I admit. I went out of control. When I suggested to The 2ndRule that I wanted to guest edit an issue devoted to 'race' as a theme, I didn't expect to produce one which would be double the size of our usual issues.
But that's what happens when we don't discuss something often enough. When we brand something as a taboo, to be talked about only in hushed whispers and at the outskirts of the Speaker's Corner. It really isn't enough to say that we're 'multiracial', that we must respect 'common spaces', to confidently identify the 'four main races' in Singapore.
A Malaysian friend told me of islanders who build their houses into the sea, because they were too poor to own any land. With each new family, a new extension is built into deeper waters. And walking through the corridor of houses, one realises that the further the house is from the shoreline, the more ostentatious the propitiations to the sea deity.
And that's the strategy. The more we believe we are in the face of danger, the more we should seek refuge in beauty, not silence. The more we should speak out, with passion and intelligence.
Enjoy this month's offerings from us at The 2ndRule.
approaching gender its swift assignations
a position of prayer semblance of submission
above: context of light its infinite gradations
below: absence latent approaching
brink of form deep swell to impossible
tide raw scarlet to incendiary howl cast
out of liquid fire stark unquenchable
The Homo European is light-skinned, blond, and governed by laws; Homo American is copper-colored and is regulated by customs; Homo Asiatic is sooty and dark-eyed and is governed by opinions; Homo African is black and indolent and governed by impulse.
Carolus Linnaeus, Swedish Botanist, 1758
It is 1820. We can imagine Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of modern Singapore, taking a walk with his trusted scribe, the bilingual interpreter Munsyi Abdullah, down the bank of the Singapore River. Sir Raffles is still unused to the tropical heat, the way it is burning the back of his neck and sending beads of perspiration down to sting his eyes.
"My God," Raffles remarks, "with the sun like this is it any wonder that the river learns to sweat?"
Abdullah is mystified by Raffles’ comments. He gazes at the river and sees the exposed roots of mangroves like the phalanges of giant hands dipped in acid. The sun’s glare bounces off the river’s surface like signals from a morse-code mirror.
"It’s the smell," Raffles continues. "It’s that strange river smell. I don’t know how to describe it. It smells of crocodiles, and rotting logs, and unwashed bodies."
In his study of the English language, Abdullah was often struck by how a language so rich in some aspects could also be so poor in others. He was especially intrigued by how few words there were to describe something smelly. Of course, there was ‘putrid’, the smell of decay, and ‘rancid’ the smell of ‘spoilt butter’ (he didn’t really know what unspoilt butter was, actually, much less the spoilt variety), and ‘fetid’ (for the river, perhaps?), but beyond those there wasn’t much variety.
On the other hand, in the Malay language, there was 'haring' or 'hancing', to describe the smell of urine, 'hapak', for musty garments, 'tengik' or 'pering', for sourish foods (like cheese, but he didn’t really know what cheese was, either), 'masam', for sweaty bodies, 'hamis', for fishy odours, 'bacin', for dried cuttlefish or even underclothes worn too long…
With as much deference as he can possibly conjure, Abdullah mentions his observations to Raffles, who nods solemnly. In defence of his native tongue, Raffles talks about the weather in his home country, its mild winds and subtle sunshine, how these combine to ensure that smells do not assault delicate English noses ‘like battering rams’ (which, admittedly, Abdullah had never seen before).
Secretly, Raffles is aware of how tenuous his argument is. Piss and fish smell the same in any part of the world. But language, as well as literature, is the mark of a civilisation. The more sophisticated the language, the more cultivated the society. And how can he begin any important mission here in Singapore if a fundamental is not established: that the converter is always superior to the converted?
Such hubris, such hubris. For this particular show of arrogance, entirely imaginary, Raffles will be punished, four years later. Scottish botanist Robert Brown, travelling in the jungles of Sumatra, will chance upon a flower, whose petals are the colour of rotting flesh. Even more ghastly is the flower’s aroma, so putrid that it is perpetually surrounded by a black cloud of flies, a smell so legendary that the flower has earned the nickname of the ‘corpse lily’. Brown decides to name the flower after the Governor of the Straits Settlement of Singapore.
And thus the Rafflesia was christened, a mono-floral wreath, pompon of the living dead, maggot-cauldron and supernova of gnats, whose fragrance would have assaulted the delicate nose of Sir Stamford Raffles, like a battering ram, or perhaps even two, one for each sensitive nostril. But one can guess that even such a smell will not arouse Sir Raffles from his grave, to catch a whiff of this imaginary anecdote you are privy to, to bellow in anger and denounce the outrageousness of retribution: that the revenge for an incident entirely fictional would have to be too real, too utterly literal.
In his youth, the Malay boy is often beautiful ... a thing of wonderful eyes, eyelashes, and eyebrows, with a far-away expression of sadness and solemnity, as though he had left some better place for a compulsory exile on earth.
