Singapore’s So-Called Moral Majority

Call it what you will — if there are some among us in Singapore who fashion ourselves the conservative majority, the silent majority, the moral majority — that line, and its consequent political implementation, is bound to fail. It is not enough to view what we are currently witnessing as a ‘culture war’, as ‘us vs them’, or even as a fundamentalist Christian vs secularism issue within a solely Singaporean prism. We need to view this as an extension of a larger, global struggle for rights on the one hand, and for bigotry masque ring as ‘religious liberty’ on the other, then be appropriately alarmed by what the future holds if this so-called faith-based oppression of minorities goes unchecked.

On Singapore’s theocrats.

Call it what you will — if there are some among us in Singapore who fashion ourselves the conservative majority, the silent majority, the moral majority — that line, and its consequent political implementation, is bound to fail. It is not enough to view what we are currently witnessing as a ‘culture war’, as ‘us vs them’, or even as a fundamentalist Christian vs secularism issue within a solely Singaporean prism. We need to view this as an extension of a larger, global struggle for rights on the one hand, and for bigotry masquerading as ‘religious liberty’ on the other, then be appropriately alarmed by what the future holds if this so-called faith-based oppression of minorities goes unchecked.

Like its theological counterparts in other parts of the world, namely the United States’ very own ‘pro-family’ Moral Majority lobby, our evangelicals’ are on a march to frantically reclaim the “family” from the “majority” and the “morality” from the “society” they claim to represent. Unfortunately, our very own culture warriors have neither the numbers to form the majority, nor the authenticity of ‘morality’ whichever way they swing it. On top of Christians forming no more than 18% of the population, the number of Christians of the fundamentalist stripe is even smaller, making them the minority within the minority. These numbers would not be a question at all if they didn’t also try to style themselves as the so-called majority whose ‘norms’ must be accepted as gospel.

To their minds, the imagined enemies are the “LGBT activists” who apparently have “militant agendas”. There are calls across the land by their activist pastors to alternately wage “spiritual warfare“, or to wear shirts of a certain colour on one specific weekend each year. Their defence, they claim, lies in how “if the minority fights them, they have to fight back, to defend God / home / family / their children / the future / the moral fabric of society”.

It is not necessary to establish who started it (even though there is plenty of evidence contrary to their claims). It is sufficient to merely look at some of the ‘demands’ by the so-called moral police. What do they want?

  • to protect their children — and everyone else’s children — from the corrupting influence of books with themes they are uncomfortable with (today: gay penguins and alternative families, tomorrow… anything they feel opposed to as well?)
  • to pushback the perceived invasion of ‘community norms’ by a perceived minority (today: LGBT issues, tomorrow… what minority rights will they oppose?)
  • to establish faith-based alternatives to ‘controversial topics’, such as sex education, often at the expense of scientific proof — look at our abstinence-only sex education, for one
  • to reinforce the superiority of the ‘majority’ and its ’norms’. To date I have not yet heard a definition of what either term refers to. Is it a racial majority? Religious majority? Some conflation thereof of a minority within the racial majority which has the majority of socio-economic-political privileges? A reinforcement of the importance of ‘family’, hetero-normativity, compulsory heterosexuality, and the necessary rejection of all other narratives which do not fit the One Man One Woman Two and a Half Children and a HDB Flat Grand Singapore Plan?
  • above all, they want the State to affirm their special status as heterosexuals whose ‘majority’ opinion matters; they have always wanted no less than a theocratic state

It is the last demand which is the most worrisome.

Have Dominionists Hijacked the Christian Conversation in Singapore?

Throughout the entire saga the truly terrifying thing has been to hear again and again, the chest-thumping of the so-called majority. I do not know what they stand for, and ‘pro-family’ is just highly politicised polemics borrowed whole from the American Right, and we all know how well that’s gone. They’ve run the whole gamut from political action (LoveSingapore’s ‘write to your MP!’ circular) to political hijacking (Lawrence Khong’s cornering of former Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong); to the steeplejacking of secular organisations, to religious outfits masquerading as secular organisations providing scientifically dangerous sex education (Liberty League), the concerted effort to remove books from the National Library —as the hypothetical ground is ceded and Singaporeans, they sense, are becoming more secular and liberal, the louder the chest-thumping gets.

Some well-informed and extremely educated detractors of the LGBT movement (including the downright homophobic and bigoted), justify their oppression and discrimination by saying the more rights the LGBT community receives, the fewer rights the people of faith are going to have. Just as the ‘pro-family’ lobby here imitates their American counterparts as if by mimicry (no surprise, their theology and world view is exactly the same, and imported whole), what we are witnessing here in Singapore is the leap from outright anti-gay lobbying to the sort of political action which tries to define their bigotry as “religious liberty” (just as it happened here). As the cogs of progress turn, there is bound to be widespread panic among the fundamentalists — Jonathan Rauch describes this group in the United States to be gradually turning towards some form of Social Secession, and I think we see some form of this behaviour here in Singapore as well. This frantic pushback arrives in the form of political action to ’take back’ these lost rights of theirs, ostensibly by denying others access to any of their own; as well as in the start of an ideological pontification on what it truly means to be religious and to live in the developed world. We can’t take lightly the threat that these fundamentalists pose to our secular society: from withdrawing their children from the school system in order to shield them from the evils of the world, now apparently popular among certain types of evangelicals in Singapore, to actual political action in the form of what we have seen Lawrence Khong try to do — the main struggle Singapore faces today, is who gets to decide, especially in a multi-cultural, multi-religious society such as ours?

