You Happy or Not?

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I can’t think of any other country that takes happiness so seriously. It seems that at least once a year, Singaporeans must engage in a national discussion about whether they are happy or not, why they are happy or not, why they should be happy or not, and how to be happy or not.

In 2012, a Gallup study claimed that we are the unhappiest country in the world. That generated a lot of soul-searching. Then in 2016, the World Happiness Report named Singapore as the happiest country in the Asia-Pacific region. That got us scratching our heads – either the definitions of happiness used in both studies were vastly different, or we have schizophrenic mood swings.

Then in recent weeks, people got unhappy with how happy Nas Daily made us out to be – because heaven forbid that we allow a foreigner to be happy about how happy we are! Unless that foreigner is Neil Humphreys – then that’s OK because he lived in Toa Payoh for ten years, was vice-chairman of the Tanjong Pagar United Fan Club and acted as Sir Stamford Raffles in Talking Cock The Movie.

About a year ago, another foreigner told the whole world how happy the sunny island of Singapura is. Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and New York Times best-selling author, wrote an article in Nat Geo that praised Singapore as one of the happiest places on Earth. The ever-cheery Mothership team picked it up and summarised Buettner’s claims in an article that raised incredulous eyebrows all over the country.

Buettner lays out three different versions of happiness in Costa Rica, Denmark and Singapore, and seems to place them on equal footing. But from his own anecdotal snapshots of the three countries, I see a glaring difference between these three types of happiness.

Happiness in Costa Rica and Denmark are linked to Pleasure and Purpose respectively. Buettner’s happy Costa Ricans are portrayed as simple folk, full of lighthearted mirth and humour, basking in the joy and love of family and friends. The happy Danes are able to pursue their most cherished passions because their basic needs are provided for by the government, allowing them to ascend Maslow’s hierarchy with ease.

Meanwhile, happiness in Singapore is associated with Pride, or “life satisfaction”. This apparently stems from the success that most Singaporeans are able to achieve in a mobile society through their own hard work. In an annoyingly trite depiction of this success, popularised even more by Crazy Rich Asians, Buettner highlights the luxurious sports car and multi-million-dollar house of Douglas Foo, founder of Sakae Sushi, along with other trappings of our ultra-modern and opulent city-state.

Should these 3 Ps – Pleasure, Purpose and Pride – be placed side by side? I think not. Pleasure and purpose are defined individually, while the pride of success is largely socially constructed, at least in Singapore’s context. In other words, Costa Ricans and Danes can still be happy regardless of personal circumstances or society’s opinions. But Singaporeans are happy only in comparison with others.

According to Buettner’s depiction of life in Singapore, personal wealth and social status form the bedrock of citizens’ happiness. He makes this quite clear by suggesting that happy Singaporeans “tend to be financially secure (and) have a high degree of status.” Discussions about wealth tend to invite comparison with others. Status is also comparative by definition. So then, happiness becomes a matter of social comparison, which dovetails seamlessly with our national culture of kiasuism – being “scared to lose”. Happiness is set by society and not by ourselves, robbing us of our autonomy.

How about those who are not financially secure and don’t have a high degree of status? Where is their happiness? It’s telling that Buettner’s happy Costa Rican is broke, his happy Dane earns a modest salary, and his happy Singaporean is a multi-millionaire with a trophy case of business awards. Even the choice of photos reveals the stark contrast between these forms of happiness. The images used in the segment on Costa Rica show merry dancers in a bar and a jubilant family surrounding a bubbly baby. The portion on Denmark has a photo of children harvesting their own vegetables.

And the images of happy Singapore? A rich father buying a Porsche for his son. Girls partying on a rented yacht. A chic woman’s reflection in the storefront window of a showroom at Marina Bay Sands.

Perhaps the primary reason for Singaporeans’ vitriolic reaction towards Nas Daily’s portrayal of Singapore as an “almost perfect country” is that we have embraced the misguided notion that happiness is denominated in dollar bills. That explains why one of the rants directed at Nas complained about CPF contribution rates, the high cost of HDB flats, and the imminent rise in GST. Of course, no one will deny that financial security and material comforts do contribute to happiness, and that poverty is miserable. But happiness that is solely based on our bank accounts is volatile and fleeting.

I’m no authority on happiness, and I’m certainly not a bundle of joy. But I’m sure many would agree with me when I say that we need to decouple our idea of happiness and fulfilment from material goods and social status. And we need to do it fast, if we know what’s good for us.

This is an expansion of a Facebook post I published in October 2017.

