the moon!

Whichever way you cut it, Pi is so much more interesting (and delicious) that what was taught in most of our high-school math classes. I hope this little piece on Pi has inspired you in one way or another.

I will make that promised post on the yummy cranberry apple-pie tomorrow, but for now, here’s a picture of it!

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Cakes.

Since my last post in September of 2015, I took a long hiatus from blogging. Ironically, that last post was also my most widely read post. I realised only today that the last post averaged almost 600 views – a huge leap from most of my other posts which would average around 50 views or so. Since that last post, I stopped blogging for a year and a half because I felt discouraged by the state of political events in Singapore, and burnt out from being overly invested in what I thought could be a real and lasting change in Singapore’s political landscape. I felt defeated, not just by the tide of recent events, but also in my personal life as I grieved over the unexpected loss of my father, and started questioning the path that I had taken in my life. But that’s another story…for another day.

Today’s post is going to be on cakes. While I have never mentioned this before, I am and always have been a huge fan of baking. I’ve baked since I was eight years old, prior to even knowing what a ‘cup’ of flour meant. This was in the 1980s in Singapore, where the only measurement standard I was exposed to was the metric standard. It was also before the advent of the internet which would forever put to rest any confusion I had about measurement standards in baking. I remember many failed attempts at chocolate chip cookies, some being too chewy, and some being too floury or salty. They never did look like the picture in the recipe-book I followed. Of course, it was because I never did have a standard set of measuring cups and spoons and would use my mom’s tea-cups and cutlery instead to measure out everything, from flour to sugar and butter. Thankfully, today I have a few sets of trusty measuring cups and spoons.

Since my amateur attempts at baking in the 80s, I have baked hundreds of times for different occasions. These ranged from fundraisers to Birthday parties, to social gatherings and tea-parties, to “just because I’m craving a chocolate chip cookie.” More recently, I have even baked Pineapple Tarts because I felt homesick, and wanted to celebrate Chinese New Year by baking Pineapple Tarts with a fellow Singaporean friend, Dora, who lives in L.A. Dora suggested baking the tarts and I gamely went along with the idea. Surprise, surprise! I never would have imagined myself baking Pineapple Tarts or any kind of local confection that can be easily bought in Singapore, but that’s what happens when you live overseas long enough and don’t have access to the usual goodies. This little baking experiment with Dora will be featured in next weeks post along with a video.

Today’s post is going to be on the German Chocolate Cake. Let it be said that I am not a fan of ugly cakes. This cake is, in my humble opinion, a pretty ugly cake.

 

I have never had any desire to make it and for the life of me, never even knew much about it, except that it looked dull & brown, (strike one)  and had coconut in it (strike two). However, my friend was getting married and I offered to make her a cake for her wedding. She told me she’d love to have a German Chocolate Cake, so I did a little research on the cake and found a good recipe to follow. When I made it and tried the final product, I was surprised by a few things about the cake:

  1. The texture is amazingly soft and fluffy, yet the taste is still rich, decadent and complex.
  2. There is nothing German about the cake. It is a totally American created confection, so named after Samuel German, the English-American creator of the particular type of dark chocolate that was used to bake the cake. German created the chocolate for the American Baker’s Chocolate Company in 1852, and 105 years later in 1957, a Texan home-maker, Mrs George Clay used this particular chocolate to come up with a recipe for a chocolate cake. Since then the recipe became an american favourite, and sales of the dark chocolate created by Samuel German increased by 73%. Soon after the cake’s name has changed from “German’s Chocolate Cake” to what we now know today as the German Chocolate Cake.
  3. It is possible to make a German Chocolate Cake look decent, if you have the time and patience for it. Unfortunately, I didn’t really! But the next time I make this cake, I will plan to ice and ‘pretty’ it up.

I used this recipe from allrecipes.com after reading quite a few comments and reviews on the different recipes of German Chocolate Cake available. The only thing different I did was to double the ingredients for the filling by 1.5 times and to also toast the pecans and coconut as some of the other reviewers suggested. It turned out great, and my friend and her fiancee loved it, and I I learned how to bake a whole new type of cake in the process!

