The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Month: July, 2013

Love without persecution

I was thinking about how recently in the United States, the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Proposition 8 (Prop 8) were both declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States. What this means is that same-sex married couples can officially be recognised as ‘spouses’ in the eyes of the law and be eligible for federal marriage benefits, and that people in California can now legally marry.

There is a very distinct separation of between the government and the courts in the United States. This allows the courts to strike down laws set up by governments that apparently do not reflect the will of its people (the Constitution). Unfortunately that is not quite the case in Singapore.

Even though Singapore has a constitution, the Constitution does not seem to be supreme. It is of popular opinion that the government and the courts are one and the same. Even Wikipedia has noted that parliamentary sovereignty is the de facto characterisation of the legal system in the country. As such, the will of the parliament is often the will of the law, it seems.

In Singapore, under its penal code, there is a statute, Section 377, that criminalises sex “against the order of nature.” Its subsection 377A states that any male person who, in public or private, commits against any male person any act of gross indecency shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years. This effectively makes homosexual sex illegal.

Section 377 was repealed on October 2007, but its subsection 377A was retained. On the decision, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that “Singapore is basically a conservative society…The family is the basic building block of this society. And by family in Singapore we mean one man, one woman, marrying, having children and bringing up children within that framework of a stable family unit.”

Decriminalising homosexual sex is not going to break up families. Not that we’re even debating on the same stage of same-sex marriage as in the United States, but has helpfully outlined how legalising gay marriage affects society (hint: it does not affect you in any way). Decriminalising homosexual sex is not going to cause heterosexual or homosexual couples to suddenly want to commit bestiality, or any of the slippery-slope arguments pitched by proponents of the legislation.

If the government wishes to focus on the family as it claims, why can’t having two mothers or two fathers make a good family? Surely they are just as good as any mother-father pair family, or single-parent family? There are tons of research that show that same-sex parents families do just as well, if not better, than different-sex parents. I would think that having two parents would provide for the children better than a family on just one income. If the government is so concerned about “family units,” then perhaps they should consider making adoption legal for homosexual couples, and allow them tax and national benefits as well.

If the focus is that it is the will of the people not to accept homosexuality because they are conservative, even if the government were to decriminalise homosexual acts of sex, it is not going to stop the homophobia that permeates the country. Repealing 377a is not going to stop the cries of “bapok” and “ah gua” on the streets, just as outlawing racism in Singapore is not going to stop the mutual jeerings of “ah pu neh neh” and “munjen” in the neighbourhood.

But at least we can offer equal protection to everyone, regardless of sexuality, from persecution from the law.

Never mind that the community is conservative, never mind that the majority have yet to accept homosexuals as social equals, but at least decriminalising homosexual acts of sex would be one less guillotine hanging over their heads.

What is the purpose of the government? If the government says it is there to reflect the views of the people it serves, then, well, the seething dissent from the masses these days from unpopular bills such as the move to regulate internet news is the exact opposite of representing its population.

If the government is there to lead by example, why couldn’t the government lead by example on this front, and set a precedent for reducing victimisation of its own people?

There is a disconnect between some laws of the land and its people; just because things are law doesn’t necessarily mean that the mindsets of people will automatically change. The outlawing of secret societies did not magically make people stop subscribing to the ideas that gangs offer protection and fear; it merely drove them underground. It was the eventual modernisation and improvements to policing that left all but a handful still loyal to the idea of organised brotherhood. Singaporeans are slowly accepting homosexuality more are more, regardless of whether the law decrees it or not.

So the courts might as well do the right thing, and the set the go-ahead for love without fear of persecution.


Invitations of a candle


Little moth, O little moth,
will you dance with me?
I sparkle and shine
all pretty and bright;
a beacon in the night.

Brave moth, O brave moth,
do I not inspire?
My flickering ways
set your passions aflame;
your goals, ambitions, aims.

Never mind the pile
of charred moths before you
lying at my foot.

Because you, illuminated and blinded
by my warm light
cease to be a moth for a night,
but become a butterfly
like they who flutter by;
unfazed, unhurried,
because you, with your Icarus wings,
know that you can make it.

So come and dance with me.

How to make your National Day songs work

Last year, around the period of Singapore’s National Day, I wrote a piece on how Singaporeans are liking each successive new National Day song less. Well National Day is coming up again and predictably, there is yet another new song.

Whether or not the locals liked it can be easily summed up in the following parody video.

