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.

life, Singapore

Simi sai ma bo hiew liao (什么大便都不管了)


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.


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.

Short Stories

Puff Daddy

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“This, is life,” said Ronald, pointing to the cigarette in his hand.

“You shouldn’t be smoking, papa,” replied Eli.

It was a rhetorical statement. The fact that this conversation was taking place on the hospital rooftop said it all.

Ronald took a long drag at a cigarette which had its filter peeled off before scratching his hand. The catheter was really beginning to annoy him.

“I don’t get why people smoke with filters.”

“I suppose it’s healthier?”

Ronald broke out in laughter.

“Doctor Ong is going to go mental when he finds out you’ve been smoking.”

“Oh come on. What harm can one cigarette do? Even if I survive this goddamn cancer I’m still going to die someday, no?”

As cryptic as that sounded, Eli simply nodded his head and smiled.

And then began the tirade.

“You see, son, like the fire within that never loses its single-minded focus to incinerate everything in its path, time doesn’t take a break and wait for you to finish whatever other business you have going on. It just keeps going, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Stub it out and relight the fag at your discretion, sure, whatever – it’s still going to end someday. So therein lies the question – what are you going to do? Are you going to put your lips to the filter and savour each puff before there’s nothing left? Or will you simply do nothing and watch as time devours everything?”

Eli said nothing, his eyes transfixed on the graceful ascent of the smoke into the night sky. He wondered if that was how a soul dissipated when one died.

“People like to say that smoking kills as if they’re immortals. They squeal when smoke comes their way. ‘Oh my god, you are going to fucking kill me with your second-hand smoke,’ say these fools, as if they were never going to die in the first place. They’re all deluded. Fucking deluded. This shit doesn’t kill, goddamnit. Being alive, kills. Let’s not kid ourselves, we’re dying every single minute we’re alive. The countdown started that very moment we entered this world. Life itself is a death sentence. Oh, the fucking irony of it all. So make no mistake, my son, for the end is nigh. We were all born to die.”

“Is that the medication talking? I think we should head back down before the nurses find out you escaped the ward again,” said Eli.

“I’m sorry you’re here. I’m sorry this is what you have to hear. I shouldn’t have ejaculated in your mother’s vagina 28 years ago. Blame me.”

“Oh god, Papa. Stop it.”

Ronald stubbed his cigarette out and threw his arm over Eli.

“Fine, let’s go. I’m getting a little woozy.”

“I’m gonna miss you when you’re not around,” said Eli.

“And that’s why you should never have kids,” laughed Ronald.

“You should never have to put anyone through such misery. If I could, I would strangle your mother to death first so that she doesn’t have to see me go. Come think of it, I should’ve murdered that bitch a long time ago!”

Eli turned to his father’s gaunt face and the smell of tobacco suddenly rushed through his nostrils. He was no stranger to his father’s eccentric rants. But today it felt as if Ronald was trying to overcompensate for something. For a fear of his imminent demise.

He placed a reassuring arm around his father’s waist and the two made their way to the exit.

The pair managed to get back to the ward without rousing suspicion from the night shift nurses. Ronald fluffed his pillow before lying down and reached over the hand rails for his discman.

“I can’t believe you’re still using that antique,” said Eli.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” smiled Ronald.

“Alright son, I’m going to drift off now. You text me when you arrive in China. Don’t call, it’s expensive.”

“I’ll come back often to see you. Whenever I can. I promise.”

“Don’t be silly. I’m not going anywhere. Just be back for Christmas. I’ll see you then.”

Eli forced a smile and nodded. He reluctantly picked up his bag and waved Ronald goodbye.

As Eli’s shadow disappeared from the corridor, Ronald placed his favourite Teresa Teng CD into the player and hit the play button. But the only sound that came through was a constant wheezing from within.

He smacked the player twice and shook it gently for a few seconds before the sounds of Goodbye My Love streamed through the earphones.

The disc stopped spinning a minute later, but Ronald did not bother to rectify the problem.

He figured that some things were just not worth the effort anymore.

life, travel, Writing

Glamping on the Tibetan grasslands


Tucked away in the remote recesses of the Tibetan Plateau in Gansu province, Norden Camp exists in its own vacuum of serenity.