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We’ve Scored an Own-Goal

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These uplifting words were prominently displayed in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park in the week of the 2016 Chingay Parade. Do they ring true or ring hollow?

What impeccable timing – on the day of the FIFA World Cup Finals, the Ministry of Defence announced that the first Singaporean to enter the English Premier League will not be allowed to defer his National Service enlistment. I don’t care too much for football, but I imagine that this is sad news for Singaporean football fans.

Actually, I think it’s a killjoy for all Singaporeans. The news that Ben Davis, a 17-year-old Singaporean who recently signed a two-year contract with Fulham FC, is legally required to postpone his dream of playing in the EPL was greeted with derision, frustration and despair by netizens.

MINDEF claimed in its statement that “it would not be fair to approve applications for deferment for individuals to pursue their own careers and development”. It also stated that in sports, “deferments are granted only to those who represent Singapore in international competitions like the Olympic Games and are potential medal winners for Singapore”.

In response, many netizens have advised Davis to give up his Singaporean citizenship and chase his dream. Some have even assured him that Singaporeans will bear no grudge against him.

Besides offering a window into the general sentiment of Singaporeans, some of these online comments put forth compelling arguments against MINDEF’s decision, which are worth contemplating.


Davis’ sporting career is a form of national service

One of the sentiments expressed by netizens is that Davis is proudly flying the Singapore flag on the global sporting stage by playing in the world’s most popular football league. While the Government’s perspective is that Davis is merely seeking to further his own career, several were quick to point out that his achievement serves a greater purpose – to inspire young sporting talent, and to broaden our society’s definition of excellence.

As one person commented on the CNA article, “our idea of national service needs to be updated”.

Just imagine – Davis’ Singaporean heritage is going to be mentioned every time he plays in an EPL match. But he will not only be an ambassador for Singapore. In the same way that Joseph Schooling’s victory united and inspired Singaporeans, Davis has the potential to become a rallying point for Singaporeans.

In “Total Defence” parlance, Davis can contribute to strengthening our social and psychological defence by giving us something to be proud of as a nation, and by demonstrating that Singaporeans are free to pursue their dreams. On the contrary, MINDEF’s announcement has discouraged Singaporeans, many of whom have encouraged Davis to flee the country – like a prisoner escaping a bleak jail cell.

Davis’ success is the reason we serve NS

Other commenters have lamented that a country that pours cold water on a young boy’s dreams is not worth defending.

One of our most popular army songs asks the question, “Have you ever wondered, why must we serve?” The response: “Because we love our land, and we want it to be free…”

These lyrics remind us that the safety and security of our nation is not the ultimate goal of NS. We stand ready to protect our nation so that all its citizens can live meaningful lives, free to pursue their values and ambitions. We deter aggression to guard and preserve the lives of our fellow citizens, but we do so believing that those lives can be lived to the fullest.

Of course, MINDEF is right to say that “all male Singaporeans liable for full-time NS put aside personal pursuits to dutifully enlist and serve their NS”. What is implied is that if every Singaporean son has to put his dreams on hold for two years, Davis should do so as well. But this ignores the fact that Davis’ opportunity is time-sensitive. As many netizens have argued, he will no longer be at the top of his game after two years of NS and will miss the opportunity of a lifetime. Public sector scholars, on the other hand, can still pursue further studies after two years of NS, and yet they are still offered deferment.

Davis is even more “local” than Schooling

This episode has naturally invited comparisons between Davis and Schooling, who was granted two NS deferments to continue training for the Olympics. Davis’ father declared, “If Joseph had not been given the deferment and opportunity he would never have won the Olympics.” MINDEF also preempted the inevitable reference to Schooling by stating that deferments are only granted to those who represent Singapore in international sporting competitions and are potential medal-winners for the country.

In this TOC article, reference is made to a Facebook comment highlighting the irony of this comparison. The netizen points out that Schooling spent most of his training years outside Singapore and was granted deferment, while Davis spent most of his time training locally but is told to serve his duty first – all because the former could (and did) bring back an Olympic medal, while the latter is seen to be merely “serving his own interests”.

Davis still intends to serve NS

Davis’ father has stated that he wants his son to return to fulfil his NS obligation. Several online comments stress that he is not asking for exemption. His father stated in no uncertain terms that Ben will serve in the military, just like his older brother has. He also claims that he has been “completely transparent with the authorities”, keeping them informed of his son’s scholarship and contract with Fulham FC.

