Don’t Miss the Grass for the Trees

Lime Green tree

Our eyes first catch sight of the towering, majestic tree, but we shouldn’t forget that it’s the grass that fills the landscape with vibrant colour.

A few articles have been published in the wake of Dr Nadia Wright’s recent book, William Farquhar and Singapore: Stepping out from Raffles’ Shadow, which supposedly offers an iconoclastic revisionist account of Sir Stamford Raffles’ legacy (I haven’t read it yet, but I hope to soon). This article in The Spectator, for example, highlights the superb administrative competence of Raffles’ right-hand man, William Farquhar, who is  commonly thought to have played second fiddle to the trailblazing Raffles.

On the flip side, this article in Rice paints a shocking picture of Raffles as a deceitful, hypocritical, narcissistic “monster”.

I must say at the outset that I find the writer’s tone quite vulgar and discomfiting, but I suppose such sensationalist language serves the purpose of capturing a wider audience. (It also got me wondering if being called an Old Rafflesian is such a good thing after all…)

Nonetheless, after excoriating Raffles for his scandalous behaviour and sullying the halo above his head, the writer draws a very important lesson that resonates strongly with me. In criticising the “Great Man Syndrome” – a tendency to attribute monumental social and political change to several notable individuals, such as Raffles or LKY – he writes:

“Everything good that happened to Singapore is credited to the heroes, and we choose to ignore our own part in nation-building. As a consequence, we overestimate their ability to shape the course of fate and underestimate our own agency.”

This observation is not only true of our treatment of history. I think the Great Man Syndrome still colours our vision today. We marvel at the brilliance of politicians and scholars, the business acumen of successful CEOs, the military decorations of high-ranking officers – and then we sometimes get overwhelmed by such excellence and retreat into our caves, fearful to venture out in case we stumble and fall.

Of course we should celebrate those who have achieved excellence in their fields and have made exceptional contributions to society. But they should serve as examples to inspire us, not to deflate our own ambitions (“I’ll never be as good as her”), absolve us of our personal responsibility to society (“That guy is already doing so much, I don’t need to contribute”), or minimise our own agency (“I don’t have as much influence as her, so I might as well do nothing”).

We are the nation, everyone of us. Even our most mundane decisions shape our culture everyday – when we greet or ignore each other in the morning, when we use our free time to play mobile phone games or read a book, when we say thanks for our food or complain about how tasteless it is, when we congratulate our kids for scoring a 90 or demand an explanation for the missing 10 marks, when we crib incessantly about work or appreciate our gainful employment.

But beyond moulding an amorphous national culture, we have a very distinctive and tangible effect on the people around us, whether we realise it or not. Our words and actions can demoralise or edify, infuriate or elate, attract or repel, deaden or inspire. We are all influencers, not just the social media gurus.

This vitriolic critic of Sir Stamford Raffles makes an excellent point – let us not underestimate our individual and collective agency. Don’t miss the grass for the trees.



The Slow Smothering of Curiosity


Bryan lumbered past his desk and flopped onto his bed, teary-eyed and frustrated. He glared angrily at the stack of books that he had thrown on the floor in a tantrum.

“Bryan! Pick up those assessment books right now!” His mother’s bellow sent tremors through his limp body. He scurried to gather the accursed books – the bane of his short existence, the inescapable chore of the Singaporean student. Why was his slave-driving mother so obsessed with these anthologies of tedium?

Bryan was familiar with the routine by now. His mother, Mrs Ong, would invest in new assessment books three times a year – at the start of the academic year, at the midpoint, and once again before the final exams, just to be sure. Of course, they had to be the thickest ones with the latest MOE syllabus, recommended by the snooty parents of the brainiest kid in class. The moment the plastic wrapping was off the books, the answer keys would be ripped out and locked in Mrs Ong’s drawer – the same one in which the cane was kept.

The books would greet him upon his return from school and fill the rest of his afternoon till 5 pm, when he was allowed to play till dinner at six. Even that sacred hour of recreation was curtailed if he was caught dozing off or playing on his phone instead of focusing on his English comprehension passages or Math problem-solving questions. Oftentimes, his curmudgeonly grandmother would drift into his room and complain about the slothfulness and ingratitude of millennials.

“Young people nowadays…” Ah Ma would rant incessantly. “Your Ah Gong and I worked so hard to give you a better life. Study hard and score well in your tests.”

“Don’t be lazy like your useless father.”

Eyes shut, fists clenched, muscles tense – that was Bryan’s typical reaction to the frequent soul-crushing barbs that Ah Ma spat out of her vile, toothless mouth. What else could he do? If he responded with a smart-ass answer, his ass would smart from the sting of his mother’s cane. So he just stared intently at his assessment book till his vision blurred.

Blur like sotong. Bryan never fully understood this playful pejorative (what’s so “blur” about a squid?) but it was one of the milder ones thrown at his father. True, Mr Ong was often dull and absent-minded, but even the most cerebral of men would be the same after clocking twelve-hour shifts in a cab, day in, day out. Deep down, Bryan knew that he was lucky to have such an industrious father. But try as he might, he could not shake off the shame that clouded his head every time he saw his father in his taxi.

