2013 Reflections

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.


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.


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.


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.