The centuries’ dilemma

Damn right the old deserve to be taken care of, understood and showered with concern. But the moment any one of them begins to judge young adults by their millennial tendencies, they remove a certain portion of their entitlement to respect. Sure, the young do a shitload of stuff that don’t make sense to the old, and vice versa. But what would the elders be doing if they were brought up on the exact same 21st century circumstances?

The young may get irritated by the old, but they don’t judge their day-to-day choices or penalise them for behaving in a manner that’s been shaped by 20th century mores. Can the old say the same? Still wondering.

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Why did the US lose the Vietnam War?

Why did the US lose the Vietnam War? by Khalid Elhassan

Answer by Khalid Elhassan:

As a preliminary, of course we lost the war.  The US spent 10 years, hundreds of billions of dollars (trillions, in today's money), sacrificed almost 60,000 American lives, and suffered hundreds of thousands of American wounded.  Aside from the millions of deaths suffered by our Vietnamese allies, Vietnamese foes, but mostly by innocent Vietnamese civilians.  The justification for all that blood and sacrifice was to prop up the South Vietnamese government, maintain the sovereignty of South Vietnam, and keep her from going communist.  It was all for nothing: when the dust settled South Vietnam no longer existed, had been swallowed up by North Vietnam, and was now communist.

Sacrificing so much for nothing counts as a loss by any objective standard.  The US killed more Vietnamese than Vietnamese killed Americans, but that's irrelevant.  We went into Vietnam in order to accomplish something other than simply running up a high body count of unarmed or poorly armed Third Worlders.  We spent a lot and sacrificed a lot in order to accomplish that something.  That something wasn't accomplished.  Ergo, "loss".

As to why we lost, myriad reasons, but the most important one is that our enemies simply wanted it more than we did, and were willing to endure far more punishment and make far greater sacrifices to achieve their goals than we were willing to endure and make to accomplish ours.  It was their country at the end of the day, and we were a foreign armed presence in a country whose national identity and history revolves around and was shaped by a 1000+ year struggle against armed foreign hegemony.

For the average Vietnamese arrayed against us, the sacrifice necessary to get rid of the armed foreigner in their country was worth it, while for the average American the sacrifice necessary to prop up a corrupt and inept government in some far off place eventually became too much.

There were also moral factors – Americans never collectively rallied around and supported this war because much of the country couldn't bring itself to see America as the good guys in Vietnam.  For the good reason that we really were not the good guys:

First, we started our involvement by supporting the French in their fight to hold on to their colony.  So in a fight between a foreign colonizing power trying to maintain its hegemony vs an occupied colonized people fighting for their freedom, we sided with the oppressor and against the oppressed underdog.

Second, after the Viet Minh defeated the French and liberated their country, we prevented free democratic elections from taking place because we knew the winner would be Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh, whom we opposed.  I.e.; we stood in the way of democracy/ were anti-democracy.

Third, we ensured that instead of a unified country, which was the clear will of the majority (a majority will we made sure would never get expressed in the polls by preventing elections from taking place), Vietnam was split between a nationalist North which, commie or not, had successfully fought to free their country from foreign occupation, and a corrupt US stooge government in the South with little popular support or legitimacy.

Fourth, we killed a few million Vietnamese when points one through three resulted in the inevitable war for reunification.  And the reunification, by the Viet Minh, still happened despite all our efforts. 

And our military's treatment of the Vietnamese throughout was often unconscionable, such as in the My Lai Massacre when a US infantry company went on a rampage of rape and murder that resulted in over 500 dead Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children, even infants.  Only one American was prosecuted, and he served only 3 years, under house arrest, before being pardoned by Nixon.

There were good wars this country fought, and some iffy ones.  But the only war in which we were the clear cut evil guys who deserved to lose was Vietnam.

Why did the US lose the Vietnam War?

The Untold Story of the Sergeant Major by Chester Tan

Originally published on STORGY.

Seemingly, I was levitating.

My feet lifted off the ground as my partially debilitated physique pursued a quasi-tranquilised floating manoeuvre forwards, into what everyone would cautiously but not surely call a void, as if the world had heated up so much that it evaporated in the time it had taken me to lose some of my earthly senses. Here, I laid back with all my soul, releasing from my tight and morose grips every extrinsic aspect of my dry, tawdry last thirty years of existence.

I had stumbled upon the National Cadet Corps registration booth on my way to the school cafeteria in 1967 at the exploitable and pristine age of nine. I was diabolically precocious in those days, drawing similarities to a certain ingenious author’s novel characters. An all-time favourite and the only writer whose works I had ever read with fervour, I learned about his eloquent short stories and ravenously brilliant comprehension of the often-ousted and never-understood individual. It was also a rather complimentary piece of magnificent literature that didn’t feel like it needed to be humble and yet managed, with ease, to bring across that narcissistic and delusional portrayal of himself with sheer dignity and public approval. I didn’t think I needed to read anything else again. Those sensations and emotions from reading them made me believe I had a role in the security of my callow nation’s freedom from any other nation’s ideal. Seeing as my fellow nine-year-old countrymen weren’t about to give up any time spent on marble-throwing or spider-entrapment for the independence of their homeland in the near future, the weight seemed personal. Achievements were inevitable, and at fourteen years of age I was the nation’s best National Cadet Corps cadet with the maximal rank of Staff Sergeant. Heartrendingly, Joseph and Cornie were nowhere near my side. Istanbul, was it? They might have scurried off to Turkey for a sumptuous getaway. Nevertheless, dear old me held on effortlessly and quite overwhelmingly to the title for the two subsequent years, prior to my graduation from secondary school upon the culmination of every other kid’s meticulous strife through the GCEs. I won, humbly but perceptively, giving the school’s GCE average a heart-warming boost up the national ranking and walked off campus with no one other than myself.