But more than shame, resentment filled the young boy’s heart as he saw his father leave the house every weekend and public holiday to ferry passengers across the island. Other kids’ fathers would take them to the soccer field or swimming pool. But not Bryan’s father. He had to work every bloody day. Why couldn’t he get a better job and earn more money? Why didn’t he study harder in school?

“Maybe Ah Ma is right,” Bryan thought as he hung his head over his crisp, new assessment books. He immediately recoiled at the notion that he was actually in agreement with the crabby old hag. But how could he deny his grandmother’s interminable accusations – that his father didn’t study hard enough, that the whole family was suffering because of his father’s laziness in school, that he himself was en route to economic redundancy?

What if he turned out to be a failure? Nobody cared about failures. Was he destined to be one?

Enough. These ominous thoughts weighed him down like a millstone. He stormed across his room, locked the door, grabbed his phone, and dove into bed again. He knew his mother would come knocking soon, but damn the consequences! There were 158 unread messages in his class Whatsapp group that needed to be read.

“gongcha is opening at singpost next week!!! 😀 😀 😀 “

“class outing leh”

“i wan i wan i wan”

“hey my fren say that he gg to queue up the night before…”

“wa lao eh your fren damn bo liao lor”

“who else wants to go?”

“hey you all retarded or what?”

There he was, right on cue. The genius-in-residence, Aloysius Tan, had a Pavlovian need to deride anything that he found trivial and absurd. The egotistical son of a bookish university professor, Aloy soared well above his classmates in both intelligence and arrogance. He was a voracious reader, devouring every book the school library had to offer. On the one occasion that he was invited to a class outing to watch The Hunger Games, he emerged from the cinema with his characteristic smirk, claiming triumphantly that the book was still better than the movie.

“You mean the movie is based on a book?” The words tumbled out of Bryan’s mouth before he realised the folly of revealing his ignorance to the smart alec.

Aloy rolled his eyes in pitiful contempt. “Please lah, I read the book two years ago. Suzanne Collins is one of my favourite authors. I guess you could say she has a very novel way of writing!” Bryan couldn’t understand why Aloy was sniggering to himself, which made him laugh even harder.

Bryan went home that day and asked his mother if he could buy the entire Hunger Games trilogy. “Read story book for what?” his mother retorted. “Don’t waste your time; your exams are coming soon. No need for childish story books, just do your assessment books!”

As Bryan lay on his mattress recounting the condescending insults of his classmate, his train of thought was derailed by the violent knocking on his bedroom door. “Open the door now!” His mother’s hysterical screech could only mean one thing – his buttocks had an appointment with the rotan. Bryan ran to open the door, but not before putting on an extra set of underwear.

They say that if you spare the rod, you’ll spoil the child. But Mrs Ong believed that if she spoiled the rod on her son’s bottom, she’d spare her child a future of aimlessness and regret. Sloth was anathema to her; disobedience was even worse. Bryan had defiantly demonstrated both. So down came the cane, sharp and swift. Each whimper from her son was a chisel to her heart, but she had to mask it.

“Finish your work, or no dinner for you!” she sternly instructed her sobbing son. Bryan got to work without hesitation.

He soon heard his father shuffle through the front door. In America, when the man of the house returns from work, his dog greets him exuberantly and his wife smothers him with a wet kiss – or at least that’s what happens on TV. But not in the Ong household. Mr Ong took his seat in the dining room while his wife laid the table, dutifully but joylessly.

Bryan soldiered on through his assessment book. The silence outside was deafening, broken only by the occasional clicking of chopsticks. But his father was about to open the floodgates.

“I earned even less this week,” Mr Ong lamented. His soft, piercing words hung in the air like a noose. Bryan could only imagine the scowl on his mother’s face now as she loaded her sharp tongue with a barrage of questions.

“Are you driving in the city centre? Is your taxi meter working properly? Has the taxi rent increased? How long is your lunch break? Did you buy 4D? How can we afford Chinese tuition for Bryan like this?” Her agitation rose steadily with each question. Before long, Ah Ma interjected.

“Drive taxi also cannot make it. Useless bugger.” There was truly no limit to Ah Ma’s vitriol.

“You think it’s so damn easy ah? Everyone wants to use Uber, use Grab… WHAT THE HELL CAN I DO?” Bryan hadn’t heard his father growl like that in months.

Mrs Ong hit the roof. “Stop making excuses! If you cannot make money, find another job!”

“What other job? Like he said, WHAT THE HELL CAN HE DO?” Ah Ma’s mocking mimicry could get under anyone’s skin.

“I’ve had enough of your shit!” Bryan gasped as he heard a glass shatter, followed by heavy footsteps and the slam of the front door. He clasped his ears as he read his Math question aloud.

“Ali has 140 marbles. He gives some marbles to Bala, leaving him with twice as many marbles as Charlie…”

Cosmopolitan from Day One


The Maghain Aboth Synagogue – the oldest synagogue in Singapore and Southeast Asia

I recently popped into the public library for a quick browse, and a title in the Singapore Collection piqued my interest. The Jews of Singapore, written by Joan Bieder, explores the history of the Jewish community in Singapore and traces the development of its unique identity from the 1840s till today. It begins with an explanation of how Jews from Baghdad ended up in our neck of the woods, helpfully situated within the wider narrative and migratory patterns of the Jewish Diaspora.

