Lament for Laos

We call them ang mohs not just because they are merely the white men but because they are a whole package of unbridled arrogance and willful ignorance towards local dignity. Apart from the colour of my hair, the slant of my eyes and a slightly lower level of blood alcohol concentration, I have very much been an ang moh myself two days here in Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng was a village set on the idyllic Song River. Vang Vieng now is everything that is wrong with tourism. These white people jump naked into sacred pools. Crushed cans of dirt cheap Beer Lao, moonshine whisky and cigarette stubs churn in a cesspool that is the river. You could ride on an abused elephant for far cheaper than anywhere else in the world. Lao children grew up under the shadow of debauchery: they spend their days chasing after tuktuks laden with half-naked tourists; and, they spend their nights playing at the billiards table among the fog of a Malboro cloud. The Laotian cafe owners play re-runs of Friends, neither knowing what is so amusing about 6 decadent people living in an apartment, nor knowing if they’ll ever even have a taste of the standards of developed world luxury espoused therein.

A festering ankle injury from two days ago meant I had to spent my second day in the town floating down the river in an inner tyre tube with a bottle of moonshine whisky in my hand, together with R (an Aussie friend I made the night before) and alongside a dozen other ang mohs from all over the globe. Admittedly, it was guilty fun floating from bar to bar downriver.

We had a Laotian guide, he sat on the kayak, splashing us with the cold Laotian water or blasting us with techno from a huge speaker mounted before him. He’s like the goddamn guitarist from Mad Max, with all the post-apocalyptic madness. Apocalypse: it must have felt like one to the elder villagers that have seen the decline of the town over a decade. They would stand idly by the banks at makeshift bamboo bars, hawking more alcohol and chips. I see entertainment in the eyes of their children but a deflated frown in the eyes of the elderly: they have no other choice.

If one peers past the haze of drunkenness and techno, one would see an engulfing sight of sheer green-clad cliffs, blue running waters, and the lazy afternoon sunlight that wafts about. But there is no space for beauty in our intoxication. Not in my heart or in R’s despite our attempts to savour it. (Thank goodness I had yesterday to myself on the motorbike exploring the beautiful countryside.)

On the way back to town, we are bikini-clad, half-naked sardines packed into a tuktuk, and the same techno music is blasted through the tiny evening streets. The inebriated Laotian guide is pounding the roof of the tuktuk to the beat. R and I and a German couple with us all concur he’s probably in his late twenties, but he has the wrinkles of a man aged by two packs of beer and cigarettes a day. The villagers we zoom past would again look on with a certain drowning dejection, however used they are to this.

R and I together with A, a North Carolinian teacher are having a drink and a joint at a bar later that evening. A French guy stumbles pass our carpet: I can see the whites of his eyes and his epileptic hands. He collapses on his face two seconds later. A few ang mohs jump in to check on the French man. He OD-ed on opium, this Brazilian dude who joined us for a cup of an opiate-laced tea explains. The stoned waitress doesn’t do shit, she can’t count notes properly, nor even open her eyes fully. A, having already had a bad trip on that joint, bails back to her hostel, having just seen a man OD just an inch in front of her.

Sometime in the evening, two Dutch girls I’ve returned to the hostel with from another bar don’t want to pay their share of the tuktuk fee. He’s cheating us, they exclaim with giggles and with gin of their breathes. Every inch of my soul is on the verge of exploding, “What the fuck is 10,000 kip to your wallet? What is 10,000 kip to his livelihood?”

But long before I muster the indignation to do so, the tuktuk driver accepts a French kiss from Girl A as payment. God fucking dammit. Girl B walks away drunkenly from the negotiation for her payment, leaving Girl A to continue teasing the half-smiling, half-quivering driver.

“No, no! We having fun chat chat”, says he, when I step in and try to gently convince her to just fucking pay what is essentially one bloody US dollar.

This town is fucked.

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La Vie En Rose

We got back our pink ICs after two years. How could this piece of plastic, pink and flimsy, be the enduring object of such unbearable yearning and envy?

I surrendered her away at Tekong: Tekong was the first time in my life that I had ever seen such stars in the night sky. Mandai gave her back to me: Mandai was the first time I had ever heard the cry of an eagle.