 

 

Dear Anonymous Overseas SG Graduate who calls us “spoilt brats”

I am writing this response to an article that has been making the rounds. I think that it is important and necessary to address some key issues in the way this article was written and the message it sends out.
This response was initially directed to him/her whom i will from here on call ‘Anon,’ However towards the end of writing it, I realized that the response was not directed so much to Anon, as to the people whom this writer attacks, people who have been labelled ‘spoilt brats’ by Anon because they do not view things the same way as Anon does, because they do not think that the PAP has done right by Singapore.
Dear Anonymous Overseas SG Graduate who calls us “spoilt brats”
From your limited perspective you have basically damned and castigated everyone who will be voting for the opposition. Of course you will vote for the PAP, and you are entitled to your own choice and opinions.
However, the biggest issue I fault you for is not the major fallacies in your arguments, but rather the tone and manner in which you wrote it. That is the main thing that needs to be addressed. Your tone and manner reeks of contempt and disrespect.
I think that this attitude of disrespect and condemnation of others who think differently is one of the biggest problems Singaporeans face, and it is one of the most pertinent factors which has caused stagnation and lack of true growth in all aspects of Singaporean life.
It is dehumanizing, mean and bullying and completely disingenuous;  this toxic castigation and dismissal of others with different opinions and convictions is poorly disguised as ‘wisdom,’ ‘common sense’ and ‘intellect.’
I have travelled around the world and currently live in LA. Yes, America is far from perfect, I do not think for a minute that it is THE model for us to follow. In fact, there is no perfect model in the world to follow. Every single democracy is riven with its own internal contradictions and problems.
However the point of a democracy is to recognize that there is no perfect government, and that no single party should have the mandate to rule over its citizens without being accountable to them.
The idea of a democracy is based on the belief that citizens themselves, not a group of ‘natural aristocrats’, can and should take ownership of their own country, the citizens themselves must have the power to decide on what is right and wrong, what works and what does not. Ultimately, they have the freedom and power to vote into parliament the individuals or parties they think will best represent them.
They also have the responsibility of bearing the fruits of those choices.
The contestation of policies in parliament is integral to a democracy: it is a process which allows the government and the citizens to choose the best policies that is most well-suited to the needs of the country and its people.
Admittedly this process does not always work out, but that does not mean we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Checks and balances in a democracy ensures at the very least, that every policy is closely scrutinized before it is passed.
This is why we need a substantial opposition in parliament, one which can question policies that may not be in the best interest of Singaporeans. Without a good opposition, we are writing the PAP a blank check. Up till today we do not know how much we have in our reserves. There is little or no accountability from the government for taxpayers’ money.
This is not acceptable.
America is far from perfect, but here there is profound freedom to develop, create, grow, change and contest laws, and policies. There is freedom to make mistakes, to fail spectacularly and even to indiscriminately criticize revered political leaders, without being sued for defamation, or dragged into a mental asylum.
People here do not feel the need to police “free speech,” most have the maturity to discern for themselves what they will listen to and what they will not, they are able to sift the chaff from the wheat, and are not reliant on a nanny state to censor mainstream media. Fear is not the primary tool used to govern people.
In addition to this freedom, comes freedom in the major choices one makes in life. Here there is a much broader definition of success. Talent and leaders here are not culled from ivory tower academics and elitist types who are completely out of touch with the struggles of the average citizen.
School drop-outs in America with guts and tenacity have full autonomy and resources available to create companies and products that change and impact the world, think Steve Jobs. The value of believing in yourself and trusting your inner convictions is not dismissed as mere fairy dust and wishful thinking. It is not condemned as being selfish and stupid, but taken seriously.
I will vote for the SDP, not because they present themselves as a ‘Savior.’ This is far from the truth, they do not portray themselves as infallible, in fact they are honest about their imperfections, and recognize their plans may need to be adjusted. However they have presented clear and cogent alternative policies to many of the PAP’s dysfunctional ones. They are open to debating about these policies, compromising and making relevant changes to these policies that will benefit Singapore, and they are deeply committed to building up the hearts and souls of Singaporeans.
Very importantly, the SDP is accepting of people with different political views and opinions, the members of the SDP have humility and do not feel the need to label others with names, or to speak with contempt and condescension towards those who think differently from them. They do not seek complete dominance of the government, as they recognize the value of contesting ideas and having checks and balances.
Above all, they recognize the intrinsic value and dignity of human life, independent of extrinsic factors like wealth and merit, and have cogent and sound policies that reflect this one true and irrevocable fact.
I do not write this post to change your mind, because it is most likely a lost cause. I am writing this for the other Singaporeans who may be swayed by what you say, or who may doubt themselves, after reading your article.
To them I want to say this:
Do not let anyone talk you down or tell you that you are stupid for having differing convictions and beliefs from the mainstream.
Do not let anyone tell you that you are a spoilt brat because you have a bigger vision and ideal of what life can be like in Singapore, because you aspire for something more than the status-quo, or because you long for something more meaningful in the depths of your soul.
Do not let anyone make you feel guilty for choosing a different or unpopular path because you have listened to your heart, and have allowed your conscience guide you.
This is the value of democracy and freedom. This is the value of having a hope and a dream and a deep love for your own country and nation.
This is the primary calling of us all who seek meaning and purpose, to be true to ourselves. It beckons and inspires us to listen to and follow our deepest convictions, and our clearest conscience.
It gives us courage to take risks, make mistakes and fail, and to pick ourselves up again, each time we fall. It gives us wisdom and patience to appreciate the journey, and to mature from it, even though the destination is still far from sight.

