All posts in 2024
  • Do You Know About Galau?

    I was just telling someone tonight: I force myself to meet a different stranger in Jakarta every single day that I'm here.

    Even if I'm exhausted after work (which I usually am), I try to meet a new person, or eat a new food. Go to a new area.

    The first time I lived outside of Singapore was when I moved to Dubai in 2007 right out of university. Then, without the metro or a usable public transport system, I was lost, angry and disoriented (I don't drive). I hear it's different now, but I'll never know.

    Jakarta, despite the terrible traffic (and I don't think I'll ever stop saying that; I certainly haven't heard any locals stop complaining), works for me.

    Between the ojek (motorbike taxi) and plentiful and good taxis, I'm pretty much covered.

    I try to practise my Indonesian with total strangers, too.

    Tonight's conversation went a little bit like this.

    Cabbie: Why did you not get into the cab earlier! Is it because I am black?

    Me: No!

    Cabbie: Okay!

    Me: How long have you lived in Jakarta!

    Cabbie: 20 years! I'm from Timor! I play in a band! Check it out on YouTube! T-I-B-E-T B-A-N-D G-O-M-B-A-L

    Me: Tay- ee- bay- aa- tay… fuck, what's this G in Indonesian?

    Cabbie: Watch my videos! I'm singing! Let me put on some of my other music for you!

    Me: (recognizes words like… cintamu, denganmu… JIWANG ALERT GOES UP)

    Cabbie: Do you know about the galau?

    Moments like these.

    Rockstar cabbie in ridiculous YouTube video.

    Nus Bany, is his name. He's the one in the insane costume. He also arranged and composed most of the music.

    Nus Bany is now my regular taxi driver contact.

    I intend to unleash him on all of my unsuspecting business visitors.

    Yes, I know about the galau.

    And it might be a sign that I'm moving further away from my Peninsular Southeast Asian roots when I now say galau over jiwang.

    I love galau music. What's your fave?

  • Some Updates

    1. I've moved to Jakarta to take part in Ideabox with my startup, WoBe

    2. I'm writing more on Medium these days. The blog format is unsatisfactory to me at the moment

    3. Over there, I've started two collections which may be interesting to some of you. In The Java Diaries, I obsessively track my time in Jakarta in the name of learning. In Myanmar's Second Wind, I write about my year in Yangon and the people I've met there, from the tech entrepreneur's point of view

    4. Know someone fun or interesting in Jakarta? I would love to meet them

    5. What does one do with a blog these days?

  • 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 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



    Why I Am Still A Feminist

    Love, Singapore

    The One About Having It All

  • Videos Games & Political Consciousness

    I wrote this piece some time ago about video games for Memory Insufficient, a games history ezine. This is it.

    Click this link to download the PDF.

    I’ve spent the last couple of nights binge-playing through the Mass Effect trilogy, which reminds me a little bit too much of the late nights I’ve pulled work- ing on political campaigns and social causes in the past. The setup is about the same: all of the above require a single-minded approach to The Goal. Total dedication is best. Showers can be skipped. So can sustenance. The Goal can be anything: win an election, stay out of trouble, vanquish aliens or make some connections. All other objectives, like rescuing civilians or being a decent person, are often secondary. The joy you feel from completing a mission on a planet feels as real as any real life political victory you’ve ever thrown your weight behind.

    One day you’re editing a speech for a politician, the next you’re fighting a fire — in the hull of the ship, or on Twitter. It’s all interconnected. I’m an avid gamer, political otaku and all around nerd, so perhaps I feel that way because my favourite games are the ones that in- clude, even combine, some elements of all of the above. Just like history, games — and their plotlines and char- acters — are written by the victors: those who control the battlefield. Some gamers like to believe that the game worlds we so love are or should be free of the in- fluence of politics and ideology; that they exist as works of art alone in a vacuum and should be appreciated as such. Others have written volumes about identity poli- tics and video games (and indeed there are many prob- lematic aspects associated with being a female, Asian and gay gamer).