I signed my life to the armed forces when I eventually turned seventeen and enlisted in the same year, neglecting anticipated further studies and any possible career outside of the force. The utter magnitude of the millstone stuffed the mouths of any lurking hints at mutiny of my chauvinistic mind and every night was touchingly uplifting. I look up and around, forward, beyond the steel jungle, where the alarming resentment looms above everyone’s lifeline. The end can be torturous to foresee, but what is a nation without skyscrapers illuminated with beams of blinding truth, and a solution? I endure ardour and fatigue stoically, so my heart doesn’t have to. I am selfish too.

The time came for the jockey cap to be thrown and the beret furnished. Joseph and Cornie were such obdurate fools in believing that their forthright candour could ever be adulated. How I wished to trample on those slick mouths that inhaled the air of freedom I protected day and night after day and night, wondering in the solitudinous despair of military campsites if my tongue will ever touch the enchanting steamed delicacy Joseph used to prepare in the kitchen – descaling, adorning, glorifying – it was utterly dreadful to watch, yet his touch was so undeniably beautiful. Humans could only wish for death to abstain from all that tender splendour. I last held on to it in my sorry mouth when I was nine and one quarter. As I recall, it was the day all possible existing magic had perished in stale bleakness, when Cornie told Sam the truth and I overheard the entire commotion as well as the bit on the side about how I’ve lost it. Sam was fifteen then, tall, elegant, swaying. Exotic and endearing, she was the ecstasy for all mankind. When she got bored, she would grab a book from the shelves at home and sit down on the ground, legs almost crossed, soles touching each other with a side of each thigh kissing the electric blue carpet floor, and smelt the pages of the book with closed eyes and pouty lips whilst it ran like a flip-book in her hands, stopping at a page with a scent she thoroughly enjoyed. She’d break into the slightest most harmless smirk, heartrending as it was, skim through the page, and stand up to re-enact whatever it depicted. One time, she had to be a blaspheming bird’s nest fern that latched itself onto trees. How I adored sweet Sam. I’d have gone down to the scorching pits of Earth’s core for this lady of the valley – my sister.

Sam grew up fast and within a short span of time after puberty struck gained a cult following in every school she enrolled in. She moved the credulous with her smile and kept everyone close with her breath, the fate of everyone reflecting off her unfathomable eyes. They were deep-sea blue. Cornie would always yell at her for breaking any one of the routines she had painstakingly forced upon her lifestyle since she was four; getting the right amount of sleep and at the best time, abstaining from coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol, the best exercises for the hips, bum, calves, and thighs, what goes best on her, and what to eat for every meal. “You’ll be good and listen to your parents. We know what’s good for our little princess of this island. You’re going to be so pretty you won’t ever have to get a job.”

“What does that even mean?” Joseph’s enquiry was marked with uncertainty and wilfulness.

“It means, silly, that she won’t have to work at all. In an office somewhere. In a god awful building. Like a prisoner of life.” Cornie barked.

“She will be doing something though, won’t she? She will be flaunting her assets, won’t she?”

“Yes dear, of course she will. Why, it’d be preposterous not to. There is certainly something for everyone in this godforsaken world, isn’t there? Yes, there definitely is. Have a slice of this sweetie,” she carved out a slice of the coconut pie and dished it to Sam with sheer content.

“Thought I’d lost you there for awhile my old maid. Yes, that’s exactly what she’s good for. I mean, will you just look at those cheek bones! Such marvellously sculpted cheeks and jaw. Yes dear, I’d just like to admit, right here and now, that I’d have easily chosen our precious Sam over you if I had met the both of you twenty five years ago. That’s the uncensored truth my lover.”

Cornie hesitated to chuckle in delightful disbelief. “You mischievous, sly old fox! Ain’t that the truth though, dearie? Who wouldn’t? Oh! What’re you like!”

“Oh yes! But it’s not like you need our compliments sweetie. I’m certain you’re swamped. Aren’t you dear?! Bet they’re all beating the flip out of each other for a chance to stick it in ya, aren’t they?! Ha!” Joseph remarked with what appeared like slight nostalgia as his meddlesome gaze shone upon his beloved daughter. “Aren’t they sweetie?!”

“Yes, Dad. Yes they are. Ugh.. They’re boys. They’re predictable. Let’s just leave it,” Sam insisted, but not without a sly, encouraging smirk. She was too used to it, people gawking at her, writing and singing songs about her, sending herinnovative creations such as worn shirts with love notes doodled all over them. And yet she was sure she didn’t feel like smirking.