Apart from the occasional cooing of birds and the fluttering of their wings, the only constant sound that permeates this place is that of water sloshing in the small stream that runs through the compound.

From rolling hills to lush grasslands to the surreal canvas of resplendent stars above your head come nightfall, the scenes of what Mother Nature affords at this destination are, without question, spellbinding.

But the beauty of this so-called luxury resort lies not in the fact that it is an astonishingly picturesque getaway location.

Rather, the most poignant aspect of this sanctuary lies in something less visible and more visceral – the stories of the people within, which inherently help spawn new perspectives to life.

Opened in May 2014, Norden is the brainchild of Yidam Kyap, a former Tibetan nomad, and his wife Dechen Yeshi, a Tibetan-American, both of whom were eager to preserve the fast-fading nomadic culture and generate employment opportunities for local nomads via a travel destination that provides an authentic yet relatively luxurious travel experience.

The couple have certainly managed to achieve this, having conjured an immaculate blend where tradition meets modernity. Just like Tibetan nomads, guests can stay in yak hair tents, with the difference being that those in Norden are far more lavish – they come with coal heaters, wooden flooring, soft beds and yak wool blankets by Norlha, a textile brand helmed by Yeshi that has made its way to the shelves of luxury boutiques such as Hermes, Lanvin and Yves Saint Laurent.

Alternatively, travellers can stay in cosy cabins that come with their own en suite dry toilets. Shower areas, on the other hand, are located in two locations within the camp. Other amenities include a sauna, a beautifully constructed area for yoga and meditation, as well as a small boutique selling Norlha products.


In terms of activities, guests can choose to do archery, horseback riding, visit the nearby town of Labrang and its famous monastery, go on hikes to the nearby hills as well as have a meal with a nomadic family.

Nearly all the employees at Norden come from nomadic families in the area, and they only work from May to mid-October when the camp closes and becomes a winter grazing ground. During this break, some return to help their families with nomadic practices while others are transferred to Norden’s café in Labrang town and the Norlha textile workshop.

There seemed to be a hint of regret when Yidam said that he is still working toward providing year-round employment for all his employees, most of whom are in their early to mid-twenties.

“Young Tibetan nomads are kind of in a limbo these days,” said Yidam.

“Most of them don’t want to lead nomadic lifestyles anymore. These days they just want iPhones, computers and a cushy government job. But it’s hard for them to get good jobs because many aren’t fluent in Mandarin.”

When asked if he would ever turn Norden into more conventional luxury resort complete with all the bells and whistles, such as en suite shower areas and flush toilets for each room, Yidam simply shook his head.

“The whole point of Norden is about being eco-friendly so that we can preserve the original state and identity of the Tibetan Plateau. We don’t want to be digging up too much of the ground just so we can install pipes.”

This emphasis on the preservation of Tibetan nomad identity rings true in Norden’s kitchen as well. The specially designed menu by American chef Andrew Notte plays a huge role in introducing guests to local culture, with the predominant meat featured on your plate coming from the yak, an animal that far outnumbers the humans in this part of the world.

Apart from yak meat, Notte also utilises the animal’s milk as well as other ingredients typically used by nomads, such as lamb, tsampa, a roasted barley flour, as well as joma, a protein-rich root that’s available in the grasslands.

I was initially rather apprehensive about eating yak, expecting it to be a tough and gamey on the palate, but what I ate throughout the trip – yak burgers, yak momos (dumplings), yak steaks – were surprisingly tender and delectable. Of course, much of this had to do with Notte’s culinary prowess too – the American was formerly a chef at the upscale Aman Resorts in Bhutan.

Notte said that it was the camp’s passionate pursuit of the preservation of local nomadic culture that compelled him to be a part of the project.

“Yidam’s vision mirrors my passion and belief in using locally sourced ingredients to showcase local culture. That’s how things should be, as opposed to importing ingredients that are completely foreign to the local scene,” said Notte.

“Working with local ingredients also means freshness and quality assurance. Take yak for example – it’s the best meat I’ve ever worked with. Why? Because I know exactly where it comes from. I know exactly what the yaks are fed. I mean, I can literally see it walking on the grasslands,” he added with a laugh.

