The day after the news filled with Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia diagnosis, I found the Al-Salaam restaurant closed. I looked up and down my local stretch of Changi Road, wondering where else I could get some breakfast roti, and quickly gathered this wasn’t a normal Singapore weekday. A large crowd — Malays, Indians, Arabs, others — was leaving the local mosque. A hawker centre was dense with patrons eating noodles with conspicuous unhurriedness. Families strolled along a canal leading down to the beach.
By some intangible but unmistakeable change in the air, I sensed that today was a public holiday. I briefly contemplated my ignorance and its implications: look at me, passing through foreign countries, engaging superficially, talking a cosmopolitan talk yet (evidently) utterly removed from everyday fundamentals of life.
Still, I was simultaneously struck by how much Changi Road’s collective vibe this morning — happy, languid — seeped into me, a mere visitor, by some process of neighbourhood osmosis, changing my mood. People lifted spoonfuls of coral-orange laksa to their mouths while reading newspapers. A very old man, the top buttons of his shirt undone, sat on a bench near the canal: a kingfisher flashed in front of him. Men in blue robes and white taqiyah caps and women in multicoloured hijabs talked with wide, white smiles on the mosque’s grassy lawn. I now felt a sudden urge not to hurry off to the subway and instead get some laksa, stroll the canal, chat on the grass.
The threads that link us all these days are increasingly thin, but I’ve been noticing here the way my emotions, my attitudes, even my actions are subtly connected to those of people living around me in this neighbourhood; small but meaningful encounters, often wordless, typically unspectacular, prompt me to incorporate, to assimilate, to adjust, to comprehend, building up a tentative but tangible civility between myself and disparate others who live here.
Travellers often call Singapore lifeless and antiseptic. That’s certainly true in swathes of its downtown: all bank headquarters, expo halls and enormous malls. But this neighbourhood brims with colour and life. There’s a park down the street; last night, Chinese families gathered there with firecrackers and painted paper lanterns. The canal in the evenings takes on the air of a Mediterranean promenade. International influences are palpable. Seng Kee is a Cantonese restaurant with servers from various parts of mainland China; they say xie-xie when I’m done. Recent arrivals from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka often work in curry houses. Maladies have also crossed borders to be here: posters warn of both dengue and zika.
Travellers often call Singapore boring. I find it far from boring. Here a history of war, social trauma and acute racial tension, notably race riots in the 1960s, has been overlaid by an economic growth that has achieved a preciously held stability. But community tensions and political dysfunctions have remained — indeed, are arguably growing. I find Singapore fascinating as a place to think about what the world has achieved; whether what has been achieved is enough; how much of what has been achieved is precarious, and if that might yet go into reverse.
I decided on a walk. A man and his young daughter crossed the street. The daughter carried a Cirque du Soleil carry bag that featured a cartoon of a starry night and silhouettes of magical beings; halfway across the street she broke, without warning, into an exuberant skip. A couple swam and splashed in a condo pool, pink-blossomed bushes on its sides, the water a rich aquamarine blue pockmarked with white bubbles like phosphorescence. A bespectacled Chinese man walked past wearing a John Lennon “Imagine” t-shirt.
This island endured a brutal Japanese occupation, and decades of radicalism and unrest prompted by the shadows of imperialism and communism. Someone else walked by wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt and holding a laptop carry bag. Violent insurrection reduced to garb, worn while commuting to some co-working space. Rather than boring, I find it mesmerising to observe the life of a place that is, after an extended era of turmoil, living with the space and the scope afforded by peace and prosperity.
I got my roti from a hawker centre in Little India. Bollywood music boomed from a stereo and I found myself tapping my foot to it — another small example of osmosis, another modest, barely conscious act of assimilation to my milieu and to the people I had placed myself among. I now ace the pronunciation of teh tarik, Indian milk tea, the simple consequence of hearing it said here so often. These vendors know me. I like this fact, although our conversations never get beyond pleasantries.
“How are you my friend?” He is Tamil — thick moustache, bushy hair, black sandals on brown feet.
“Pretty well, and you?”
Indians are treated badly in Singapore, often discriminated against. I finished my roti and paid the man. He gave me a brief nod, then we both turned our backs, and went back to our own business.
Everywhere, shopping: Little India brims with clothes, electronics, miscellaneous kitsch. So many bargains, testaments to what globalisation can do, good and ill. People exult in sixty-cent bottles of water and two-dollar adapter plugs. The costs are not so obvious. The other day a friend was passing through and I visited him in his Little India hostel. His dorm was full of single South Asian men; at 8 pm, they were all in their bunks and on their phones, the phones plugged into the wall via adapters, the room full of the sound of them chatting to faint voices in Bangalore, Tamil Nadu, Kerala. Were they talking to their families, or to business colleagues? I saw a rucksack filled with computer games. Two pairs of shoes, one black, one brown, sat under a bunk; singlets and dress shirts hung from coathangers on the bunk’s railing, forming a thin, incomplete curtain of semi-privacy. The cheap labour of this caste of lonely transients gives us our cheap goods. On leaving, I had looked back at the badly signposted hostel and saw that it was, from the street, barely noticeable.