“That’s just how it is dearie. And we’ve prepped you for that. The utter truth – the world. That’s how it is. I’m almost absolutely certain it’ll stay the way it is,” Joseph indicated emphatically.

“Yes dear, you are so very ready. When you’re sixteen, you’ll win that ballet championship and bring home the medal for the fourth time. Oh! People are just going to stick on you the rest of your life, aren’t they? They might even kill themselves over you! Poetic bloodshed,” Cornie’s eyes glistened with juvenile enthusiasm.

“Your mom can be a psychotic and neurotic sow sometimes dear, but this I can’t argue with. She’s bloody right is what she is. That Lazare talent-scouter will be at the competition ticking her checkboxes. You gonna give her something to write about?”

“Oh, I’ve almost forgotten about that woman. Oh, it’d be splendid if they signed you dearie. Auntie Jennifer told me their last contract turned that young lady into some work, really. Some masterpiece. Her entire family moved to the Bay a month after. Honestly, I would have chosen Sents. Oh I think with you, sweet darling, that won’t be a problem.”

“You know how much Sents costs don’t you girl? Hmm? Oh, you will adore the place if you’re anything like your old man. That site is the apex of extravagance! Dear me…”

“Your dad and I haven’t seen eye to eye since the beginning. Yes, my memory does serve well. Since the beginning. The only thing that brought the both of us together was our decision to have you, and of course, sex. But more you. Everything you do, everything you say, everything you stand for. That’s us. That’s how we became one. The both of us saw you as the largest project in our lives.”

“The most costly one too. But naturally, huge risks are rewarded with huge returns. And in this case, we think Sents would be about reasonable, don’t you sweet pea?”

“Oh, yes, dear me, yes. That’d be nothing of course, as compared to the initial investment, but you do see it don’t you? We want the best for you, lovely. Simply the best!”

Joseph and Cornie could have went another half-an-hour before they even needed the tiniest cup of tea, and they certainly would have if the paperman didn’t chuck the Straits Times between the gate and the immense wooden door sealing the four-room HDB flat, causing the unwarranted thud of processed news. The kitchen table broke into silence. Sam was still looking down at her bowl ofLucky Charms, having tried filtering out every undesired word she heard over breakfast. Not a single word missed her dignity. She remained staring into her bowl, right hand with metal spoon shoved in. Thirteen words. That was all she had managed throughout the course of the conversation her dear maniacal parents had. It isn’t fair that I know her so intimately, but it’s simply effortless to go unnoticed at home. It merely requires quiet breathing and an ajar door. Walls are naturally thin, or at least walls that held up the flats I’ve stayed in were. And that was how I was kept in the loop the day Cornie tried to murder Sam with the truth. It was a Saturday as I recall, murderously humid and sultry in the Romani house. I arrived back at home from a parade rehearsal in school that afternoon, all burned out from marching drills under the treachery of the universe. “I’m home guys,” I murmured in my mind. “Who’s that at the door?” Cornie questioned expectantly. “It’s me, Mom.” No reply followed. I stayed rooted to the ground, in the doorway, staring blindly at the carpet floor, wishfully crafting a reply for a subsequent question until my gaze chanced upon the absence of Joseph’s loafers from the shoe rack.

No reply was coming. The wooden door glued itself shut as I heaved a whimpering sigh of anguish.

“Of course Joseph isn’t home. Why else would she bother asking who it was at the door? Pathetic.”

I didn’t like coming home at this time of the day. If I was being more honest I’d say I didn’t fancy the idea of coming home at all. Many members of the SAF would jump at the chance of booking out of camp and returning to civilian life when proffered the opportunity. I abhorred going outside of camp simply because a civilian life is for a true civilian. True civilians have people looking forward to their book-out. They have censored conversations with people who pretend to be actively playing a part in their lives. They look forward to dubious merriment, meaningless social get-togethers, and gossip. More importantly, they required and received social support. On the other hand, I severed every tie I ever had when I was thirteen. Wine was more affordable in military camps and I could lay down the entire weekend making my rifle shine alongside a Banrock Station Crimson in a bucket of ice and a picture of Joseph, Cornie, and Sam; the family portrait from New Year’s Eve, 1979. Inevitably, I was in camp that day the photograph was taken, marching with a contingent of sardonic and embittered reservist troops in the gloomy Pasir Laba camp. Perhaps this was one of the few terrible reasons I enlisted; to be in the company of fellow unjustly abused slave-drones.

I attempted to abolish the incessant resentment and traipsed completely unfelt into my bedroom that afternoon. The vagaries of my potential success and plausible wealth as a burglar sometimes posed a sort of humorous amusement to the day’s effect on my disposition. As I removed my rank epaulette and NCC formation badge for washing, the heavy footsteps of Joseph could be felt. “I’m home guys!”

It was the abrupt and thunderous storm that woke me from my slumber late that afternoon when Cornie spilled the beans to Sam. Joseph and Cornie were already in the middle of their rants. I slipped deftly out of bed and tiptoed closer to the slightly-ajar door with all ears. They were speaking with such incorrigible relish about that dashing young boy Tim they bumped into while grocery shopping at Finest, yet Sam just sat there free from alacrity with eyes glued to the genuine wool carpet. I could smell the awful sense of dread that accompanied her bewitching, then completely bulldozed by Cornie’s unsavoury zeal. “Did you hear us honey? We said Tim would make an excellent husband, wouldn’t he?”

