Archive for the 'personal perspective' Category

Requiem for a mug

I accidentally knocked it against the edge of the kitchen sink and its handle broke. Instinctively, I gathered the pieces to throw them into the bin. And then I stopped. I wanted to take in, respectfully, the feeling of loss that surged over me. This mug had been given by my late brother-in-law, Blake. Throwing it away, which in the end I will of course, will have incalculably more meaning than most other acts of disposal. It will mean the loss of one more material connection to someone I once knew, but who has since departed. Continue reading ‘Requiem for a mug’

Let’s see who’s T rex now

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Are we supposed to feel all patriotic and outraged that China seized nine of our armoured troop carriers?

I don’t know anyone who feels that way. I think many in my circle are taking a ringside view with no particular investment in either side’s fight. They may not be typical, but then, the government’s Reach website, which invites comment and discussion on various topics, has only four comments on this matter after five days. None of the comments displayed strong feelings.

In most countries, the defence minister would have bowed his head in disgrace and resigned for losing military equipment through carelessness. But not here. Continue reading ‘Let’s see who’s T rex now’

The loneliness of loving Berg

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A common experience among gay people is that of an adolescence feeling all alone. You know you have certain feelings and interests, but nobody around you displays the same. Nobody you know ever mentions these. Instead, you quite quickly realise that the gossip you overhear, the visual and cinematic representations you encounter every direction you turn, even the well-intentioned questions you get from uncles and aunts, refer to some other romantic interests that you’re supposed to have but do not.

Within a young person’s limited world of school, family and extra-curricular activities, a sense of being alone and of being marginal become central to his identity. Continue reading ‘The loneliness of loving Berg’

Big bank, big government, but the similarity ends there

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At my request, the teller brought the branch manager to see me. I began: “I have no intention to take ‘no’ for an answer.” Then I explained what I was here at the bank for. On behalf of the charity organisation I volunteer at, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), I needed a letter from the bank confirming our bank account number and account name. Continue reading ‘Big bank, big government, but the similarity ends there’

Little red dot must learn to capture infrared

For an island almost smack on the equator, why are solar panels so hard to spot in Singapore? This question struck me as I endured yet another scorching day.

Plenty of intense sunlight, but where are the solar panels?

Plenty of intense sunlight, but where are the solar panels?

March to May are usually the hottest months of the year with temperatures frequently hitting 34 degrees Celsius, sometimes reaching 35 or 36. But a recent report in Today newspaper indicates that the future may be worse. Continue reading ‘Little red dot must learn to capture infrared’

A mixed proportional and SMC electoral system

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While we wait for the general election results this evening, let me plug my ideas for reform of the electoral system. My proposals aim to address these present weaknesses:

One of the biggest bugbears of voters is that in many constituencies, they cannot stomach the idea of voting for one party, yet the alternative available to them in their constituency is nearly as unpalatable. This is the siamese twin to the fear that three-cornered fights are likely to give the advantage to the People’s Action Party. So pro-opposition people clamour for opposition parties to avoid three-cornered fights, but in so doing, it leads to the above, where in some constituencies, voters are faced with lousy choices.  Continue reading ‘A mixed proportional and SMC electoral system’

Don’t smile at me: Culture conflict from immigration

A few doors away from my flat lives a family that hails from Tamil Nadu, India. There’s a man, his wife and two young daughters. He goes to work each day in industrial overalls, and my guess is that he is either an S-Pass or Employment Pass holder working for a process company in the Jurong area. The Mrs is a homemaker.

Their flat faces a common corridor shared by two others, both of which have Chinese-speaking locals staying in them. So from the first month this Indian family moved in, I felt I should go out of my way to be friendly. I never see the Chinese neighbours speak to them, or even greet them; language may be the barrier.

The man — he speaks English — returns my greeting. I can’t say I’ve gotten to know him, we just exchange hellos whenever we pass each other. But over the past year or so, I think I have made enough of an impression that should he ever need some assistance from a neighbour I believe he would feel that he could ask me.

With two young children and a husband coming home with soiled workclothes, the wife has a lot of laundry, and she uses the common corridor to dry them since the hot afternoon sun comes in that way.  I started off doing exactly the same as I practised with her husband: a smile, a hello, as I walk past, but I’m afraid, it has been a ‘culture shock’, perhaps both ways.

