April 29, 2017

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by Felix Cheong

THE moment the studio lights came on and the current affairs programme was back on air after a two-minute ad break, the three panellists scrambled to adjust their clothes and props. No one wanted to be caught on national television without their government-enforced muzzles. It was just not the “Singapore way”.

“Welcome back!” host Steven Lee announced brightly to the camera, though his voice wasn’t so clear through his muzzle. If you closed your eyes, you could just about imagine the super-villain Bane with a bad case of the sniffles.

To follow the flow of the discussion, you would have to rely on government-issued subtitles on the screen. There was no way you could lip-read, what with the speakers’ muzzles worn tight over their mouths.

Nonchalantly, Lee picked up one of the six Hello Kitty collectibles lined up like terracotta warriors on the table in front of him. The camera zoomed in for a close-up. They looked made-in-China, disposable-cheap but had, in fact, taken the production team a few months – and something like a small fortune – to acquire on eBay.

“If you’ve just joined us, our topic today: Why are Singaporeans perennially obsessed with this cat with no mouth?” Lee – or rather, his subtitles – continued as he turned to the guest on his right.

“You see,” said the academic with the big eyes, made bigger by her concave glasses, her voice also barely audible through her muzzle, “for the voiceless, this Hello Kitty cat defines us as a society. One people, one nation and no mouth. We’re reflected in it, by it, through it and with it…”

“That’s rubbish!” the MP sitting next to her cut in. Trained as he was in public speaking through the muzzle, his voice naturally boomed across the studio. Every word was governmentally enunciated and nagging-clear.

“Are you suggesting we suppress dissent? No one on this island has ever been put down or put out because of what he believes in.”

A wave of applause, nods of approval, erupted from the studio audience, every one of them a devotee of Hello Kitty.

The MP, now in the full stride of his rhetoric, clapped in unison. “Right or not?” he asked the audience rhetorically.

Another wave of applause followed. The silent majority had spoken. It was loud and muffled-clear.

 

Featured image by Guet Ghee Pang.

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By Felix Cheong

I.

WE CAN’T have Lord of the Rings in Singapore but we can have Lord of something else.
– President Tony Tan Keng Yam

Let us be a country of something else,
Roll a dice, that’s the number.
No big deal in anything particular,
And please, nothing peculiar.

We must be firm about this flimsy aim,
Not afraid of what we can’t name,
To overachieve that which whenever,
Goes the distance to wherever.

After fifty-one years, this is as clear as it gets,
The power of always not yet,
The same reasons of being too young,
Too slow or too quick up the rung.

So set the bureaucrats down to paper,
Let their starched minds scratch and wonder
How a small nation can lord it over,
If nothing else, excel in whatever.

II.

No, the story of a society is not in the luxury
It can afford or the things of finery.
Clothes maketh a man but do not drape a city.
Skyscrapers are no substitute for a country.

Look instead to our artists, writers, filmmakers,
Architects, designers, animators,
Musicians, singers, songwriters,
Gamers, athletes and mountaineers.

By their talent, on their own steam,
They find a way to weave the Singapore Dream
Into a narrative primed for the mainstream,
About our aspirations and what it all means.

It is about the wick of soul, lit into poetry,
The glow of our being and our possibilities,
Who we will grow into when our collective memory
Leads us into the next turn of our history.

 

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by Felix Cheong

FIFTEEN years after the new PSLE scoring system had been tested, tried and tired out, it had not passed with flying colours. There was still no equitable way to measure merit without mangling meritocracy. Parents still haggled over points like bargains at a pasar malam. Letters were fired off to the press, the Prime Minister’s press secretary and the secretary of the press secretary.

Someone suggested height to separate students of equal ability. But it turned out to favour those from the upper middle-class who, of course, had better nutrition and were naturally taller. Others thought of allocating places in secondary schools alphabetically according to surname. But that meant schools like Raffles Institution and Raffles Girls School had low enrolment, for few citizens had surnames beginning with an R.

It was then the G decided a high EQ score was testable in the PSLE, a prerequisite for scholarships and a free pass into the civil service. Overnight, if not sooner, a cottage industry boomed and bloomed.

First came classes in makeshift shops.

