Humour, life, Singapore, Writing

Siao ah, leave Shanghai for what?

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Some people say Shanghai is like a dystopia compared to Singapore. But hey, I fuckin’ love it.

So, on the cusp of my 3rd anniversary in Shanghai, I reckoned it was time to do some reflecting.

My opinion of both cities has not changed but my outlook to life certainly has since the moment I set foot in China.

And this was only possible because I forced myself to take a step back to deconstruct everything I once believed in; to reset a life perspective that was molded by my 32 years in Singapore.

Okay, recap. In Singapore, I was an ambitious go-getter, or at least that was what I thought of myself to be. I was eager to be well-known in the tiny industry. I was eager to make lots of money.

I thought that checking emails during holidays meant that I was hardworking. I thought that having to leave a meal to take a fucking con-call was cool. Because busy is good. Because busy means I am constantly striving for progress.

I needed to live life in the fast lane. I looked down on those in the slow lane who were content to stay in their shells. I balked at those who refused to ride the never-ending waves of new trends. I stepped on people’s toes and refused to admit I was wrong.

I chased the Likes on Facebook, the followers on Instagram. Because they buoyed my sense of confidence. Having lots of friends meant having a big network. Having a big network meant more connections.

Connections are very important in life. Because meritocracy is a farce. Knowing famous and influential personalities is a much more efficient and effective way of getting things done. Singaporeans are renowned for our efficiency.

Yes, this modus operandi was correct, I assured myself. It had to be.

But deep down inside, a part of me silently protested this approach. And so I shut it out. Because I needed to be single-minded.

And then somewhere along the way all this toxicity exploded within. Just like how your stomach protests after you consume a whole bunch of stuff that don’t agree with one another, my soul started to lao sai.

It was a sign I needed to get the fuck out of Singapore. You know, detox a little.

I started this blog to track my self. I was intrigued with what living abroad could do to change perceptions of life.

My first year was horrid. You can read more about it in the other blog posts. I was essentially still in Singapore-mode. I was still chasing the same things in life.

But I got to learn one incredibly valuable lesson – that failing is okay, that we needed to just get up, move on and not mull over it. Because life’s too fucking short to be spent wallowing in self-pity.

Year 2 outside of Singapore was when the self started to change noticeably. It was no longer willing to just be a silent bystander. It wanted to be heard. It wanted to denounce those that was not like it.

I developed this desire to stir the pot and as a result learned that people don’t like to lose. I learned that in the midst of an argument, when emotions run amok, your ability to make sense of things gets compromised. I learned that you lose all objectivity when you go Hulk-mode. I learned that you end up trying to assassinate the other person’s character instead of clearly articulating your point of view.

I don’t apologise for my view that athletes are obliged to talk to the media. I still believe they are. But I guess I could’ve been more articulate and clear that it was MY stance, not the IOC’s.

I do apologise for being condescending to those who didn’t agree.

I know I only managed to learn all these things because I was not busy chasing fame and fortune.

Year 3 started with a life-changing trip to the Tibetan plateau. It showed me that we don’t actually need much to live, that simplicity was the key to happiness.

You know, it was actually bloody ironic – it took a luxury camping trip for me to realise I don’t need luxury.

I sought to declutter my life after that holiday. I began to see things for what they really are. I started to view us humans as a bowl of boring noodles that’s desperate to be filled with ingredients so that we look and taste better. Pork lard. Chives. Meatballs. Mushrooms. Lettuce. Fishcake. Vinegar. Chili.

Ok, yes, I’m describing bak chor me.

Anyway, I learned that there’s nothing wrong with plain noodles. What’s the point of having all these tasty ingredients if the noodles taste like rubber?

I learned to ignore so-called added value. A bag is just a storage tool. Clothing is just a means to cover up your body. A $20 bag from the pasar malam does the same job as a $20,000 one designed by some fashion icon. A $20 pair of denims from a Chinese retailer on Taobao covers your legs the same way a $400 pair does.

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Sometimes simple is just more charming.

We willingly pay so much more for well-known brands because we associate it self-worth and identity. Okay, fine, sometimes we spend more because of aesthetics. But let’s not kid ourselves. We’re really not that discerning.

I also learned that social media is not an extension of the self, but a projection of what we think we want others to think of us. I once asked a friend, “So, why did you like this particular post. Do you think she did a great job with the project? She sure got a lot of likes.”

The friend replied, “Actually, I don’t know what the project is about. I just liked it.”

Yes, that’s how many of us operate. We sometimes click on “Like” or “Heart” or “LMAO face” not because we actually appreciate the content. We do so because we like the person. Because we admire the person. Because we aspire to be like them. Because deep within the darkest recesses of the mind we secretly wanna fuck some of them.

So, yes, meritocracy is a farce. But I no longer attempt to convince myself that this is the way to approach things.

I only have 679 friends on Facebook. I can’t be bothered to add more. I’m more interested in surrounding myself with like-minded people and growing the way I wanna grow.

I JUST WANNA BE MEE POK.

The people I met on the Tibet Plateau also showed me that everything in life is relative. The American dude who gets paid a paltry stipend every month loves being there even though he can make a shitload of money back home – he’s an MIT graduate.

There is a Chinese phrase that goes 不同人,不同命, which literally means “different person, different life.” The way I comprehend this is that everything is relative and there is no point constantly comparing ourselves to others.

I once met a Yunnan farmer who on a good year earns $2,000. Some new graduates in Singapore earn that in a month. Top footballers earn £200,000 in a week.