As Baghdadi Jews fled from persecution under Ottoman rule, they found refuge and bountiful economic opportunities in the British trading posts of Calcutta and Singapore, where business interests obscured racial and cultural differences. These Jewish traders brought their families over to Singapore, petitioned the British colonial government for land to build a synagogue, and kept their traditions alive through the celebration of festivals and adherence to kosher laws.

As I was casually flipping through the pages, I chanced upon a fascinating account of an Englishman’s encounter with the patriarch of the Jewish community in Singapore in the 1840s. This Englishman was John Turnbull Thomson, a surveyor for the East India Company in Singapore from 1841 to 1853. Many Singaporeans are probably unfamiliar with this man, but they definitely know the roads, condominiums and shopping centre named after him.

Thomson was once invited to share a meal with Abraham Solomon, who was regarded as the leader of the Jewish community in Singapore in his time. Apparently Thomson was so impacted by this episode that he included a rich and vivid description of his experience in his memoirs, written years after his time in Singapore. Bieder notes, “In the 1840s, it would be unimaginable in either England or Baghdad that a young English surveyor and an Orthodox Baghdadi Jewish trader would sit down to a meal together. However, in Singapore, where trade trumped prejudice and habit, traditional barriers dissolved.”

Thomson was accompanied by one of Solomon’s friends, as well as Solomon’s brother. According to Bieder, since the Baghdadi Jews did not speak English, the four men actually conversed in Malay throughout their meal! Of course, this phenomenon must have been very common back then, but I imagine it would intrigue many Singaporeans today.

What did they speak about? Thomson wrote that his host spoke nostalgically about the dates, grapes and figs back home that he could not find in Singapore. As I learned later on in the book, another enterprising Baghdadi Jewish man made a living in Singapore by filling this gap in the market. Saul Nassim Mashal realised that the Muslims in Singapore did not have dates with which they could break their fast during Ramadan, so he imported them from the Middle East. His son, David Saul Mashal (or David Marshall), would later become the first Chief Minister of Singapore.

As Thomson’s host, Abraham Solomon, continued his walk down memory lane, he also described the oppression that he experienced under the Ottomans. According to Thomson, Solomon recounted, “The soles of my feet were beaten until they were raw; for they wished to torture me into disclosing treasures that I had not.” Bieder writes, “As a result of this mistreatment, Solomon left his father’s house and fled, first to Calcutta and then to Singapore in search of religious tolerance and economic freedom.”

Encounters like this inspired Thomson to write an evocative (and slightly pompous) description of the cosmopolitan reality of life in Singapore, which was merely in its second decade as a colonial trading post. He wrote, “Subject of nations at war are friendly here, they are bound hand and foot by the absorbing interests of commerce. The pork-hating Jew of Persia embraces the pork-loving Chinese of Chinchew. The cow-adoring Hindu of Benares hugs the cow-slaying Arab of Juddah. Even the Englishman, proud yet jolly, finds it to his interest to unbend and associate with the sons of Shem, whether it be in commerce, in sports or at the banquet.”

Singapore has been a global nexus since Day One. It still is. But whether it will remain so depends on the human initiative and creativity of successive generations of Singaporeans.


September Sixteenth

malaysia day

Source: National Archives of Singapore

On this day in 1923, a pioneer was born. Mr Lee Kuan Yew would grow to become a fervent advocate of racial equality, meritocracy, and the unifying power of civic nationalism.

Exactly forty years later, under the guidance of this pioneer, a new political creature would be formed (purportedly) on the basis of these values. Malaysia officially came into existence on 16 September 1963 – a federation of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore.

From this day onward, Singapore was no longer under British colonial rule. The residents of Singapore were told that they were now Malaysians, that they shared a common identity and destiny with their fellow citizens from Perlis to Johor, and that they were co-builders and co-owners of this brand new nation. The PAP and their partners in the Malaysian Solidarity Convention issued the clarion call to build a “Malaysian Malaysia”, in opposition to special privileges and quotas for Malays.

Alas, the political experiment faced a road bump in 1965 when Singapore was ejected from the Federation. The residents of this island once again experienced an identity change – they were now told that they were Singaporeans, not Malaysians or Malayans. The spirit of “Malaysian Malaysia” lived on in the new Singaporean identity, exemplified in the words famously penned by Mr S Rajaratnam: “regardless of race, language, or religion”.

A half-century later, I believe that our leaders and the vast majority of our population are still strongly devoted to the ideal of racial equality. Undoubtedly, there are worrying aberrations. Off the top of my head, I am concerned about socioeconomic inequality along racial lines, discriminatory deployment of National Servicemen, extremist views, suggestions that Singaporeans vote along racial lines, the unrepresentative nature of the upper echelons of the civil service, and homogeneity in elite/SAP schools. The idea of a Reserved Presidential Election has also been roundly criticised as an unmeritocratic form of affirmative action (let alone the fact that there was no election at all).

