Keep Dreaming (An Exquisite Excerpt from The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho)

July 27, 2013 0 Comments

“We must never stop dreaming. Dreams provide nourishment for the soul, just as a meal does for the body. Many times in our lives, we see our dreams shattered and our desires frustrated, but we have to continue dreaming. If we don’t, our soul dies, and agape cannot reach it. A lot of blood has been shed in those fields out there; some of the cruelest battles of Spain’s war to expel the Moors were fought on them. Who was in the right or who knew the truth does not matter; what’s important is knowing that both sides were fighting the good fight.

The good fight is the one we fight because our heart asks it of us. In the heroic ages – at the time of the knights in armor – this was easy. There were lands to conquer and much to do. Today, though, the world has changed a lot, and the good fight has shifted from the battlefields to the fields within ourselves.

The good fight is the one that’s fought in the name of our dreams. When we’re young and our dreams first explode inside us with all of their force, we are courageous, but we haven’t learned how to fight. With great effort, we learn how to fight, but by then we no longer have the courage to go into combat. So we turn against ourselves and do battle within. We become our worst enemy. We say that our dreams were childish, or too difficult to realize, or the result of our not having known enough about life. We kill our dreams because we were afraid to fight the good fight.


The first symptom of the process of killing our dreams is the lack of time,” Petrus continues. “The busiest people I’ve known in my life always have time enough to do everything. Those who do nothing are always tired and pay no attention to the little amount of work they are required to do. They complain that the day is too short. The truth is, they are afraid to fight the good fight. The second symptom of the death of our dreams lies in our certainties. Because we don’t want to see life as a grand adventure, we begin to think of ourselves as wise and fair and correct in asking so little of life. We look beyond the walls of our day-to-day existence, and we hear the sound of lances breaking, we smell the dust and the sweat, and we see the great defeats and the fire in the eyes of the warriors. But we never see the delight, the immense delight in the hearts of those engages in the battle. For them, neither victory nor defeat is important; what’s important is only that they are fighting the good fight.

And, finally, the third symptom of the passing of our dreams is peace. Life becomes a Sunday afternoon; we ask for nothing grand, and we cease to demand anything more than we are willing to give. In that state, we think of ourselves as being mature; we put aside the fantasies of our youths and we seek personal and professional achievement. We are surprised when people our age say that they still want this or that out of life. But, really, deep down in our hearts, we know that what has happened is that we have renounced the battle for our dreams – we have refused to fight the good fight.


When we renounce our dreams and find peace,” he said after a while, “we go through a short period of tranquility. But the dead dreams begin to rot within us and to infect our entire being. We become cruel to those around us, and then we begin to direct this cruelty against ourselves. That’s when illnesses and psychoses arise. What we sought to avoid in combat – disappointment and defeat – came upon us because of our cowardice. And one day, the dead, spoiled dreams make it difficult to breathe, and we actually seek death. It’s death that frees us from our certainties, from our work, and from that terrible peace of our Sunday afternoons.”

