Real Steel: Usumain Baraka

Usumain photo.jpg

I first heard the incredible story of Usumain’s perilous journey from Sudan to Israel on the same day that he tried to treat me to dinner.

I was almost moved to tears when I witnessed his warmth and generosity. A young man who came to Israel with nothing but the shirt on his back now wanted to pay for my meal.

Usumain’s graciousness is equalled by his drive and determination. He is a BA student in Government in IDC Herzliya, one of the top colleges in Israel. He aspires to work either in an international NGO or in a foreign embassy in Israel. But his big dream is to return to Sudan and help build relations between Israelis and Sudanese. To say that this is a tall order is an understatement. Sudan is ruled by an Islamist dictator and does not recognise Israel’s right to exist. From Usumain’s report, anti-Semitism runs deep in the population – as a young boy, he was told by his uncle that Jews have devil’s horns on their head.

But Usumain is an optimist fuelled by aspiration. When he saw the name “Canada-Israel” prominently displayed on an office building in Herzliya Pituach, he turned to me and said, “One day, I will open an office with a big sign that says “Darfur-Israel”.


“Darfur” usually conjures bloodcurdling images of massacres and mayhem, but it is home for Usumain. He fled from the Darfur genocide in 2003 when his village was attacked by the government-backed Janjaweed militia. His father and older brother were killed by the militants, and the entire village was razed to the ground. He was only nine.

He miraculously escaped to a refugee camp in neighbouring Chad, where he spent the next four years of his life with his mother and siblings. As he interacted with the UN workers, he picked up English and was inspired to leave the refugee camp to further his education. With childlike innocence and wisdom beyond his years, he promised his mother that he would “learn to be a leader without spilling any blood” and went off to Libya to study at the age of 13.

Although he benefited from the English lessons in the international school he attended in Libya, Usumain struggled tremendously since he was not granted refugee status. He eventually left for Egypt because he had heard that school fees were cheaper there. He travelled across the border with his friend who was barely a year older than him.

While in Cairo, the two boys went into hiding when they heard that there were Egyptian and Sudanese agents collaborating to arrest and deport Darfurians. While watching TV one day, they chanced upon a documentary about Israel on Al-Jazeera. For the first time in his life, Usumain learned about the Holocaust and the waves of Jewish refugees to Israel. It dawned on him that of all the countries he had passed through, none of them had ever experienced the horrors of genocide. Chad, Libya and Egypt have certainly been ravaged by internecine fighting and violent oppression, but not ethnic cleansing like in Darfur. Usumain thought that Israel would truly understand his plight. He decided to make his own Exodus from Egypt.

Usumain convinced his friend that brighter prospects awaited them in Israel. They managed to contact a Bedouin smuggler, who grouped the duo together with ten other refugees. The twelve refugees hid in the smuggler’s delivery truck, with nylon draped over them and boxes of fruit and vegetables on their heads. The smuggler drove them through the Sinai and was stopped twice by the police. In one inspection, the policeman took an apple from the box atop Usumain’s head! He sat like a statue, and was not discovered.

After several nights of travelling under the cloak of darkness, the smuggler stopped a distance from the border and told the group that they were on their own. They approached the border with caution, crawling as they got closer. They were like the 12 spies of Israel, scouting out the Promised Land. But instead of the giants of Canaan, they faced armed Egyptian soldiers.

Every nerve-wracking step towards the border was possible only because fear was suppressed by desperation. But the mental strain was too much to bear for one member of the crew, who had a panic attack and started screaming uncontrollably. He was immediately shot by the Egyptian border guard.

All caution was abandoned. The remaining eleven ran to the border with all their might. In the frenzy, another refugee was shot and wounded, and his loyal friend refused to leave his side. Both were tragically killed by the Egyptians.

On the other side of the fence, Israeli soldiers prepared to receive the survivors, but could not fire back at the Egyptians. The soldiers instructed the refugees in Arabic to run towards them for safety. But they didn’t heed their call, because they hadn’t expected Israeli soldiers to speak Arabic and thought that they were still in Egypt. Ironically, the language that should have inspired trust in the soldiers served instead to arouse suspicion. At last, the refugees realised that the soldiers’ uniforms were different from the Egyptians, and they turned to them for help.


I stared at Usumain in disbelief as he recounted his harrowing brush with death. He was animated in his narration but seemed surprisingly calm. He paused for a while, allowing me to digest everything I had just heard.

“I’ve met good and bad people here in Israel,” he said, “just like in every other country.”

He recalled the moment when one of the Israeli soldiers at the border took off his own socks to help a barefooted refugee. That auspicious beginning was then overshadowed by the deceit of another soldier who collected the refugees’ money and valuables for “safekeeping”. They never saw their money or belongings again.

Usumain was transported with the other refugees to Saharonim Prison in the Negev, a detention centre for African asylum seekers. He spent 6 weeks there, during which he was referred to by number and not by name. When he was released at Be’er Sheva Central Bus Station, he was left completely alone as an unaccompanied minor who knew no Hebrew. The only Arabic he saw was the sign for the taxi stand, so he approached a driver, handed him the US dollars that he had hidden under his collar, and was on the road to Eilat.

Standing in the central bus station of Eilat, he saw an African man in the distance and ran headlong towards him. As it turned out, the man was Ghanaian but knew other Sudanese refugees that he could put Usumain in touch with. Through a series of miraculous connections, Usumain was enrolled in Yemin Orde, a boarding school on Mount Carmel for at-risk and immigrant youth. Not only did he study Hebrew in Ulpan, he had to study every subject in Hebrew too!

Grateful for the opportunity to study, Usumain believed that he needed to make an effort to integrate with the school population. In an impressive display of leadership and influence, he convinced his five other Sudanese friends that they should participate in religious services, even though they were not required to do so. He dressed like an Orthodox Jew with a kippah, white shirt and black trousers, read the Tanakh (Bible), and ate only kosher food.

Through grit and perseverance, Usumain excelled in his studies and qualified for university. But motivated by his desire to integrate, he volunteered to serve in the IDF. To his disappointment, he was rejected because he was not a citizen. He decided to further his education in university, and was accepted to the BA Government programme in IDC Herzliya.


Usumain came to Israel eight years ago believing that the country would identify with his experience and show him compassion as a refugee. Was he right?

Despite his harsh and terrifying stint in the detention centre, he was welcomed by an Israeli boarding school and his education was sponsored by the Israeli government. He developed strong friendships with Israelis and was assisted by NGOs and volunteers. He is now studying in a top-notch Israeli university with the support of Jewish philanthropists and netizens who donated to his Indiegogo campaign.