More than a year now, and she has never returned my greeting. At first I thought I was wrong to presume she knew any English, so I soon reduced it to a smile, and no words. Surely, that’s universal enough, no? But still she never smiled back. It wasn’t long before I realised that she doesn’t even make eye contact with me. Sometimes she just looks away and pretends to be busy. But more often than not, she scurries back into her flat when she sees me approaching from a distance. Her laundry would be half hung. More wet clothes would still be in the tub. Yet she would interrupt her work and duck quickly into her own doorway on sight of me. At first, I gave her the benefit of doubt: Oh, she needs to get more clothes pegs or that sort of thing, but after several such instances, I tell myself there has to be another reason.

Perhaps my body odour is intolerable, perhaps my smile just looks sick and predatory.

It gradually dawned on me that she was just uncomfortable, for cultural reasons, to be interacting in any way, however innocent, with a male stranger. To exchange greetings would be akin to speaking, and that was a great big no-no.

I was stressing her out by my insistence on being friendly.

Lately, I also began to notice how cultural habits are being passed down. At the beginning, the daughters were too young to play outside the flat, but now they’re a little older, they have tricycles and similar toys that require space and mobility. Occasionally I see them play in the corridor. But now I find that the girls are called in by their mother when I am within sight. The only times when they’re not called in are probably when the mother isn’t aware that I am passing through.

* * * * *

Earlier this year, friends and I (all Singaporeans) spent a weekend in a condo apartment in Kuala Lumpur. It being Chinese New Year, the kitchen was soon full to overflowing with food. As we were not staying for more than a few days and the apartment would be empty when we left, we just had to get rid of all the food, and fast.

One member of our group suggested we give it to the condo security guards.

“No, don’t,” I advised.

“Why not?”

“What we have is not halal,” I reminded him. “The guards look Malay to me. This is Malaysia and the sensitivity threshold is probably lower than in Singapore. We should not risk causing offence.”

* * * * *

I would situate at least the first tale, if not the second, within the larger issue of neighbourliness and integration of new migrants. Much is made of how we should make extra efforts at getting to know our neighbours and making new arrivals feel welcome. There is certainly undeniable value in not being total strangers to people who are next door, though on this topic too, the government’s propaganda machine has made a social good into another toxic commandment, just begging for resistance. But, leaving aside this propaganda contamination, the point that might be worth considering is how even “neighbourliness” comes with cultural assumptions.

What is friendly behaviour in one cultural context is imposition and intrusion in another. The sharing of food, so often used to cement social bonds in certain cultures, not least the Chinese, and so regularly celebrated by American television and films — new arrivals in a neighbourhood are welcomed by showing up at their door, quite often with a pie in hand — can be explosive.

Integration, despite the best of intentions, can be minefield. And a moment’s thought will tell us why: it calls for a modulation of one’s cultural norms in order to accommodate the outsider. There are very few behaviours that have exactly the same meaning in different cultures. If we use our usual behaviour unthinkingly, what may to us be a welcoming gesture may be awfully misinterpreted.

But then it raises the question: If we want to integrate new arrivals in our midst, should it be the new arrivals who should re-organise their cultural habits to “fit in”, or should Singaporeans too change our cultural habits to accommodate them?

Should I persist in greeting and smiling at the wife? Or should I go easy on her and ignore her, the way her culture expects me to behave? It seems to me that the latter would probably be her preferred solution, but would you then accuse me of surrendering Singapore to the foreign hordes?

 

 

Ourselves through Istanbul

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Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn

This spot on planet Earth has been inhabited for well over two thousand years — as Byzantium, Constantinople, then Istanbul — and was a great cosmopolitan capital city for 1,500 of those. Merchants and scholars from all over the then-known world flocked to it.

I can’t say, however, that it is cosmopolitan any more, certainly not by the standards of London, New York, Paris or Sydney today. Or even Singapore. Istanbul has a cultural homogeneity that our more nostalgic romantics might wish we had. Continue reading ‘Ourselves through Istanbul’

Oysters and diamonds

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Income and wealth inequality has become an albatross around many governments’ necks  — Singapore’s included — provoking distrust and resistance to policies.

Meanwhile, readership of the Straits Times is falling. Media academics have pointed out that the Straits Times, in blindly following the direction set by the People’s Action Party government, does the government no favours. Sheepishly echoing government edicts alienates people.  Continue reading ‘Oysters and diamonds’

Culture, lifestyle diseases and the commandant’s room

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Three hours I sat in a police station breathing second-hand smoke. As a small mercy, the officers would slide the windows open by 5 to 10 centimetres every now and then, and the stiff breeze from outside would cut in and dilute the carcinogens somewhat. Better yet was the whoosh of clean bracing air each time the door opened, but unfortunately it wasn’t often enough. There wasn’t much coming and going. Continue reading ‘Culture, lifestyle diseases and the commandant’s room’