“Oh your mom is just being utterly agreeable today!” Joseph waltzed in unrestrained.

“He is a year your junior, sweetie, but that shouldn’t matter. He can drive, he has a car. A splendid Murano.”

“Yes dear. After all, your mom’s a few years younger than me too. Ah, that luxuriously safe Murano..,” Joseph remarked chimerically while flipping through car advertisements on the Straits Times, warmly tucked into his cream genuine-Italian-leather lilo. What business does a lilo have being leather? “Like driving in the embrace of a grizzly bear who protects you,” he added wistfully.

“Cars, yes. That’s one other thing that has welded us together, your mom and dad. Cars. Not many women out there who can talk about manly vehicles to their husbands,” her smirk cried for lament, I swear. “The Murano is a 3500cc monster on 18-inch wheels. You will adore it sweetie,” she concluded swiftly.

“Now, I didn’t even know the Murano was 3500cc. That Tim has gotta have a lot of backing. How wonderful. No really, it is. He’ll make a fine son-in-law. And…-

“Oh, I have no qualms. Sweetie, don’t you think that is just a marvellous idea? Isn’t it the ideal family? Oh you’re gonna have lovely kids, no question.” Sam’s eyes glistened with untainted hope. “Lovely-looking kids, I mean. Immaculate,” And all faith vanished into the thin, sterile air. Evanescent as it might have been, Sam bore some appreciation for its tenure.

“Oh yes, dear me, yes. Cream of the crop. They’ll look enchanting for sure. You’ve got nothing to worry about Sammie. Ever.”

“Yes honey. Your father and I have planned this out just flawlessly. I even suspect it sparkles. Dear me!”

“Doesn’t it?! Just the other day I was telling old Mr Sundram how our Sam was checking everyone’s boxes. He even asked for parental advice, that old fart. Ha!”

“Oh? What did you tell him then?”

“I said it was far too late for him to contemplate our idea, now that he…he’s…y..y’know..” Joseph had his heart in his mouth all of a sudden, stealing a glance at Sam in questionably hopeful eyes. Sam caught it.

“Oh..err..hmm…right. Now that he’s…uhh..-”

“Went and err..got himself that Prius, hasn’t he? Good Lord, these things need planning I kept telling him. You need tons of backup, not a Prius! It’s too late for them now I’m afraid.”

“Oh right, yes yes. That is very true, and exactly what I thought,” Cornie mumbled tautly.

“I’m sorry? Mom? What was that?” Sam commenced her sparkling counter-offensive.

“Sweetie?”

“What was it you said?”

“Oh.. I said that it was exactly what I had thought.”

Every subsequent second that passed filled the room with tension and disquietude. The coiled spring was on the brink of capitulation. Sam was beginning to straighten up from her slouch, her eyes transformed into two bulging, manic warheads. “What’s this?”

“What’s what honey?” Joseph tried his best to feign innocence with an air of sombre calm.

“What just happened?”

“Nothing happened sweetie! What are you talking ‘bout?”

“Don’t give me that… I know the both of you. Like the palm of my little hand.”

To be unreservedly frank, that was the absolute truth. Sam was a brutally perceptive kid who did what her parents dictated of her because she wanted to, not because she had to. As brilliant as she was, Sam could manipulate almost anyone she’s ever met in her life, and she’s met Professor Helms. I have seen it too many times to confuse it with harmless caprice. If she was doing your bidding in subservience, it was a part of the plan, a plan not necessarily diabolical of course. Sam managed to talk the Buddhist neighbours out of persecuting me for shoplifting when I was 8, withJesus Christ and the Babylon as topics of persuasion. I never could see her as my sister ever since.

Ohh…I knew Joseph and Cornie’s tasty little secret. It was an unparalleled, surreptitious piece of work. Yes. And I was indubitably mollified about only discovering the smokescreen in its final hour.

“Sweetie, don’t be crazy.”

“I want to know what’s happening. What did the both of you do?”

“What do you mean what did we do?!” Joseph retorted as he shunned away from the dining room into the kitchen. “I don’t have the slightest clue what you’re insinuating!”

“Relax, Dad,” she said.

“Relax?”

“Yes. Relax. You’ve never gotten fired up when you’ve been erroneously accused. Why should you be now?”

Joseph stared blankly at Sam in a listless stupor.

There’s no stopping her now. He knew. He turned dismally to look at Cornie, who in turn looked down at her apron stains and pretended to be rectifying them for approximately eight seconds.

“Now there sweetheart. It’s not that we were going to keep this from you forever. We weren’t, I swear we weren’t. I just wanted you to…be absolutely ready when it came-”

“Stop…coating it. Tell me what I want to know.”

