June 28, 2017


by Felix Cheong

IT’S not certain, yet,

you’re today whom you thought

you would be, yesterday.


You’re cursed not to see

your own clockface, if it slows

to a growl, quickens as mercury;


a month, a year, or maybe never,

between understanding means

and ends, what the end must mean


when what you held as beautiful

that once, like a mimosa to sun,

collapses, your touch.


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You’re what you’re as

capable of loving as losing,

beginning as destroying.


Oh, the years, yearning, learning.

How it takes time

to know time.


This poem was first published in Sudden in Youth: New and Selected Poems (2009).


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by Felix Cheong


ALL her life she knew

Anything brand new

Was all but her cue

One of the first few


Five-day sale was due

Took time off in lieu

Packed bag and pork stew

Book by Lee Kuan Yew


Three days in the hew

No bath, sleep or chew

Smelled like last week’s brew

Face became grey hue


One day before phew

Line abruptly skewed

Tempers flared and grew

Fists and chairs just flew


Down came men in blue

Hard on whistles blew

Fighters stopped in queue

Found a girl was slewed


Out of mouth she spewed

Blood and some char siew

Dead as slaughtered ewe

Cold as morning dew


Up there, on schedule

Heaven in neat pews

Queued up like her due

One of the first few


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by Felix Cheong

IT WAS not that school principal Penny Lay did not like entertaining questions from expat parents. She did, however reluctantly. But, truth be told, she did not see why parents could not ask obvious questions that took no time to prepare and little effort to answer.

Take, for example, this young British couple, Mr and Mrs Roach, doing a tour of her childcare centre. For a start, they could at least get her name right.

“My name is not Ms ‘Cher,” she said crossly but with a big smile, although that was what the kids called her. “It is Penny Lay.”

“Oh, like that Beatles song!” Mr Roach said, laughing.

Penny winced. She was not xenophobic. After all, she grew up reading Enid Blyton. But foreign talents were so dense. She tolerated them only because they brought in the big money. Ten thousand dollars for a place in the waiting list and not an eyebrow raised. Three thousand dollars a month in fees and not a letter to the papers. It was easier than robbing the Standard Chartered bank at Holland Village.

“What are the children doing there?” Mrs Roach asked, pointing. Out in the garden where the afternoon sun shone its brightest, 10 children stood in a single file behind a toy kitchen.

“Life lesson number one,” Penny said, nodding.

“Life lesson?”

Penny opened up the file under her arm. It was full of newspaper clippings of Singaporeans queuing up for this, for that. From being first in line at the opening of Muji, to H & M sales, from the latest gadget release to the Hello Kitty café, it provided the composite picture of a nation that loved toeing the line.

“We equip our kids with survival skills,” Penny said. “You need to know the etiquette of queuing in Singapore.”

The Roaches could only nod in amazement.

At the far end of the garden, they saw another 10 children shouldering what looked like sandbags, up and down the garden. A few of them, no more than three years old, staggered under the weight.

“Another life lesson?” Mrs Roach asked, alarmed. In her mind, she had already packed up her bags for home. Despite its First World status, this country seemed altogether Third World.

“To prepare them for school,” Penny said. “Have you seen the load of books primary school kids have to carry to school?”

As they continued their tour of the childcare centre, they came to a room where 10 children laughed gaily playing musical chairs. There was some amount of pushing and shoving when the music stopped. A few kids who couldn’t get a seat had to step aside, dejected.

The Roaches’ hearts leaped. Here, at least, they looked like they were enjoying their childhood. They could be themselves.

“Ah, they’re having some fun at last!” Mr Roach said.

“No, this is a life lesson too,” Penny said.

“Life lesson, again?”

Penny smiled, almost painfully. “You should take our public transport some time.”



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Feature image by Sean Chong

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By Felix Cheong

AS SOON as Rex Tan understood the idea of colours, he was told not to apply it.

“White car!” he called out in childish naivety as an Audi dragged its expensive COE by noisily outside his window.

Mrs KS Tan quickly shushed him. “No, Rex. Just say ‘car’. It’s not yellow, brown, black or white. Just a car.”

The poor boy was utterly confused. And no wonder. When he was younger, he remembered her making him learn that apple was red and the sky was blue. The flag was red and white and money, like envy, was green.

But now, he was made to unlearn all that. And he was not told why. Worse, he could not even ask questions.

As his vocabulary expanded, Rex’s mind made a habit of stripping nouns of their colours. All objects were either of the same colour or colourless. All people were either of the same colour or colourless.

