Dining, writing, bitching in the Lion City

HINDSIGHT - HINDSIGHT By F Sionil Jose () - April 23, 2006 - 12:00am
My wife and I just returned from a two-week brush with the literati and the delicious food of Singapore, thanks to Singapore Management University’s Kirpal Singh and the dean of its School of Economics and Social Sciences, Roberto S. Mariano.

Arriving in Singapore’s fabulous Changi airport – the best in the world! – then driving through the flower-festooned highway to the maze of gleaming skyscrapers in downtown Singapore, I start getting angry – no, not at the Singaporeans and their model burg, but at our myopic and corrupt leaders who made the Philippines the sick man of Asia.

Manila could have easily been the Singapore today; 50 years ago, I am tired of repeating – it was THE city in Southeast Asia, and Singapore then was just like old Binondo surrounded by rubber plantations.

For all my envy towards the Singaporeans, I relish visiting their safe city for oh, so many reasons, the fact that: 1) I can let my wife go anywhere she pleases at any time of day without my being apprehensive about her safety; 2) The comfort that visitors are always cocooned with, even if they have little spending money; 3) The allure of so many eating places, fancy restaurants and proletarian food stalls; 4) And most of all because I have made so many friends through the years, friends with whom I share ideas and with whom, to quote that old San Mig ad, "May pinagsamahan."

But they are hobbled by that perpetual dissatisfaction and discontent which rankle the culturati everywhere.

Central to their psyche is their perception that Big Brother, the efficient People’s Action Party (PAP) government, is always looking over their shoulder.

Some 20 years ago at a conference in Bangkok, I sat between Henry Kissinger and Goh King Swee. Mr. Goh is the economist pillar of that quartet of leaders led by Lee Kwan Yew who built Singapore. In three days of discussions on regional security, I realized how more profound he was than the American foreign policy icon. I had asked him why, with all of Singapore’s prosperity, it did not relax its grip on its intellectuals. He explained that such prosperity – and democracy – were fragile. He was also kind enough not to imply that, with all our freedoms, where did we go?

I tell these Singapore naysayers that I wouldn’t mind being silenced for as long as I am assured that a hundred – not a thousand or a hundred thousand Filipinos who eat only once a day now – will be assured of three meals a day for the rest of their miserable lives. I tell them that freedom as we appreciate it does not really matter to ordinary people.

Six months after Marcos declared martial law, I visited Barrio Magsaysay in Tondo. The area is a setting for one of my novels, Mass, the concluding novel in my Rosales quintet. The people there whom I knew were still poor, in pitiable surroundings, living as they did in barong-barongs. Yes, they approved of martial law – the gangsters, the thieves who preyed on them were gone. Now they had peace and quiet.

My reaction to Singapore’s tight rein on its cultural workers is ambivalent, conditioned by my own environment and personal perception. I sympathize naturally with the anguish of their playwrights at not being able to stage unrestricted their plays, I tell these friends just the same that you cannot argue against success. And if they must deal artistically with their condition, they must dig deep into the pith of Singapore life, probe into the city’s bigness for as Balzac said, "Behind every great fortune is a great crime." Maybe, not crimes as we in Manila know it, but certainly greed, vaulting ambition, failure, suicide, deep crevices of resentment. And corruption, too, of power, not expressed in the blatantness as we Filipinos again know it. Corporate hierarchs are not angels. Nurture the innate melancholy, the high human cost of success. Singaporeans are not angels. And detour from the trivia of suburbia that writers like John Updike, Julian Barnes and Paul Theroux and the whole caboodle of Western writers wallow in.

If Singapore is safe for pedestrians, tourists and businessmen, it is also a secure haven for the loot of capitalism. The Marcoses are known to have salted a lot in Singapore as do the Indonesian billionaires for, as a Singaporean banker said, we accept money from the world, particularly from neighbors. Two billionaire Filipinos are known to have stashed much of their profits here not just for safekeeping, but as investments. For all the protection that it gives to non-Singaporeans, some years ago Singapore made a decision which should gladden Asians worried over their resources being squirreled in Singapore. A big shot from Indonesia had stashed his loot in Singapore. When he died, his relatives sought to recover that fortune. The Singapore justice system let it go – but not to the heirs of the Indonesian scoundrel – it gave the money back to the Indonesian company from where the loot came.