But what if Davis decides to continue playing in the EPL beyond 2020? It’s certainly possible that after experiencing the thrill of professional football for two years, he would want to keep going. At the same time, however, it seems like Davis is quite strongly rooted in Singapore. He grew up in Singapore, studied in the Singapore Sports School, and has a father who recognises the importance of his three sons serving their country. He’s also close to his family, and is probably not going to jeopardise his citizenship by defaulting on his NS obligation.

It’s impossible to predict what Davis will do beyond 2020 if he is granted deferment from NS. But in the eyes of many Singaporeans, now that Davis has been denied deferment, the logical course of action is to give up his Singapore passport rather than give up on his dream. After all, he still has British citizenship. In other words, Davis is almost guaranteed to leave Singapore if he is not granted deferment.

Presented with this pragmatic argument, the Government may respond that the principles of equality and fairness in military conscription should be upheld. But pragmatism has trumped principle before. Michael Fay was given four strokes of the cane instead of six when President Bill Clinton intervened. Our government also gave its assurance to the British authorities that David Roach, the StanChart robber, will not be caned if he is extradited to Singapore.

Even then, in granting deferment to Davis, principle isn’t really being sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism. The principle of fairness in military conscription recognises that deferment should be allowed in certain deserving cases, and a strong argument can be made that Davis deserves deferment.


Davis’ father and the Football Association of Singapore are appealing MINDEF’s decision. I sincerely hope that Davis’ deferment is granted, and that he does return not only to fulfil his NS obligation but also to revive Singapore’s floundering sports scene.

Ben Davis has worked extremely hard to achieve his aspirations. Judging from online reactions, the decision to bar Davis from pursuing his own goals may be an own-goal in itself.

Incredible Irony

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Like millions of millennials across the globe, I watched the much-anticipated Incredibles 2 as soon as I could. And I was not disappointed. Of course, it’s impossible to recreate the magic of the first movie – I remember being so captivated by The Incredibles as an eleven-year-old kid that I watched the movie a dozen times more and memorised the entire script and soundtrack – but the sequel was still highly entertaining.

Once again, Disney/Pixar brewed an excellent concoction of thrilling action, cute comedy, quiet suspense, and tender moments. But beyond pulling on heartstrings and getting the adrenaline pumping, the film also weaves in broad concepts usually reserved for discussion in university classrooms. For instance, a central theme of the film is the potential incongruence between morality and legality. Should the Supers carry out their heroic work even though they are illegal? Is it right for them to break the law in order to change it, as Helen Parr ponders with her husband? Why should Supers be punished for doing the right thing – and why is the government so wary of altruism?

Another obvious concept is that of traditional gender roles, which are reversed when Elastigirl is chosen for the mission at hand while Mr Incredible assumes the role of caregiver to their three children. Other ideas that are tossed up include: the partiality of the penal system towards the wealthy (Violet sarcastically remarks that the apprehended villain will probably get out of jail soon because she’s rich), the great responsibility that comes with great power (à la Uncle Ben Parker), and the power of mass media to influence perception and change policy. (In fact, as this Vox review puts it, the film is “the rare superhero movie that may have too many ideas knocking around in its noggin”.)

But the theme that really piqued my interest had to do with the villain and her goals and motivations. Despite her facetious name, the Screenslaver is actually quite a profound character, especially for a kids movie. While Winston Deavor, the glib-tongued head of a telecommunications conglomerate, wants to change people’s perceptions of superheroes and restore public trust in them, the Screenslaver (his sister Evelyn) wants to destroy their reputation and ensure that they remain illegal forever.

What’s her issue with Supers? She reveals her motivation in a brilliant monologue:

Society has become docile in the age of mass media. People are easily influenced by what they see on their screens, and have become obsessed with superficiality and artificiality, preferring game shows to playing games, talk shows to talking, and travel shows to travelling. This passivity is exacerbated by the existence of superheroes, who are now reentering the media landscape thanks to the efforts of Winston Deavor. As a result, citizens have become too lazy to fix their problems, choosing to rely on Supers to do the dirty work for them instead of taking matters into their own hands.

What Screenslaver wants to do is to combat this debilitating social phenomenon. But instead of challenging people to reduce their media consumption, she takes their media obsession to an extreme by hypnotising them through their screens. Her ultimate aim is to enslave the Supers through this mind-control technology and use them to wreak havoc, inciting public fury against them. (At one point, the hypnotised Frozone basically becomes Magneto from the X-Men and declares that superheroes will assume their rightful place as superior beings.)

