Smooth Seas Never Made Skilled Sailors

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“U.K.! Come here a while.”

As I brisk-walk to my coy warrant, I read his face to determine if I’m being called over for a lighthearted chat, or if I have to steel myself for a barrage of complaints about how standards are dropping in the coy, the training is too relaxed, and the men are asking for too many privileges.

Why does my coy warrant call me “U.K.”? After 25 years in the navy, he’s found it easier to christen every seaman with a nickname than to try remembering their actual names. And everyone else joins in the fun too. So the shorty is called “Primary 5”, the skinny guy is called “Boat Hook”, and I’m called “U.K.” because I studied in London.

At least, I thought that was the only reason for this nickname. I found out much later that my coy warrant thought I really was from the U.K. because I don’t speak with a Singlish accent, and also because I don’t speak Tamil like other Singaporean Indians. Now assured of my Singaporeanness, he’s made me promise to become an MP for Punggol in the future – mostly because it’s his constituency, but also because in his estimation, it’s better that I serve the young voters of Punggol than the old fogeys in Jurong.

In this sense, the SAF is more than just a crucible of personal transformation – it is also an incubator of great creativity. Take the sergeants and warrant officers for example. They invent the most amusing nicknames, insults, teaching methods and punishments in order to break the monotony of military life. For instance, when someone forgets to close the door when entering the office, he is made to go out again and “collect back all the air-con that escaped”. There was also the briefing on prohibited content on mobile phones when one warrant officer euphemistically warned everyone to delete all “romantic action movies” from our phones. On another occasion, a chief snidely remarked that a certain seaman who had missed a deadline was learning how to be Michael Learns to Rock… because he was “25 Minutes Too Late”.

This creativity often filters down to the men too. When an NSF was excused by the medical officer from excessive exposure to sunlight, people said he was “excused photosynthesis”. A memelord created a whole set of memes based on everyday occurrences in the unit to spread a little cheer amongst unmotivated conscripts. There truly is a wellspring of creativity in the SAF waiting to be harnessed. But it is often squashed by the tedium of routine and the rigidity of military discipline. In such an environment, it takes deliberate effort to remain positive when it is so much easier to succumb to weariness and wallow in cynicism.

I’ve had much to be cynical about during my stint in the navy. I imagine the laundry list of complaints does not differ much between NSFs, and usually includes allegations of double standards and favouritism, unnecessarily strict adherence to rules, excessive effort spent on pointless work, and the ease with which blame is pushed around. The last item on this list was the most demoralising for me – when you’re constantly faulted for others’ slip-ups, your motivation to work naturally dwindles as you grow increasingly convinced that you will be blamed for something no matter how hard you’ve worked.

Then there’s also the near-impossible balancing act between following orders and being proactive. On the one hand, offering suggestions to improve work processes is sometimes too much of an uphill task, and so it’s just easier to follow the established routine. But on the other hand, NSFs are often reprimanded for behaving like robots, so they start taking initiative again, only to be chastised again for “taking shortcuts”. 

But what annoyed me most were the times I was treated like an idiot, especially after spending five years in university. To be fair, there were times when I deserved it. Apart from those instances, I just had to grit my teeth and clench my fists. There was one instance, however, when a scolding session became so ludicrous that I refused to eat any more humble pie. It went something like this:

Chief: I said before that this is what the seamen should be doing everyday. So did you?

Me (after realising that the present perfect continuous tense was more suitable than the past tense): No Chief, we haven’t been doing that.

Chief: Did you or didn’t you?

Me (slightly confused): No Chief, we haven’t been doing so.

Chief (visibly irritated): Hey, can you answer my f***ing question or not? “Did not” is past tense, “have not” is future tense!

And that’s when I nearly lost it.

On hindsight, I appreciate these humbling experiences. They showed me my flaws and weaknesses, allowing me to work on them in order to become a more resilient, confident and honourable person. They also highlighted the fact that education and intelligence are two different things; attainment of the former does not guarantee possession of the latter. I may have had high educational qualifications, but I could do some pretty stupid things, and I certainly wasn’t as street-smart as many of the seamen. That made me more conscious of the need to rely on others’ strengths and ideas so as to carry out our work to the best of our collective ability.