The Malay girl-child is not usually so attractive in appearance as the boy, and less consideration is shown to her. She runs wild till the time comes for investing her in a garment, that is to say when she is about five years old.
Sir Frank Swettenham, Governor of the Straits Settlements, 1901
The Navajo chief appeared
on the pale-lit screen,
unsmiling face turned
to the sunset
above English subtitles:
"Oh my brother, at long last
there is peace lasting as long
as the river runs
and the grass grows
and the sun is in the sky."
In the reservation cinema,
laughter burst like gunfire
as the audience’s natives watched
the cowboy graciously shake hands
and flash his piano-key smile
down at the war-bonneted chief
intoning with deliberation:
"You are one of the worst liars I have ever seen,
there is nothing but lies in your people"
almost as if he could see
the pale puzzled faces
around his own people
dotting the Hollywood darkness
"And I say the sacred hoop of my people was one of the many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy...
But anywhere is the center of the world."
From 'The Sunset Prayer' by Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, 1863-1950
"Your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs".
- Shakespeare, Othello
daughter-of-Mrs Teo arms
Cling to his ebony neck,
Supported by his broad back
"Born an Indian, Die an Indian".
The pendant of her smooth body
Exposed under a rising crop-top,
Adorned with stainless steel rings
Pierced nostril and belly-button,
Scar of a snipped link,
Saying she doesn’t care what her mother
or the clan thinks.
Othello son of Thirurajan and Desdemona Teo
Are only window-shopping,
Staring at their shapes
in the polished plateglass
displaying blond and blue-eyed mannequins
wearing the dresses
of a Parisian summer and a Milan spring.
"Peihua. Sumei. Weiming. Ahmad. Siti. Gopal. Bala."
names from primary school textbooks
he who is now an adult asks for the origins of his parents
and the guardian answers
when your mother sent you to me, she was still too young
nobody knew where your father was
your mother was escorted by policemen and anti-drug officers
and your father's history
an introduction at Queensway
a flirtation at Parkway Parade
a romance at Centrepoint
a courtship at Scotts
an engagement at Far East Plaza
a wedding at Wisma Atria
nuptial nights at Marina Square
a honeymoon in Selarang D.R.C.
and you were born
on the first day of the first month of the Muslim calendar
a Malay child.
D.R.C=Drug Rehabilitation Centre
"I was in the cinema, and before the show started, there was this message on the screen: 'In case of fire, please do not panic and exit in an orderly manner'. And then they repeated the same message in Mandarin. I thought, what about the rest? Don't they fucking care if the Malays or Indians die?"
A poet asked me to write a Chinese poem.
I asked if I should write of chop, joss, divining, sticks.
Or monks knocking wooden knuckles nattering '... padme hum'.
Or the China-red-brick-walkway-gold-leafed-town schtick.
Or mincing pink-fleshed pork into new moon's snack.
Wit: 'More like your head, kneeling, on the temple ground'.
Hung up, I hacked my throat, and swallowed. No spittoon.
Two weeks later, I sent in an empty text
(albeit with footnotes).
Cf A. Rich: leaflets/ dissolving within hours/
spun of necessity and leaving no trace/
Cf K. Raslan: A Ming imperial ware vase
is an excellent metaphor for Chinese culture.
Cf S. Bhatt: The vase with the painted nightingale/
is on my table. Cf Girard: you tabled a scandal, a scapegoat.
"A Chinaman always appears to be looking round the corners of his eyes at you and to have a meaning that you cannot get at. He gives you the impression that somebody, when he was born, sat on his nose, and he has been lamenting the calamity ever since."
E J Hardy, 19th Century
I met a guy on irc today
he said he’s a singaporean.
he talked quite strange
he said its singlish.
I said it’s alright
It's at least more coherent than irish.
I read enough books back in school
to know that singapore has 4 races:
chinese, malay, indian and others.
I asked him which is him
he said he’s a bastard child orphan
so he doesn’t know.
I wonder if he’s lying.
so I asked him to do a DNA test.
what’s the point?
I’m still a bastard child orphan.
even if I know my blood
I still dun know my parents lah.
but, I said,
at least you will know
what festivals to celebrate
and maybe which side of the fence to stand on,
what wars to fight
who to befriend
what to wear
what to eat
and maybe what things to think about and say out loud.
maybe your government can help you.
he said nevermind.
I said cannot,
you must be helped.
he told me he doesn’t want to blame his parents
for birthing him to this world,
to be a particular someone in some country at some point in time.
I told him to stand up and fight and seek the truth!
he said he is peace-loving and doesn’t want to fight anyone.
I know he just wants to be dumb and happy
and I wished him well.
he said thanks
or was it thank you
he was being understood.
"If I like their race, how can that be racist?"