***

The Prisoner of War course for the Reconnaissance Guardsmen required plenty of personal hours spent on conditioning and heat acclimatisation through a series of operose and laborious field training designed after the second world war to decide the noble fates of numerous countries’ formidable elite infantry divisions. It was on the day of my induction into this selfless community that I realised how deep I was in. It was hot soup and I was having a bath in it. But I just couldn’t resist it. Even more so, I couldn’t help squandering what life I could have had in Cornie and Joseph’s cradle of pursuits. There was no other way for me, because everyone is born entirely different, yet wholly equal and typical, identical and blank. It takes a mere slap on the palm to change our destined route. People have to know that they become who they are because of dire and similar reasons – they were birthed by individuals they eventually kowtow to while being devoid of the most rudimentary human nature; wisdom. And we all have our reasons.

That’s specifically why when Master Warrant Officer Heng thought he could disrupt my brief self-imposed solitary confinement with a joke about my partial facial pigmentation, it simply wouldn’t have been me not to stand up solemnly, strut on the stunningly warm red brick tiles over to my personal locker and retrieve from my immaculately refurbished iLBV the only item that wasn’t issued by the SAF; my humble, self-purchased rifle-cleaning pouch. I chose to embark with a demented gait, avoiding eye contact at all costs. Upon arriving at the garish IKEA-like mock-mahogany desk where Master Warrant Officer Heng was calmly seated in the bunk, I lowered the half-metre long kit in catatonic expression until it softly kissed the stained surface of the table, the accompanying metallic clink shifting my gaze unto him and his preposterously red nose. The entire scene seemed so sinister and utterly mysterious because I grew up reading mystery stories and crime fiction.

His gaze could hardly stay fixated, rotating between my stone-cold stare and the weighty pouch between us. How tasteful curiosity manages to make any predicament.

“Dalam buka barisan..kekanan luuu…rus!” a resolutely enunciated drill command ricocheted across the living quarters, breaking my sociopathic trance and drawing my sight to the main attraction – the pouch between our bodies. Deafening silence swoop the bunk as I lifted the opening flap, then the one underneath it, and rolled the entire thing open to reveal my most prized possessions.

“What the fuck?!” The common areas echoed. Heng backed up instantaneously, almost flipping over on the plastic chair he rested on. I grabbed the least intimidating item inside the pouch by its handle and swung it up and down once, coming to a rest by the side of my hip. Still remaining mute, I let out a subtle grin that made sense of it all. Heng sprang out of his seat and dashed for the door, starting the hysterical chase that concluded with my demotion to Second Warrant Officer, no possibility of a promotion even on good conduct for the next ten years, a court martial, a dismissal from both the Reconnaissance course and the Guards regiment, an indefinite transfer to the desolated Basic Military Training Centre just outside of the country, and six months of anger management and rehabilitation in the Institute of Mental Health if I wanted to keep my job.

Not many stood witness to the episode that fateful day. Bobby, Les, Marge, and Cecil saw most of it. Believe me when I say that I would pay a considerable amount of money to be greeted by the look on their faces that morning again. I suppose a woman running after a man she would gladly like to scare with a butcher’s chopper isn’t an ordinary occurrence in military camps. On top of that, it took three Guardsmen, two bloody noses, a ripped uniform chest pocket, and a hell lot of cursing to fully restrain me. No one from that outfit ever spoke to me since then, and I truly appreciate it. News got out to Joseph and Cornie, and Sam, unavoidably. The Monday following the incident, Sam put her arms around the back of my neck from the side and gently said when I arrived home: “You’re fine little sister. It’s fine.” I could smell her tantalising scent. Well, she didn’t, not exactly. But I remember it as if she did. Sam wasn’t home anymore. Neither were Joseph and Cornie. I was all alone. Finally.

***

It’s the year 2014. I’m fifty six, five foot ten, a seasoned airborne infantrywoman, and shit-faced on a regular basis in the comfort of my puny bunk in Basic Military Training Centre out here on the dispiriting island called Pulau Tekong. Sam kicked the bucket twenty-nine years ago with leukaemia. Hereditary. Patently, Joseph and Cornie’s dastard lifelong scheme wasn’t so unblemished. They split up the following year after what seemed like sincere grieving and lachryma, although it could’ve been anything; the weather, the apartment, the dress Cornie saw in Dorothy last night. Cornie is living with her sister now in a two-bedroom studio apartment in the West, while Joseph made a fortune on the lottery half a year after the split and emigrated to the Netherlands. Funny thing was that he sent me some money years later, after all that inheritance squabble from Sam’s will. I still haven’t uncovered how Joseph found my new address.

Yes, Sam left me a lot of money, and despite it being a mere ten percent of her ante-mortem wealth, Joseph and Cornie couldn’t help going through the legal dread to ensure I get enough only for a pair of trainers and some unenjoyable wine. They eventually succeeded, but it was all fine by me. What killed them the most was not the money, albeit unbelievable, but the inability to get their hands on the army-green envelope addressed to me by Sam and safeguarded by her solicitor. It was only at thirty-three – after I ripped it open to uncover its contents – when I found written on the inside of the envelope the sentence: “There was no plan, my youthful sister.”

“How intolerably cliché,” I wondered humourlessly as I strolled along the corridors of my Wing. “Morning encik,” the recruit greeted with a salute. “I’m not an Officer, for Christ’s sake, I’m a WarrantOfficer. There’s a huge difference in the two, and I’d appreciate it greatly if you could acknowledge that the need to salute is one of them,” I glared with contempt. “You moron.”