That’s the greatest aspect of NS – men of different educational, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds have to work together as a cohesive unit to achieve mission success. The alternative is intolerable friction and failure, and failure is unacceptable in the military.

This means that everyone has to adjust their expectations, working style, and even the way they communicate. When I first entered the unit, I remember feeling uncomfortable with the fact that most conversations were carried out in Mandarin/Hokkien. At times, I felt excluded and foreign, which was compounded by the fact that I speak “high-level” English (I was often told that my ang moh is too cheem). But such is the beauty of our multicultural society that whenever I was around, people would “switch from Channel 8 to Channel 5” – an adorable colloquialism that always brings a smile to my face!

As one of my commanders said to me, being placed in this unit has given me a unique opportunity to work with a diverse group of people – an opportunity that I may never have again. For that, I’m extremely grateful. 

Indeed, gratitude smooths the NS journey. Ultimately, the best way to cope with frustrations and dispel cynicism during NS is to focus on the positives as much as possible. It’s easier said than done, but also easier done in the navy than in the army. I never had to go outfield or carry a rifle. I could book out on most days, although I did spend three hours travelling everyday – but that gave me plenty of time to read on the train. Busy training periods were always followed by lull periods. Although I did have to sail under the mercilessly hot sun and sometimes through violent thunderstorms, I never had to charge up the hill in full battle order.

Perhaps more significantly, I developed a deep appreciation for Singapore’s maritime history, and the navy’s role in guarding her maritime industry. The navy is not only unique in its mission but also in its traditions, many of which stretch back several centuries. Bizarre and archaic as some may be, they’re a gateway to a proud global fraternity of intrepid sailors, one that I feel privileged to be a part of.

In fact, life in the navy illuminates so many of the metaphors that we use on a daily basis, often without thinking twice about their nautical origins. When I begin my new job in a few weeks, “learning the ropes” will hold special meaning for me. “Being in the same boat” reminds me of every sailing I’ve been on, when every crew member has to look out for one another. The symbolism of lighthouses (clear guidance in uncertainty), anchors (steadfast even in rough seas), and rudders (seemingly insignificant but very powerful) is more real to me now that I’ve seen the actual objects.

Such lofty sentimentality is often drowned out by the drudgery of work – greasing movable parts, tightening bolts and nuts, splicing ropes, etc. But even work could sometimes be fun. On sailing sorties around the island, I felt the wind in my hair and sea spray on my face, and admired Singapore’s skyline from a different perspective. Of course, I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture – a dutiful seaman is supposed to be a vigilant lookout, not a cruise passenger. But even while on duty, I could still catch glimpses of gigantic ships at sea, the beautiful yachts of Sentosa, mesmerising sunsets, and the vast expanse of blue sky which is so often blocked by Singapore’s skyscrapers. 

On more than one occasion, inclement weather was followed by a cheery rainbow which immediately dispelled all gloom and lifted the soul. I clearly remember one sailing when I saw a rainbow stretched above the glimmering skyscrapers of the CBD as we sailed past Marina Bay. It’s an image I will carry with me for life.

In fact, it’s more than just a pretty picture in my mind’s eye. It’s a perpetual reminder that if I want to enjoy the splendour of a rainbow, I must be ready to sail through stormy seas. And as hard as it may be, I must try to be thankful for the rough seas of life. After all, smooth seas never made a skilled sailor. 

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Of Dreams and Reality

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“I want to go to Raffles, study forensic science, and join the FBI in Quantico.” That’s what a young 11-year-old boy told me recently.

He has it all planned out. He’s pored over the Raffles school website, chosen his future JC, and even knows the prerequisites to study Criminology at NUS. He laid out his plan with such earnestness that I felt guilty about the poisonous cynicism brewing within.