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“Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Il me parle tout bas
Je vois la vie en rose”

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5AM at Pasir Ris beach

Dawn is breaking upon the revelry of drunkards.
They yell all they can
Against the dying tenebrous night
That has yielded them not a denouement.

This beach is cold and nebulous
Dismal and obfuscous.
A bird is screaming out her lungs
in squawks of tuberculosed anguish.

Have you seen the morning tide?
It is a relentless murky blue
Melancholic and ceaseless
They lap these rubbish strewn shores.

The cleaner peddles a soiled dustbin
Dressed not for tropical heat
But the cold drafts of this alien land.
Strewn like cacti in a vast desert
Of sanitised street fluorescent:
The crushed plastic cups and emptied gin bottles
Of decrepit sorrows and buried pains.

There will be no sunrise for this morning.
It does not deserve one.

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Ode to the Quarry

Two huge eagles are shrieking as they circle across my sky, bathed in the dying orange light of Sunday evening. Their echoing cries are the muezzin’s call to prayer, they are the blowing whistles of the evening flag lowering in the battalion square. In reply, the thousands of trees and vegetation of every kind, decked like a panorama across the massive quarry sway in the gentle breeze that blows southwards. Cerulean blue is the waters of the centre reservoir, black is the mouth of an abandoned cave at the north side.

I sit on the edge of granite outcrop, inhaling the sheer beauty that surrounds me. No matter how many times I’ve sneaked up here, the beauty is always breathtaking. One easily forgets that this is still Singapore.

Corporal G and Private J stand closely by my side; they too are trying to register the beauty that engulfs them. They’re probably glad they’d agreed to accompany me for my last joyride (illegal as usual and punishable with a term in the detention barracks). No other person in camp, sane or not, would bring them where I’ve brought them, and in the same method.

Today is my last day wearing this uniform. And this is the last time I’ll be seeing this.

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I’ve spent 2 years in the most beautiful army base in Singapore. It’s a pity that few of the hundreds that pass through these gates catch no more than just a passing glimpse of the raw beauty hidden behind chain-linked fences and thick vegetation. Life has gone on here for the longest time with little interaction with the quiet, unassuming allure of the great outdoors in the backyard. Some personnel have never even seen it, nor even thought it to exist. Most don’t care.

I was one of the lucky few (and hopefully not the last) with enough balls (and of a rank high enough to warrant some measure of autonomy) to explore this place more than rules or sensible thoughts would allow.

“Explore” however is quite an understatement. Read: rock-climbing, skipping-pebbles, spelunking through gated caves, trekking, hiking, trespassing, trespassing with a vehicle without a license, bashing a new road through lalang, racing, crashing up vehicles, off-roading, dirt-roading, green-laning, cross-countrying, tracing longkangs, and climbing trees, all while mostly high on whisky.

People don’t miss NS, I don’t think I will as well. But this beauty, I will miss.

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Nausea

In a month’s time, he would say goodbye to the world of green, to its uniforms, to its cloth ranks, and the stunted life in nauseous limbo that it presented. If life was a movie, those two years of NS were the two great vertical bars hovering over a paused movie playback.

He, like many, had counted down with a fervent zealousness to the last day of army life. But for some reason, he was there this morning, a fractured boy, hugging himself pathetically on his bunk bed in the grips of an acrid nausea that creeped up on his soul since morning, until then unnoticed.

Nausea is a crippling affliction. Nausea incapacitates, nausea torments. It is a discomfiture, an anguish and a despair that seemed to emanate from the core of his soul.  And because it seemed so, he can only feel a surging loath for his own existence.

The nausea of his soul now was as clear and as pronounced as the caustic blue of the skies outside his bunk windows. With a striking suddenness, he had realised a simple truth: he did not want to ORD.

He had grown to love so very much the limbo that army gave him that he could not survive without it. He could not survive without this limbo, without this excuse from life and all its contingent terrors. He thought deeply and saw the unassailable fact that NS has been his perfect excuse from facing his faith and its proselytising he had run from, from facing family and home, from the failed relationships that was the unmistakable manifestation of his own moral and emotional failings. Those two years in an isolated world of green was the best holiday he had ever had even if it had been nauseating, and only now did he realise that he could not breathe in a world without NS.

And that was when the panic came with its full barrage: he couldn’t breathe, he shivered, he vomited, he tore at his own skin, he screamed his head off.