    Political capital is often spent by the ones who don’t know they possess it. Games are often presented as being mere works of fiction. Some of them, like Assassin’s Creed, even tell you as much, by starting off with a disclaimer calling it a work of fiction inspired by historical events. Yet being the nerdy amateur writer and political historian that I am, I’m more keen to line up the story they don’t tell you — in-between the cutscenes, behind the sto- ryboard and everywhere except onscreen. When you make a decision to assume a character or interact with one, how much of it was already made for you?

    Let’s start from the beginning.

  • All In

    I turn 29 in a couple of months. T-W-E-N-T-Y-N-I-NE. This is doubly a shock because in my head I feel forever young, partly as a function of always having been the youngest person in every single circle I have run in, from friends to career to everything else really. I started blogging when I was 15 — nearly 15 years ago! — at a time when was a hosting provider, content management systems transmitted your passwords in plain text, and leaving a message on a ShoutBox was a valid way of engaging on the Internet.

    That young life and everything that encompassed feels as faraway as the era in which I packed 30 Compact Discs to school in a metallic CD holder, and my music skipped — as I skipped — on the way to school through the deserted carpark of my housing estate at six in the morning, every morning. My peers are entrepreneurs and CEOs (being a high-flying lot), my friends are married and/or engaged, my contemporaries have published books, plural, and I show up in magazines occasionally as the Older Role Model For Younger Women. Wow, that's old.

    All of that just means it's great fun. It's more fun when you're of age. At least that's how it's been for me. When it seemed dire — sometime around the final year of university, panicking, wondering: what do I do with my life? — when it seemed as though all that life had in store was some dead end office job and an indeterminate life (growing up gay in 1990s Singapore: hard), it's been hard to really envision the sort of life I wanted to carve out for myself. For the most part it was even difficult to articulate what that life would be. At almost-29, having seen a bit of the world, having that much more clarity, I have to say Fuck Yeah, It's Great. Anything is better than the black holes and the black spots that so terrify you when the alternatives aren't immediately obvious.

    A hundred and seven weeks ago I left this city (KL) in a mad haste. I didn't know how to ship a puppy three hundred and seventy kilometres back to the city I was born and bred in. I didn't know how to step away from that comfortable but middling life I had built for myself over a couple of years. I didn't know how it was going to be. I'd set up a company at the tender age of twenty three, in an industry I knew nothing about. I learned more in those years than in all my years of education put together; I grew to love the hustle. That hustle was addictive, but I didn't know measure, and I didn't know the upper limits of my ambition and my ability. I got very, very ill. In a way, I had to lose it all in order to be a better person along the way.

    I've now carved out a life for myself in the city I grew up in. The city I rebelled against and hated with every inch of my being (it was a much different place, then). It has been surprisingly good for me. Chalk it down to the stability of home and a rock-solid support network I'm lucky to have back here; to the incredible opportunities I get from being here; there's hardly a week which passes without the ability to reinvent myself in any of three or more amazing ways.

    A decade ago I was a wimpy teenager with nothing but a half-baked sense of the general direction I wanted to move towards. The hardest part, it felt at the time, was to learn how to leapfrog the various handicaps I felt I had then: the curse of being female, gay, and opinionated. These days all of those things feel like strengths.

    In the decade since, I've relentlessly pursued every single one of my goals in life and in love. It hasn't been an easy journey, but at least I can say this: I failed, I stumbled, I felt I could not recover from some of those setbacks; I bounced back, even if it took a very long time in some of them. I've managed to create a life for myself across continents which appears charmed and easy and privileged and opportunistic to some, but which I've worked really hard for.