Walking on from the hawker centre, I saw a preschool on the ground floor of a gleaming condo. Its adverts promised “mathematics,” “English,” “science” and even “Latin dance,” but also “calligraphy,” “Chinese painting” and “tea appreciation.” Tradition and modernity wrestled on the same set of posters: the excitement of a new world — one poster showed a young Chinese girl before a blackboard filled with dense chalk equations — was juxtaposed against the pull of an old, vanishing one, a nostalgia the power of which we have been consistently underestimating.
A young man strode past wearing army fatigues and enormous black boots: Singapore still has compulsory military service. He looked thoroughly blasé, though, as if the army was just another commuting destination. I caught a cab. Soon, I looked out its window and saw dozens of goods-laden ships moored off the coast. Indonesia is close by out there, in the form of small islands. I asked the driver what he thought of the recent fracas over a resort on one of those islands having been accidentally shaded the same colour as Singapore, and not Indonesia, on an internet map — an action that prompted Indonesia’s president to send the military to plant a flag on the place. “They did what?” he said. He hadn’t heard — and when I told him about it, he shrugged.
In the 1960s, Singapore frenziedly launched its economic development amid relations with its neighbours — populous, majority-Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia — that were considerably more tense. My cabbie seemed to veritably exult in the fact that he hadn’t known and didn’t care, that Indonesian army movements were no longer cause for concern. His window was down, and a warm breeze fluttered the longish grey hair on the sides of his head. He changed the subject to recipes for Hainanese chicken rice.
But how much scar tissue remains? How limited and fragile are the reconciliations that have taken place between Singapore and neighbouring countries, and among Singapore’s own ethnic groups? Fighter jets often train along the island’s east coast, making sharp turns high in the sky; the Straits Times reported the other day overwhelming majorities of Singaporeans telling pollsters they have personally encountered racism.
I arrived at the library, sat at a large communal table. Two teenage girls in hijabs procrastinated by doodling notes in Malay to each other and laughing, their Arabic textbooks unread in front of them. A young man studied law. A middle-aged Chinese woman sat with a stack of Lonely Planet guides. Here war has ended, chaos has ended, and so large numbers of people can visit a library, sit down and think: what now? The library displayed a photographic history of the city prominently on a shelf. I briefly got up and flicked through it, saw skyscrapers rising from slums, literally: it left no doubt as to the scale of achievement.
Simultaneously at the table, I saw an existence of tribe and a transcending of tribe. A woman was reading a Chinese-language newspaper and taking notes in English. A man was reading a Tamil-language newspaper, absorbed in an article about Barack and Michelle Obama. A teenager sat down next to me, opened his computer: his desktop wallpaper was this planet, seen from space. A young woman — a student teacher? — typed what looked like a lesson plan for a psychology class, which included “Give a brief account of the eugenics movement.” A small child took from a shelf a picture book on Jesse Owens.
Yet conflicts simmer. There aren’t enough power points at this library. As more people arrived, resentment built. New arrivals noted green lights indicating full charge on MacBooks, and saw no reason their owners couldn’t share power. Those who’d got here early, often specifically because of this issue, thought otherwise. A guy sat opposite me with a laptop out of juice. Seeing my plug in place, he gave me, and me alone, the closest thing to a death stare that one can perform while one is inside a public library and flanked by a bookshelf of Terry Pratchett titles. My laptop cord had an obvious white adapter, starkly confirming my foreignness. I felt him questioning my belonging, my entitlement to resources. Singapore has a large immigrant population of Westerners who take high-paying jobs, something that is increasingly resented. But I disputed his premise, and didn’t budge.
Chicken tikka for lunch, skin ochre-red and charcoal-stained but the meat white, still succulent. A passing man, Indian, visibly appraised my meal, spoke in Tamil to the vendor, then sat down; a minute later he was eating the same thing. Two Chinese people sat down and also ordered the same. Another small act of osmosis, this time other people seeing me, assimilating to and incorporating elements of my template today. I enjoyed the thought of chicken tikka’s deliciousness being a fundamental thing that swathes of the world have in common, hard evidence that people are not so different.
Then the Indian guy wanted to talk. I was Australian? What did I think of the cricket? But I don’t follow cricket. I racked my brain for something to say pertaining to cricket post–Steve Waugh, drew a total blank. I brainstormed what other topics the two of us might talk about, couldn’t think of a single one. Our dialogue stalled into silence; our thin connection snapped.
