Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Death and passing

Death is for the old, the wrinkled and the gnarly.

When you've lived past 75, I think one has lived enough.

Or perhaps its past the milestones where one has lived to be married, to have had children, to have seen them grow, to have watched them as they drift away and then come back; to complete the cycle with grandchildren and then to lay down and gasp your last breath.

Death is my great grandmother as she lay in a coffin. As a child no more than 5, I felt guilty thinking I had shortened her life when I made her angry. I know better now. Still, there are times I missed the little thumps my tiny fist made when I pounded her back whenever she asked me to massage her. And giggling with my cousin at her gross burps. By some obscure and unexplainable child's intuition, I knew she loved me deeply.

Death is my grandfather as he lay wasted from stroke and infection from a gangrenous infection. When he became half the man he was, literally as his left side lay limp and figuratively as he seem to give up the fight then. He loved me dearly because I could carry his name and I shunned him when he gave up the fight. A part of me grew frightened by what had become of him and another grew revolted that he gave up. I didn't visit him nor see him for over 3 years. I didn't want to see what disease could do to a man in health and in spirit. It all but squashed the tiny voice who so often asked that I empathised and tried to understand the suffering he went through. If I had gone as my father did in those 3 years to see him, would I have brought him more light? My father did his duty and I didn't. It will haunt me for this lifetime. Because when it finally mattered, I was at McDonalds when I could have gone to his bedside earlier. It is my reminder that death does not keep time.

Death is my granduncle as I held his hand and watch the last of his wheezing gasps...waiting for the inevitable. From the hale and the hearty to the skeletal being on a thin mattress. Counting the breaths now...how many more can he draw? Dignity restored as he lay in his home and not in some cold hospital bed. Thanks for the memories; of you sweeping the tables clean in CNY Blackjack or working tirelessly at your goreng pisang stall deftly slicing the bananas and sweet potatoes, dipping them in flour and drying them to their crisp golden hues.

Death is not the 16 yr old girl who collapsed suddenly on the track in VJC because of a brain aneurysm.

Death is not the bright, cheerful dude who rode my bicycle and then flew over the drunk driver's maroon honda civic.

Nor is death the ex-VS TAF club soccer mate who rode his African Twin round the corner for the last time.

Death is not the friend who plunge into darkness and over the parapet of her HDB flat.

Death is not she with the radiant smile and the newlywed glow whose light was so cruelly snuffed by a most disturbing twist of events.

Death is not me. Not yet. Not when the taxi moved suddenly at the traffic junction and into the path of my oncoming car. Surreal...I could see and feel the impact even before it happened. Heart pounding as I pushed the brakes as far as I could. Faint throbbing as the ABS kicked in...allowing my car to turn at the last minute without skidding. Inches apart from the white merc cab in front. Heart pounding. Guilty for turning the car to the right and placing her in harm's way but that seemed the best course because to the left was a kerb and an embankment. Or was it a reflex to move myself away from danger? Guilt-torn. Heart pounding. It sounds like wardrums in my ears. I know my blood is racing. I want to get down and beat the driver and lash out at him. But I am frozen. The drums beat on in my ears. Still frozen. I am very scared. She is surprisingly calm. Never ceases to amaze me how calm she can be sometimes. We drive on. Shaken but alive. Thank you.

By my own admission, I have led the charmed life. I was bubbly and happy, good-natured and cheerful, crazy and loving life. I lived in a bubble that only the old passed away and the young lived to be old. I have had healthy relatives and friends. Death never came to the young around me. Death's gentle scarring only begin when I was 17 and in JC.

In JC, I learnt that some of my friends don't have two living parents like me. It humiliated and humbled me, that I had been to proud and arrogant to look closely at others around me.

Still in JC, death lashed out and stung me when a younger school mate was taken so swiftly. It made me question my mortality. Death felt very cold then.

In the 2nd year of NS I lost my grandfather. He lived past 75. Death felt like a release for him, for us, for me.