Do you want to see Amos Yee convicted?

Those who want to see Amos Yee being sentenced for the ‘crime’ of plainly stating his personal opinion should ask themselves what is the kind of society they’d like to live in. Many Singaporean citizens who reacted to his video expressed much more malice and hate on social media than Amos ever did. He was violently threatened by a PAP grassroots member and physically and publicly hurt by a vengeful citizen, yet none of these individuals are being dealt with nearly as harshly as Amos. Is this just?

Thousands of Singaporean Christians, including myself have signed the petition to free Amos Yee and have stated that they are not offended, so how has he wounded Christian feelings? None of the citizens who reported him to the police for being offensive are willing to take the stand in court and testify against him. Why?

I don’t agree with what Amos says about Jesus Christ, in fact I believe that Jesus Christ is rather the opposite of LKY. Unlike LKY, Jesus Christ sought out and deliberately spent time with the ‘sinners’ and outcasts, the rejects of society. He also said the first will be last and the last will be the first. From what I gather, LKY basically said that the first will be paid obscene amounts of money, and the last shall not even be worthy of getting a minimum wage. (I am paraphrasing this of course, it’s part of his legacy that Singapore is now the most expensive city in the world and yet still does not have a minimum wage, while the Prime Minister and his ministerial entourage are drawing salaries amounting to millions of tax dollars )

But Amos is entitled to having his opinion and stating it plainly, just as I am entitled to navigating away from the video he posted if I am offended by it. I may not like the manner in which Amos stated his opinion, but I must say I admire his courage, integrity and his willingness to stand on his convictions. He was as vulgar and jarring as he was precisely because he wanted the video to go viral. He wanted us to think about about the issues he was raising.

Like the little boy who called out the emperor’s nakedness, Amos has been the only one who has dared to state what he sees plainly and publicly, without mincing his words. That is what freedom of expression is. You may not like or agree with what other people say, but that doesn’t mean that they should be fettered and thrown into jail like Amos has been. In many other democracies, most people wouldn’t be too bothered by the likes of Amos’s video, and those offended would either 1) ignore it and move on 2) engage and state their own opinions. They wouldn’t be calling out for his blood and running to the authorities to arrest him for speaking his mind. In Singapore it seems, one can be arrested for bluntly expressing one’s opinion, especially if one’s opinion runs counter to prevailing sentiment.

If we are to live in a just and free society where there is openness and accountability, we must consider why numerous other people who have made public threats against Amos and his family aren’t being similarly curtailed for their hurtful and violent statements and actions.

At the tender age of 16 years old, Amos is making us think. That’s much more than can be said of our leadership which has shackled mainstream media and silenced public dissent for years. Unlike Amos, our leadership thrives on our ignorance, apathy, and fear.

In my opinion, as much as we dislike being called idiots, we should be thanking Amos for having the guts shout the painful truth from the rooftops and not, like the intelligensia, dress it up with sophisticated froufrou, which is usually lost on most of us anyways.

Why are we Singaporeans so angry, vindictive and petty? Because we are a very unhappy lot. And why are we so unhappy? Because we subscribe to the values advocated by our leaders, and so many others in the world, that our worth depends on our income, achievements and good behavior. We try so hard to toe the lines, obeying these rules to earn a false sense of self-worth, when in fact our value is intrinsic. It is hardly surprising then, that we get outraged when a seemingly obnoxious little teenager thumbs his nose at these self-imposed rules and pronounces us stupid for subscribing to them. We angry Singaporeans have been looking for the first person to crucify, and Amos has kindly offered himself up as the sacrificial lamb.