For those who can’t read the subtitles to the part at the back of the video, I provide a more accurate and closer translation:

“Oh-oh-oh” your mum’s head! Are you done already? I’ve already told you I can’t, yet you still go “Oh-oh-oh-oh.” You completely disregard whether people can stand it or not. You “oh” one more time, I’ll kill you!

Needless to say this year’s song is not well-received.

Singapore is one of the few countries where nationalism is strung proudly on a pole and waved in your face and played to your ears. Nationalism in other countries are rarely worn on one’s chest, because the tacit knowledge that one loves one country is sufficient. Sure, you have Americana, Japanese wave flags on the palace grounds during the Emperor’s birthday, et al, but they are hardly a concerted effort by the government to promote it. The last time I checked, North Korea was the only other one doing it.

One of the ways Singapore does it is by coming up with a new theme song every year to celebrate the nation and to foster ‘national spirit.’ It began in 1986 and after 1987, took a hiatus before coming back in 1998, where every year after that a new song is written. The music is rather catchy, and they’re played all over the country; on television, on the radio, in schools, on the train stations, but the lyrics are rather… shall we say nationalistic.

Here are some choice lyrics from National Day songs in the past till present.

  • You and me/ We’ll do our part/ Stand together/ Heart to heart/ We’re going to show the world what Singapore can be/ We can achieve, we can achieve — 1986, Count on Me Singapore
  • There was a time, when people said that Singapore won’t make it, but we did/ There was a time, when troubles seemed too much for us to take, but we did — 1987, We are Singapore
  • This is Home, truly, where I know I must be/ Where my dreams wait for me/ Where that river always flows/ This is home, surely, as my senses tell me/ This is where, I won’t be alone/ For this where I know it’s home — 1998, Home
  • Stars and crescent shine on me/ Make us more than what we can be/ All our dreams come true/ As we all grow stronger — 2000, Shine on Me
  • Where I belong/ Where I keep my heart and soul/ Where we are one big family/ I want the whole world to know/ I want to shout it out loud/ That this is where I know I belong — 2001, Where I Belong
  • There’s no place I’d rather be/ You’ll always be a part of me/ And even though I’ve roamed the world/ It’s still my home I long to see — 2007, There’s No Place I’d Rather Be

You get the idea.

Do they just simply not like the tunes? While the past few years’ official National Day songs were not well-received, other smaller efforts by regular people were preferred over the official ones.

I think it might be something more complex than people not just liking the tunes. Firstly, National Day song lyrics are incredibly cheesy, and Singaporeans know it. When we recall our favourite National Day songs, it is never for its lyrics, but ones that sound nicest to us. Sure, we hang our flags, we tune in to watch the telly and fireworks on National Day, but I think it is a stretch to say that people fervently subscribe to the content contained in the lyrics.

And when a government-led effort to try to rap out nationalistic message in the songs, I think that people feel it’s overkill. It’s trying too hard to make nationalism seem cool. Anyone remember the public service announcements in the form of raps by local comic icon, Phua Chu Kang?

Those weren’t cool.

It’s bad enough that the words, along with the tunes, of National Day songs are stuck in our heads. They sure are stuck in mine for the most part. Thanks, Singapore. There is no need to try to put on a veneer of ‘cool’ in addition to trying to be catchy.

And so, as part of my, er, patriotism, here are some suggestions on how to make your National Day songs work

  1. Drop the rap.
  2. Forget big choruses, focus on just one or two singers. Don’t be afraid to reuse older, popular singers. They are half the reason why people even bother to listen to the songs. (The other half is because we’re forced to)
  3. Themes that are good: Home, friends and family, being together, fun and laughter.
  4. Themes that are bad: Singapore overcoming adversity, how mighty Singapore is, showing people we can achieve.
  5. The tunes must be simple and hummable. Have you ever heard commercial jingles with complex arpeggios? I think not.
  6. The songs must be within the reasonable ranges of regular humans. We don’t all have five octaves of pitch.
  7. Slow songs are meant to evoke longing and wistfulness, faster songs for vibrancy and liveliness. Play mix-n-match with the Nationalistic jingoism with the appropriate tempo.
  8. Children singers are a hit-or-miss.

Combine all these… and you probably get 1998’s Home. Which I admit, is probably my favourite. I still cringe whenever I have to think about the lyrics, but then I just hum/sing it and pretend the words are no more than just words.

Like we all do.

Sorrowful Rice 黯然销魂饭

Sorrowful rice

I tried making my own char siew, or Chinese barbecue roast pork, for the first time today. People usually buy them because nobody owns a spit and a fire pit, but I learnt that you can actually cook it in the oven, and char it on the stove top!