“Yes encik! Sorry encik!”

“Oh, don’t sorry me, pal. You’re staying back in here today while the rest of them get to book out at twelve. You’re staying here with me till you get your essay done.”

“What essay, encik?” the boy was on the edge of tearing, and that kept me going.

“Why can’t I remember not to salute a Warrant Officer, in three hundred words or more.”

“Yes encik,” he agreed in prostration.

“The next time any one of the 252 of you repeats your doltish mistake, no one but you will be doing jumping-jacks all day long on the hard court, rain or shine, shouting at the top of your voice ‘A Sir is not an encik, an encik is not a Sir. A Sir passes and you salute, an encik you show gratitude.’”

The recruit seemed lost. “Encik?”

“Is that fucking clear?!”

“Yes encik!”

“Now get back onto the hard court. You have five seconds.”

“Yes encik!” The recruit disappeared out of sight within six seconds.

The unnerving matter that has been playing on my mind, however, was the absolutely eerie and infuriating blank I drew when I attempted to recover the memory of my asking Sam if there was indeed a sinister and occult ploy in respecting Joseph and Cornie’s wishes unquestioningly all those years.

“They treat you like a pet.”

“Yes, they do.”

“They monitor every detail in your life.”

“Indeed.”

“They tell you what to say to others in conversations pertaining even to personal feelings.”

“That is true, too.”

“And they never ever listen to what you have or want to say. They don’t even ask.”

“You’re quite spot on, Vin.”

“But I know you sis.”

“I agree.”

“I have watched you my entire futile life.”

“That’s not a nice thing to say, Vin.”

“I recognise brilliance.”

“You do.”

“You’re not doing this for them.”

There came no reply. Just calm breathing.

“You have something you want. And you’re getting it.”

Still no reply.

“Hit the spot, haven’t I?”

“You really haven’t, Vin.”

“Oh?”

“I wouldn’t lie to you.”

“Hmm, no, you wouldn’t.”

“Yes, I woul-”

“Yes, you would, if this was trivial. But this isn’t, I’m telling you this now. It isn’t to me.”

“Well then. I won’t lie, Vin.”

“Why won’t you?”

“Because I don’t want to.”

“Because it matters to me.”

“Yes, you’re right.”

“So why don’t you tell me right now.”

“Because I don’t think I can, Vin.”

“Oh?”

There was always a certain sangfroid one could feel at any point in time around Sam, regardless of situation, in that she always knew exactly where to look, where her eyes should be pointing, where anyone’s weakness was. This moment was no different. Sam stared straight into my eyes, and burned it.

“Vin. Some things can’t be put into words, with this language we’ve created, this form of communication we’ve established. I do not understand how people could even attempt to name this bizarre phenomenon, calling it simply a dimensional inadequacy. There are just so many flaws in our existence as a race. This is why I don’t see how it shouldn’t be possible that God exists.”

“Pardon?”

“I’m sorry Vin. I just can’t explain myself to you.”

“Because I wouldn’t understand it?”

“My sentiments exactly.”

“That was a question.”

“In that case, yes, exactly.”

The Cellar

When the enormous eighteenth century grandfather clock struck twelve midnight on any school night ringing with vigor and the hardiness of antiquity, I wouldn’t know it. I’d be in the cold, dark cellar installed deep in the back of the Vietnamese restaurant – or, some might argue, coffee shop – Thực phẩm Việt that doesn’t serve Vietnamese cuisine. They’d have anything any average citizen would be able to think of for a casual meal, their menu so vastly populated with cuisines from the widespread continents. But no Vietnamese food. I, for one, think it’s satirical, but I leave it to the capable owner’s discretion. The food was never edible on my terms, and I’d always have to skip round the back to the McDonald’s and grab something below four dollars, which was easy considering the amount of unwanted garbage they use to produce the junk they feed to toddlers. There’d be an uproar from the obese community if they were to charge anything above two dollars for a mcburger, or whatever the fuck it is they called them. I was stuck in this obscene cellar, cold as a witch’s teat, from after-school hours till one in the morning. This cellar, location confidential, was a dreamland on many levels for various characters. Deluded people who had but one thing in them – nothingness. They amassed in this cellar twice – sometimes thrice – every two days not having a clue where their money went or where their money ought to have went – on their dinner table back home. They went there, they turned their papers into copper, and voila, they’ve pulled the lever for the eighty-ninth time that day, leaving with no contrition whatsoever. Some people I have met who looked interesting enough for a second glance could turn up to three hundred dollars a day and lacked proper shoes to wear. The bellied ones who averaged about fifty a day, which was a rather average number, left the room only to get into their taxi and drive off. Cabbies…could afford to blast fifty dollars away every stinking day, but complained twice a day about their inadequate fares and unsound family expenditures. They, along with their union, are why cab fares those days are almost comical. It was like the union thought of us as tourists who didn’t contribute to this economy. Several of them even stayed past midnight through the afternoon. Their phones would ring incessantly but most of them wouldn’t pick up. Those who did proceeded to lie to their wives and daughters about being trapped in traffic or bad weather.