However, life is not all smooth-sailing for him. He has no passport or refugee status in Israel. All he has is a visa that has to be renewed every two months in Bnei Brak – a process which requires waiting in line for hours. He is also not permitted to work on his visa. Apparently, enforcement of this rule is ambiguous, but he has been rejected at multiple job interviews.

Worst of all, asylum seekers like Usumain are subject to interminable haranguing from right-wing politicians and religious leaders who tell them they do not belong to the Jewish nation. Miri Regev, for example, called African migrants a “cancer” to Israeli society. According to current policy, African asylum seekers who enter Israel illegally can be detained for a year without trial. As for refugee status, of the 3,165 asylum applications received between 2009 and 2015, only 5 were granted temporary residency. These policies are designed to encourage asylum seekers to accept government-assisted repatriation to Uganda or Rwanda.

Usumain knows all this. And yet, he keeps his chin up and smiles. He has been tested severely through his life, and has shown the famously resilient Israelis that he too is made of real steel.

Rody Duterte: Filipino Batman?

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has frequently been compared to Donald Trump. They are both anti-establishment, deliberately offensive, outrageously cavalier and completely undiplomatic politicians who excel in demagoguery. The main difference between them is that Duterte has allegedly ordered and carried out the killing of numerous criminals, while the only things that Trump has killed are his failed businesses and his dignity.

But perhaps an even better comparison is between Duterte and the Dark Knight.

The Duterte narrative reads like a Batman comic. In a crime-infested society, where the police force is toothless and politicians and judges are in the pockets of drug lords and crime cartels, one man has taken matters into his own hands. He seeks to restore peace and justice by circumventing the corrupt legal system and feckless bureaucracy… without any superpowers.

(Other Filipinos drew this analogy as well. This video was uploaded by YouTuber “Henry Oatmeal”.)

But how accurate is this narrative? As an outsider, I’ve inferred from the massive scale of the current War on Drugs that that the Philippines has been so paralysed by narcotics that the only feasible solution is Duterte’s shock therapy. The impression I’ve gotten is that the judicial system is completely ineffective and has disappointed so many Filipinos for so long that they look to Duterte’s extra-judicial tactics for justice. But I have put the cart before the horse by judging the magnitude of the problem from the response, rather than assessing the scale of the problem first.

According to statistics reported in this TIME article, the situation in the Philippines does not seem that severe. Although there are about 100 million people in the Philippines, the country had fewer cases of crimes involving physical injury in 2014 than the UK with a population of 64 million. That same year, the number of reported robbery cases in the Philippines was less than in Belgium, with a population that is 10% of the Philippines’. Between 2010 and 2015, police statistics show that the total number of murders in the country’s 15 largest cities was an average of 1202 per year, which is far less than the 3500 people who have been killed since the start of the War on Drugs on 1 July.

More importantly, statistics on drug use in the Philippines suggest that Duterte has exaggerated the scale of the problem. According to this article written by students from the University of the Philippines, President Duterte stated in his first State of the Nation Address that there are probably 3.7 million drug addicts now. But research by the Dangerous Drugs Board suggests that there were 1.7 million drug users in 2008 and 1.3 million in 2012, which is a huge improvement from the 6.7 million drug users reported in 2004. The data cited by the students also shows that drug raids and arrests increased from 2004 to 2014, which suggests that law enforcement agencies have been effective under previous presidential administrations.

Hence, in the eyes of Duterte’s critics, while drug use and drug-related crimes are certainly a challenge to social security and national development, a full-scale war is disproportionate and unwarranted.

But of course, valid questions can be raised about these statistics – for example, how many crimes are unreported in the Philippines? Also, for many Filipinos, statistics are irrelevant. What matters is how they feel about security – what their threshold of tolerance is, and how desperate they are to resolve these problems – and the judicial system, which is widely perceived as broken and corrupt according to Phelim Kine of Human Rights Watch. Judging from Duterte’s landslide victory, the near-universal trust that Filipinos place in Duterte, and the low trust in the courts, it seems that the Batman narrative has captured the imagination of the Filipino population.

In any case, there is no doubt that President Duterte sees himself as the hero of the hour. He obviously doesn’t believe that the country’s police and judicial system can restore law and order as they are now. That’s why he has ordered the police to shoot suspected drug pushers whether they resist arrest or not and encouraged citizens to kill drug addicts themselves. Forget about the presumption of innocence or the right to a fair trial – the President has promised to reward citizens who kill drug traffickers and pardon any officer accused of human rights abuses. To be fair, the media rarely highlights Project “TokHang” – the strategy of the police to visit individual homes and convince drug pushers and addicts to surrender and enter rehab. But this is little consolation for the families of drug suspects who have been killed by the police or vigilante groups without a fair trial.

Furthermore, he has bypassed official channels by announcing the names of 158 public officials who are allegedly involved in the drug trade and ordering them to surrender or face the consequences. His contempt for the judicial system and rule of law is clear in his mockery of it. In response to criticism of his support for extra-judicial killings, he said that he would “just bring a drug lord to a judge and kill him there”, and “that will no longer be extra-judicial”. He also boasted during his presidential campaign that he would pardon himself for mass murder.

Duterte’s iron-fisted approach was formed in the crucible of the smaller war on drugs and crime in Davao. According to this account, the city was like Gotham before Duterte was elected as Mayor. Through tough legislation, ruthless law enforcement, and the use of extra-judicial killings primarily carried out by the Davao Death Squad, Duterte managed to transform the city from a cesspool of crime to one of the safest urban areas in the Philippines. His crime-fighting tactics ranged from bloodthirsty (the death squad killed over 1400 people between 1998 and 2015) to absurd (he once forced a tourist to swallow his cigarette butt for contravening a smoking ban). But supporters say that Duterte’s style of governance was necessary in a city located in a rough neighbourhood plagued by secessionists, communist rebels and Islamist terror groups.

While President Duterte is not a billionaire playboy with a Kevlar suit, he has always governed using Batman’s weapon of choice: fear. He strikes fear in the hearts of drug addicts and mules – more than 700,000 people have surrendered to the police for drug rehab and amnesty. But his ruthlessness has also inspired hope in millions of Filipinos that they can live in safety and security.