There was but one simple solution: he had to continue running from the terrors of living, one way or another.

He had to sign on. This nausea of the army was more bearable than the nausea without.

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2016 Film List

I love films more than I love books and I’ve watched some supremely beautiful films this year. Of the many dozens I’ve watched, this is a list of my favourite ones.

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The Lives of Others (2006)
There’s tragedy, humanity and a tersely written screenplay in a film set five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall about East German secret policing of its dissident populace and a member of the secret police who expresses more humanity than he is allowed to. The silent brooding power of the film lies in the whispers of love, resistance and loss heard behind closed doors and spied walls. Few films I have watched have as satisfying a conclusion as this one for all its historical tragedy.

Apprentice (2016)
In Boo Junfeng’s acclaimed feature film, a prison warden with a dark family history of a hanged criminal father, learns the ropes of the prison hangman in a fast-track promotion to heir executioner. As much as the ending is faulted for its directorial laziness, I have never seen a more breathless local film as this. It has not fallen into the traps of didacticism, emotional gaudiness or inaccessibility that quite frequently plagues local films and remains as potent as it is humanising. I say without a doubt that this is my favourite local film.

A Single Man (2009)
Colin Firth, dressed impeccably in the retro over-designed fashion of the 60’s Cold War with a bespoke shirt and suit, polished Oxfords and hipster glasses, plays a depressed homosexual English professor who spends a day preparing for his evening suicide. With intermittent hot flushes of colour that dies back into monochrome, accompanied with bits of a soundtrack by Shigeru Umebayashi, I at times feel like this is American cinema’s equivalent to Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Every scene threatens to rip you apart for its sheer beauty. Dammit, more films should be made by fashion designers.

Sicario (2015)
Sicario has this heightened level of tension that never diminishes throughout nor leave you at the conclusion of the film that you feel like you’re suffering from priapism. You can see what’s going on, but you don’t know what’s going on. The stirring dynamics and talent of Benicio del Toro, Emily Blunt and Josh Brolin breathes intensity into every corner of this film. Never imagined drug wars could be so thoroughly gripping from start to finish.

Spirited Away (2001)
Adorable with every bit of Hayao Miyazaki’s magic.

Rogue One (2016)
By the final crescendo of the film as the credits broke, I was embarrassingly hyperventilating. Being a film lover, I have watched many remarkable films in my life and I dare blaspheme intellectual and cultural sensitivities by saying that this could easily be one of the best visual experiences I’ve ever had. By some magic of screenwriting, pacing, storyboarding, composition and music, the potential for jaw-dropping oomph of space opera has been expertly captured, unlike the other Star Wars films. It is by no means without faults, but it has quite boldly gone where no Star Wars films have gone with its moral depth and invigorating complexity. At its worst, it is a film that has ticked every box on a list of action-blockbuster cliches, but it has carried it out so well, you wouldn’t think it as cliche. Oh and also Darth Vader, holy shit.

Her (2013)
The mise en scene is adorable: the colour palettes and the Satie-inspired music especially. And the soulfulness leaves you feeling quite very fulfilled.

New World (2013)
I think Koreans do better contemporary gangster films than any other film industry. This one ranks of the blood spilled by Hong Kong’s seminal Infernal Affairs and Japan’s Takeshi Kitano, but yet with the refined suits and cigarettes of George Clooney. It has arresting visuals that even the most violent scenes make you appreciate the thoughtful cinema behind it.

Seven (1995)
Kevin Spacey.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
John Hurt, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch all in one film dealing with John le Carre’s MI6 and 70’s British fashion. Need I say more? It damn well did the book some damn justice. (I do however very much want to watch the 1979 one with Sir Alec Guinness and Ian Richardson).

1987: Untracing the Conspiracy (2015)
In a concise 57 minutes, Jason Soo uncovers in voluminous loudness an unpalatable segment of our history so saturated with the stank state narrative. This is a documentary of paramount importance: most detainees would die off in a matter of years without any official revisiting of this episode and this would be the only counter-narrative around to get anywhere near scratching what is the truth of our 1987 experience. This is one film, of the few, that has made me angry, and for that, it is one of the most favourite films I’ve watched this year. Thank goodness it isn’t banned and it’s still available with some restricted screenings around the island in forefront cinemas of cultural development and political dissidence.