Does the farmer deserve to earn more because he has to work in harsh conditions? Or does a footballer deserve that pay because he’s so good with balls? How to compare? You can’t.

Yup, what the fuck. 不同人,不同命. Just move on.

China has been an amazing learning experience. Apart from whatever I have mentioned, it has taught me that everyone behaves the way they do because of their culture, their society, the things that surround them.

China has a bad rep for copying. But copying is not entirely frowned upon here. I learned that those who copied, improved the original product and succeeded were revered. That’s just how it works. There’s a particular Chinese brand that many people like to say is an Apple copycat. Well look how well they’re doing.

Chinese people love to treat their VIPs to massive dinners. Yes, this results in crazy food wastage, but this to them is the definition of good hospitality. I suppose in light of the state of the planet we should be encouraging them to cut down on wastage. But we should in no certain terms chide them for their way of life.

Because I believe there’s no right and wrong. Because like a friend recently said, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

I suppose one of the most important things I have learned since being in China is that we need to strip away all the layers of bias when dealing with others. Just because the person is mainland Chinese doesn’t mean he is uncouth. Oh come on, we Singaporeans aren’t exactly angels. Look at what we’ve done to damn Ofo bikes.

We need to view people for who they are – as humans. Not as gays or lesbians or Chinese or Malay or hipsters or believers of The Flying Spaghetti Monster. I’m all for equality, which is why the decision to barricade Hong Lim Park during Pink Dot upset me.

Seriously, after all that talk about making Singapore a more inclusive and empathetic place we go ahead and do this? It’s like wearing a condom over a condom. Kanina, no feeling liao lah.

So, no. I can’t to return Singapore yet. Because I know the vacuum will mold me and turn me into that person I don’t want to be. But why can’t I maintain this state of mind and be in Singapore?

I guess I’m just not ready.

By the way, I just extended my contract by another year.

 

Pen to paper,
the deal is done.
I might be a pauper,
but damn, I’m having fun.

 

 

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Short Stories, Singapore, Writing

Smoking kills

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The one thing from my childhood I remember the best is the smells.

In the mornings, the scent of freshly baked bread from the confectionery store across the road would assail my nose when I was waiting for the school bus. In the afternoons, it was the smell of food from the hawker center, in particular, the sweet scent of fried carrot cake, the kind doused with a saccharine black sauce.

At another corner of the neighbourhood it was the aroma of spices that came from a shop selling flaky, triangular curry puffs. In the evenings, the neighbourhood was always filled with the smell of home-cooked food and burning joss sticks.

Every day around the time my favourite Aksi Mat Yoyo variety show was screened, Grandpa would plant three joss sticks in this bronze container that hung outside the window of the living room. I was always fascinated with this container – it looked as if two mythical creatures were attempting to charge out on either ends before its heads were fossilised by a sudden downpour of rapidly cooling lava.

When Grandpa was done with this, he would plant more joss sticks into another container in the cabinet above the television that also housed some sort of deity. Then, without fail, I would hear him light up a cigarette in his room. Around this time, Grandma would be nearly done with her cooking. We would know because she always yelled for Grandpa to set the table.

The tantalising scent of sesame oil, the aromatic but pungent smell of sambal belachan, the dense and slightly acrid smell of incense and the strangely comforting odour of cigarette smoke would then begin their dance, each twirling around one another as they vied for my attention.

I learned to associate this smorgasbord of smells with happiness. It meant that the day was winding down. It meant that night was about to fall. And all the fun things usually happened at night, like the free mobile clinic that my Grandparents used to take me to all the time. I used to suffer from asthma.

I found great joy in stomping on the narrow metal steps that led up to the entrance of the white medical trailer, as if I was adding drum beats to the droning buzz of the nearby diesel generator. Inside, I revelled at the sight of the countless medication bottles that came in all sorts of colours.

I also found the smell of medication very calming. It made me feel safe. It made me feel that everything was going to be alright. Well, at least that was what Grandma kept telling me.

“Sir, are you still smoking in the house?” asked the doctor, a diminutive Chinese man who had spectacles so large and thick it seemed like he was wearing goggles.

“I know you are. I can smell it from here,” he continued, without looking at Grandpa.

The doctor’s eyes were magnified by the lenses, which reminded me of those weird mirrors I’d come across at the monthly fun fair in the open field. I giggled to myself but ended up in a coughing fit.

“Second-hand smoke is not good for your grandchild, especially since he has asthma,” said the doctor, who was busy scribbling words onto a small white card.

Grandpa did not say a word. He just nodded.

“And you should quit. Smoking kills, you know?”

Grandpa and I left the trailer shortly after with a small plastic bag containing a bottle of cough syrup and slender tubes of black liquid made from medicinal herbs. On the way home, we bumped into Grandma, who had just finished perming her hair at the salon two streets down. She looked like Ronald McDonald, though I never did dare to tell her that.

“So what did the doctor say?” asked Grandma.

“Take the medicine on time. Quit smoking.”

“Not like you’re ever going to quit.”

He just shrugged his shoulders.

Grandpa was a man of few words. My interactions with him were generally non-verbal. I liked it when he lifted me up from behind and placed my two feet onto his before walking around the house. I felt like I was character from Exosquad and he was my exo-skeleton. Together, we were invincible. He also liked to pass me phone cards that could be used at pay phones, knowing how I was utterly fascinated by his massive collection, stored on the shelves hidden behind the mirror at the dressing table.

Once every few days, I’d swing open this mirror and take these cards out to admire all the different designs. I would also pull a cigarette out from his golden packet of Dunhill Red and run it along my nose.