In university, an ex-VS soccer buddy didn't survive riding around a bend when a taxi came. Then a new found cycling friend, by a strange but compelling sequence of events, never did cycle back to the BBQ we planned that day. And most incomprehensible of all, the sweet-gentle project mate, months from graduation who felt the means to an end meant going over. What darkness ravaged her mind, we never knew.

Of late, just 2 weeks prior - the surreal and shocking passing of an ex-schoolmate in a brutal and senseless wave of terror. To have seen and spoken to her just a month ago, knowing she is happily married and successful in her career, only makes everything seem so crazy, unjust, cruel and jars every fibre of my being.

Of late, I spend some minutes perusing the orbituaries. I don't know what I am looking for actually. I only catch myself after I have started perusing. It's one of those activities you used to look at your parents do and wonder why they do such a morbid thing as to stare at dead people's photographs. I chuckle when I do it...but I also face a certain dread. Hoping it is not a face I will recognise.

With each passing death I encounter, I feel more scarred. Each one seems to weigh my heart down a little longer. And as I look back and what could have happened just tonight, when the merc cab suddenly came into my path. It makes me wonder...

"What would it be like at my passing?"

Here goes...

1. My organs - take them ALL. Save for the faulty heart. keke...it murmurs. Dun leave the corneas especially...I dun need them anymore. Just dress me in a nice suit or tux. (much as I love my tees and berms...I wanna go in style)

2. Mahjong - there better be 3 tables and more!

3. Food - its gotta have the best curry chicken served with prata. best cheng tng. roast pork and suckling pig if budget permits. jus get all the damn good food. Everybody should eat well.

4. Most importantly CELEBRATE!

- remember me for my life...and not for my passing. Make noise! Drink and be merry!

(Yes...beer and alcohol should be served...if budget permits. Please dun drink and drive though.)

- Don't come in black. Come dressed to party, to revel.

- Must play music. No slow slow stuff. Rock and upbeat Jazz.

5. And when they finally cremate...must have some indie rock song or slow rock song playing. U2, Coldplay, Travis, Train, Killers, Jets, Maroon 5, Radiohead, REM...etc etc. (Please avoid bubblegum pop like Britney or boybands) Linkin Park, My Chemical Romance...tolerable.

6. Scatter the ashes to sea.

Somewhere where there is only blue water and clear horizons. It is too claustrophoic in an urn. I want to feel the vastness of space at sea, the warm glow of the setting sun or the majestic nature of its early rise...the kind of feeling you get when you spend idyllic days staring out to sea. I want to be under rolling clouds that change hues and let the waves carry me to places I've never seen.

My experience with death is obviously not complete and the last page should be quite an interesting read. A friend recently told me about his friend who was in a coma after a traffic accident. As he lay comatose in bed, he remembered seeing a black figure who asked him,"Do you want to come with me?" and he replied,"NO". I wonder if such a moment will ever come to me and if I would have the guts and the audacity to stave death.

"Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

- Dylan Thomas

Sunday, January 13, 2008

United Colours of Singapore

I have no intention of disrespecting or infringing upon copyrights, so I will just state from the offset that the title of this posting is a clear plagiarizing of the popular UK brand "United Colours of Benetton".

So the reason for this was that a popular image from one of UCB's old advertisements sprang to my mind this weekend. I was invited to the Youth Olympic Games Seminar held at Suntec on Saturday, 12th January. Along with 8 upper primary students and the principal, we spent the morning listening to how Singapore was making their bid for the YOG and how if we succeeded in the bid, our schools could benefit from the exchange of youths. As usual...a lot of "hoo ha" and money (3 SUNTEC convention halls and refreshments for everyone!) spent to inform the masses how great the event will be...kinda becoming the Singapore norm of things.

