Tag Archives: Haolie Rambles

The Monk Wears Nike

Here the Nokia ringtones, screaming babies
among the chants of ancient sutras.
There the selfies with monks, solar panelled
pagodas, and 10 yuan photographs.

600 monks are gathered for a prayer for world peace
Measured in the gigabytes of recorded insta videos.
Here the sonorous wail of the dungchen
There the stomp of ancient drums.
Each metronome is soaked
in the parochialism of history.
Each pendular swirl of a shaven head is
a scar of the longevity of tradition.
It is the typical measure of half-hearted ego
To claim the sacred reigns to world peace.
Signs warning against photography and smoking throng
amidst the camera flashes and choking tobacco of Chunghwas.

And as the prayer concludes with a storm of drums,
the young monks awaken from their slumber
marinated by a thousand-year old boredom
Hurtle out into the sunlight and the cans of coca-cola.
The older linger taking their place behind counters
selling factory-made trinkets blessed to bring
health, fortune, happiness and wealth.
Piles of 1 yuan notes clogs the monastery.
And a tourist throws a paper bank note into a wishing well
It floats above the sea of drowned coins.
Perhaps he knows something we don’t.

The light rain billows into a deluge.
Wet umbrellas find shelter under reconstructed stupas.
Filth washes away into the Tibetan valley.
And the prayer flags swing heavily,
soaked in the acids of the clouds.

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Photo taken at Sumtseling Monastery, Yunnan

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He Who Rebelled Against the Sun

I was born under the shadow of its light,
Doomed to the chill of its restless heat.
To forever prostrate myself in acquiescence
To the soundless music of the life infinite
It bestowed and it possessed.

I could not listen. I would not hear.
I turn away from the light that immolates
Regardless of my blaspheming eyelids.

Blood rays, fiery orange.

The light is all that is pain.
And I would surrender myself
To the deaf and blind.

Deafness, self-imposed,
That disables the soul.
Blindness, self-inflicted,
That breaks the better angels of our nature.

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20 Aug

Few things are as inviting as an opened MRT door,
Preluded by a hurtling wind that sends your hair to the heavens.
It is an air-conditioned existence in an island of heat,
Of draught light in the darkening dusk.

I was reading Dawkins’ God Delusion:
Those blistering covers that incite ridicule
and my blaspheming fundamentalism.
An auntie glares at me, with her glistening pearls of eyes.
She pierces my godless, soulless shell,
With festering agony and indignation in her offended heart.
I gaze back with mere heretical nonchalance.

My ears too have blasphemed: it is the voice of Leslie Low.
Every crooned word is a hollering protest, is an anguished lament,
Of guitar chords smashed by ellen keys
And drums plastered by bleeding fingers

They tranquillise the dark nights of the human soul,
And all its consuming vices of alcohol and sorrow.

Somewhere in this world of grey,
A museum curator is dragged through his heathen streets,
Where blood streams from the emptiness between his thighs,
The emptiness of iconoclastic castration.

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The Funeral

Your portrait stands proudly erect,
vaulted by a noose of chrysanthemums
as white as they are fake.
Your body is cold, decaying meat
in a sack of foul skin beyond
even the saving of a cosmetic cake.
Your visitors bow in prostration
before a gilded box of nothingness:
neither a soul nor a breath nor a heartache.

Oh the solitary loneliness of your being:
The slow sleep of death embalmed,
And the phlegm of thoughts entombed,
Oh the walls of the coffin, in rancid anomie,
Where you have far long since ceased to be.

Those monks that chant
like croaking frogs
spewing incantations of sutras that
sound more like senile curses of which
your unhearing ears cannot despise.
Those gongs and tocking fish-drums that
busk away like a beggar’s croon,
consoling you on your passage
through the eighteen hells of expiation:
deathly and agonised.
And the hell notes and incense
that chock the world’s light,
that lend the only semblance
of grey mournfulness
to the bright, unaffected skies.

They said, in prostrated vigil:
Oh he died peacefully in his sleep,
Such a tranquil smile, such rosy cheeks,
Even in the slumber of repose.
Here lies a great man of great stature;
Here lies a great father, son and brother.
No need for sutras or gospels;
No want for tears or prayers.
His own virtue would guide himself
through the afterlife.