Notte is not the only American employee at the camp. Andrew Taylor and Willard Johnson, who hail from Los Angeles and Seattle respectively, said they were similarly drawn by the camp’s efforts in the local community, as well as the opportunity to gain new perspectives in this remote part of the world.

Taylor was initially supposed to home-school Norzin, the oldest daughter of Yidam and Dechen, but his background in yoga inadvertently led to him conducting wellness activities for Norden guests. As it turned out, Taylor is capable of whipping up a sumptuous meal too – he does so at the Norlha guesthouse, located a two-hour drive southeast of Norden – having taken a culinary course on holistic cooking back in the United States.

Johnson, a former basketballer who played for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several clubs in Europe and Latin America, arrived to coach the Tibetan nomads working at Norlha but somehow ended up becoming an athletics coach for guests at Norden.

During a hike up one of the neighbouring hills with Johnson, he revealed that he comes from a family of distinguished military personnel but had decided to go off tangent instead.

“My grandfather was the commander of a fleet of submarines. My dad was a fighter pilot. Me? I chose basketball,” he quipped.

“When I heard about the impact Norlha and Norden were having on the community I really wanted to come. When I found out that they played basketball here, I knew I just had to come.”

Taylor and Johnson are paid modest stipends for their efforts at Norden and Norlha. But though they could certainly own far fatter bank accounts by working back home in the US, the duo have had no regrets with their adventure in China so far.

“Back home in the US, I guess there’s an innate need to keep up with your peers. Many of my friends from MIT are successful engineers. Some are even rocket scientists. They’re all earning good money,” said Johnson.

“Still, I’m very happy here. Being here in the remote grasslands and seeing the locals go through what they do really changes your perspective to life. You realize that money isn’t all that important.”

— Willard Johnson

Forget the stunning scenery of the Tibetan Plateau. Forget the fact that you can get four seasons in a single day here (I suffered from some serious sunburn during the hike, only to wake up to snow the next morning). Forget the super fresh air here that makes megacities seem like toxic wastelands.

Such conversations were actually the highlight of my trip. And they were certainly in abundance.

Norden might be widely dubbed as a luxury “glamping” destination, but there are, perhaps fortunately, no televisions in the rooms. This means there is little to do after sunset when the entire area is blanketed in darkness. Guests either have an early night (those with children in tow always do) or participate in such discussions about life and current affairs at the cosy bar area.

I chatted with Notte about his culinary style, his favorite foods, the US presidential elections and his adventures on Bhutan’s treacherous mountain roads.

I chatted with Yidam about the current predicaments faced by the Tibetan nomads, if Dechen was love at first sight, his future plans for Norden and the feasibility of using solar power instead of coal to heat the rooms.

I chatted with a fellow guest from Shanghai named Alok Somani about the rise of American football in our adopted city and how this trip made us discover that we don’t actually need so many modern comforts to live well.

All these nightly conversations at the bar helped me gain new insights in a variety of matters. They also inadvertently taught me that it is probably wise to go easy on the tipple in the Tibetan Plateau.

At 3,200 meters above sea level, the alcohol gets to your head pretty quickly.

Most of all, they taught me that good vacations shouldn’t just leave you with a camera full of images or a wallet crammed with receipts – it should leave you emancipated by new perspectives.

This, is what luxury travel should truly be about.




This post is a reproduction of the original article here:



Home di toh loh?

shanghai-8 copy

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?




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.


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.

Humour, Writing

Taking the plunge, without a condom


June 9 was my second anniversary in Shanghai.

I first came here with the mindset that I would definitely return to Singapore after three years. After all, Singapore was home. Singapore was where I wanted to raise my kid (nope, no bun in the oven yet). Singapore was where I want to climb the career ladder.

I started my career in the media industry as a photo sub-editor. I then became an assistant section editor with a newspaper. I had my own photo byline. I was winning newsroom awards. I got to appear on television. Hell, it sure looked as if I was getting somewhere.

Another company then came knocking with a job that I wasn’t too keen on, so I just threw a figure at the HR woman. As it turned out, they were willing to offer me just that. My head was turned. I told myself that I would move. For the money.

A few months later I was running a couple of publications. It felt good. My blueprint to life looked as if it was coming together very nicely. Next? Climb the ladder, get more pay, be someone of influence, drive an Audi.

Audi cars are nice. BMWs are nice too. But they’re meant for assholes.

