Finding God, and happiness, in this secular space

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There was a moment about a month ago when I felt truly happy to have been born here, this tiny island crammed to the gills with people of all colours, high-rise buildings, construction sites, speeding supercars and creeping train carriages, status updates and tweets, angry Merlion-esque commuters, angrier Special Forces commandos in public libraries, floods, viral videos, online petitions and movements.

I’m sorry to have to add another essay into this complicated, crowded mess, but being a happy Singaporean doesn’t happen often for me, so I think it’s worth documenting. In fact a recent survey shows it doesn’t happen often for many Singaporeans. And we don’t know why.

Or maybe we do, but all the signs and studies show that being happy has little to do with being rich. In fact it appears that if you already have your basic needs met, striving hard to make more and more money won’t make you much happier. Sure, you’ll get to buy more fancy stuff, watch European football without having to resort to a pirated set-top box and go on more exotic holidays, but after the initial euphoria none of these possessions and experiences will make you feel any better.

Our Singaporean brains get a cognitive equivalent of a 404 error just trying to comprehend this phenomenon. Cognitive dissonance, if you’ve majored in Psychology (a pretty good thing I’d reckon for one’s career, judging from the number of loons living among us).

Watching Ilo Ilo

Anyway, this moment of bliss happened after I left the cinema at Tiong Bahru Plaza, having watched Ilo Ilo, that Singaporean film that won the Camera d’Or at Cannes 2013 . If you’ve not watched the film you should (although you probably have to wait for the DVD since it’s no longer screened).

The film tells the struggles faced by a middle-class Chinese Singaporean family amidst the 1997 financial crisis, and the bond each member of the family develops with their good-natured Filipino maid, who isn’t exactly having a rollicking time herself.

A scene from the movie Ilo Ilo.

A scene from the movie Ilo Ilo.

But back to this transitory ecstasy I was experiencing. I guess anybody who’s ever been to the movies knows that feel-good, carefree feeling you leave the cinema with. But as I walked out of GV Tiong Bahru Plaza I knew this wasn’t it. I was in a state of joy because for once I had watched a Singaporean film that was honest without being tacky. It pointed out the ludicrousness of the kiasi, win-at-all-costs mentality. That same mentality that besieges us into this state of unhappiness, and causes us to sometimes besiege others to do the same.

I was also feeling happy because the film managed to evoke all these memories I had growing up: bullying the maid while my mother worked, playing the capteh and cycling, and being a general nuisance around the house and neighbourhood (I’d elaborate but it would be embarrassing).

But most of all, I felt happy because I saw two things upon exiting the cinema. I saw three Primary School boys, a Malay, a Chinese and an Indian. They were having a bit of a banter, though I couldn’t make out what, and it seemed like they didn’t have a care in the world (were the exams over?). They could have so easily been mistaken as brothers, if only the colours of their skins weren’t so obvious.

I saw two girls from a madrasah, complete with the hijab that formed part of their uniform, window-shopping. They looked like they were about fifteen, milling around, wide smiles on their faces, perhaps not much different from other fifteen-year-old girls let loose in a shopping mall. I wondered if they were aware of the rising tide of discontent amongst many in the Muslim community with regards to the hijab issue, unresolved after many years of lobbying.

Singaporean & Muslim

Singaporean & Muslim

The film, the memories it evoked, the boys and girls I saw outside the cinema made me feel happy to be Singaporean. But what does being Singaporean mean, really? In this instance I suppose one could say being Singaporean means having been born here, and having spent much of one’s life here. To be specific this was the Singaporean identity manifesting itself, not citizenship. Citizenship can be ‘bought’, not so identity.

The Singaporean Identity, Secular Space

But while the word identity might bring about connotations of individuality, the Singaporean identity is a shared one. Whatever racial group you belong to or whatever religion you profess, there are clear elements of this Singaporean identity that we all (usually) agree upon. Some of them are a respect for law and order, a confidence in speaking English, a penchant for efficiency and an inclination to work hard for one’s goals. I think we are also compassionate people, judging from how quickly we open our wallets for donations, to how we all collectively grieve when tragedy strikes.

Being Singaporean also means being mindful of the religious practices and customs of other Singaporeans. While it is true that we are a secular state, the reality is that many people who live here believe in a higher power and subscribe to some form of religion. We have churches, mosques and temples all over the island. When army officers are commissioned, leaders from the various religious groups are present to ‘bless’ the parade and the graduating contingent. Our public education system allows for Catholic schools to educate boys and girls of all faiths.

So when fellow Singaporeans say that concessions to allow the hijab in schools and workplaces will trample upon our country’s secular space, I can’t help but feel puzzled. Perhaps there are differing views on what secular means. Secular is typically defined as being “not connected to spiritual or religious” matters. A secular space, or state, is one that is neutral in its stance towards all religions.