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2016 Book List

This year, I set out to read far more local literature and more non-fiction than I did last year, and did the exact opposite. Once again, like last year, I’ve had the opportunity to devour a broad wealth of writers and works from different backgrounds and translated languages. This year, I’ve also read considerably more female writers *snickers*.

See also: 2015 Book List

Works that I have enjoyed enormously or were affected by greatly are marked with an asterisk (*). In chronological order.

  1. Simulacra & Simulation – Jean Baudrillard*
  2. The Temple of Dawn – Yukio Mishima
  3. Ministry of Moral Panic – Amanda Lee Koe**
  4. Casino Royale – Ian Fleming
  5. The Invisible Manuscript – Alfian Sa’at
  6. Our Thoughts Are Free – Teo Soh Lung & others
  7. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye – Sonny Liew**
  8. Immortality – Milan Kundera
  9. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – Milan Kundera
  10. The Bourne Identity – Robert Ludlum
  11. The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins*
  12. Selected Poems – T.S. Eliot*
  13. The Waste Land – T.S. Eliot**
  14. The True Story of Ah Q – Lu Xun
  15. Poems – Philip Larkin**
  16. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  17. Brave New World Revisited – Aldous Huxley
  18. The Communist Manifesto – Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels*
  19. The Autumn of the Patriarch – Gabriel Garcia Marquez*
  20. Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez*
  21. The Chrysalids – John Wyndham
  22. Breakfast for Champions – Kurt Vonnegut
  23. Children of Hürin – J.R.R. Tolkien*
  24. The Dictator’s Eyebrow – Cyril Wong
  25. The Cossacks – Leo Tolstoy*
  26. Lust, Caution – Eileen Chang
  27. Red Rose, White Rose – Eileen Chang
  28. Radish – Mo Yan
  29. The Tempest – Shakespeare*
  30. Macbeth – Shakespeare*
  31. A Wild Sheep Chase – Haruki Murakami
  32. Pnin – Vladamir Nabokov
  33. A Luxury We Cannot Afford: An Anthology of Singapore Poetry*
  34. Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century – Paul Collier*
  35. One Thousand and One Nights – Gwee Li Sui
  36. The Housekeeper and The Professor – Yoko Ogawa*
  37. The Diving Pool – Yoko Ogawa*
  38. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro*
  39. An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro
  40. Over to You – Roald Dahl*
  41. Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien**
  42. The Two Towers – J.R.R. Tolkien*
  43. The Return of the King – J.R.R. Tolkien**
  44. As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner*
  45. Eating Air – Ng Yi-Sheng*
  46. Intersection – Liu Yichang
  47. The Mousetrap – Agatha Christie
  48. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – John le Carré*
  49. Contact – Carl Sagan*
  50. Political Order and Political Decay – Francis Fukuyama**
  51. Separation: A History – Christine Chia
  52. Seven Pillars of Wisdom – T.E. Lawrence*
  53. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness – Kenzaburō Ōe*
  54. The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears – Kenzaburō Ōe
  55. They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue – Theophilus Kwek*

Some observations:

  • I’ve read over a hundred books in my 1 year 11 months of national service so far. That’s potentially more books than I’ve ever read in my life.
  • I’ve read a lot of Japanese literature both this year and in the last few years and there’s one consistent and inevitable conclusion: Japanese writers are the most fucked up.
  • Amusingly, I was slogging my way through Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation while I was a cadet trainee at command school. Looking back, it is some sort of meta-satire that my SCS notebook contains my scribbled notes of regimentation and warfighting juxtaposed against my notes on Baudrillardian post-structuralism.
  • I took one entire year of intermittent reading and annotating to complete Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay, the second volume of what could possibly be his magnum opus. It’s an absolute tour-de-force and I stand beyond impressed by its ambition and the sheer volume of knowledge I’ve gleamed from its pages.
  • I enjoyed Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being enormously and thus relentlessly read his other works this year in a desperate search of something similar. They all fell depressingly short of the kind of affective effect that Unbearable Lightness marshalled. In much the same respect, I can’t find another collection of local poetry that is as fierce and breathless as Alfian Sa’at’s first publication.
  • I decided to re-read Lord of the Rings after a very very long time. I love Tolkien so much. The sheer beauty and gravity of his written word – it’s like falling in love again. It unfortunate that I couldn’t appreciate it when I was younger. It shall be a tradition for me to read LOTR once a year at the very least. And in retrospect, Peter Jackson did a damn magnificent job of translating Tolkien’s words into cinema.

