Island I adore

I read this article a friend posted on FB lately, and it evoked quite a few emotions as I read it late at night. As it is well-written, lyrical almost, I have reproduced large sections of it.

by Michelle K.

At the International Students Gathering you will be told that you are interesting. You are foreign, you are a learning experience for others, you are exotic. People will ask where you come from. Singapore. Oh! they say – chewing gum is illegal there, isn’t it, and they cane people for vandalism. Don’t they also cut off the hands of thieves? No, you say. Oh, they say. Are you certain?

Every day you will walk by King’s Chapel and every day be astounded by the sublime. There is something sacred, it seems, in the smooth stone and stained glass, in the altitudinous arches against the northern sky. Even the sky looks different here – a truer sky blue. The plants are a different green, milder than the ferns of the humid tropics, and more elegant. The trees are deciduous, quadrilingual.

You will travel. You go to Athens, and you go to Rome. You go to Paris, London, Vienna, old cities rich with marble and history. You see the rock where St Paul preached, the hall where Mozart played, the house Jane Austen lived in. You see places that matter. Nothing in your country is more than two hundred years old.

Your friends ask you about visiting Singapore. What’s there to see there? they ask. We don’t have much culture, you say.

You study the Romantics. You learn what nature looks like: white cliffs, high moors, rolling hills, spring air, green meadows; here and there a Roman ruin, here and there a shepherdess. What’s there to see in Singapore? your friends ask. We don’t have much nature, you say.

No one writes about the ixoras that grew in your old neighborhood – dense stubby shrubs with blooms no bigger than a wink, but beloved for the single drop of nectar you could suck from the stems. Or about the hibiscuses, brilliant and brash with their long dangling stamens; or the bouganvilla, common, roadside-dusty, with their paper-thin petals. Or angsanas, with their space-ship seeds. Rain trees like vine-strewn umbrellas. Franjipanis. Pong-pongs.

Coloniality continues, in fact, whenever bright young men and women from all over the world decide to cap off their educations by going on pilgrimage to pinnacles of Western civilization; when they dedicate themselves to the Western canon and walk in the shadows of gothic cathedrals and imperial facades, and learn that this is the good life.

It happens these days not by the strength of arms or the power of states, but by the captivation of the eyes, the training of the taste, by unwritten rules of thumb – that we all learn everywhere, without even knowing it. Coloniality is far from over: it is all over. It is perhaps the most powerful set of forces in the modern world.

Why will your love of opera and your love of ixora be respectively crucial and inconsequential for your sense of sophistication and self-worth? It makes little logical sense, but coloniality doesn’t work that way. As you will learn, it works by the smallest and the largest things: from chit-chat to cathedrals. Another way of putting this is that the West has colonized not only knowledge, but aesthesis – every kind of sensing, believing, feeling.

What can you do, then? Coloniality cannot be un-done, any more than you can un-read Chaucer or un-see Caravaggio, and it is undeniable that these things have broadened your mind.

But the question is not how to retreat or how to prune yourself back to some pristine, native state. In fact, it is the opposite: how to recognize the narrowness of this so-called broadened mind – to realize that Europe is not the universe – and to take your sensing and knowing beyond those dominant ideas of the true, the good, and the beautiful. To move towards a pluri-verse… in a way that, unlike Western liberalism, is not naïve about either the ‘equality’ of the two, or about how we got from the one to the other.

And decolonial art (or literature, architecture, and so on) is art that enacts these critiques by exposing coloniality and its injustices and contradictions, often using juxtaposition, parody, irony, or simple disobedience towards the rules of art and polite society, so that the viewer or participant is not swept up in the sublimity or beauty that is the Western ideal, but in feelings of sadness, indignation, repentance, hope, and the determination to change things in the future.

My comment as I shared this link, was that overall I did not agree with the writer.  When a friend probed, I replied:

I suppose whilst the events of her experience resonate, I felt the process not to be a breach but an expansion. Fondness for a new culture need not constitute a denial of one’s own.