The Pilgrimage, pages 57 to 59, by Paulo Coelho


Remittance: A Story About The Domestic Helpers In Singapore

July 21, 2013 0 Comments

This article is concurrently posted on The Kent Ridge Common
Remittance is a film exploring the lives of low wage migrant workers in Singapore. It is helmed by prize-winning directors Patrick Daly and Joel Fendelman, both from New York.
Given the great disparities in socioeconomic status, race and country of origin between the directors and the people whom are represented on Remittance, what inspired Daly and Fendelman to explore a field that’s so different from what they’re familiar with?
It turns out that their conversations with numerous foreign low-wage workers have thrown up many insights about the dynamics between these workers and their employers. I was very much perturbed and shamed by how little I knew about these workers existing in the periphery of the Singaporean society – the challenges they face, the discrimination they have to endure and the reasons why they still choose to remain in Singapore.
Foreign domestic helpers receive almost no pay for their first six to eight months in Singapore – to repay their airfare and administrative fees. Their salaries, when they start to receive them, may work out to be less than $1/hour, assuming that they’ve to work long hours each day and receive minimal pay. Very few – if any – Singaporeans would settle for such wages.
Perhaps the most chilling part of this domestic worker ownership is the desexualisation of female domestic helpers, especially among woman employers and especially when the domestic helpers are attractive women. Jealousies by some ‘madams’ may cause them to forcibly cut the long hair of their helpers.
Given the harsh working conditions and the aggravating lack of respect, why are these women still willing to work in Singapore?
For one, divorce is illegal in Philippines and escaping overseas to work is a socially acceptable way of avoiding abusive husbands and unhappy families. Singapore, despite the highly flawed working conditions, might be preferable because these women were at least paid for their work, whereas they might not even be paid back home. This offers them a degree of freedom and social mobility which might be otherwise be inaccessible.
The tension between different factors pulling these women to Singapore and pushing them away is a reality that is under-represented.
It is in this light that Daly and Fendelman chose to explore this sensitive topic.
Initially, after reading the online descriptions of Remittance as a coming-of-the-age story, I had misgivings that the movie might be overly sentimental. However, these misgivings quickly vaporised as my friend and I observed one workshop. We saw these migrant workers smiling as they teased one another and discussed about the cutest animals they’ve eaten. (Apparently, deep-fried day-old chicks are tasty.) As they rehearsed two scenes, their feelings poured forth and we were moved.
So, what happened during that workshop?
In the comfort of Daly’s living room, we lounged about as the stars of the movie settled themselves around a table. They began to read the script, picked apart the typed words and discussed what they’d actually say in their day-to-day conversations as domestic helpers.
The feedback that the ladies gave was subsequently recorded by the directors-cum-scriptwriters. It was this organic scripting process that would eventually give rise to such authentic conversations on the screen. After the script was decided upon, the actresses began to rehearse, one of them sipping from her cup of coffee intermittently. These acting talents would first speak in English, then in the Philippines language, Tagalog.
One scene was so tensed that everyone seemed to be on the verge of breaking down. The portrayal of emotions was so realistic that the hairs on my arms were raised. As these ladies had limited professional acting lessons, they had to tap into their experiences, draw upon what they’ve been through and relive moments that might have been traumatic. As I watched some of them cry silent tears, I wondered what had they been through.
After the rehearsal, Angela, who is playing the role of the main character, tells me that some of them are mothers and some of them already have children back in Philippines. All of them, I realized, have their personal dreams, experiences and vulnerabilities which they drew upon as they acted out each scene.
It was a pleasure and a privilege to be there as the directors go through the script with their talents and hear them tease one another.
Here’re some photos of the workshop that my friend Zhang Zhe took:
Why are these ladies willing to give up their precious Sunday rest time? For many of them, Sunday is the only day in the week which they don’t have to handle brooms, dry laundry and cook meals. What motivated them to volunteer for this movie which would take months to produce and use up many more precious Sundays? Why don’t they shop or have picnics or simply hang out their friends instead?
Daly suggests that the domestic workers see this movie as their project. It is important to them. It’s a movie about them, with them being involved in almost every step of the movie-making.
There’s another reason, I feel, for the depth of involvement these foreign domestic workers express. They are respected by the directors. Their opinions are heard and valued and the script tweaked according to their input. Respect, they’re shown respect which might be difficult to find elsewhere in Singapore, from Singaporeans. They’re valued, regarded and understood as people, each with her unique perspectives and experiences.
Fendelman added that there are feelings of being separated from other people, this sense of isolation in urban cities. Remittance is about connecting people, through the collective story of these women, and that it’s “interesting to see that we’re just people, good people in our hearts, perhaps we just haven’t learnt to open up”.
This movie, even in its current preproduction phase, resonates. We’re waiting to lay our greedy eyes on it when it finally screens next year.
Why not visit this website to find out more about contributing to the production of Remittance?


Watercolouring Life

July 18, 2013 0 Comments

Here're some watercolours I did while travelling abroad. They record the feelings which had waxed, then waned.

The Birth of Venus was a plein-air painting done along the rocky cliffs in Marseilles.
Birth of Venus
The other three paintings record this sense of loss and isolation which had kept me company.
Girl with a Crimson Cloud
Landscape in Ochre, Strawberry and Violet
Reaching Out
I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way - things I had no words for. 
- Georgia O'Keeffe, American painter


Appreciating Our Very Own Local Culture

July 11, 2013 , 0 Comments

This article is concurrently posted on The Kent Ridge Common.

London is a dream come true for any art lover. It has many museums, stocked with influential artworks that have shaped the history of visual representation. To top it off, entrance to all public museums are free, even for non-locals. 

It was in one of these museums that my friend and I had an argument. He had nonchalantly stated that he preferred all these large realistic paintings in one particular British gallery, compared to the art that Singapore has.

I was intrigued. What did he mean? What has he found lacking in Singapore art?

It turned out that he hasn't even stepped into the Singapore Art Museum or the National Museum of Singapore before. He simply has the impression that the visual arts in Singapore are bland, conservative and unexciting. 