A secular space to me is one where I do not have to feel obligated to participate in a religious event or ritual. It’s one where I don’t have to live in constant fear of being preached to, or pressured to convert. Off the top of my head, the workplace would be an example of such a secular space, especially if it came under the ambit of the government.

Ironically, a secular space is also one that frees people from being discriminated upon because of their religion, given its neutrality towards all religions. Imagine if a Muslim teacher decided to be unnecessarily harsh in punishing a student, simply because he or she was non-Muslim. Surely we can think of many other examples where having this secular space benefits everybody.

But does being secular denote being anti-religion? Do we then remove all traces of belief in God from the secular space? Do I rip off my colleague’s cross hanging from her neck, or remove her Buddha statue from her desk, or ask her to wash away the bindi on her forehead, to restore the tainted secularity of this space? Let me ask again, does being secular denote being anti-religion?

I apologise if anybody is offended by the extreme examples that I employ, but I worry that the Singaporean identity is not what it once was. Where once we use to stand up for one another, regardless of race, language or religion, today we cower behind the walls we have erected around us. These walls were not erected from the strength of our faiths or from rising religiosity, but from the hatred that has poisoned our hearts. A hatred borne from ignorance. From not bothering to be mindful of other religious customs, of not wanting to know more about those who have different skin colours from us. From not knowing the difference between a ‘religious symbol’ and a ‘religious obligation’ (hint: the hijab is one but not the other).

That’s what I loved about Ilo Ilo. It allowed me to be a little less ignorant about the Chinese in Singapore. Sure, I suppose when they are the majority race here it’s difficult not to know what they are like: their social behaviour, cultural leanings, beliefs, attitudes etc. But to be frank, despite being a minority, I can also be guilty of insularity. And while I laughed at all the cheena idiosyncrasies the film pointed out, at the end I remember feeling a sense of connection with the Chinese family. I saw them as fellow members of this home we share, trudging through life, no different from me.

What Will You Defend?

I’ll end with the Total Defence theme from a few years ago. The question that unleashed irrepressible cynicism among NS men, and a host of sarcastic answers. “What will you defend?” Of course the correct answer is only one. We will defend Singapore. Nay, we ourselves must defend Singapore.

I think about this question every time I put on my army green and report in-camp for reservist. I try to imagine the kind of Singapore I would die defending. I imagine it’s a Singapore where my wife won’t be asked to remove her hijab, for fear of disrupting social harmony. I imagine it’s a Singapore where everybody is free to practice their religion without fear of discrimination. I imagine it’s a Singapore where the men and women will speak up to prevent any injustice. I imagine it’s a Singapore where I can feel connected and heard, where my views and aspirations matter.

I imagine it’s a Singapore where I can find God, and through Him, happiness.

Sure, not every soldier will imagine Singapore to be this. But their imaginations and mine are not mutually exclusive. And together, we will defend this tiny red dot, the shared product of our imaginations. Even, if it means sacrificing our lives.

A man who died defending Singapore.

A man who died defending Singapore.

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Hijab

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If you are a Muslim living in this region then chances are you’ve heard of the online petition that wants Muslim women to be allowed to wear the hijab at workplaces in Singapore. A hijab is basically a headscarf worn by Muslim women when in public. In mainstream interpretations of the faith wearing it is a religious duty, and non-compliance is often considered a sin.

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If you haven’t seen or heard about the petition you can click here to read more about it and see how many signatures it has garnered. At the time of me writing this, it’s had over 12,000 signatures. It hopes to get 20,000.

For many Muslim women, not just at the workplace but in secondary schools and colleges, staying employed (or in the case of schools which require strict adherence to a common uniform, educated) means having to commit the sin of taking the hijab off. Given how people are increasingly religious these days, especially in the Muslim community, the choice can be particularly tough.

The hijab is usually allowed in many workplaces, but for women who work as nurses, like my wife, or in frontline operations where a certain uniform needs to be worn, it’s commonly accepted that wearing the hijab will get you more than a telling off from your superior.

The existing policy on the hijab, stoutly defended by many in the ruling PAP, has led to a politicisation of the issue. Muslims in Singapore look it as yet another instance where their rights have been trampled upon, along with the government’s pressuring and meddling of local madrasahs, considered by mainstream Singaporeans as unhealthy with respect to multi-cultural integration and nation building.

It’s no surprise how this one simple issue can get so many ordinary Singaporean Muslims riled up. After all, in countries like Australia and the UK, Muslim women are granted the freedom to wear the hijab, even if they work as nurses or policewomen. It’s funny how a predominantly Western, secular country with a relatively new Muslim minority, made up mostly of immigrants, can be so quick in laying down laws which allow such modifications to uniform, while here in Singapore nothing’s changed in the last 30 years of lobbying.