Given that I now have a batch of char siew, a natural dish to make with it would be what is known as “Sorrowful Rice” or 黯然销魂饭. The dish is essentially regular ol’ char siew rice, or char siew over steamed white rice, with a side of a sunny-side up and some vegetables.

“Sorrowful Rice” is actually the name of a dish from a movie, God of Cookery (食神).

In it, the protagonist Stephen Chow competes in a competition and strives to create the most delicious thing he’s ever tasted. He reaches into his sorrow and memory of a woman, who made him a bowl of char siew rice when he was downtrodden, and she supposedly took a bullet for him. With that, he created the “Sorrowful Rice.”

The sorrow is apparently onions.

I reach into my sorrow and create my own “Sorrowful Rice.”

Grandma, you never got to see me graduate college. You never even got to see me off as I left for New York later that year. You never got to see me do the ‘triumphant return.’ I have yet to return, and it seems I am becoming quite the prodigal son. Will you still be proud of me, even if I am struggling to make something of myself and having racked up a colossal collegiate debt?

What will you say, if you learn that I do not wish to return to the land where you are buried?

On 28th May, 2009, at around 5 AM, you passed away in the hospital. I remember, because I wrote it down.

I also wrote down having heard you cry when Great Grandmother died. It was really painful.

A grandson should never live to see his grandmother cry. Or any old people cry.

I wrote that down in my logs. In my mind, it seemed impossible that you were one to sob uncontrollably, for you were my stoic grandmother; frustrating at times, but always well-meaning and grandmotherly.

I also remember, and wrote down when your youngest son, my uncle, passed away. By traditions and customs, you were not allowed to attend his wake. I can only imagine what grief it must be — grief I didn’t want to imagine, because I remembered the grief you had at Great Grandmother’s funeral.

Many times whenever I am doing something, I would think, “What if she could see me now?” And then I remembered that you can’t, and I am reminded of the finality of death.

Uncle (叔叔), I wrote down what you told me when I visited you on 12th April, 2008.

The first few things he said to me were, “Is the army stressful?” and then he went on about how I should learn to take things easy and learn how to let things go. However I feel that it was more for the benefit of himself, as if he were repeating these to remind himself exactly what he has to do.

But he seems ailing in his road to recovery. He doesn’t wish to pick himself up, saying how exhausted he is and all, and all he does is lie in bed. He doesn’t move much, not even to leave the room or to sit on a sofa. That is bad.

Hope he perks up soon? I’ve even offered going out with him for photography as bribes.

What I did not write down, but I always remember was when you asked me that day, “So what are your plans for college?”

“I’m probably going to apply for college in the United States,” I said.

“That’s nice. What are you going to be studying there?” he asked.


“Journalism? That’s good. I wanted to be a journalist too when I was younger, but I never studied hard, and I couldn’t be one. You should study hard and become one for me.”

You passed away a week later.

I graduated journalism school, but I have yet to find a job in journalism. I am going to keep trying, uncle. With the memories of that robot dinosaur you gave me as a kid, and also that toy guy that you disabled the recoil feature for because it scared me, I will become the journalist you couldn’t be. I could not keep the promise to go do photography with you, but I will try my darndest best with this one.

I should ease up with the onions. This is too much sorrow for me.

Water glasses

You can’t drink out of a glass half-empty; emptiness has no taste. A glass half-full is half-full with water to cool you down, to perk you up, but above all, to sustain you till the next time you need it again. Drinking half-emptiness nourishes nothing.

There is emptiness in a glass, but only when there is emptiness in a glass can you fill it up. A solid glass cylinder cannot hold anything, and any attempt to fill it up results in a mess and a whole lot of wasted water. But by recognising that a glass can be empty can one begin to impart some salve in it.

Why fill up a glass to the brim? What use is there to beat all emptiness out of a glass? Even the steadiest of hands are bound to slip up, and spill. It is fine if a glass still has emptiness in it. After all, you didn’t pick up a glass for its emptiness, did you? You picked it up for its what it’s filled with.

So quit griping about half-emptiness and drink out of your half-fool cup, you full.

Rest in Pieces: The cost of vision

ripglassesI’ve been going without glasses for about two weeks now, and I’m still in one piece. But my glasses aren’t; they’re in two.

Deciding that I was not a fan for living a life of impressionist vision, I got a rather splendid Groupon thing where I pay $35 for an eye exam and that includes a $200 value that goes towards the lens and frames. I was quite thrilled at the prospects of having to pay only $35 for new glasses.