They said, in prostrated vigil:
Oh your virtuous spirit would return
to the earthly realm on the third day.
A final visit befitting of a lamp and
a white cloth plastered on the graffiti
to guide you to your former home:
therein a bed of ash scattered to reveal
where your spirit would traverse.

But all thousands of specks of ash,
like dust in the sky and droplets on a sink,
remain untouched, unanswered.

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Purgatory of Skin

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.
– Beckett

1.

Our longkangs are streams forsaken:
Tributaries of the great river,
Uncountable like the kalpas,
Of filth lowly and dreams forgotten.
It is a drunk malignant liver.

2.

He trudges amidst the froth and shit,
From the gutter of the shallow,
Of mud, of rain and worms
To the wet darkness of the deep.
He seeks the ablution of the soul.

Semangat, Semangat,
A vulgar boy of a spirit mediocre,
Possessed by fearful savagery:
He seeks the requiem of a renewal,
But what there is left for a retard?

3.

Grilled lights of an unrecognisable sun –
Long abandoned is the cold morning haze
amidst the cold trudging waters that churn.
Here is darkness, moss and a barren maze
Where no footstep would ever return.

These are the embers that burn underground:
Fiery ash and curling steam of Virgil’s dread,
An inferno of loath and fire drowned
Where even our dear Dante dare not thread.
These are the suns of a world without light.

4.

Semangat screams an animal’s holler:
In ash and mist he would linger,
Of skin and detritus he rubs,
Of folly and follicles he scrubs,
Of eyes and genitalia he stubs.

A distant thunder barrages –
There is a storm of rage above.
A brutal river usurps our purgatory.

5.

Now there is no more fire,
But your consciousness is aflame.
You are a smouldering iron
In a longkang of grime.

Every pore, every contour,
Of body and soul.
No more stain, no more pain.
There is only new skin:
White, pure and unblemished.

6.

What there is left of our Semangat
But a distant, displeasured cloud?


There’s this installation art piece called The Cloud of Unknowing by Ho Tzu Nyen that I really love. The Singapore Art Museum has it somewhere in storage; I don’t ever know when I’ll see it again. I’m a little depressed over this. It is one of the art works that has served as a muse for my little poem of six parts above.

And I’ve been reading a little too much T.S. Eliot recently.

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Reading is subversion

What if the national library deliberately and overtly maintains a collection of subversive titles just so as to bait potential political dissidents into the open? Along with tracking of your book depository purchases? I mean after all, while political activism and mobilisation is clear evidence of subversive intention and action, reading is an indication of potential subversive tendencies. And avid readers are intellectuals, smart people, and the founding father says the smart people are the most dangerous (*gasp*!)

It’s the best means to crack down on subversion before it erupts into full-blown revolutionary anti-state dissent like talking about elections on cooling-off day, listening to local punk-rock, having long hair, voting for the opposition, joining an NGO, liking an anti-establishment Facebook page or even (*gasp*!) organising a demonstration at the Speakers’ Corner!

Perhaps one day we’ll eventually see people arrested and interrogated by the ISD due purely to conjectures of anti-state subversion based upon a single piece of evidence – your list of borrowed library books of the past decade. Don’t forget the eight hour interrogations in 15 degree celsius air-conditioned rooms, surrounded by burly interrogators and threats of indefinite detention. Oh and the signed confessions of participation in a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the state in an armed insurrection, although you possess no arms, only borrowed books.

Absurd indeed. But anything, however ridiculous, is a plausibility when people’s lives are intruded upon, houses raided with a search warrant, their possessions confiscated simply because they posted comments on the elections on their personal social media accounts on cooling-off day.

And I used to believe faithfully that a touchy and errant police service has come a long way since 1987.

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Let’s take a leap further

So I got offers from both Yale-NUS and from NUS FASS with USP, unsurprisingly.

If this was me exactly two years ago, I would have been like that post-war Austrian refugee boy in Gerald Waller’s 1946 photograph, hugging a new pair of shoes with a certain sort of unadulterated happiness that eludes many. They were my indisputable dream schools two years ago. Strangely, I greeted the offers now however, largely with indifference. You could say I’ve been robbed of my deserved emotions more than once in these past few years, for reasons I both do and do not have inklings of.

