My Ministry of Moral Panic.

The reading spree I have been on since the month of February has only strengthened the feeling of a guilt I have felt since years ago, ever since I adopted “reading” as my biggest hobby, and that is the guilt that I have never read much Singaporean literature.

Oh, give me a break, some people would say. We don’t have much Singaporean literature to speak of. What can we read? LKY’s books?! (And then added as a whisper P.S.: Even if there is, it’s not very good, right…)

I’m not here to discuss the statistics of Singaporean publication. I’m sure it is not zero, not close to being zero, but certainly quite possibly considered peanuts compared to the giant powerhouses of Western literature and Asian literature. Bookstores and libraries have the one thing in common, since a long time ago. The proportion of Western literature, Enid Blytons and Sweet Valley Highs for the kids, JK Rowlings and whatever teenage fantasies that raged that year for the teens, the Jodi Picoults and Stephen Kings, and the list goes on, is so overwhelming that maybe it is wrong to use the word ‘proportion’, because the amount of local literature is so tiny in comparison that it’s like that one independent candidate who runs in the election and you always scoff at when they announce his name and the number of votes he got because you think, who cares, he never even got close to being in the race.

Instead, this is atonement, to assuage perhaps 0.01 percent of the guilt I have felt for reading truckloads of New York Times Bestsellers and Pulitzer Prize Winners and Man Bookers and never having read even half a truckload of Singaporean literature (Have you seen how thin some of those Singaporean books are?!).

You see, it wasn’t for the lack of trying, though whether I have tried enough is another matter. I have, over the decades (gosh, we’ve been literate beings for over two decades by now, did you realise?!), read several books written by Singaporean writers. I remember going through a Catherine Lim phase in lower Secondary years, because she was a fan fave of a classmate and her books were so available at the school library because nobody ever goes to the school library, though it didn’t last long, because I was (a) not a fan of wistful tales about the yesteryears and (b) thirteen years of age. Then I remember going through a Singaporean poetry phase sometimes between 19 and 20, or 21, maybe, when I chanced upon a Cyril Wong book hanging out on a wall at the public library. I remember being blown away by how easily I could connect with the imageries in his poems and the familiar associations he made between places and people that I grew up around and about. Because poetry, even after a few years of beating it up in school as an academic subject, remains a largely elusive genre I have never felt particularly connected with. Let’s face it — so little words, so much blank space on the page, plagued by seemingly inane metaphors that require so much effort on the reader’s part to “interpret and seek out the symbolism”? Get that away from my face. So then for several months, I went ploughing through the troves of Singaporean poetry and sought for more.

And then I stopped. I had to stop. I would start thinking, I would rather die than to have to read more of these. Sometimes it’s because the story is a tad too melodramatic and sometimes it’s because the writing is a bit, “Hmm…“, because somehow the vivaciousness of Singaporean English turns limp and drab when you read it in letters on a page and the sound of it gets lost and it never feels quite right.

Over the years, there must have been several more attempts, tiny ones, here and there, random bits I stumbled upon, but those were the two impressionable ‘phases’ that have stayed in my mind. One thing they all have in common is that after the initial high, they all taper off, and I always go back to wanting another New York Times Bestseller or the latest Orange Prize for Fiction. I craved the comforting long prose of those stories set in foreign lands, plump with unfamiliar details of the exciting lives of charming characters, through which I can maybe live out some kind of alternate lives vicariously through them.

I certainly feel guilty when I read articles railing about how Singaporeans don’t support local literature enough and then in turn local literature don’t get the adequate support they need to get bigger and better, the whole vicious cycle trap thing, yet I cannot bring myself to support Singaporean literature in a way that involves me actively reading it regularly. But why? Is there some genetic self-hatred gene in Singaporean youngsters that makes us automatically turn against our own just because, because of some local means lousier principle?

I now finally know why.

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You may borrow this book at public libraries across the island at the Singapore Fiction Collection shelf, under LEE.

Last week, plagued with the mounting guilt of not having read a single Singaporean book in recent times, I got a recommendation to read one by a friend who said she had read a very good one. So I went and got the book and read it, Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe.

It is in all aspects a brilliant book with incisive insight of the Singaporean psyche and a good wide range of subjects and topics. There are stories that make you feel like you are watching one of those feel-good indie short films with sepia tones and that make you tear up towards the end, and then there are stories with absurd and surreal elements blooming out of nowhere that make you go what the hell just happened. And above all that good stuff, what is lethal is the clout that all the familiar scenes, places, names and social phenomena that are uniquely Singaporean has over your heart. This is a great book, but it reads so close to the heart that it hurts a little to read.