I loved the sweet seductive scent of tobacco. This was my favourite smell during my childhood.

“Can I try one, Grandpa?” I said.

“No. You’re too young.”

I hated the answer. I didn’t understand why people had to be of a certain age before they could do things. It was silly. I was desperate to grow up and be an adult.

“The doctor said that smoking kills, is that true?” I asked.

“I’m still alive, right?” he sniggered.

I guess that made sense. After all, things only died after they were hit on the head with a slipper, like cockroaches and wasps. No one in the Ninja Turtles ever died. Not the heroes in a hard shell. Not the bad guys like Shredder and Krang. It was the same for He-Man. And Tom and Jerry. And Mighty Mouse. I suppose people just get bruised. Only insects died. I’m not an insect. And neither is Grandpa.

One day when Grandpa went across the road to buy TOTO and 4D, I revisited his collection of phone cards. I laid them on the bed in a 10 by 10 square and stood back to admire the grandeur of the scene. I then took a cigarette and placed it between my lips. Then I struck the matchstick against the dark brown side of the box. Nothing happened. I struck it again, creating tiny sparks that looked like how the National Day fireworks would during the last few seconds of the show. The third strike produced a flame.

As the end of the cigarette started smouldering, I held the stick just like how Grandpa normally would, with the tips of his thumb and the “rude” finger, and sucked on it. The taste in my mouth was nothing like the smell I was used to. It made me cough and retch.

“Ah boy, why are you coughing again ah? I told you not to drink cold drinks, right?” said Grandma as she walked into the room

Yao mou kao chor ah?!” she shrieked.

I didn’t know if she was mad at me for messing up her bed or being topless (it was a really hot day). But I had never seen her so mad before.

She snatched the cigarette from me, left the room and returned within just a few seconds, with a cane in hand. That was the day I found out that smoking came with painful consequences.

But despite the searing sensation on my arms and legs, I lived. Just like all my favourite cartoon characters, I survived. Just like them, I had bruises to show for my exploits. I was still alive.

Grandpa was right. Smoking doesn’t kill.

But boy oh boy, I reckon Grandma could.

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Short Stories, Singapore, Writing

Mr. Samy the barber

 

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Between the ages of one and five, I spent the weekdays at my grandparents’ public housing flat in Eunos Crescent.

There was a barber shop across the road called Bugs Bunny that grandma and grandpa would take me to once every few weeks. The place just smelled like talcum powder. Lots and lots of powder. I thought that must be the reason why most of my friends hated having their hair cut.

I didn’t really fancy Bugs Bunny. In fact, I hated carrots. But I enjoyed my haircuts.

Because the barber named Mr. Samy would always put up a show.

Near the end of every haircut, he would dip a small but stout brush into a cup of water before dabbing my sideburns with it. The experience was always somewhat unnerving. The water was always slightly cold. It always made my hair stand. It always made me cringe.

I hated that feeling. But I always told myself to bear with it because the performance was up next.

Mr. Samy would then swing the razor blade around like those villains from Hong Kong movies. He would do so exactly three times. The sound of the blade entering and exiting its sheath was like a drumroll indicating the imminent arrival of the pièce de résistance. I loved it. I lapped it all up.

His face bore no expression when he swept the blade across his palms. Left, right, left, right, left, left, right, right. It was always in this order. He would then plant the thumb of his left hand firmly onto the side of my head before the cool blade worked its way down. The noise of hair getting displaced sounded like trees growing, their branches slowly fanning out in all directions before the trunk suddenly shot toward the sky.

Mr. Samy never once bled from this outrageous feat. He reminded me of the triceratops, one of my favourite dinosaurs, which I learned from cartoons had incredibly tough skin. I wondered what type of skin I had.

One day, I decided to find out. While grandma was chatting with Mr. Samy, I got off the chair and sneakily opened the drawer in front of me. I turned around as I reached for the razor blade, checking to see if the two adults were looking. They weren’t. I remember grandma complaining about the new price of the haircut and how Mr. Samy just laughed.

I seized the opportunity and ran the cold blade down my palm, and it made me wonder if it was a magical blade that only Mr. Samy could wield. I watched with intrigue as the flesh parted and blood oozed out. It looked exactly like how the paste within my favourite red bean bun would flow out when I tore it in half.

By the time Mr. Samy and my grandma realised what had happened, the blood was already dripping onto the floor. One drop fell onto the pristine white school shoe on my left feet as the barber frantically stuck a wad of tissue paper over the wound. A dull ache echoed through my palm as he applied pressure. My grandma was now squatting on the pale green ceramic floor as she wiped the blood off the surface. When the bleeding stopped, Mr. Samy took a plaster out from the wooden cabinet at the back of shop and handed it to grandma.

Five minutes later, it was business as usual. Grandma stuck the huge plaster on my palm as I sucked on a grape-flavoured Hacks sweet that Mr. Samy had given me, probably in an attempt to prevent me from crying.

But I was never going to cry. I was jealous.

“Tell me, why do you not bleed?” I said.

“It’s a secret. You’ll understand when you’re older,” replied Mr. Samy.

 

The next day, I found grandpa outside the toilet in the kitchen, applying a layer of white paint to the stained school shoe. He patted my head as I stood beside him and took in the second hand smoke from his Dunhill Reds.

He was meticulous about the application of the white paint, rotating the shoe in every possible direction to ensure that every part was evenly coated. When he had used up the final drop of paint from the bottle, he carefully ran a shoelace through just two holes in each shoe and tied a knot with the two ends before hanging them on the laundry pole.