On a critical front, I just like the part where they stated outright that "Olympic Education" is going to be part of the syllabus in the future. Basically it's a key idea that it's not enough to just be the best in something or to borrow the olympic motto "Citius, Altius, Fortius" (swifter, higher, stronger). So while beating your opponent seems the more obvious goal, I think the true meaning of olympism is in the sportsmanship, the triumph of human spirit, the transcendence of differences and to extol the best in humanity*.

* Btw..."Celebrate Humanity" was the creed of the Sydney 2000 olympics. You can find the website at http://multimedia.olympic.org/pdf/en_report_252.pdf . Its a good read.

Watch the video (about 6min) below as well...truly inspirational. Watch till the end for "Adversary"

You are my adversary, but you are not my enemy.
For your resistance gives me strength.
Your will gives me courage.
Your spirit ennobles me.
And though I aim to defeat you, should I succeed, I will not humiliate you.
Instead, I will honour you.
For without you, I am a lesser man.
— “Opponent”, from Celebrate Humanity

That's olympism for you. I guess we have been teaching our kids about it for a while now...just didn't label it and say it was Olympic Education. but now that its somewhat formalised...I'm happy we are taking these steps.

Not to say that everything is good. The inevitable commercialism of both sports and the atheletes by branding and media is something we could avoid. Too often we hear of atheletes (esp footballers!) who make moves or turn away their loyalty in order to secure a better paycheck. The issue of Singapore hiring foreign talents, making them our citizens in orde to take part successfully in international competitions is highly debatable and would probably warrant anotherpost. Some othe stuff we could avoid are the drug scandals or the allegations of dubious judging.

All in all...olympic education and olympism is still a good aspect of education. Come on...dun be too skeptical alright? Let's stay focussed on the positive...ya?

Ohmygosh! I digress too much...back to the original point about United Colours of Singapore.

So basically I got to see many students from the other Primarys, Secondarys and JCs. I was pleasantly surprised at the cultural mix we have nowadays. Seated next to me was an Australian, a few rows behind, there was clearly a girl of African descent (judging by the complexion and dreadlocks)... all around I could see in the kaleidoscope of Singaporean faces, features that were clearly not Singaporean. And then I was reminded of that United Colours of Benetton ad...

I think you know what I mean.

The thing was...I felt really happy about it! I like the fact that we are welcoming these people to our lands. We are after all...a land of migrants...except for the descendents of the tiny fishing village that Raffles came upon. By and large...we came from China, India, Indonesia...etc etc. There is Portugese and Dutch influence in the Eurasian community.

So I was happy that these students and their families have decided to settle here. I hope that Singapore will become their permanent home.

I just believe that the hodge-podge, "rojak" nature of our culture should be celebrated. It's great that our children can learn to appreciate so many cultures here in Singapore. In my school... we have Bulgarians, Koreans, Mongolians, Filipinos, PRCs, Taiwanese, Indonesians, Malaysians, Thais, Vietnamese and we recently added a Canadian girl.*

* not coping too well at the moment because things are more structured here than in Canada

So looking at these kids...I was happy that we could come together as one. That Singapore is really turning out to be a global city. Whether it was push or pull factors that drew their parents here...I shan't bother. I was just happy and excited at the possibilities our little garden city could become. In a world that's grown increasingly smaller because of globalisation and yet increasingly colder. Its always nice to see little pockets of positive change happening.

The skeptic and depressed critic in me would probably say that more cultures in Singapore doesn't necessary mean that they would mix well together. After all...the government does go a long way to making sure that racism will not thrive here. Recent reports however do suggest that segregations of groups do occur as well. Eg...the case of Indians from India being haughty to our local indian lads. (A case of my curry is more spicy than your curry...perhaps) Raffles town plan is a brilliant case study of how Singaporeans were first divided based on communities.
I suppose it is only natural that migrant communities want a sense of belonging wherever they uproot to.