There were no yellow people, black people or brown people. Just people.

“Look at that girl!” he said.

“Which one?” Mrs KS Tan said.

“The one wearing a blouse, with two eyes and a nose.”

Indeed, that girl in the crowd, among hundreds, did wear a blouse, had two eyes and a nose.

By the time Rex left kindergarten, he was well and truly colour-blind.

Throughout primary one, Rex watched as older students who talked about colours were publicly caned.

“There is no such thing as colour! You cannot discriminate one colour against another!” Mrs Hong, the school principal, in her righteousness, yelled. The commando-trained hand of the discipline master, Mr OB, took another lash at a student who had drawn black graffiti on the toilet wall.

Repeat offenders were suspended or expelled; others had to spend the whole term wearing a gag. Before long, the gagged became a gang; the gang soon turned into an underground movement. And the movement took on a voice.

On the last day of school that year, a week after the PSLE, Rex arrived in school to find all the walls spray-painted yellow, black, brown and white. The colours swirled in patterns he had never seen before, coming together in waves that brought dance to the walls.

“That is pretty!” he thought.

But like all good citizens raised by parents who inherited and passed down their silence, he kept quiet and carried on.


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By Felix Cheong


“WE NEED more MRT station announcements in Chinese,” Jun Liang said loudly. His voice had never recovered its quietude after being the National Day Parade commander many years ago.

The Community Integration Committee, seated like empty coffee cups, were in various degrees of absorption in their smart phones. It had convened, at the behest of the Prime Minister, after several elderly Chinese people were reported missing inside MRT trains.

“My mother was lost, lost, lost for six hours last Tuesday until we made, made, made a police report,” Jiayi said. Her colleagues had noticed her speech pattern had not been the same since she took up Candy Crush. She had a habit now of repeating words in multiples of three’s. But they were, of course, too Singaporean to point out the obvious.

“Where did they find her?” Krishnan asked.

“In Johor. Shopping.”

“But what about the non-Chinese?” Aisah asked.

“They can take a taxi to Johor!” Ai Leng exclaimed helpfully, her eyes bright like K-pop stars. Her colleagues secretly believed that if the exclamation mark had never been invented, she would be rendered speechless.

“I mean, the non-Chinese will not understand the Chinese announcements,” Aisah said.

“Good point. We have to be fair to everyone,” Jun Liang said thoughtfully and paused dramatically.

“So we will run Chinese classes for non-Chinese,” he said finally.

“And why should they want to learn Chinese?” Krishnan said, annoyed.

“Because they could then communicate with the other 74 percent of the country.”


“We should invite non-Chinese performers for the countdown show,” Jun Liang wrote on the white board. Years of turning his voice to blast level had finally done him in. His vocal cords were permanently damaged.

At the behest of the national broadcaster, the Community Integration Committee had convened. After the last meeting, Aisah and Krishnan had resigned, citing irreconcilable differences, and were replaced by Aisha and Krishna.

“Why do we need, need, need non-Chinese performers?” Jiayi said, without looking up from her smart phone. Suddenly, she sensed Ai Leng’s exclamation marks sucking the air out of the awkward silence.


All eyes took turns digging into Jiayi to excavate some common sense out of her.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” she finally said, putting down her phone. “No more Candy Crush during meetings.”

Aisha and Krishna rolled their eyes.

Jun Liang quickly took charge, listing, in two columns on the white board, well-known Chinese and non-Chinese performers. After some mental sums, he managed to balance the CIMO quota, using the HDB racial quota as a guide.

Everyone nodded. It seemed equitable, considering the talent pool on a small island was small, even at high tide.

“We will end the show with the countdown in Chinese,” Jun Liang wrote.

“But this is the New Year countdown, not the Lunar New Year countdown, right?” Aisha said, annoyed.

Ai Leng shrugged. “Is there a difference!”


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by Felix Cheong

Mr OB’s Marker I

NO ONE ever found out what the OB in his name stood for. Some said obiang; others claimed it was short for ‘obey’. Whatever the urban legend, all the students needed to know was if Mr OB stood in front of you, you were done for.

Mr OB was the discipline master of Joo Chiat Primary School, currently occupying the premises of Bedok South Seaview Primary School which, in turn, had moved to Serangoon No-Seaview Primary School which, in turn, took over Joo Chiat Primary School. This musical-chair routine was generally viewed as a great showcase of social mobility.