This analogy to the Caped Crusader helps explain Duterte’s widespread appeal. His selfless refusal of cabinet positions and an award nomination has endeared him to his supporters. In stark contrast to the stereotypical power-hungry politician, he reluctantly agreed to run for office after his supporters begged him for months to do so. He is like Batman hiding in the shadows, selflessly shunning the spotlight. To his supporters, he is the hero that the Philippines both needs and deserves.

Like Bruce Wayne, Duterte believes that the only way to get rid of the scourge of lawlessness and corruption is for one brave soul to get his hands dirty. But there is no doubt that he has taken the Batman narrative to a dangerous extreme.

Of the 3500 Filipinos who have been killed in the War on Drugs, about 1300 were killed in police operations, while over 2200 were killed by vigilante groups. This means that more suspects have been killed by private citizens than by law enforcement officers. Moreover, since the police have been given carte blanche by the President, numerous stories of police abuse have emerged. There have been cases of mistaken identity in which innocent people were killed. There have been allegations of fabricated reports and the planting of guns, money and drugs in innocent people’s houses.

While Mr Duterte understands the political potency of naming villains and delivering swift “justice-on-demand”, he doesn’t seem to realise how easily this could spiral out of control. If vigilantism is allowed to increase unchecked, it may be used to target any suspected criminal for any felony without any need for evidence. In fact, it may even be used to settle personal grudges without any fear of real consequences. Mr Duterte is familiar with this – he shot a fellow student in law school and was merely expelled, although he was still allowed to graduate. The uptick in violence could fuel demand for more violence in response. Thus, violence begets more violence, and life inches closer and closer to a Hobbesian reality.

Duterte’s supporters would probably point out that the situation did not spin out of control in Davao. But Duterte is now the leader of a country fifty times the size of Davao, where the same dynamics do not apply. Yet, he continues to respond to criticism of his policies with invective-laced tirades, whether it is from fellow political leaders, human rights groups, state leaders and representatives, or international organisations. He has insulted President Obama and the US ambassador, threatened to pull out from the UN, and sworn at the EU. He has said that journalists are “not exempted from assassination”. In one of the most prominent displays of his cavalier attitude, he said he was unconcerned about the international community’s opinion of him because he is not president of the international community.

It can even be argued that Duterte’s siege mentality has contributed to his shift in foreign policy. Sensing greater support for his domestic policy from China than the US, he has decided to cosy up to the Chinese and alienate the Americans. Of course, there are other factors involved in this policy shift, which he has been advocating for many months. But the shift is probably facilitated by his disdain for the Americans who have criticised his domestic policy. In deciding to negotiate issues related to the South China Sea dispute directly with the Chinese, and unilaterally declaring the end of war games with the US, President Duterte is playing a risky diplomatic game.

All in all, Duterte’s powerful and colourful personality is a game-changer for the Philippines. His supporters hail him as a hero like Batman. His critics probably liken him to the Joker, with his loose-cannon mouth and his penchant for crude humour. In the long run, however, President Duterte must depart from his heroic style of governance and focus more on restoring the rule of law, strengthening the nation’s judicial system, and spurring economic growth. If he does not, he will only be targeting the symptoms and not the root of the country’s problems. Furthermore, unfettered vigilantism may lead to increased lawlessness despite his tough stance on crime. Even if crime rates do fall and rapid economic development takes place over the next six years, these gains may be reversed after he leaves office if he does not build strong institutions.

In Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne realises that he is vulnerable as a man but immortal as a symbol. If President Duterte wants to achieve the same immortal legacy, he must focus on building trustworthy, functional and responsive state institutions that can outlast his presidency.

Overcoming the Politics of Hate: Comparing Rwanda and Singapore

Few countries have been torn apart by the same ruinous hatred that devastated Rwanda during the genocide of the Tutsis in 1994. In just 3 months, 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally massacred. But since the end of the genocide, Rwanda has made tremendous progress under the iron-fisted leadership of President Paul Kagame. While the traumatic scars of the catastrophe have not faded away completely, hatred between Hutus and Tutsis has been replaced by peaceful tolerance and a unified resolve to never let ethnic differences fuel such bloodletting again.

This miraculous recovery is underpinned by rapid socio-economic development. Faced with a wrecked economy and debilitating poverty after the genocide, Kagame looked to Singapore to emulate its turbo-charged development from Third World to First. [i] [ii] Having learnt from Singapore’s experience, Kagame’s government cracked down on corruption; invested heavily in housing, education and healthcare; attracted foreign investors with developed infrastructure and minimal red tape; and cleaned up the capital city. As a result, Rwanda has achieved an average real GDP growth of 8% per annum since 2001 and is one of the safest and least corrupt countries in Africa.[iii]

While much has been written about Rwanda’s emulation of Singapore’s development trajectory, not much attention has been given to the similar social policies that both countries have adopted to manage relations between their diverse ethnic groups. Like Rwanda, Singapore is a multi-ethnic country. The Chinese constitute the majority while Malays and Indians are significant minority populations. The city-state is also home to people of different religions, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and others. While Singapore has never experienced genocide, it has suffered the turbulence of racial riots between Chinese and Malays.[iv] But today, “racial harmony” is the bedrock of Singapore’s stability and progress. This article examines the similarities and differences in the laws, policies and initiatives that Rwanda and Singapore have adopted to overcome the politics of hate.

Building a Unifying National Identity

Both Rwanda and Singapore have focused on building national identities that unify their diverse ethnic groups. However, each country has taken a separate route – Rwanda has adopted the assimilationist model, while Singapore has adopted the multiculturalist model.

In a bid to turn Rwandan society into an integrated “melting pot”, Kagame’s government has embarked on the ambitious task of ridding the country of ethnic classification altogether. Citizens are encouraged to think of themselves only as Rwandans, and not as Hutus and Tutsis. Kagame’s goal is to erase the same ethnic categories that fuelled the catastrophic genocide of 1994. In line with this policy, the ethnic identity of Rwandan citizens was excluded from national IDs in 1996. As NYT journalist Jeffry Gettleman discovered, many Rwandans refuse to reveal their ethnic identity, choosing to identify solely as Rwandans.[v]

On the contrary, there are many Rwandans for whom ethnic identity is important because the events of 1994 have made them irreversibly distrustful of members of the outgroup.[vi] Also, some Rwandans suspect that Kagame’s decision to play down ethnicity is a ruse to mask the fact that Tutsis wield a significant amount of political and economic power despite making up only 15% of the population. If they are not allowed to talk about ethnicity, it is hard to discuss the disproportionate power that Tutsis hold.[vii]

Singapore, on the other hand, has kept and even institutionalised the ethnic identities of its citizens. According to Singapore’s multiculturalist vision, Singaporeans do not discard their ethnic identity but render it secondary to their national identity. Rather than trying to achieve the impossible task of erasing citizens’ attachment to primordial identities, the government has chosen the path of open and honest discussion about ethnic identities and differences (within certain limits) while emphasising the overarching national identity that unites all Singaporeans “regardless of race, language or religion”, as quoted from Singapore’s National Pledge.