At the time we were in Singapore, the architect William Lim launched his newest book, An Alternative for Singapore, at the National Library – again a tough critique of urban development, particularly that variety which denies justice to the masa. Willy used to head Singapore’s Heritage Society. His wife Lena ran that Singapore intellectual oasis, the Select Bookshop, but had retired and sold the bookshop to a couple of capable young book lovers.

Lena and Willy Lim took us and the playwright Robert Yeo to the Tanglin Club for dinner and we reminisced about old Singapore. The club was set up by the British way back when Singapore was a small backwater port. Its restaurant is proud of its roast beef and wine cellar. I liked its variety of soup; its version of Japanese cuisine has character.

Two big book chains, Japan’s Kinokuniya and the American Borders, cannot compete with Select’s Asian shelves.

Singapore Management University (SMU) is new, not more than six years old, private but subsidized by the Singapore government. Its 6,000 students are extremely fortunate. They can borrow full tuition from the university, interest-free and payable two years after graduation when they find jobs, which the university will help them find. At a faculty reception at its swank faculty lounge, wine flowed, and the food was a gourmet’s repast. More than half of the faculty is expat. Indeed. Singapore’s four universities have drawn academic talents from abroad, excellent teachers like Roberto S. Mariano.

Bobby Mariano, Dean of the University’s School of Economics and Social Sciences, has a spanking new building right smack in the heart of Singapore, much like the London School of Economics. It is a fabulous building, carpeted classrooms, the paintings of Pacita Abad in the museum-like hallways, and the latest security devices making it difficult for a stranger to loiter on the plush premises.

Dean Mariano’s wife, Julie, gave a superb dinner for us together with Singapore’s foremost novelist Christine Suchen Lim and visiting SEAMEO director Edilberto "DJ" de Jesus and his journalist wife, Melinda, on her way to Istanbul to attend a journalism conference. Julie, who is American with Filipino parents, cooked the splendid fish apéritif, and the beef stew.

Incidental information from such a dinner. Singapore’s GNP with a population of five million is about the same as the Philippines’ 85 million people!

Edwin Thumboo, Singapore’s foremost cultural guru, now professor emeritus of National University of Singapore, was on his way to Hong Kong for a conference in linguistics, but before he left, he took us to a dinner at the Indian restaurant at the Peninsula Hotel. The premises looked like an Indian cultural center with small studios for Indian music, dance, meditation and excellent displays of Indian art.

Singaporeans say Hong Kong has more variety in its shops but my wife prefers shopping in Singapore where the salespeople are more patient, more gracious than those gruff Hong Kong salespeople. Hong Kong also has no equivalent of Mustafa’s in Little India, a veritable one-price, no-bargaining cornucopia that is open 24 hours. In Singapore, my wife replenishes her supply of curry and Chinese condiments not available in Manila. It’s difficult to get a bad meal in Singapore. I like its several varieties of duck, its dim sum, particularly its siopao – the best in the world! At the Rendezvous Hotel across the street from Singapore Management University, Leo Keng, the secretary of the school, took us to the best fish-head lunch, peranakan-style, I’ve had in years.

We had a Thai lunch with Catherine Lim at the Centre Point on Orchard Road. Catherine is Singapore’s most popular writer, author of 10 books of fiction and a collection of essays. A compilation of satirical limericks is next on the production line. The crab and chicken cooked Thai-style were excellent, but much more delicious was Catherine’s banter about Singapore politics. She has had brushes with the city state’s high and mighty, described freedom as that state of mind where she is no longer afraid of "God, the devil and Lee Kwan Yew." She has not been silenced or jailed because, as she surmises, she is not aligned with any political party, particularly the feeble opposition or with any foreign vested interest. She is sincere. She recalls how a foreign diplomat had invited her to lunch at his embassy. She refused to meet him there; they landed instead in one of Singapore’s chichi hotels and after the lunch, the diplomat blandly informed her they were followed.

For all her displeasure with the restrictions on creative writers, Catherine refuses to leave Singapore. She would miss her antiseptic city, its safety, its comforts. She is grateful for all this.

The Straits Times published a couple of years ago her article on managing political dissent – an incisive piece by Singapore’s standards – a rather tame outlook by ours. That it was published at all belies the rigidity of Singapore’s hold on dissent itself.

Kristina Tom, San Francisco poet and Stanford English major, is staff writer of the Straits Times. She took us to the Japanese restaurant of the Royal Hotel in downtown Singapore. It is her favorite and we had chawan mushi and bento – the set lunch. I have yet to find a good Japanese restaurant in Singapore, a place to equal Manila’s Tsukiji or Sugi. Sure, they have done interesting innovations with sushi, but Singapore is not the place for Japanese food.