I wondered if a wind would blow the shoes twelve stories down. I wondered if the wet paint would drip and splatter on someone’s face, and how that someone might think he just got hit by bird poop. I giggled to myself.

“I heard from Mama you cut yourself with Mr. Samy’s razor last night,” he said, passing the empty bottle to me and pointing to the rubbish bin.

I nodded.

“Did it hurt?” said grandpa as he tapped the end of his cigarette into a tin can that used to contain luncheon meat.

“Just a little.”

“Well now you know not to do it again, right?”

I nodded. I looked at my palm. The plaster that was around it had already started to lose its grip. I cautiously peeled it off to see the wound. It tickled more than it hurt. Grandpa gently took my hand and examined the wound before sticking the plaster back on.

“Don’t take it off yet. Keep it covered. The plaster keeps bad things away,” he said.

I wanted to ask him what he meant exactly, but a sound from the living room interrupted my train of thought. I smiled and took off. The next episode of He-Man had started.

I loved that cartoon so much I always demanded for a new action figure whenever my parents brought me out during the weekends. The only one I didn’t get was Sheila.

Girls were just irritating. And she wore a snake over her head. I hated snakes and everything that resembled one. Lizards were gross too.

I would often act out scenes from the cartoon and pretend to be He-Man. My sword was a roll of cellophane paper and my uncle’s bolster would be Skeletor. I liked to pretend that I was losing the fight before yelling “By the power of Greyskull, I have the power!” and turning the tide of the battle.

Saying that line made me feel as if I was indestructible like He-Man, a hero that will never bleed.

And then it struck me, Mr. Samy was He-Man.

A few weeks later when it was time for my haircut again, I sprinted to the barbershop and left my grandpa trailing behind. I wanted to tell Mr. Samy that I didn’t need to grow that much older to discover his secret.

But Mr. Samy was not there. I wondered if he was out fighting Skeletor and saving the universe. Or was he on a date with Sheila? Why he would find her pretty was really beyond me.

I noticed that Grandpa looked distressed while talking to the other man in the shop, sighing and shaking his head every few seconds. He then carried me onto the barber chair.

“Mr. Yazid will cut your hair today, okay?” said Grandpa.

“But I only want Mr. Samy. Where is he?”

Grandpa and Mr. Yazid looked at me, then looked at each other.

“Something very bad has happened to Mr. Samy so he needs to see the doctor. I will cut your hair today, okay? I’ll make you very handsome,” said Mr. Yazid.

Dejected, I slunk back into my seat and let the barber do his work. There was no performance this time around. The water that he used to dab my sideburns felt icy cold and the blade he used felt coarse against my skin.

When grandpa was paying the barber, I opened the wooden cabinet at the back of the shop and grabbed a bunch of plasters. Before I left, I tugged at Mr. Yazid’s khaki pants and passed them to him.

“Oh. Thank you. But why do I need them?” said Mr. Yazid.

“It’s not for you. Can you give them to Mr. Samy? My grandfather said that plasters keep bad things away.”

I never saw Mr. Samy again.

I always thought He-Man could never be defeated.

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life, Singapore

Simi sai ma bo hiew liao (什么大便都不管了)

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Safety rope? Fuck that. And fuck this fucking stain on the fucking window.

 

I often think of time as a sandstorm, within which the countless grains of sand pelt us and slowly but surely pare the prevailing layer of beliefs.

It’s only been 2.5 years since I moved to Shanghai, but I reckon quite a few layers have already been exfoliated. I sometimes cringe when I look back at the Alywin of the past. It’s now hard to imagine how I used to have those beliefs and ambitions.

I’m in a happy place at the moment. And I’m not referring to the physical space.

Why am I happy? Because I’ve learnt, in the wise words of Mark Manson, the subtle art of not giving a fuck. I suppose the hokkien title to this blog post is a rough translation of that.

Before I left Singapore, I gave one too many fucks. About everything that had to do with money and success.

I was obsessed about drawing a five-figure salary as if my true self worth depended on it.

“Wah lan, zhun boh? 30 years old still drawing a pathetic $4,000 a month? Loser leh…Did you hear about our course mate from Ngee Ann who drew more than 10 grand when she was just 28?”

I was obsessed about holding a lofty title that would befit not my true abilities, but age.

“Hahaha! You haven’t even made managing editor by 32? What a sloth!”

I was obsessed with who I was in relation to my peers.

“Did you hear about our course mate from Ngee Ann who is already the managing director of her company? Geez I bet she had to suck a lot of cocks to get there!”

Looking back, that wasn’t healthy. Nope.

When you keep a constant tab on others, you lose sight of yourself.

The problem with me back then was that I couldn’t decipher between how much I desired versus how much I actually needed. Because, well, it was never really about the latter.

It was a case of self worth being pegged to my salary and to the salaries and achievements of people around me.

This was something I continued to struggle with during the acclimatisation phase in Shanghai, until I realised that I didn’t need all that much to be happy.

Because I stopped giving a fuck about everyone except myself.

I discovered that happiness had in a way stemmed from isolating oneself.

It was a fucking ironic twist. I used to be adamant that one needed to always be aware of the competition around him in order to excel in life. I despised hermits who lacked a world view. People who go about life with blinkers annoyed the shit outta me. And because of this I sought to stay ahead of the curve. Be in-tune with the latest trends. Maintain a constant high and enthusiasm for breaking new frontiers. If that hamster in the cage beside me was sprinting, I’d run so fast the fucking wheel would fall off.

