At Hyde Park, during a weeklong visit to London, 1993
Life, with no quarrels
GROWING UP in the 1960s, my school friends and I were filled with ideals and passion to learn new skills and knowledge so that we could save the world and make a difference.
Those were the days of the Cold War where most people feared their political leaders were leading them towards total annihilation for the sake of some crazy ideologies. But many of us, the restless young ones, also believed we could change the course of events if only our dreams were big enough and our passion bold enough.
In 1968 when I was about to complete my Secondary school education, The lyrics of a song sung by Mary Hopkin turned my brain feverish with excitement:
Once upon a time there was a tavern
Where we used to raise a glass or two
Remember how we laughed away the hours
And dreamed of all the great things we would do
Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
More than half a century has passed since, and in this little red dot called Singapore where I live, our dreams have shrunk considerably. We no longer care much about doing great things and saving the world. We are more busy now fighting for our jobs against the threat of cheap foreign labour and holding on to what little savings we have left.
The lack of cash is no disgrace but it is downright inconvenient and hampers us from the petite indulgences we were used to: travel, dining out, dressing well, reading glossy magazines, fiddling the latest electronic jewel, attending concerts, gulping beer in noisy pubs, driving gleaming cars, and sleeping on soft sheets at day’s end.
Well, I don’t follow the Singapore herd. I can’t breathe in crowded shopping malls. I despise the slick, ad-infested magazines and the consumerist lifestyle they advocate. I avoid Chinese restaurants with their pricey, MSG-laced abalone, shark fin soup and bird nest soup, all with zero nutrition value. I don’t swallow Viagra pills (which turn the eyes blue, followed by splitting migraine and a heart attack). I don’t go to the cinema unless the movie is mindlessly entertaining.
I don’t waste good money on alcohol, hair scalp treatment or weight-loss programmes. Alcohol is poison to one’s health. Hair restoration is a myth. And the only effective technique to shed kilos is to run on the treadmill where one hour of hard exercise eliminates 300g of body weight, as I have personally experienced.
I don’t care for those Cs that male Singaporeans crave – condos, credit cards, clubs, cars and coffee-tone chicks with perky breasts in nearby Indonesian islands. But folks around me still measure success by the number of Cs they have accumulated, including, of course, cholesterol.
But I don’t live Spartan, either. I lust after hardbound, quality books, and I’ve bought more than a roomful of them, mostly from Amazon.com and the Folio Society in England. At $30-$100 a tome, they are an indulgence. I once borrowed an exquisitely-printed 10-volume set of Tale of Genji from the local Kinokuniya bookstore for a photo-shoot to illustrate my newspaper article on seminal works of literature in Asia. When I returned the books, the store offered to sell the set to me for $500 but as much as I love re-reading Genji I didn’t buy it because (a) I didn’t have that much cash, and (b) I couldn’t understand the grassy Japanese script on the cream-smooth rice-fibre pages.
I enjoy a long run and I lift dumbbells to get rid of neck and shoulder aches. In my early 20s, I was skinny and unfit. I used to suffer recurring headache and a runny nose. Now in middle age, I have re-discovered the exuberance and euphoria of running. After a strenuous 5-8 km stretch along Singapore’s East Coast, I luxuriate in the feeling of being on top of the world as I drench my body in the park’s open-air shower while aeroplanes drone overhead towards nearby Changi airport. And I rarely have headache and runny nose now.
I have also learnt that rigorous training with dumbbells and barbells strengthen my arms and core muscles to the extent that back and joint pains are minimised.
I like scuba-diving and drifting underwater with arms folded, watching rainbow corals and lucent fishes (the ultimate bystander sport) although scuba equipment is expensive and travelling to remote dive resorts with 40kg of gear is a physical and financial hardship. I am also a natural-born coward and occasionally get panic attacks when popping my head under a restless sea.
I’ve ceased to agonise over my appearance (thin frame and thinning hair), financial status (just a notch above the bottom of the food chain) and background (peasant stock, like my China-born sinewy father, uncles and most Hakka émigrés, except those flabby ones who owned pawnshops).
Job-hopping is an effective means to career advancement for individuals like me who graduated from the school of hard knocks and didn’t have tertiary academic qualifications, family wealth or good connections (the three easy routes to success in merits-pretentious Singapore).
So I job-hopped through many demanding careers, starting with my first big one as Quartermaster in the Combat Engineers in 1971. After military service, my first job was in a waste paper factory as a wages and personnel clerk (nowadays, the practice is called “human resource”, as if humans are just another commodity).