The difference between privilege and rights is sometimes a tough one to navigate. When those with a lack of rights, such as the LGBT community (or any other less privileged community in the world), asks for more of what they did not have before, it is said that we are infringing upon the rights of the Majority, the Faithful, or some conflation of the two. The erosion of privilege is not the same as the gaining of rights. The latter arrives at some indeterminate point in each developed society’s lifespan, eventually, and this is going to be an interesting ‘battle’ to watch. Some people like to call it the culture wars. That would indicate there are clearly demarcated camps, but there aren’t. There are issues we fight over: abortion, sex education, homosexuality, ‘alternative parenting’. But who forms either side of the camps?

It is interesting to note that here in Singapore just as it is in the United States, the clear flag-bearers of the culture wars who take it upon themselves to ‘sound the trumpet for spiritual warfare’ come from very similar religious backgrounds: they are a minority even within their faith. By and large they come from a group of Dominionists who have around the world emerged among mainline Protestantism as a force to be reckoned with — and one with actionable political aspirations. To summarise present day American-influenced evangelical Protestantism, these Dominionists represented by the likes of Lawrence Khong, Derek Hong and every pastor who has ever ‘sounded the trumpet’, are Biblical literalists with the sort of theological training which might make raise the eyebrows of some classical theologists and Bible scholars and clergymen. There are also those who belong to the “C3” school of thought, yet those groups seem less interested in the struggles of ideology and more keen to see to the financial development of their congregation (and their own coffers). Lawrence Khong’s entire crusade — no, his entire ministry — appears to be based on C Peter Wagner’s apostolic movement which has severe theocratic overtones. Like his mentor, he believes the faithful are called to ‘retake’ seven domains, or the Seven Cultural Mountains, with frightening prospects: Arts/Entertainment, Business, Education, Family, Government, Media, Religion. His wife also seems to believe that God sends HIV as punishment because, gays (screenshot here), though Nina Khong has since deleted her post).

What drives the Dominionists to wage crusades in Singapore, of all places, against perceived slights in a supposed Culture War? The Seven Cultural Mountains are supposed to be moved by Dominionist Christians, everywhere they go. Before the arrival of the end times, they are supposed to exert the Church’s influence in all of the above-mentioned fields. A cursory glance at some of the key members of the anti-gay Facebook pages suggests affiliations to churches and groups which preach this line of thought. This is important because whenever their assumptions are challenged, they are quick to claim their opponents are anti-God and anti-Christian and otherwise unfaithful heathens, yet nothing can be further from the truth. There is a difference between opposing an entire faith and theology — and opposing a specific cult-like subset of that faith with demonstrably questionable ethics in political arenas. Today their battle is about homosexuality and ‘alternative sexuality’. What will it be tomorrow?

It is important for all other types of Christians to be bold in criticising the political overtures of these cultists with political aspirations. Holding your tongue from politeness, reserving your judgement until it affects you — all of those approaches only serve to distrust your religious moderation, and play into the camps of those who would claim your faith. Even if it does not affect you on a personal level — think about what this means for your faith. Even if you are unsure of where you stand theologically on homosexuality, think about what you feel about using the name of your God to justify the propagation of hatred. You can call that out, at the least.

The Myth of the Rich Gay
Underneath all of this, I suspect there is a strain of homophobia and ignorance entwined with class envy.

A quick scan of the ‘debates’ people are currently having on the actively anti-gay Facebook pages and groups set up to fight against Pink Dot / propagate the wearing of the shirts of the colour white / establish solidarity against penguin- themed library books, shows a train of thought arise time and again: gays have it good. Gays are rich. Gays go to the gym. Gays are promiscuous. Gays drink. Gays don’t have the responsibility of a wife and two kids and family to look after. Gays can do anything they want (because they have money, education and are affluent).

Not only is that line of thinking untrue, it’s also dangerous (and somewhat patriarchal). I’ve also heard some politicians remark, privately, that they don’t have to do anything to ‘fix housing for gay people because they are rich enough to buy condominiums so they’re OK’. Caricatures cannot and should not affect policy-making,

No doubt these people have barely met any real LGBT people, and have believed that the only group that is visible to them — caricatures of limp-wristed and/or well-toned gym-going gay men — are the only ones they are waving their flags against. Not the overweight butch with an over-sized shirt who was beaten up by a group of men for just walking down a street and offending their masculinity by holding her girlfriend’s hand. Not the trans-man who lives in fear of being ‘found out’ when he uses the men’s toilet, no matter how long it’s been since surgery. Not the straight-acting gay man who hides a part of his identity from a large number of his social contacts and family, because they will never understand and coming out takes just too much courage, something he doesn’t have at the moment but may have in the near future. Not the twenty-something year old young man who secretly wants to become a woman, but doesn’t fit the bill of someone you would think wants to become a woman (he loves playing football, barbecues and makeup — at the same time). Not the majority of everyone on the LGBTQ spectrum — lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, and un-categorizable — who are really just regular people living in Singapore who have to fight to get ahead at work and in life, find someone incredible to spend their lives with, make decisions on whether they should live ‘at home’ or ‘move out’ and struggle to make rent if it’s the latter. Sometimes, they even go to the church (or the mosque). And they love your God every bit as much as you do.

Discrimination vs ‘Religious Liberty’

I keep coming back to this.

Whenever I read a stupid internet comment saying, ‘but gay people are not discriminated against’, what am I supposed to feel?

Am I supposed to feel like we’ve taken one step forward and two steps back, that when companies like Goldman Sachs and Barclays have openly affirmative policies, bigots perceive it to be discrimination against… them?

Am I supposed to feel that as a tax-paying citizen of this country, my value is not worth quite as much as a heterosexual version of myself?

Am I supposed to feel sorry that when I have children in the near future, I don’t know what kinds of books people want to keep my own children from — and I don’t know what these people would do to them? (Will my children be bullied by intolerant classmates bred by intolerant parents, the kind that tell their kids it is okay to laugh at their classmates who have no fathers?)

There is an underlying rhetoric among the anti-gay lobby: do not rub your sexuality in our faces, and we will not hate you.