But I also realise that these concerns pale in comparison to the problem of emboldened white supremacists in America and the massacre of Rohingyas in Myanmar. This fact should not encourage an attitude of complacency with regard to strengthening our social solidarity. Instead, it should remind us that our society could easily slip into chaos and disarray if we do not constantly watch our words, review the intentions and content of our social policies, and weave new threads in our social fabric through interacting with people who are different from us.

“True liberal? Come talk to me too!”

Two weeks ago, I spoke to an Israeli settler for the first time in my two years in Israel.

Why did it take me so long to do it? I guess after months of exposure to the anti-settler narrative that is so dominant in Tel Aviv, I had succumbed to the same negative stereotypes about settlers that are bandied about by the Left – settlers are violent, fundamentalist, expansionist zealots who hate Arabs, hate peace, and tarnish Israel’s reputation on the international stage. I’ve heard several liberal Israelis say, “I don’t want my children to be deployed in Hebron during their IDF service. Why should they put their lives on the line for lunatics and a plot of land that we should have returned to the Palestinians long ago?”

I believe strongly in the importance and virtue of talking to Palestinians in the West Bank to listen to their grievances and understand their perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I got the chance to do the same with several “Israeli settlers” (or “Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria”) on the Hebron Dual Narrative Tour offered by Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem.

On this tour, participants are first guided through the Israeli side of Hebron by an Israeli tour guide (a “settler”), and then taken through the Palestinian side by a Palestinian resident of Hebron. This tour is not for the faint of heart – it’s a day of mental gymnastics and heightened emotions in a hot spot of animosity and fear, where participants are presented with two persuasive but contradictory narratives of victimisation.

Our Israeli tour guide, Gavriel, started the tour outside the Cave of the Patriarchs, where it is believed that Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah are buried. The building is shared by Muslims and Jews, and there are separate entrances for the two religious groups. The IDF soldiers stationed there are very adamant that Muslims stay away from the Jewish entrance, and that Jews do not approach the Muslim entrance. In fact, throughout the day, each time our tour group approached the Jewish entrance, the soldiers stopped us, singled out the same three dark-skinned bearded men (including me), and asked us if we were Muslim. (There was actually one Muslim man in our tour group, and he was barred from entering the Jewish side, but the soldiers also barred Gavriel from entering the Muslim entrance.)


Cave of the Patriarchs

“Hebron was divided in 1997 into H1 and H2 – the Palestinian and Israeli sections respectively,” Gavriel explained. “H1 makes up 80% of Hebron, and H2 makes up the other 20%. But of that 20%, Jews can only live in 3% of the area, while the other 17% is under Israeli control but with Palestinian residents.” I imagine most of the clashes between Israelis and Palestinians happen in the 17%. But that’s not the point Gavriel was trying to make. His real beef with the current situation is that in the world’s first Jewish city, where there has been a continuous Jewish presence for centuries, Jews are free to live in just 3% of the area.

Gavriel added one caveat to his claim about the centuries-old Jewish presence in Hebron: this continuous Jewish presence was interrupted in 1929 when the Arabs massacred 67 Jews. In those days, the Jewish residents of Hebron refused help from the Haganah – the Jewish self-defence force – because they believed that the social harmony between Jews and Arabs in Hebron could weather the communal tension throughout Mandatory Palestine. But they were proven wrong, and the British decided to expel the Jews from Hebron to keep the peace – at least according to Gavriel. From 1929 till the “Israeli liberation of Judea and Samaria” in 1967, the Jews of Hebron held on to their title deeds and house keys, demanding to return to the houses that was “stolen by Arabs”. Sounds familiar?


“I have to confess – I’ve never heard this story before,” I admitted to Gavriel. He nodded and replied, “That’s why more university students need to come on this tour and listen to our grievances as well.” At that exact moment, we walked past a large banner outside someone’s house exhorting liberal Israelis to be open-minded and listen to his side of the story. The banner exclaimed:

“!ליברל אמיתי? תדבר גם איתי” (True liberal? Come talk to me too!)


“!ליברל אמיתי? תדבר גם איתי” (True liberal? Come talk to me too!)

Gavriel continued, “The Jews in Hebron do not see themselves as colonialists or as religious zealots, but as natives of the land. When Palestinians and others adopt anti-colonialist narratives against the Jews in Hebron, they also adopt anti-colonialist tactics like BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) and terrorism. But people who see themselves as natives will not budge in the face of such tactics – they will only dig in their heels.” In other words, this is a classic case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.


A 300-year-old Torah scroll stands in this synagogue as testament to the deep roots of the Jewish community in Hebron

But surely the violence that the IDF and settlers employ against Palestinians is unjust and delegitimises the settlers’ narrative? “The Jews in Judea are not the Americans in Afghanistan or the whites in South Africa, but we are acting like it,” Gavriel replied. “We use violent tactics to ensure our safety and security.”

The reality on the ground is obviously more complex than that. There are numerous reports by human rights NGOs of settlers who unnecessarily harass Palestinians, whether by throwing rocks through their windows or cutting down their olive trees. As I would hear from Muhammad, our Palestinian tour guide, later on, the checkpoints set up by the IDF are also mind-boggling in their complexity and inconvenience, restricting Palestinian movement in many areas, which adversely affects Palestinian agriculture and industry.