    A few months ago while having a bit of an existential crisis, I'd written in my (paper) journal: I'm ambitious and a perfectionist in my career, so why not in happiness? That's what drives me at the end of it all: the seemingly elusive happiness, defined by you and you alone. It was clear I could never be happy pushing paper behind a desk, so I ran from it. It was evident I could pretend to be happy in the sort of middling arrangement in which I had all of the trappings of comfort but none of the excitement of an inspirational love, so I had to learn to be happy on my own before I could hazard such risks again. I've spent the past hundred and seven weeks figuring stuff out, which is perhaps as self-indulgent as it comes, but I learned I just wasn't ready. You grow up a ton when you have bills and thousands of dollars in taxes to pay for your youthful mistakes.

    This is what I do differently now:

    1. Write clear, concise emails. I wish I knew it earlier, but learning to ask for things clearly and briefly is a life skill.
    2. Talk about money without feeling weird. I don't know about you, but I used to find it difficult to talk about money. Expected compensation, ballpark estimates, money you will render for a good or a service — maybe girls aren't really brought up to be OK asking for what you think you're worth? I don't know. But ever since learning to do this, things get done faster, and more importantly expectations are met — or not — in a more efficient manner.
    3. Say no. I believe it's a trait of many a person's younger life that saying no is just the most difficult thing you can do, next to talking about money, often together. A month ago I was at the cusp of a huge career development: I had three major opportunities, each better than the other. At the end of it I realized (a) you already know what the best option is, if you trust your gut (b) but that takes time and experience to learn to trust. I said no to the first two opportunities, and I'm happier for it.
    4. Having to prove yourself is bullshit. There's a difference between establishing credibility and having to again and again prove your worth — and that's true in business and in love. With age I've also become more comfortable with the big idea of Who I Am and What I Stand for, and it's (related to the previous point) been easier to move towards what you really want as a result. For example, social media contests for popularity in order to Win Something — that's all bullshit. You have better ways to expend your time and energy.
    5. Pay It Forward. Your mileage may vary, but I truly believe that paying it forward is one of the best things you can do. I run an NGO, organize community events for causes I Give A Shit About, and mentor some younger gay and trans kids because: why wouldn't you? It's so much more fulfilling that way. You get back in spades what you give, and not solely in the monetary sense.
    6. Give A Shit, Or Don't. This part was hard to figure out. I've had some arguments and lost some friends over this. My version of it: in general, I try to be a nice person, and perhaps succeed at it. But I feel I've come to that point in my life where I'm aware of the limitations — of myself, more than anything else. And when I don't feel like it, or when someone or something has a negative impact on my happiness or that of a loved one's, not giving a shit is the only way I know how to deal with it these days. Anything else — the awkward pretense? the song and dance of adolescent and young adult social niceties? Fuck that. My only rule is if a person or organization or thing has a nett positive effect on the things I care most about — that's great. Life's way too short for people who tire you out and worse still, people who subtract from the world.
    7. Sleep More. I'm late to the party, but I'm a new convert to the Sleep Is Really Important school of thought. It's related to aging, but damn, it's magic. Not sleeping, however, is toxic. No matter for what ends.
    8. Do What You Love. I'm not a fan of this pithy statement. It's almost too slick. But there's some truth to it. What I prefer, though, is a combination of that with Change What You Don't. I love a lot of things — aviation, gin, India, travel, and so much more — but I'm not about to run out and eke out a living out of every single one of them. What helps me keep balance (and sanity) is the other part. What bothers me so much that I cannot sit idly by? For now, it's girls' education in India. Xenophobia in Singapore. In a couple of years it might be religious fundamentalism in Singapore. Or something else which will surprise me.
    9. Learn Something New. It wasn't always so, but of late I've had a strict personal rule. That I should learn something I don't know anything about, whenever it feels like I'm stagnating. Last year, it was diving. And swimming. This month, it's classical guitar and gardening.
    10. Know Thyself. Then Adjust Accordingly. As I previously mentioned, I set up my own company at age twenty three knowing fuck-all about tech and business. I now know how important it is to have strict accounting and paper-filing standards. When I was ill in KL it felt like the sort of health-related traffic red light which made me stop to take stock of my life, health and my abilities. I have always known I'm not temperamentally suited to conventional employment, yet I did not feel ready enough — financially or mentally, since I was for a long time at that point in my life where I could not even remember passwords or how to populate spreadsheets, so I could not.