But Singapore art isn't a defective mirror or poorer twin to any country's art! Look at the two paintings below. The painting by Chua Mia Tee, a Singaporean, compares favorably to that by the very famous Vincent Van Gogh. 
Van Gogh's Potato Eaters
Chua Mia Tee's National Language Class 
That particular conversation with my friend discusses art but isn't simply about art. It goes beyond a question of what is nice and what isn't. It's a question about how we continue to define aesthetics with the blinkers we inherited from the past.  

That conversation coloured my interpretation of Michelle K's To my Eighteen-Year-Old Self, on your Departure for Cambridge, September 21st, 2003. In particular, one paragraph resonates, And decolonial art (or literature, architecture, and so on) is art that enacts these critiques by exposing coloniality and its injustices and contradictions [...] so that the viewer or participant is not swept up in the sublimity or beauty that is the Western ideal, but in feelings of sadness, indignation, repentance, hope, and the determination to change things in the future.

The French love Satre. The British adore J M W Turner's paintings. The Italians worship their Leonardo Da Vincis and Michaelangelos. It is not embarrassing that Singaporeans love the artworks by overseas artists. It is, however, a shame that Singaporeans cannot find pride in the works by other Singaporeans.

Let's take a break from the rhetoric and look at these two paintings. They are painted by Singapore's founding artists, the Nanyang artists. Have you seen them before?

Cheong Soo Pieng's Drying Salted Fish
Chen Wen Hsi's Two Gibbons Amidst Vines
Now, don't cheat. Take a closer look. It is likely that you possess reproductions of these paintings. 

These paintings can be seen on any $50 note that is currently circulating within the Singapore economy. Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen Hsi, they are artists who have gained international recognition but aren't as recognised locally. There is this somewhat casual dismissal of Singaporeans' efforts by other Singaporeans, ranging from the footballers in the S. League to the researchers in our local universities to the thespians toiling in our theaters.

One friend pointed out that Singapore is a young society and appreciating the efforts of local artists, scientists, engineers, businessmen et al is a culture that would take a longer time to establish. Singapore is also a small nation-state so perhaps there aren't as many exciting news to keep us citizens engaged.

But, it's precisely because Singapore is small that there are fewer reasons for Singaporeans not to know more about the efforts of other Singaporeans. If you're French and haven't been to the Lourve, it's understandable. If you're Italian and haven't seen the Colosseum, it's also understandable. It you're American and haven't seen the Statue of Liberty, it's within reason. After all, these countries are geographically bigger and travelling cross-country may not be within reach for some citizens.

But, if you're a Singaporean and haven't taken the bus or MRT to City Hall to visit the Singapore Art Museum, that's a lot more puzzling.

Given that entrance to 11 local museums are free for Singaporeans and permanent residents now, and given the famous kiasuism of our people, it was mildly surprising when two friends said that they have yet to visit the Asian Civilisations Museum, which has a collection comparable to top galleries around the world.

Take a trip to one local museum, support our own playwrights, learn more about the graphene research that Singapore is very much recognised for. Watch performances beyond Les Miserables, Phantom of The Opera and Despicable Me 2. You might be surprised by the intensity that some local works speak to you.

While we should keep an eye on international developments and enjoy the dizzying buffet of options that comes from being globally connected, perhaps we ought to appreciate the efforts of the people striving next door, on the same red pulsing dot, more.


Why Men Shouldn't Write Advice Columns

July 11, 2013 , 0 Comments

Here's an interesting advice column:

Dear John,

I hope you can help me. The other day, I set off for work, leaving my husband in the house watching TV. My car stalled, and then it broke down about a mile down the road, and I had to walk back to get my husband’s help. When I got home, I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was in our bedroom with the neighbour’s daughter!

I am 32, my husband is 34 and the neighbour’s daughter is 19. We have been married for 10 years. When I confronted him, he broke down and admitted that had been having an affair for the past six months. He won’t go to counseling, and I’m afraid I am a wreak and need advice urgently. Can you please help?

Dear Sheila,

A car stalling after being driven a short distance can be caused by a variety of faults with the engine. Start by checking that there is no debris in the fuel line. If it is clear, check the vacuum pipes and hoses on the intake manifold and also check all grounding wires. If none of these approaches solves the problem, it could be that the fuel pump itself is faulty, causing low delivery pressure to the injectors.

I hope this helps,

Source credit: Sg Teach


Oriental Pied Hornbills in Singapore

July 07, 2013 0 Comments

An unusual visitor - almost the size of a newborn baby - lurked around the Kovan neighbourhood. For a while, it rested on the roof, next to my neighbour's air-con unit, preening its feathers with its yellow beak. 