The moment Rex Tan saw Mr OB on the first day of school, he was petrified. Though short and stout, Mr OB was packed solid with muscles. Even dust particles would bounce off him. For a man nearing 55, he still held himself ramrod straight, stomach in, chest out, always at attention. No wonder Mrs Hong, the school’s principal, had once described him as “one of the pillars of our school”. He was that strong.

Looking like an airborne ranger (which he was, in his younger days) wasn’t itself intimidating. Neither was it his voice that could startle babies all the way in Jurong East. It was the arbitrary way he wielded school rules.

One day, the girls could wear their hair long, tied neatly in a ponytail. The next, he would holler at them to trim it before he did it himself. One day, he would let the boys kick a plastic ball around in the field during recess. The next, he confiscated the ball, refusing to return it until a parent lodged a police report.

By far the most lethal weapon in Mr OB’s already formidable arsenal was a marker pen. It was so feared that even primary six boys, almost passing puberty with flying colours, retreated into childhood.

“Boo Lee!” he called out one morning along the corridor. Boo Lee was the primary five prefect who saw himself as a Mini-Me version of Mr OB. Rex, on his way to the toilet, watched the scene in awe from behind a wall.

“Yes?” Boo Lee said, swaggering towards him. He fancied himself due for a compliment, especially after he had just caught two latecomers climbing the school gate. Mr OB came within spitting distance. He smelled like the jungle, all wild and creepy.

“Where’s your prefect tie!” Mr OB said. Being in the army most of his life had marched all punctuation from his language.

“I left my tie at home,” Boo Lee said.

“I left my tie at home, Sir!” Mr OB barked.

“I left my tie at home, Sir!” Boo Lee repeated.

“Where’s your school badge!” Mr OB barked.

“I left my school badge at home, Sir!”

“What did you not leave at home!” Mr OB barked again.

“My mobile phone, Sir!”

“Give me your phone!”

Boo Lee dutifully handed it over. What was Mr OB up to?

“Your phone is black!” Mr OB barked.


“All mobile phones must be white. White socks, white shoes, white uniform!”

Boo Lee looked startled – he had not heard of such a rule.

“You know the importance of white!” Mr OB continued barking.

“I don’t know, Sir!”

“White shows up dirt. Anything not white is not clean!”

For the rest of the day, Boo Lee wore a mark on his forehead. His classmates, who had never liked the cocky bully, had a field day sniggering at him. He could not touch the mark or wash it off till the end of the day.

Made with a marker, it simply said, “OB.”


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by Felix Cheong

“WHAT do you mean, out of stock?” Jessica Poon almost screamed at the salesgirl.

It was not normally her scene to make a scene. But she only had two more months and she had already tired her soles out by trudging the length and breadth of town. This bookstore, of all bookstores, should carry it. It was the only reason why it was popular.

“Ma’am, we sold our last copy of Math 10-year series yesterday,” said the salesgirl matter-of-factly, so deadpan she could have survived a zombie apocalypse as one of them.

Jessica was understandably ballistic. She had already bought the 10-year series for – in alphabetical order – Biology, Chemistry, Chinese, Economics, General Paper, Literature and Physics. For good measure, she had even collected the Malay language papers – just in case.

“To be prepared is to be well-prepared,” her late father had once drummed into her. “Always remember to have enough reserves – just in case.”

As a scenario planner in the Government, Mr Poon had long inculcated in his children the virtues of stockpiling for a rainy day. He himself was a living example of this mantra. When, at 45, he died of a heart attack – sudden but not altogether unexpected – he had already amassed more than 20 insurance policies, and policies that covered other policies. By then, he had already had two coffins custom-made: one if his height remained the same and the other, if he suffered from osteoporosis. Just in case. He even had five suitors lined up for his widow. Just in case.

Of his four children, Jessica was the only one who took after him. As a toddler, she would squirrel away toys and cartons of milk all over the house. Just in case. As a teenager, she would have double of everything, even her pink IC. Just in case.

As Jessica sat herself down at the nearest coffee shop, catching her breath, she felt a kick in her belly. Fondling her baby bump, she leaned in and whispered.

“Don’t worry, Joshua. Mummy will get you your Math 10-year series. Everything will be ready when you come out.”

Joshua must have been placated, for he gave her a second kick – just in case she had not felt the first.


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by Felix Cheong

GENERAL Lee’s men see his three stars

But can’t make out his battle scars.