    Lastly, this: Jump On The Train When It Pulls Into The Station. In my industry there are various ways to convey this. One of it is, when the rocketship arrives, get on and don't ask which seat you're on. The other one is, do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water? In that respect, I've just had my metaphorical train pull up into the station. So I'm going all in.

    In a month and a bit, I get to pick up where I left off and call this past 107 weeks officially over. It wasn't possible without a lot of hustling, but here I finally am. I'm starting a new company which combines the two things I Give A Shit most about, tech and female empowerment in Asia. I have a great team, enlightened investors, and nothing to prove this time but to see how far technology can improve lives (tech solutionism? perhaps.) in that part of the world I care the most about. We get started — first in Jakarta, then in Yangon, which also brings me back to how everything comes full circles and all the dots connect if you let it, that I spent the better part of my youth aimlessly wandering around these parts finding things to do. When things happen, you grab them by the bloody balls.

    None of this would have been possible if it wasn't for the incredible people in my life, especially my family. They keep me grounded, in all of the best ways. My dad, because he's never once flinched at being the rock of my life; my circle of best friends, because they never let me get too arrogant or too hurt, all at once. Mostly, because I have a home to come back to, in the literal and the figurative sense.

    I'm excited to embark on the next phase of my life with the sum of every single goddamn part, and so much more.

  • Gyanada 2014

    As you may know, I set up The Gyanada Foundation last year. We've spent the past year building the organisation and learning as much as we can.

    Last year, we supported 150 girls in India. This year we hope to raise that number to 350, including the existing students we have onboard currently; also expanding geographical reach alongside enrolment numbers at the same time.

    Yesterday evening we had a great event at Artistry where we talked about what we've done so far and what we hope to accomplish in the near future.

    Here's some information about what we do.

  • What I Learned

    Two years ago I found out I have an autoimmune disease. I will always have it. It changed everything about my life from what I do for money to where I live. It prompted a reinvention of myself which was at turns painful, but ultimately necessary. This is what I learned.

    1. Never forego sleep. "You'll sleep more over the weekend" is bullshit. Not sleeping is bullshit. There is no amount of money in the world anymore that can make me sleep less, even if I grumble about it: I'm convinced sleep is the single most important thing I will never, ever give up again.

    2. Make your own destiny. The single best thing I have done in my 20s was to grab every damn opportunity that came my way. And there were plenty. Even if people can't see the method in the madness, every little thing adds up. I truly believe that.

    3. Be nice to your family. At least for me, they've been the foundation upon which I've been able to build a life. Through illness and in health.

    4. Home is home. There are many reasons to not want to live in Singapore, but returning here to build my adult life here in my late 20s was the best decision. There are a ton of opportunities and we are in the centre of exciting things, at least for what I do in tech and business.

    5. Surround yourself with smart people who care about people. I've been lucky to have some of the smartest people in the world in my direct orbit. I've learned an immeasurable amount from them. It's the only way to be better. If they're douchebags, nothing you learn can ever be of use.

    6. If you need anything, just ask. There's a longish essay in this that I need to write sometime. If you don't know anything, ask as well. Only good things can ever come out of asking.

    7. Don't date people who want to hold you back. Or down. Ever.

    8. Do date someone who inspires you to get up every morning and change the world. Who won't laugh when you say that. Who will ask you what part of the world you would like to change today, and how she can help.

    9. Milestones are a sham. You're expected to check certain boxes by a certain time: degree, first job, first apartment, blah blah. It's not that they're not important, but following someone else's timetable for your life is the biggest lie we've all been told.