On paper, that sounds like a reasonable request. In practice, not only is it not practical, it is also unfair. It is this line of thinking which leads to uproar over openly gay football players kissing their boyfriends (like in the case of NFL player, Michael Sam). Apparently, kissing our partners in a public manner is just too much ‘rubbing in your faces’, even if heterosexual sporting stars do that all the time. We’re also supposed to not host picnics like Pink Dot, because when 26 000 people of varying sexual orientations show up, it means we are being disrespectful to society’s norms. As a woman, all of these requests for ‘civility’ and ‘respect’ make me nauseous — it is these same requests which dictate that women should never be heard unless she is being respectful, womanly and ‘nice enough’. Nobody would ever make that request of someone in a position of any privilege.

Every single day I read the newspapers, the Internet comments, the commentary on all of these topics, and I sigh a little.

The Media Development Authority of Singapore would rather reject a comic book because its eponymous character has a gay best friend who had a gay wedding; ignoring completely that said character had performed a valiant act also to save his best friend from assassination.

The National Library Board, in its flip-flop over gay penguins, sends the message that stories about love take the backseat to the sexualities and identities of who exactly is doing the loving — be it adopted families or gay families.

You can defend your homophobia as much as you like, even pulling the “but I have a gay friend / sibling / relative” card, but at the end of the day know this: your gay friend / sibling / relative has to withhold an important part of who he or she is from you, and you will never truly know him or her — not until you demonstrate a willingness to accept their whole identities (which isn’t necessarily the same thing as accepting their sexual expression, though that ought to be a natural progression in any form of acceptance).

According to Singapore mainstream media, we’re never just gay, we are “The Gays” and “A Gay”. We lead a “gay lifestyle”. Today, my gay lifestyle involved waking up too early, kissing my gay girlfriend (thankfully she’s gay) goodbye, and boarding my gay plane to go do my gay work to eke out a gay living just like everyone else, gay or not.

I was brought up within a Dominionist church environment, which is why I think I speak out so harshly against it. I refuse to let both my faith and my person be usurped; and most of all I refuse to stand idly by while my secular country is being assaulted by people who claim to speak for the majority.

Sometimes, I ask myself why I live here. I think of all the times I have met gay and lesbian Singaporean couples who have said their farewells to Singapore, not because they wanted to leave, but because they are never going to be able to lead a life they want for themselves. In a way, the bigots are right — we can lead a mostly unrestricted life, which can be comfortable, even meaningful. Yet think about this for a second: what kind of life is it if all you can aspire towards is some form of co-habitation, and a life full of legal grey areas in everything from property to taxes to children? Whenever I speak to these gay Singaporeans abroad, who had tried so hard to make a life for themselves in New York or Stockholm or anywhere the liberal winds blow, there is always a tinge of sadness. If only.

As I get closer to the age where the thoughts of joint ownership of pets and property invade your mind, I too am worried. My gay lifestyle surely does not fit in here; it goes contrary to the ‘community norms’. I am worried that we will never take a strong stand against those who wish to impose their values on the rest of us. I am worried that my children will never get to read a book about themselves in their national library. I am worried that the trumpets sounded by those who are quick to claim ‘religious liberty’ and trample upon the downtrodden, without ever once ceding any of their privileges, will sound louder than the trumpets that sound for justice and equality, as our pledge says.

That as we reinvent ourselves a nation at 50, we will all have planks in our eyes while decrying the splinters in others’ shortcomings — yet what room is there for debate when one camp sees itself as the divinely appointed?

As the country turns 50 next year, I turn 30 — significant milestones for country and individual. Everyday I try to do my part in the struggle for justice, in the way I know how — through technology and social activism. Everyday I ask myself why I live here.

I have to remind myself that I am here because this is home, and that if we don’t stand up to the theocrats, they will be pose a greater threat than any threats of the militant variety. In the struggle for Singapore’s next fifty years, it is time to draw a line in the sand and to stand up for secularism, now more than ever. As the global debate on social issues shifts and fundamentalists, of any religion, attempt to shape their concerns as issues of ‘religious liberty’, it is important to note this: when minorities, whether sexual, racial, ethnic or otherwise, receive more rights, it does not in any way take away from the rights of the so-called ‘majority’ — those are privileges.  If spirited arguments are going to be had on these topics, at least have the gumption to call it what it is: a privilege you are trying to defend, by the majority, for the majority. Then substitute “LGBT” for anything else — women, Muslims, migrant workers — and see how much water that holds.

It’s often said that Singapore’s next fifty years is going to be an interesting battle, and I agree. Bring out the knuckle-dusters, as the old man would say.

The Freedom to Love

Ten years ago the Internet was a different place. Singapore was a different place. While it wasn’t exactly the sort of pitchfork-wielding, gay-vilifying environment you would imagine, you certainly did not feel like people understood. You felt, at that time, at odds with large swathes of society, as though it would never accept you. Worst of all, you felt doomed to forever be avoiding the marriage question at Chinese New Year. It did not seem like your Asian relations would ever stop asking you intrusive questions about your personal life, when there was none to share because your chosen pronoun would cause you to be thrown out of the house, ostracised, prayed for, or otherwise politely ignored.

This year, the climate cannot be more different. The hate groups have openly stepped forward to identify themselves. They even have their own colours. Like in the US, and anywhere else this theatre of ‘cultural war’ is being waged, they’ve chosen to usurp the word, ‘family’, for themselves. No matter.

Each year the dot gets bigger and bigger. Each year the LGBTQ community gains strength in multitudes; and its allies, even more. Each year I see more and more families; each familiar face is not the girl I last slept with in a club, unlike what they think, it is a friend, ally, collaborator, or all around interesting person.