It was strange, to see this bird lying awkwardly on a tiled roof. Why wasn't it perching on a branch? Was it hurt?

Then, it spread its wings and fluttered to a nearby tree. Perhaps that Oriental Pied Hornbill could read our minds; maybe it wanted to reassure us that it was hearty and hale.

My father, neighbours and I were all excited to see this visitor which has been hitherto unseen of in this area.
The actual appearance of the visitor (above)
Source credit: Yahoo Images
Here're some photos I took of that particular Oriental Pied Hornbill lurking in the neighbourhood:

It's comforting to realise that Singapore, despite being an urban city, has sufficient space for its wildlife too. 


That Pungent Flower in Florence

July 02, 2013 , 0 Comments

Remnants of my luggage: a wheel which fell off.
It was in Florence when my wanderlust wandered off.

Well, it didn’t actually wander off. It ran away with an implosion, leaving a puff of sulphourous distaste.

The two handgrips on my luggage threatened to fall off. The topmost handle rebelled with sinister cracking sounds before it broke off. Six months worth of luggage, about 20.3 kg, was too much to handle. Then, one wheel fell off. Great, now I’ve to buy a new luggage.

And so I dragged and heaved the entire stupid thing along the Croatian streets of Zadar, onto a ferry to Florence, aboard a bus, then a train, then another train, then another bus, then through the Italian streets. I huffed and I puffed, becoming as sticky and miserable as a mudskipper on a dry, concrete pavement.

Surely, there must be a silver lining in these non-events. My army fitness test is coming. And I need to become fitter. What better ways can there be to increase my arm strength?

I was on a holiday; I wanted to be happy. I was determined to be happy even when I had to delude myself into feeling so.

Surely, this must constitute one level of torture in hell. It was sheer pain, the desire to take a cab, being unable to afford it and having to drag a luggage across asphalt almost endlessly.

Finally, I reached my host in Florence, dirty and scruffy, proud that I didn’t get lost. I had booked this stay with airbnb, an online service platform matching local hosts with backpackers. Tired, I sat on the luggage – it was a revenge, you see, for having to drag it – and waited for around half an hour.

Many people walked past me during that period and I tried to work up the courage to ask for help from strangers.

Eventually, I asked a young girl for help. She was really polite, very sweet and fifteen years old. Hmm, not that young. Age is relative; to an aged, shriveled up creature (like me), everyone is young.

It turned out that she’s the girlfriend of the host’s brother – I think – and she helped me contact the host.

“Sorry, I can’t speak English well.” She smiled shyly.

“Well, please don’t be. I can’t speak Italian at all. Thanks for your help, grazie!”

I was grateful to the many strangers who had helped me along this month-long solo trip. In Marseilles, France, one stranger walked past me for almost five meters before he turned back and offered to give me directions. In Zadar, Croatia, another stranger got off his bicycle to advise me even though I already knew my way. And now, this teenager helped me to contact my host. People could be really wonderful, even surprising, with their unreserved help for strangers.

Then, this host in Florence – let’s refer to him as Antonio – he helped me to put things in perspectives.

After being contacted, Antonio drove by within five minutes in a red Fiat number, got off, screamed at me then drove off.

When I first saw him, I was relieved. Yes, finally, the opportunity to clean up and rest presented himself. 

“Do you think this is a hotel? That you can come as and when you wish?”

Flummoxed by his questions, I paused.

“This is somebody’s home. This is my home. You cannot come when you feel like it.” He was screaming, “call airbnb, call them! I tried to contact you and couldn’t. Call airbnb!”

“Please, let me explain –“

“I sent you emails and you didn’t reply. I tried to call you and it didn’t get through. Airbnb couldn’t contact you. Call airbnb! Call them.”

“Please, let me explain. I tried to send you two emails and three other airbnb messages but you didn’t reply. Really – “

“Do you think I’m stupid? Do you think I’m stupid?!”

This was a misunderstanding. He called the web host to ask if I’ve received any email from him. The web host said ‘yes’ BUT I really didn’t receive any email from him. In fact, I’ve sent him other messages but he didn’t reply.

This was compounded by the fact that that the only email that he responded to was the one which I had mistakenly indicated that I was checking in a day earlier. In his email reply, he said that I wasn’t supposed to check-in when I preferred. It was a typo error and I apologized for it. I didn’t make much of it until that moment when he was screaming at me.

Antonio thought that I was a lying, conniving scammer, trying to cover up for my ‘mistake’. He was very nice about it, I suppose, to drive all the way from work to scream at me before driving off.

