In this episode of Straight Talk with P. N. Balji, the veteran Singaporean journalist and commentator analyses the […]
By A. Jessie Michael
Of all the major festivals in the world, none I think is more universally celebrated than Christmas. There is something in the air in December that reaches far and wide.
When I arrived in China in 2012 to teach, I found a dismal artificial, Christmas tree with tangled streamers, in my classroom, in March of all months! The students who had put it up had no notion of the origins or the meaning of Christmas (or any other religious festival) except that it was universally fashionable to celebrate this thing called Christmas, in December, with a tree. It did not occur to them that it should have been taken down in January. It was in Florida and Australia that I discovered the Christmas Shops. I could not imagine that they stayed open all year round. At Christmas, Floridians have Santa Clause, sleigh, reindeer, and lights and whatnots on their rooftops, down the driveway and all around the garden. Sydney lights up the city and has amazing light displays of the nativity on the outside walls of a Church. Singapore lights up Orchard road and makes it a tourist attraction. No city is spared this dressing up.
In the Gardens Mall in Kuala Lumpur near where I live, this year it is a White Christmas! There were white trees laden with white cotton and white streamers; there were white swans, still, on a glassy lake and deer motionless under cotton laden trees. There were even polar bears in mid-prowl on snow. Outside it was 33 degrees Celsius. The hotel lobbies in the city are even more beautifully done up. When our children were small, we used to take them hotel-lobbies just to view the decorations.
The origins of Christmas are religious and holy but always seen as a time for joy for everyone. Over the years with the advent of Santa clause with his legendary beginnings and his multiple selves, followed by Rudolph and his red nose competing with the Baby Jesus, Christmas has taken on two separate lives, the sacred and the secular. The first sings of the Child in the manger and the other of jingle bells and chestnuts on the fire. The sacred is Middle-Eastern, the secular is undeniably Western what with snowflakes and sleighs- bells. Yet there is no tension between the two. Somewhere in between, the twain do meet. The droves of people at the Mall with their children and cameras seem genuinely happy. The mood is infectious. I know for a fact that many non-Christians and total non-believers put up trees and exchange gifts just not to miss out in this season of goodwill.
For believers in my city and in other towns in Malaysia, I know the churches will overflow at every service — the Christmas eve services and the morning ones. It is always the case. The giving-trees are up where one can hang gifts for orphans. Christmas choir performances are on full swing if you care to check your events page on Facebook. At the same time, embassies are running their Christmas charity bazaars. There are the untold tales of those who celebrate with almsgiving. They visit the prisons, the homeless, the orphans or the aged with food, gifts and cheer. It is the season of giving and prayer and the season of joy, one in which even the saddest of hearts will smile a little and the hardest of hearts will melt a little. Everybody is in the mood, even the naysayers, who, like Scrooge, stomp their foot and say — “Bah! Humbug!” Scrooge then did a volte face.
Charles Dickens had captured the essence of the season beautifully in his novel written in 1843, A Christmas Carol — that charity, compassion and love reign supreme in this holy season.
The traffic on the Amity Causeway linking Singapore and Malaysia was especially heavy for a Thursday, which put Dennis Quek even more on edge. He took a deep breath as he approached the first entry point station, hoping that he could swallow any obvious distress signs that the inspection machine might detect.
Finally, Dennis reached the front of a long queue. His car was pulled automatically into the right spot before the inspection machine. The hazy blue light filled the whole car, followed by the voice of the machine. “One person in vehicle. A driver, no passengers.”
Dennis nodded. He then turned his head to the right, ready for the facial identification. This time it was the warm, lemony light that filled the front of the inspection machine. Dennis squeezed out an awkward smile, thinking this was best for the situation. The smile was starting to get uncomfortable when the machine finally announced the identification.
By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
Elaine Chiew is a writer and a visual arts researcher, editor of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015) and her short story collection The Heartsick Diaspora is forthcoming from Penguin Random House SEA (Oct 2019) and Myriad Editions UK (Jan 2020). Twice winner of the Bridport Short Story Competition, she has published numerous stories in anthologies in the UK, US and Singapore. Originally from Malaysia, Chiew graduated from Stanford Law School and worked as a corporate securities lawyer in New York and Hong Kong before studying for an MA in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts Singapore, a degree conferred by Goldsmiths, University of London. Elaine lives in Singapore and blogs about art at www.invisibleflaneuse.blogspot.com. In this interview, she reveals more about her new book and her ideas.
Why do you write?
