2013 Reflections

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Our calendar, which records the intangible passage of time, is a human invention. It is wisdom accumulated from observing the celestial motions of stars and moon, alongside their interplay with tides. It is wisdom inherited from our forebears.

Isn't it strange, however, the way we live our lives according to these lunar markings? Isn't it strange how we have arbitrarily decided that a certain day marks the start of a new month, a different year and a fresh beginning?

Perhaps, it isn't that strange. After all, human beings do have the tendency to derive meanings from the chaotic and unfathomable.

This post is my all-too-human attempt to make sense of the changeable year that 2013 has been.

Family

Thankfully, there has been less friction between my brothers and I. We no longer quarrel that often, though we do quibble over who should pay for the next family dinner or do the household chores.

They frequently suggest that I remain in the school hostel during the weekends. Each time I return home, I'm occupying space they need, exhausting bandwidth they require, depleting precious oxygen. I tell them - quite jokingly - that it is my birthright, that I'm entitled to these resources because I'm the 2nd son.

On a more somber note, one uncle was hospitalised due to intestinal cancer. He had been suffering from constipation and excreting bloodied feces for two months before the pain got so excruciating that he sought medical treatment.

The doctor suspected that the cancer could be in a Stage III phase - almost incurable, with treatment focused on extending the patient's lifespan and relieving pain.

Thankfully, the prognosis was off. The cancer turned out to be in its early stage and large parts of my uncle's intestines were surgically removed.

In the squarish hospital ward, the family congregated. There was a poignant moment, when Grandma gently touched my uncle's face and asked him to take care. Her face was wrinkled with worry, looking every bit like an aged parent would after fretting over her invalid son.

There were discussions about the importance of insurance - yes, please buy insurance for your loved ones and yourself - the causes of cancer - a mix of genetics and epigenetics - and the dietary requirements for someone without the bulk of his large intestines.

Someone asked if intestinal cancer was a heritable disease. We - children of the Tan clan - tend to die from high blood pressure. No prolonged pain from chemotherapy or surgical invasions. Just suffering one or two strokes, maybe a heart attack or two, before dying in bed at home. This is, perhaps, the most peaceful way to leave, among all other very-debilitating ways.

Friends

The undergraduate years are drawing to an end. Things will fall apart, breaking into shards and sprinkling in different directions. Most of us will become friendly strangers or, at best, useful and exploitable contacts. In this age, we've not learnt to drift apart skillfully or reconcile with less awkwardness.

During one dinner with another unattached friend, we shared our fears of growing old, remaining lonely, single and unmarried, without friends, eventually being ensconced in an old folks' home. There was a harmonic fear of being lonely, alongside a genuine craving to be left alone.

Overseas Exchange

Singapore is an angry palette of energy, dynamism and churn. It moves at a rapid pace, too dizzying for most people. After sampling the refreshing shots of freedom in a foreign environment and realising how easy living can be, there is an ache to be anywhere else, other than on this red, pulsing dot.

There is a desire to be free from the various socially sanctioned constructs, to be liberated from the suffocating limits of Singapore's elastic meta-narratives. Our country has a numbing presence and urges us to hanker after dream homes, where we can eat, sleep, procreate, then die within the convenient walking distances of train stations. That's what we hope for, don't we? To have a home near the train stations. 

Being overseas has also cured the 'small island mentality' I was suffering from. Often, people are unable to conceive of the broader picture, so consumed they are with the minutiae of everyday life. The overseas experience has helped to situate the challenges that Singapore faces within a global context.

Sometimes, locals do not intend to be unfriendly towards strangers. Perhaps there's a miscommunication; perhaps theirs is a culture that is more reticent. Sometimes, they may be outright racist. Each time, it's not easy to tell why.

It has been revealing, to be submerged into a place where my privileges - being no longer part of the dominant racial demographic - are revoked, and to be perceived as part of the intrusive foreign minority.

Science Research

This honours year has been spent on studying efficient catalysts for storing and retrieving energy. This branch of green chemistry, quite frankly, is fascinating.

Being able to take part in such cutting edge research, as a somewhat ignorant undergraduate no less, has clarified the meaning of the word ‘research’.