Thankfully, Amos’s lawyers have made a water-tight case for Amos’s innocence, based on clear and simple logic. They have also backed it up with sound evidence, whereas the AGC’s retort is even worse than what you’d expect out of a primary school debate. The AGC has no witnesses or convincing evidence to prove Amos has broken the law. Anyone who has respect for truth and justice will know that if Amos gets convicted, it signals a social-malaise so deep that it corrupts our our political and judicial system, and indeed our very own minds and hearts if we allow it to.

What does ‘freedom’ mean to you?

If you have read Calvin Cheng’s article titled “The Legacy of Lee Kuan Yew and the Myth of Trade-offs” it is likely that you reacted in one of these two ways. Either you probably felt validated by this article as you bought into the clever suggestion that security can be conveniently redefined as freedom as the author suggested. Or like me, you shook your head and sighed deeply, disappointed by yet another prejudiced and facile article amidst the plethora of mind-numbing articles that are popping up like poisonous mushrooms in the wake of LKY’s death.

I am glad to say that there was a third response, and that response was to write an article that exposes the very elementary mistakes that Calvin Cheng’s makes in his article. Donald Low bothered to engage and write an article clarifying the important distinction between security and freedom and how that relates to Singapore’s needs today. As Low elucidates in his article, security and the delivery of high quality public goods are not contingent on the presence or the absence of a participatory democracy, but rather a strong and competent state. Neither can security or or the presence of high-quality public goods in Singapore be logically redefined as ‘freedom’ even in the Singaporean context. Following this article, Calvin Cheng rebutted by saying

“Mr. Low states that that I conflate security with freedom; I have done no such thing. I am in fact arguing that security is a precondition to real freedom.

Take a very real life example. You could tell me that I am free to go wherever I want in a crime-infested area of say New York or London, because there are no laws or physical impediments to prevent me from going. However, because my personal safety may be threatened if I do go, that ‘freedom’ is a hollow one. It’s not real freedom. Conversely, if there is law and order, I am truly free to go wherever I want.” (taken from a comment on Low’s article)

I feel very bothered by Calvin Cheng’s response because it smacks of intellectual dishonesty. First of all, unlike Low, he never once stated that security is a precondition for the exercise of freedom. Cheng merely argued that Singapore has it’s own version of ‘freedom’ because it has clean air, public safety, and so on and so forth. Sounds very much to me that he is saying high-quality public goods + security = ‘freedom’ (in Singaporean context).

Secondly, why on earth would you or I decide to walk down a crime-infested part of NYC or London? It just doesn’t make logical sense, it’s the same in Singapore, would you under normal circumstances, decide to walk alone in the dark alleyways of Geylang at 3am in the morning? (I’m not talking about the parts of Geylang where you go to for supper, but the parts where prostitutes and pimps ply their trade) I have been to London and NYC, multiple times and felt safe everywhere I went. I remember taking the underground from the JFK airport to the Time Square station at 12am at night and walking then walking across Times Square to my friend’s apartment around the corner, lugging my suitcase on rollers. I felt completely safe as the streets were brightly lit and still busy with the bustle of city life even at that late hour. I got to my friend’s apartment unmolested at 1.15 am or so, and never thought twice about it.

Thirdly, I really do not understand why Calvin Cheng compares walking around in Singapore to walking around a crime-infested area of New York or London. It’s not even a fair comparison because the crime infested parts of Singapore reside mainly in government and politics, which is why we definitely need greater political accountability. This requires greater political participation, especially in opposition parties, however, for the same reasons that most of us would avoid walking down a crime-infested street of New York city, most of us who are concerned with self-preservation would avoid getting into opposition politics.