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What makes the current policy on banning hijabs at the workplace and school even more annoying/baffling is Article 152 of Singapore’s constitution, which upholds that Malays, considered the indigenous people of Singapore and of whom more than 99% are Muslim, shall be given special treatment. This includes the government having to “protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, RELIGIOUS, economic, social and cultural interests…”

As if that isn’t clear enough, Article 153 states that “The Legislature shall by law make provision for regulating Muslim religious affairs and for constituting a Council to advise the President in matters relating to the Muslim religion.”

It would appear that the law of the land appears favourable to Muslims wanting to retain their faith. So why is the situation on the ground vastly different? There are many reasons, but I’ve narrowed them down to three, which I’ll elaborate here.

One, Singapore is a young country with a tumultuous past that involves clashes of the racial and religious kind. In 1964, several people were killed and many others injured when Chinese and Malay groups fought with each other. A decade earlier similar scenes of violence and destruction were thrust into the realm of public consciousness when a court ruled that a girl that had been raised by Muslims was to be returned to her biological parents, who were Catholic.

These riots are repeatedly told ad nauseum every year during Racial Harmony Day, celebrated annually in Singapore on 21st July, the day of the 1964 riots. They are given different perspectives, by educators, journalists and politicians, but ultimately they remind Singaporeans that race and religion are touchy topics that should never be broached publicly.

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What this usually means is simple. To speak about wanting certain rights pertaining to one’s faith is akin to being socially irresponsible and unnecessarily demanding, amidst an environment that preaches fairness to all, regardless of race, language or religion. In such a climate, one is expected to rein in one’s individual identity, and religious practice, for the continued harmony of the masses.

Two, there are, unfortunately, more than a few racists and Islamophobes in government. I won’t mention their names here lest I be hauled off to court, but suffice to say one could simply study the speeches and interviews given by some of them, and draw conclusions from there.

Racism on the ground (or in today’s day and age, FB) against Malays, as witnessed recently through the likes of Amy Cheong, leads to a severe backlash. Racism amongst the political elites? More often than not, brushed away as the musings of senility, a hard truth, or my personal favourite, a quote taken out of context.

But here’s how I see it. Racism or Islamophobia in Singapore is subtle. Nobody gets their front porch smashed for being Muslim. Nobody gets beaten up for wearing a burqa or growing a beard. But yearning for spirituality in a country steeped in materialist values is odd, and will attract you more than a few stares. So wanting to wear the hijab, or pray five times a day, or stay away from social events due to the inter-mingling and alcohol is often equated with being backward.

Sure, it might be the same elsewhere. Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman was quizzed on her hijab, seen as antithetical to the values she was promoting in wanting to revolutionise Yemen (see image below). Her reply was top drawer. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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But in Singapore, with a lack of healthy democratic discourse, such views, especially when they come from the governing elite, can end up invading every sector of society. To put it another way, if there is a lack of diverse opinions on the hijab issue amongst the people in power, why should it be any different for everyday people like you and me?

The third and perhaps the saddest reason (for Muslims like myself at least), is that the Muslims in Singapore, from the leaders to the laymen, are unwilling to push for change. Blame their “huge” government-drawn salary, blame dire economic status, blame mindless consumerism, blame the ruling party, blame the sequence of events that led us to being separated from our big brothers in Malaysia.

At the end of the day, we worry more about our next paycheck, how wonderful our upcoming wedding will be, which city in Korea to visit next, than whether our Muslim sisters will be allowed to wear the hijab or not. Sure, we’ll sign any petition, and believe you me we’ve signed many, but in ten years if things still don’t change, it’s not really going to hurt us that much. Nothing compared to the hurt we get from watching Manchester United under David Moyes these days.

Let’s put it this way. If only one Muslim wrote in to his/her MP and asked that hijabs be allowed in the Singapore workforce, chances are pretty slim that any change will be forthcoming. The letter will probably get trashed and the person will most likely be blacklisted. But what if a thousand people wrote in? Or ten thousand? What if one hundred thousand people wrote to their MP? (The CIA factbook states that 14.9% of people in Singapore are Muslim, which from my rough calculations means 813,585 Mohammedan souls.)

Better yet, what if EVERY Muslim woman who entered the workforce had the courage to confront their employers regarding this? What if they all had fathers like Ustaz Zhulkeflee Haji Ismail, who wrote in tirelessly, asking for his daughter to be given the permission to wear the hijab during her stints at the hospital? Would the powers that be still be able to sweep this under the proverbial rug?