Challenges abound. Hatred reeks. Certain religionists (that’s really what they are, and I won’t even sully the term religious by associating that with them) desperately hope to roll back the tide. In 20 years I will be happy to never have to hear a squeak from them ever again, for their present struggles against demographic and cultural sea change will seem as bizarre, absurd and archaic as opponents of interracial, inter-religious love a couple of decades ago.

Here are a couple of things I’ve written in the past decade. My sexuality has been a big and defining part of life; but love itself comes through, above all. Hope to see you at Pink Dot, and say hi if you see me.

P.S. Also, a friend and I are hosting Rabbithole, a brand new party for queer women who like good drinks and older company. 🙂 Come by at Life Is Beautiful, 99 Duxton Road, from 10.30PM on 28 June 2014.

Eight Ages of a Woman
Release
Excavation
Why I Am Still A Feminist
Love, Singapore
The One About Having It All

Sitrep

BSG Tattoo

  1. I got a Battlestar Galactica tattoo
  2. I’m pretty pleased about that
  3. It’s one half of the pair of wings and Caprica constellation that Starbuck gets when she marries Anders
  4. Within a couple of hours of getting it, a random stranger proposed to me — saying she would get “the other side”
  5. Which would be romantic, but that would also mean (a) she’s a Cylon (b) we’d have a tumultuous relationship (c) she’d better be damn good at Pyramids
  6. It’s unbelievable that 10 years has passed since I first started to watch this show
  7. I don’t generally fan-girl anything, but this was special
  8. I identify with Starbuck in far too many ways, if you know what I mean
  9. It’s potentially far more meaningful than anything else I could have gotten
  10. After getting this done I do kinda feel like nothing can frak with my qi

I love BSG.

An Open Letter

On February 21, I wrote an open letter to the Health Minister, CC-ing the Prime Minister and the Law Minister. This was prompted by the Feminist Mentor’s own open letter. I found LoveSingapore’s pro-377A guide very helpful for this purpose — it gave me everyone’s email addresses in a single page!

OPEN LETTER TO

Mr Gan Kim Yong,
Minister of Health
Singapore

Dear Minister Gan,

A few days ago you made a step which many of my peers and I applauded. You let it be known, in a written reply to Mr Lim Biow Chuan’s question about the Health Promotion Board Sexuality FAQ, that you would reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the nucleus family but also stand firm on your belief that the FAQs did not do more than affirm certain scientific facts about human sexuality as well as disseminate much-needed information about STIs.

In the ensuing turmoil which followed after the FAQs first came into public spotlight leading up to the point where you have probably received countless letters from concerned Singaporeans about your ministry ostensibly leading the way in normalising homosexuality, to where we are at the moment: receiving a letter unlike the others, one which will express in no unclear terms that young, secular Singaporeans like myself will always make our voices heard in continuing to champion for our Republic’s secular values, even if we have not often given enough credit or praise to your government and to your party in recent times.

Cultural “wars” have been waged and fought in many developed democracies across the world; secular values that impart equal weight to all of the important freedoms we hold dear — the freedom of speech, love, action as well as of thought and of belief, the freedom to live a life of love across racial, religious, geographical as well as gender barriers — have always triumphed. Those who have let their cultural “wars” wage on unchecked have, as the United States is testament to, seen their societies grow increasingly polarised.

As a young lesbian Singaporean who has returned home after many years abroad despite the odds: despite knowing that I may never be able to have a family recognised by my State, despite knowing that as a “single” person of a “minority” our public housing laws unfairly discriminate against me, despite knowing that I may never see significant institutional change in my lifetime, I refuse to leave.

I refuse to leave as I refuse to let the country I hold dear be held hostage by a group of religious bigots who take it upon themselves to proclaim my sexual orientation, if normalised, necessarily leads to a “regression” of Singapore society especially when they base their beliefs on Judeo-Christian beliefs which, I must remind you, a majority of Singaporeans do not prescribe to.

HPB in its FAQ provides timely, factual information to parents as well as to questioning younger Singaporeans. In its current form, our existing sexual education programmes do not provide much by way of actual useful information outside of “abstinence”, which is a conversation which has already been hijacked by a militant group in our society that has demonstrated its continued ability to organise and to politicise their pet topics. Should ground be ceded once again, we risk being completely unable to reach out to young Singaporeans who need information on sex education, STIs and other important subjects because we would have failed them and lost our credibility — it seems only rational to worry that they would look elsewhere for information, as I did as a young lesbian woman when the schools I attended uniformly pretended that my needs did not and should not exist.

These groups also ask for civility and tolerance accusing other groups who disagree with their interpretation of Judeo-Christian history and family law of demonizing their right to their beliefs. By purporting to speak for a “silent majority” of Singaporeans and by building upon their network of religious organisations in order to advance a political cause, as a young Singaporean I am concerned about what this means from a sedition perspective. As a Christian, I do not condone a fringe Protestant grouping taking it upon themselves to speak for all Christians — nor for all Singaporeans.

The public needs to see prompt action demonstrating that the State will not stand for potentially seditious and religiously divisive viewpoints which tolerate vitriolic, daily verbal abuse as evidenced by the posts of Senior Pastor Lawrence Khong on his public Facebook page — directed towards tax-paying secular Singaporeans who just happen to form a minority.

I understand this divisive topic is not one our society can come to immediate consensus upon, and am open to a variety of differing viewpoints and debate. Yet as a politically concerned young secular Singaporean who also happens to be lesbian, I cannot sit idly while I witness religiously-affiliated groups wage a cultural “war”, one which no one else is interested to fight.

I urge the HPB, the Health Ministry, and the Government of Singapore to remain steadfast in its affirmation of its commitment to the family as a nucleus of society, while also continuing to make progress in areas such as making available scientific facts on human sexuality which can save lives as well as inform parents and young Singaporeans in need.

