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Back in the SL

3 minute read

I have become one of those people.

For the fourth time this year, I am sitting at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf at Colombo airport drinking the world’s worst coffee and the worst food.

I am also strutting around in heels. Here. Also in Indonesia. In the Philippines. Everywhere. I walked into a TASMAC in dodgy neighbourhood in Madras in my Asian office lady dress and in my heels. Everybody stared. The truth is I have misplaced my flip flops and the hippie that was wearing them along with it.

The heels make my friends laugh. A, who hasn’t lived in Singapore for the last five years, literally dropped her cocktail all over our bags as she stood there marvelling at how I was wearing proper shoes.

Here I am now in a designer top, hippie pants, heels and uncombed hair. I have lost my hairbrush, too.

My life these days is at once more stable and at once more colourful. The opportunities get larger and more varied. The opportunity costs increase. There is clarity. I say “epic” and “amazeballs” a lot. I also say “let’s jam” when talking about meetings because I work with so many Americans and call so many of them my friends.

I’ve had the chance to pursue some incredible opportunities at work (in tech), for play (in writing), for causes I care about; I am pleased.

My dog goes to doggie kindergarten and camping trips, and I go to meetings. Sometimes I remember to comb my hair. I pay rent in one of the world’s most expensive cities and I travel once a week, sometimes more. I get to see my lovely family all the time now, which is a vast improvement from 2008-2013.

We ringed in the new year in an apartment overlooking the Singapore River. The fireworks were beautiful but the best part was the good friends I love. Years ago in the back room of a tiny political party’s office — an episode we will probably laugh about for the rest of our lives — I met N and S, and they have been exactly what one Facebook caption said, “together through good and bad, politics, broken hearts and unwritten novels.” The all-nighters will come to something. The elections were our becoming. The friends to whose sides you flee to for refuge and for pineapple tarts and gin when you’ve had your heart broken are the ones to keep.

Last night I attended a beautiful wedding in Sri Lanka. Normally weddings make me want to cry with how trite and awful they are, yet despite the rituals and the chaos, this one was full of love and light. It was clear every single soul that made it out there came because we truly loved these guys. From Johannesburg to New York to Singapore, guests were family to the couple, jointly and separately, at various points of lives led in Sri Lanka, Singapore, New York City and elsewhere. Here were two souls who had withstood trials of such intensity and magnitude, who had moved mountains to be with each other. Though the guests fumbled, we eventually managed to let loose a flurry of wishing lights into the sky over Pannupitiya.

That’s what all this is about, the bride not so tearfully (compared to her best friend) told us. Family, friends that are family, and love.

In the balmy Sri Lankan heat I felt at home in the tropics, my heart full of love and happiness for the first time in a long while.

Never again will I settle for second best, nor for anything short of extraordinary, unconditional love.

Another List of Things

5 minute read

(63 Random Things in 2012)

1. Causeway

I still remember the day you drove me across the Causeway with our dog and all of my life’s belongings in your little car. We made that journey many times, usually in the other direction. Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. Happiness, not desperate anger. We were even talking back then.

I held Cookie’s paw in my hand while you silently, angrily, stepped on the accelerator and brought me home — to my other life, the one I hadn’t known for five years — in record time. Bangsar to Johor in an hour and a half.  I used to wait up as you drove your little car to see me, at the start.

In the end, Cookie slept. My laundry basket swayed. Your little car rattled. I wrapped her in our blanket and told her it would be okay. Some day.

2. Brooklyn

If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere; everyone should live in New York at least once in their lives. This city is a city of clichés, but it deserves every single one of them. I rented a crazy/beautiful place where nothing was as it seemed. I was in San Francisco just before, where everyone said I would find the life I wanted, the work I loved, the woman I would fall in love with. But I felt nothing for San Francisco and it felt nothing for me. The moment I walked out of the bus into Manhattan, I knew I had fallen hard: there was poetry in its streets, birdsong in its buildings. Possibilities. New York was a dream, and not a permanent one,  not even a very long one I could savour. And yet but she taught me everything I needed to know about being fearless.

3. Cherrapunjee

From the world’s wettest place I called you, wanting a glimpse into your life from over there. Over there and up there in the mountains, everywhere but here. You could not let me in but you could not tell me why.

In my younger days I did not know how to straddle my worlds. By day and for most of the year we were just college girls, in love with each other. We went to class. Wrote essays. Went home to our suburban apartments with our families and worried about our GPA. Then I stumbled into a world of an accidental nomadism that pulled me away completely.

In the years to come I would get better at leading multiple existences across different cities around the world. I would have a different life in Dubai, Delhi, Singapore and Bangkok. My life in Bangalore would not be discernible to someone who claimed to love me in Singapore, and eventually I would learn to be okay with that. What I would also get better at: discerning the silent pauses on the phone and the “I’m seeing someone else” crack in your voices, miles away from home. I would get better at not having a home.