The young girl – she helped me to contact Antonio just moments ago – walked past me, this time with a partner. From the prior conversation, I gathered that the young man was the host’s brother. They appeared to be arguing over me. She seemed to want to offer help but her boyfriend – my host’s brother – didn’t know what to do despite giving me apologetic glances.

What a tragedy this has turned out to be. I was the unwilling cause of a domestic dispute.

So, I waited, stranded along a street in Florence. What could I do?

I took out my sketchpad and started drawing a tree. It was a magnificent pine, with branching ribbons of needled leaves.

I waited, waited and waited. Two hours.

I sat on my broken luggage bag and continued to wait, hoping that I could still stay in this home which I paid for and couldn’t withdraw from.

 “My mother is cleaning your room.”

“Antonio, please let me explain. Let me sign into my email and airbnb accounts to show you that I didn’t receive –“

“Do you hear me? Do you hear me?” He tugged his left earlobe, “I said, my mother is cleaning your room now.”

I’d have taken the bulk of the responsibility, for not trying harder to contact him. But him, bandying  the ‘do you understand me?’ twice, smacked of racism. Yet, I’m a Chinese but I’m not a moron. I could understand his English.

Wealth was a concept I never understood. Unlike other friends, I never wanted to be rich. Some middle-class aspirations by a middle-class child – a decent income, sufficient for living expenses; a no-frills, quiet existence – that was all I wanted. I had been willing to fit into the social narratives constructed for middle-class citizens. I had been willing to be an anonymous face among a flock of ambitionless people – at first, with an uneasy acceptance, then with an increasing comfort. Be satisfied, be contented. Write, draw. Don’t ask for more. Treasure what I have. Those cheap aphorisms, I believed in all of them.

But at that moment, I wished with the great vacuum that was my heart, to be wealthy, to just walk away, to take a cab with my screwed up luggage, pay a handsome price for a 3-star hotel at the very last minute.
 I wished to preserve my dignity, to shout it aloud. To shout something aloud, whatever thing aloud. Maybe, even a string of expletives.

But, I didn’t. I was a poor student on a limited budget. And pride didn’t carry any financial worth. What’s pride? What’s dignity? Without a quantifiable parallel, without money, they aren’t worth nothing. Pride and dignity are privileges for those with the financial means.

So, I waited.

I was sick of sitting along a foreign street, being subjected to curious gazes from pairs of green or brown Italian eyes. And, I realized, with a sick awareness, that I was ashamed of my foreignness.

It was strange, me being embarrassed of being Chinese, being ashamed of my manila skin tones. Those books – The Bluest Eye, Dreams from My Father, A Small Place – I couldn’t relate to them. I had been puzzled by their pain, puzzled by those stories of black people bleaching their skin with poison, wearing blue contacts and blushing their umber cheeks with candy pink makeup. I was repulsed and doubtful of colonial imperialism or white suprematism or racism – why had these populations of people been subjugated so easily? I could read about their pain but I couldn’t empathise.

Then, I realized how easy it was, to make a person feel worthless.

I tried not to think of it as racism. I tried to leave this sensitive parameter – race – out of the matrix of equations running across my mind. Discussions about race were always treated with velvet gloves back in Singapore. I tried to leave my race out of the incident but it wasn’t easy.

If I were a white woman – preferably young and sexy – would this have had happened? 

This was supposed to be a trip to see the world and I guessed that I’ve seen more than I wanted to. It was a mistake – a miscommunication between my host and me – yet he automatically attributed all the blame to the hapless me.

His mother turned out to be really sweet and very apologetic. She kept asking me to drink water. I was extremely dehydrated, a toad left out in the hot sun for three hours – well, I actually did wait for three hours – and I was famished since I only had two miserly buns, 1 apple and some biscuits for the entire day, from 6 am to 4 pm.

The wanderlust imploded and I withdrew into my Chinese skin, longing to be back where I won’t be treated like scum by a stranger.

That night, I stayed in Antonio’s home.

My kiasu spirit tried to comfort me as I attempted to drift into sleep. Come on, you’ve gotten what you wished for. Come on, you ought to be satisfied. Singpaorean leh, getting more than what you’ve paid for. Should be good lah. What more do you want? With time, this could be an informative experience.

I tried to remind myself of the many beautiful experiences I had, to let the garden of memories remain unsullied by one twisted mutagenic weed. I realized that all the social conditioning in Singapore has painted an unrealistic mindscape of different races and ethnicities living in a lovely harmony. I tried to frame this as part of growing up and as an exciting experience that I needed.

But, why, why did this happen to me? I’m not racist. I have fairly close friends from China. I defended foreigners whenever people made unreasonable comments. I lived my life, quiet and prim, meeting all the requirements for being proper.