I am not a member of the Pioneer Generation, but I am a member of the Millennial Generation who desires to see small steps in social progressiveness so that the Singapore I call home will grow into becoming the inclusive society we want to be. This does not have to begin with an immediate consensus on sexual minorities, but we must make a stand that we will not tolerate religiously-affiliated hatred that a majority of Singaporeans do not belong to nor agree with.

Yours Sincerely,
Adrianna Tan
Millennial Generation (Tech)

Culture Kitchen 2: Little Myanmar

If you are anything like me, you’ve walked by Peninsula Plaza all the time and perhaps even entered it when you’ve needed to buy cameras and stuff. You’ve probably also wondered about all the wondrous things there. What is the paste they are mixing, what is this delicious-looking food and how can I have some of it, if only I knew what to order?

I’ve had the luck to spend more time in Myanmar in recent times, and I absolutely adore the country. I figured it would be only fitting to feature the community in Singapore for the next Culture Kitchen, seeing as that there’s an entire building in downtown Singapore that caters to that community.

With a bunch of intrepid volunteers’ help, I’m happy to announce Culture Kitchen 2: Little Myanmar. We’ll have lunch featuring the best-of Burmese cuisine, you’ll get to meet and mingle with the Burmese community, we’ll also screen “The City Where They Live”, a documentary about Meiktila’s community and youth leaders and how they worked to heal the city after the horrific communal violence of 2013. We’ll then do a Q&A with the filmmakers live from Yangon before kicking off a walking tour of Little Myanmar.

Sound good? Get your tickets here, there are just 19 seats left.

The Geography of Hope

At 18 I certainly believed I knew everything. I did not know just how much it’d hurt this boy’s heart if I told him the inevitable: that I was in love with someone he could never be—a woman. We went to our favourite bar and sat glumly while he tried to drink away his pain and anger.

At that time it felt as though life simply led me into various unforeseen encounters, at turns dramatic and at others explosive, as if I were but a mere spectator. The woman I loved walked into the bar. I stole a glimpse. I could not look away. Even without saying anything at all, he knew it was her.

She met the man she was to marry that evening after I left.

***

There was a girl I noticed at the campus coffee shop.

I liked her pants. And her hair. It helped that I sat at that coffee shop every day nursing a cigarette because that’s what I did when I was young and stupid. She would walk by, and I would try to find out who she was.

Every day we passed each other in that little corridor or at the coffee shop. I don’t remember how, but she agreed to come on a date with me.

We went to a place I still go to, then on a 46-day backpacking trip to India. I bravely led the way. By the second week we were at the Taj Mahal. We had waited to see the sunset because I thought it might be good to attempt romantic gestures sometimes. As the sun set over Agra I reached for her hand. She pushed it away.

We broke up at the Taj Mahal, which was fitting because we had also fallen in love at the Angkor Wat. From one wonder to another, she still could not erase the shame she felt from being with a woman. Even in a country where no one knew her name.

The next 30 days were epic and vengeful, full of sadness and train schedules.

***

The woman I loved four years ago did not marry the man she met at the bar. I may or may not have had anything to do with it.

The truth was that the more I sunk into the sadness, the more I elevated our mythology. It was not the great love which never was. We were not star-crossed lovers. Not only had I not grown from that point, I had even regressed. Waking up with her every morning made me feel I would lose her any time now. I was a little bit older now but really I was still the awestruck girl in my school uniform and my tie, wanting to know how I could punch above my weight because I can, and God she’s hot.

We were the cartographers of silence which began with a lie, later snowballing into a mountain of mythology and characters with their own CliffsNotes and paths strewn with sad poetry and despair and sadness.

When you throw yourself at a wall repeatedly, it’s okay not to know when to stop, especially if you enjoy feeling sorry for yourself.

But I had adventures to go on and mythology was too heavy to come along for that ride. I threw it away.

***

I don’t dream very much, but that year I had a vivid dream: I dreamed of a tall, slender woman with a soft voice who captivated me completely in that dream. I felt happy in that dream. I was a new person in that dream. I grew to be a better person with this figment of my dream, in my dream.

When I awoke from that dream I was with such a woman barrelling down the River Skrang in Borneo on a hare-brained plan to see tattoos and drink moonshine with the tribal elders of the tattoo artists we knew in the big city. We hit a rock and the river rushed around us as if it wanted to have us whole.

We went places without names on maps. Places without maps. We were apart a lot, but she drove 300 miles to meet me all the time and we travelled tens of thousands of miles together when we could. I ended up travelling tens of thousands of miles each time I needed to see her, which was all the time. We met in Istanbul. We made video postcards about the places we were in without each other, and we sent them to each other every other week.

Eventually we decided it was time to try to steer our way home.

I don’t even remember what home means any more. I had wandered a few hundred thousand kilometres, some of it by foot. Mostly by bus, train or taxi. Even boat.

Home was where she was. Some days it was London. Others, it was Kuala Lumpur.

I found a little house I thought we could be happy in, got a dog, and perhaps for a time we were. It feels as faraway as all of my 18-year-old memories.

***

I don’t remember when I stopped trying. I was back at the Taj Mahal again, and everything about that monument still fills me with despair. I’m never going back there ever again. I looked at her. I felt despair. I didn’t know how to fix us. I just stopped trying. Or talking. I held her hand on a cold New Year’s Eve in Jodhpur. I felt nothing. I kissed her. She did not want to kiss me back. I fell asleep with my back turned, full of anger and secret tears. It had been that way for a while now.

A few months earlier I asked her to marry me. I was met with nervous laughter and panic. In hindsight, it was a bad idea. Everyone knew she would say no.

Except me. Ever the optimist.

The computer says no.

Everybody knows it. But I didn’t get the memo. It was always no.