I resented, unreservedly, the explanations these people gave themselves to justify the things they were doing. I’d meet my pals and we’d go to this corner shop ran by an incredibly repugnant and tetchy Indian bloke in his late forties all alone from dawn till dusk. I recall that ragged visage as vividly as anyone else in the neighborhood can. His unkempt mustache and beard were a stained and almost insalubrious white-grey, resembling pubic hairs unmaintained and left for dead months ago. These same scraggly hairs emanated from inside his ears and nostrils with the exception of his scalp, which gave off a smell of old furniture fused with leftover curry. He had arguably the most greasy scalp and wiry fur I’d ever seen up close. We’d split up, forming two waves. The first wave would slide up front and demand the Indian man’s hysterical frown by flipping his merchandise all over the counter and showering his poor soul with amateurish curses before scurrying off on our BMXs, escaping his yellow-fingered clutches as he desperately gave chase, accompanying his panting with profanities none of us understood. Hindu, likely. What proved rather ingenious of this grumpy old man was a handheld camera kept in his shop. Upon activation, he’d give chase with this camera in hand and try to snap shots of as many faces as he could. He’d be so caught up in both the jobs of chasing and snapping that the assumption of a super cam with extraordinary self-stabilising capabilities and an anti-blur feature always found its way into his course. His finger would click so rapidly while sprinting that the flashes that emanated would have given an Epileptic a heart attack on top of the seizure. In doing so, there was never a doubt that his photos would all go into the wastepaper basket after he’d spent some money and time developing them at the photo centre. Eventually, he just stopped altogether. Even his best shot didn’t make it to the constable’s desk, as it was made clear to us through his best ancillary move – printing it onto sheets of paper with the words Criminal child, do not forgive. Call me, incidentally leaving out his contact number and pasting them all over the neighborhood. I could recall anytime the uncontrollable laugh that escaped us the morning we saw Jong’s indistinct figure and visage, accompanied by his over-exercised middle finger, printed and pasted all over the neighbourhood. That included Jong’s building but his parents couldn’t recognise that it was their beloved, perpetually lying, filthy son on the flyer. His Korean mom even asked Jong at home if he knew this foggy image to resemble any of his friends, but then scoffed and retracted those words saying “Oh! Mommy’s sorry, boy. Of course you wouldn’t know someone who would do something like that. I mean..what did his parents bring him up on, good Lord! Definitely not Jesus Christ, that’s for sure. And definitely not a twelve-thousand-dollar-a-year education. Bless my dear boy!”

And Jong would bury his remorse with a fake condescending smirk.

Seeing as the Indian man was chasing after the first wave, the second wave would come out from behind the corner shop and knick all kinds of supplies we needed for the entertainment of our young souls. On the top of that list was the four letter word eggs. These eggs were more precious to us than fags and booze or pocket money and spray paint because we used them to deal with the scandalous cabbies I saw daily in the cellar. I’d take down their plate numbers and names printed on their taxi license sheet along with their calling IDs. The plate numbers were for when we went on our hunting trips in the event they were on the road or had someone else take over their taxi for the other shift. The names were for administrative purposes, such as knowing how to address our victims, understanding who we’re dealing with, and the despicable but brilliant idea of submitting these names whenever a complaint was to be lodged. Lastly, the calling IDs were simply for summoning them. As our night fell, I’d meet the gang – mostly just Chris and Jong because we were the only three who had sufficient pent up angst and sordid woes to uptake the valorous duty. We’d put on our trojan masks – not the warrior but the horse – and we’d take our pick from my list of the day. Sometimes, we’d encounter, by pure coincidence, cabbies from past lists and previous eggings. You wish you could see the incomparable look on those helpless faces behind the car window, some wincing, some biting their tongues, and the nasty ones abruptly braking full-on even with passengers on board to glare at our masked faces for some seconds before apologising to their bewildered customers while we laughed with undaunted levity. There were a few occasions when these cabbies did not have a passenger on board. We’d stare them straight down, right into their inane eyes, and we could just tell they had the naivety to presume they possessed the upper hand. Chris and I especially enjoyed sloppy seconds like these. Somehow, these adult men in society have all grown up impregnated with the erroneous misconception that they could assume dominance over the generations after theirs by mindlessly shouting and asserting an aggressive disposition, that when they were in this state of mind, whatever their mouth decided to spout should be revered as if they were words from a saint. Inevitably, we found exceptional pleasure in egging the ferocious bastards who looked so determined to send us to hell. If only they worked this hard bringing food home every night and showing love to their children. If only they knew what I knew.

We’d continue to egg and run, waiting for these fat-arsed swines to catch up while egging and mocking them every step of the way. We knew they took it as motivation, so we did it more. We’d keep it so personal until these grown up men were down on both knees, wishing they hadn’t gotten out of their now desecrated cabs to prove their nonexistent alpha. We’d stop to look at the state we – twelve and fourteen year old kids – have put them in, and I remember it being a representation of what a finer world would be. How does society get away with telling everyone that adults are the ones who should be making critical decisions, some regarding very few people, some regarding the masses, and then keeping completely silent when said adults make tremendously foolish life-changing events happen, still unshakably resistant towards the youngers. How are they the ones who get to hold prejudices against the youths and young adults for being callous and inexperienced when they are, in every incident, the ones responsible for organising the most epic failures of the first world? They are the ones who resort to problem gambling, extramarital affairs, war, overt materialism, avarice, social indifference and unblinking corruption. Who should be responsible for the deaths from hunger in those deliberately forsaken parts of the world? The Pope?