Jerry Seinfeld, in the episode "The Chinese Woman"
i lost it
i can't recall
could it have become
five-foot path peninsula
afloat in cheap chinese spirit
a salivating disciple
outside some temple-door
longing to kiss bigshots
could it be
in a politician's freezer
to thaw to lick power
an epileptic intellectual question
out of the blue
in a low-caste brain
or could it be
an interrogator's glove
gouging the smouldering
eyes of an unfettered spirit
retching in tears
a compatriot's soul
before a firing squad
or maybe it is lying
scratching the head
for awards in a
what to do with it
when whipped by the cry
bottles & broads
it always somersaults
in anybody's castle
so dear sir
if sighted by chance
please boot the hopper
to return it proper
though useless to this finder
it will at least adorn my race
as a museum reminder
the missing link
"One evening, I drove to Little India and it was pitch dark but not because there was no light, but because there were too many Indians around."
PAP member, Mr Choo Wee Khiang, made the remarks in Mandarin in a speech in parliament in 1992 calling on the Government to be "selective" in controlling the number of foreign workers
Race was naive enough to think that dyeing her hair was enough to alter the pigment of her name, the nature of her shadow. She tried lime green to generate more zest, a fiery red to suggest deep-seated passions, even black, for that laid-back retro look. But nothing changed. People walked past her on the street, eyes averted, clasping their gaudy shopping-bags watchfully. In school she sat in the corner, hoping to blend in with the cracked paint. Her lovers continued to call her by other names when making love. In the dark, and in the throes of ecstasy, they claimed, everyone looked the same. It was easy to be confused. Race was not convinced. She felt different inside, a place where the moonlight could not reach. She tried using a microscope, a DNA test, her rose-tinted glasses, but could not figure out why the softly pulsing engine of her being remained invisible to her. Did she not have a name? A history? And did she not buy her own clothes with money she earned the same way as everyone else? Disappointed, Race realised that her soul was not the sum of her choices, nor her genes a composite of caresses and strokes which led at last to her conception. She envied her friends, the purity of their obliviousness, how they wore their hair casually long and streaked with gold, gleaming against their skin, beneath which the blood coursed, without question, like a final answer. She wondered, if she peeled back their flesh, unhinged the bone, eased apart the knotted sinews, whether she would also find nothingness there: each a space worn away in the shape of their own silences; what colour it must be.
''Had the mix in Singapore been different,'' the Prime Minister said, ''had it been 75 percent Indians, 15 percent Malays and the rest Chinese, it would not have worked.''
Lee Kuan Yew, as reported by The New York Times, April 11, 1985
"We have a Chinese to do the work, a Malay to take the credit and an Indian to take the blame."
from Atomic Jaya, by Malaysian playwright Huzir Sulaiman
This Chord and Others, Haresh Sharma
Mama Looking For Her Cat, Kuo Pao Kun
The Singapore Dilemma, Lily Zubaidah Rahim
Negotiating Language, Constructing Race: Disciplining Difference in Singapore by Nirmala Srirekam PuruShotam
Culture, Multiracialism, and National Identity, Chua Beng Huat
One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore, Song Ong Siang
The Malay Annals, Tun Sri Lanang
That Hindu temple on Waterloo Street where Chinese non-Hindus worship
That old Teochew folk song which through clever rhymes taught the Teochews to learn some simple Malay words
Your own common corridor of joss-stick holders, Jesus holograms, dried leaves and Arabic stickers
"There is no shame in not knowing; the shame lies in not finding out."
Australian band Screamfeeder tour Singapore!
Sat 29 June - Asian Youth Music Festival. at the Youth Park. Closing spot, co-headlining with 2 Japanese bands, Baroque and Spinnerbait. at 9.00 pm
Thus 4 July - Acoustic show, Library@Orchard. 7pm.
Sun 7 July - Kream disco. B1-10/16, The Riverwalk, 20 Upper Circular Road (Boat Quay). + special guests. 6pm onwards.
foetus © 2002 Cyril Wong
The Five Senses 5: Smell © 2002 Alfian Bin Sa'at
At a Screening of 'The Legend of Frank Woods' © 2002 Teng Qian Xi
Othello s/o Thirurajan and Desdemona Teo Window-shopping © 2002 Umej Singh-Bhatia
The First Day of the First Month of the Muslim Calendar (The Malay Child) © 2002 Mohd. Rafaat Hamzah, translated by Alfian Bin Sa'at
CULTURE JAMMING SERIES #1: Two Errant Flames at the Sentosa Wax Museum © 2002 Captions by Alfian Bin Sa'at
Limits © 2002 Jason Wee
the guy © 2002 orchardroad.diaryland.com
Announcement: Lost © 2002 Elangovan
Race © 2002 Alvin Pang
CULTURE JAMMING SERIES #2: Billboard Subvertising © 2002 lam_par and Minah Jambu
Get In Touch With Your Inner Melanin!: Resources on Race © 2002
Instant Cafe Episode 7 © 2002 Koh Beng Liang