I’m Back

I’m not a blogger but I understand its usefulness to vent the “et cetera, et cetera”.

So here is my first blog … ever … in celebration of launching Exactly Foundation. With this, Exactly’s website goes live!

Upon my return in November 2014 after three years studying at SOAS and Goldsmiths in London, I am reminded of what’s new (for me) in Singapore:

  • It’s really humid and hot, if you don’t have an office to escape to. “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”, circa 1931. I stay in, find a hawker center and chill.
  • New friends, new spaces, new conversations. I started immediately to register Exactly Foundation and get to know the Singapore photography and photographer scene. There are so many things and buildings unknown to me (the 1930s Capital Building is re-named Capital Piazza, oh please) plus so much construction on the roads. Other whoa moments: we have a stray dog problem? And a rat problem? We have wild pigs in town areas? There is a nursing home for the elderly in Bras Basah Complex and Waterloo Center? Rochor Center with its hundreds of residents and shopkeepers is going to be demolished … for a highway? Why are the hedges and railings so high at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue on Waterloo Street? All the sand used for Singapore’s land reclamation is stored like sand dunes in Punggol?   It is all so surreal. Sometimes, I can’t believe this is Singapore.
  • I also decided not to go back to driving my own car but to take public transport (London trained me well). I just couldn’t make the math work: for all that I would have to pay to fund driving my own car in Singapore, I could hire a private car to take me every day to and from Johor Bahru (the southernmost part of Malaysia closest to Singapore) and still have change leftover. And I don’t even like driving, especially with all the ever-changing road diversions from construction of new subway stations. Qualifying as a senior citizen this year, most of my rides are 56 cents or 90 cents … can’t even buy a cup of coffee with that. So what about riding the bus: I see the racial diversity, many in their dress of choice; 4 out of 5 are scrolling their mobile devices; I must have time (most trips take at least 40 minutes); I avoid peak-hour crowds (I’m not working so why rush; shops and museums don’t open till 10 am); the bus’ over-the-top air-conditioning is so appreciated in this tropical heat; no eating or drinking on public transport (what a drag, had to change my London habit); I have found every spot of shade between my apt and the bus stop.
  • I walk a lot. And love it. You see, feel, smell, eat, drink, fan so much more. So many new shops and eateries, much quirkier that I remember and clearly small biz owners, there’s entrepreneurship happening – Istanbul Gourmet? Ameba with its Kongsimi (translation: “what are you talking about?”) series of notebooks. Boxes and notebooks from Prints Swedish Design but actually from Singapore, with Euro prices. The SOTA Shop of screen-print everything. Strangers Reunion café with cartwheel-size waffles and spam fries in gentrified Kampong Bahru. Northern Chinese dumplings by real northern Chinese people. That last thing has made my day on many days.
  • I’m people watching all the time. On the bus and subway, I mentally reel out my critique of who needs a pedicure: many people (local and foreign, me included) look like they’re going on some city tour or to the beach. With so many clothing shops in Singapore, can’t we look better put together and still survive the heat? And what’s with the flip-flops?
  • I’m still annoyed by some things: hair and food bits in sinks of public toilets. I’m now often in hawker centers, food courts, malls, libraries, all kinds of restaurants, all kinds of offices … I just don’t think Singapore is that clean.  We are not clean, period. Kishore Mahbubani wrote in his Can Singapore Survive? that Singapore looks clean because of the battalions of cleaners around us. But not everywhere, and where they are not is where the real habits of Singaporeans show up. Diners are now being requested to clear their trays in food courts, this is 2015. And some even think bad hygiene habits are from the tourists and new immigrants … not true, it’s us.
  • I’m still surprised by the command of English of some so-called well-educated, well-placed Singaporeans. I love taxi-driver-Singlish: “Why so high Gee-Gee-P, siao lah” = why focus on GDP growth, it’s crazy. What kills me is “You went to PinkDot? (Singapore’s Gay Pride). I suppose we need to accommodate those born with defects”. Whoa?!
  • “… I’m confused … what do Singaporeans want?” was the best and last question after 1.5 days of listening to the highest-ranking luminaries of the land in the “Singapore at 50: What Lies Ahead? (SG50+)” conference organized by the NUS Institute of Policy Studies. The end of the meandering answer was: “I’m just as blur as you are”. Are we (state and citizens) “interdependent” or “co-dependent”? As in we’re comfortable and uncomfortable with each other and since we haven’t thought deeply about it, we stay put and self-centered. One speaker repeatedly harped on “the center must hold strong” to sustain Singapore’s future success — which “center”, who “center”, what about the peripheries, aren’t there more “centers” now? After listening to a friend lament about her partner, I said “ … but you love him, right?” and she conceded, “Yah … what to do?” We’ve made precarity a lifestyle.
  • Yes, everything in Singapore is fast-paced, efficiently done, chop-chop … even conversations are efficient. An issue is phrased in one sentence, analysis in the next, short 2-part-ping-pong exchange. Then, we’re done. Next topic. And in that flash of an encounter, the blame is said and set. Done.

Which is why I have started Exactly Foundation. I want to slow things down and scale things down especially on discussing difficult community issues. No mega, mind-numbing seminars. Max 15 photographs, max 15 people around my dining table. No selling. We talk. If one person is changed for the better, even years later, because of one photograph he/she saw at an Exactly dinner, I’m happy.

Two to three projects a year. Rest of the time, I stay out of the sun.