There’s no need for collective action or a mass rallying of Muslims. All that’s needed is for each and every Muslim to be fearless and firm in their pursuit of what’s right. Unfortunately, it is not only a state of indifference and ignorance prevalent in the community that practising Muslims have to battle (jihad?) with today. More and more Muslims are wont to belittle these efforts at redress. They are easy to identify, these against-the-grain Muslim “intellectuals”. Usually successful in the worldly sense, they make no secret of their desire to be even more successful (read: make more money). These people are the ones often praised to high heavens when the government needs examples of how far the Malay community has progressed.

In return, they attempt to rationalise us, the irrational Other. Their language is one of accommodation, of compromise. We mustn’t be too emotional, they tell us. We already have much to be thankful for as Muslims in a non-Muslim country, they remind us. It’s not difficult to see why they say what they say. Some of them are (paid) supporters of the government, and as much as they would like to be seen as enlightened, many in the community just think of them as political and career opportunists.

Much more can be written about the hijab in Singapore, but I’ll end here. It is my sincere wish that this matter be resolved as soon as possible, but like all other religious matters, I doubt it will. A Minister or Muslim MP will probably be quoted as saying Singapore is “not ready” for such change, which is really doublespeak for “we don’t have the time nor inclination to make things better for you Muslims.”

A MUIS-sanctioned religious scholar will exhort us to be grateful for what we have, and perhaps drop a Quranic verse or two on the extent of Allah’s Mercy (when judging women who’ve had to take off their hijab in the name of gainful employment.)

Like those before me, I’m beginning to think my future lies in another country, perhaps not too far away like New Zealand or Australia. The average Singaporean will perhaps caution me of the racism found there. From the frying pan to the fire, they’ll say.

8903504I think I’ll take my chances.

Post script: The woman who started the petition (Syafiqah K.) has since closed it. She has yet to identify herself, and nobody knows why the petition was closed (well, except for her of course, and perhaps the people who rule this country).

Take it slow, K

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K was a slow walker. Like, really slow. He was an intern at the last place I worked, and I remember getting frustrated because he would slow me down whenever we headed out for lunch. I’d be turning my head and yelling at him, lovingly of course, to pick up the pace or we’d be late. But he’d just try his hardest and still be stuck in sloth mode behind me.

He would add a good ten minutes to my walk to the bus stop and back, so sometimes I just gave up and told him we’d eat nearby, though I really didn’t like many of the stalls near the office.

I guess one of the reasons why he was so slow was the fact that he was pretty short, mere stumps where most twenty-year-old men had long, strapping legs. It must have been quite a sight to see the both of us together, given the difference in our heights.

Truthfully he didn’t really look twenty at all. He had a a very boyish face, almost as if he was just discovering puberty. He had a perpetual mischievous grin, though we all knew he wasn’t malicious by any means. The boy had a good soul.

I remember talking to him a lot about life: the world, Singapore, women, work. Football. K was a massive football fan. He betted heavily too, despite all my warnings that nobody ever got rich through gambling. I wonder if he still gambles. I’ve not spoken to him in months. Not that we aren’t on talking terms or anything. I’m not a very sociable person, and neither is K.

I was thinking about him yesterday, when I walked home from the mall. I had a pretty bad bike accident recently, so I’m not exactly my former sprightly self. As I made my way home, taking every step like the unemployed, in-need-of-rest half-cripple that I am, I was reminded of K’s slow steps.

Walking slow is actually pretty therapeutic. I know it sounds bloody obvious, but you begin to realise things that you would have perhaps missed if you had walked fast. You know, the colours of flowers and all that other beautiful stuff the Singapore government seems intent on destroying to boost our GDP or house another million immigrants (have you seen the number of housing projects these days?).

I’m not suggesting that we walk slowly in every situation, though it surely helps to take life down a few notches. But it’s difficult. We live in a society that worships efficiency. We have to psyche ourselves up to work at superhuman speeds, we worry that our bosses will label us lazy if we don’t meet deadlines. We don’t switch off when we get home, and it can affect our family ties.

Everywhere we turn is another app or gadget to improve productivity, to help us fit more into the 24 hours we have in a single day. We are made to feel lousy if we don’t seem to be achieving or earning much compared to our peers. We need to fill up our days doing stuff, so the notion that we should be pursuing stillness and serenity instead must be seen as absurd.

Again, I’m not saying people should be lying in their beds all day, in awe of the colours of their ceilings. But wanting to blitzkrieg through life to a heart attack or hypertension seems insane to me.

I think that’s what I learnt from K. He was hardly bothered that he didn’t seem to know about the war going on in the Middle East, or the latest high-ranking civil servant to have been hauled to court on corruption charges. He looked every bit the happy sloth he was, the archetypal yogi. He didn’t seem to let the Singapore system get to him.