“Equal to any IQ Test!” touted flyers from one enrichment centre, located in a mall barely detected by Google Maps. It boasted it would teach students memorisation skills in four areas in EQ, quaintly reduced to an acronym, ECKO: Empathy, Courtesy, Kindness and Obedience.

Before long, cheat sheets were available in the market, before the police uncovered it as a scam originating from China. Ex- and axed teachers huddled together to work out workbooks. There were simple exercises involving helping a person take his own selfie and letting a family member Instagram the dinner dishes before you tuck in.

But other questions were mind-benders. One such question ran the rounds of Facebook, leading to complaints that the EQ test was too hard: “Who would you offer your seat to if these four people board the train at the same time? 1. An old woman 2. An old man 3. A pregnant old woman 4. The Prime Minister.”

The worst part was, like Literature, which many students had dropped for the clarity of Math and Science subjects, there were no right or wrong answers. This was frustrating because surely, there was a right way to be kind and a wrong way to be courteous? And why, argued the opposition, was obedience even part of EQ?

It was obvious to anyone with eyes that everyone who had jumped into it blind was making a killing. It didn’t help that the Minister of Educated Guesses had remained coy about specifics. “You don’t have to study for it,” he said. “But don’t quote me on that.”

The rest of the population, though, didn’t take kindly to his evasiveness. Almost to a parent, they ranted on social media, at social gatherings and on social media during social gatherings.

“How can my son improve his EQ if he doesn’t know what’s being tested?” one mother posted on kiasuparents.com. Her comment drew two million ‘likes’, even all the way from Siberia. In the same forum, another mother exclaimed: “We’re migrating to Australia!” By the end of the month, close to 1,000 people renounced their citizenship.

The brain drain was so dire the Minister of Educated Guesses had to finally call for a press conference.

“It was a typo error,” he said. “It was always intended to be an IQ test, not EQ. The officer concerned has since been taken off duty.”

With that, the Minister announced his resignation. There was a collective sigh of relief. The familiar sound of frantic mugging returned to the country, as parents across the island quickly signed their children up for IQ tests.

 

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by Felix Cheong

IT’S no offence under the Official Secrets Act to reveal that generals in Singapore have it good. Talent-spotted early, time-tested in the field, fast-marched to important positions. And then, of course, rappelled into politics or business.

Take your pick: From Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Acting Education Minister Ng Chee Meng; from SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek to former NOL CEO Ng Yat Chung.

It’s a uniquely Singapore manoeuvre to maximise the small talent pool before the sun dries it out. Here are a few terms I’ve coined to describe this phenomenon.

General interest:

When the civil service mistakes your mugger demeanour for the aloof look of a general and expresses interest in awarding you a one-way ticket to the good life.

Sweeping generalisation:

When three or more colonels, including yourself, are promoted at the same time.

General public:

When you show your face (and your stars) in public once a year on SAF Day or during the National Day Parade.

General mood:

When people wonder aloud why a small country with a largely civilian army has more soldiers pinned with stars than chefs in a Michelin Guide.

General paper:

When the edict comes from upstairs of upstairs, telling you it’s time to put on your jogging shoes and run for elections.

General elections:

When you finally realise why you can’t simply win civilians over just by barking a few orders.

General assembly:

When you and your GRC teammates pose for a group photo for the press and you make sure to step, ever so gently, on the anchor minister’s coattail so he doesn’t need to launder it.

In general:

When you are the flavour of the month with the people and get wefie-ed left, right and under someone’s armpit.

Generally speaking:

When your mouth still hasn’t been extricated from army lingo and still blurts out words like ‘outflank’ and ‘kee chiu.

General knowledge:

When you know, and we know that you know, and you know that we know, what your salary is before and after leaving the army.

General terms:

The three to five terms of political office you need to serve before slow-marching into a corporate sunset.

General practitioner:

When you finally land a high-ranking position in a government-linked company and hentak kaki (marking time) there till retirement.

 

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by Felix Cheong

EACH time Mr Pioneer Goh tried to treat his wife to a good (read: expensive) dinner, she would wave it off as “no need” or “food go into stomach, all the same”. Or she might say, “So old, eat so well for what? I can’t bring it to heaven.” She refused to be pampered, come hell or birthday, anniversary be damned.

But for her 66th birthday, Mr Goh insisted on bringing her to an angmoh restaurant in town. One with a name that had more vowels than consonants and “recommended by an angmoh woman called Michelle some more”, he had proudly told her.