Hence, Singapore’s society is perceived through the lens of the “Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others” (CMIO) system, which has become a ubiquitous element of the Singaporean experience.[viii] The four national languages of Singapore are Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English, and the festivals of each major ethnic and religious group are national holidays. Singapore’s parliamentary electoral system ensures that the minority Malay and Indian groups are always represented in Parliament. The Government is contemplating the idea of an “electoral safeguard” to ensure that Singapore has minority Elected Presidents from time to time. Most visibly, “race” remains a category on the Singaporean national ID, which a UN Special Rapporteur has criticised for contributing to racially based policies and discrimination.[ix] In response to such criticism, a Singaporean cabinet minister claimed that ethnic identities “are not going to go away soon”, so Singaporeans should recognise them and “work on them to achieve a higher ideal”.[x] That higher ideal is a fair and meritocratic society where individual progress depends on ability and industriousness, not on ethnic background.

Inculcating a Duty to Serve the Nation

As part of their efforts to develop strong national identities that transcend narrower ethnic identities, both Rwanda and Singapore have emphasised the importance of every citizen’s duty to serve the nation. Through community service, individuals learn to place the needs of the nation before the needs of their immediate community. Community service also provides a platform for cross-ethnic interaction as citizens unite to achieve a common goal.

In Rwanda, the primary form of community service is a nation-wide initiative called umuganda, which means “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome”.[xi] This draws on the Rwandan tradition of calling upon family, friends and neighbours to help complete a difficult task. During Umuganda Saturday, which is the last Saturday of every month, Rwandans between the age of 18 and 65 are expected to engage in some form of community service.[xii] This includes infrastructure development like the building of schools and medical centres, and environmental protection like the rehabilitation of wetlands.[xiii] This mandatory community work is used as a tool to inculcate a sense of shared responsibility, and has provided opportunities for productive collaboration between Hutus and Tutsis.

Similarly, Singaporean students are expected to engage in a variety of Community Involvement Projects and Service Learning Projects throughout their schooling years. These programmes aim to teach students to care for the needs of every Singaporean regardless of ethnic background. After school, all male citizens are drafted into the military, police force or civil defence force for two years of National Service (NS). NS plays a significant role in uniting Singaporeans of different ethnicities as strong cross-cultural camaraderie is forged in the crucible of physically demanding exercises. Through NS, Singaporeans unite to defend the nation from external threats and internal discord.

Legislation Against Hate Speech

The governments of Rwanda and Singapore recognise the danger of irresponsible speech in their multi-ethnic societies. Derogatory language could upset the hard-fought social harmony that both countries have achieved. As such, both countries have enacted laws that set the boundaries of acceptable discourse.

The Rwandan government is understandably wary of speech that could rekindle ethnic tension. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda highlighted the role of the media in stoking the flames of ethnic violence in 1994. For example, the popular radio station Radio télévision libre des mille collines (RTLM) broadcast statements calling for the extermination of Tutsis, and the newspaper Kangura ran multiple articles that aimed to incite violence against Tutsis.[xiv] In recognition of the catastrophic effects of irresponsible public statements, the government has taken a strong stance against any speech or publication that could potentially spark ethnic conflict and plunge the country into internecine violence again.

In 2002, the Rwandan parliament passed a law criminalising “sectarianism”, which is “any speech, written statement or action that divides people, that is likely to spark conflicts among people, or that causes an uprising which might degenerate into strife among people”.[xv] In 2008, a law was enacted against all speech containing elements of “genocide ideology”, which involves propounding the act of genocide and denying or minimising the Rwandan genocide. These laws aim to restrict speech that could normalise ethnic hatred, dehumanise entire segments of society or promote “division (which) makes domination possible”.[xvi]

Similarly, Singapore has enacted laws against hate speech that could sow discord in society. Both the Sedition Act and Section 298 of the Penal Code criminalise speech that promotes hatred and ill-will between religious and racial groups. The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act allows the Minister of Home Affairs to issue a restraining order against a religious leader who promotes enmity between religious groups. In extreme cases, the Internal Security Act (ISA) allows for preventive detention and the prohibition of publications in response to acts or speech that promote hatred and hostility between ethnic and religious groups.

These laws have been enacted in Rwanda and Singapore in order to restrict speech that could promote hatred. However, such legislation has also been criticised for violating their citizens’ freedom of expression. International advocacy groups like Amnesty International have accused Kagame’s government of abusing the laws against “sectarianism” and “genocide ideology” to suppress dissenting political views and legitimate debate.[xvii] These groups often highlight the arrest of Victoire Ingabire, the former head of the opposition United Democratic Force Party, who had suggested that Tutsis should be prosecuted for war crimes and Hutu victims should also be commemorated. Critics also point out that the laws are arbitrary – for example, the law against “sectarianism” proscribes even the act of “laughing at one’s misfortune”.[xviii]

Similarly, Singapore has also been accused of excessive restrictions on freedom of expression. Besides the controversy surrounding the government’s power to detain individuals without trial under the ISA, there have been several cases in which the punishment seemed disproportionate to the crime. In 2015, Singaporean blogger Amos Yee was tried and convicted as an adult under Section 298 of the Penal Code for comments that were deemed to be insulting to Christians, even though he was only 16 at the time.[xix] In the same year, a Filipino nurse was convicted of sedition for a Facebook post that was deemed to promote hostility between Singaporeans and Filipinos.[xx] He was jailed for 4 months, which some believed was a disproportionate response to a harmless and even comical post.

Conclusion

More parallels can be drawn between Singapore and Rwanda, but this presents a snapshot of the policies that have been adopted by both countries to promote tolerance and social harmony. However, while Rwanda has managed to preserve its social stability, the politics of hate has not disappeared – it has merely undergone a transformation. Under Kagame’s illiberal rule, the cleavage of hatred is no longer between Hutus and Tutsis, but between government loyalists and opponents.

Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) is perceived as Rwanda’s saviour because it ended the genocide. Kagame has utilised the heroic reputation of the party to accuse political opponents of siding with the genocidaires, since they refuse to side with the party that rebuilt Rwanda from the ashes of the genocide.[xxi] Hence, Kagame’s authoritarian rule extends beyond the banning of opposition parties, the clamping down on dissident media, and the dubious 93% electoral win that he achieved in 2010. His Manichean viewpoint has fuelled the persecution and even execution of political dissidents. As a result, dozens of political dissidents have fled for their lives. In 2010, an assassination attempt was made on veteran opposition leader Kayumba Nyamwasa. In 2011, UK intelligence suggested that there was a plot to murder a Rwandan dissident in London, Rene Claudel Mugenzi.[xxii]

Rwanda has come a long way since the turmoil of the 1990s. By learning from Singapore’s experience, it has achieved rapid economic development. The government has also successfully rebuilt Rwanda’s social capital. However, questions linger about the sustainability of Kagame’s autocratic rule. While some argue that Kagame’s rule is still necessary for Rwanda[xxiii], the time may come when Rwandans are more certain about the strength of their social fabric and demand greater political liberalisation. When that time comes, let’s hope that Rwandans of opposing political affiliations do not engage in the politics of hate once again.


[i] “Africa’s Singapore Dream”, Foreign Policy, 2 Apr 2015, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/02/africas-singapore-dream-rwanda-kagame-lee-kuan-yew/

[ii] “Africa’s Singapore?”, The Economist, 25 Feb 2012, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.economist.com/node/21548263

[iii] “Rwanda: Overview”, The World Bank, last updated on 11 Apr 2016, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/rwanda/overview

[iv] “Communal riots of 1964”, Singapore Infopedia, last updated on 18 Sep 2014, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_45_2005-01-06.html

[v] “The Global Elite’s Favourite Strongman”, New York Times, 4 Sep 2013, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/magazine/paul-kagame-rwanda.html?_r=0

[vi] Tirrell, L. (2015). ‘Listen to what you say’: Rwanda’s postgenocide language policies. New England Journal of Public Policy, 27(1): 1-24.

[vii] “The Global Elite’s Favourite Strongman”, New York Times, 4 Sep 2013, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/magazine/paul-kagame-rwanda.html?_r=0

[viii] Chua, B.H. (2003). Multiculturalism in Singapore: An instrument of social control. Race & Class, 44(3): 58-77.

[ix] Gomez, J. (2010). Politics and ethnicity: Framing racial discrimination in Singapore. The Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies, 28(2): 103-117.

[x] “Battle against extremism: Singapore takes a ‘different approach’ on race, religion”, The Straits Times, 31 Jul 2016, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/singapore-takes-a-different-approach-on-race-religion

[xi] “Umuganda”, Rwandapedia, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.rwandapedia.rw/explore/umuganda

[xii] Tirrell, L. (2015). ‘Listen to what you say’: Rwanda’s postgenocide language policies. New England Journal of Public Policy, 27(1): 1-24.

[xiii] “Umuganda”, Rwandapedia, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.rwandapedia.rw/explore/umuganda

[xiv] Allen, J.M., & Norris, G.H. (2011). Is genocide different? Dealing with hate speech in a post-genocide society. Journal of International Law and International Relations, 7: 146-174.

[xv] Law No. 47/2001 on 18/12/2001 on Prevention, Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Discrimination and Sectarianism

[xvi] Tirrell, L. (2015). ‘Listen to what you say’: Rwanda’s postgenocide language policies. New England Journal of Public Policy, 27(1): 1-24.

[xvii] Amnesty International (2010). Safer to Stay Silent: The Chilling Effect of Rwanda’s Laws on ‘Genocide Ideology’ and ‘Sectarianism’. London: Amnesty International. Retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/AFR47/005/2010/en/

[xviii] Allen, J.M., & Norris, G.H. (2011). Is genocide different? Dealing with hate speech in a post-genocide society. Journal of International Law and International Relations, 7: 146-174.

[xix] “Singapore: Amos Yee sentence a dark day for freedom of expression”, Amnesty International, 6 July 2015, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/07/singapore-amos-yee-sentence-a-dark-day-for-freedom-of-expression/

[xx] “Singapore jails Filipino nurse for ‘seditious’ posts”, AFP News, 21 Sep 2015, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: https://sg.news.yahoo.com/singapore-jails-filipino-nurse-seditious-posts-095932941.html

[xxi] Bekken, N. (March, 2011). Rwanda’s hidden divisions: From the ethnicity of Habyarimana to the politics of Kagame. The Beyond Intractability Project, The Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado. Retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.beyondintractability.org/casestudy/bekken-rwandas-hidden-divisions

[xxii] “The Global Elite’s Favourite Strongman”, New York Times, 4 Sep 2013, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/magazine/paul-kagame-rwanda.html?_r=0

[xxiii] Stubbs, T. “Why Kagame’s bid to serve a third term makes sense for Rwanda”, The Conversation, 27 Jan 2016, retrieved on 14 Sep 2016 from: http://theconversation.com/why-kagames-bid-to-serve-a-third-term-makes-sense-for-rwanda-53354

On Racial Voting and Meritocracy

Screenshot 2016-09-02 00.23.58

Screenshot from the Channel NewsAsia televised panel discussion: Race, Politics and Economy

 

On Monday (29 Aug), Channel NewsAsia aired a panel discussion on “Race, Politics and Economy” with Acting Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung. Although it was touted as a frank, “no holds barred” discussion between 8 Singaporeans and the Minister, it felt more like a bland and predictable Q&A session. The conversation was quite lopsided as well, with Mr Ong giving lengthy answers and occasionally assuming the role of the moderator. I could not help but feel that the broadcast was meant to function as a debut for the young Minister rather than a forum for discussion about the dynamics of Singapore’s changing political and economic landscape.

During the programme, Mr Ong reiterated the Government’s position that the Elected Presidency needs to be modified to ensure that Singaporeans of all races have a chance to be elected to the Presidency. He kept mum about the exact changes that the Government will propose in Parliament in the coming weeks, but he did mention the word “safeguard” several times, which I cannot imagine to be anything other than a form of positive discrimination – although I admit that my imagination may be limited in this respect. We will have to wait and see what the Government proposes in its White Paper, which is also likely to include changes to the Council of Presidential Advisers and the qualifying threshold for presidential candidates (which I have written about before).

Most of Mr Ong’s comments about the Elected Presidency echoed what PM Lee said during the National Day Rally in August and the parliamentary debate on the President’s Address in January this year. However, he did make two new remarks, both of which I found quite unsettling.