Then, I thought, why not? C'est la vie. It’s always about power, exerting it, maintaining it, expanding it. It’s always about survival, many times at the expense of other people. I’m but a cog in the greater Darwinistic wheel. Such is life.

The next day, Antonio apologized. I said sorry too.

The day after, his mum smiled at me while she was watering her plants. She pointed to her flowers and said, ‘fiore, fiore’. I smiled at her, perhaps with less awkwardness.

It turned out that the Italian name of Florence is Fiorenza and this city was supposed to be a blooming city.


Repost of Michelle K's Decolonial Aesthesis: From Singapore, To Cambridge, To Duke University

July 01, 2013 0 Comments

Michelle K, a postgraduate student currently studying in U.S., wrote one letter to her 18-year-old self. Every word resonates with the aching wisdom that she has accumulated during her years abroad.

It's strange, how quickly Singaporeans denounce their culture, their art and everything Singaporean. It's frustrating, how my friends compared Singapore to England and came so hastily to the conclusion that Singapore is culturally sterile. Singapore, poor Singapore, it's found lacking by her citizens so readily.

But, listen, Singapore isn't a defective mirror nor poorer twin to any other city in the world. Judging it according to terms dictated by another society is wholly unfair to this tender nation state.

And here's Michelle's heartening letter:

To my eighteen-year-old self, on your departure for Cambridge

 September 21st, 2003

In three days, you will encounter a fish knife for the very first time. You will not know what it is, but everyone else will. You will watch, and imitate.

You will not know how to eat – how to cut cheese, hold a wineglass, to dissect pheasant. You will not know how to dress, in the mandatory bulky black robes, or how to put your hair up as the other girls do. You will not know how to walk, high heels unsteady on ancient cobblestones. You will not know how to talk, of their celebrities, their politics, their favorite operas, their units of measurement, their terms of endearment.

In class, in Front Court just off the famous Wren Chapel, you will learn that you do not know Latin. Claudia, from Poland, knows Latin. She also knows Polish, but hates speaking it with the young Polish woman who cleans her rooms. We’re in England now, she says.

Julie, from Ireland, speaks with a perfect Standard English accent. So do Jonah from Manchester and Dr Davis, from Wales. So do Emma, from Oslo; and Adrian, from Belgrade; and Patrick, from Berlin. So do you. Joshua, also from Singapore, speaks with a thick Singaporean accent. Nobody speaks to him, because nobody understands him, except you.

You never learn Latin, but you learn to fake it well enough to give the prayer before the Fellows in the dining hall. It’s an honor, you’re told. You shape the vowels carefully with your tongue: Oculi omnium in te sperant. The eyes of all look upon thee.

You study versification. Versification is the study of form in poetry. You learn that we all speak in iambs, like the Greeks. You write poetry, and learn the proper names for what you do: this is enjambment, this is anaphora, that is isocolon. You learn to paint with the textures that make up Britain: limestone, pipesmoke, lambswool, tweed; reckon, rubbish, brilliant, dodgy, quid.

At the International Students Gathering you will be told that you are interesting. You are foreign, you are a learning experience for others, you are exotic. People will ask where you come from. Singapore. Oh! they say – chewing gum is illegal there, isn’t it, and they cane people for vandalism. Don’t they also cut off the hands of thieves? No, you say. Oh, they say. Are you certain?
Every day you will walk by King’s Chapel and every day be astounded by the sublime. There is something sacred, it seems, in the smooth stone and stained glass, in the altitudinous arches against the northern sky. Even the sky looks different here – a truer sky blue. The plants are a different green, milder than the ferns of the humid tropics, and more elegant. The trees are deciduous, quadrilingual.

 In the chapel you will hear Allegri’s Miserere and in the sharp highs and tumbling-bell cascades of gowned choir-boys come to know a different God than the one you met with guitar music in your old Sunday School. You will read Milton, and see His beauty. You will read Eliot, and see His wisdom.

You will travel. You go to Athens, and you go to Rome. You go to Paris, London, Vienna, old cities rich with marble and history. You see the rock where St Paul preached, the hall where Mozart played, the house Jane Austen lived in. You see the beds of heroes, the halls of two hundred kings and queens.  You see places that matter. Nothing in your country is more than two hundred years old.

Your Marxist friend is repulsed by the splendor of Vatican City. You somewhat agree, but still you buy an overpriced rosary from the Vatican gift shop. Your people don’t pray with rosaries, so you don’t know what to do with it. Still, it is a valuable thing – made of plastic, to be sure, but stamped with the official insignia. The keys to the kingdom.