Science advances because there are people committed to experimentations, undeterred by repetitive cycles of trying and failing. Studying in a laboratory, surrounded by people who are re-re-re-searching the mechanisms of chemical reactions, has inspired an understanding about the often-arduous, sometimes-brilliantly rewarding nature of not giving up.

To expect failures, to be surprised when something goes well, to be humble, to question, to not be so quick to condemn - all these are skills that we acquire, honed with every experiment we conduct.

Future?

I think of Cavafy's poem about how all life is wasted:
[...]
There is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner, you have ruined it in the entire world. 
I think of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything:
“If you imagine the 4,500-bilion-odd years of Earth's history compressed into a normal earthly day,  [...] The whole of our recorded history, on this scale, would be no more than a few seconds, a single human lifetime barely an instant."
The Earth will survive without us. Compared to its extensive history, we exist for nanoseconds before dying away.

There is no need to crave so ardently for material goods, to hanker after recognition and fame, to want to make a mark. Perhaps, the greatest gift we can leave behind, is simply to do no harm during the mere blips we flicker into and out of existence.

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The Christmas Goose

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Once upon a time, there was a goose, with a plump body of white feathers and a marigold-orange beak.
How the goose looked like.
Source credit: Animal Pics Wallpaper
It lived in a farm, provisioned with food and water that it didn't need to work for. Life was easy, cushy even, but it - like many of us - kept hankering after what it didn't have.

Every spring, there would be flocks of migratory birds, soaring against pastel skies, sharing gossips of the exotic places they had just holidayed at. These vistas had an abundance of fruits, swollen with sugar and sunshine; mountain waters, crystal clear and humming; lush vines with broad green leaves. 

The goose longed to experience such wonders. It kept its eye on the sky, flapping its awkward wings, always hoping to fly.

It grew obsessed with this dream that it began to pick quarrels with other animals. According to the goose, the roosters were "brainless", the dogs, "unambitious" and the cows, "silly beasts preoccupied with eating tasteless weeds".

The flightless bird was so preoccupied with its dreams that it forgot to be courteous.

One cow got so offended that it laid a line of bricks over the path where the goose often walked.

The next morning, the goose began to make its way to the food trough. It kept its head pointed towards the azure skies, dreaming once more of flight, of cold winds ruffling its feathers. However, it tripped over a brick and broke its neck.

The cow was upset that it had caused someone to die but remorse and guilt were feelings that always came too late. As the cow mourned over the dead goose, their farmer walked past, saw the scene and sighed. He picked the dead bird up and roasted it for Thanksgiving.

Beware of where you set your eyes for others may set you up.

Beware, too, of setting traps for you may come to regret it.


Source credit: Kaleidoscope Cultural China
And, with this story, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a great year ahead.

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The Tale of The Frustrated Orang Utan

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Two days ago, an orang utan rooted through his pile of clothes, trying to find a clean piece of underwear. He tossed and turned, flipping over shirts and shorts but there wasn't any piece visible. How could this be?

What about his work? The orang utan was researching some chemicals at that time. How could he go for work and mix chemicals without wearing that protective piece of clothing? What if there was an explosion? That area is particularly important and it's always advisable to protect it with more cloth.

O underwear, underwear, wherefore art thou?

The character in the story.
Source credit: All Malaysia Info
With each passing second, the ape became increasingly frustrated.

But why did he feel the need to wear an underwear so desperately?

The act of wearing undergarments is a social construct. Only apes wear them. Take a look, for example, at dolphins or dodos (when they existed). They frolic in the wilderness - stark raving naked - but feel absolutely no shame. Look at them, bouncing around, without a single stitch of cotton protecting their modesty.

Yes, wearing undergarments reflects the blind and unquestioning obedience to a socially sanctioned construct.

As a protest, the ape decided not to wear any for one day. 

Just as he was about to leave, the hairy creature turned around and found one piece, almost glittering in the sunshine. It was beige-coloured, soft and limp in his trembling hands. Yes, a clean underwear. One pristine piece. Isn't that a miracle?