In that factory, the pay was barely over $200, slightly more than twice what I received as an army recruit. It was just enough for food and transport, with leftover for my parents. But I learnt all I could about personnel management tasks which included recruiting workers, calculating their daily wage (using paper and pencil) and trying to settle the constant quarrels between them and their shift monitors. Two years later, I moved to a dredging company, also handling personnel work. The pay was almost double, but even more important, the duties and responsibilities were diverse, complex and interesting (nowadays jobs with these attributes are called “challenging”). With the new experience, I managed to land a more senior job as administrative and personnel officer in a food-making factory in 1976.
Somewhere in 1977, I wrote a letter to the editor of the morning daily, complaining about the foggy words they were printing which simple folks like me couldn't understand. I was surprised when the potbellied, hard-drinking editor-in-chief of the newspaper publishing group, Mr T. S. Khoo, invited me to tea and to work for them. “Instead of complaining, join us and show us how well you can write,” he told me.
So I switched from shop floor to news room. In the process, I did pick up some rudimentary skills in writing, page layout and line-editing (cutting, clarifying and simplifying other people’s text, line by line). I also interviewed countless individuals from both High Street and back alleys for “human-interest” stories. After years of news reporting, I grew more relaxed and cynical in my attitude towards myself, other people, and life in general.
Two decades later, I paid more than $20,000 to a university located in the boondocks of Singapore to acquire a Masters in Mass Communication when I was planning to jump out of life’s carousel. I wrote a book-length dissertation on Peace Journalism (using the never-ending Kashmir conflict as case study) which I intend to re-write into a book when I retired.
Life is sometimes easy, sometimes tough, but always interesting, reminding me of an old song that I would hum whenever the going gets hard:
And the seasons they go ’round and ’round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return, we can only look behind
From where we came
And go ’round and ’round and ’round
In the circle game
I hate vacuous statements like, “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going”, which I first read in a Batman comic book in Primary school days. Doubtless Batman is a tough guy, but what about individuals like me who don’t have steel ball-bearings pasted on our abdomens?
In the 1950s, Singapore was a British colony and we studied in English-language schools, sang “God Save the Queen” (why QE2 needed saving I couldn’t figure out) and regarded white men as our cultural and racial superiors.
During my stint at the dredging company in 1975, I learnt an important lesson regarding white men. One afternoon, a newly-hired dredge engineer from Holland arrived at the airport, phoned the office and demanded to know why no one was there to drive him to the office. In panic, I asked him to hold the line while I consulted the managing director’s secretary, Jackie Leong, a pretty but sullen Cantonese girl who ran the office when the boss was away. Jackie told me to tell the engineer to go fuck himself and make his own way to the office or be sacked. Accordingly, I repeated her message (minus the self-copulation advice) over the phone. The ang moh got into a cab, rushed to the office, offered profuse apologies to everyone and kept his job.
Jackie told me later that “go fuck yourself” was the way to answer white men who didn’t know their station in life. Unfortunately, even today, many Singapore girls saturated in Western culture, still consider the white man divine. They live in the hope of being screwed by an ang moh and migrating with him to some frozen ghetto in New York or Chicago.
A few years ago (2003), while I was having lunch in a kopitiam (neighbourhood coffee shop that sells watered-down coffee and greasy food) along Paya Lebar Road with some colleagues, we saw an ang moh man in the back of an open pickup truck, squeezed among a bunch of sweaty, swarthy labourers. It was an epiphany for us as we exclaimed in unison: “Ang moh in pickup! Ang moh in pickup!” Since that fateful day, we realised that the ang moh (literally, “red-hair” barbarians) were simply labourers of a different skin hue.
I’m now in late middle age and I reckon there’s less than another quarter-century before King Yama summons me to the Underworld. Like a miser who knows his hoard of days is diminishing, I’ve got to ration life.
Life is Dharma. Buddha’s holy teaching, the Dharma (also spelt Dhamma in Pali) is the only authentic, workable guide to life, the afterlife and ultimate Nirvana. Any life not centred on Dharma practices is simply a life doomed to waste.
I’ve indeed wasted the best part of my youth, when my mind was at its most pliant, following the Christian evangelical faith. For the love of Christ I memorised entire Bible books such as the Epistle to the Romans and 2 Timothy, and even attempted to learn New Testament Greek so that I could become a missionary. (I was too hidebound in the faith to question the logic that a knowledge of First Century Greek makes for a good missionary.)