Kristina represents the thousands of expatriates working in Singapore. The academics, particularly, are a pampered lot; they get better pay – almost double – here than they could on average if they were in America or in Europe. Singapore ministers now facing rising criticism from the locals who feel the competition remind the critics that the expats are needed. Our Filipina maids are now being edged out by maids from Indonesia and Sri Lanka whose wages are lower. At the Somerset where we stayed are Indian computer experts, European businessmen assigned to their Singapore branches. Singapore plans to set up two casinos – euphemistically called integrated resorts, they will create 50 thousand new jobs – more than half of which will be expatriates.

On our last day, Robert Yeo took us to a chicken rice and gizzard lunch in a food mall near Bencoolen. Superb lunch. He also gifted me with Lee Kwan Yew’s second volume of memoirs, From Third to First World. The 83-year-old architect and builder of Singapore is still powerful, an MM, Mentor of Ministers. The memoir is readable, lucid, an interesting narrative of the difficulties that he and his coterie of dedicated politicians faced, the personalities he interacted with, among them Deng Xiao Ping, that giant of a leader though he was barely more than five feet tall, he who shaped the glittering behemoth as we know China today. In it are glimpses of his contempt of Filipino leaders – and rightly so; after all, Manila was so far ahead when he started out.

Criticism – particularly political criticism – in Singapore has always been muted. For years, says Kirpal Singh, poet and creative thinking professor, "we were told to conform – and now, we are encouraged to be creative."

This creativity has always been in the city itself, in its buildings, in its cleanliness and its safety – that takes a lot of creativity to accomplish. But then, says a writer friend, you see only the surface. And he went on to tell this story about how a man, consigned to make a choice between heaven and hell, elected to take a look at hell first. When he went there, Lucifer showed him the good eating places, the girlie bars, the richness of life, so that instead of choosing heaven, he choose hell.

Immediately upon entering its portals, he was tortured, burnt, lacerated. He complained to Lucifer who told him bluntly, "When you first came, you were a tourist. Now you are a resident."

An exaggeration, of course, for Singaporeans have a lot to be grateful for – and that, precisely, is the problem according to Christine Suchen Lim, who feels that gratitude should not be the basis of Singaporean loyalty, but a far deeper form of identification with the nation.

Some two decades ago, says an old timer, a survey was made about the intensity of such loyalty and more than 50 percent of those polled said they would die for Singapore. Today, the same informant said, you will not get that figure; in fact, many Singaporeans who have the opportunity elect to leave.

What then if and when Lee Kwan Yew goes?

The PAP – the party in power – has a complete run of government. Only two opposition members are in parliament. In the elections in May, Singaporeans expect these two oppositionists to be run out of office. Indeed, being in the opposition in Singapore is difficult and could lead to bankruptcy and penury.

The second generation of leaders that could comprise the opposition was wiped out when they were imprisoned for years. But do Singaporeans really care?

Singapore’s ultimate pampering of its cultural workers is the three-year-old Esplanade, which sits close to the water at the marina. The Esplanade was (again) designed by a foreign firm. Its acoustics, theater configuration and other amenities make it the best and the most modern anywhere. It has a year-long program and a continuous flow of talent from all over the world. Though Singapore cannot compete with New York, London, Paris or Tokyo – this is precisely what it is trying to do, to make Singapore equal if not better than these cultural capitals.

Indeed, the Esplanade has one of the most splendid venues for concerts and mammoth stage presentations.

And wonder of wonders, the several comfort rooms are located precisely where they are most needed, unlike the pitiable condition of a similar facility at our Cultural Center. Comparisons, of course, are always odious. Although I never really liked the design of our Cultural Center, it is far more impressive than the design of the two main structures that comprise the Esplanade. Like two huge halves of the fruit durian, there is nothing lifting or stunning about it – as again, compared to the Sydney Opera House which graces Sydney Harbor.

But back to the question, what will happen if and when Lee Kwan Yew goes? First, there will be, of course, much weeping and eulogies. Then Singapore will continue maintaining that embedded variety of sybaritic feeding. My culturati friends will continue bitching, but Singaporean prosperity and a disciplined government will persist and an equally disciplined population will continue wallowing in comfort and maybe apathy. The legacy which Mr. Lee and his colleagues left cannot be wiped out just like that. The ghosts of Goh King Swee et. al. will prevail.

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