What I did not know was how expensive glasses are in the United States.

Back home, the glasses that I got (and the one that is currently broken) cost me about US$70 for both the lens and frames. They were not fancy glasses, just plain, black plastic ones that were suitable for use in the military during my time in National Service. The lens were high-index lenses and had UV protection.

At the optician’s in Park Slope, where the voucher was for, I was looking for a similar pair to the ones I broke; black, plastic, durable, unassuming. I was handed a pair that I was assured are very durable since they are made by a company that makes sports glasses. I was rather pleases with it and was almost about to make a decision when I suddenly remembered,

“Oh, how much are these?” I asked.

“$349,” he replied.

I balked. $349? And that was not inclusive of the lenses.

“Have you got anything else? Cheaper ones, perhaps?”

And the optician helpfully pulled out a couple more from the back of the shop.

“These are $249, and $199,” he said.

I looked around undecidedly. I had not planned to be spending any amount of money that exceeded double digits.

“And this one is $149,” he said, taking one more from inside a drawer.

It was black, light, unassuming and looks durable.

“I think I’ll take this one,” I said. That left me $50 for lenses.

And then we had to look at the lenses.

“We use Nikon lenses because we believe they are one of the best in the market for value and durability.”

The high-index lenses were $225, but it was not like he could pull out any other kinds from more drawers.

“That will be all,” I said, a little shaken from the day’s events. And I had only been in there for about 20 minutes. 20 minutes was all it took to wipe out everything I’ve earned from street-performing in the past few weeks and more.

But at least I will be able to see now.

Rest in pieces, old (cheap) pair of glasses

Pokémon heals hearts

chanseyhealsToday, I met up with a friend who wanted someone to play video games with, to help him get over his breakup. I agreed, and we ended up playing Pokémon together. We battled, traded, fought co-operatively. It was pretty good fun.

At the end of the day, he texted me to let me know that he really appreciated what I did. What he didn’t know was that he was helping me too.

Just as he needed the company and a distraction to pull him away from thoughts of his breakup, I too needed reprieve from sitting around the house obsessively checking my emails trying to see if any of my applications got back. Every phone call from an unknown number gave me a surge of hope, to which I always reply in my most professional, “Hello?” only to find out that it is the gas company calling to confirm that I changed address, or the building management asking about a flooding situation that happened in my toilet.

Each call a surge of hope to be dashed, every time.

And thus with Pokémon and friends, in that time where we pitted pixels against pixels, my (and his) worries were forgotten for a spell of time.

Graduation: We did it! What is ‘it’?

About a month and a half ago, I graduated with my bachelors from New York University. It was a pretty grand affair. The Yankee Stadium was awash with a sea of purple and camera flashes, and while a sizeable portion of the student body was not impressed that their commencement speaker was David Boies, the lawyer who got Prop 8 overturned, I thought it was pretty rad.

However, I just could not muster up the enthusiasm to enjoy the ceremony. Around me, friends were congratulating each other, high-fiving, taking pictures of themselves in graduation regalia.

diditI just didn’t feel it. People were telling each other, “We did it!” But, what is it about “it” that we did that is so worth congratulating?

Perhaps I was reluctant to be ending a period in my life where I didn’t have to worry about finding jobs and entering the “real world?” Perhaps I was unhappy to be leaving friends I’ve made in my four years?

No, not really. University for me has always been a gateway for me to enter the world of journalism. I practically entered college with my major declared. No fudging around classes, wondering what life was going to be for me when I left college — no, I did college for what lies after. I was eager to start my foray into professional journalism. And no, while I had a handful of friends at college, my closest friends in the city were mostly outside of college (circus, online communities, etc), and the close friends I made in college are still in the city anyway. Also, it is not as if I am one to bemoan having to leave people behind; after all I am not stranger to uprooting myself. I left a lifetime of friends and family 9000 miles behind to be here.

What I was not enthused about was of the zeitgeist of “We did it!” What was particularly hard about college that surviving it made it an ordeal worth congratulating? A student who puts in conscientious and regular effort into his or her school work will find that making it to graduation is not that big a deal. Perhaps we now live in a culture where “keeping up the good work” has become a rarity and that one who displays it should be congratulated.

