Saturday, 29 November 2014

Singapore Notebook, 29 November:
Where we join the Triads, eat some more, celebrate my birthday and lounge about

We're back in Raffles again, the five of us, in the Long Bar which is crowded. Peanut husks are lying all over the floor, under our feet. The place is pretty full and loud music is playing upstairs, recorded at first, then live. We are lucky to find a table. The clientele is mostly European, older (though probably no older than me) a little tired perhaps, lounging, gazing, some in small parties, in conversation. Might Raffles have come down in the world a little? Where was it in the world? Where in the world am I?

I am sixty-six, or rather will be on the stroke of midnight, but the celebration is now. We are all dressed up. Clarissa and Annaliza are in nonya outfits as appropriate for the Peranakan restaurant we have just left.  The blouse part of the outfit is the kebaya, worn with a sarong or kain panjang Clarissa bought her outfit in the Arab / Malay quarter, the same shop where Alvin and I bought our shirts. She wears cherry red on top with a leaf-green sarong and scarf or selendang. Annaliza is in a lime green top with brown sarong. The terms overlap a little but I am sneaking in two pictures to clarifiy matters.

Clarissa and Annaliza

Emelda is wearing a batik sarong, the whole may be a baju kurung but you are asking the wrong man for confirmation of that. You can see the colors: the gold, the black, the russet brown.

Emelda and Clarissa

I suppose you may as well have Alvin and I, fully batiked up, ready to fight for justice and cocktails for all. We can shoot poems at you from any high height at any well-appointed restaurant you like. We are fully equipped with beautiful women and that makes us dangerous. If that doesn't terrify you, nothing will.

Myself and Alvin. We have no guns but we can spit poems (thank you Auden)

Thus it was and thus it was. Before Raffles, at True Blue, the Peranakan restaurant. Another master chef. I am hoping Alvin will write a post for me on the cuisines of Singapore as his powers in this regard are far greater than mine. It is all very delicious is what I say for now. Check the menu online for yourself.

This high living makes me feel occasionally dizzy looking down into the chasms of Norfolk, but now that I am a fully paid up Triad member we will find ways of changing that.


I make jokes about being on Route 66 and getting my kicks out of that but Route 66 leads on and it's a pretty fast highway. I survive by asking questions, striving to understand things. Looking back on life I don't suppose I have ever been a master of what is called small talk, that necessary filling of the social soup with charming croutons of speech, but it could be worse. At times I retreat into myself a little and try to feel about my soul to see what comes up, but friendship isn't all intensive research: it is, if not a soup, then a kind of bath where one bathes in the presence of those one loves or likes or admires or finds interesting.

Is this any different here? I doubt it. I am sceptical about all broad generalisation, though none of us can help making them if only because we have to start somewhere. Just the weekend left in Singapore then on to Kuala Lumpur and Kelantan.

What have I learned?

The country isn't the caricature some might have it be, a place all technology and money and striving for ever more of the same under a benevolent looking but sinister autocracy. It is historically precarious and nothing is assured. It has hauled itself up by its wits and anxieties. I can't help thinking it works, or has worked, at whatever cost - but what cost? - in terms of things I naturally value. And that thought troubles me because it shouldn't, not really, not in European terms at least. I keep thinking of Viktor Orbán's ambition to turn Hungary into a kind of Singapore and shudder, not for Singapore but for Hungary.

But then there is history to take into account and the history is wildly different: different in the great European colonial powers, different in Hungary, and very different in Singapore.  We were discussing British colonialism at dinner last night and how relatively benign it seems to have been here. People don't think of it as tyranny, nor is Singaporean history, even post-colonial history, taught in those terms. Granted, as our friends round the table agree, that the opposite caricature of gunboats bringing civilisation to naive fishermen is off the mark too, but the British seem to have acted intelligently, relying on existing power structures, not bleeding the country dry as the Dutch had done. It is worth considering this, and then again re-considering it. Truisms about history are the stuff of political expediency. Crass exploitation might have had an element of leavening missionary endeavour that wasn't all about wearing bowler hats, learning reams of Tennyson, attending C of E services, and adopting the missionary position.

Time does not absolve anyone but it packages us too neatly.

Hungarian history - a great epic of one lost war after another, of mounting resentment and linguistic isolation - is different again. I won't re-visit it in this post. Orbán's admiration is not confined to Singapore but includes Russia, China and Turkey. At best he might think he could be his country's Lee Kuan Yew, setting up his post-technological sub-kakania, filling it with patriotic warriors in the cause, and so lead his true people to ever greener pastures.

That's not how it is here. The young are beginning to break out but in a relatively gentle way. It is, for the most part, a gentle place. One bleeds politely. On public transport one stands up for the psychologically battered and allows them briefly to sit down.

I dip myself into the water of the place and splash about a bit at the comfortable end at a comfortable depth.  I am, after all, sixty-six now. The old gentleman must have his comforts and harmless illusions. He is not really a member of the Triad. Give him a book to read. Let him compose his decorative elegies. We won't burn his books yet.


Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday George. The photos are fun, but more than that too. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with strangers.

Dennis Tomlinson said...

Happy Birthday too! My wife and I went to Singapore last year. She was disappointed with the Raffles Hotel, which had been completely rebuilt and expanded since her last visit, though the Long Bar had been preserved. We didn't find much of colonial Singapore left during our three or four days there!

George S said...

A late answer I'm afraid since time has rushed by. NO, there is little of colonial Singapore downtown but Geylan preserves a good deal. It isnot quite dead in other reaches of the island either. Raffles is much bigger than it was I understand but it'sstill worth a visit for effort alone. And the Japanese sushi kitchen, Shinji, is pretty heavenly.