Much later, I saw the true light through the patient teaching of an American Bible scholar and critic, Dr Andrew Way. He explained that Bible “truths” were to be taken allegorically and not literally. “Do you actually believe a chariot of fire came down from the sky to transport the prophet Elijah away?” he asked. I loved the old Negro Spiritual, Swing low, sweet chariot, oh, but who was I to argue with a Bible professor over such an absurd notion? In the first place, to get onto a chariot of fire one would need to wear a flameproof suit. And Elijah certainly did not have one.
So I lost my biblical convictions. I still enjoy reading the magisterial King James Old Testament though (God saves me from the modern insipid translations), particularly Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job, wisdom books with an agnostic and a cynical attitude towards providence and the god-fearing life.
Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs. (Ecclesiastes 12:8, 9)
And here is another even more shocking insight from the preacher:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
It doesn’t matter whether you are strong or smart, pious or a scoundrel; good and bad things happen to you randomly. God plays no role in your circumstances, nor does he want to! We’re simply too insignificant for the Lord of the Universe. As he once said to Job (another chap in the Bible who received nothing but calamities in return for his piety):
Where were you when I founded the earth?
Speak if you have any wisdom:
Who set its measurements, if you know,
Laid out the building lot, stretching the plumb line?
Where was the ground where He sank its foundations?
Who was setting the cornerstone
When the morning stars were all singing?
(The excerpt is from page 143, Raymond P. Scheindlin's translation of the Book of Job, 1998)
Re-reading the Book of Job in the Bible, I realised now how presumptous were the Christian youth leaders whom I hanged out with in my school days. They used to hold earnest and intense revival meetings where they took turns praying aloud, giving God a long list of complaints and reminders to get certain things done. From an outsider’s perspective, many of the prayers were pretty bold demands which not even longsuffering Job would dare utter.
So I returned to my Buddhist devotional practices, first taught me by my saintly Grandma when I was a child living in Amoy Street in the heart of Singapore’s Chinatown. And today, through careful study and Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation, I am trying to gain an understanding into the nature of reality – that life is suffering, that all things are impermanent, and there is no ego or permanent self.
Here are some inspiring exhortations from Lord Buddha on the kind of life I should pursue (although it is difficult):
When the wise man, by strenuous effort conquers thoughtlessness and sloth, ascends the terraced heights of wisdom, he looks on without sorrow and sees the foolish and grieving crowd below, as one who stands on the mountaintop looks down and sees them on the plain.
Vigilant among the thoughtless, awake among the sleeping, the wise man advances like a swift horse, leaving behind the hack.
(Dhammapada 28, 29)
Sitting down in meditation for an hour each session is painful on my knees and butt, and my mind wanders like the restless Monkey King.
The adventures of Monkey are found in the 16th Century novel, Journey to the West, 西遊記 my father’s favourite reading matter. He told me Monkey and the four other pilgrim companions who headed west from China to India in search of the Sutras, represent the five aspects of man. The monk Tripitaka represents pure spiritual nature; Monkey is the ever-active, ever-searching intellect; gluttony, sex-starved Piggy the carnal desires; Sandy who carries the luggages, steady character; and the dragon prince-turned-horse, the physical body.
Throughout the long journey (spanning three volumes in a complete English translation by W. J. F. Jenner, 1986, Foreign Language Press, Beijing), the pilgrims encounter and defeat numerous demons. My father said evil has many faces. Each time the pilgrims, working together as a team, overcome a demon, another one in a more subtle guise appears.
Life is short and my parents and grandparents whom I depended so much for love and guidance are gone. Eventually, my physical frame too will wear out, no matter how much running and dumbbell lifting I do. And when consciousness slips from my body like a worn blanket, I hope there may be kind friends by my side to whisper Dharma reminders and read the Tibetan Book of the Dead to guide and nudge my consciousness onto the right path through the awful transition state (the “bardo”) before the next rebirth.
As I can’t afford publishing my opinionated writings in a book, I’ve put them on this Web site as a convenient way to share them with likeminded people.
(Publishing a Web site, although cheap, is still not free as I’ve got to pay US$99 a year to Homestead.com to host these pages.)
Now with Youtube, it is convenient to search for old songs and listen to them once again, and refresh our understanding of life and its dreams:
Through the door there came familiar laughter
I saw your face and heard you call my name
Oh my friend we’re older but no wiser
For in our hearts the dreams are still the same
Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
Those were the days, oh yes those were the days
– Francis Chin, Dec 5, 2002, updated Sept 7, 2005