After all, “Michelle” was one of his favourite Beatles song. But it turned out to be an “alas” rather than atas affair.

First, there was nothing in the menu she could understand. All the food items had long names running into three lines, with every ingredient listed like her ‘O’ Level result slip. It wasn’t at all like what she knew at the zi char stall downstairs, where “fried rice” was just “fried rice” and not “Asian rice fried golden brown, with homemade diced roast pork and fresh Indonesian shrimps, topped with Malaysian shallots and spring onion”. Even saying that made her reach for another sip of water.

With the waitress hovering around like a fly – she must be Michelle – Mrs Goh looked to her husband for help. He was also busy not understanding the menu.

Five minutes was all it took for them to walk out. They trudged the length, breadth and height of the shopping centre, checking out every foreign restaurant till they came across one with a menu they could at least make sense of and, more importantly, pronounce without losing face.

They found it at last.

“From America leh!” Mrs Goh proudly exclaimed, even allowing her husband to snap a photo of her licking her fingers.

Mr Goh beamed, pleased with the birthday treat as they tucked into two KFC drumsticks each.

 

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by Felix Cheong

BUREAUCRATESE is back in vogue! Jargon like “safety-critical” and “right-price” have surfaced recently in civil servant-speak. And to think the G says Singlish is incomprehensible?

Here’s my follow-up to civil servant gobbledygook. You can read my first list of made-up words here.

 

1. Paradigm misalignment:

A gap in perception between ruler and ruled. Like when the G complains the electorate doesn’t think enough about the country’s future, while all the people want to know is why there are so many useless, sponsored freebies in NDP fun packs.

2. Near-miss poverty line:

The people who perpetually hover 1cm above the poverty line because the G keeps erasing it and proclaiming, “No such line exists!”

3. Bread-and-butter sandwich:

The sandwich class which knows exactly which side of its G-issued bread is buttered on.

4. Voting-appropriate upgrading:

HDB upgrading pro-rated to a precinct’s support for the ruling party. For instance, if 60 per cent of a 10-storey block is pro-PAP, then the lifts will be upgraded only up to the sixth floor.

5. Romance-challenged move:

MPs who can’t keep a lid on their extramarital libido and are thus resigned to their fate.

6. Fresh-faced question:

Eager-beaver first question posed by new MPs in Parliament, designed to impress the TV camera.

7. Statistic-induced rest:

That moment on a hot afternoon in Parliament when MPs are caught texting or catnapping.

8. Spirit presence:

MPs who absent themselves from Parliament and say, hand-to-heart: “I was there in spirit.”

9. Yay-enabled MP:

MPs who make a habit of supporting every bill in the House – even the lunch bill.

10. Grassroots-grooming:

Potential MPs who hit the ground running like a lawnmower, making a big noise about their grassroots experience which began a week before Nomination Day.

11. Rich-answer:

When a Minister says he has already answered questions beyond the call of duty, packed so full of stats not even a full stop escapes.

12. Mindset-deficient policy:

Whatever alternative policies put up by opposition parties. Best delivered with a snort.

13. Heat-seeking issue:

An issue that refuses to go away no matter how the G siam from it.

 

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Guet Ghee Pang

by Felix Cheong

I.

WHEN Mr KS Tan and members of his extended family were seen pushing the front wall of their bungalow in Siglap, neighbours were naturally curious. They gathered around the three-storey house in ever widening circles, pointing and gesticulating.

Despite the stares and gossip, the Tans kept at it, in wind and hail, in sun and haze, stopping only for meals and toilet breaks. Even their only child, five-year-old Rex, pulled his weight, a determined look scrunching up his cherubic face.

The Tans attracted so much attention even The Straits Times, the local paper best read with a smirk, a shrug or both, came to cover this strange family with an even stranger idea for family bonding.

“We’re moving house,” Mr KS Tan was quoted as saying, “so that Rex can get into Joo Chiat Primary School. We still have a year to move it to within 2km of the school.”

It was going to be a very long year.

II.

When, at last, the Tan family managed to heave and shove the front wall forward by 10m, the year had almost ended. They were right on schedule. Rex had just turned six. It was an exhausting time for all and a relief when they were now, officially, within 2km of Joo Chiat Primary School. They celebrated that afternoon with the longest shower in family memory.