Just think about this, almost two million USD a year goes to the Prime Minister, to govern tiny little Singapore, while the leader of the free world, Barack Obama gets less than a quarter of that, to overlook a country 13420 times larger than Singapore and deal not just with national issues, but with many issues concerning international security on a daily basis. Tell me, is the high pay that ministers in Singapore get not simply a form of legalized corruption? Did we as citizens have a significant say/power in deciding how much our ministers should get? Do we, as Singaporeans, get to decide which laws are implemented and which are abolished? It is really crazy that an entry level minister in Singapore is getting paid almost twice as much as Obama, especially in Singapore which is supposedly ‘meritocratic’ and ‘corruption free.’ People, this is not representative of a meritocracy or a country with a corruption free government, but rather an oligarchy. The biggest ‘gang’ we have in Singapore now is the PAP. But that’s slowly changing.

I live in Crenshaw/Baldwin Hills Los Angeles. A place that is notorious for criminal activity and rival gangs in L.A. Yes, I would never venture to walk around in this neighborhood at night at 3am or leave the door to my apartment open. In the same way, I would not risk doing the same in Singapore, even in my ‘safe’ Sunset Way neighborhood back in Singapore, just because…commonsense. In the same way, I do not feel that my freedom is curtailed because of the relatively high-crime occurrences in my L.A neighborhood; as long as I take the right precautions, like not walking around the neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning, and locking my apartment doors, for example, I feel safe. My husband’s car got broken into once and his sub-woofer got stolen, but that is because there was a malfunction in the locking system which left the trunk unlocked. (We didn’t realize this until the subwoofer got stolen, otherwise we would have locked the trunk manually) Other than that, in the two years that we have lived here, we have not had any run-ins with crime. Sure, Crenshaw/Baldwin Hills is definitely less safe than Clementi, or most parts of Singapore, or many other parts of LA like Beverly Hills or Santa Monica, but for all of my regular needs and creature comforts, it is completely adequate: I go grocery-shopping at the local supermarket and run/walk alone in a green space a couple of blocks away from where I live. The irony is that living here actually affords me more freedom and greater spending flexibility on an otherwise tight-budget.

There is an over-supply of public tennis courts here that are available for use throughout the day that I would frequent more often if I had a regular tennis partner. Most people in the ‘hood’ do not play tennis. Tennis courts are not as accessible in Singapore, unless you live in a private estate with tennis courts or are a member of a sports club. In some ways, I would say that the quality of my life in this high-crime neighborhood is higher than it could ever be in Singapore, with the current income we have. There is no way that we would be able to enjoy the luxury of a 800 square-foot 1 bedroom apartment in a gated community in Singapore for a mere rent of $900USD monthly. Also, on a relatively tight budget, both my husband and I each have our own individual cars that have already been paid in full, to be used completely at our discretion, something that could never happen in Singapore on our current income. (we would have trouble surviving in Singapore on our current income) A Singaporean friend of mine decided that he would never in his lifetime invest in buying a car in Singapore because with the same money spent on maintaining a car and paying for COE over 20 years, he could send his daughter to study in the States when she became old enough. I did the math and then realized that if ever moved back to Singapore, I would never buy car there, because it would just be a bad investment, unless of course I were rolling in money. This all comes down to what we define as freedom, to Cheng, freedom = security + high-quality public goods. To me, freedom means something else altogether.

Once again, do take the time to read Donald Low’s article and share it. In doing so, you will be taking an important step in raising the standard of political maturity and discourse in Singapore.

What Next Singapore?

It seems almost like Singapore has come to a standstill with the passing of the Nation’s very first Prime Minister. Many Singaporeans are still processing Lee Kwan Yew’s (LKY’s) death, reflecting on who he was and what he did for our country. Many are wondering, “What next?”

This is a watershed in the political climate of Singapore, as LKY has long championed a specific and rather controversial way of running the country. LKY has become iconic to the point that his name has become to many, synonymous with the idea of a modern and developed Singapore. However, I think the control of media in Singapore has a very large part to play in the disproportionate extent to which he looms in our minds and our conversations, regardless of how we view him, whether or not we see him as a good, bad or merely mediocre leader.

Let’s not kid ourselves, LKY’s heavy-handed and authoritarian rule doesn’t come close to that of Kim Jong-il, Hugo Chavez or many other despots, clearly he was a lot smarter than most of them and did enough to maintain international legitimacy and garner the respect of many people from all walks of life, unlike those other despots who have undeniably plundered their own countries to the ground.