This whole thing about money and success is contextual, and the thing with context is that you can choose to be in or out of the fucking box. I chose to step away from the maddening crowd and just disappear.

I chose to just fuck it all.

Earlier this year, I posted what some have described as “inflammatory” stuff about Singaporeans on this blog. I expressed my disgust with the myopia that’s seemingly gone pandemic on the island I used to call home. I got my fair share of criticism. I got flamed.

But that’s not why I haven’t blogged for some time.

It’s because I decided to fuck it all.

Fuck the trolls. Fuck those who are myopic. Fuck those who insist that you see things from their point of view.

Kanina, simi sai ma bo hiew liao.

Maybe it had to do with those trips to the remote recesses of China where I got a chance to experience how invigorating simplicity can be. Maybe it was all those features I wrote about inspiring people who had given up everything to help others. Or maybe it was just the result of the sands of time having scraped off that very last bit of beliefs from when I was still in Singapore. Maybe it’s a combination of all these things.

I realised that I was, by my own standards, writing some pretty solid stuff. I now have more time to spend doing things I love. I’m not constantly worried about not having enough money at the end of the month to pay the bills. I seriously enjoy just sitting next to my dog and watching it go crazy with her tennis ball.

Life is good. And I’m not even earning as much as before (well the fact that life in Shanghai is a little more affordable helps too). Evidently a big fat pay check has little to do with happiness.

I believe I’ve completely shed that old skin.

During dinner with one of my friends a couple of months ago, he told me about how his peers made him feel poor. Mind you, this is someone who’s drawing that coveted five-figure monthly salary and still complaining about feeling inferior. This is also someone who stands a chance of getting a SIX-FIGURE payout if he stays at his company for a certain period of time.

The Alywin of the past would’ve been envious and angry at the same time.

“Kanina lah! Earn so much still complain! You trying to rub it in right, you chao cheebai?”

Today, I find myself cringing and muttering under my breath:

“Siao, need so much money kum lan?” 

Just months ago I was fuming about how much KOLs stand to earn. And how undeserving they are of it.

“$30,000 for ONE SINGLE FUCKING SOCIAL MEDIA POST? JESUS CHRIST WHAT IS THE WORLD COMING TO? TALENTLESS FUCKERS!”

Right now, I say fuck it. Fuck them. Fuck envy. Just fucking concentrating on yourself.

So what if they can earn that much money? Think about it – so what? Does it actually affect you?

Admittedly, we can’t do without money. Everything in life requires money. I once wondered if we could live a day without spending a single cent. I came to the conclusion that it’s impossible. You might think this is achievable simply by cooping yourself at home and surviving on what you have, but no.

You see, the moment you turn on that tap, every drop of water costs. That toilet flush costs. Turning on the air-conditioner costs. Turning on the television costs. Having broadband costs. Yes, money’s not departing your wallet immediately, but you’re going to have to pay for all of this in a few weeks.

My favourite buzzword these days is balance.

We all need to find that equilibrium between our actual needs and our desires. I have over the past year figured out that I can comfortably save around xxxx every month (unless there are big purchases that need to be made) even with my current pay.

Fuck me, I don’t actually need a five-figure salary.

Sure, earning big money would result in a much fatter savings account, but if I have to sacrifice time with my dog or time doing things I really wanna be doing, then fuck that.

Because it’s just not a worthwhile trade-off. Because it means being less happy or perhaps even unhappy. What the fuck for?

However, it is also imperative that we maintain a balance when it comes to “fucking it all” and “giving a fuck”, too. It’s important to be worldly. But it’s also important to not give too many fucks.

As much as I don’t wanna give a fuck now, I also want to give a fuck. I know, it’s a fucking paradox.

I’ll be embarking on a fundraising project soon. Because I want to help someone lead a better life.

Because all this not giving a fuck has given me a clarity of mind about what I really wanna give a fuck about.

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Singapore

Home di toh loh?

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Inca the furkid gave me her most disapproving stare when I was talking to the missus last night about when I should fly to Singapore for the Lunar New Year.

“Wah lao, but if I go back with you on Jan 21 that means I have one entire week of doing absolutely nothing,” I lamented (The missus is heading back a week earlier to work from the Singapore office).

Well, not exactly. I’ll probably be stuffing my face silly with hawker food around the island, contemplating about whether I should brave the queue to try that Michelin-starred soya sauce chicken and catching up with friends over lots of beers. Well, kopitiam beers, to be exact – the rest are too expensive.

“Do you want to use up so much of your leave?” replied the missus.

I only have 10 days of annual leave. Yes, I work for China company. I’m on local terms, not expat terms.

“Well, I just have to take 5 days I guess. That leaves me with another 5 till July,” I said.

Inca squinted at me menacingly, as if saying “You goddamn humans are leaving me behind again? And during winter??”

To be honest, I can’t bear to leave Inca behind.

To be honest, I’m not entirely looking forward to heading “home”.

I’ve got to buy an air ticket that’ll cost me close to a grand. I have to spend money to stay in a hotel because my home in Singapore is being rented out. I have to spend considerably more on food, drinks and transport (hello midnight surcharge!). I have to send my furkid for “boarding school” at the vet in Shanghai. And I have to give ang baos.

The kind of money I’ll be spending on this one trip along is enough to take me on a nice holiday somewhere else in the world.

But I told the missus that we are going back. For sure. No question about it.

Because I believe it is important for family to get together during Chinese New Year. If it’s one good thing I’ve learned from my time in China, it’s that tradition matters.

No, it’s not because Singapore is “home”.