I was initially encouraged by his choice of my alma mater. In fact, I felt obliged to defend and nurture his ambition. Another kid overheard our conversation and rudely interjected, “Raffles? Oh, it’s impossible to go there.” It was a miracle that I didn’t snap at the kid – I just frowned upon his pessimistic pronouncement and merrily told my motivated young friend to ignore such barbs.

But once he started talking about the FBI, I felt I had to inject some sense of reality into the conversation. The questions spilled out of my mouth like a leaky toilet: Have you been watching too much TV? Do you know how selective the FBI is? Are you sure foreigners can join the FBI? How will you get American citizenship? Isn’t the Singapore Police Force a better idea?

Not a hint of dejection. In fact, he was quite sure that FBI applicants only need to be US residents, and even if that’s not the case, he was certain it’s not difficult to become a US citizen.

So cute, so innocent, so naïve, so…

“Stop.” The word rang firmly in my head, as a pang of guilt gripped my heart. It’s so often said that Singaporeans sacrifice their dreams on the altar of conventional, cookie-cutter success. Why was I coaxing this young boy to join the rat race so early in life?

Of course this kid will encounter hurdles and brick walls, but I don’t need to tell him that now. He’ll discover that along the way, and I’m sure his maturity will keep him in good stead. He’ll learn to overcome barriers, reformulate his goals, and keep pressing on.

Maybe I was just trying to temper his dreams with a dose of reality. But it’s better that his reality is shaped by his dreams.

Fuzzy but Free

“Just walk without your specs.”

Now why would I do that? I was in a volatile city in a foreign land, walking on a barely familiar path with someone I hardly knew. She had myopia, not as severe as mine, but she casually ambled along the pavement without lenses, completely unperturbed by the haziness of her vision.

I’d heard that people do some pretty crazy things in Jerusalem. There’s even a psychological phenomenon named after the city – the Jerusalem syndrome – where mentally stable people feel the inexplicable need to shout Bible verses, deliver sermons, wear white gowns, or single-handedly trigger the coming of the Messiah. Of course, staggering around like a blind bat was nowhere near the insanity of tourists suddenly assuming biblical personas, but it was an odd suggestion nonetheless.

The year was 2013. I was on an exchange programme at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I met some of the most fascinating people I’ve ever encountered. My roommate was a religious American Jew who sat in darkness during the Shabbat (that was when I learned that observant Jews refrain from using electricity on the Sabbath). I attended lectures with a Japanese diplomat who had witnessed first-hand the turmoil of Mubarak’s overthrow in Cairo. I vaguely recall a middle-aged Ugandan man who spoke animatedly as he extolled the virtues of Kabbalah, the ancient tradition of Jewish mysticism. I distinctly remember my bewilderment when an American student railed about the “irresponsibility” of Israeli soldiers on the tram who had strapped their magazines to their rifle butts… instead of keeping their weapons loaded and cocked, ready to respond in the event of a terror attack.

But I spent most of my time with a Chinese student from Canada, the same one who had nonchalantly suggested that I walk the streets of Jerusalem with blurred vision.

“I can’t see a thing without my specs,” I protested.

“But you already know the way from campus to the accommodation block. Can you see the cars and pedestrians? That’s good enough.” Her reply was striking in its simplicity. But that changed abruptly as the conversation took an unexpected leap into the terrain of new-age spirituality.

“Just free yourself!” she exclaimed. “Why do you need to remain in control of your surroundings? Do you really need to see everything clearly?”

How did she turn a silly little dare into a philosophy lesson? Did I look like a Beatle sitting at the feet of the Maharishi?

Stunned and slightly amused, I let her words sink in. As outlandish as her remarks were, I admired the carefree attitude behind her words, which stood in stark contrast to my own uptight and cautious disposition. Maybe my hesitation really did indicate a need for absolute control over my surroundings. Perhaps I needed to embrace a tiny bit of insecurity? After all, hadn’t I already hopped on a plane to the Middle East completely alone?

I never thought I would engage in such deep soul-searching on the street. But those were the streets of the Holy City after all.