You go to the opera. You go to museums. You learn the names of the masters, you learn their styles – the long slim forms of Botticelli, the bright grace of Raphael, the abs on the Michelangelo, the curves on the Titians – pink cheeks and white faces. You see hall upon hall of kouroi, men in the proportions of gods, with smooth blank eyes. You see beauty in the rich thickness of oil paints, in the huge splendid canvases, the gold frames, the high ceilings. You are happy and gratified and impressed. No one from your country ever made such things. You do not think to ask why.

Your friends ask you about visiting Singapore. What’s there to see there? they ask. We don’t have much culture, you say.

You direct a play. You would have liked to act instead, but there are no Chinese women in Chekhov’s Russia. There are no Chinese in Ibsen’s Norway.  There are no Chinese in the Germany of Carl Jung or in Chicago in the 1950s. There are no Brits either, but that doesn’t seem to matter.  In three years of theatre you will see two black faces on stage. One is Othello. The other is a maid.

You see The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan. We are gentlemen of Japan… / On many a screen and fan We figure in lively paint / Our attitude’s queer and quaint / You’re wrong if you think it ain’t! The emperor likes decapitation. The heroine’s name is Yum-Yum. It is a comedy. You laugh.

You study Shakespeare. You study tragedy. Ancient tragedy is the fall of a great man due to an unfortunate fault. Modern tragedy is the confrontation of a brave man with his own existential terror.  Other things are tragic, but you don’t hear too much about them. You meet Willy Loman, Primo Levi, Nora Helmer, but it’s hard to pay attention. Sophocles speaks too loudly. Oedipus is king.
You study moral philosophy: Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, and Kant. You learn to read them with blinkers on, mining them for the things that matter. You learn to write the way they do – assertive, arrogant, to-the-point. Men do better in exams, you are told, because they write this way. You must be confident. You must write like a man.
You study the Romantics. You learn what nature looks like: white cliffs, high moors, rolling hills, spring air, green meadows; here and there a Roman ruin, here and there a shepherdess. What’s there to see in Singapore? your friends ask. We don’t have much nature, you say.

You go bird-watching. There are several thousand bird species in the UK alone – robins, garnets, ravens, terns. You learn the names of trees and flowers – lilacs, magnolia, primrose, rosemary for remembrance, hyacinth for constancy, poppies, which mark the War Dead. It seems these flowers have a history that your flowers don’t. Poets write about them; they have meanings in books, and value in the flower shops.

No one writes about the ixoras that grew in your old neighborhood – dense stubby shrubs with blooms no bigger than a wink, but beloved for the single drop of nectar you could suck from the stems. Or about the hibiscuses, brilliant and brash with their long dangling stamens; or the bougainvilla, common, roadside-dusty, with their paper-thin petals. Or angsanas, with their space-ship seeds. Rain trees like vine-strewn umbrellas. Franjipanis. Pong-pongs.

Three short years later you will stand in a queue; neat rows of black robes and mostly white faces. When your turn comes you will kneel at the feet of an old man in a five-hundred-year-old chair. He says something in Latin you won’t care what it means. He gives you a scroll. You smile. You graduate.

All this is not a warning or a complaint about how unfair life will be for you. After all, you will not be unhappy; or if you are, you will not really notice. No one will be cruel to you, no one will be unfriendly, and you will learn many things. You will enjoy yourself, more or less; and you will make friends, acquire ‘social polish’, a confidence in speaking, the tools to make yourself heard.

These are all good things. They are the things that you went to Britain to acquire. But I am writing to you to make you see what you will be at pains not to see: that as you acquire them, there will also be parts of you that are lost. And I am writing to tell you that your gains are not innocent – that they come with the baggage of coloniality.

You will deny this at first, because you and your country are modern and free, and you will see your choice of university as precisely the expression of that freedom and ability. To think otherwise will seem almost absurd: you are at Cambridge; how could you possibly be oppressed?

But coloniality didn’t end in 1963, when the British let your country go. It is not just the business of unfortunate Third Worlders in distant lands, still floudering in corruption and poverty because they lacked the vision and the statecraft of a Lee Kuan Yew.

Coloniality continues, in fact, whenever bright young men and women from all over the world decide to cap off their educations by going on pilgrimage to pinnacles of Western civilization; when they dedicate themselves to the Western canon and walk in the shadows of gothic cathedrals and imperial facades, and learn that this is the good life.