    10. Corporate conferences are never worth any amount of money you are asked to pay. Ever. If there is a giant billboard and a roomful of suits, go to the bar and do some real work instead.

  • Mahabandoola

    At the hotel I had the receptionist scribble the name of my lunch spot in Burmese. Lunch that day was to be outside my sphere of Yangon familiarity: I had never been there, but I had been told by some locals that I must have a typical Burmese lunch at Aung Thu Kha.

    So to Aung Thu Kha I went.

    After gesticulating at each other for a while, my taxi driver stared at the piece of paper, looked up at my face and laughed: you speak Mandarin, don't you?

    I speak Mandarin, don't I? I think I do.

    I have always been perturbed at how people seem to be able to deduce secrets about me just by peering at my face. This happens at alarming frequency whenever I travel. Some days, I'm told I must be Burmese of Chinese origin. Other days, I'm Thai. In northeast India I am accepted by all of their tribes; my linguistic inability explained away for me by what must be my probable fluency in some another tribal language. Yet in China, the country of my grandparents' birth and heritage, I am too Southeast Asian. Too dark. Too English-speaking. I am the colour of the sun beating the earth, and China is a distant, lost memory a long way away from the sun.

    So yes, I speak Mandarin. The ability to converse in it has followed me throughout the world, sometimes paying handsomely with access few other languages can offer.

    He asks the inevitable. "How do you find Myanmar?"

    Like everyone else who has asked that before me, before I have a chance to reply he gripes, "It must be terrible for you. It's terrible. All of it."

    "I love the city and its people - surely all signs point to improvement!"

    "Yes. Improvement also leads to traffic jams," honking angrily as a car tried to cut our place in a jam in a tiny residential lane.

    In our brief conversation I learned he was the grandson of Yunnanese immigrants, economic refugees in their time. In the thirties, Rangoon was the shining light of Asia. Its opulent hotels filled with important people. Its white-only clubs invented cocktails such as the Pegu Club. The Yunnanese of China's deep south fled south to seek their fortune. Some have done exceedingly well; they have assimilated, in a way, taking on Burmese names and speaking Burmese fluently on top of their Chinese identities, preserved and left the way it was when they left in the thirties.

    I wanted to know what languages they spoke at home, what they ate. He indulged me.

    "My parents made us speak Mandarin at home when we were kids. If we slipped into Burmese, we got fined. They were born here, but they wanted us to stay connected to our Chinese identities as well. Oh, and Burmese food is way too oily," he shook his head as he dropped me off. "Let me know if you want Yunnanese or Dai food when you're back in town. It's better."

    When 1962 happened, among the many atrocities that ensued: Chinese schools closed. Burmese citizens not from the Barma ethnic group were banned from attending certain institutions of higher learning. Just like that the lights went out in Asia's leading metropolis, and stayed off for a very long time.

    In 2014, some of those lights have come back on. And with them, traffic jams. The unpaven road outside a bank near my hotel was, two days later, a pavement. For some, it's a clear sign Burma is going to be the gold rush of the east of this century: five star hotels' bars and Chinatown noodle stalls are similarly filled with businessmen from mainland China seeking fortune and glory.

    "Perhaps I'll buy factory equipment from back home and ship it here," an enthusiastic new arrival announced loudly at a Cantonese-run noodle stall on the streets of Chinatown, rattling off his entire business plan in Mandarin while the other customers looked on uninterested.

    Maung Maung, a middle-aged Cantonese-Burmese man jumped up with an oversized Chinese phone and pulled out a floor plan. They looked at it intently. Maung Maung went back to his noodles, slurping. (Maung Maung of just a few moments ago: "My Chinese name, lady, is Jin Bo. Jin for GOLD!")

    "We'll make plans. See what help you need. I can help," Maung Maung told the newcomer.

    "Do you have my phone number? I still don't remember what it is," the young mainlander said in a way that sounded like a plea for help. He'd either just gotten here or still hadn't shaken off his "overwhelmed by Burma" look.