So now I know why.

Reading has been mostly for me a form of escapism, a way to get out of my head, get into someone else’s, some other place, some other family, some other life. Sometimes I wind up learning factual knowledge about that different place, which is then three cheers for my general knowledge, but sometimes I don’t care about acquiring new facts or coming to realisation some deep profound truth about the sanctity of life. Sometimes it is just good old escapism, the way some people drown their consciousness in hours of video games and the captivating sparkly walls of virtual reality.

But when I read something like Ministry of Moral Panic, the escapism quotient barely registers on the scale. As I read each chapter, I think, wow, what a great turn of phrase over there, and whoa I did not see that twist coming at all, and I think all the great thoughts I think when I know and feel that I am reading a good book.

Yet this is not a book I will re-read in a heartbeat. I will recommend it to others in a heartbeat, but it is not a book I will re-read just because, for fun or otherwise, simply because it stabs me once in about every five sentences and there are no safe corners where I get to hide and escape the way I am used to when I read novels about folks livin’ it up in changing landscapes with four seasons. Because the details of the metaphors in this book woven all over are of the foods that I eat every other day, of the bus rides I take to the mall on the weekends, and of the streets I grew up walking in. Every time I pick the book back up to continue reading after taking a break between chapters, I feel anxious because I know I must brace myself for the hard-hitting prose and the unnerving sense that accompanies the immediate recognition of familiar places, things, people and names mentioned in the stories.

I had a great time reading it, because of and in spite of the stab wounds. I cannot, however, bring myself to proclaim that I am going to, from now on, begin reading a lot more Singaporean literature. I cannot reasonably allow my biggest relaxing hobby be compromised just because there is some moral obligation to read books that hold the power to stab me. The feeling of guilt remains, though now 0.01 percent less intense because I now know one book I can confidently cite that blew me away (Singaporean lit has good stuff, I can proudly proclaim).

But I will read more, in time to come.

I will have to wait and see how long these stab wounds take to close.

The prolixity that is imprecision.

Some of you might know this about me already: I read the dictionary.

I’m sure all of you have at one point in your life consulted that heavy book of words.

It might be unconventional but, yes, I read the dictionary as a habit or a hobby, or as some people might term it, for fun. Like many other things, it is indeed fun to read the dictionary for fun, because it means no pressure or time constraints to imprint the meanings of certain words into my mind for a test or school assignment. What is even more fun is the wealth of information that enters your mind and gets recalled at a later point in time. By then, magically, you would not be able to recall where it was that you acquired that particular information, but that you did.

After years of writing for school and writing for exams and writing for school, I have come to realise that what you write is at times secondary to how you write. What distinguishes you from others is style. As Schopenhauer elegantly puts it,

Style receives its beauty from the thought expressed, while with those writers who only pretend to think it is their thoughts that are said to be fine because of their style. Style is merely the silhouette of thought; and to write in a vague or bad style means a stupid or confused mind.

– Schopenhauer on Style, Brain Pickings

The ultimate test is how to express complex ideas using precisely simple terms, because simple words can get through to more people more quickly and effectively than dense ornate writing which can only appeal to a limited audience at best.

Too many times I hear myself and friends comment that it is difficult to put something to words because there is not the right word that exists in that language (so you code-switch with another language since your audience is multilingual), because it is infinitely easier to go, “You know what I mean?” than to explicate what you mean, or because you just can’t be bothered (to even think about why you are finding it difficult to put something to words). Yet it is such a precious feeling to read back on something I have written in the past and find that it not only reminds me of the emotions and events I went through at the end, but also makes me marvel at how the sentences piece together to recall the chunks of memories I thought I had forgotten. Reading my writing reminds me of me.

Maybe we can liken it to an engine, our writing prowess. Without frequent use and proper maintenance, it gets rusty and it becomes difficult to get it running. You lose that sense of ease that comes with regular practice. You start thinking, “My handwriting looks like crap.” You turn corners anxiously, worried you are forgetting to check something in your rear view mirror, nervous about what might appear around the bend. You write two lines, cancel five words, and decide to abandon that paragraph and start a new one.

To take a few minutes to write is one thing; to write well is another. We don’t have to all write with the skill of a celebrated novelist, but we have to at least write in a way that reflects properly in the future, so that when you are old and grey and a little slow in the head, you can still reasonably understand your younger vibrant self.