The first is that Singapore is unable to elect a minority president because, as revealed by a recent CNA-IPS survey, Singaporeans are still inclined to vote along racial lines. As Mr Ong said, “human nature is like that, we are more comfortable with somebody of our own race… I think that’s really the issue”.

From the outset, I am wary about the CNA-IPS survey because of the way “acceptability” of other races was measured. In the survey, a series of questions was asked to respondents about whether they found people from certain groups “acceptable” to marry into the family, invite for a meal, tutor their children, and to be the PM or President of Singapore. As explained on Slide 38 of the survey report, for each question, respondents were instructed to choose as many groups as they found acceptable from 7 options, which included Singaporean Chinese, Singaporean Malay, Singaporean Indian, etc. So for the question on the President, if respondents chose only 3 out of 7 options, it was then interpreted that the other 4 groups of people were “unacceptable” as President.

I wonder if the results would have been different if respondents were asked to label each group as “acceptable” or “unacceptable”. Or maybe I’m just trying too hard to defend Singapore’s reputation as a harmonious nation. I just find it hard to believe that only 53% of Chinese respondents would “accept” a Malay PM, and only 60% would “accept” an Indian PM. Or that only 66-68% of Chinese respondents would “accept” Malay or Indian as guests for dinner. But even if my scepticism about the survey results is naïve and overly optimistic, I’m not convinced that racial voting is “really the issue”.

The issue is that in the only two Presidential Elections in Singapore’s history (not counting Mr SR Nathan’s walkovers in 1999 and 2005), there were no minority candidates at all! Now based on the results of the CNA-IPS survey, it could be true that racial voting could prevent a minority president from being elected in the future, but this ignores the elephant in the room – that there have been no minority candidates for Singaporeans to elect. Before focusing on how voters would respond to minority candidates, the first step is to encourage more minority candidates to step forward in the first place.

The second remark was even more shocking. Mr Ong said that a president’s merit should be judged after the end of his term, “not before he is elected”. He said this in response to the concerns of some panelists that introducing safeguards might result in less qualified presidents. In other words, we should reserve our judgement of a president’s competence and suitability till his job is done.

However, this is a blatant contradiction of Singapore’s cherished principle of meritocracy! The whole basis of meritocracy is that a person is chosen for the job based on his skills, talents, intellect and competence. But if voters are not supposed to judge a candidate’s merit before he has been elected, on what other basis should voters choose candidates for public office? I’m surprised that none of the panelists called Mr Ong out on this.

The issue of minority representation in the Istana is not an easy one to tackle. Affirmative action policies will be criticised as anti-meritocratic and tokenistic. But inaction may also lead to minority underrepresentation in the Istana over the next few decades, which undermines the President’s role as a symbol of unity for the nation. Moreover, the issue of underrepresentation in the Istana is just one aspect of the broader issue of racial inequality, which requires solutions beyond amending the Elected Presidency. I hope that Singaporeans understand the complexity of these issues and navigate the upcoming public discussion on the Elected Presidency with sensitivity and wisdom.

 

The Bukom Bombers of 1974

What is the Laju hostage situation that the late Mr S R Nathan played a crucial role in defusing?

Mr S R Nathan was an extraordinary man in numerous ways. His formative years were marked with hardship and tribulation. His father committed suicide when he was 8. He dropped out of school twice. He ran away from home when he was 16. He lived through the horrors of the Japanese occupation.

But through tenacity and grit, he rose above his circumstances. Although he lacked educational qualifications, the rough and tumble of life became his teacher. While many would be paralysed by tragedy upon tragedy, he kept trudging on. He eventually earned his diploma in the University of Malaya, entered the Civil Service at one of the lowest rungs and, after one of the most diverse and illustrious careers in the Singapore Civil Service, reached the highest office in the land.

In my books, Mr Nathan’s story is one of the most inspiring that I know. I don’t think many younger Singaporeans realise just how much of a hero he was. I knew nothing of his story until I read his book, An Unexpected Journey: Path to the Presidency, in 2011. And I had seen his portrait in school everyday for 12 years – literally from P1 to J2.

Mr Nathan was not only one of a kind – he was an extremely kind man. Every single tribute that I’ve read has highlighted his warmth and generosity. He has been described as grandfatherly, loyal, merciful, charitable, and most of all, selfless. According to many accounts, he demonstrated his selflessness not only in personal interactions, but in his willingness to place the needs of the nation above his own, even to the point of risking his own life during the Laju hijacking incident.

What is the Laju incident? I suspect that before Mr Nathan’s passing, many young Singaporeans had no idea about this terror attack and Mr Nathan’s role in resolving the crisis. It was never taught in Social Studies class even though it is a defining moment in Singapore’s history and a story of Singaporean heroism. I only learned about it from Mr Nathan’s memoirs.

The Laju incident is Singapore’s second experience with terrorism, the first being the MacDonald House bombing in 1965. On 31 Jan 1974, four armed men attempted to blow up a number of oil tanks at the Shell Oil Refinery on Pulau Bukom. After setting off a few explosive charges, they hijacked a ferry, the Laju, and held five crewmen hostage for the next eight days. The hijackers included two members of the Japanese Red Army (JRA) and two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The local press dubbed them “the Bukom bombers“.

Why on earth did two Japanese men and two Palestinian men team up to attack an oil refinery in Singapore? The JRA and the PFLP were closely-linked militant organisations based in Lebanon that shared a common communist revolutionary ethos. (I only recently learned that the JRA worked with the PFLP to carry out the Lod Airport massacre in Israel in 1972… Japanese terrorists in Israel?) Although the JRA focused on overthrowing the Japanese government and the PFLP focused on resisting Israeli occupation, they stood in solidarity with other revolutionary “anti-imperialist” groups. In this case, the Laju hijackers had acted in solidarity with the Viet Cong. They claimed that the bombing was an attack against imperialism, and their aim was to disrupt the flow of oil from Singapore to American-backed troops in South Vietnam.

Mr Nathan was roped into the Singaporean negotiation team as Director of the Security and Intelligence Division (SID). This must have been a very confusing and nerve-wracking situation for him and the other negotiators. Singapore was less than a decade old as an independent republic and had never faced a high-stakes hostage situation before, let alone one involving militants from such far-flung nations. The attack had been carefully planned – the men had begun planning the attack in Paris a month earlier, and then travelled to Singapore through Belgium, Thailand and Malaysia. They had meant to do serious damage – by one account, the Bukom bombing could have caused a shortage of oil in the region for a few years if the entire oil refinery had been destroyed.