But it was not to be. The door bell tolled.

When Mr KS Tan opened the front gate, he found, before him, a governmental-looking person. He was spare and square in the way scholars appeared after a few years keeping the system running.

“Mr KS Tan?” the governmental-looking person asked. Mr KS Tan nodded, hoping it was an official endorsement they were now, officially, within 2km of Joo Chiat Primary School.

“I’m from the Singapore Land Authority,” the governmental-looking person continued.

“I’m here to serve you notice that, under the Land Acquisition Act, we’ll take over the frontage of your house and push the wall back by 10m.

 

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by Felix Cheong

HISTORY books would record that once Europe started breaking up into smaller and smaller republics, like a poor mother of ten rationing a small slab of meat over a year, it was a matter of time before the Singapore Government allowed residents of Sentosa Cove (Sentosians, as they liked to call themselves) to erect a six-storey high barricade around their enclave.

“This is to protect our children from Singlish,” they had written in their petition to the Prime Minister. “After all, sir, your Government does not allow Singlish to seep insidiously into our ears and out through our mouths.

“Once our kids are infected, we no longer understand them and we have to quietly ship them off to a neighbourhood school on the mainland and later, if our busy schedule permits, put them up for adoption in an orphanage. So we need this high wall as urgently as Donald Trump needs it against the influx of Mexicans.”

The Prime Minister had to admit this was a brilliant idea and why his cabinet had not thought of it earlier.

By then, of course, Sentosa Cove had already begun churning out its own GDP numbers, separate from the rest of the country. And there was no lack of economists living there willing to do the job pro bono.

After all, the exclusive enclave supported its own ecosystem. It had clubs that had no age restrictions; it boasted condos that followed no CIMO quotas; its people spoke a clipped form of Sentosian English, complete with a resort-like accent no local could imitate. More importantly, it enjoyed more sea breeze per capita than other constituencies.

The barricade was the necessary psychological barrier Sentosians broke through (if that made sense). But the breakaway, breakthrough or breakout – pick your choice – had begun innocently enough.

“Why must we fork out so much in taxes for benefits we will never benefit from?” one Sentosian had complained at one party where the rich and elite made room for each other’s ego.

“We have our own amenities, we are our own community. We have our own hospital and even our own concert hall. We even speak differently from them. We have nothing to do with the rest of Singapore anyway.”

“Well, until one drowns and washes up on our beach!” another said, to several rounds of guffaws and back-slapping.

The rebellion gathered momentum across the room until a lawyer, named George who hailed from Washington, picked up a pen and wrote a Declaration of Independence on the back of someone else’s Ralph Lauren shirt. Four thousand signatories later, the divorce proceedings picked up pace and a stack of legal papers.

Soon, rumours of a republic within the republic became public. If Vatican City was possible in the Italian mess called Rome, so the argument went, then Sentosa Cove was certainly a certainty.

Within two years, the breakaway, breakthrough or breakout was negotiated; the treaty was signed, sealed and delivered. The buyout came to a few billion dollars and it was all paid off in cash.

On December 30 that year, Sentosa Cove was officially invited to be a member of the UN.

As expected, Singaporeans, with their inherent apathy, made lots of little noises on social media but, almost to a man, gave nothing intelligible by way of sound bites on TV. While the xenophobes rejoiced, there were pockets of resistance from opposition parties which lamented how the rich, once again, got their way and then got away. But these were, as usual, dismissed by the Government as ‘politics of envy’.

“We can always reclaim more land and build another Sentosa Cove,” the Prime Minister said in a speech at a community event.

“We don’t need quitters. We want stayers!” he proclaimed, to several rounds of applause.

The Prime Minister paused suddenly; a small commotion had begun just outside the tent. One man, dressed so smartly he must be the by-product of a Smart Nation, broke through the security barricade and came to him.

“Sir,” the man said, holding out a thick envelope marked “Petition”, “This is a petition for Bukit Timah to go independent.”

 

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by Felix Cheong

Because an island this small
Must be made to play fetch and carry balls.

Because this lion can’t be tamed,
Earns its keep as lion tamer instead.

Because we want every right to be right
And we know two rights make it our might.

Because we are stingy despite our means,
And rich beyond their dreams.