He took things slow.

Dumb and Dumber Singaporean Reactions to the Haze

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This past week has seen Singapore suffer its worse bout of haze, caused by forest fires in Indonesia. While I empathise with the worries and fears of the public, as the author of sgthinker rightly points out, sometimes Singaporeans can prove to be very unreasonable.

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In times of crisis, how a country reacts speaks volumes about its people and its character. I am sad to say that many online reactions to the unprecedented haze does not bode well for the country’s future.

Why isn’t there a stop work order? Gahmen only care about economy and not its people!

This is the most common complaint, but there is a key piece of information missing in every complaint. Nobody backs up their complaint with how other countries react if the air quality is really bad. A quick online search tells us why:

  • On Wikipedia, there is only one case where a state of emergency is declared. If the API in Malaysia exceeds 500, then “non-essential government services are suspended, and…

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Singapore: No country for the clearheaded

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It has been said that one of the drawbacks of living in the internet age is that we become addicted to information, often meaningless, often incoherent, often irrelevant to our daily lives. We are faced with a glut of information, and we have nobody to sieve through the mess of it all and make sense of it for us.

So we try to make sense of it ourselves. We pick and choose the content we want to read, from following the right Twitter accounts to subscribing to the right blogs, the ones we consider integral to our thought process and world-views.

But in curating content we build walls, first in our minds, then in the spaces we live, work and play in. We speak of the internet as the technology that will lead our society to greater openness, inclusivity and tolerance. Yet we have only succeeded in separating the technocrats from the tool users, the internet users from everybody else.

I see this in Singapore today. The young grow increasingly restless, symptomatic of a generation that isn’t quite sure how to approach a world where instructions aren’t quite clear, where schools become increasingly archaic and backward, and schoolteachers have to compete with the latest YouTube sensation to make any headway with lessons.

The elderly expect to be treated with respect, but are instead ridiculed, viewed as dinosaurs in the digital age. They are rarely, if ever, seen as sources of wisdom, cast aside by the allure and accessibility of online forums and Facebook pages. They view the internet and all its accompanying goodies with suspicion and pessimism.

This sharp divergence creates two schools of thought. The first school houses the rioters and protesters of the world – Ankara, Stockholm, Sao Paulo – vociferous in their disagreeing with their countries’ governments. Ditto Singapore, from the comforts of the state-regulated Speaker’s Corner. Some of them, many still in the prime of their youth, don’t know what they are rebelling against, but do it all the same. It’s become fashionable to be anti-authority, to cry for civil liberties, to completely ape the youth of the West.

This school encourages everybody to have an opinion, to know their rights, to follow their own dreams – never mind if those dreams don’t make much economic sense or result in a straining of familial relationships. This school doesn’t believe in stoic calmness.

The other school is typically seen as ignorant, yet to see how they’ve been fooled by the government they voted in, still clinging to the traditions of their forefathers, still conservative in a world of expanding opportunities. It still subscribes to the age-old view that no system, no matter how refined, can replace the collective experience of its people.  This school still uses the old content, context and curator.

This school encourages good old common sense, putting others before themselves, respecting the elderly and learned, maintaining the status quo. I suppose one could say that the disadvantages in following such a school is that change and innovation are hampered, and many of its adherents continue to do things the tired, old way when other new-found methods work much better.

I don’t see things in black and white, so I can’t say with complete conviction that one school is better than the other. I suppose it’s no different from asking if the way things were done in the past are better or worse than the way things are done today. Each era had its pros and cons, though I must admit I have an affinity for doing most things the old-fashioned way.

But to drop all clear and rational thinking on the basis of “we are living in the year 2013 now, so we should do this and that or accept this and that” is just plain stupid. Yes we live in the age of the internet. Yes it’s affecting our cultures, our religions, our schools and workplaces. But human beings are still human beings.

They still love, hate, eat, get angry, get worried, grow old, die. They are still prone to irrational and stupid behaviour.

I’ll illustrate with an example. Today, people think that because technology has enabled the average man (and woman) to voice their views on just about anything, they should then, be free to voice their views on just about anything. It’s like saying, hey look, we have a bomb that can blow up an entire city, who should we drop it on?

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, unbridled freedom of expression only serves to harm society. When scriptwriters, journalists, movie directors, music executives are given license to create content for news, music, movies and television, they inadvertently manipulate the evolution of popular culture, and sway opinions on everything from family and society, to law and order, to governance in a country. They are the foot soldiers of postmodernism, where truth is no longer absolute.

No matter what year we are living in, we need some form of guidance, from history, from the high courts, from Him. To think we alone know what’s right and true for society is at best foolish, and at worse, arrogance.