This street is called Al-Shuhada Street in Arabic and King David Street in Hebrew. It’s also called Apartheid Street by the Palestinians, because it is closed to Palestinian pedestrians, cars and businesses.

To be fair, Gavriel did acknowledge the extremity of settlers’ actions, and he claimed that he takes a strong public stand against such actions. But he also emphasised the acts of violence perpetrated by Palestinians against innocent Jewish settlers, some of which are shockingly barbaric. For instance, he brought the tour group to the spot where a one-year-old baby was shot by a Palestinian sniper.

“The Palestinians have their stories of victimhood, but so do we,” Gavriel said. “The unfortunate reality is that both sides employ the weapon of victimisation to convince the international community that the other side is evil.”

Gavriel took us to meet Miriam (not her real name), who works at a museum dedicated to the Jewish history of Hebron. She spoke about how her grandmother was almost killed by rioting Arabs in 1929 but was saved by an elderly Arab man. Unfortunately, her father was not spared during the violence that followed the signing of the Hebron Agreement in 1997 – he was killed in his sleep by a terrorist.

In a tremulous voice, Miriam said, “Bibi Netanyahu signed the Hebron Agreement. He is the reason my father is dead.”

There was a palpable sense of bewilderment in the room. In academic circles and the mainstream media, there is much nostalgia for the heady days of the Oslo process (which includes the Oslo Agreement of 1993, Oslo II signed in 1995, and the Hebron Agreement of 1997). But from the perspective of Israeli settlers, every agreement signed with the Palestinians has only brought more chaos and bloodshed. I asked Miriam, “Don’t you think that the Oslo process was necessary to bring an end to the violence of the First Intifada?”

“Oslo made things worse,” she replied. “It empowered incitement against Jews amongst Palestinians through their media and their education system.” Needless to say, she rejects not only the Oslo process but the two-state solution. Instead, she subscribes to a one-state solution under the leadership of Naftali Bennett and his party, the Jewish Home. She claimed that even if Israel annexes the West Bank and Gaza, there will still be a Jewish majority in the foreseeable future because Jewish birthrates have overtaken Arab birthrates, so an expanded Israel can remain both Jewish and democratic. “Arabs can live alongside the Jews just like they did in Hebron before 1929 – as long as they don’t want to kill them,” she said.

We bid adieu to Miriam and the museum, and headed towards an observation point, where we enjoyed a panoramic view of Hebron. Gavriel pointed out the tombs of Ruth and Jesse, the great-grandmother and father of King David. “King David used his power to make sure that there was justice and righteousness and goodness throughout the land – not just peace and quiet,” Gavriel declared. “I often tell my own community that we need to stop talking about our Jewish rights and start talking about our responsibilities and obligations to make sure that there is justice and righteousness for all the inhabitants of the land. We fail to do this because we let military leaders decide what is going to happen tomorrow instead of thinking of a long-term vision of how we will live together.”

After his impassioned speech, Gavriel tried to paint a picture of “normal life” in Palestinian Hebron. “Hebron is called the Palestinian engine of economic growth. There are 17,000 factories and businesses, three universities, four hospitals and a shopping mall in the Palestinian part of Hebron,” Gavriel claimed. Of course, he’s probably never seen them up close since he’s not allowed to enter the Palestinian side, but if Hebron is truly an economic engine, I was hoping to get a look under the hood.


Unfortunately, Muhammad, our Palestinian tour guide, didn’t show us the “economic engine” of Hebron, and focused solely on the grievances of the Palestinians. Of course, I don’t mean to belittle the hardships that Palestinian Hebronites face everyday. I just wanted a holistic understanding of Palestinian life in Hebron, including “ordinary life” at school and work. Surely there must be some semblance of normalcy in Hebron – and allowing me to see it should not detract from the injustice of the Israeli occupation.

But this was a Dual Narrative tour after all, and it was now time for the tour group to listen to the Palestinian story of oppression at the hands of heavily-armed Israelis. We sat at a coffee shop and listened to Muhammad condemn the injustice of Israeli military law, under which Palestinians are guilty until proven innocent. He railed against the forced eviction of Palestinians from their homes, the harassment of Palestinian farmers, the humiliation of checkpoints, and the violence of IDF soldiers.

While talking about the Palestinian identity, Muhammad claimed that Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Canaanites, who were present in the land even before the Jews. “I see myself not as a Palestinian Arab, but as a Palestinian who speaks Arabic,” he said.

At some point, someone in the group asked Muhammad for his proposed solution to the conflict. In ironic agreement with Miriam, he declared, “I want a one-state solution.” But he envisions a secular democratic state, which he admitted requires education on both sides of the conflict. “Palestinians need to educate themselves and to renounce violence,” he said.

Muhammad’s subsequent elaboration on the phrase “secular state” was illuminating. “Why should Judaism be the religion of the land? There should be no special treatment for the Jewish religion,” he asserted. Herein lies the fundamental difference between Muhammad’s and Gavriel’s narratives. According to Gavriel, the Jewish identity is a national identity. Jews around the world have common ancestry, a common language, and a plethora of customs and traditions that were developed over centuries in the land of Israel. In the same way that Poles are from Poland and Greeks are from Greece, Jews are from Israel.