“Sir, on what petrol, in what car

Did you take to travel this far?


Did you force Syria out of Qatar?

Did your bare hands kill a jaguar?

Did you fly our flag up on Mars?

Did you and great Godzilla spar?”


General Lee pauses to speak

As colour drains out from his cheeks.

He had earned his stars being a geek,

Tested at exam halls each week.


How to show his men he is more

Than paper strategist at his core?

Nations at peace don’t spring for war

Unless war dogs run to their door.


He must sing loud the song of zeal,

He must bring his men to their heels.

He must look like the real big deal,

He must talk of war in his spiel.


“War is coming, beyond those hills.

Prepare yourselves for the big kill!

This is no game, this is no drill.

Let your blood for your country spill!”


Every father, son and nephew

Turn up for battle as their due.

They clean their old boots of mildew,

They gear up to meet their old crew.


“Sir, who’s this enemy we seek?

We will not rest till their defeat.

We will send them home in white sheets,

We will lay our lives for this feat.”


General Lee’s heart leaps six feet

To see such numbers in the street,

To see them turn fearless from meek,

To see them trust his stars complete.


“This is no war fought with torpedoes,”

General Lee says on his toes.

“We are at war with mosquitoes,

These Ninja Zika-carrying foes!”


To a man, they all shout, “Aiyah!

This is not a war at all lah!

I could’ve spent more time with Ma,

Needed and kneaded at the spa.”


After they leave, General Lee

Feels the great weight of the Empty.

His years of university

Add up to naught in the army.


“War is nigh!” again he cries,

“We are now outflanked from all sides.

Prepare yourselves for the bomb dives.

Rise, for your country you must die!”


Every nephew, father and son

Turn up in sweat under the sun.

They have barely had a stiff one,

They have barely kept their big guns.


“Sir, who’s this enemy we fight?

We will not let them see the night.

We will scare them into such fright

They can’t tell their left from their right.”


“This war can’t be settled by treaties,”

General Lee says with eyes misty.

“We are at war with diabetes,

With sugar, white rice and sweeties!”


To a man, they all scream, “Aiyoh!

You can’t call this a war, bodoh!

I could’ve practised my yo-yo

Swinging between wife and Miho!”


After they depart, the general,

Like attending his own funeral,

Readies his career for burial,

His stars reduced to mineral.


“No, I’ll not go without a howl!”

Again he cries: “War is here now!

We are being run down by its plough.

Rise up to this enemy foul!”


Every son, nephew and father

Has lost ears to the hereafter.

A country at peace has no matter

More urgent than cafe chatter.


In the horizon, tanks roll in,

Flags of the enemy flying.

Soldiers in battle gear sweeping

Lands cheap and easy for their taking.


“War is here! War is here! It’s true!”

General Lee cries till he’s blue.

“I lied before but now I’m through!

Take up arms now or we’ll be screwed!”


No one hears his third alarm raised,

No one sees the need to be fazed.

Not when “war” is bandied like a craze

To call any kind of malaise.


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by Felix Cheong

HEADMASTER Lee looks at his school.

“Too many pupils who are fools!

Too many pupils who are stools!

I do not think this at all cool.”


My school is new but rich.

My school is small but pitched.

Pupils must reserve their niche.

Pupils must deserve their smitch.


My school is not for everyone

My school is not the sun.

It does not shine on every son.

It does not shine for underdone.


I will make entry hard and nigh.

I will make it whiter than sky.

I will make sure you fly so high.

I do not have to ask you why.


So Headmaster Lee makes a door.

On second thought, he makes four.

Each is part of a greater more,

Each smaller than the one before.


To the pupils still in line,

He says in a voice refined:

“To enter, you dress to the nines

And open these doors of mine.”


The pupils do not like what they see.

They think this game rather silly.

“Since we pay and pay school fees,

Why can I not enter freely?”


Headmaster Lee shakes his head

Till it turns remarkably red.

“I will not repeat what I have said.

Follow or get out instead.”


So half the pupils leave the queue,

Knowing they do not meet the due.

Half of half take this as a cue.

To cheer the remaining few.


Six pupils make it past Door One,

Laughing like they had already won.

But Door Two puts one on the run.

People say he is the son of a gun.


Five pupils try for Door Three,

Holding their breath and some pee.

One leaks shamefully and flees:

“I cannot take this, no siree!”


Everyone waits for the last round,

The smallest door to be found.

Only four are left on the ground.

Only four are right and sound.