Take Pink Dot Sg for instance, the movement that aims to bring the LGBT community into the mainstream. For all their preaching on greater understanding and acceptance, they have no qualms considering people who view homosexuality as a sin as bigoted and prejudiced.

Pink Dot’s “love” extends only to their kind, the lesbians and gays and activists desperate to overturn 377A, the criminalisation of sex between men. Anybody who disagrees with their arguments for homosexual behaviour are chastised in the strongest possible terms. Their vitriol extends to religious leaders who uphold the teachings of religion, which denounce same-sex unions.

In their fight to bring their lifestyles into the public space, they come up with a multitude of reasons which argue for homosexuality. They claim some animals exhibit homosexual behaviour, to those who say it is unnatural. They claim that being homosexual is a genetic predisposition, to those who say it is a choice. They say that God would not consider their actions sinful, to those who remind them of Sodom and Gomorrah.

To those not merely satisfied with external appearances perpetrated by popular culture which normalises gay behaviour, these reasons do not hold water.

To begin, an animal cannot be seen as the default reference point when considering what is natural, or normal. Rather, one must look to civilisation from the beginning of time and ask if same-sex relationships are normal. Logically, because the human race has propagated itself for thousands of years, man-woman relationships are what’s natural. You cannot be sitting here today reading this if your ancestors had same-sex relationships.

Next, this idea about being “born gay”, one that perpetuates the notion that to punish gays would seem cruel. But let’s implant this logic into deciding the fates of society’s criminals: the murderers, rapists and thieves. Would you accept letting them off scot-free because they were born to murder, rape and steal? What if I had a gene that made me prone to violent behaviour? Would I be then allowed to commit as much violence as I wanted? Would it make my violence acceptable?

Of course, to group gays together with murderers and rapists might seem a little harsh. But the point I’m trying to make is that a person who breaks a law cannot use the “born this way” argument to legitimise his breaking of the law. Sure, the law may seem ridiculously offensive to gays, but it’s an accurate reflection of Singapore’s mainstream values, which are obviously dictated by the majority who live here.

Furthermore, just because a person is in support of 377A doesn’t mean that he is therefore discriminatory towards gays. While I support anti-drug laws, because of the untold damage drugs can cause on society, I neither look down on nor hate a person just because he’s addicted to drugs. I know that despite his addiction he can make a meaningful contribution to society, that he has some goodness in him, perhaps more than other non-addicts. But I cannot in good conscience accept his drug-taking.

Unfortunately, the LGBT community doesn’t see what they do as wrong, or that Pink Dot has the capability of leading impressionable young minds to consider experimenting and ultimately following such alternative behaviour (or maybe they do). To them, their actions are nothing to be ashamed of, not to be taken as sin, not wrong in the eyes of God. And why should it be, when even the most conservative of leaders must tread carefully when commenting on the issue, lest they be seen as prejudiced and bigoted.

So before you get caught up in their snazzy marketing campaign this year, before you join the hordes of other youth looking to appear modern and Western by parroting their view, before you say yes to other pink-shirted citizens of Singapore this June 29th, think. Take a moment to clear your head and think.

Two types of rich people

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I went to whiten my teeth recently. Yes I am a borderline vainpot. Plus I drink too much tea.

You know how they say that when you assume you make an ass of you and me? Guilty as charged. I bought a voucher from DEAL.com.sg for a 30-min LED Laser Teeth Whitening session at Sure Solution. If you aren’t familiar with the concept of group buying, read this wikipedia entry here.

Perhaps because I was having dinner with a friend when I bought it, and because discounts of $911 have a tendency to deaden my brain’s rational thinking faculties, I wrongly assumed that the ones performing the teeth whitening would be highly-qualified professionals.

A screengrab of the deal I bought.

A screengrab of the deal I bought.

You know, the kind of professionals you usually trust your precious pearly whites with. The kind who spend obscene money in university on tuition fees so they can charge obscene fees, say $999, to keep your chompers in pristine condition. The kind with the authority to give you a medical certificate or write you a prescription. Dentists.

So, imagine my shock and horror when I walked into Sure Solution, at One Marina Boulevard. Dental clinic it most certainly wasn’t.

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For the record, I have never been in a spa. When I think of spas I think of rich Chinese women with too much time and money on their hands. When I think of spas I think of slim wraps in ginseng and baths in milk and honey. I don’t belong in a spa, even though I’ve got the kind of acne that gives young children nightmares (for that I visit a dermatologist who gives me an antibiotic).

I was led to a dimly-lit room, very unlike all the bright confines of medical establishments, and given instructions in halting English by a young woman (PRC, I think) to brush my teeth and gargle my mouth. Then she compared my teeth to some samples, telling me what colour shades my teeth were.