He started to giggle, then laugh and then quake with mirth, before putting the underwear on.  

At times, deliberately adhering to social constructs is no big deal.

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RE: Rioting, Inequality And The State

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This article is concurrently published on The Kent Ridge Common
Source credt: SCMP

Rioting, Inequality And The State, an article published last Thursday by fellow contributor Bryan Cheang, examines the Little India Riot. It offers food-for-thought by suggesting that the tinder for this unexpected incident is not the exploitation of low-wage migrant workers by profits-driven corporations; the true problem and enemy is the State, “its inherent tendency for self-aggrandisement” and “constant mischief”.

I agree with Bryan that there is a need to be wary of the State, especially after this highly controversial and potentially fractious unrest. The State may politicise this shocking incident to further its influence and curtail civil liberties. However, I find it difficult to believe that the corporate system is free from blame.

Demerits of The Capitalist System

According to the articles that Bryan has written, there are merits to the capitalist system. It is a moral system; it encourages economic freedom that is instrumental to economic development; it is the ideal option when examined against alternative systems.

However, there are significant drawbacks to the capitalist system, ones that have not been as thoroughly discussed.

Capitalism concentrates wealth and power in the hands of corporations and an elite minority. This leads to a widening wealth and income rift between the elite and the majority of the population. Also, there is a deep and structural erosion of basic civil liberties and human rights as power is not evenly distributed between people with means and people without.

Companies can become so titanic that they exert their gravitational strengths and obtain legal and political powers, beyond the economic influence that they already hold. The existence of numerous corporate-sponsored lobby groups and significant political donations in America are obvious attempts by companies to sway legislation in their favour and expand their spheres of power.

Like the State, companies are more than well-positioned to be exploitive. They are ultimately profit-driven and may not be hindered by something as inconvenient as morals. Considerations for the cohesion of the society, the welfare of workers and the health of our natural environments may not even be considered at all.

The Little India Riot: Exploiting Workers? Yes, It’s Exploitation

In an ideal world, companies will not exploit workers. They will fulfill their contractual obligations, pay their workers on time and not suppress their freedoms of expression. Such a utopia, however and most regrettably, does not exist.

Articles on the Little India Riots have contained much anecdotal evidence that there is genuine exploitation of low-wage migrant workers in Singapore. According to Transient Workers Count Too, a group that defends the rights of these workers, employers get away with paying extremely low wages, at times paying even less through all sorts of illegal deductions. Since some employers make money out of the placement fees that workers pay upfront for their jobs, they have no interest in retaining workers and illegally cause labour churn. Injured workers may be denied medical attention and repatriated before they can seek compensation.

It is undeniable that the power structures are overwhelmingly stacked against low-wage foreign labour. Their voices are suppressed by influential companies that are not hesitant to flex their muscles, whether illegally or legally.

Speaking up for these exploited workers, asking the State to defend their rights does not equate “unknowingly inviting the State to slap on their wrists the handcuffs of slavery”.

The State and The Corporate System Are Both Dangerous

I wholeheartedly agree with Bryan that it is important to be wary of the State and to temper its influence such that civil freedoms are not forfeited. Sakthivel Kumaravelu, the low-wage migrant worker whose accident sparked the Little India Riot, has passed away and hence, can no longer speak. His death is a conveniently blank canvas for the government to paint all sorts of narratives and justify measures to curtail civil liberties.

There is an equal need to be wary of the corporate system as well. There are countless examples where the interests of the society and its people do not align with the interests of the corporations. In such cases, the role of the State is vital. It defends us against exploitation by companies solely focused on making bottom-line profits.

Mechanisms to check and balance the authority of both the State and Corporations must exist. And in this case, what citizens want is equitable treatment by corporations, while holding on to their freedoms of speech. These are different freedoms; they are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to have them both at the same time.

In the aftermath of this Little India Riot, I worry about the cosy relationships between the State and various corporations established here. In this highly globalised and connected world, companies are not beholden to any particular country. They go where the money is. As such, governments may be compelled to make concessions in order to lure them into establishing their presence here. The fault lines exposed by this riot, and the circumstances that low-wage migrant workers face, the government is probably aware of these factors but has chosen to ignore them for various reasons.