    "Of course I do," Maung Maung laughed as he perked up. "I sold it to you."

  • 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.

  • Rebuilding

    1. Almost exactly two years ago I was, too, on a flight to India.

      Only then I did not know exactly how drastic a turn my life would take on when I returned.

    2. More and more of my friends are getting diagnosed with diseases similar to mine. Autoimmune diseases are the new black.

      Across all of these experiences the one we've all had has been the extreme upheaval in all of our emotional lives.

    3. Sometimes I wonder if the person who made those decisions at the time was me, or the severely impaired bodily part that's wreaked havoc in my head and my heart.

      Even if the conclusions are the same in the end, I would still like to know that I had some control. But I did not.

    4. There is nothing I hate more than feeling like my self-determinism, even if it doesn't really exist, has been impinged upon.

      Even if the other person making decisions for me was just a temporarily damaged version of myself.

    5. I've spent almost two years rebuilding my life.

      I've subjected it to some pretty extreme versions of what it could have been and can be, and now I've chosen the version I like best.

      I like this one.

    6. This one:

      This one is happy and confident, pushing 30.

      This one is writing more, and better.

      This one has had a handful of career highlights and is working harder to create the sorts of situations and opportunities that will define the next decade; it's within grasp.

      This one has an incredible support system in Singapore, Malaysia, India and all around the world and feels like the luckiest person in the world to experience such love.

      This one has a loving family. A beautiful dog. A lovely house in a magical part of the city that she loves more and more. A slew of projects taking shape.

      This one is learning to finish what she's started.

    7. I've struggled to articulate what I feel whenever I return to the city I once lived in.

      It is a living museum of my loves and losses.

      It is a diptych where one side is the city that I once knew and the other is the one I no longer do.

      Time has stopped for me in that city. But I am learning to love it again after.

    8. The city that is a living museum of love and loss merely preserves them so I can learn to love again.

      The streets I walked in in them will never be the same.

      Just as it should be possible to hold two opposing positions at once so as to form a better informed opinion, so too should it be possible to hold multiple feelings simultaneously so that we can love better.

      For now I pick: terrifying, amazing.

      Life's too short for compromises. I'm too fond of jumping off boats then learning to swim, anyway.

  • An Indian Decade

    I've been coming and going from India for the last ten years.

    In 2004 I started to hatch the first plans to flee the terrifying life laid out for me - that of a student in a Singapore university, doomed for the corporate world or for the civil service - into the wide open arms of India, which changed everything, and who I have grown to love unconditionally. Those early escape plans evolved into a lifestyle I would not trade for anything in the world, one which has given me ample global career and life opportunities simply because I could not sit still when I was 19.

    I've written a lot about India in various forms, but here are some posts previously posted here about India:

    Speak of India and its great cities, and someone is bound to correct you.

    Mumbai, they say, offended, as though you didn't know any better. In other situations, Chennai. Yet I do say and I do like saying Bombay and Madras because those were the names we had for those cities, growing up a sea away from the subcontinent, and nostalgia counts for something, nationalist political correctness be damned.

    It's a weird question I cannot answer whenever someone asks the inevitable, why do you love India so?

    Where do I begin?

    Do I begin with the story of how hearing my China-born grandparents conversing in market-Tamil with our Tamil neighbours as a child mesmerised me whole, leading me to watch Tamil movies endlessly wondering why I could not understand the dialogue?

    Or perhaps it has something to do with how I was born a stone's throw away from Little India, how my parents were wed on Diwali, and for the astrologically-minded - of which I am not - that made perfect sense to explain away my identity confusion? My solo walks around Little India as a teenager led me into informal Tamil lessons I can no longer remember, and spice shop tastings that made me feel, for once, that this is a home I understand? _


    Or that nearly all of my early mentors in childhood and adolescence were Tamil-Teochew poets and Sanskrit scholars who imparted in me a love for rhyme and meter and an irrational fear of booming voices; that later in life, nearly all of my friends, lovers, business mentors and collaborators would also be connected to India in some way or other?