Mr Nathan’s diplomatic and negotiation skills were severely tested. The hijackers had demanded safe passage to the airport and a plane to fly them to an “Arab” country. Over the next eight days, he and the other negotiators had to defuse the situation without conceding too much to the terrorists, or else Singapore would look like a pushover. They had to keep the situation within their control despite pressure from the Japanese government to intervene. In the meantime, five innocent lives hung in the balance. Mr Nathan must have known that Singapore’s international reputation was at stake.

The situation changed rapidly on Day 6. Thousands of kilometres away, the overseas backers of the Laju hijackers stormed the Japanese embassy in Kuwait and took the Japanese ambassador hostage, along with 15 of his staff. They threatened to kill the hostages if the Japanese government did not send a plane to Singapore to pick up the Laju hijackers and fly them to Kuwait. The Japanese government quickly sent a Japan Airlines (JAL) plane to Singapore.

The Laju hijackers agreed to surrender their weapons and board the plane if there were Singaporeans on board to act as guarantors of their safety. Mr Nathan was chosen to lead a delegation of 13 Singaporeans on the flight – a task he willingly accepted despite the risks and challenges involved. He did not know if the Laju hijackers could be trusted. He did know what would happen in Kuwait. Would they be allowed to land? Would they be forced to fly to another country? Worst of all, would the Singaporeans be used as bargaining chips for other exchanges?

Mr Nathan demonstrated his quick wit in the way he improvised throughout the entire operation. When the Kuwaiti air control tower did not allow the plane to land, Mr Nathan told the pilot to convince the air tower that they were low on fuel. When the plane landed and Mr Nathan was introduced to the Kuwaiti defence minister, he had the boldness to tell the minister that the Kuwaiti government was responsible for the safety of the Singaporeans – to which he received a burst of outrage. At some point, Mr Nathan spoke in Bahasa Indonesia to a Japanese diplomat – a man who had worked in the Japanese embassy in Indonesia before – so as to communicate a message in secret.

Mr Nathan had to persist in his negotiations with the Kuwaiti minister, who was more interested in his discussions with the Japanese officials on site. Eventually, the Kuwaiti authorities allowed the Singaporean delegation to disembark from the plane and leave the airport. The matter was now in the hands of the Japanese and Kuwaiti governments. Mr Nathan and the negotiating team returned to Singapore as heroes.

Throughout the episode, Mr Nathan was composed and in command. What’s more intriguing is the way he treated the hijackers with dignity and respect during the flight to Kuwait. As he wrote in his memoirs, he tried to connect to the hijackers on a personal level so as to earn their trust in case he needed their intervention with the Kuwaiti authorities or the embassy hijackers. It seems that Mr Nathan was able to win the Laju hijackers over because by the end of the episode, they apologised to Singaporeans for their actions, expressed gratitude for the way they were treated, and even hugged most of the Singaporeans on the flight before they disembarked. Such was Mr Nathan’s magnanimity that his actions could evoke remorse from four hardened terrorists. They even said they wanted to visit Singapore again as tourists!

This is one of the most fascinating episodes in Singapore’s history. More should be done to memorialise this incident – to serve as a reminder of the need for constant vigilance, and to inspire others to emulate the self-sacrificial leadership of Mr SR Nathan.

 

 

 

 

Four Civilisations?

If you watched the National Day Parade a few days ago, you would have noticed that Act 2 of the performance segment was titled “Our Four Civilisations“, featuring four performers in 8-metre tall costumes representing the “Chinese”, “Malay”, “Indian”, and “Western” civilisations. While the theme of the Act wasn’t extraordinary, I was intrigued by the choice of the word “civilisations”.

The performance segments of previous NDPs have always portrayed the “four main ethnic groups” of Singapore since its establishment as a British port in 1819. (As far as I can recall, though, the last “ethnic group” has been quite fluid – sometimes it is “British”, other times it is “Eurasian”…). In fact, the NDP is just one of many expressions of the “Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others” (CMIO) idea, alongside the four national languages, community-based assistance groups, and children’s artwork featuring Chinese, Malay, Indian and European kids smiling and holding hands.

Of course, this portrayal is a simplification of the true diversity on this island because it obscures the linguistic, religious and geographical diversity within groups. That is just the nature of social labels. Furthermore, individuals of mixed heritage do not fit neatly into such a rigid classification system. For instance, official documents callously brush aside my mother’s Greek heritage, declaring that she is Indian. Which means my Greek heritage is completely ignored as well.

Moreover, these labels are not defined consistently. One of the arguments of NUS Professor Chua Beng Huat in this journal article published in 2009 is that the Chinese, Malay and Indian groups are “not constituted on a singular and similar criterion but on a set of convenient elements”. He argues that the “Chinese” group is defined through the Mandarin language, “Malays” are grouped together by religion, and the term “Indian” is applied to people from the geographical region of South Asia.

Further inconsistencies can found in the 2010 Census of Population. The Census organises demographic statistics according to the CMIO system, but then further subdivides the three main groups according to different criteria. The “Chinese” population is sub-divided according to dialect groups – Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, etc. The “Malay” population is sub-divided according to geography – Malay (from the Malay Peninsular), Javanese from Java, Boyanese from Bawean Island, and others. The “Indian” population is mostly divided according to language – Tamils, Malayalees, Hindis, Punjabis, Urdu, Gujaratis, etc. I say “mostly” because “Sikh” is also included, which is a religious and not linguistic group.

Putting aside the shortcomings of the CMIO classification system, it is an intuitive framework that Singaporeans are extremely familiar with. But while the “four ethnic groups” discourse is nothing new, NDP 2016 is the first time that the word “civilisations” has ever been used in the annual retelling of the Singapore Story. In fact, I have found only one other reference to Singapore’s “four civilisations”. This reference was made by Professor Kishore Mahbubani, who said at a forum in 2014 that Singapore is the only city in Asia in which four major civilisations interact – the Chinese, Indian, Islamic (rather than Malay), and Western civilisations.

This is a grandiose statement to make of a little red dot! The term “civilisation” conveys the idea of a rich and illustrious history, filled with stories of glorious battles, golden eras, revered heroes, instructive myths and legends, and groundbreaking technological advancements. It is the product and progenitor of honourable social values, expressed through unique customs and traditions and profound philosophies.