I could see she was trying to taper my expectations, so I told her I wasn’t expecting much from the whole process. In truth, I just wanted her to get the whole thing over and done with so I could leave before anybody I knew actually saw me in a spa. I was convinced the damage it would cause to my reputation as a retrosexual would be irreversible.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t figured out that she had told me about the colour shades of my teeth in a feeble attempt to point out that I had some really bad stains, and that the 88 dollars I paid would not give me the kind of treatment that would result in significant improvement.

Enter the spa manager (Singaporean, fo sho). This lady basically repeated whatever the PRC girl said, in better English (perhaps they thought I needed a dose of eloquence to part with my hard-earned money). She went on about how the 88 dollars I paid, for a voucher worth 999 dollars, would not give me whitening treatment equal in value with 999 dollars. 88 dollars would be for 1 coat of peroxide – the stuff they slosh on your enamels during the process – and that if I wanted teeth closer to a celebrity’s megawatt smile, I would have to go for an additional coat. At 88 dollars.

Right.

There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.

There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.

She seemed rather puzzled that I would say no. She continued hassling me, telling me it was a good offer and all but I wasn’t about to budge. Granted, a total of 176 dollars to have my teeth looking like a Hollywood celebrity was dirt cheap, but I was already irked from having been duped.

I mean, what good is it if I buy a voucher which clearly states it has a value of 999 dollars, if I don’t end up getting the 999-dollar service? I guess its asking to much to expect a little transparency and honesty in the people who sell us things these days.

Just give me the one coat, I said. And so in came the young PRC woman again, to put me through the whole process, which took about fifteen minutes.

First, she used a plastic guard to hold my mouth open, preventing the possibility of contact between the top and bottom rows of my teeth. Then she applied a gel-like resin on my gum line, to prevent the mildly-corrosive peroxide from touching my gums.

No, this isn't a scene from CSI Miami.

No, this isn’t a scene from CSI Miami.

Next, she applied the peroxide coat on my teeth, then switched on the blue laser light to activate the compounds in the peroxide. This would take eight minutes, so she left me in the room by myself and told me to “rest”. I did feel some discomfort, perhaps because of the effect the peroxide was having on my teeth, and swore to myself this would be the last time I ever visited such an establishment again. She then came back in to complete the final step, which was basically me having to rinse my mouth, to remove any remnants of the gel-like resin and peroxide.

The changes to my teeth colour, from a single coat, were not too shabby. There was no way I was going to go for a second coat, even though the Singaporean manager did try to convince me again. I could sense a hint of desperation in her tone, maybe because business appeared to be slow (I was the only customer in the spa at the time). I figured the cost of rental at One Marina would be pretty steep.

In a half-hearted attempt to get her off my back, I told her that I wasn’t confident of going through the process again, especially if it was not going to be administered by a trained dentist. The peroxide that whitens the teeth isn’t exactly 100% safe, and using it too often can result in the thinning of one’s enamel, leading to increased tooth sensitivity.

I could tell she wasn’t going to take the remark lying down. After all, how could I, virgin spa visitor, insinuate that I would be anything less than 100% safe, here in One Marina, Singapore. I don’t know if anybody reading this has ever heard this from a salesperson before, but she went on to say, “This isn’t Malaysia. We have to follow the law here, YOU KNOW.” I cannot begin to describe how arrogant and off-putting she sounded.

Nothing ever goes wrong here. Ever.

Nothing ever goes wrong here. Ever.

I didn’t want to get into an argument, so I simply filled up a feedback form, making little attempt at veiling my displeasure, and left.

To which I reach this confession’s conclusion; there are two types of rich people in the world.

There is the one who does an honest job, works hard, is valuable to the society in which he lives, and continually improves himself and his craft, where becoming rich is merely incidental, a natural process to reward his excellence.

Then there is the one who does whatever it takes to make money, neglecting the consequences that such an attitude may result in, deceiving if needed, with little regard to his or her own reputation, with zero interest in the welfare of the consumer.

The (Singaporean) Motorcycle Diaries

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Given how our public transport system has deteriorated in recent years, I bought myself a motorcycle in August 2012.

Ain't nobody got time for that!

Ain’t nobody got time for that!

It’s great when you don’t have to depend on a straining public transport system to get you from Point A to B. Nevertheless, it’s not always a great choice. Drivers in Singapore are notoriously inconsiderate and reckless and even if they aren’t there’s always the tropical weather to contend with.

About three weeks ago, in the midst of one of the worst storms to hit Singapore, my bike skidded and I fell on the expressway. Lane 1, AYE. Not many people walk away from accidents like that. Most people get run over by the car or truck behind them, barreling at 100 km/h.