So yes, there is a need to be wary of both the State and the corporate system. After all, ceding civil liberties to corporations invested with political, legal and financial powers is as dangerous as ceding them to a power-hungry State.

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A Critical Analysis of The Trees, by Phillip Larkin

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The Trees
              by Phillip Larkin
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
This poem meditates, laments and celebrates the life cycles of trees. It is an evocative mix of emotions, delivered with an economy of words.

The first stanza conveys the poet’s melancholy – instead of deriving joy and hope from the tenacious growth of plants as they sprout new leaves to welcome a season of warmth – the poet see their budding ‘greenness’ as ‘a kind of grief’.

The choice of ‘greenness’ and ‘grief’ is inspired; these two words alliterate and the repetition of the internal vowel ‘e’ in both creates a haunting rhythm. It concludes the first stanza with an impactful and melodic image by associating a colour with an emotion.

The second stanza wonders about the cosmetic youth of trees. It asks rhetorically if the trees are ‘born again’ while humans are destined to ‘grow old’. The poet then decides that no matter how tender the growing leaves are, the trees’ appearances are merely superficial facades. Their true age will forever be inscribed in the ‘rings of grain’ within their trunks.

This middle stanza relates to the preceding one. In the first stanza, budding leaves are compared to sentences that are incomplete, dangling, not heard, ‘like something almost being said’. This startling comparison is a reminder that the seasonal budding of trees is not merely about living; it’s about the many deaths that that have been accumulated, now ‘written down in rings of grain’.

The final stanza is somewhat hopeful, with the vivid image of the trees’ thick thrashing crowns, luxuriant and energetic in the sunshine each May. The rhyming couplet - 'May' and 'say' - along with the repetition of ‘afresh, afresh, afresh’ wraps the poem up, with a succession of succulent sounds, almost as though the leaves themselves are whispering these words.

At a surface level, Larkin is examining the growth of trees, casting his eyes on leaves, trunks and whispering crowns. However, one cannot help but extrapolate this cyclic nature of growing in green plants into the cyclic nature of life itself. This is a lucid and compact poem, composed and calm, that laments how everything is dying, no matter their desperate attempts to stay youthful and hold onto life.

Source credit: Miriadna.com

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Unrest in Little India

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This article is concurrently posted on The Kent Ridge Common.

Last night, a fatal accident involving a 33 year-old Indian national occurred in Little India, a place frequented by foreign workers. This sparked off a riot concerning some 400 people, with a total of 18 casualties. A few vehicles - including police cars and an ambulance - were overturned or set afire.

It has been more than four decades since Singapore experienced an unrest of such magnitude. Police have classified this incident as "rioting with dangerous weapons".

Some vehicles were set on fire. Source credit: Channel News Asia

In this grave period, it is important to stay composed and not spout inflammatory comments in the cyber world. There are people making comments based on the skin colours, places of origins and wage-classes of these foreigners. These comments are uncalled for and the commentators are tacit in stirring up unrest, which others have been actively trying to restore. 

This issue has the potential to be extremely divisive. It involves controversial factors and people, including deaths, entropy, foreigners, drunkards, low-wage workers, repercussions of globalisation and hateful online comments.

The many parties involved will seek to stake their narratives and counter-narratives. The dominant political force may see the online outrage - some decidedly racist and xenophobic - as potential evidence for a greater need to curtail internet freedoms.

Other parties may view this as the inevitable result of poor infrastructure planning, inapt immigration policies and suppression of low-wage workers in Singapore - issues that have been tinder waiting to catch fire.

In the coming days and weeks, the various perspectives need to be rationally examined, without resorting to name-calling, game-blaming and stereotyping. It is critical to discuss these issues; it is just as critical to discuss them in a sensible manner.

As the damage from this unrest is tallied and various parties seek to establish a dominant discourse, we should remain calm, think carefully and pause responsibly for a minute or two before sharing our comments online. It is how we react to this unexpected incident that will reveal the strength - or lack thereof - in our society.