But in Muhammad’s eyes, the Jewish identity is a religious identity, predicated on a set of religious beliefs and practices. Most Israelis today are descendants of foreigners who came from Europe, America, and elsewhere in the Middle East, and had their own separate national identities. As for those Jews who had been in the land for generations, they identified themselves as Palestinians before the State of Israel was created.

Someone else asked, “Why did Hebron elect a convicted terrorist as mayor last week?” The newly-elected mayor of Hebron was given a life sentence in the 1980s for killing six Israeli settlers in cold blood, but was released after three years in a prisoner exchange. “The other candidates were funded by Hamas, and we don’t want Hamas in Hebron,” Muhammad explained. “Besides, the mayor only takes care of municipal issues like water and electricity.” Of course, that’s not the way Israelis interpret the election of a murderer as mayor, but we didn’t have time to continue the conversation – coffee break was over, and it was time to start walking.


Muhammad took us through the main marketplace, where businesses have been adversely affected by the conflict and infrastructure is in disrepair because the IDF doesn’t allow the Palestinians to fix it, according to Muhammad. A few minutes into our walk, Muhammad showed us the infamous “ceiling net” which hangs above a section of the marketplace. Israeli settlers throw trash at Palestinians from the apartments above, and the net sags under the weight of the trash that didn’t get through.



We walked further along, and our tour came to an abrupt halt as we witnessed four IDF soldiers trying to arrest two Palestinian teenagers – presumably for stone-throwing. One teenager broke free and ran away, with one soldier in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, the three remaining soldiers tried their best to restrain the other teenager who was violently thrashing about. A small crowd started to gather.

Spectators started shouting at the soldiers. “Stop choking him! He can’t breathe!” shouted one European girl. Agitated but still mostly composed, one of the soldiers responded, “We know this boy. We are trying to arrest him without hurting him. Of course he can breathe – he’s still shouting.”

Finally, the soldiers dragged the teenager behind a gate. After several minutes, in perfect synchrony, a dozen Palestinian children picked up stones, threw them over the gate, and fled in all directions. The IDF responded with a loud (non-lethal) flash bang behind the gate.


What on earth had we just witnessed? The entire tour group was horrified. I didn’t know what to feel. I still don’t know what to feel about the whole situation. I don’t know what the Palestinian teenagers did, and I don’t know what else the soldiers could have done. But I feel utterly despondent that 20-year-old conscripts and 16-year-old kids fight on a daily basis; that little children throw rocks to solve their problems and soldiers respond with weapons; and that political leaders are comfortably dragging their feet on this issue.


Walking through the sparsely-populated Palestinian marketplace

Muhammad, on the other hand, was visibly pleased that we had witnessed the scuffle. I was slightly perturbed that he had nothing to say about the children throwing rocks. Didn’t he just say a while ago that he advocates non-violent solutions? Stone-throwing may be less violent than shooting bullets, but it’s certainly not non-violent. I asked him about this: “What do you think about the children who threw rocks at the soldiers just now?”

“I’ll tell you what I think: if those children were above the age of 16 (which is the legal adult age under Israeli military law, not 18), they would be put in jail for 15 years,” Muhammad replied. “Last year, I was arrested by the Israelis halfway through my tour because they thought I had thrown stones. But they had no evidence because I didn’t do it. So they showed me pictures of others who had thrown stones and asked me to rat them out, and I refused to be their informant.”

He completely dodged my question. But his account was harrowing, and what he said about disproportionately long jail sentences is true (you can read more here).

With that unanswered question, the tour came to an end. In fact, I think everyone in the tour group had more questions than answers – which was the main objective of the tour after all. But to end off on a more optimistic note, Gavriel recounted the story of Abraham’s burial. “In the book of Genesis, it says that both Isaac and Ishmael buried their father Abraham together,” said Gavriel. “In the same way, it is our hope that the two nations that descended from these sons can live in peace.”

Can this happen in a situation of violence and clear power disparity and economic inequality?

Happiness in the Hermit Kingdom


Is happiness a right or a privilege? Upon googling this question, almost every response is along these lines: “Happiness is neither a right nor a privilege – it’s a choice”.

This cliche self-help-book answer actually makes a lot of sense. Before we can even ask if a state should guarantee its citizens “happiness” in the same way that it guarantees economic well-being and security, we should ask if happiness is something that can be guaranteed.

The US Declaration of Independence famously proclaims that all men are entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. It is not happiness itself that is guaranteed, but the individual’s right to pursue it, in recognition of the fact that happiness is defined by the individual and not by the state. If happiness is self-defined, it cannot be guaranteed by an external agent, and thus the cliche Google answer is right after all. The terms “right” and “privilege” are irrelevant if no one other than the individual can decide if he/she is happy. Perhaps all a state can and should do is to protect the right to chase that happiness.