With straight back and puffed-up chest, I smugly removed my specs and made my way back without incident. Rather than feeling crippled by blurred vision, I felt unburdened, unencumbered, free. There was no bridge resting on my nose, no smudges to wipe off, no barrier between my eyes and the strange new land before me – a land I would soon make my home for two years.

It was an unremarkable event but it’s remained in my memory as a helpful metaphor for life. We will never completely understand the events in our lives, or immensely complex geopolitical trends, or even the innermost thoughts of our loved ones. The mundanities and vagaries of life coalesce into foggy obscurity. But we can still move forward. Naturally we’d like to have 20/20 vision all the time, but there’s no need to fret if we don’t have full clarity. We don’t need to know or understand everything.

It’s liberating to know that there’s freedom in the fuzziness.

Both Big and Small

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While eating dinner, I heard loud booms outside the apartment. It was not the rolling clamour of thunder, but the short, sporadic bursts of fireworks at the NDP Rehearsal at Marina Bay. I hurried to the window to watch the glorious pyrotechnic display, sharing the luminous moment with thousands of spectators sitting kilometres away – and presumably other curious onlookers dotted around the cityscape.

“It takes me an hour to get to Marina Bay from my house,” I mused, “and yet I can enjoy the fireworks as if they were in my hypothetical backyard.”

I noticed a subtle paradox. Ours is a city of overwhelming skyscrapers. The towering behemoths can sometimes create the impression of largeness. And indeed, we are a bustling, crowded metropolis. But ascend the concrete mountains, and depending on location, you’ll be able to see the borders of our tiny island, the peninsular to our north, and even the islands of our (much) larger southern neighbour.

In the same vein, because of our small size, we live in such close proximity to one another. And yet, there is a vast distance even between neighbours – a social chasm resulting from our relentless busyness, our desire for precious privacy, and our obsession with ourselves. We even commute as silos, detached from the world by our headphones and screens.

We are big and small, so near and yet so far.

In many ways, we are defined by our miniscule size. It weaves its way into every decision, every policy, every forecast, and sometimes even the insults of foreign leaders. We are undeniably small. But we constantly devise ways to distract from that inconvenient truth. We sing about how in Singapore, you’ll find that our hearts are big and wide (after taking a little trip around Singapore town in a Singapore city bus). During NDP 2014, a catchy song was sung with the words “Big Island” repeated countless times. We also love poking fun at the residents of Jurong, calling them foreign citizens from a faraway land.

We live in this paradox daily, and so we don’t think much about it. But it flashed through my mind just like the fireworks – small solitary fireballs erupting forcefully into big flaming flowers over our big and small island.

Spaghetti Girls

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Lenny’s frustration grew with every tick of the clock. He squirmed in his uncomfortable chair, equipped with a cushion for his back but plain plastic for his buttocks. Wasn’t Changi Airport supposed to be paradise on earth – a replica of Heaven’s own aviation terminal? Surely they could afford better seats? He must have really pissed off the customs officer earlier with his typical New York levity.

“Well, who cares about my ass, they’re gonna cane it anyway,” he muttered under his breath. His smirk seemed to irk the officer sitting across the room. Or rather, he thought he had annoyed her. She was completely expressionless, almost catatonic, but her death-stare seemed a bit more intense, so she must have been ticked off by his insouciance.

But hey, what could he do? He was a hound dog, sniffing out amusement in every situation.

“Hey, ‘smirk’ and ‘irk’ rhyme!” he smiled clownishly. Why was he so easily entertained by the slightest thing? He couldn’t help himself! That’s why he was brought into this sterile waiting room, fully furnished with awkward chairs, an abnormally loud clock, and a dour, bespectacled bureaucrat whose stony demeanour gave him the heebie-jeebies. He was left there to stew in the eerie silence, all because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

No, hang on a minute. Lenny refused to shoulder the blame for his predicament. It wasn’t his fault that this country had no sense of humour. All he wanted to do was inject a bit of mirth into the humdrum of lining up (oh wait, they say ‘queuing’ over here) at the airport border control. Was his joke really that offensive?