***

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a lesbian in this society, and it all comes down to this: other people. It’s that I have to automatically assume that all of the following are bonuses, not expectations: having my love recognized for the purposes of property, tax and inheritance; attending a partner’s family functions without unnecessary outcry and suspicion; knowing that if I were to be in a medical emergency, my life partner would be legally allowed to make decisions on my behalf. In other words, to even hope for my future life partner to be perceived as anything other than a complete stranger, is going to have to be taken on other people’s good faith.

As outsiders, that’s all we have to go on: the goodwill of other people. The readiness of other people to stop thinking of us as criminals, sexual deviants and perverts. If I hold hands with a woman I love, I am rubbing it in a conservative society’s face and being too declarative about my sexual orientation; if I walk side by side with one, the man who catcalls and makes lewd comments at us bordering on sexual harassment, is just, after all, being a man and is entitled to his opinions about my body and hers.

As for someone who generally feels like there is nothing in the world I cannot do, all I can do is to keep on doing what I do best—live my life as best as I know how, be kind to old people and animals, donate to charity sometimes, avoid premature death—and dream about the day I hope to see in my lifetime: when our lovers will be our equals, and our love as deserving.

Don’t Lugi Be Happy

In peninsular Southeast Asia there is a word of Malay origin, bastardized by Chinese pronunciation that perhaps best describes the prevalent mindset of the middle class in everything from career to politics: lugi.

More than the losing of face and the losing of status, our collective great fear is the fear of losing out. What of? Anything and everything. A recent history of imperialism, colonialism, authoritarianism and other forms of oppression have perhaps conditioned our brains into a state of perpetual loss. And need for perpetual validation.

Our toddlers go for a dozen classes, academic and non-academic, before they even learn to independently put on their pants. Other people’s kids may win, you see.

It is not enough to get a perfect score at the “O” Levels, scoring a total of 6 points (the fewer the better, 6 being the lowest); to qualify for the top three schools one must have enough point deductions from higher second language, sports and activities, and alumni affiliation, so you’re really aiming for 0 points.

To what end, paper pushers and PowerPoint warriors?

The most successful people I know who have emerged from this Matrix ask a different set of questions.

They do not ask, “what can I lose by doing this?”

They ask, “what can I gain?” Then proceed to minimize the risks through calculated steps and methodologies.

They do not ask, “how can this help me be seen to be more successful by my peers?”

They ask, “how does this help me learn, build, make a life I want for myself, help others, and can it also afford the life that I want such that my peers can see economic success attained through healthy, self-deterministic ways?”

They do not understand the politics of lugi and perhaps it is because some of us do not understand fear; every challenge is a learning curve to be conquered.

Of course this is a privilege of a certain socio-economic class, perhaps an indulgence, but for anyone of an aspirational mindset the fear of losing out is the biggest death knell you can sound. It’s not a competition, but even if it was you’d better be competing because you love it, not because you’re trapped in a race whose rules you don’t understand and whose finish line offers an indeterminate prize you’ll figure out later. Life’s too short to be afraid.

I Follow Cities

Little India Singapore

When I think of the 1980s, I think of the news. In English and Mandarin, both brought to you by Raymond Weil.

When I think of the 1990s, I think of Michael Stipe’s sonic-drenched wailing about his religion, or his lack thereof. And about the one sorry period of global history when everyone wondered too much about yellow lemon trees. Dookie.

If anything happened at all between those decades and now, they were these: the news was broadcast again two minutes afterwards, in a different language (the stories were the same). We flung playing cards at each other in school. We were told in many languages that New Zealand has nearly no people at all, and millions of cows, a fun fact all of us would remember for the rest of our lives. Between 10 and 11 many mornings, children stood by a very large (at the time) drain, brushing our teeth in unison. We rubbed our eyes to relaxing music to prevent the onset of myopia (too late for most of us). I carried a backpack from ages 7 to 13, which I know today to be nearly as large as the travel bag I would carry for the rest of my life, perhaps even as heavy. A battery of life-defining examinations — with as much relevance to my life as other acronyms like WITS and ACES — were survived, even surpassed, before I was deemed fit to be released into the world at large. In quick succession there were also the people I loved, the ones who left, the ones who migrated, or quite simply died. Raymond Weil faded into our collective memories like the playgrounds I never went to until they covered all the sand with foam so our children would no longer bleed when they fell. Perhaps they needed the sand to fill the new lands beyond our shorelines.

Sometimes, I moved one chess piece while my China-born grandfather brewed a pot of tea and filled out his little notebook with calligraphic scrawls I could not read.

We pretended, all the time, that I was winning.

I’d been acutely aware there were two worlds, even within this tiny country — I was born into one, and pulled into the second, kicking and screaming. Growing up I spoke no Mandarin, some English, but I spoke the sort of Teochew which made hawkers giggle as they scooped extra fishballs and minced pork into my noodles. “Girl ah,” they loved to say, beaming at me. “You speak this language like an old woman from Swatow.” My other grandmother brought me to the wet market and showed off my encyclopaedic knowledge of Hokkien classics, the kinds which sound like war cries and power ballads at the same time. “Sing”, she said. “Sing the song about what you’d do if you had a million dollars.”

I would sing. There would be more fishballs, more minced pork, more noodles for the little girl who could speak and sing the languages of her forefathers, but not say a word in Mandarin. I now speak Mandarin but I have forgotten the songs of my childhood.

The world I was pulled into was the one I entered against my free will when I turned 12. I had done well enough, they said, so I should go to the type of school which would improve my station in the world. My new classmates lived in large houses and apartments five minutes from campus, not 45 minutes away in a HDB flat as I did. They were chauffeured to school in Bentleys, Audis, and Jaguars; I took two buses to get there. Their mothers and grandmothers and even their father’s grandmothers had come to this school, which was proud of its secular, elite heritage spanning more than a hundred years. It took pleasure in taking in young, scruffy girls like me, and slowly it turned us all into the same people: young women with poise, education, and class. “I’ve never been to a hawker centre in my life,” my new classmate confessed. “I don’t think I ever will.”