In these times where the bite-size social media dominates, it becomes even more important to take more moments to compose your thoughts, not to make sure you capture as many likes as possible, but to make sure you present in time the best coherent self you can cobble together and ensure that what you write will enable your future self to remember what it was you were trying to convey.

Sometimes I run out of words and I cave in to the pressure of time, and I either post with no words or I leave them with the best line I can think of and add in some prayer in my head that my future self will remember what it was that I wanted to express. Obviously, I haven’t read the dictionary enough, because sometimes months later I would read somewhere a word and I would go check the dictionary and, damn, that was the word I wanted back in that moment when that thing happened to me.

At times, the exact opposite happens. You try to write and words come out, but they are words that feel a little off. Some are words that are more commonly used in technical manuals and newspaper articles talking about politics but you feel like maybe that big word can help make everything read better. Sometimes you get trapped in a three-line-long sentence, started out in the past tense but somehow wound up in the present tense and … what was it you were trying to say? So you get ensnared in the vines of verbose and you turn them in anyway, because that assignment was due or you wanted to clear a certain quota, or you just want to get it off your chest and embrace the clean satisfaction of the ‘Post’ button.

Next time you hit a bump in the road (yes, back to my engine analogy), take a few moments to review what you have written. Delete the words that you would never use in a conversation with a close friend and exchange them with terms that you would. Add full stops to clear up any long sentences. Read again and see if you understand yourself completely. Because if you don’t, then there is literally no point.

P.S. prolixity |prəˈlɪksɪti| noun. the use of an excess of words.

On the wilful childless decision.

I read an article that was so compelling that the thought of coming to put up a post here in this long forgotten hole of a blog of mine formed up in my mind.

An immensely intense subject matter, the decision not to have kids. But because people want us to explain, for a variety of reasons. Some feel insecure because if they are going to abide by typical societal conventions, they need to have a certain number of fellow comrades by their side along for the painful ride. Some feel slighted because they are worried you’ve gone ‘cooler’ than them. Some feel worried that you’re going to miss out on something huge in the journey of life because there is no other thing that’s comparable to the love between a parent and a child.

People demand explanations when you do things out of the typical social path. In my opinion, too few people ask, “Why are you having kids?”. (Don’t you feel sometimes that that is the more important question to ask?)

People want an explanation that would allow you to justify your reasons to stay childless, though I am not sure they have the capacity within them to comprehend or understand.

Based on the following quote alone, I can be quite sure this book will be one for the kill.

Those of us who choose not to become parents are a bit like Unitarians or nonnative Californians; we tend to arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths. Contrary to a lot of cultural assumptions, people who opt out of parenthood … are not a monolithic group. We are neither hedonists nor ascetics. We bear no worse psychological scars from our own upbringings than most people who have kids. We do not hate children (and it still amazes me that this notion is given any credence). In fact, many of us devote quite a lot of energy to enriching the lives of other people’s children, which in turn enriches our own lives.

— Meghan Daum, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids

Because, you see, even though I am pretty certain about my stand to not have kids, I find it difficult to articulate the reasons, which bubble clearly in my mind, to others. I just know myself that I will not be the good mother that I want to be if I were to have kids and I would rather choose not to have kids than to consciously choose to have one just to see if I would in fact be a good mother. See how convoluted that becomes?

I am still in the midst of ploughing through the dictionary in search for the apt group of words that will congregate to explicate the mess of thoughts and feelings that roar through the opinions that are cooking up in my mind. But for now, maybe “self-knowledge” could be the next candidate, except I’m not so certain if it would be the best word to get through to most people. Do most people understand “self-knowledge”? Do most have enough self-knowledge to?

“It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption — and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness.”

— Meghan Daum, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids

Exposition on this will have to be shelved on hold until I get my hands on the book.

Till then, hold off on releasing your kids on me.

Change.

The new Haruki Murakami website is just extremely nice, considering how the previous one was a sad excuse for a webpage of a critically acclaimed writer.

He continues to roll out new books and it’s making me feel increasingly anxious because I feel progressively incapable of catching up with the reading of his new books. I suppose a part of me will forever associate the reading of his books as being something pivotal in my school days and the coming-of-age period of my life, and now that I am out of school, while a part of me is hesitant to leave him behind, along with the dozens of habits that structured my school-going days, the rest of me questions how should I go about adapting that connection to my self in this new stage of life.