“My heart has more rooms in it than a whore house”
– Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

“My mother is a fish”
– William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”
– T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom

“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here!”
– Shakespeare, The Tempest

“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.”
– Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

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Moxie Design Collection

Logo and collaterals design commissioned for Moxie.
A sky of pink gilted with gold-leafed clouds

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Has art become a hoax?

I’m Coming Up is an 87 minute film, without dialogue or a plot or anything interesting whatsoever. Min-Wei Ting, the director, walks unflinchingly with a steadicam through all 21-storeys of a sleeping HDB flat in Jurong for a full one and half hours. A live band plays electro-acoustic noise as a background accompaniment to the film – the only redeeming element. (You can watch the SGIFF trailer here if you don’t get what I mean: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PzsgfBQYwQ)

By the fifth storey, about 20 minutes in, half of the cinema has walked out with a bitter taste of a wasted $13.

In the post-screening dialogue, which should have been a caustic post-mortem if not for the courtesy of the audiences that endured through all 87 minutes, Min-Wei Ting speaks nonchalantly and facetiously, almost sleepily. He may as well just not be present at all.

What were you trying to achieve? Hmmmm, I guess I was trying to say something the interplay between architecture and music. What is it that attracts you to this particular HDB block? Hmmm, I don’t know. I guess I liked it. Did you intend this as a metaphor for Singaporean society? Hmmmm, I don’t know. Yeah, maybe it was some kind of metaphor I think. I’ll leave it up to the audience. Why did you film the block counter-clockwise? Hmmmm, I don’t know. I guess I felt like it.

In this same spirit of self-congratulatory facetiousness, anyone could as well write a grandiloquent review on how the film has broken new ground in a “seamless exploration of space”, how it is a “true social-realist appraisal of Singaporean society” and how it has gone a full 9 more storeys than Eric Khoo’s seminal 12 Storeys. Up the ante, broke new ground, revolutionised a dying art form, paved a new path, popped a cherry. One could essentially say a lot but say nothing.

I’m Coming Up is yet another drop in an increasingly congested toilet bowl of local art films (or art works for that matter) that have either tried too hard or just didn’t try at all.

Daniel Hui’s Snakeskin (2014) is yet another shit local art film I’ve had the misfortunate to be bamboozled into watching (Joel has since abdicated his role in deciding what art films to watch next having selected an unbroken streak of shit films).

For all you know, this could just all be a practical joke. Made for the sole reason of poking fun at the self-absorbed state of film and modern art where everybody takes everything far too seriously. It’s just like how Salvador Dali’s 1929 Un Chien Andalou, meant to be a satirical parody of the surrealism, became a crowning poster child of the surrealist movement.

This inevitably brings me to my next point: there is a serious problem of demarcation of the arts. Where the scientific discipline has Karl Popper’s falsifiability, what criteria have we for art’s own problem of demarcation – what is of substance, and what is bullshit? What is art, and what is pseudo-art?

We give far too much latitude to the arts. Technical incompetence, directorial laziness, turgidity of an overweight script is passed off behind the excuse of artistic liberty. The artist has the final word. The artist says so. Critics are dismissed as mere labellers and cynics. Concept is now everything, and delivery is just reduced to an unimportant medium. I could very well turn a tiny carcass of an ant into a key museum exhibit just with a 500-word write up with oblique references to Nietzsche. Or a 4 hour still shot of an MRT escalator. Or montages of bird shit. As long as the concept sounds highbrow, I, the artist, am beyond any human dimension of reproach. Everything and anything can and will pass as art.

Let’s take a step back from the furthest fringes of modern art. Let’s take a look at how this lack of artistic quality has affected the mainstream.

Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice fell victim to directorial laziness at the very end. K. Rajagopal’s A Yellow Bird screwed over whatever promise and potential it had with an indolent and half-hearted script. You can’t just give the excuse of “it’s my artistic rights”. Neither can you just throw “open-ended endings” at the audience for lack of creativity in actually writing a compelling work. It’s not a deus ex machina that you can pass off as enigmatic, or open to intepretation or as any other tepid gimmick so popular with artist nowadays.