In one English literature class, and we were the school known for producing writers and lawyers, there had been a discussion on the theme of protagonists who’d lost it all. “I imagine if my family lost everything we had, we might have to live in a HDB flat,” a classmate said in horror. “In Clementi. Or Toa Payoh. Or one of those places.” I lived in Clementi; I was pretty certain she had never been to any of those places.

For the most part, the school succeeded in turning me into the archetype. My Mandarin shaky, my English accented, my grades stellar, my sights turned not to Raffles Place and the local universities, but to Wall Street and Ivy League. I would be one of them. It was written.

What was also written: the writing on the wall. The boy in the boy’s school next door who’d gotten a public caning for writing my name on his school walls. I was to be the heterosexual young lady with poise and education and a District 10 lifestyle ahead of her, but that was never my world. I shuffled in my feet when the boy I dated brought me home, and home to him was a grand dining room with a painter mother, several Lamborghinis, and uniformed servants — all ten of them. I balked when I realized I did not have, nor want, a walk-in wardrobe filled with the spoils of shopping trips to Paris and New York. Or at least Hong Kong. Straddling two worlds: one foot in the Clementi hawker centre, delighted by my $0.60 chwee kueh, the other learning to like $6 lattes and $60 set lunches. I must be a communist, they said, because they’d found a copy of the Communist Manifesto in my bag. My father was summoned. He said he was glad I was considering the vast spectrum of political opinions. I am not a communist.

The social mobility that afforded me, with all its trappings of ‘station’ and ‘opportunity’, propelled me to anywhere I wanted to be. London. New York. San Francisco. Sydney. Dubai. Delhi. Bangalore. Beirut. Helsinki. It was all there for the taking. I flirted with other cities, angered by my city-country’s small-ness. Beware small states, the title of a book reads. I was afraid my city’s smallness would close in on me like a beast of the sea, its tentacles firm around my neck. I was afraid I would never learn to breathe, much less fly.

I sought flight: I flew, and still fly, 250 000 kilometres a year. I sought breakup sex with Bombay and Bangalore: my lover, my city, would never be as free and uninhibited as you are, I told my Indian dalliance. I sought space: the vast expanse of the Empty Quarter, the ancient civilizations, the churches which stand on precisely where Cain slew Abel. Then when I was done I sought adventure. I raced tuk-tuks, I washed my hair in the river Skrang upstream from where the entrails of dead boars lay before they were to be cooked. I boarded the modern-day successor to Agatha Christie’s Orient Express, after drinking bad Syrian beer at the Baron Hotel where she and Lawrence of Arabia had once lived. I donned burqahs and boarded the public bus to Aden, drinking tea with pirates real and imaginary, seeking refuge in hotels I associated with the James Bond movies I had come to love as a little girl in Clementi. I went to London and Kuala Lumpur in the pursuit of love. I flew too much in those years.

Then I came home.

I came home, road-weary, wanting to sleep in the bed I’d slept in as a child. The Sundays with ‘mee lay’, soggy yellow noodles simmered in pork and anchovy soup, boiled together for hours, helped. I came home, exhausted, wanting nothing more than to hold my grandmother’s hand for as long as I can, which is, not very much longer. I lost my grandfather to sudden disease when I was gone on one of my adventures, and I don’t know what I would do if that happened again. I came home to walk the streets of Jalan Sultan to talk to garbage-scavenging, tissue-selling old women who will never recall my name, but whose names and faces have been etched into my mind: Madam Chua. There are many Madam Chuas in this city. Madam Chua who walks with a limp, Madam Chua whose disabled children cannot work, Madam Chua whose family lives in two-room government rental flat, who makes a few dollars a day selling tissue to yuppies like me who most of the time turn our faces away and say, sorry auntie I already got tissue no need already thankyew. I can only speak to Madam Chua because my grandmothers made me sing Hokkien songs on demand. I can only speak to Madam Tan who swoops in on our beer cans because my grandmothers taught me to talk like the girl fresh off the boat from Swatow. That world is at once my world, and it is not. I came home to learn more about the Singapore I forgot.

At the Queen Street bus station at 6am one morning, I stood on the grass patch waiting for a bus to Johor. I imagined my grandparents making that same journey: the Johore Express, or whatever they called it back then. The decades-old ticketing office certainly still used tickets which looked just like they would have, when ah gong and ah ma boarded the bus in the opposite direction, to make a new life in Singapore after they got married. After they were match-made on a hill whose name they cannot remember. By way of Swatow, by way of Johor, here I am now, boarding the $2 bus to my grandmother’s city, the one she doesn’t even know anymore because she has dementia.

We build so quickly in this city, such that if I didn’t have personal geography here I would have never known what stood here before: on this very spot between Queen Street and Victoria Street, the tiny man that was my ah gong carried gunny sacks many times his body weight, every single day, gambling it all away, making the little boy who would become my father the most determined person I’d ever met, hell-bent on giving his children a life better than this.

When I experience other cities even as an insider, even as someone who has lived somewhere else for a long time, there is curiosity, and there is joy, in exploring their streets, in learning their names anew. When I walk these streets I know them by their old names. The ones on which there had been the stunted walk of my gunny sack carrying grandfather, once attacked on the head by a cleaver on these streets, lined with the washer-boards his wife had used to wash the laundry of the rich women who did not have to wash their own. The old names and the new overlap: I was born in the ‘bull pen’, not in the gleaming women’s hospital down the road. The policemen of my memories still wore shorts, and had their fearsome batons for the troublesome Chinese gangsters. The nurses were known as the white shirts, and the Hotel New World wasn’t just something I saw on TV, but experienced through my mother, a white shirt who happened to be there looking for something to eat after a shift, but spent hours attending to people who had been picked out of the rubble just like in the movies.