I mean, what is home?

I’ve never considered the premise of home to be the place where one is born. Or where one grew up. Or where one spent most of his life in.

It irritates me when people judge me and say, “You better come back to Singapore at the end of the day hor. You are a Singaporean leh. Singapore is home.”

A fellow compatriot who left Shanghai earlier this year is hating life back in Singapore. Because of the same reasons that drove me to leave. He wants to migrate somewhere else. Probably London or Australia.

An Iraqi ex-colleague who now lives in the Netherlands shared with me that he’ll never return to Iraq even though he was born there.

A German friend who has been living in Sydney for many years still considers Germany home. Because his family and closest friends are there. Not because he was born there.

Physical space, evidently, has no bearing on the definition of home.

We recently came back from a week-long glamping trip to Norden Camp in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu province. The camp we stayed at was manned almost entirely by Tibetan nomads.

I was very intrigued to find out more their lifestyle and what it meant to be on the move throughout the year. But what captivated me more were the foreign employees of the camp.

In a nutshell, local nomads move about the Tibetan Plateau every season in order to allow the pastures that their animals are currently grazing to regenerate. Most of them have never left the country, so i wouldn’t expect them to know any other place as home.

The foreigners, however, seem even more nomadic.

Bill, the American dude from Seattle who took us on a hike up the nearby hill (wah lan eh, hiking at 3,200m above sea level is sibei xiong) is one interesting character.

An MIT graduate who used to play pro basketball for a bunch of clubs in Europe and Latin America, he’s now helping out with the operations at Norden Camp and at Norlha, a textile workshop in Zorge Ritoma. He’s also helping train the team of basketballers from Norlha. He told us that he comes from a military family – his grandfather used to command a freaking fleet of nuclear subs and his father was a fighter jet pilot.

Why would he then want to travel the world to play and coach basketball?

New perspectives. An experience that money can’t buy.

Another American at the camp, chef Andy, has made his rounds around the globe as well. After working at Aman Resorts in Bhutan, he took a break and spent a few months in Vietnam before joining Norden in 2014.

He hardly ever has a permanent home. When he was working in Bhutan, he would stay in the hotel rooms. At Norden, he would at times stay in the cabins during low season. If the camp was full, he’d move to another camp site about 20 minutes away. When the camp closes during the winter, he returns to Florida to care for his ageing parents.

He appears to like this lifestyle.

I had a quick chat with him a day before he flew back to the States. I asked if he had much to pack and he simply went: “Well, just two bags. All clothes, actually. I’ve learned not to have too many things on hand.”

“You’re a nomad yourself,” I chuckled.

“Yeah, I guess I am,” he laughed.

It got me thinking. Are we born to be nomads?  After all, humans do have the proclivity to migrate. It’s survival instinct.

Of course, I didn’t leave Singapore for Shanghai because my life was in danger. It was my mind leading the way. It needed to feel alive. It needed to be free of the bubble. It needed to survive.

 

Two years ago, the plan was to return to Singapore after three, maybe four years in Shanghai. You know, grab some overseas working experience and GTFO of here. Shanghai was but a stepping stone to future career progression back in Singapore.

Now, it’s a completely different story. My wife and I have realized that we don’t need to return to Singapore.

Why? Because my furkid is here. Because we are both comfortable and happy here. Because most of our good friends from Singapore are here.

Home, to me, is a transient thing. It changes constantly, according to your ideals, your goals, your state of mind.

Will Shanghai still be home in a couple of years? Maybe not. I don’t know. She doesn’t know. Nobody knows.

For now, we’ll probably return to Singapore if we have a kid. For all the pragmatic reasons. Education. Safer milk powder. The ability to dump the kid at his or her grandparents’ homes.

Not because we were born in Singapore.

 

Of course, some would criticise us for biting the hand that fed us. Well, we didn’t ask to be born in Singapore. Don’t get me wrong, I am indeed grateful of my birth right. This is something that I discovered when interviewing a fellow Singaporean who gave up everything to work for an NGO in Cambodia where the living conditions aren’t great.

Like she said, we Singaporeans are privileged as compared to millions of others in the world, simply because of our birth right. The Singapore passport, as most people already know, is sibei tok kong. We get visa-free access to about 170 countries around the world.

Singapore is safe. It’s clean. It’s got good infrastructure (not referring to you MRT). It’s got a stable government. It’s got kickass hawker food.

But all these factors aren’t necessarily that important to everyone. Not everyone needs home to be clean, safe and well-tuned.

Yes, I was born in Singapore. Yes, I am a Singaporean. But no, Singapore is not necessarily my home.

Home is where the things that mean most to you are.

So, where is home for you?

 

 

 

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journalism, Singapore

Keep quah-iet, lah.

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A friend messaged me last night asking: “Did you read that shit article by Leonard Thomas about Quah Zheng Wen?”

“Yes. And I don’t think it’s shit,” I replied.

“Dude, the guy is 19. He had a bad showing,” retorted the friend.

“So?”

I understand why my friend would feel this way. He is no journalist. He doesn’t know how things work.

I understand how the most obvious person to sympathise with in this scenario is the seemingly downcast athlete who just had a bad day in the pool, instead of the seemingly self-entitled journalist who demanded an interview.

But you see, that’s not how things work. It’s also not an accurate representation of the situation.

By the way, for the record, I used to work for Leonard.

The guy knows his stuff. He’s been around for aeons. He’s not a noob. And he is nothing like what people are painting him to be.

Because I know him. Because like any self-respecting journalist, I try to know two sides of the fucking story.

