My name is Au Waipang. I was born in 1952 in Singapore and am of Chinese descent. I am the third generation to live in Singapore, second generation born here. That is to say, all my grandparents were born in China, but both my parents were born here.
As both my parents were educated in English-language schools (run by Christian missionaries, as most English-language schools were in their day), the family language that I grew up with was English. My parents speak to me in English; all my teenage rows with them were in English.
So, regardless of the Singapore government’s silly notion that one’s mother tongue is determined by one’s race or ethnicity, I have always maintained that my mother tongue is English. I think in English, I dream in English, and as is apparent from this site, I write in English.
Yet, I am not entirely westernised like some second or third generation persons of Asian descent living in Europe or America. I live in Singapore, a small country – a small island – smack in the middle, not of China, but of Southeast Asia. Singapore is sandwiched between Muslim Malaysia and Muslim-but-officially-secular Indonesia. But in Singapore, Muslims are a minority. The Chinese community in Singapore makes up 76% of our population, so the milieu in which I grew up was still culturally Chinese.
This oddity of being an English-speaking, partly Chinese-acculturated, partly westernised, Singapore national perches me precariously at the edges, or perhaps the crossroads, of various worlds.
And if things aren’t complicated enough, I am gay. Once more, to the margins. OK, it could have been worse, I could have been hearing-impaired transsexual.
I hope it doesn’t sound like self-pity, because it is not. I never cease to be fascinated to be where I am. Any direction I look, it’s an interesting view. In many ways, I see things partly as an insider, partly as an outsider.
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I have never been “confused”, nor ridden with guilt and conflict. I think partly it was because I could (or thought I could) see a few other homosexual persons around. There were some schoolboys I spied doing curious things under the stairs. There were the impossibly many male teachers who never married, and one or two of them had limp wrists to boot. I never felt I was all alone in the world, as others have reported as their growing up experience.
Partly too, I think it was because I didn’t grow up in a Christian family. I say this because a friend of mine, who is a trained counselor, has told me of his observation that it was mostly the ones who grew up in Christian families who faced the most internal struggles.
Decades ago, sex was a taboo topic, but life was not governed by ceaseless judging of whether this was right or wrong, or that was good or bad — not in my family, at least. Things were seldom pigeonholed according to moral diktats. My father, who is a very practical person, set the tone: things either were or were not, they either worked or proved useless, and they either pleased you (or your parents, or teachers) or made the minutes and hours miserably slow and tedious.
But I did go to a Methodist mission school, for all of twelve years, fourteen if you add the Good Shepherd kindergarten (Christian again, what’s with my parents?). Did all those years ever make a Christian out of me? Fat chance. I saw not belief, but the suspension of belief, for people to take in so much of the Bible. But I also saw fallibility, humanity and humour.
There was a French Canadian math teacher. He was an oddity because he was Catholic in a Methodist school, and his English was so highly accented, it was a wonder we learnt anything. Then again, looking at my scores, maybe it was no wonder at all. Anyway, we understood enough to know that he was once a Jesuit priest, but he had fallen in love with a Vietnamese woman – yes, he told us all that directly! He chose love over his priesthood. For some reason, maybe the very scandal of it, they had to leave Vietnam, but no Catholic school here would employ him, and so he ended up in a Methodist school. If we hadn’t learnt much math from him, at least we learnt a little about love and the choices one made in following one’s heart.
Then there was the literature teacher, and we (14- and 15-year-olds) were discussing a book in which a young couple got married. She asked the class why we thought he wanted to marry her. Did we understand the foregoing passages?
Oh yes, we did. They were in love, we volunteered. They wanted to spend the rest of their lives together.
“Rubbish”, she said. That might have been what he told her, but if we had read between the lines, his primary motivation was to screw her.
‘Screw’ sucked the breath out of our lungs, hell, coming from a woman, it sucked the air from the room. So much for a Christian school. She was a gutsy woman who saw literature as a means to teach us boys to see, to feel and to think, and to be honest about what we see, feel and think.
And the point of both recollections is? That things are never black and white. In fact, the world would be ugly if everything has to be black and white. There’s something poignantly beautiful about the shimmering shades of grey,
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Quite a few people writing to me think I am perhaps a journalist or academic. I am neither. I’ve mostly worked in manufacturing businesses — foods and chemicals – and mainly in marketing, business development and corporate affairs.
This seems to come as a surprise to some people who have written to me. I’m not sure why. Possibly they find their image of a cause-driven culture-critic with liberal tendencies rather at odds with their mental image of a corporate executive inextricably absorbed in how many hundredths of a percent the bond market has moved, hobnobbing with influence peddlers after-hours.
I was never anything like that, which may be why in the end, I didn’t think I would ever cut it in the high-flying corporate world. For one thing, golfing was something one generally took up upon reaching a certain station in business life. Corporate networking, even lucrative deals, depended on playing with the right people on the fairways. Perhaps so, but I couldn’t deny my belief that golf courses were ecologically unpardonable. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that all that “networking” was at least too elitist by half, if not altogether corrupt.
But I’m not an anti-business greenie. I am still in business, or rather, I have my own little businesses now. I’m never going to be rich with them, but I like the feeling of independence.
Nor am I a basher of big business, as some people expect underdog champions to be. I will still proudly stand up and say, business is a good. Work and goals give people meaning and satisfaction in life. Families are fed and children schooled because there’s employment. The competitive effort to make better products, give better service, think up newer ways of getting things done or inventing new things entirely, is what creates wealth. Yes, wealth on an individual level for some, but, even as I am acutely aware how uneven wealth distribution is in the modern world, wealth for whole societies too.
However, civic causes are also important. They round off the rough edges of purely materialistic concerns; they fill our need to live up to our consciences. Wealth without conscience has, at a personal level, no meaning. At a societal level, it would be grotesquely vulgar.
The reader will also find in my essays here much criticism of politicians. I sincerely hope I don’t come across as a cynic, because I am not. I believe politics is a high calling. You’re sniggering? OK, let me rephrase that: I believe politics can be a high calling. Ultimately, politics is about how we organise our polis, that overarching framework that, if built well, permits each of us to explore our potential and realise our dreams, but if corrupted to a murderous pit, makes life a living hell.
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Few people who are heterosexual can fully understand what it means to be gay and why homophobia exercises us so much.
To be gay is to grow up and live in a cage made of people’s put-downs, ignorant labels, derisive jokes, outright ranting and explicit laws. We see exclusions everywhere we look – in family traditions, employee benefits, in army service, in job promotion. We see hate scrawled everywhere – on posting boards, religious sermons, even in parents’ letters to far-off sons and daughters.
We hear silence when the censors have flicked the switch. Silence again when, even when our parents know we’re gay, they don’t have a good word to say about it. And more silence when we see so many others in our city who are clearly homosexual gag themselves for fear of exposure. But worst of all, we too often hear silence from our own lips, surrendering away our very own dignity.
The cage often looks inescapable. And we wonder sometimes if it may be wiser to just bear it all to our dying day, and take our fears, frustrations and futile hopes with us to our graves.
But some of us can’t do that. I can’t. If I did, all my parents’ and teachers’ efforts would have been in vain. I can do them no greater honour than to keep speaking about humanity over hypocrisy, honesty over hype.
The above self-introduction was written way back in 1996 when I launched Yawning Bread.
2011 (you can obtain a bigger version by clicking either image below):