A movie I wanted to see was playing downtown. It was a documentary about a group of Singaporeans whom the Singapore government detained without trial and brutally interrogated in 1987. Somebody in the audience kept laughing. Whether it actually indicated maliciousness and lack of empathy, or whether it was a laugh to muffle a sense of sadness or anger, I didn’t know; but it discombobulated me, nonetheless. One victim, interviewed, said he once went to the toilet and even his guard had been shocked by the amount of blood — and laughter rang out jarringly. Another man described the Orwellian illogic the security police had used to establish guilt. The laughter rang out again, seemingly in total contradiction of every value I not so long ago had assumed the twenty-first century would be about.
One of the former detainees attended the screening, and when the film finished he was feted by a crowd of mostly young Singaporeans, men with glistening black hair and women in cocktail dresses and pretty shoes, everybody holding glasses of champagne or craft beer. In the scene I saw a quandary that is especially stark in affluent-but-undemocratic Singapore, but that also has a wider relevance. Here we were, surrounded by art-house-theatre chic, enjoying a deeply imperfect but almost unimaginably hard-won stability, able to eat, able to work and study, able to go to movies in the afternoons, and we were chatting, with sympathy, to somebody who had been tortured by people who went unpunished, as did their political masters.
Questions bubbled in my mind like the bubbles in the champagne. How much should we sacrifice, and when? In this steadily crystallising new age, where is the line between tolerable and intolerable?
Back to my neighbourhood. Al-Salaam was now open. I sat down, ordered a teh tarik, opened a book. It was by William Finnegan, about teaching at a “coloured” school in apartheid South Africa. I was just reflecting on it when I heard, “Sir! Sir! How are you crossing the line, sir?” I blinked. It was an old man, face deeply crevassed, wearing a striped shirt, beefy sandals and very thick black-rimmed glasses.
“Sir, your book! Your book! Crossing the line! So how do you cross the line, sir? What line do you cross?”
Then I got it. Finnegan’s book is called Crossing the Line, referring to the apartheid line.
“A-ha ha ha!” He was all but dancing in front of me. His enthusiasm to talk and to engage was overflowing; I wondered about its source. He started to babble. “I am seventy-six, sir. I worked for sixty years! Now my daughters look after me.” He asked me my age, job, marriage status; then he said, randomly, “My first job interview, sir, they asked me, ‘Do you speak Chinese?’ Because I am Malay. Because I am Malay.” It wasn’t clear whether he’d got the job, whether he was exulting in his cross-cultural prowess or lamenting an ethnic insularity that had stalled his career. It could easily have been either.
By way of parting, he said, “Crossing the line, crossing the line. All we can hope for is peace, sir. All we can hope for is peace.”
And what line, or lines, were we about to cross? I’d taken an outside table at Al-Salaam, so I was watching the sun disappear from Changi Road. I reached for my teh tarik. I’m becoming obsessed with teh tarik. The sunset meant it was definitely beer o’clock by Anglo-Saxon Time, but Al-Salaam doesn’t have it and, in any case, I’ve actually given beer up in Singapore. Admittedly, I’ve done so partly because alcohol’s so bloody expensive in this city. But I’ve also done it because, sitting at Al-Salaam one evening, I realised I now genuinely preferred to have tea here. I’d realised the pleasure of drinking something hot rather than cold at this time of day.
I’d also realised that I simply enjoyed the atmosphere of Al-Salaam. I liked the fact that, while it’s typically filled with lively conversations, it’s never loud. Tonight, a young Indian couple spoke softly to each other. An ancient, spectacled mufti arrived and greeted the staff with a nod. I liked the fact that while food and drink here give me great pleasure — I soon ate an immaculate mutton curry — I never feel I’ve consumed to excess like I sometimes feel at Western bar-and-burger-type places. Al-Salaam’s staff and patrons I found respectful, modest, refined — by more osmosis, assimilation, incorporation, I felt myself imbibing a little of those traits by the act of immersing myself here.
Tables were now filling up. Some people were walking over from the mosque next door, after prayers; others were coming from elsewhere. Malays, Indians, Arabs and some Chinese, too, sat eating nasi goreng or curries. But I noticed, tonight, that though everybody was under the same roof, they were, without exception, sitting among their own ethnicity. I sipped my teh tarik. Two tables over, the mufti did too, slowly, to savour it, and turned the pages of his newspaper. I saw a brief flash of garish orange — the world news section, coverage of the US presidential race. Abruptly, I was conscious of my skin; abruptly, I was self-conscious about sitting here.
I vaguely wanted to say something to the mufti. But what? I didn’t know. I chose to be silent. So he and I simply sat, and gazed out at the street — in the same basic direction but inescapably separately, observing, through different eyes, a sudden, somehow unexpected twilight. •
This essay first appeared in Griffith Review 57: Perils of Populism, edited by Julianne Schultz.