Very simply, I can’t not write, call it word-constipation or what Danish short story writer Naja Marie Aidt calls ‘an urge that cannot be overlooked’ or a ‘point of desire’. A character or voice arrives out of the blue, takes hold of you as in a waking dream, make me real, it says, and you do.
By Farouk Gulsara
Malaysia National Day Special
Like the Sword of Damocles, his domestic troubles hung over his head. There was nothing much he could do about it. It had gone on too long, too deep. He just had to live with it and move around it. He could not give up everything. There was a nagging heaviness in his temples. He knew things were going to take a nasty turn and it might get worse. He had created some arbitrary goals to improve his life, but this one had crashed it all. But still, life had to continue. As they say in showbiz, the show must go on.
He knew it was a bad idea. With all these problems plaguing him, he thought it was inappropriate for him to participate in this event. But then, it was also a lifetime achievement — a success hailed by his kinsmen as the epitome of his checkered life. Akin to a water lily, growing wild amongst the filth of marsh, stench and reptiles infested wetland to glorify the lotus feet of Buddha, it was an achievement enviable to some but yearned by all and privileged to only a few!
The problem, as he understood, was not something that developed overnight. Like a crystal, the lattice had developed over the years slowly but surely to its full wrathful glory. How could he be so dumb? Or was it beyond his control and was decided by the constellations and the genetic predisposition?
He swept his gaze on her from head to toe. “Who are you?” he asked.
She turned towards him and stared back. “I’m the pink rose you kept on top of this table here,” she explained, pointing at the table by his bed.
He ran towards the table. Frantically he looked around for the rose. The king noticed that around the soles of her feet there were rose petals. “DID YOU STEAL IT?” he yelled.
“No, I did not. I am that rose. I’m here to tell you that …”
“LIAR! GUARDS, TAKE THIS THIEF TO WHERE SHE BELONGS!” he shouted, cutting her off mid- sentence. He grabbed her upper arm and threw her down to the floor.
Here there is so much paranoia. They are angry and afraid that the colonial powers will keep coming and they will never stop. They say that the peninsula is just a puppet nation, run by the British imperialists and greedy conglomerates…In Sumatera, at least, I am far away from Jakarta. There the soldiers and the Islamists and the Communists are going to kill each other one day. But for now I am in Medan, where I can stay with people I trust.
Our ancestors came from here, they say. This is where all our stories began. The name ‘Melayu’ itself: In old dictionaries it meant ‘to flee’. In that sense we’ve always been wanderers, sojourners in the archipelago. But how much of that do we remember today? Does any of it still matter to us, in an age of atomic weapons and satellites?
How much I miss Malaya. I never saw much of it after I was taken to prison. Five years of prison, kept in filthy cells, where they beat us if we tried to talk to each other. Funny how many whispered stories still passed through the walls of Pudu, keeping us angry and alive. And then they told me that I had a choice of more years in prison, or I could go to Indonesia to join the rest of my people. How I laughed when they said that, how they forget that this region is a mixture of faces: There is the Malay, the Bugis, the Javanese, the Sulawesians, even the Chinese. In Medan I am close enough to home that on some days, when I drive to the coast, I imagine I can see the peninsula on the other side of the Strait. But I cannot cross it.
Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty
Title: State of Emergency
Author: Jeremy Tiang
Publisher: Epigram Books, 2017
Number of pages: 245
Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency won 2018’s Singapore Literature Prize (SLP) for fiction. Kate Griffin, one of the judges for the award, wrote in an article, “Erasing Histories” (https://nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk/article/erasing-histories/): ‘State of Emergency, Jeremy Tiang’s beautifully written first novel, highlights a lesser known side of Singaporean history, exploring the leftist movements and political detentions in Malaysia and Singapore from the 1940s onwards, through the stories and memories of an extended family.’
Focused mainly within the local and Malayan Chinese community, the Communist movement found refuge in the jungles of Malaysia. The novel traces the development and then the quelling of this movement through the stories of three generations of Jason Low’s extended family. Jason’s wife, Siew Lee, chooses Communism over her family and leaves for the jungles of Malaya, partly to save herself and partly to live by her beliefs. Jason loses his sister in the 1965 Konfrontasi terrorist bomb blast in MacDonald House where she worked in a bank. The Konfrontasi was an Indonesian reaction to oppose the colonial decision for the formation of a separate Malaysia (of which Singapore remained a part till August 1966). These political movements in the ASEAN rip through the fabric of the Low family, tearing it apart. Though his daughter continues to work as a Singapore government official, his son leaves him to immigrate to the United Kingdom and Jason Low finds himself in a ‘C’ class geriatric ward.
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