However, and this is a big ‘however,’ there are some striking parallels in terms of how they have all influenced the thinking of their nations’ people through media: ever since LKY came into power, mainstream media became very tightly controlled and has been reduced to little more than the PAP government’s mouthpiece. It very obviously remains so, even up till now; this culture of repression and indoctrination has had extensive repercussions on not just Singapore’s mainstream press and media, but also on the country’s local universities, schools and to a lesser but still critical extent, the internet. There is significant self-censorship amongst academics and among Singaporeans on social media. There is plenty of intellectual dishonesty going around, both amongst people for LKY and to a more limited extent, amongst those against him. LKY did an excellent job of silencing dissent and breeding a spirit of intellectual laziness among the masses while he held the reins, his successors have well-continued this trend.

The biggest contradiction is that Singapore is a first world country and also a ‘democracy,’ but in terms of political discourse and maturity, this is so very far from the case, as is evidenced by the shaming of people who would speak negatively of LKY in his passing. Much of the negative ‘press,’ however has come about as a response to the onslaught of blind adulation and gushing sentimentality that we the ‘nay-sayers’ have had to deal with on a continual basis whether on social media or on mainstream news sources. Yes, I don’t mind admitting that some of us ‘nay-sayers’ have not been entirely faultless: The Real Singapore has had some issues with journalistic quality and integrity and has become less credible in the eyes of many Singaporeans for understandable reasons. However, that does not change the fact that there are very many stark realities reminding us that LKY’s legacy was not all good or even mostly good. Even those amongst us who have been more nuanced and fair-handed in our assessment of LKY and his legacy have been deemed ‘inappropriate’ and ‘insensitive’ for pointing this out at this time.

However I think at a rare time of reflection and introspection like this in Singapore, it is even more important that the truth is spoken and that inconvenient truths are not glossed over or easily dismissed: the economic prosperity that this country has enjoyed has been turning on it’s own head for years as the climate of repression and blind pursuit of material success are poor foundations on which to build a nation. As Singaporeans, no matter how divided we are about LKY, let us at least be united in acknowledging real and pressing issues. If Singapore is to progress as a nation and weather the storms ahead, we need to boldly face the truth and deal with it instead being like the proverbial ostrich, who stuck its head in the sand.

Now we have serious problems of a huge Gini coefficient, overcrowding, ironically coupled with the lowest birth rate in the world, unaffordable cost of living (most expensive city in the world for two years running), a weak business class in Singapore, an economy that is overly dependent on foreign capital and foreign labor, almost no checks and balances in political and judicial laws, an entire class of leadership that seems to value money much more than service to their nation and finally (the icing on the cake), a whole host of Singaporeans who have been sold on the idea that you need to ‘buy’ talent in order to run a country.

That’s not to say that Singapore isn’t still a really nice place to live: it has lovely tree-lined streets and avenues, is considered relatively ‘safe’ compared to most countries, has good infrastructure and mostly affordable health-care, delicious and cheap meals at food-courts, an international award-winning airport with 3 going on 4 terminals, fresh-air, striking bureaucratic efficiency, shining malls and clean streets and low-corruption etc. Singapore has really done well for itself. As a Singaporean who has been living abroad for the last 5 years, I will be the first person to say that Singapore is really quite a comfortable and easy place to live in if you can afford it, or if you are a beneficiary of the system, and/ or if you’re willing and able to shut your eyes to real issues of social-justice and human-rights that exist in our country.

Let our nation weep and grieve for her first (and longest-reigning) PM’s passing, but hopefully we will be able to recognize that Singapore, for good or for bad, was not built solely on LKY’s back but also on the tired and bent backs of the unsung heroes, like that wizened old hunched-back Aunty that’s is still clearing plates at the Ion food court in Orchard Road today or that extremely underpaid and overworked and sleep-deprived Bangladeshi worker who helped to build your HDB flat.

Inspired by a New Artist

I feel like I’ve been numb to new music for a long time…. I used to get really excited about new songs and artists that I would discover; I would listen again and again to their songs and sometimes, just even one song from their album, in particular, would be on repeat for up to a hundred times or so.

I am happy (and relieved) to share that I’ve very recently been INSPIRED by an artist. The feeling of music making your soul come alive is like nothing that I know and I am glad that it’s coming back to me again.

The last post I made in March was also about an artist. I was inspired more by what he was doing with his music than his music itself. This is says nothing about the quality and nature of his music, rather, it says more about my heart and what was happening to me at that time, something inside of me was dying and the embers couldn’t be revived.