One random day, while driving my second-hand, 8-year-old Mazda 3, the wife and I spoke about working overseas for a couple of years. It sounded like a good idea. It reminded me of the fun times I had when I was studying in Sydney. Some time later, she told me she received a substantial offer from a company in Shanghai.

I said let’s move. Again, for the money.

Fuck this Mazda 3. I want an Audi. Or one of those sports cars that go Pssssssssst.

Ironically, my first job in Shanghai paid me just 50% of what I was earning in Singapore. I convinced myself that I would do this solely for the experience. Treat it like an investment. Learn the local culture. Immerse myself in a different working environment.

Many things about China irritated me when I first arrived. People rushing into lifts before I could get out. People rushing into trains before I could get out. People rushing to cut your queue before you even enter the queue. People spitting on the streets. People peeing on the streets. People shitting on the streets.

Having a horrid first job here certainly helped fuel the contempt I had for this place. It also convinced me that Shanghai was nothing more than a short stop.

But it wasn’t just the perils of the new job that bothered me – what made it worse was the realisation that I had given up a good job and great colleagues in Singapore to end up in a mess like this. I knew I had wasted months of my life that I would never get back on this failed project.

I had never failed in life before. 

Well, except for that one essay assignment in university. It was worth 50%. I had gone off-point. The lecturer told me that I had flunked the assignment so bad that I needed to ace the end-of-semester exam (worth the other 50%) to pass the module.

And I did just that. I did mind maps. I memorised chunks of text. I had never put in so much effort in studying for an exam in my life.

Why was I afraid to fail? Maybe it was due to the environment in which I was raised. In Singapore, failure is not an option. It was always the carrot and stick approach. Do well, earn this. My parents always dangled new toys in exchange for good grades  in primary school. I had ALOT of toys. Transformers. MASK. Ninja Turtles. Batman. Name it, I probably owned it.

Things went downhill in secondary school. No more carrot and stick. After all, they couldn’t give me girlfriends.

Also, failing this university module meant that I would have to re-take the damn subject, possible resulting in a longer-than-expected stay in Australia, which in turn meant spending more money.

Money. Money. Money.

But now, my first failure in life seemed imminent. It had only been three months into this Shanghai job but I knew I would not last the minimum 2-year occupancy period I had set for myself.

It’s okay, I told myself. I would settle for just a year.

Four months into the job. I started having anxiety attacks. Not because I did not know how to do my job, but because everything about it was wrong, to me at least. I could not understand why people would work in that particular manner. I could not understand how a human being could be so disorganised.

I became so depressed that I lost five kilos over the next two months, quite an achievement considering how I didn’t manage to shed any weight for years despite a semi-active lifestyle back in Singapore.

I would break out in cold sweat. I would resort to drowning my sorrows.

I knew I wasn’t going to make the 1-year mark.

And then something snapped. Thankfully it wasn’t my sanity.

I looked into the mirror and went, “What the fuck are you doing? It’s just a fucking job. Fuck it. For once in your fucking life, go LOCO. Go YOLO.”

Just six months into the job, I quit. For the first time in my life, I did so without having another job lined up.

I had failed. Terribly.

But strangely enough, I was happy to just let the winds carry me away in this hot air balloon that I have built for myself.

I did freelance work during those months of unemployment and rediscovered my love for writing. I had no official working hours to abide to. I had no direct boss to report to. Life slowed down to the point where I could better savour the little things that matter.

More importantly, I became detached from the norm; the system; the matrix. From this hot air balloon of mine I see things from above, from a macro perspective never once available to me.

And this deliberate isolation has turned out to be an empowerment. Because it was only when I wasn’t bogged down by all that stress and the usual humdrum of working life that I managed to see the world differently.

I was able to effectively compare and contrast life here and life back in Singapore. When this happened, a lot of the preconceived notions about China disintegrated. A lot of the beliefs I once held when living in Singapore came under scrutiny.

I came to realise that life in Shanghai is in many aspects (not all) actually more affordable and convenient. Not everyone here is a crook. Not everyone here is uncouth. Yes, it can at times be a crazy cowboy town but that’s the beauty of it. The intermittent blurring of lines in this society – between sterility and creativity, chaos and order – is utterly fascinating. It makes the city a multi-dimensional entity.