Because their envy costs nothing,
For barbs are easy to fling.

Because when we talk fast, they’ve no clue
We know words are cheaper than “Do!”.

Because a city can’t look this shiny
Without some dirt in its money.

Because the Government denies a poverty line,
So everything can’t be fine.

Because a people that works so hard
Must be robots at its heart.

Because when the Government says “press”,
Journalists know how to do the rest.

Because we hang criminals without qualms
As quietly as tides are calm.

Because freedom here is a choice
We exercise to the Government’s voice.

Because we have one party all year long,
On PAPer, that should be all wrong.

 

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by Felix Cheong

I.

Once again, Viola Lee looked hard at Esther Soo, the young woman sitting opposite her, and tried very hard not to roll her eyes. There were days like this that made her career as a matchmaker such a conversation starter at class reunions. In her mind, she filed away every detail, every word. It would be a scream.

“So, Ms Soo, your ideal man is…?”

“He must be tall. Not Yao Ming-tall. I don’t want to sniff his armpit each time I look up at him. But at least six feet. And strong, not Arnie-muscular. I don’t want to hurt my back each time we make love.”

Viola nodded, taking down notes. A giggle had already begun at the back of her throat, which she professionally choked off as a cough.

“Of course, he must also be successful and powerful. I don’t mind if he’s much older. As long as he can show me he can move the world.”

“There’re not many men like that, ” Viola said in a tone close to a sigh. “Except maybe the Prime Minister.”

“Is he on your list?”

“He’s already married, Ms. Soo.”

“Really? I can wait.”

II.

Somewhere inside Mickey Mao, Viola Lee thought, was probably Mickey Mouse squeezing its way out of a deep, dark, dank place. She looked at the burly man opposite her, built like a locally-assembled tank. He was shy to the point of being nondescript, as quiet as a monk fasting. She couldn’t imagine this secondary school teacher trying to keep in check a classroom-full of misfiring hormones.

“You have no preference for your date?” she asked again. He didn’t even meet her eyes halfway.

“No,” a small voice finally said.

“Maybe you can describe what your ideal date looks like? Like her height, build?” she asked, keeping her tone tiptoe-light.

“Ideal date,” he mumbled.

“Yes. Who do you want to go out with?”

He paused again, staring into space. Something explosive looked ready to exit the tank.

An affirmative burp later, Mickey Mao finally said, in a torrent that caught her by surprise, “About mid-thirties. Tall and slim. Long, silky hair. Sharp chin and nose. Big, brown eyes.”

Viola tried not to do a double take. For someone with decidedly no preference, this was suddenly very specific. It sounded vaguely familiar. A hazy image took shape somewhere at the back of her mind but she couldn’t be sure. Some K-pop star maybe?

“You have someone very specific in mind, Mr. Mao?” she asked.

“You.”

III.

Here was a perfect specimen. Or speci-man, Viola Lee cheekily thought. Square-jawed, broad-shouldered, pretty handsome but not pretty, prim and prime.

Timothy Toh looked like a laboratory’s distillation of good genes. He would be an easy sell. There would be an overnight queue outside her office fighting to date this banker. She might even have to hire a bouncer.

“What are your best abs, I mean, ass… Err, attributes?” Viola stuttered, her heart a-flutter, her eyelashes a-flicker. “Stop it, Viola,” she told herself. “This is terribly unprofessional!”

She leaned forward, blushing as her V-line began flowering like a Venus flytrap.

“As you pointed out, my abs and ass are probably my best attributes!” Timothy said, chuckling. If George Clooney was reborn Chinese, it would be this guy.

“He’s flirting with me!” Viola thought. She gingerly uncrossed her legs. Luckily, she had worn her short skirt today.

“But seriously, I’m patient and caring. I’m a die-hard romantic. But not so old and bald as Bruce Willis. Haha. Got it? Die hard, Bruce Willis?”

Viola’s heart suddenly missed a beat. Corny bankers were usually bad news. They would ask their dates to go Dutch and then crack some lame line about milking milkmaids.

“Got it. Anything else?” she asked, suppressing her disappointment.

“I’m also a good provider,” he said.

“A good provider?”

“That’s what my wife says.”

“You are married?”

Timothy smiled a Hollywood-megawatt smile. “Only at home.”

 

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