There is also a clear struggle for identity here in Singapore. A young nation of migrants just cannot make up its mind on what we are really. Have you seen the latest national costumes paraded by our ladies in Ms Universe/World/LalaLand? Frankly we don't have one. It just changes year on year according to whoever designs them. And it is usually a mish-mash of chinese fabric/design with malay design/fabric infused with indian fabric/design and a dash of eurasian fabric/design. Thats our national costume...they call it the "Eurochindianlay". We clearly struggle with who we are. It doesn't help if more folks are moving in too...right?

But let's give it time.

Given time I just hope they begin to feel more Singaporean. I hope these kids get the best of opportunities and the most enlightened of teachers. Teachers who will like me...proudly proclaim... I am Singaporean first and foremost, chinese second. Even then...I also not sure how much of a Chinese I am. My mum is a straits-born peranankan, my dad is teo chew. I have struggled with the Chinese language all my life. I have no links to China or Taiwan. Not even Malaysia. All my relatives are here. As deep as Singapore is...my roots have sunk deeper. I will remain ever proud of my country as my country is proud of me.

I celebrate Singapore for the fact that...
...the Churches, Temples and Mosques here can stand side by side without issue.
...we have a rich variety of food available. (have you seen the mind boggling array at any big shopping centre in town?)
...we can stand shoulder to shoulder and not feel any animosity just because you are different from me.
...it's got a DAMN GOOD pledge.

I am Singaporean. Stand with me. We can only get better.

Monday, January 07, 2008

So I made this promise...and I'd stand by it.

I had dessert with Candy and Sonya the other day.

Candy and Sonya are like cream and sugar you put in coffee to take away all the bitterness. They have seen the best of me and the worst of me. And we get along swell.

So anyways...something we talked about made me recall a promise I made myself in 2005.

In March 2005...just 2 months away from our graduation as teachers. An ex-projectmate of mine committed suicide. I will not speculate on its exact details. There were many factors involved I believed. But the timing was just so wrong. We were in our second practicum, if she had hung on for a month or two longer, she would have graduated and moved on from NIE.
Was it stress? She passed away on the day she was due for a class lesson supervision. Was it depression? Apparently she had been under medication for a while now. What it was, we will never know.

What I do know...was I felt this utter shock when I heard the news. And then there was this sick creeping sensation in my gut. You start wondering if maybe the signs were there all along. I always knew her as someone with a bubbly and happy personality. A pleasant smile to greet you in the mornings. We won't terribly close...just the one project that one time. But enough to always greet each other with warmth and a smile in the mornings. Enough to know each other's names in the lift and to exchange pleasantries or small talk when we bump into each other. Enough to have each other's numbers saved in our handphones, knowing we might need each other's help someday.

I sat alone the day she left and just wished she could have called me.

I don't know why I felt that way. I just did.

Hope springs eternal for me. Committing suicide...is the end of all hope. It is the deepest isolation of despair. There is no redemption once you are beyond the point of suicide.
What makes a person despair so much that she should choose to end a beautiful life?
What rages on in the mind or the heart to cause such utter hopelessness?

I only wished I could have been there for her. Just to tell her that it is not so bad. That if nobody would believe in her or stand by her...I could and I would. That all is not lost...if we could just think of what we can do tomorrow. That hope...lives...no matter what, no matter where.

Perhaps a bumbling fool like me, wouldn't have helped much. But I knew what I felt. If I had the chance to talk to her...I could show her the hope inside of me. I don't harbour hopes that I could have saved her. I just wished I could have done a little more.

That night I promised myself that if I ever knew a friend or an acquaintance or just about anyone who was ever in this state of despair. I would be there to stand by him or her. In deed or in word, just call and I will be there.

You didn't have to go this way.
Pretty smile no more.
What was it you couldn't say?
I remembered you.
If you only knew,
The words I could have told.
Not that I could be salvation.
Maybe all you needed was balm.
Hope springs eternal,
You're a lily thats floated on.
Perhaps peace is downstream.