Or perhaps I grew up in a culture where such things are expected of you. Insert Asian stereotypes here, but verily making it to the finishing line doesn’t turn heads, doesn’t make eyelids bat. Distinctions do. I was not a spectacular student, and I even lapsed at school work at times, but I can say that I consistently put in effort in college, and I came out okay. I didn’t graduate with Latin honours, but my grades were not abysmal (3.5 out of a 4? I’ll take it.). I am sure if I put in more effort, I’d have gotten better grades and all that but that is no more than a numbers’ chase.

One’s path in college, no matter the classes taken, is predictable. One is expected to put in a certain amount of work into it, and at the end of the day, you come out unscathed and meeting expectations. Do we congratulate people for meeting expectations? Maybe we do, but people at graduation make it out to be such a big deal it is as if people enter college with the expectations that they are all going to flunk out, and that having made it to graduation actually is exceeding expectations.

Why would anyone want to enter college expecting to fail anyway?

What I would say “We did it!” to would be more of the unexpected things one does in college; things that a student endeavours at his or her own risk with no idea what the outcome would be. Things I would celebrate are:

  • Having started a community of my own, the NYU Violet Circus Arts
  • Making the effort to immerse myself in the local cultures, such as having performed at the Howl! Festival
  • Learning to extend myself in ways I’d never have done back home, such as forming friendships online, etc

The common denominator of the above seem to be about forging and integrating into communities, and they don’t seem like much, but these are things that were quite unknown to me back home. Going to gaming meetups from Reddit groups? Would never even have touched Reddit back home. Talking to random poi spinners in the park and subsequently being introduced to the local scene of fire spinning and circus arts? People scarcely even publicly practice circus arts, and that’s not to say that there are very many.

In comparison, having done these as a student was above and beyond what I felt was expected of me as a student. The true growth came not understanding of linguistics and journalism in the classrooms, but from what I made myself do outside of them.

Waking up is the hardest thing to do

You still have your alarm set for 9am, but you don’t know what for. After all, it is not as if a day of paid productivity awaits for you today.

You wake up just before 9am, but you don’t know what for. You lie in bed, shifting uncomfortably knowing that there is no impetus for you to remain awake.

You end up going to bed and closing your eyes. The fantasy of darkness and sleep continue but then you wake again. Surely it must be 10am now?

it is 9.15am.

Going back to sleep after having woken up twice seems like sloth unduly so. You make a beeline for your morning ritual.

Not it is not coffee, no it is not breakfast. You check your emails. New mail, but nothing consequential. “Buy new discounted things on sale!” they scream. Every single day.

The morning glory wakes up to be battered into submission, battered into a waking dream, every single day.

Don’t smile the Mirthless Smile

I went performing in the park again today, and the collection wasn’t as good as last week’s. But it is an amount that will go towards helping me through this period. However that is not today’s topic.

Prior to today, I haven’t had much reason to smile. I lived the past few days with nary a need to even twitch my facial muscles upwards. Ultimately, I actually did not smile at all for the past three to four days. Personally, I don’t smile very much anyway, unless I have to or something or someone is really funny.

However, while performing today, I was all smiles and winks, a stark contrast to how I’ve been living the past few days. After a while, I was starting to wonder if I was really smiling or was I making my face resemble a smile for the purpose of my performance?

I have a friend who is an actor/comic. Every now and then a laughter comes out, but it sounds executed on demand; bitter and a little forceful. That is less a laughter than it is an exhalation. I say, “Don’t laugh the bitter laugh,” yet here it seems that I am smiling the Mirthless Smile, committing what I preach not to do.

Studies have shown that simply arranging your facial muscles into the semblance of a smile is enough to trigger endorphins that makes one happy, which in turn makes them smile. Was I unhappy when I was smiling, or was I trying to make myself happy? I have had so little to smile about recently.

But perhaps I was really smiling because I was happy to be performing. From when I was learning to unicycle, the moment I sit on the saddle, almost uncontrollably, a smile begins to form, because I like unicycling and simply sitting on my unicycle makes me happy. Granted, today, I was probably more washed out from the heat (38c/100f), making it hard to notice if I was having fun or not, but I believe that I was still happy to be spinning and unicycling around.

You see, performing takes up so much of my focus and attention I could scarcely spare any mental faculties for ruminating on whatever sad thing in my life. At the moment, putting my all into my moves and producing art that pleases me does make me happy. Satisfaction at a job well done, so as to speak.

My smiles while performing could not be Mirthless. The day that happens will be a day when I stop enjoying performing, and start to see it a chore. Which is kind of why I’ve resisted putting out a collecting box for my performance, until now. Let us hope that the Mirthless Smile never comes.

And after today’s performance, it’s back to another period of stony-faced austerity.