He cast his mind back to his freshman year in Columbia, where he spent countless hours with his Singaporean buddy, Jackie Chan. (Actually, he had an unpronounceable Mandarin name – something like Chan Zi Hong or Chan Zhi Huang or whatever – so Lenny just gave him the natural nickname.) Jackie spoke incessantly about his country, and curious Lenny lapped it all up – the Singlish, the acronyms, the National Service stories, even the odd custom of ‘choping‘ tables with tissue packets.

But what really piqued his interest were the SPGs.

“You know, Lenny, if you come to Singapore, you’ll have a lot of SPGs chasing you,” Jackie cheekily remarked one day. Lenny gave his characteristic quizzical look, waiting expectantly for his next nugget on this quirky country.

Jackie continued, “We call them Sarong Party Girls. They like to go for ang mohs.” Now he really had Lenny’s rapt attention. As he explained what a sarong was and the peculiar origin of the term ang moh, a mischievous grin stretched across Lenny’s face.

“Looks like I’ve gotta find myself some SPGs!” Lenny chuckled. “So when I visit you in Singapore, and the customs officer asks what the purpose of my visit is, I’ll exclaim, ‘Spaghetti Girls!'”

And that’s precisely what landed him in hot soup. Damn jialat, as Jackie would say.

Welcome to Singapore, where banter is banned, and fun is done, Lenny quietly quipped. Of course, he didn’t do himself any favours by guffawing at his own joke at the customs desk. But besides the bans on smoking and some queer spiky fruit – not to mention the ridiculously menacing warning about the death penalty for drug trafficking on the customs form – he was quite certain that there was no restriction on laughter at this world-class airport.

Or was there?

As he nervously wrung his clammy hands in the waiting room, he thanked his lucky stars that he didn’t shoot his mouth off about his brilliant solution to Singapore’s falling population. Back in college, when Jackie told him that only the men had to spend (or did he say ‘waste’?) two years in the military, he railed indignantly against the gender inequality of the system. Then in his classic witty style, he proposed an ingenious way that women could serve the nation too.

“You guys should start a Reproductive Regiment!” he blurted out. “The more babies, the higher the rank!” The bewilderment on Jackie’s face back then was priceless.

Lenny glanced at his watch, crossed his legs, uncrossed his legs, glanced at the blasted ticking clock, sighed in exasperation and scratched his blond locks. The robotic immigration officer glared mercilessly at him. Lenny thought about starting a staring contest, but he changed his mind, lest he be accused of leering inappropriately at a woman. Or of trying to pick up an SPG.

The officer’s scowl was getting too much to bear. What was his crime? Had he really been so insensitive that he had to be detained? Had he violated some sacrosanct Singaporean custom? Why was everyone so touchy here? This country has redefined absurdity!

Lenny was resigned to his fate. Since his sorry ass was most definitely going to be hauled off to jail – after it was caned of course – perhaps he should just throw all caution to the wind and have himself a bit of fun. He stood up slowly, shuffled across the room to the soulless uniform, looked her straight in the eye, and smiled the gentlest smile that he could muster.

“Excuse me, Miss, do you have any chewing gum on you?”

The ticking clock was drowned out by Lenny’s racing heartbeat. The lady was stunned. Her deadpan face betrayed a slight quiver of the lip as she tried in vain to suppress a grin. Lenny held his breath, surprised that he had actually found the chink in her armour. She got up quickly, turned around and scurried off to the next room, fighting back the giggles.

Moments later, a senior ranking officer entered the room with a beam plastered across his face. Lenny clenched his fist, ready to sock the man in the jaw with full immunity – for right there before his eyes stood his college buddy.

“Jackie Chan, you son of a gun, you’re a customs officer?!” Lenny threw his arms around his friend.

“The joke’s on you, buddy,” Jackie declared triumphantly. “Welcome to Singapore. Let’s grab something to eat.”

“How about spaghetti?”

The Slow Smothering of Curiosity

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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…”

Chaotic Order (or Ordered Chaos?)

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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.