If you care to hear the other side of things, here it is.

I’m just going to be blunt — athletes are OBLIGED to speak to the media in the Mixed Zone, the place they enter right after completing their sporting events, and where journalists are gathered.

Yes, Leonard and Quah were in this particular zone.

If Leonard had been lurking outside Quah’s shower area with a tape recorder in hand, sure, the swimmer could very well turn down the interview. And perhaps even throw in a right hook for good measure.

If Leonard was loitering outside the athletes’ village or other inappropriate venues, waiting to pounce on Quah, he cannot possibly expect to be granted an interview either.

But there he was, in an official zone dedicated to media engagement. Like all the other journalists who were just there, Leonard just wanted to do his job.

We journalists don’t expect athletes at the Mixed Zone to give us fantastic quotes. We don’t ask for athletes to smile and act friendly. We don’t expect them to tell us their entire life story.

We just need a few minutes of their time. Really. Five minutes is a steal. Three minutes is good. Two minutes is okay.

We’re just there to do our job, which is to report the facts.

Hence, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that professional athletes do theirs as well, and this means talking to the media who have traveled all the way from Singapore to cover them.

I read some comments about how these events are like free holidays for journalists. They think it’s fun but it’s actually bloody exhausting.

I’ve been to the World Cup in South Africa. I’ve been to the Asian Games in Incheon. While it’s exciting to be in the midst of all the action, we are there to work.

Traveling to a destination often takes up quite a bit of time in major cities. Journalists are often rushing from one destination to the other, struggling to type their stories or file their photos on wonky laptops in a media shuttle bus.

We have daily deadlines to meet. We have writer’s blocks to jump over. We have sleep deprivation. We have mild caffeine poisoning. We have an editor on the other line who is constantly yelling, “WHERE THE FUCK IS YOUR FUCKING STORY?”

We don’t travel all the way to a sporting venue to camp at the Mixed Zone just to say shit to athletes. OUR athletes.

Hell, the fact we are even there to cover them in action shows our support.

I don’t know why the media liaison person did not intervene and get Quah to talk to the print media for at least 60 seconds. Maybe this person was not around. Maybe Quah was indeed trying to shun the print media. Maybe Quah was not provided with media training and simply didn’t know he had to hang around. Maybe Quah was just sian and wanted to get some rest as soon as possible.

This doesn’t change the fact that he is obliged to speak to the media.

This does not just apply to the Olympics. Professionals athletes in all sorts of sports around the world also have an obligation to do so. Yes, it is part of their job scope. This is what they signed up for.

I’m going to say it again: this is their JOB.

Look, would you saunter into the office on a weekday, three hours late, simply because you had too much to drink the night before?

No. Because there’s a code of professional conduct to adhere to.

But of course, most people who aren’t sports journalists or who have never covered a major sporting event will never know this. Just like how I don’t know how people at The Independent or Mothership can sleep soundly at night knowing that they’re constantly producing banal content on a sorry excuse of an “alternative news source”.

I wasn’t surprised that these two sites decided to stir shit. I reckon that’s the best they can do. After all, it’s not like they could send journalists to the Olympics.

Because they have no journalists.

What surprised me is that even Mr. Brown jumped on the bandwagon. Naturally, this meant the issue blew up on the Internet. You know, because he’s a Key Opinion Leader.

If you think jumping on the bandwagon to flame Leonard equates to support for a national athlete, and hence patriotism, you need help.

You have myopia. A very serious case of it.

Saying that Quah doesn’t owe the media anything (in the context of the mixed zone) simply because he’s a national athlete who has “given his all for the country” is like saying our ministers should not be paying tax and should be immune to any form of persecution because they are responsible for the stability of the nation.

Fine logic you have there. Our forefathers would be so proud.

Now you know the circumstances of this incident. Still, it’s okay to think that Leonard or all journalists should leave athletes alone. Because you are entitled to your opinions. We can have a civil discussion about whether athletes need to be protected from the media and the measures that can be taken.

But when you assassinate this journalist’s character, call him names, plaster his mugshot all over social media and insult all sports journalists in general, you are crossing the fucking line.

It’s funny how this incident is taking place during the week of Singapore’s birthday. I won’t be surprised if those insulting Leonard are the same people who have been declaring their undying love for Singapore on their Facebook pages.

These are people who think they are being all patriotic by jumping to the defence of a national athlete, the apparent embodiment of a nation’s values and grit.

But they are not.

They are simply blind mules in a very large herd of blind mules.

Heading toward the edge of a cliff.

These are the people who one moment cite Singapore’s multiculturalism and racial harmony as their greatest source of national pride, yet on the other call Leonard “fat”, “dimwit”, “idiotic” and “bastard” for expressing his personal opinions.

The articles Leonard wrote were more like commentaries instead of conventional news stories. You would know what the difference is if you read the papers often enough.

In a commentary, you express your own point of view. You are given the license to do so. But perhaps those who only know how to blindly agree with an ill-informed consensus and jump onto bandwagons would have trouble understanding the concept of self expression.

These people are hypocrites, the most dangerous breed of parasites who will be the first to tear apart the fragile fabric of social harmony.

Perhaps they should just stick to playing Pokemon Go.

So, to all those people out there shaming Leonard for doing his job. Come, let me clap for you.

You have just made Singapore’s 51st birthday even more remarkable.

Because it must’ve been utterly difficult for a country to stay in existence for this long with citizens like you.

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Humour, Singapore

Ah nia, Singlish not cool, meh?

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No, this is not Singlish. It’s just bad English. Got difference, okay?