Of course, Screenslaver is not doing this out of public duty. She merely resents the fact that when her father’s life was threatened by a burglar, he chose to call his superhero friends instead of running to the safe room and was killed as a result. But her hard-hitting tirade does serve the larger purpose of provoking public discussion, not only by the fictional society in the movie but our own society as well. Have we become obsessed with superheroes, especially with the never-ending stream of superhero blockbusters hitting the silver screen? Has our love for this genre made us weak and apathetic? More generally, have we saturated our lives with vapid entertainment and blunted our creativity in the process?

Indeed, there is greater depth to this villain than meets the eye. And similar to Killmonger in Black Panther, the Screenslaver seems to have won the moral argument even though she chose destructive means to achieve her goal. But here’s the most impressive part – Screenslaver’s monologue is teeming with clever irony. Because the audience in the cinema is guilty of the same charges brought by Screenslaver against her own society.

In fact, I was admonished by the villain of a superhero film for watching yet another superhero film!

But wait – at the end of the movie, Screenslaver is placed behind bars and the Supers come out on top. Since the villain lost, does this mean that I’m let off the hook? The answer is an emphatic “No”, for as Screenslaver is shoved into the police car, she sneers at Elastigirl and reminds her that even though she saved her life, “this doesn’t change anything”.

Personally, I think that there is potential for Screenslaver’s character to be developed even further. In fact, this persona is extremely relevant in the era of smartphone and social media addiction, when people are literally enslaved by their screens. Nevertheless, Screenslaver is a sophisticated character who provides an enlightening social commentary, cleverly presented in a paradoxical manner that is hopefully detected by the audience.

Note: Interestingly, I came across this video review just before completing this piece, and it also highlights the same comic irony of Screenslaver’s monologue, calling the film “potentially very subversive”.

The First Stone

The First Stone

Just one wrench of the wrist, and the wretched man’s life would end.

The whole ordeal was supposed to be over before sunrise. The condemned was not to see the light of another day. But the sun was already up, and Sherry Liew still could not bring herself to pull the lever. She stood at the gallows with her eyes fixed on the hooded man with the noose around his sweaty neck. Her hands trembled with fear; her soul bowed beneath the weight of the power of life and death.

Sherry was wracked with grief for her precious son, who had been bludgeoned to death by the hooded man now standing before her. Sam had been hanging out with the wrong crowd, getting into gang fights and working for ah longs, and would ignore her relentless pleas to come home. But she prayed unceasingly for the prodigal son to return.

On that fateful morning, she leapt for joy when the doorbell rang unexpectedly. But the last flicker of hope in her heart was snuffed out when she opened the door to a policeman bearing tragic news of his death.

Now, she had the power to avenge her son. For many months, she had longed to strangle the evil bastard with her bare hands. But what then of her many years preaching the forgiveness and love of Christ that covers a multitude of sins? The murderer’s mother had fallen on her knees, begging for mercy for her only son. Even that monster – she struggled to see him any other way – had written countless tear-stained letters to her, asking for forgiveness and promising that he had turned his life around in prison.

How then could she spit in God’s face?

Abruptly, she loosened her grip on the lever and walked away. No matter how much this man deserved to die, she couldn’t be the one to kill him. One mother had lost her son – there was no need for another to bear the same anguish.

She walked out of Changi Prison, weary and disoriented, but at peace.


How on earth did a sweet, unassuming school teacher become an executioner?

For years, the debate on Singapore’s death penalty was stale and predictable. The government continued to peddle the hackneyed narrative that death by hanging was an effective deterrent against egregious crimes like murder and drug trafficking. The abolitionists pointed to academic research questioning the effectiveness of the death penalty, and championed a more “merciful and humane” penal system over the country’s “ruthless and primitive” system of retribution. The vast majority of Singaporeans either accepted the government’s rhetoric, or were too busy growing their bank accounts to bother engaging in public debate.

It was clear that the abolitionists needed a new strategy. Whenever they criticised the death penalty as a “barbaric” penal system, they were accused of derisive name-calling. When they called for a more enlightened form of justice, they were ironically caricatured as naive latte liberals, completely out of touch with reality.

Tired of the impasse, one activist devised a new game plan. The government was adamant on keeping the death penalty, and there was no indication that the ruling party was going to lose power any time soon. Singaporeans had grown accustomed to the moniker “Disneyland with the death penalty”. So perhaps the way forward was not to target the substance of the policy, but its implementation instead.

This activist figured that the death penalty was carried out so effectively because the condemned was hanged by a professional executioner who was supposed to be a dispassionate agent of the state, with no emotional investment or psychological inhibitions to deal with. He was just like any other bureaucrat with a job scope and KPIs. Ultimately, this automaton was the linchpin of the entire process. Remove him, and the process would fall apart.