The North Korean regime doesn’t seem to believe that. In the Hermit Kingdom, happiness is defined by the regime – along with its pursuit, its expression, and its limits. It is the most extreme example in the world of total subjugation of the individual in the (supposed) pursuit of collective prosperity, dignity and well-being. In North Korea, the logic appears to be that the individual is happy if the collective is happy. In reality, the word “collective” can easily be substituted with the word “regime”.

While reading Barbara Demick’s journalistic tour de force on North Korea, Nothing to Envy, I couldn’t help but ponder the tragedy of the imbalance of happiness in the world. I realise that since happiness is self-defined, there cannot be a perfect basis for comparison between the happiness of different individuals, and it is theoretically possible for a poor villager in Cambodia to be as happy as a real estate tycoon in Hong Kong. But am I really to believe that a North Korean citizen who has been cut off from the rest of humanity and is treated like a cog in the world’s most repressive state machinery can ever be as happy as a middle-class American?

Through her interviews with North Korean defectors living in South Korea, Demick provides a harrowing account of the callousness, brutality and obstinacy of the North Korean regime. The book reads like a thriller and stabs like a dagger to the heart. Her raw delivery of horrific stories of famine and repression in North Korea in the 1990s dredges up the darkest emotions of the reader’s soul. Unsurprisingly, the last time I felt a similar level of anger and despair was while reading Orwell’s 1984.

Demick uses an unconventional but relatable love story between two North Korean students to ease the reader into the book. This is soon followed by a litany of agonising anecdotes about life in North Korea – or lack thereof. But a love story is a good, lighthearted starting point – even if this story involves a boy and girl separated by social class in a supposedly classless society, who resort to secret dates in the pitch-black darkness of North Korean suburbs and are afraid to hold hands for three years.

After this unnerving introduction to life in North Korea, Demick illustrates the paradoxical inequality of North Korea’s communist society through the story of Mi-ran, a girl whose life prospects were restricted by the regime simply because her father was originally from South Korea. To her dismay, she was rejected from several educational institutions despite her merit and studiousness. When she was finally offered a job as a kindergarten teacher in the middle of the famine, her job was essentially to feed starving children with scraps of food and regime propaganda. Her class size slowly shrank from 50 children to 15.

The famine remains the tragic overarching theme of the subsequent chapters. Demick’s interviewees claim that the famine was so severe that people were searching for undigested corn in animal droppings, and mixing sawdust into their meals of ground corn and tree bark. At some point, Demick writes bluntly about “tales of cannibalism” – at which point I had to put the book down momentarily.

The most intriguing chapter to me is “Mothers of Invention”, which narrates the stories of entrepreneurial women in a country dead set against individual enterprise. Sitting here in Israel, “entrepreneurship” is associated with the glitz and glamour of the cutting-edge startup ecosystem. But the author writes about innovation in a completely different context. During the famine, North Koreans had to come up with the most creative ways of making money, growing crops, and salvaging food in order to feed themselves, let alone their families. For instance, an electrician read a book and taught himself to make herbal medicines, and a textile factory worker learned how to bake cookies in a makeshift oven and sell them on the street. We’re told in Singapore that our economic growth is spurred by innovation – in North Korea, daily innovation is literally a matter of life and death.

One of the most painful stories recounted in this book is that of a young university student, Jun-sang, returning to his high school. Jun-sang loved reconnecting with his teachers, who were proud of his academic achievements. But his homecoming visits were soon overshadowed by reports of former teachers and classmates who had died of starvation. He couldn’t handle the stress and stopped going back.

That particular story tugged at my heartstrings because I’m about to head home to Singapore and catch up with old school friends. But almost every story provokes anger and dismay, whether it’s hair-raising stories of people scavenging for rotten pears in orchards, or sickening accounts of electricity being diverted from homes and factories to light up statues of Kim Il-sung. What’s even more disturbing on an emotional level is that North Koreans’ emotions are controlled as well – when Kim Il-sung died, people’s lives and career prospects depended on their ability to cry, or else their loyalty to the regime would be questioned.

Through telling the stories of North Korean defectors, Demick invites us to take a good look at our own lives. Imagine the psychological and emotional stress that these defectors felt upon learning that they had been fed a lifetime of lies. Every book they had read, film they had watched and song they had heard had been in exaltation of the regime. They had been completely sealed off from the Internet and satellite television. Of course, the fact that you’re reading this blog post means you have access to the largest repository of information in the world, but it’s still worth asking ourselves – are we truly making good use of our freedom to information? We may not be living in hermetically sealed nations, but are we limiting our intellectual horizons through fear, stubbornness, or laziness?

Even after decades of brainwashing, thousands of North Koreans have seen past the lies of the regime. I was struck by how the simplest of items could spark enormous epiphanies. Demick relates the story of a North Korean soldier who discovered America’s technological superiority in a humble American-made nail clipper. It dawned on him: if his own country couldn’t produce a simple item like that, how could their weapons rival America’s firepower? A nail accessory pushed him from caution to defection.

Another North Korean student was pushed over the edge when he saw a picture in the official media of South Korean workers on strike. The picture was meant to highlight the oppression of workers in a capitalist society, but the student was astounded that one of the workers had a jacket with a zipper and a ballpoint pen – items that we take for granted but are luxuries in North Korea.