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UOB POY 2013 Results

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The UOB Painting of the Year is one of the most prestigious visual art prizes in South East Asia.

As usual, the top winning paintings generated much debate and controversy.

For this review, I'll look at some of these artworks and attempt to understand their aesthetic merits.

Pieces I particularly enjoyed

Silver Award (Established Artist Category, Singapore)
Gazing ""
Oil on Canvas
by Tan Rui Rong

Instead of climbing real mountains and appreciating the wonders of Nature, this child is looking forlornly at the Chinese character for mountain. This is an incisive commentary on the mountainous load of homework that children have to face.

Look at the bag he's carrying!

 Silver Award Winner (Emerging Artist Category, Singapore)
Silent Life
Oil on Canvas (Triptych)
by Ong Xin Hong

There are incredible textures, with a skillful depth to them. I like how the disparate pieces - although drawn from different pieces of leaves - form a wriggling insect when conjoined as a triptych.

Absolutely amazing tones, with a mild tint of yellow and violet.

Bronze Award (Emerging Artist Category, Singapore)
Strength
Oil on Canvas
by Ang Cheng Hui

It is often the case that a hyper-realistic work lacks a dynamic tension, appearing controlled and not conveying much motion. This painting is a great antithesis, with its wondrous blend of realism and energy.


Pieces I can't really appreciate

2013 UOB Painting of the Year (Winner, Singapore)
Space Odyssey
Acrylic on Canvas
by Stefanie Hauger

This grand prize winner has been described this as "a piece I really don't think much of", without "much composition" and with an "unexciting palette of colours".

I can see it as a nice, pretty piece hanging in someone's office but I'm not sure the extent to which it has stretched the boundaries of art, be it in terms of techniques or themes.


  Gold Award Winner (Emerging Artist, Singapore)
O$P$
Mixed Media on Canvas
by Lim Wan Ying

Apparently, there is colloquial humour in this very much reduced abstract painting. I'd imagine the artist to be very pleased to receive a large sum of money for what appears to require minimal effort.


Pieces that don't evoke strong emotions

2013 Most Promising Artist of the Year (Singapore)
The Transcendence of Life
Oil on Canvas
by Lim Quan Zhao

 
 2013 UOB Painting of the Year (Winner, Malaysia)
Old Man
Oil on Canvas
by Gan Tee Sheng


2013 UOB Painting of the Year (Winner, Indonesia)
Indonesian Artist's Studio
Oil on Canvas
Suroso Isur


 Gold Award Winner (Established Artist Category)
Digital Vertigo
Mixed Media on Canvas
Lester Lee Ngai Sing


UOB Painting of the Year (Winner, Thailand)
Hope on the Ruins No. 3
Acrylic Painting
by Aphiphol Techamangkhalanon


Bronze Award (Established Artist, Singapore)
Enshrouded in Myopia
Oil on Linen
Hannah Tan Cheng Hoon

 
Note

This year's exhibition was held at the 72-13 gallery, a fairly isolated space along the Singapore River. My friend and I took about 30 minutes to find it.

This venue was a departure from the usual ones at the Singapore Art Museum and Esplanade by The Bays. Its rather inconvenient location may account for the conspicuous lack of onlookers.

There are a few nice pieces on display but it might be more worth your while to go for the ongoing Singapore Biennale instead.

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The Heartless Crane

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Once upon a time, there lived an oyster. It was a fortress of youth, how green and blue, and violet, with a galaxy of glimmers on its obsidian shield.

Humming and humming, it snacked on shit that tumbled along the riverbed. (At times, shit is food; at times, food is shit. The oyster wasn't a fussy eater.)

A crane sneaked in, lustily kissing the oyster with its sunset orange beak. But the shellfish was shy, its first time being pursued, and with such passion too!

We all know that inter-species love is forbidden. Nothing good can ever come out of it. But the oyster didn't know this.

It lowered its guard, loosening its shell to smooch the crane in turn.

The bird saw the oyster’s heart, was disgusted it wasn’t red. So it pecked and swallowed that instead.

It is impossible to defend against bestial tendencies.


Source credit: Google

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