It continues whenever anyone anywhere in the world walks down a street and sees a billboard on the modern cathedral that is a shopping mall, and sees in that conjunction of power, wealth, and beauty an image of desire. In other words, it happens these days not by the strength of arms or the power of states, but by the captivation of the eyes, the training of the taste, by unwritten rules of thumb – that we all learn everywhere, without even knowing it. Coloniality is far from over: it is all over. It is perhaps the most powerful set of forces in the modern world.

That may sound strange to you, because the power of Cambridge – of Europe itself – seems today to lie in the richness of its history. But to be truly modern is precisely to have a rich and legitimate history that one can master, draw from, and transcend. It is to have a history that is valuable in the present, transactable as social capital in an economy of competitive relations; in clear contrast to other, ‘anthropological’ histories – ‘African’, ‘Oriental’ – that are outdated, unusable, primitive. Besides, modernity comes in many guises: in skyscrapers and banks, to be sure, but also in fish knives, in cathedrals, in the knowledge of opera, in savoir faire.

But modernity is not truly in the skyscraper or the bank or even the savoir faire. It is in the movement of a dangerous gift, transmitted from the West to the rest. Modernity says: we have the good, and we will give – or teach, or sell – it to you. Modernity is salvation through this gift from your prior self. It is Sir Stamford Raffles of the East India Company turning Temasek, the fishing village, into Singapore, the trade hub and aspiring metropolis. It is the magnificent edifice of Cambridge University turning Melissa, the girl who wore cheap pajamas sewn by her grandma to bed, into Melissa, the cosmopolitan, who graduated in a Hepburn dress and a fur hood.

Modernity is someone saying to you: look, we have made you better. And you believing it.

But why do you believe it? Why will your ignorance of the fish knife cut so deep? Why will your love of opera and your love of ixora be respectively crucial and inconsequential for your sense of sophistication and self-worth? It makes little logical sense, but coloniality doesn’t work that way.As you will learn, it works by the smallest and the largest things: from chit-chat to cathedrals. Another way of putting this is that the West has colonized not only knowledge, but aesthesis – every kind of sensing, believing, feeling.

What can you do, then? Coloniality cannot be un-done, any more than you can un-read Chaucer or un-see Caravaggio, and it is undeniable that these things have broadened your mind.

But the question is not how to retreat or how to prune yourself back to some pristine, native state. In fact, it is the opposite: how to recognize the narrowness of this so-called broadened mind – to realize that Europe is not the universe – and to take your sensing and knowing beyond those dominant ideas of the true, the good, and the beautiful. To move towards a pluri-verse that gives dignity to both the girl in the pajamas and the one in the little black dress – and yet to do so in a way that, unlike Western liberalism, is not na├»ve about either the ‘equality’ of the two, or about how we got from the one to the other.

This means that it is not enough to simply read Confucious alongside Aristotle, or to turn from Uffizi to the Asian Civilizations Museum. That is part of it, certainly, but it doesn’t go far enough. In fact, merely claiming that ‘our’ art or philosophy is as beautiful or good as their Western counterparts only disguises the problem: it hides the issue of why we are in the position of having to make that claim in the first place (the question of coloniality), and it begs the question of what we mean by ‘good’, or ‘beautiful’, or even by ‘art’ or ‘philosophy’ (the question of imperial aesthetics).

The movement known as ‘decolonial aesthetics’ is aimed at asking exactly those two questions. It is the study of how Western aesthetic categories like ‘beauty’ or ‘representation’ came to dominate all discussion of art and its value, and of how exactly those categories were are used – in everyone from Kant to Conrad – to organise and control the way we think of ourselves and others: as white or black, high or low, rich or poor, strong or weak, good or evil.

And decolonial art (or literature, architecture, and so on) is art that enacts these critiques by exposing coloniality and its injustices and contradictions, often using juxtaposition, parody, irony, or simple disobedience towards the rules of art and polite society, so that the viewer or participant is not swept up in the sublimity or beauty that is the Western ideal, but in feelings of sadness, indignation, repentance, hope, and the determination to change things in the future.

You may not see much decolonial art at Cambridge, but, just as the colonial aesthetic works on us in myriad and subtle ways, so can performances of decoloniality, if we learn how to see them. So as you walk through the grand college gates, look out for the homeless man, who refuses to move from his corner no matter what important procession passes by.

Look out for the posters put up by the residents of Mill Road, in their campaign against the large-chain supermarket that would put the small Indian and Korean grocery stores there out of business. Think about the British Indian girl who wears a sari to class every day. And listen again to Joshua’s accent, and hear in it not failure to communicate, but a casual, everyday protest – a way of saying, I don’t have to sound like you to be worthy of being heard.

These things may be hard to spot amidst the distractions of tall spires and lofty aspirations, but they are there.