 

The press secretary to our prime minister has been receiving quite a bit of flak on social media for her rebuttal of Gwee Li Sui’s op-ed in the New York Times, and I can understand why.

Yes, I agree that being able to speak good English is essential in the world today. But instead of discouraging or eradicating the use of Singlish, we need to be teaching people when it is appropriate to use it.

Singlish and English are separate entities altogether. The only way speaking Singlish is going to diminish one’s proficiency in English is when the person doesn’t actually know what proper English is.

I don’t think Gwee Li Sui was attempting to undermine the government’s efforts in promoting the use of “proper English”. He simply made some very valid points about how we have in recent years started to embrace this creole once more.

The need to issue a rebuttal – and from the press secretary, no less –  seems to indicate that some of us Singaporeans don’t handle criticism too well, and are, dare I say, just too adept at sanitizing everything.

I recently went on a work trip to Suzhou. To be honest, I was not looking forward to the four-day assignment, primarily because I knew it revolved around interviewing people in the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP). After all, the words “industrial park” certainly don’t evoke much excitement.

My first interviewee was (surprise, surprise!) a Singaporean from the National University of Singapore Suzhou Research Institute (NUSRI).

“Hello, ka ki lang (own people),” I said while shaking hands with him.

“Oh! Fellow Singaporean!” he replied, with a huge smile.

Singlish. A most effective icebreaker.

We had a great time chatting about the institute, its initiatives and upcoming programmes, how it attracts Singapore start-ups to set up shop in SIP, and what life in Suzhou is generally like.

 

I spent my second night in Suzhou in a rustic tea house where I watched a Kunqu Opera performance. Again, I was initially underwhelmed because I was really tired and had no interest in opera.

But boy was I glad to have experienced this.

The performer, Lui Chengfang, is somewhat of a cult figure in the city, primarily because of her infotainment style of opera. You see, she doesn’t just perform opera – she teaches the audience about the art form and Chinese culture at the same time. It also helps that she is painfully funny.

I have never liked history lessons, mainly because back in secondary school this subject was all about memorising key dates in history and whatever happened during those particular days. I have the memory of a goldfish and am utterly absent minded. Sometimes I leave home wondering if I remembered to put on my underwear.

But there I was, completely spellbound by the performance and the history of Chinese culture. I have never understood why so many Westerners can be so besotted with Chinese culture that they would leave their countries to settle in China. I think I finally understood why on this day. (I do think yellow fever is a factor to some people as well, ha)

On the third night, I had to attend one of those typical banquet-style dinners with some government officials and my other colleagues from Beijing. I was dying for a tipple after an entire day of running around, but was somewhat dismayed at the amount of red wine each person was served (two tiny pitchers that didn’t amount to a regular wine glass).

As expected, there was a lot of drinking. The top government guy would go around toasting all the journos while the editor would later go around toasting all the officials. Then the reporters would have to do the same. It was a merry-go-round and we should’ve been utterly smashed by the time this round robin was done. But we weren’t.

Because these people were toasting one another with fruit juice.

FRUIT JUICE.

The PR lady later shared that Suzhou people are “a little more refined” when it comes to such functions and they certainly don’t gulp baijiu like their compatriots from other areas in China. She must’ve thought I was a hooligan judging from the speed at which I chugged my red wine.

In a nutshell, the entire trip was an eye-opener. It debunked some of the preconceived notions I had of China and Suzhou.

As already mentioned, not all banquet-style dinners in China involve getting inebriated with baijiu.

Also, the SIP is nothing like an industrial park. I mean, there are areas where there are lots of factories (in fact, it looks just like a very, very, very big version of Science Park Drive in Singapore) but that’s just one small part of the entire zone.

In fact, I wouldn’t even call SIP a park – it’s actually a freaking city that has its own lifestyle amenities and residential zones. There’s also a gorgeous theatre where the highly acclaimed Suzhou Ballet troupe is based. If you’re wondering just how big SIP is, it’s 2/3 the size of Singapore.

The people of Suzhou too are pretty unique. They seem more polite and their mannerisms are a little more like Taiwanese than many of the other Chinese I’ve met in.

 

I left Suzhou wishing I had discovered more about it. It also made me realise how ignorant I was at the beginning to think that the SIP is nothing more than an industrial zone.

This brings me back to the interview I had did earlier with the guy from NUSRI.

Toward the end of our conversation, when asked about the sort of challenges NUSRI faced, the first thing he brought up was that many Singaporeans still fear coming to China, probably due to the misconception that “China is sibei luan (very chaotic)”.

“The market here in China has so much potential. You know, Singaporeans just need to come and see how things are for themselves, lah. It’s really nowhere as bad as they think it is,” he said.

He couldn’t have said it better. I would’ve always had the wrong impression of Suzhou if it wasn’t for this trip.

Moral of the story? Get out. See the world. The truth is out there.

Also, as I watched Lui Chengfang passionately explain about the various Chinese musical instruments that date back to hundreds of years, as well as the different types of Chinese operas and their nuances, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What culture does Singapore have?”

The first word that came to mind?

Chapalang (a mix of everything). And the one thing that encapsulates this?

Well, Singlish, of course. 

 

It is a beautiful summary of how we, as a country of migrants, have so seamlessly integrated with one another despite the differences in race and language.

So, to those who are trying to put baby Singlish in the corner, please stop.

Why so serious? Chillax tam poh, lah. You know Singlish is how special to us Singaporeans anot?

The country is sibei sterile already, lah, please don’t ban Singlish, can?

 

 

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