Luckily for me, the car behind me didn’t. It braked in time, and stopped about 2 meters from the spot where I fell. As I sat on the asphalt, the rain forming puddles around me, I wondered who would play the part of good Samaritan. It all felt a little surreal and ethereal, the whole fall and me just sitting there, slightly pinned under my bike, big drops of water causing my hot engine to spew clouds of white smoke.

Nobody did help in the end. They all just drove past, the sleek wheels of their cars rolling inches from where I fell. I imagine they must have been pretty livid at the clown who decided to fall on lane 1, wasting the precious minutes of fellow road users. I picked myself up, and found enough strength to lift all 140 kilos of the bike onto its wheels. Thankfully, it did not sustain any serious damage and I could ride off. I found somewhere to dry off and rest before continuing my journey home.

I guess for many non-riders, the experience I’ve just recounted must seem like as good a reason as any to stop riding. But skidding and falling is pretty normal to most riders, especially in a country with an annual precipitation of 90 inches. It’s not exactly something we boast about, although falling and getting up again does help overcome some of the fears associated with riding.

In any case, I think riding a motorbike is an immensely pleasurable experience. Given the right weather, the right amount of traffic, the right roads, and the right bike, straddling a two-wheeler that eats up the miles beneath your feet can be very therapeutic. Despite having fallen on the AYE, I still think it’s one of the nicest expressways to cruise on. Its lined with big trees which provide ample shade from the sun, and it doesn’t seem to be as crowded as other expressways, like the PIE or CTE.

I don’t really like Lee Kuan Yew, but I admire his dedication to keeping Singapore a green city when he took charge of the country all those years ago. In a memoir, Lee said that the well-tended trees in the city would signal to investors Singapore’s commitment to maintenance and order. Okay, so he wasn’t exactly a tree-hugging liberal.

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The Ayer Rajah Expressway

I also like travelling on roads which evoke a certain rustic charm, like Mandai, Kranji and Seletar. I guess when you spend far too much time in staid urban-concrete environments, you cherish places with a unique blend of nature and history: old big trees shielding equally old colonial-style buildings. It’s a bonus if you can find a sarabat stall in the vicinity. I usually just park my motorbike on a pavement somewhere, then sip some frothy teh tarek at the stall, while observing the stillness around me. Life’s simple pleasures.

Having your own transport also helps uncover places you wouldn’t typically find when travelling on public transport, places that seem to be from an era long gone, stubbornly holding onto existence in a country with an irritating enthusiasm for whitewashing away its physical past. Or perhaps they simply slipped off the grid, forgotten and neglected by busy Singaporeans more interested in shopping and eating.

I remember riding to Masjid Hang Jebat, a mosque located along a slip road off Portsdown Avenue, and admiring how kampung it felt. Its entrance was just a few feet from the KTM train tracks, and I recall seeing a train speeding past in the darkness of dusk, shortly after the congregation had completed the Maghrib prayers.

Or Masjid Omar Salmah, atop Mt Pleasant, next to the National Equestrian Park. I’ll never forget seeing this middle-aged Caucasian lady grooming her horse beneath this big tree outside the mosque.

I’m sure older Singaporeans also have their favourite spots on this island we call home, the ones that help them reminisce of a simpler, more innocent time. A hawker centre, a library, a cinema, a place of worship, an open space. Of course, such nostalgia count for little in the big scheme of things, in our drive to continue being number one in everything.

I sometimes ride around and see a new condominium or shopping mall being built, and I try my best to recall what was there before, but my memory comes up empty. It’s strange and frustrating because having lived here for so long I must have at least an image of that building in my mind’s memory bank, but I can’t retrieve it. It’s like the government is doing an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on me.

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That’s funny. I could have sworn there was a library here.

With plans to roll out more train stations to meet the increasing ridership here, it’s probably not far-fetched to suggest that my favourite places will be irrevocably changed as well. Both Masjid Omar Salmah and Masjid Hang Jebat sit on prime real estate, which will further increase in value with the opening of future stations. Already Masjid Kampong Holland is facing imminent closure.

I was having a meal with my wife at the new Geylang Serai market recently. From where I sat, I could see the last vestiges of the Malay Village being torn down by Caterpillar tractors, perhaps the same models used to bulldoze Palestinian homes in Gaza and the West Bank.

I looked at the buildings along the stretch of Geylang. Joo Chiat Complex, where I got lost as a five-year-old after a shopping trip with Mummy. The Galaxy, where Darul Arqam is housed, a refuge for Muslim converts. Further down, the Haig Road hawker centre and the Tanjong Katong Complex, now popular meeting spots for Indonesian maids on their off days.

I guess when you live in Singapore, you begin to appreciate these little eccentricities that have been allowed to remain, especially if they help you to remember your roots. At least, until they have to make way for another condo.