Furthermore, Singapore is depicted as the heir of not one but four distinct civilisations! What an inheritance! The message seems to be this: despite Singapore’s miniscule size, we have layers upon layers of cultural heritage to explore and learn from. And much to defend as well. To the naysayers who consider Singapore a superficial, heartless corporation, the response is this: Singapore is a dynamic, living, breathing hybrid of civilisations.

The use of this word represents a larger effort to extend Singapore’s national narrative as far back as possible – before 1965, even before 1819 – to present Singapore as a nation rooted deeply in world history – not an anchorless luxury cruise ship. But if we are going to start discussing “civilisations” that have contributed to the fabric of this nation, we could go even further. For Singapore has been built by the descendants of other ancient civilisations.

Arab traders, most of whom were from Yemen, came to Singapore in the 19th Century and developed successful businesses – these include the Aljunied and Alsagoff families. Prominent members of the Jewish community such as Sir Manasseh Meyer and David Marshall have also contributed to Singapore’s economic and political life. The establishment of the Raffles Hotel and the Straits Times is attributed to Armenians in Singapore. John Little, the children’s ward of Singapore General Hospital, and the Dyslexic Association of Singapore were established by Parsis – Zoroastrian Persians who fled to India in the 7th Century.

Maybe next year, we could have a few more 8-metre costumes representing these other civilisations?

Train 202: Armenia to Georgia

“Sorry, my English is not good, but where are you from?”

Cue the nervous smile. Whenever I’m asked this question, I always wonder what my interlocutor’s reaction to my response will be. It’s often a puzzled look with a comment about how I don’t look Singaporean. Or I may be asked more questions about whether Singapore is part of China, what the capital of Singapore is, and which city I’m from in Singapore.

My brother, Craig, and I were on the train from Armenia to Georgia. We were sitting with an elderly Georgian man and his wife, who were both intrigued by the curious sight of two bearded Asian brothers on a Soviet-era train in the Caucuses. When we replied that we were from Singapore – probably the first Singaporeans he had ever met in his life – he gave us a tentative smile and wished us a pleasant journey.

Our new Georgian friend probably wanted to ask more about us, but the language barrier was too high. I really wished that we could continue the conversation, but there was no common language between us besides the few words of English that he knew. At least that’s what I thought.

I was soon proven wrong. After the aborted conversation with our new acquaintances, Craig pulled out his iPad and left it on the table, hoping to read an e-book. Our Georgian friend promptly walked toward us and poured out a handful of roasted sunflower seeds on the iPad! We were surprised by his unusual choice of tablemat but grateful for his generosity.

To me, this was more than a gesture of kindness to fill our stomachs. I saw it as an act of accommodation and inclusion into the culture of the region. It was as if he was saying: “Come join my wife and me in an age-old Caucasian custom of snacking on sunflower seeds while looking out the window and watching the world go by.” I quickly understood why sunflower seeds are appropriate for train journeys – eating them is a very hypnotic and time-consuming activity. This is not a chocolate bar that you can wolf down in seconds. You have to break each shell open, which is often a struggle, and then pop each seed individually into your mouth. Soon you develop a soothing and therapeutic rhythm, broken by short pauses to give the jaw a break.

The sunflower seeds occupied us for at least half an hour. As my hands were breaking shells and my jaw was getting a workout, my eyes beheld the spectacular undulating terrain of the Armenian countryside. I daydreamed blissfully about the impressive Armenian monasteries I had seen, in which countless generations of monks not only studied the Scriptures, but developed the Armenian language, demonstrated their architectural prowess, studied the natural world through experiments, and mastered their feelings and temptations. I eagerly sought out one last glimpse of the formidable Mount Ararat, the resting place of Noah’s Ark and the national symbol of the Armenian people – a symbol that is so important that it sits at the heart of the Armenian state crest although it lies in Turkish territory. I solemnly reflected on the tragedy of the Armenian Genocide, and then smiled as I thought about the resolve of the Armenian people to emerge from the ashes, guard their rich heritage and build a brighter future.

My train of thought and mechanical eating were interrupted as our train pulled into the next station. Two new passengers joined our cabin – a sweet Georgian grandmother and her six-year old granddaughter, Anna. Unfortunately, the grandmother was even less confident in English than our first Georgian friend, so we were unable to talk throughout the journey. But I suspected that food would eventually break the ice again – and it did later on at dinner time. Meanwhile, the adorable Anna eyed us suspiciously but then broke into a smile each time we grinned at her – after which she would whisper something to her grandmother in Georgian, as if we understood. 🙂

Soon, Anna made friends with the girl from the next cabin. Their giggles added to the already jovial environment of strangers sharing stories, food, music and much laughter. It was heartwarming to see the pure and simple joy of making new friends, unadulterated by the urge to impress and put up false pretenses. I longed to participate in some way!

I got up to stretch my legs and walked to an open window to soak in more of the stunning Armenian landscape. Glorious mountains as far as the eye could see, overlooking quaint villages at their feet. An endless blanket of lush greenery against the rich gradient of the dusk. What a picturesque countryside!

Armenia mountains

We pulled into another train station in a small town close to the border with Georgia. The children of the town were playing on the railway platform. That’s probably their daily ritual, I thought. They probably gather at the train station every evening and frolic around the platform while eagerly awaiting the arrival of the 7 o’clock train. The wheels grind to a halt, the engine heaves a sigh of relief, and new faces emerge from the cabins. The new passengers watch the carefree children with delight, and the children revel in the attention. After five minutes, the train resurrects and pulls away from the station, while the children wave excitedly to the visitors who must now continue their journey to a faraway land.

As the sun sank slowly beneath the horizon, everyone pulled out packed meals from their bags in almost perfect synchrony. As I had expected, the grandmother kindly offered Craig and me some pastries. We politely declined but she insisted. After the pastries, our first Georgian friend offered us some delicious fried chicken, which we now accepted without question. Then he offered us a swig of vodka – with a refill – followed by a glass of beer. The look of gleeful mischief in his eyes was too much to resist.

After dinner, Anna entertained us with a few games and “magic tricks” until her grandmother said that it was time for her to sleep. “That will take a miracle,” I thought. “She’s pepped up on Coke and M&Ms!” What was even more miraculous was that Craig and I managed to heave ourselves onto the upper bunks. Fortunately for Anna and her grandmother, who were sleeping below us, the upper bunks held our weight all the way till Tbilisi, where we bid our friends adieu.

I had an unforgettable and priceless experience on Train 202. I was really touched by the generosity of our fellow passengers. But more than that, I was encouraged, inspired and even edified by the joie de vivre that I experienced on that train.