Also, the bus route I have taken for the past 10-odd years to get to my grandmother’s house recently changed its route and no longer goes through the familiar neighbourhood with the endearing places that house the bulk of my childhood memories.

Thank you, Transit Link, for that terrible decision.

It may be termed “progress”, “development”, “advancement”, whatever.

Change is change.

Still a life.

Just to show that I’m not dead yet, I’m still reading things like this and this and this.

Life is life is life is life.

The syntax tree is always kind in accepting boundaries of all kinds.

In the moments when people do bad things, they are not going to be thinking about the moments they would be sobbing in court, filled with regret and remorse at having betrayed the trust of others. Most of them would probably be thinking about how they are going to escape detection. This is why there will always be people who continue to do bad things.

There is however also people who continue to do good things.

This world is this world is this world is this world.

It will hurt not to speak dialects.

I was touched by this article written by The Independent Singapore titled “It Won’t Hurt To Speak Dialect”.

Many Singaporeans would know roughly what the article is about, without having to read it, just by reading the title.

The term “dialect” cannot be more misunderstood by the people of Singaporeans who are not informed about the proper definitions of what a “dialect” is and the differences between what constitutes a “language” and a “dialect”.

There are many, many, many arguments opposing and supporting the presence of dialects in the linguistic environment that people want to raise their children (and grandchildren) in.

To me, there are many good reasons for my support of the continued use and presence for Hokkien in my daily life and for me to call for other people to support the use and presence of Hokkien in the younger generation, some of which include the ability to converse with the elderly, the ability to understand conversations that go on during family gatherings when my relatives switch to speaking Hokkien, the ability to understand the Taiwanese words that get sprinkled in Taiwanese variety shows.

I’m not only referring to the Chinese dialects. Mandarin and other ‘mother tongues’ of Singaporeans have been under the attack of the increasing trend of parents who choose to speak primarily English to their children. Let’s leave out the fact that most of them are speaking the non-standard variety of English (aka Singlish) but have the illusion that they are teaching their children good standard English.

The most important reason I have for wanting parents to speak their real mother tongue (i.e. the language their own parents spoke to them in when they were growing up) is this: I don’t wish for the younger generation (my children or nieces and nephews) to end up being only able to have limited conversations with their grandparents (i.e. my parents, who are most conversant in Hokkien), that is, conversations that don’t go past, “Have you eaten?” and “What do you want to eat?”. This is the kind of conversations some of my peers have with their grandparents now and it is sad. There is no one to fault specifically, because it is a culmination of many factors that include a government that didn’t have much options but to prioritise economic concerns over sociolinguistic impact, uninformed and misinformed parents with no access to proper knowledge to find out if learning dialects really impedes a child’s ability to learn other languages (it does not), and recycled misinformed brainwashing.

The thing is, now, the parents of today come from a generation who has had access to proper formal education and continues to have the ability to access information to educate themselves further. They now have the ability to voice out worries in forums and be heard by many others who may share the same concern.

To me, it is just a very wrong thing if my niece grows up to be a non-Hokkien-understanding or not-fluent-in-Mandarin gantang if my mother is the one who has spent a lot of time and effort being her main caretaker and is the person who raised her father (my brother). It is just very wrong if my mother has to cobble together broken English sentences just to try and communicate with her grandchild.

Do you not see?

It will be a “Have you eaten?” limited grandparent-grandchild relationship all over again.

My friends from fiction.

I grew up with books. They are the oldest friends I have and will ever have.

This is why it brought tears to my eyes when I read the news article announcing that The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is going to have a third movie based on the fifth (and likely to be the last) book of the series.

I had given up hope of having another movie being rolled out after the release of the second movie that saw them merging three of the four books of the series. Because, well, I suppose movies adapted from YA novels that don’t feature any vampires, dystopian worlds or apocalypse, but instead feature the ordinary lives of simple young folks, don’t get the same royal treatment in the movie biz as those that do. (See Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent etc.)

There are many reasons why this YA tale about a magical pair of jeans and four girls has left such an indelible impact on me, and also many reasons why I enjoy reading the Huffington Post so much.

And this article can explain a bit of both.

When I first discovered The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants on the A-B shelf on the Young Adult floor of Jurong East Library, part of me could not believe that I was about to borrow a book about the story of how a magical pair of jeans can fit four girls with different body types and that it was going to “change their lives forever”.

I mean, I am a huge fan of Enid Blyton’s magical trees and Roald Dahl’s friendly giants, but that idea of a pair of magic jeans unrealistically existing in a fictional story with a realistic setting was just difficult to relate to.