Since then, things have started to changed and I am starting to re-experience that feeling of intensity and excitement that I used to have when discovering artists in the past. This new artist I’m talking about is Emma Louise. She’s an Australian singer-songwriter, perhaps best known for her song “Jungle” which was featured on Grey’s Anatomy and which became a no. 1 best-selling song in Australia song. Incidentally, you can download this song for free on her bandcamp website. It’s a great song.

Her music wasn’t available on Spotify, so I ended up going to her youtube channel to listen to her songs. I love her voice, there’s something so sincere and vulnerable about it. A quality that is not very common among singer-songwriters nowadays. Not to mention that she’s also got beautiful tone. I really like her unofficial acoustic video recordings, some of them looked like they were recorded on a laptop  in her bedroom. (not something that I would expect for an artist with 27,000 likes on her FB page). I ended up getting her four track EP on itunes, “Full Hearts and Empty Rooms”

I am now in the midst of editing my guitar tracks in preparation for the drum tracking session next weekend where we will be recording the drums in a studio. This is a significant step in my debut album production, but I’ve been inspired by Emma Louise to put up videos of myself playing my original songs and maybe some other covers; perhaps that could be an even more significant part of the journey in producing my album.

I am going to try to do that once a week. We’ll see how that goes! 

 

A new artist, his free music and the sad situation in the DRC

I discovered a new artist! He’s not “new” per se, he’s been around the block and has had a very illustrious career as a singer-songwriter for over a decade, I have only just recently found out about him on Noisetrade. Noisetrade is a music “exchange” platform whereby artists put their music out for free for a period of time and people can choose to tip them (or not) for their music.

What’s different about Josh Garrels‘s offering is that all of the proceeds that come from tips on his albums during these two weeks on Noisetrade will go to support the work of World relief  – an organization that works with local churches in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) to provide hope and healing to the Congolese people.

I had previously heard stories and seen videos of civil war that continues to engulf the Democratic Republic of Congo, but is is so easy to overlook because there is so little news coverage on it. Through this artist, I was recently reminded of the situation in the DRC: countless number of Congolese have died in this war and hundreds and thousands more Congolese lives continue to be subject to war and its attendent problems of starvation and malnutrition, homelessness as well as to unspeakable acts of violence and torture committed by the rebel troops.

The “2nd Congo war”  as it is called, started in 1998 and is the deadliest war in the world since WWII, having claimed over 5.4 million lives. In spite of  these staggering numbers, there is virtually little or no news coverage about it on the major news channels. As such the cries of the people in the DRC go unheard, while the rest of the world remains oblivious to the incredible suffering of the people in the DRC and the rampant evil committed with impunity by military groups.

Today after finding out about Josh Garrels noisetrade, I clicked on the World relief in Congo site and from there, I read more articles about the country that deeply shocked and saddened me:

“[the] wars in that country have claimed nearly the same number of lives as having a 9/11 every single day for 360 days, the genocide that struck Rwanda in 1994, the ethnic cleansing that overwhelmed Bosnia in the mid-1990s, the genocide that took place in Darfur, the number of people killed in the great tsunami that struck Asia in 2004, and the number of people who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki — all combined and then doubled.”

– “Why the World Is Ignoring Congo” – Vava Tampa, founder of Save the Congo

The DRC is also called the “Rape Capital of The World” because of how rape is used as a weapon of war there. Women who go to the fields to collect food or those who go to the woods to collect firewood are systematically raped and tortured on a daily basis .

The daily choice these women face is either, to stay at home and face starvation. Or, go out to the fields for food and be raped. Most women chose the latter.

It has become a generational norm, and thousands of women and girls are raped daily because of this impasse. The nightmare does not end there, the same women and girls who were brutally raped and tortured are later on stigmatized and made outcasts by their society, leaving with them with little recourse but to be exposed to the same senseless violence again and again.

The depth of their suffering is so far removed from what any of us know, or will ever know. But here is what we can do to help these women in the DRC: we can tip Josh Garrels for his music on noisetrade or we can just choose to give directly to the World Relief fund, which works with local churches to offer shelter, healing and support to these women

You can each out to give hope to the people of the DRC through this simple act of giving. It will only take a few minutes of your life, but can change the course of many lives in the DRC if you would give and help to spread the word.

PS

The words in red are active links that you can click on to go to the sites and articles that I have mentioned.