Singapore, in contrast, appears like a one-dimensional stick figure, defined by its clean, rigid strokes. Sure, stick figures are easy to understand. But they’re also lifeless.

I’ve recently signed a contract extension with the company I’m working for. I won’t return to Singapore till at least after July 2017. Actually, I’m not even sure if I would return next year. Maybe 2018? 2019? I’ll see where the wind blows. It’s no longer imperative that I have to return.

Besides, there’s little reason to go home. Even my parents are in the midst of moving away from Singapore. They say it’s too expensive.

I say it’s too oppressive, too.

The recent Cooling-Off Day arrests made me sad and angry. To be honest, if I were still in Singapore, I would’ve probably just shrugged the whole thing off and said,”Aiyah, just another bunch of jokers trying to mess with the government. Serves them right.”

I know it’s a little ironic I’m saying this considering how I’m currently residing in China where human rights aren’t all that better. But as a Singaporean, there’s a natural affinity to love and hate your own country.

I suppose it’s a little similar to parenting. Most of us would never attempt to cane someone else’s kid but we would have no qualms disciplining ours.

I’ve read a blog post written in response to one of my earlier posts that said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

While citizens have a part to play in not being jackasses and creating chaos, a government is ultimately supposed to be serving its people. No?

It’s funny how many of us only get to see our ministers in the lead-up to the general elections when they suddenly appear at our doorsteps and speak of this desire to serve our needs. Some of them then seemingly disappear for three years and a few months before reappearing to make the same statements.

Another thing that we hear every general election is the need for us to play it safe and vote the ruling party back in.

Because they’re seasoned. Because they’re the safest bet. Because the opposition are filled with noobs who have zero experience in running a town council.

I’m guessing a good number of people within that 70% majority thought this way during the last GE. I can’t say I blame them. I might’ve done the same (alas, I missed the overseas registration deadline and didn’t get to vote). I mean, why gamble on the future of the country with a largely uncredible opposition?

And so we Singaporeans decide to play it safe. We like to wear condoms over our personalities, our identities. Some call it being kiasee. Some call it apathy.

We think that by keeping our mouths shut, nothing bad will happen. We are taught to always stand behind the yellow line, because you might just fall onto the train tracks. We are taught not to be “itchy-backside” and burst this safety bubble. Everything will be fine and dandy if you just move along with life.

Pay your taxes, your ERP charges, your conservancy charges and what have you. Don’t think. Just do it. Else the rubber might tear. Bad things lurk outside the rubber.

Play it safe.

Some have said that you can take a Singaporean out of Singapore, but you can’t take Singapore out of the Singaporean. It’s very true.

Even here in China, my Singaporean friends would scowl at me for buying or eating “too local”. They say it’s not safe, it’s not worth the risk. When I first arrived, a friend told me never to eat anything that costs less than 40RMB ($8). Just recently, she scolded me for buying my contact lens from China. She said it’s safer to buy from Singapore because there’s “more quality control”.

I told her to YOLO a little. But this is me, now.

I would’ve probably agreed with her two years ago.

Admittedly, I erected many walls when I first came to Shanghai, desperate to maintain my own standards and avoid getting too sinified. Now, I’ve taken off that condom to explore this cavernous place. And it has injected in me new experiences in life that has given birth to fresh perspectives.

Let’s be honest and open and it — no matter how thin a condom is, it always feels better not to have it on.

Of course, exercise common sense. Don’t fuck everything.

Come think of it, two years is a pretty short time. But so much has changed.

I first came to Shanghai determined to harness professional experience that would pave the way to success. I guess I ended up with something much more poignant than that.

I’m now paid more than that first job but still lesser than what I got in Singapore. I can’t be too extravagant in my life. But that’s fine with me.

I guess I don’t really covet money that much anymore.

I no longer harbour ambitions of scaling the career ladder like before. Instead, the focus is on honing my craft. I want to write a book some day. I’m currently 4670 words into a novella but I don’t think it’s all that interesting.

You know what? I think I’ll start all over and explore another topic and genre.

I guess I’m not that afraid to fail anymore.

I’ve said this several times before and I’ll say it again — it pays to eject ourselves from the confines of comfort and see the world for a bit.

Take off that condom. Turn it into a hot air balloon.