A matter of two years do strange things to dreams and perceptions. You grow older, a little more cynical, a little more resigned and resentful, a little more grounded, a little less frivolous, and a little more frivolous in some ways as well. Ideals I used to cherish have been hammered into a form I no longer recognise, dreams too have been hollowed out by virtue of a recognition of their lacklustre shallowness and misplaced self-importance. In their place, strange new ideals and unrecognisable worldviews, that one would have squirmed at having years earlier, have taken root.

But I digress.

People have asked which I am more keen to take up. My internal response was that I wasn’t very keen on university in the first place. For that matter, I don’t actually desire to further my education or my life. And that I’ve decided to resign myself to a solitary life of a mouldy piece of bread sitting comfortably by the roadside.

But that would have been an unfair and indolent response. I need a more convincing answer, both for others that I owe answers to, and for myself. And so, there I am back to brooding:

Indeed, NUS has been the tried-and-tested road. Thousands have gone through it and thrived somewhat after 4 years of back-breaking toil.

Yale-NUS, on the other hand, is a bastard child of two seemingly divorced parents separated by more than just long distances but also diametrically opposed worldviews and irreconcilable differences, as the media would like to depict it as. Its curriculum too, is a bastardised attempt at liberal arts crudely transplanted into an Asian conservative setting with farm tools, instead of modern surgical appliances. Its shaky and untested, lambasted and suspected, doubted and condescended upon. And this is roundly corroborated, although in nicer language, by tonnes of people I’ve spoken to, from Yale-NUS, USP and whatever not.

The answer would seem painfully obvious, as some of my friends have remarked.

At the end of the day, they’re both art degrees – a proverbial dead-end in Singapore, although more grounded opinions would dispel such a callous myth. But the idea is there: the job prospects aren’t generally the most favourable and the starting salaries aren’t generally the most remarkable. That’s not to say a humanities education is worthless. My idealism and belief in the humanities has always been beyond dispute, for myself at least.

Whatever the case, a certain abandon has crept over me. Since they are BOTH art degrees, I may just jolly well go all the way and take a leap by throwing both caution and the mainstream to the wind. (I have refrained from using the idiomatic “leap of faith” because it isn’t actually faith, or belief without evidence. It’s more of a total abandon, in face of complete recognition of the risks.)

In this respect, Yale-NUS does arguably provide a more authentic liberal arts experience free from structural and institutional limitations that would arguably plague a retrofitted program like FASS with USP. (a simulacra just the same way actually). And it’s liberal arts indeed with all its regard for new age crap, social consciousness and social conscience, nauseating predilections for Western liberal democratic values and all that proselytising and enlightening academia but with questionable academic rigour. Less cut-throat, more frivolous. Less serious, more self-important.

Fuck kiasu-ism. It’s just 4 years of my life. I could always start again somewhere else if it fucks me over. And also quite importantly, unlike the financial burdens of liberal arts degrees, it’s free because of my scholarship. So why not?

(I just have to start indoctrinating myself that I am excited for Yale-NUS)

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The Vices of Peace

For six hours straight, a cross section of Singaporean male society passes through me – Chinese, Indians and Malays, lawyers, taxi drivers and doctors. I stand between three thousand of them, mobilised reservist men, and the comforting normalcy of their civilian world.

Before them, stands a monumental technical and logistical effort of scores of army units, thousands of man-hours of NSFs and months of pre-ops sweat-stained preparation and hair-pulling. And there I am, seconded begrudgingly from my underground world – a salesman for the monumental effort.

The clock hits 1730hrs. My unit commanders are suddenly jittery satellites in an anxious battle to stay in an orbit of self-control. Their nervous and ceaseless pep-talks for me are more therapeutic for themselves, than it is intended for me. They make it sound as if my entire NS life has led up to upcoming 5 minutes of instant grandiosity or eternal ignominy. When your previously self-respecting and self-possessed CO is a fidgety mess, you know an even bigger dinosaur is lumbering round the corner.