Incompetence should not be allowed to hide behind the license of artistic liberties. Especially so, if works with such potential like A Yellow Bird failed to take flight simply because of the whims of a director/screenplay resistant to the idea of trying harder. You’re selling yourself short and you don’t want to face up to what a waste it is.

This is no mere storm in a teacup. This is a serious problem for the health of our cultural community as a whole.

Pseudo-art affects the legitimacy of the cultural industry. If you want people to take you seriously, you have to start taking yourself seriously. And we need to hold ourselves up to higher standards. In a place as tiny and saturated as Singapore where art is a recently resuscitated cardiac arrest victim with one foot still stuck in its decomposing coffin, it matters a lot. An influx of pseudo-art could easily crowd out legitimate art and legitimate talent. And a streak of bad apples could easily undo years of rehabilitation of our cultural scene.

You make all art and the entire cultural industry look like a major hoax.

But it is not a hoax, and I refuse to believe it is a hoax. There have been great local works even in the tiny market of film that is the starting focus of this long and rambling post: I’ve watched and enjoyed a great many local films be it art films or experimental films. Not everything out there is shit, and shit shouldn’t be the default state of things.

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Thoughts: 1987

Me and S snuck into an R21 theatre for the first time in our lives today. It wasn’t sex, nor drug use, nor strong language that was the main attraction. It was anti-state subversion.

1987: Untracing the Conspiracy traces, through a series of concise interviews, the experience of 22 political detainees arrested in 1987 under the ISA for an alleged Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the Singaporean government. There were no weapons, no evidence, not even Marxist inclinations, just concocted confessions. It’s a shocker that a film so blatantly defiant of The National Narrative could pass through censors with a mere R21 rating. Jason Soo, director and visionary behind the film, illuminates us with a subtler answer: banning Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore with Love in 2013 merely invoked the Streisand effect, whereas a less publicity-screaming R21 rating in this case would bury the film under the immanent amnesia of the Singaporean public.

I’ve watched some incredible films that have incited great anger in me; this was another one of them. Torture, repression, injustice, Kafka-esque absurdity – the full Orwellian treatment spelt out in the soft and quiet confines of my very country’s history. Unthinkable. Unpalatable. Impossible to swallow.

If I was born just two generations earlier, I would have very easily been one of those former detainees sitting there before an audience, talking about the absurdity of my experience under the boot and the truncheon. Throughout the film, I was silently cursing myself for all my explicit dabbling in Marxist-themed pranks, and all the troves of pro-Maoist conversations on my phone. All of that along with the Little Red Book beside my bed would serve as enough a body of evidence for a 30-year stint in solitary confinement.

Unlike the 1987 treatment of the detainees where their prime-time television confessions was their last words to the world, this screening inverted that hierarchy with a post-screening dialogue. The detainees themselves will speak last, not the manipulative medium of film and media.

“What can we as private citizens do against such monolithic state power?” is the penultimate question of the dialogue which stretched longer than what I imagined the attention span of a Singaporean could last.

Tan Tee Seng shrugs and laughs in response, “We can’t do anything.”

We can only want for a country with an accountable government, with the rule of law, said he. That the ISA is a suspension of law, is the one running comment that next to every one on stage has reiterated.

In a private conversation, S and I talk to Vincent Cheng, the alleged ring leader of the conspiracy, now a mild-mannered white-haired man . He says there’s hope. He smiles at us, young boys, unshaven with our black NS spectacles and army haircuts.

He thanks us for our support. We thank him for his courage.

It’s been almost three decades. Lee Kuan Yew is dead. There are 6 opposition members of parliament. The Internet is a superstructure that the state has not been able to subsume. And the ISA still stands, an unchanged institution.

What has changed? A lot has changed.

What has changed? Nothing has changed.

Was it worth it? For political expediency? For economic stability? Mere collateral damage of the wisdom and grand schemes of our paternal leaders? It’s not up to me to judge – that would be the correct answer. I am no president scholar, nor a white-shirted, white-pants minister. I am just a coward, I would confess to every damn thing they accuse me of.

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