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.

A Discriminated Majority?


My research paper on Indonesian Islamist news websites has been published by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at IDC Herzliya! Check out the Introduction published here on the ICT website, where you can also download the full publication.

The central puzzle explored in the paper is this: Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world, and yet there are Indonesian Islamists who argue that the Muslim community in Indonesia faces discrimination. I decided to study the way this argument is presented in online articles found on Indonesian Islamist news websites.

Accept, Reject, Don’t Ignore


Chapel of the Shepherd’s Field, Bethlehem

Last week in Bethlehem, I tried to help two tourists who had just gotten off the bus from Jerusalem and were poring over a map of the city. It was quite obvious to me that these European girls had never been to Bethlehem before, and so I decided to point them in the right direction.

I approached them and asked if they were searching for the Church of the Nativity. But the girls completely ignored me and continued scrutinising their map. It took me a few seconds to realise that they thought I was a local taxi driver trying to fleece them.

“I’m a tourist like you. I’m also walking to the church,” I said. Again, complete silence. I walked off in disgust.

To some degree, I understand the girls’ behaviour. They had just been accosted by an army of taxi drivers and tour guides, and were feeling insecure in an unfamiliar environment. Also, even Arabs think I’m Arab, so it’s no surprise that these girls thought so too.

But at the very least, they could have replied with a polite but firm “No, thank you”. They didn’t even acknowledge my presence. It was quite a dehumanising experience.

Of course, I can easily brush this experience off. But hundreds of Palestinians experience this everyday. So do thousands of taxi drivers, tour guides, salesmen, advertisers, and beggars around the world. As much as possible, I’ve decided that no matter how annoyed or inconvenienced I am by such people on the streets, I will either accept or reject their offers, but will not ignore them.

A little empathy goes a long way.

Power Sketches

At the Peres Centre for Peace in Jaffa, one of the exhibits in the reception area shows a rudimentary sketch of the Sinai with several arrows stretching across the desert. This map was sketched by Moshe Dayan and signed by David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres at the Sevres Conference in 1956, where Israel met secretly with Britain and France to plan the Sinai Campaign. After much contemplation, Ben-Gurion decided on the last day of the conference to proceed with the planned offensive. In the spur of the moment, Peres tore open a cigarette box on which Dayan sketched out the planned advance of Israeli forces towards the Suez Canal.


Mr Shimon Peres at TEDxWhiteCity 2015

I was quite intrigued by this “power sketch”, as I like to call it. Just imagine: territorial borders, political mergers, and even wars have been planned in the same way that students draft their exam answers! Pressed for time, negotiators and decision-makers sometimes grab the nearest piece of scrap paper to draft basic contracts, jot down innovative ideas, and brainstorm solutions to conflicts.

Some of these sketches shook the world. These scraps of paper are later memorialised as the humble beginnings of momentous political events – as symbols of spontaneous political entrepreneurship.

Here’s a list of five other times leaders used scrap paper as a very unlikely medium for political discussions.

1. LKY pushing the envelope

In July 1963, in the heat of discussions between Singapore and Malaya on the topic of Merger, Lee Kuan Yew managed to obtain certain concessions from Tunku Abdul Rahman just two days before the agreement was to be signed. These concessions included minor parliamentary election rules and labour policy. With the deadline quickly approaching, PM Lee grabbed a used envelope, scribbled several points of agreement about interior and labour policy, and got the Tunku to sign it.

2. Abbas’ “napkin map”

According to the Palestinian Authority, in mid-2008, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert proposed a land swap arrangement in which Israel would annex more than 10% of the West Bank, including major settlements, in exchange for farmland along the West Bank and Gaza Strip. When Olmert showed President Mahmoud Abbas a map with his proposed land swaps, Abbas was not allowed to keep the map, presumably to ensure that the PA would not leak the proposal to the public. Abbas had to sketch a copy of the map on a napkin to discuss it with his team.

3. Another “mapkin” for Syrian peace

During peace negotiations between Israel and Syria in 2000, the Israeli final offer was sketched out on a napkin from the Knesset cafeteria. PM Ehud Barak was willing to withdraw from the Golan Heights down to the Sea of Galilee in exchange for peace. In his plan, Israel was to keep a “symbolic presence” on a small plot of land on the east of the Galilee, but would compensate Syria in a land swap. This plan was also sketched on a napkin and conveyed to the Syrian side.

4. More “napkin diplomacy” at Dayton

In Nov 1995, peace talks were held in Dayton between the leaders of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina in a bid to bring the Bosnian War to an end. During lunch one day at an officers’ club, US negotiator Richard Holbrooke conducted a brief round of shuttle diplomacy between Serbian President Milosevic and Bosnian PM Silajdzic, who were seated at opposite ends of the same dining room. When Holbrooke started discussing several ideas with Silajdzic regarding the status of Sarajevo, Silajdzic sketched several options on (surprise surprise) several napkins, which Holbrooke presented to Milosevic. After walking back and forth between the two tables, Holbrooke brought the two leaders together for a discussion. These informal talks didn’t result in any concrete agreements, but they lay the groundwork for productive discussions later on in the conference.

5. Kazakh power nap-kin

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, one of the issues that had to be resolved between Kazakhstan and Russia was the division of the Caspian Sea between the two countries. In pursuit of a solution, the President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan sat down with Russian President Boris Yeltsin for several hours, during which he sketched out his proposed delineation of the Caspian Sea on (you guessed it) a napkin. This was eventually turned into an official document which the two presidents agreed upon.