Back to the original question: what is happiness? It’s not a right, it’s not a privilege, but is it even a choice for North Koreans? Or is it just an absurd masquerade coerced by a ruthless and pig-headed regime that teaches its citizens to sing, “We have nothing to envy in the world”?

One thing’s for sure – it is a privilege to think that the pursuit of happiness is a right.

Chaotic Order (or Ordered Chaos?)


The Passover Seder Plate

The word balagan has the dual benefit of being both a useful description of Israeli culture and a very fun word to say. Read the word a few times, and notice how smoothly it rolls off your tongue! Say it to Israeli taxi drivers, and they’ll flash you an appreciative smile that says, “Now you understand life here – welcome to Israel.”

Today, balagan is used in Israel to describe a messy and chaotic thing, person or state of affairs. As I learned in this Haaretz article, the word has its roots not in Hebrew but in Farsi. The Farsi word balakhaana means “balcony” or “external room”, and this word was modified and incorporated into Turkish and then Russian, in which the word balagan refers to an attic where comedic performances took place in the 18th century. Over time, the word was used to refer to the type of performance itself – joyful, lively, and disorderly. That theatrical description is applied to the drama of life in Israel.

Balagan can be seen on Israeli roads, which are full of reckless and impatient drivers. It’s there in the supermarkets, where queues are cut, items are misplaced, and old grandmothers hold up the line. I see it outside my apartment, where there is almost always a car parked on the sidewalk and construction work every Thursday night till 2 am. Parliament is fragmented, lessons are interrupted by (often irrelevant) questions and derailed by spontaneous discussions, and everyone has a different idea of what it means to be Jewish.

And yet, systems work, decisions are made, businesses function, and life goes on. Many times, the world’s greatest ideas and solutions emerge from this balagan, as seen in the latest $15.3 billion acquisition of Mobileye by Intel. As someone in my university recently explained to me, life in Israel is “ordered chaos”.

That got me thinking –  could it be called “chaotic order” instead? Is there a difference? I think there is. The first word – “ordered” or “chaotic” – is merely a descriptor of the essence captured by the second word – “chaos” or “order”.  So the term you choose depends on your perception of the essence of Israeli society – chaos or order.

Thus, I resort to the typical university answer: “It depends.”

In any case, there is one setting in which the term “chaotic order” is definitely more appropriate – the Israeli Passover Seder. The Seder is a Jewish ceremonial meal that marks the beginning of Pesach, or Passover. The meal follows the haggadah, which is an established set of narratives, rituals, prayers and songs centred on the story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The word seder itself means “order”. But the Israeli seder that I was fortunate to attend was anything but.

My professor was very generous to invite me to join her family for the Passover seder. I dressed nicely and prepared myself for polite conversation at the family dinner table. Imagine my surprise when I walked into a ballroom with nearly 200 people. It was actually a joint seder with many participating families, dozens of waiters, a pianist and a rabbi.

Kirk smart

All I’m missing are pe’ot, a shtreimel and a thick beard

As I sat at the table reserved for my professor’s family, I heard Hebrew, English and Russian in Israeli, American, British and Russian accents. I was fascinated by the diversity in just one family! Then I looked around the room and realised that I was overdressed as usual. In fact, there was no dress code at all. Some were wearing T-shirts and jeans, some were in dresses, some had mini-skirts, and some were in shorts. But at least one person was dressed as nicely as me – the rabbi.

The rabbi began recounting the story of the Exodus and exhorting others to participate in the night’s prayers, songs and rituals. There was some degree of compliance for about ten minutes, after which things naturally slipped into a state of balagan. People were walking around and chatting, kids were crying, the family patriarchs were dozing off, the matzah was uncovered early, and some started eating the gefilte fish. The noise level was kept in check by the occasional shush, and the rabbi soldiered on.

At the table, someone whipped out his phone and started chatting with a friend. The artist of the family worked on a pencil sketch of his relative. Someone else complained about the rabbi using the word “goy” in the haggadah, calling it offensive and outdated. Another man pointed out that the rabbi had thrown in the towel and skipped a few pages in the haggadah. “The same thing happens every year!” he chuckled.

The noise eventually died down as dinner was served. During my dinner conversation, I learned that I was seated at the same table as a top Google executive, a commander in the IDF’s elite intelligence unit (8200), and the son of a famous Russian poet who was part of the intelligentsia rounded up by Stalin. (This doesn’t really have anything to do with balagan, but it was too awesome to leave out of the story.)

Halfway through the meal, the singing started. The pianist played traditional Jewish Passover songs and the dinner guests sang heartily between bites. Some even decided to add percussion with their cutlery. The family closest to the stage obviously thought it was a music competition, and they belted out the songs with great gusto. At some point, the overenthusiastic family stole the microphone and changed both the song and the key. The pianist tried frantically to follow along but eventually gave up and stared angrily at them. Eventually, the singing died down, dessert was consumed, and families started shuffling out of the ballroom.

What a night! It was one of the most enjoyable dinners I’ve ever attended, even though I often had no idea what was going on. There was no pretence, even in such an illustrious family. There was never a dull moment. And ironically, there was very little order. But I cherished the laughter, the spontaneity, and the balagan.