Then there are the landmarks, some of which no longer exist: on that grass patch and its adjoining streets, near the wholesale market which no longer exists, my grandfather carried spices and dried goods for decades. Five decades later, memories of bittersweet happiness would be formed just around the corner: of being shy and 17, stumbling out of a movie theatre, holding tightly the hands of the first woman I’d ever come to love. They were the neighbourhoods we came to know, and the places we’d called home.

The other cities will always be there. The bright lights of our imagined better places will always be on. I can build a life anywhere I want, whenever I want. For now, perhaps it is nostalgia, perhaps it is misplaced political optimism, but I choose to build my life in my late twenties, right here where it all began. Even if I can never call my wife my wife, even if I have to adopt my own children before the state will let me call myself her mother, it is the home which was set into motion for me: sixty five years and a bit ago.

Even though people like us live a life on the move, we still need a place to call our own. I choose to walk these streets, to call them by their old names, and to remember the reason I love this home is because I have one foot in this Singapore, and the other in the one that will only get better.

Little India Urban Renewal Plan

I believe an urban renewal and community reorganization of the Little India precinct can achieve the following: (a) the creation of public spaces to be shared by Singaporeans, residents, tourists and transient workers alike (b) the improvement of law and order without the draconian hand of law (c) lead to an increase in utility and happiness among the residents and voters who live there and the workers who make it their home every Sunday.

An 8-point urban renewal and community reorganization program:

1. Two small bus bays on either ends of Little India with staggered time slots for arrivals and departures for the Sunday visitors; special EZ-link style cards to be issued just to workers to expedite boarding and remove sources of conflict between drivers, conductors and workers

2. Two drop-in centres on either ends of Little India staffed by grassroots volunteers in the Moulmein-Kallang GRC who have the power to escalate issues of grave concern (such as the non-payment of salaries and other labour abuses) to the relevant personnel at the ministries; and the empathy to refer smaller problems to the relevant non-profits who can help

3. Prepaid SIM cards targeted at Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani workers should come with pre-programmed hotline numbers to the drop-in centres. The universities can provide a source of volunteers for their community service requirements. Students who speak or are learning Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and Tamil should be given preference.

4. An amateur cricket tournament or league can be held at the fields in Little India or even at the stadium.

5. Participating F&B outlets can be part of an association of Friends of Little India. Singaporeans and residents who are part of the program can pledge to give an additional $1 each time they visit, which goes into a giant pot for Sunday food. Workers can buy a nourishing meal at a discounted rate of $1 or $2, subsidized by the consumers in the program

6. Free monthly walks around Little India run by volunteers. Community centres around Singapore should be encouraged to book walks so their residents are able to experience a different culture and become familiar with Little India.

7. A mobile library with books and magazines from Bangladesh and Tamil Nadu to start with. Later on, an expansion of library program could mean short certificate-granting courses that can be supported by govt agencies interested in productivity and labour skills.

8. A monthly outdoor movie screening which shows Tamil, Bengali and Hindi movies, programming to be determined.

Idealistic? Yes. How to find the money? Dunno also. I don’t think being cynical or apathetic to this is going to do very much good either.

For now I will continue to work on whatever I can do, in very very tiny steps.

The Real Singapore Conversations

I posted this on Facebook the night of the incident. Re-posting this here for posterity.

Projects like Culture Kitchen — and a few more up my sleeve — began with the uneasy realisation that something was amiss in Singapore as I knew it. Was it that it was crowded? Bursting at the seams? Was it that amongst that crowd we now no longer knew each other’s names? That our old ways — of easy categorisation, institutionalized racial profiling swept under a veneer of “open, meritocratic Singapore where anybody and everybody can succeed” — no longer held true? That our old social contracts: shut up, take the money, no longer applied when the money ran out?

The truth was we were blind to our shortcomings. We are the nerd that made it to the top of the class and is somewhat cool now but won’t ever discuss the things we’re not good at, like, brooking dissent. Or criticism. Or opinion.

When the immigration floodgates were cast wide open for nearly a decade, we were told: “We got it.”

When our planners believed demography to be a function of race and ethnicity instead — when we believed for a second there that as long as we brought in the *correct* type of people, social cohesion would follow — we did not have a voice.

When our infrastructure creaked under the weight of all of the people we did not expect, we realised that train lines not only do not build themselves quite quickly enough: people also do not build ties with each other quite enough.

When popular and political opinion turned, the same people who told us they got this told us they still got this, and now chased the people who came to build a home away.

And we the people failed to reach out to each other to learn that despite what we felt about our government, that should not really matter: oppose the policy, not the people who came here.

The last time in our history there were overturned vehicles and fires was at the very start of our journey as a Republic.

Tonight the vehicles burn for different reasons: the episodes are incomparable.

Yet it will, mark my words, point to yet another turning point — the start of a real national soul-searching, this time as a Republic in a mid-life crisis.

Earlier today the ruling party attempted to search its soul. I personally believe it is struggling to define its continued leadership role in a Singapore that is evolving faster than it is.

When shit hit the fan and (anecdotally) my friends of minority races and nationalities faced open hostility in my country, both physical and verbal, we were told: “we got this.”

But tonight I urge all of you — Singaporeans, Singapore residents, foreign workers, anybody who cares about Singapore in any shape or form no matter where you live or what colour your passport and identity card is — to help us rise above racism and blame and xenophobia because as we have seen tonight, the first riot in decades is taking hours to wind down even in the most controlled city in the world. But when it is all over, I think we need to have an honest conversation with ourselves — the real Singapore Conversation. Not the sanitised version.

Don’t let them say they got this. Whether or not they’ve got this is of no great import. It’s that we can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines while someone else puts out the flames, in every sense, that is.