The dinosaur struts in. There are stars on his epaulette. His massive entourage too are star-studded – there are not even chevrons or crabs, just purely, entirely, and in totality, stars. With their colourful assortment of berets, it’s like a flying circus of army chiefs.

And after the flying circus departs, I’m bludgeoned by a volley of handshakes and back-patting. And then I’m back to being a salesman for the thousands of reservists men. They are my former teachers (one of whom instantly recognises my voice under the facelessness of the uniform), future bosses, neighbours and my sister’s boyfriend.

Their issued rifles are brand-new, freshly unwrapped from bubblewrap, ready as hell for war, killing and the misplaced honour of fatal nationalism. The men themselves, however, are anything but ready. There are long pink-dyed hair under those sloppily-strapped helmets and beer bellies under those faded uniforms. An elite unit, for heaven’s sake.

Two moments stand out memorably: (1) a struggling NSmen, a fractured left arm in a sling, and his rifle in his other arm; and, (2) another NSmen with a head-full of grey hair and wrinkles, his rifle an unfamiliar burden in those hands long moisturised by the years of peace.

They say our lives are but a moment in the eternity of the nation.

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Walking the Lorongs

Geylang is a strange land. It’s a little enclave of transactions in all things bordering on illegality – sex, drugs, viagra peddlers, counterfeit watches, loansharking and the many victimless crimes that stereotypes the infamous street. Oh and durians, don’t forget the durians.

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S and I spent roughly four hours this evening snaking through Lorong 29 all the way down to Lorong 5. We’ve walked past an eclectic avenue of cuisines – South Indian, North, Hakka, Jiang Su, Sichuan, and the likes of the many Chinese provinces that our low-wage migrants hail from. Whenever our legs failed on us, we adjourned for prata, bandung, frog leg porridge and mee pok.

S counted at least a dozen internet cafes and a dozen more streetwalkers – one held my wrist and remarked with an inviting smile that I should eat more. I counted hotels, there were probably more hotels here than in the entire country, all charging by the hour. At one intersection of two Lorongs, there were easily a dozen hotels – all high-rise tenements of soiled condoms, cheap lipstick and transacted moans.

At one whorehouse, marked conveniently by the red-painted “20” sign, a pimp stands guard at the ajar sliding door. He beckons to us. Pink neon light spills out into the street and the lush pink insides reveal seven Chinese women clad in low-cut little black dresses. They are but a mass-produced sight that replicates itself Lorong after Lorong. Customers, middle-aged men with pot bellies and of varied skin colours, come and go aplenty.

Just beside the whorehouse, is yet another one of those hundreds of pugilist clan associations. It is vaulted by dignified tradition: every bit of the Peranakan-influenced tiles and wood carvings exudes old-fashioned gentility. Inside, through the frosted glass panels, we see the silhouette of men huddled around tables accompanied by the clatter of mahjong tiles and raucous laughter. Outside, stands a look-out, forlornly smoking a stick of Winston Red, its ashes raining on a littering of preceding cigarette stubs.

Our conversations meanders from Baudrillard and his post-structuralism to S and his obsessive and no less nihilistic theories on love and Jean-Paul Sartre. S remarked that he never thought it possible that we could amuse ourselves with sober conversation free from the influence of hard alcohol.

At the next turn, nestled under a dilapidated row of low-rise rental apartments, Bangladeshi men in sarongs stand around a table where another Bangladeshi rolls up and hands out little paper satchels of whitish powder in exchange for wads of cash. Another table beside him presents a colourful assortment of tablets, powder satchels and pills. The shopkeeper of the liquor stall behind him looks away behind his defensive fortifications of cigarettes, bottles, shelves, cabinets and a cash register. It is only the familiar five stars and the red and white of the Singaporean flag hanging outside that reminds us that we’re still in Singapore.

And then, like a little lighthouse drowned in the darkness of flashing neon lights, omnipresent CCTV cameras and harsh fluorescents, a Buddhist free clinic stands, hemmed in between two whorehouses. But it’s doors are shuttered, windows dark, much like the Covenant of Christ at the next Lorong and the little Masjid along the preceding Lorong.

S laments the commercialisation of human deprivation and I retort that no other place in this entire bloody island will ever be as raw, as authentic and as unpretentious as these Lorongs.