After too much push and cleave,

One squeezes through with a great heave.

The rest pack up their pet peeves

Reluctantly as they leave.


Before The Pupil gets the “Aye”,

A few people in the crowd cry:

“But he is not whiter than sky!

He is of the wrong colour dye!”


He does wear a tan to some degree,

Headmaster Lee has to agree.

The rules must not be bent to a tee

Just because he is Headmaster Lee.


So Headmaster Lee adds another door,

To those already done before.

He keeps adding doors galore

Till no pupil comes to the fore.


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OUR columnist Felix Cheong, the wisecracking mouth behind And on Saturday and Cheongster Café, will launch his 11th book today (Aug 26), titled Singapore Siu Dai 3: The SG Conversation Dabao. The first two volumes of the series were published in 2014 and have already sold in excess of 3,000 copies, receiving praise from well-known humorists like Neil Humphreys, Colin Goh, Benjamin “Mr Miyagi” Lee and Moe Alkaff.

The third book ($13.91 with GST – you can’t deny the taxman his dues) will be available at bookstores like Kinokuniya and MPH. You can also support this starving writer by buying the box set of all three volumes ($42.80 with GST).

Here, Felix talks about the trigger behind the Singapore Siu Dai series:

Why the title Singapore Siu Dai?

Any kopi addict worth his weight in sugar knows siu dai means “less sugar” in coffeeshop lingo. The stories thus portray a Singapore that is not dripping with the “Look, honey!” sweetness put up by the Singapore Tourism Board. The subtitle, SG Conversation, is also a send-up of the talkfest from a couple of years ago (to which I was curiously not invited!). It’s my 50-cent contribution, as a writer, to nation-building.

Why are all the stories so short?

Because they’re meant for people with a short-attention span! The stories are written in a genre called flash fiction, sometimes called postcard fiction. Short, short stories that can run from just a few paragraphs to a couple of pages. It’s good enough a read on the train between stops.

You had previously published poetry and fiction. So how did you get into writing humour?

You have to blame Facebook and the haze. It was June 2014 and, thanks to friendly fire from an unfriendly neighbour, Singapore was shrouded in its worst haze. Everyone and his dog could see the disparity between the official PSI reading and what we experienced with our own nose.

Instead of posting a rant on Facebook, I made fun of the situation in a short, short story posted as my status update. Something clicked into place and before long, I was polluting Facebook with these story posts, day after day, often written on the bus ride to work and taking on themes as varied as Singaporeans’ obsession with Hello Kitty and our genetically-codified kiasu-ism.

Writing humour was also a new toy for me as a writer. It helped me exercise (exorcise?) parts of my brain I don’t often use. It’s an art in itself.

You joke about some pretty serious things, from population policies to defamation suits. Is there a “serious” message behind the Siu Dai series?

Any satirist worth his salt knows laughter is the best way to lessen the pain of having salt rubbed into your wounds. After the laughter dies, you suddenly realise just how much the sting hurts.

That’s what I wanted to achieve with the Siu Dai series. To get readers to wake up to who we are – really – as a people, why are we the way we are and who do we want to become.

What are some new areas that you touch in Siu Dai 3?

Some of the stories poke fun at the GE2015. (I’m an equal-opportunity satirist and I spoofed both the ruling and opposition parties.) Others took a long, hard look at our national hang-ups with elitism and exams (you can’t dissociate one from the other).

What was your favourite part about creating this book?

The strangest (and by extension, my favourite) part was how these characters assume a life of their own. For instance, the three bumbling wannabe terrorists in a sequence called “Three Terrorists in a Tub”. They were inside my head for a good week, squabbling!

What were some difficulties faced?

The main difficulty was two-fold. Because the stories were often inspired by topical issues, I had to fully realise the stories as stories in their own right, without hoping that readers could recall the issues.

The other difficulty was being able to suggest political follies without landing myself at the wrong end of a defamation suit. The jabs had to be clear and the sucker punch landing just hard enough not to bruise anyone.

Is there a personal favourite of yours in Siu Dai 3?

That’s my favourite most hated question. It’s like asking me, which of my children I’d rather shoot first? All the stories are my favourites. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have let them out into the world in the first place!



Felix Cheong, 51, the recepient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award (Literature) in 2000, has written 11 books, including four volumes of poetry and two young adult novels. Currently an adjunct lecturer with Murdoch University and University of Newcastle, he holds a masters in creative writing.

Featured image by Felix Cheong. 

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