In fact, decolonisation (aesthetic or otherwise) also takes place in t
he counter-visits, fascination and appreciation for Singapore culture by friends from the West. She met the fish knife, they meet the rojak satay stick.

Living in another country tends to enhance one’s sensitivity to what has erstwhile formed one’s own identity. The ixora is keenly recalled, instead of merely passed by.

Her piece of writing was coursework for a seminar on Decolonial Aesthetics at Duke.  Whilst it aptly (and adeptly) discusses how ‘decolonial aesthetics’ is aimed at asking what we mean by ‘good’, or ‘beautiful’, or even by ‘art’ or ‘philosophy’ (coloured, as it were, through Western aesthetic categories like ‘beauty’ or ‘representation’), I couldn’t agree with her posited “narrowness of this so-called broadened mind”.  I did wonder if I were merely in denial.

It did make me think long and hard about whether my Anglophilia required some decolonialising. (I do think Fairy Liquid is the bees’ knees, have fond memories of languid afternoons spent making daisy chains, and would hop over to live almost anywhere in England for a few years before you can say P.G. Wodehouse.)

It made me think long and hard of how I truly felt about Singapore, about being Singaporean. It made me wonder about my psychological loyalties, and whether there was some subtle, invisible superiority accorded to my countries of brief adoption?

I concluded that I did love Singapore.  For all my fondness for the countries I lived in, Singapore will always be the country that shaped me in early adolescence. It will always have irreplaceable, irreplicable hawker food in hawker centre settings, the one great social leveller in our increasing GINI-disparate society.

For all my complaints about transport, ridiculous state of car ownership rules and unnecessary stress of our education system, there is much I love about my country of birth. Again there is something transcendent about that, since no one chooses the country they are born in.  But all my life, deep down inside, I’ve felt thankful to have been born here.

There is something in the humidity, something in the faces of my fellow-men, something electric at every national day parade, as tears well and often fall as the band strikes up our national anthem.

(I have always been happy to attend National Day Parades.  Since primary school days – when schools were given chunks of seats at the spacious old national stadium – I gawked, mesmerised by the fireworks exploding; drips of fire and light streaming down in gorgeous trails, cold yet hot against the black night sky. At 19, when it was not-quite-cool to go for NDP, I enthusiastically toted the tickets we were given to the parade at the Padang, ignoring peers who grumbled about the heat and the propaganda. Last year, I was thrilled that the hubs won 2 tickets at his office draw, and excitedly brought my firstborn to experience our first NDP at the floating platform. The spontaneous applause, the palpable sigh of sheer RELIEF as the Old Man emerged, very much un-dead, also brought tears to my eyes, whatever I may think of some of his policies.)



She was too hot to smile properly, but did want to show her heart-shaped cereal off



So yes, this IS the island I adore. Whilst I cannot attest to the willingness to stay and defend every inch of soil to the bitter end (thankfully I know at least 5 men in places that matter who will), I do love it, quirks, foibles, warts and all.

In this day and age, it is Not Cool to profess love for one’s country, least of all if it happens to be this island-state, long under one-party rule.  Much more sophisticated and erudite to play the role of the hardened cynic (who too many times, in my humble opinion, conflates hatred of Party with that of Country). But love her I do, and profess that I shall.

Happy forty-eighth birthday, Singapore.  You will always be the isle I adore.

Linking up with Sarah’s

  3 comments for “Island I adore

  1. July 26, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    That was a good read. Thanks for sharing the link to the original article too. I think it was a very well-written paper, spot on for her topic. I agree with her to a certain extent – am surely guilty of thinking that Western art and culture is better in some ways. Just that I love home because it is home. It made me think, so thanks for that!

    • July 29, 2013 at 9:00 am

      Most welcome! I like reading such articles, and your comment actually reminded me of another article on the Yale-NUS issue, think I’ll do another blog post on that. 🙂

  2. August 8, 2013 at 10:31 pm

    Hey! My previous comment from last month didn’t get published!

    Thank you for linking up with Sensational Singapore!

    And as always, I love the deeply reflective articles you write. Much for me to ponder about…

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