In remembrance... Rest well.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

"The World is my oyster"...so they say...

I read a friend's (Sophia) blog recently. She's doing well...and travelling quite a fair bit since she joined the oil rigging industry. It's really a job I admire since my dad was an oil-rigger and used to fascinate me with all his stories about the many places he has been too. You just have to imagine a little chubby kid hearing about the midnight sun in Alaska or deep sea fishing from the pontoons of an Oil Rig to understand how amazing these little stories were to me.

Anyway, fate doesn't play the same hand to sons as to fathers. I didn't take an engineering degree nor did I end up in the navy, which is what I probably would have done if my heart murmur was not an issue with MINDEF.

But I must say I still love travelling and experiencing different things. Sophia's compiled a list of places she has been to. So I thought it would be interesting if I spent a few minutes thinking and writing down the places that I have been to. Kinda like a country stocktake. =)

Let's see...gotta start from the ones I remember when I was young.

Pre 1990s - Genting / Penang / Phuket / Cameron Highlands / Indonesia
~ I can't remember much for this period.

1993 - Chiang Mai and Bangkok, Thailand
~ Paid some distant relatives of mine a visit, together with my family and my grandpa. Unforgettable 10 hour journey in a cramped Mini-van.

1995 - Sabah, Outward Bound Sabah and Mount Kinabalu Expedition
~ This was a most memorable one. First trip without parents, first overseas hiking adventure. This trip started my love for the outdoors. That quesy feeling in the face of nature, knowing that you are minutely insignificant in the grander scheme of things and yet, also knowing that somehow you are a part of everything unfolding around you, even if you don't know it all.

1996 - Didn't travel in the year I had my O-levels. Spent a lot of time studying in the little nooks and crannies at the Changi Airport Terminal 2 Viewing Gallery though. I actually finished the A-maths and Physics Ten Year Series here.

1998 - Tasmania / Australia
~ Another most memorable one. This was after the A-levels...and before my enlistment. Got a couple of mates together...Kie Hian, Wee Keat, Shang Wei, Mark, Fang Fang and this other lady (OMG...forgot her name!) Flew all the way to Melbourne...and then took the 1-day ferry to Tasmania. Sent 6 days in the bush...Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair National Park.

2000 - Pulau Aur and Dayang / Malaysia
~ My diving open water certificate. First time diving out in the open sea. AMAZING adventure.

2001 - Mount Ophir / Malaysia
~ First time recce-ing and subsequently leading an expedition of at-risk youths. This expedition opened me to the possibility of being a trip leader.

2001 - Vietnam-Cambodia-Thailand Overland trip
~ This trip was the backpackers dream. I still don't really know how I managed to crammed it all within 22 days. Great company...Wee Keat, Guopei, Wan and Cheryl. Everything just went well together.

2001~2005 - Pelepah/Belumut/Panti/Berkelah/Ophir/Titiwangsa/Jerangkang/Kinabalu (Malaysia) / Khao Sok (Thailand) / Hawaii (USA) / Britain / Scotland / Spain
~ Did quite a fair bit of hiking and leading of trips in my uni days. Visited my sis in Hawaii. And did a Europe tour as well.

2006 - Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
~ Did a vacation with the missus right smack in the middle of the World Cup. I learnt my lesson...never travel during world cup. Hahaha!

2007 - Kinabalu / Fukuoka, Japan
~ 3rd time up this mountain I have fallen in love with. This time with another amazing bunch. Red, Ronny, Lining and Huiwen.
Was sponsored a trip to Japan in Dec 2007 as well. Fabulous country...just immaculate.

Ok...dunno what 2008 brings. What ever will be will be.
I haven't actually felt like travelling for a long time already. Dun have any dream destinations.


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

"Singapore is a gracious society"...ya right.