But not before I learned the sound of a heart breaking in a monsoon in the world’s wettest place could be soothed by the warmth of a real fireplace roasting my fish from the marketplace.

4. Dubai

A fortune teller told me I would meet you, and that you would love me, and that you would — and could — but can’t — be one of the great loves of my life. Maybe this person is married. Maybe he’s a man? 

When I tried to call this desert my home, briefly, you drove me down Sheikh Zayed Road into the old city and it seemed we both knew we had known each other for a long time, even if we had only just met. You and your bald head and your Russian grin and your checkered shirt and the life we would never have. You were my phenomenon of unknown quantities, and I will never know you. Nor you me.

5. Shanghai

I came in the cold to a country I do not like, to see you in a city I do not love, because you had become important to me — unexpectedly. You wanted to know when we first met if I wanted a relationship with you at all, if I wanted to explore alternative arrangements, but if I wasn’t ready that was okay too. That’s why it worked when it did — even if just for a blip of time on the rest of our lives, we shared moments of brutal honesty and open love. You were, and we were, what we both needed at the time, and yet I could not scale the wall of hurt which had existed before us, one I had no stomach or place to attempt to cross. But for that moment in the French Quarter, when we were eating dumplings, when I was shivering in the cold, none of that mattered except that I was right there with you.

6.  Haji Lane

When I was 20, I  was a different kid then. I was the sort of kid who wrote things like: “When people kiss in dark alleyways they are usually making promises. When we do, we break a thousand of them, including the ones we have been hanging on to for any semblance of survival.”  (from “Art & Lies, And“)

In hindsight they were not broken promises, they weren’t promises at all, and we weren’t dying. But at that moment, and for many years before and after, you were all I ever wanted. My kryptonite. We wrote — and we wrote. We rewrote our story repeatedly until it became a myth, but we never found a happy ending, nor in fact any kind of an ending at all. Years later I would sit at that exact spot as an outsider to someone I tried to love with her kryptonite beside her, just marvelling at how life and love comes full circle and the best I can do is walk away from anyone who doesn’t want this right now or ever. Or can’t.

7. Elsternwick 

A week ago you said, “I want to build a nest with you.” A week later you wanted to flee it. A lot happened in Melbourne, it’s true, but I wanted you to be my greatest adventure and you just did not believe me.

You fell in love with the woman who brought you flowers, who made you the centre of my universe. I brought you flowers until the end. At some point you stopped noticing. Love on its own was never going to be enough, but I didn’t believe it was all we had to keep going.

You and me will probably move on quickly enough to never get a chance to think about what really happened there, but as for me I will let my last memory of you be the moment you stepped off the plane, when for a minute you let yourself be there. That was the last glimpse of you I recognised, and the last time you noticed. I wish I never went to Melbourne. There is nothing I like at all about it except the coffee.

Little India Urban Renewal Plan

2 minute read

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

2 minute read

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.


1 minute read

I posted this on Facebook. Cross-posting it here for posterity.

It’s all over folks. Here’s what we do know for sure. (I stayed up for the press conference)

– A fatal accident involving a Singaporean bus driver and an Indian national sparked off a riot (about 400 people)

– The call was made at 9.23pm. It was resolved within an hour.

– 27 suspects from South Asian countries (did not say where: good call) were arrested

– No Singaporeans were involved in the rioting

– The deceased is a 33 year old Indian national. Condolences to his family.f

– 300 police officers responded

– Gurkhas and special ops were involved

– This was a case of ‘rioting with dangerous weapons’

– They didn’t say what. But mentioned glass bottles being thrown.

– This was not premeditated

– Bus driver not arrested. Further arrests to be made.

– No weapons were fired. Maximum restraint was used. (Good job Home Team)

– Explosions were caused by burning vehicles

– Projectiles were thrown at rescuers who were trying to extricate body from under bus

– Riot sparked after the bus was pelted following the accident

– Police will investigate all aspects, including the accident

– DPM Teo says those involved will be dealt with fairly, firmly, strictly, in accordance with the law

– Police will step up in areas where ‘foreigners congregate’ (I’m sure they don’t mean Marina Bay Sands)


– Stats: 10 police, 4 SCDF officers injured; bus driver and conductor in hospital, 2 “unaccounted for” (waiting to hear what this means).

– 9 SCDF vehicles damaged, 5 vehicles burned

– Private vehicles were also damaged. Unclear if this count is included in the above, or separate

Please keep the families of the deceased and injured in your prayers. When we wake up tomorrow we should ask ourselves some hard questions, and if you think that’s just something that happens with “foreigners” and “those people”, I implore you to think harder.