On a short ten-minute bus ride later on the number 70, we are flying across the Nicoll Highway. To our left is the glistening skyline of Singapore city – proud, aloft and sterilised.

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Where even carrots become sticks

Trying to get meaningful work done in the army is typically understood to be a challenge. On the other hand, trying to get urgent work done in an underground military facility where everything from vehicles to work tools to lights are broken while you have politicking, distracted and regularly absent superiors is simply an impossibility.

I sometimes wonder why me and my fellow specs put in so much effort to complete our work up to standard when other teams led by army regulars give no fucks.

Early mornings are spent arguing over the distribution of severely strained manpower and highly limited vehicles. Late mornings are spent trying to obtain keys and equipment and signatures when everyone is scattered throughout the different levels of the underground where the reliability and quality of communication is reduced to the ancient era of messenger pigeons. Work can only start some half an hour before the 12pm lunch break – but that doesn’t include the long travel time to the underground, the time wasted opening and closing multiple blast doors and access hatches.

One guy insisted on me allowing him to work alone in complete pitch darkness with a torchlight, to meet a stocktake deadline in spite of a power outage. Another team led by my friend hastily conducts ammunition movements with heavy vehicles in a pitch black chamber filled to the brim with enough explosives to turn Mandai into a mini Sahara desert. And there I am, provided with only two newly-posted in guys to complete an urgent tasking where I have to multi-task between coolie work, teaching and directing, and driving a forklift that is rapidly running out of juice.

It is rare to come back to the aboveground surface in time to catch the shuttle bus out of the camp. I see the sunlight for less than 4 hours a day. And in the fading sunlight, I can finally see in better detail the microscopic metal splinters on my fingers – someone had robbed me of my work gloves.

Well if I don’t die of tetanus, I’ll eventually die of lung cancer. The PSI underground is enough to kill a horse.

The moment you reach the office to return keys and equipment, someone enlightens you with the rumours that the superiors want to take away the off-in-lieu compensation for overtimes and weekend duties. Another superior wants to permanently close the mess.

In an email titled “Carrots and sticks for NSFs” that has yet to be circulated, I see only sticks. The only carrots there are so hard and rotten, they are as good as sticks.

Princess Leia once rebutted a tyrant that “the more you tighten your grip… the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” And indeed, while you blissfully close your eyes to record low morale and the unhappiness on the ground, your tightening of regimentation will only see more absenteeism and skydiving work quality. And it will not help you in return. The typical NSF is an expert malingerer – fear, far from being the most effective means of motivation, is entirely counterproductive.

You are afflicted by what is called a great affective divide. You don’t know how emotions are on the ground. You don’t know the kind of effort and enthusiasm NSFs actually bother to put into their work, until they are eventually discouraged and spit upon. You only sit in your cosy offices, sending emails and tracking KPIs. You see only ill-discipline. You are blind to all else. You only focus on isolated cases of wrong-doings. You clamp down hard on our errors  when your errors (which have far greater consequences) are rapidly covered up. You only bother about the little unreasonable nitty-gritty details that will never ever matter. You insists on us not bringing bags to camp because bags will result in messy offices. You have this weird belief that rewarding NSFs with off-days equates to them gallivanting and committing crimes outside. You want to save money so you switch off all the remaining unspoilt lights underground and we now sometimes conduct dangerous ammunition work in darkness. You care so much about small things like regimentation when in contrast, you refuse to see the big things that matter. Your absence when you are needed is deafening. Your commander dialogues are more like monologues. Your hypocrisy and self-interests stinks.

As junior commanders, we can only do so much to protest and to reason and to inform, without upsetting the standards of subservience and professionalism. You’re not just blind but deaf. But regardless of how degrading working conditions get, you have our assurance that we will still put in our 120%. We acknowledge the greater significance of our unit’s cornerstone to national security beyond the in-fighting and inanities of the superiors. But it is not a fair expectation for everyone else.

I’m fine with overworking myself. I’ve been a workaholic since forever. But I feel self-loath for allowing this sense of being overworked and unappreciated to inflict the rest.

I’m only two weeks into this role and I will handle it better next time.

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