This December I was rather fortunate to earn an all expense paid trip to Japan. I spent 4 wonderful days in a beautiful country with very gracious hosts. Basically we were a select group of school officials and teachers who were sponsored by the Fukuoka Tourism Board to visit the Fukuoka District in Japan. It was quite an experience because I was treated like a VIP for most of the trip. Everything was catered for. No worries watsoever.

Delicious food, fascinating toilets, beautiful scenery and amazing sights...pity I had to contend with my very Singaporean counterparts though.

That said...I know one apple shouldn't spoil the whole basket. And in general, the travelling companions I had were for the most parts, nice and cordial. However...one unpleasant incident will remain etched in my head. Kinda sickens my stomach whenever I think of it actually.

But here goes...

On the 2nd day of the trip, we were scheduled bright and early to visit a Persimmon fruit farm. According to our guides, the farm had already been harvested, but on the request of the Fukuoka Tourism Board, a little plot of just over 15 trees were left for us to experience some fruit picking. Japanese Persimmon are renowned for their sweetness, texture and near perfect symmetry. A small one easily sells in the market for 300Yen (SGD3.90). The near perfect ones in excellent shape and size retails for 1000Yen(SGD13.00) or more. They make for excellent gifts and the Japanese pride themselves for their ability to produce these sweet succulent honeyed fruits.

In any case...if you were told of a persimmon fruit picking experience in Japan, how many of these persimmons would you pick? The guide tells you that you can buy a box for 200Yen(SGD2.60) to keep the persimmons in. So how many would you pick?

Here's what I figured...probaby get 4 or 5...depending on how big the box is. Maybe a dozen? Cause that's what you usually get in a box. A dozen.

Picking time...and off we went on little ladders with clippers to snipped those nice persimmons. Our hosts were great, showing us around, even slicing a few persimmons for us to sample. I snipped about 12 for myself, and another 12 for my colleague who was helping me with the picking basket...and then another 12 for another lady who didn't want to do all that much climbing. Quite a fun way to start the morning really.

Back to the packing station...and I had the absolute shocker of the trip!

Here I was blessedly happy with my 12 nice persimmons...thinking how I would probably eat some and give the rest away to my grandma and other relatives. And how many did some of my travelling companions pick?


A big fat 4-0...forty. And that's by my conservative estimate. Some clearly had 50-60.
I was just disgusted by the behaviour and attitude.
I know I should not judge...and I also know our Japanese hosts did not mind a single bit. They went about happily serving us Persimmon slices and even persimmon soda which kinda tasted like the old "FANTA" drinks.
But its the whole principle behind it you know...like...JUST BECAUSE IT'S FREE, WE MUST TAKE MORE!

It's sickening. And the offenders included a HOD and a Dean of Dept in a polytechnic.
What sort of education are we giving are children...if our educators are like that.
We are no longer a developing country. We are Singapore...we've come a long way from our survivalist days in the 60s to the industrialised drive in the 70s and 80s. I'm proud of Singapore and it's growth and how far we've come. Surely our behaviour and attitudes must change as well. All this "kia-su"(scared to lose or be last) and "kia-see"(scared to die) has got to give way to more graciousness.

It sickens my gut.

Singapore is a clean city...but it's not the Singaporeans who do it.
Day in day out...I see parents who litter in front of their kids. The other day, this fat bitch of a woman, while loading her child into a very luxurious SUV...nonchalantly threw a plastic bag on the floor. I felt ashamed actually...cause I didn't work up the courage to just walk over to her and say "Auntie, you left this on the floor. Think you 'forgot'. "

I'm not saying I am a saint. I have my share of flaws. But I know I've always doen what I could on my own accord to keep Singapore clean. It's not hard to just place rubbish in your pocket and throw it away at the nearest bin. THERE ARE SO MANY BINS IN SINGAPORE! There's barely a bin in sight in Japan...and the country is CLEAN! Go figure...its all in the attitude.

In 2008...I just hope I have the courage to confront these folks I see...who just flick their litter on the floor.