But, of course, reading the book changed my life forever. (One of the rare times when the exaggerated book synopses at the back of books spoke true!)

I believe the roots of my addiction to books can be partly traced to my chase for The Sisterhood series back in the days when I was still wearing a school uniform. Before that, most, if not all, of the books I had been reading were either written by writers that are already dead, or published before I was born. The first Sisterhood book, however, was published in 2001. The humble me then was nine years old. When I finally made it onto the top elite floor of the Jurong East Library, it was already 2005. By that time, three books have been published in the Sisterhood series. So, of course, in typical teenage fashion, with nothing much to do after completing homework, I gobbled all three books up.

Like I said, it changed my life forever.

You might ask, how come? How can I relate so much to a series of books about a magical pair of jeans (which I don’t have) and four girls in a sisterhood of friendship since they were born (which I don’t have, as well)?

A friend asked me that when I told her I had stumbled upon this incredible book series that turned my mind upside down and I had highly recommended that she read them as well. Well, the me at fourteen, regrettably, did not have the words to adequately explain the inexplicable tumult in my mind. I was unable to explain to her what this Huffington Post article has done in neat paragraphs.

Even though the book summaries that you Google will tell you that this series of books is about four girls and their magical pair of jeans, it is not about the magical traveling pants. The pair of magical jeans is a literary plot device placed in a thrift store the four protagonists stumbled into at the beginning of the first novel. What began as a plot device slowly developed into “a symbol of female friendship and finding strength in those around you” (Goodman, 2014) throughout the course of the first novel. And throughout the entire series, the pair of pants is used by the author for the four female protagonists to realise their discovered confidence and self-worth — yes, in short, profound things for young minds.

The fourth book of the series was my first real novel chase. It was published in 2007. The humble me then was sixteen, well-acquainted with the top floor of the library but not old enough to spend money to buy a non-textbook book (according to the rules of my household). The day I spotted the brand new — if only books could shine like a diamond — fourth book on the familiar A-B shelf was the day my life changed forever again.

It was a bittersweet read because it was then considered to be the last book of the series. Yes, the author had planned to conclude it there at that point, hence the title Forever in Blue. (Yes, you must treat writers very seriously when they mobilise the use of the word forever.)

This is the fourth book in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series and was considered the last until Brashares published a fifth book in 2011.

– Wikipedia

I suppose, books are somewhat like babies to writers. They took time to nurture them in their mental wombs and gave birth to them painstakingly and then release them out into the world, where they meet readers and take on a life of their own.

Brashares released the fifth book in 2011. The humble me by then hit age 20, and I had enough spare cash saved up from a year of quiet university days to make my first Sisterhood purchase. It remains the only Sisterhood book I own. I bought it shining like a diamond (thanks to the shrink-wrap) from the now non-existent Wheelock Place Borders (because local bookstores are too lame-ful of assessment books and cookie-cutter fiction to stock such cool books).

A watershed book of the series, some say. I shed my own bucket of tears staying up late to finish the entire book. I don’t know why the writer did what she did — actually I think I do, but like many people, I have this insistence in my mind that fictional things ought to be untouched by the harsh realities of life at all times. But that’s not how Brashares writes her books, and I appreciate that. The way she keeps things real — she jumps 10 years forward in the lives of the characters, because that’s approximately the realistic emotional age of the fans of the series who grew up alongside the characters in the books —  not many YA writers dare to do that, because you’re not really YA anymore if your characters are going into their 30s.

But that’s how she wanted to break all of our hearts. Well, then, okay.

I can only relate to a fellow fan of the series how cathartic reading the fifth book was. People who didn’t spend hours of their teen lives reading Brashares’ profound tales for young minds will not find it possible to understand how one’s mind can possibly be changed by a story of four girls and their shared pair of magical jeans.

I cannot wait for the movie to be done and released. Even though there will always be compromises in book-to-film adaptations, I have always found the Sisterhood movies to be very well-done in terms of preserving the spirit of the novels. And now that they have gotten the director of the first film to come and do this third film, I am hopeful it will be excellent.

The thing, though, is that it hardly matters, because in my mind and in the minds of many other fans of the series, we already have an entire book-verse in our minds to fill in any gaps that the movie might present. We have grown up alongside the four protagonists in our minds. The film is just for show and an excuse for two hours of rewarding entertainment on a screen that would remind us of the bittersweet memories of when the words of the novels touched our young hearts.