But how could the executioner be removed? To answer this, the activist decided to ask another question – why should the State carry out executions in the first place? Murder is certainly a crime against society in that it violates the moral sanctity of life on which society stands. And the State is supposed to carry out punishments so that there is fair and proportionate justice, not vigilantism. But it is also a crime against the ones who loved and cherished the victim. The State did not give life to the victim – a mother did. Before the victim was a citizen of the State, he was a son first and foremost.

The activist argued then that in the case of first-degree murder, the execution should be carried out by the family of the victim. As for drug trafficking, the trafficker should be hanged by family members of victims of drug abuse. The State would still play the role of a neutral third party, but instead of delegating an agent to carry out the execution, it would merely “set up the venue”.

The Government accepted this proposal because it kept the death penalty intact. And so did the abolitionists. After all, for many years, they had framed capital punishment as nothing more than a clinical, state-sanctioned form of retribution. In their eyes, this new system would clearly demonstrate their point by empowering the victims’ families to exact their revenge.

More importantly though, the new system left room for compassion and mercy to intervene. In the old system, mercy was virtually non-existent because the President (or rather, the Cabinet who advised him) almost never granted clemency. But now that the act of execution was no longer in the hands of a detached, professional hangman, would every hanging be followed through?

In first-century Judea, when an angry mob brought a woman before Jesus and accused her of committing adultery, an act punishable by death, Jesus replied, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The crowd dispersed because none of them believed they had the right to mete out the death sentence.

It was the same with Sherry Liew. She chose to show mercy because she believed mercy had been shown to her. But had she decided to pull the lever, she would have acted legitimately and lawfully as well.

Of course, this scenario is completely hypothetical. But it is worth wondering what the contours of public debate would look like if a proposed system like this really gained traction. I wonder what would change if Singaporeans were no longer detached from the gruesome act of hanging, which today is carried out secretly in the early hours of the morning behind the iron gates of Changi Prison.

Would we be willing to cast the first stone?

CMIO+++

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Source: MySkillsFuture website (www.myskillsfuture.sg)

I’ve become so accustomed to filling in my “Race” on application forms in Singapore. Usually, I just need to choose one of four options – Chinese, Malay, Indian or Others.

But when you register on the MySkillsFuture website (www.myskillsfuture.sg), you now have a long list of “races” to choose from!

Instead of being just “Malay”, you can choose “Acehnese”, “Boyanese” or even “Bugis”.

You can identify as “Indian”, or you can be more specific and select “Tamil”, “Punjabi”, “Sindhi”, “Goan”, or others.

Depending on how nationalistic you are, you can choose “French”, “Dane”, “German”, or just jettison all these archaic labels for the more progressive “European”. For the more pedantic, instead of “British”, go ahead and choose “English”, “Welsh” or “Scot” (apologies to the Northern Irish, there’s no option for you).

If you’re only partly English, don’t worry – there are several hybrid options for you, such as “Anglo Chinese”, “Anglo Indian”, “Anglo Filipino”, “Anglo Burmese”, and “Anglo Thai”. (What, no “Anglo Uzbek”??? Sheesh.)

At the risk of sounding like a neo-Nazi, you can even choose “Aryan”. Oh man, I’d like to see who’s brave enough to do that…

If you think that “American” and “Canadian” are races rather than the more inclusive labels of civic identity that they are generally believed to be, those options are listed too. I have no idea why, but they’re there.

For our Middle Eastern friends, shalom/salam and welcome to the party. Along with “Jew” and “Arab”, “Israeli” and “Palestine” are somehow options too. Wow, this reminds me of Conflict Resolution classes back in Israel…

But if all this is too complicated, and you’d rather just put the generic and non-committal “Other”, you’re in luck. Though for some bizarre reason, that’s listed along with “Other Eurasian”, “Other Indonesian” and “Other Indian”.

So what should I choose? Normally, I would just choose “Indian”. But with such a smorgasbord of “races”, I feel like writing in and asking for “Indo-Greek” to be made available. After all, that sounds better than “Greco-Indian”.

Or I could just be a rebel, forget the whole “race” thing, and choose “Brahmin” (I kid you not, it’s actually there).

Look, I appreciate the effort to move away from the CMIO system and acknowledge the great diversity on our island, but in offering so many options, the labels have become meaningless. Or maybe that’s the whole point?

Don’t Miss the Grass for the Trees

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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.

 

Cosmopolitan from Day One

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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.