    None of that matters.

    What does is that in 2004 I walked out of the airport in Calcutta and felt immediately that I had come home, through no other prior connection; and that every year ever since I have returned, twice, thrice, and more each year, sometimes staying for months.

    Whenever I read travelogues about India I am often unable to understand why the authors keep writing about the Indian Arrival Syndrome: something about throngs of humanity and masses of people and rotting flesh and cow dung and about needing to flee. The only time I have ever felt that way upon arriving anywhere has been in the great cities of America and Europe, where I have arrived and thought: oh my god, where are all the people? I need to leave. (Eventually, I got over it. But I certainly don't write travelogues about arriving at places I don't know and wanting to leave.)

    I love that I am at home in Madras, Bangalore, Calcutta and Bombay (I'm only just learning to like Delhi). That I have my secret places, amazing friends, and a world of possibilities. If I want to drop in on a film set, I can; if I want to organise a great conference, I can; if I want to do business, I can too; if I want to set up a foundation and educate a hundred and fifty girls, it's possible as well. I am aware everyone's mileage varies, including that of the people who actually live there - but that's just how it's been for me: it gives me an imagination. Mostly by showing me the extremities of the world.

    After every breakup, illness, death in the family or other assorted tragedy large and small, my first instinct is to go to India - anywhere in India. It works. It's been called my Prozac, but what it is is really far simpler. India is where I go to make sense of the world when the world no longer makes sense for me. That arrangement has worked so far, this past decade.

    I'm excited about what the next five or so Indian decades will bring.

  • I Follow Cities

    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.

  • Strange Damascus Memories


    "If you are really a lesbian, proveeeeittt! Kiss me NOW!"

    A giggly girl shrieked, rather loudly, flapping her long, luscious hair about as well. She also had the Arabic equivalent of a Valley Girl accent.

    In most situations, this might have been a proposition to consider.

    Except we were in Syria. And I don't like giggly girls who shriek, anywhere in the world.

    I fumbled uncomfortably, and looked at the television with all the men, pretending to have taken a sudden interest in Syrian football.

    I really do have the strangest experiences on my travels.

    "Wanna see something cool?"

    Before I could reply or enquire further, S stepped on the accelerator and brought his little Fiat car across five lanes on the road at a deathly angle, chuckling the way only a Russian-Arab person can in the face of extremities. "Damascus," he proclaimed, "is kind of like a real life Grand Theft Auto." I agreed, once I collected my breath.

    Everything he took me to confounded me.

    "I have a drive-thru liquor store!" - okay.

    We stocked up.

    "Let's go drinking and dancing! On the mountain!" - okay.

    We went.

    We go-karted - drunk. I may have crashed.

    His friends pulled out an old Nokia phone packed with classic Syrian tunes. All of them were Russian-Arab, the offspring of the Syrian men and the Russian women they married when they studied in the former Soviet Union. For that moment we all linked arms and fell about our sides laughing as we attempted our best impersonations of Arab Village Dancing.

    The next spring some of them would be dead.

    Stranger experiences followed me everywhere I went in that country.

    I found myself in a farmhouse in the outskirts of Damascus, sitting by a large wooden oven in a garden. It had been purpose-built to cater to the roasting (or proasting) tendencies of the proprietor and his Russian-Arab friends.

    My mother made this vodka, someone started, from the potatoes in her backyard. It was delicious.

    I cured all of this Baltic herring and other fish myself, another Russian in Damascus announced. It was delicious.

    Somewhere between eating cured herring and drinking homemade vodka I found myself in the middle of a large field. When I awoke a middle-aged Russian lady of the cougar variety was hovering over me, massaging my back.

    But damn if I knew what she was saying for I had herring on my mind.

  • Back in the SL

    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

    (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.

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