We’d sprint back to locate their abandoned cabs and leave our trademark on it. It was a cliched sprayed-on apostrophe in mint. That’d mark the end of some of our nights as we strolled on back home with our heads held high.

Singapore at a Steal

People tell me all the time that Singapore is an island characterised by excessiveness and indulgence, a world-class city designed for the collective of global aristocrats. Although I agree with the statement to a fine extent, I find the need to shed light on the humble, warm, unpretentious yet inconspicuous side to this country. Often uncredited, this dual-faced city is capable of being an accommodating host to budget travellers.

From the moment you set foot in the local airport, your mind begins processing all the subtle messages conveyed to you – the numerous “world’s best airport” awards, businessmen in sleek suits and impenetrable luggages strutting by, stunning stewardesses from around the world looking accomplished, and the general atmosphere just whispering extravagant by the side of your ear. What you don’t notice, on the other hand, is the amount of passengers who travel via budget airlines and the enormous pool of cabbies waiting outside. You aren’t aware of how cheap your next cup of coffee can actually be either.STP A5Decal_V01.14_FA

If your intention is to ride on public transport, usual train fares begin from SGD1.40 (USD1.00) and peak at approximately SGD2.70 (USD1.93), and these prices allow you to ride on clean and (if you’re in luck) new trains. Bus fares begin from SGD1.40 (USD1.00) and peak at SGD2.50 (USD1.79). However, depending on your itinerary, you could go for the Singapore Tourist Pass (STP) instead, bringing those numbers down quite substantially.

But suppose the budget traveller in you just wants to get to the main tourist grounds and complete the excursion within the span of half a day before scuttling off into Malaysia or onto a flight back home. You want speed and efficiency so you can see the spots you have popped by for. Uber and GrabTaxi are two transport service providers that cater to just that need. We all know what Uber is, but for those who have not heard of its Singaporean competitor GrabTaxi, they are just the same GrabTaxiexcept that GrabTaxi doesn’t have a card-only policy and has a fixed fare indicator that should curb fare shocks. A typical ride on a GrabCar to a tourist hotspot like Orchard should only cost you SGD19 (USD13), which is a whole lot cheaper than an average cab ride (SGD26/USD18) you would get from the line of local taxis lurking outside.

Accommodation can do quite some damage to your wallet here because of the country’s lack of land. A puny hotel room should cost north of SGD100 (USD71) a night, with no promise of breakfast or clean sheets. The common alternative these days would be of course to scan Airbnb and Couchsurfing for a host or two during your itinerary planning. But in the off chance you don’t manage well with that, hostels here are reasonably priced and some remarkably novel. The diminutive size of this island-country, in this case, allows travellers to make good time as well, even if the location of the hostel you ultimately choose isn’t quite favourable. I’ve been to the Green Kiwi on more than five occasions and recommended it to Couchsurfing guests and travellers I’ve met abroad largely because the owner is such a delightful character on top of being an experienced traveller with four continents under his belt. The place is filled with amenities and features that resonate tremendously with travellers from all around the world, marking it as the most ingenious local hostel in my book. The Green Kiwi can be patronised for just SGD24 (USD16) a night at 280A Lavender Street, a ten-minute walk from Lavender station on the East-West Line.Green Kiwi

However, some of us may not have bought into the idea of having “housemates” on a holiday. Some may just be quieter, reflective and expecting more personal space during a trip, nevertheless being on a budget. With that in mind, Adler Hostel in Chinatown offers train cabin style dormitories with extra privacy,Adler_Hostel2 (1) warm lighting and adequate noise control. It’s located at 265 South Bridge Road, a five-minute walk from Chinatown station on the North-East Line. Prices start from SGD55 (USD39) a night and include basic amenities.

The matter of food expenses is a personal favourite as I am certain I don’t see more than a couple of foreigners at the eateries many locals and myself frequent. We all want to eat well on a holiday, and eat different. This reason has become one of the main contenders in every traveller’s decision-making process prior to the purchase of plane tickets. The best eateries in Singapore aren’t internationally acclaimed cafes or continental restaurants that flew thousands of kilometres to entice us, even though our impressive arsenal of such bistros is in itself worthy of a Michelin star. Contrary to popular belief, the best meals here aren’t accompanied by exorbitant price tags. Instead, they are commonly hidden from travellers in multi-storey food centres called hawker centres. Hawker centres are distributed across many parts of the country, and although there are inevitably less encouraging ones, a good rule of thumb is that there is at least one good hawker in every hawker centre. Prices of dishes start from as low as SGD2.50 (USD1.75) and are capable of satisfying even the most outrageous palate. In other words, they are perfect for any traveller on a budget.

The first dish I know for sure I can impose on almost every traveller’s gastrointestinal tract is what’s known here as Fried Oyster Egg. What’s in it can be explained by its name. The Oyster Egg can be found in every hawker centre, so the touristOyster egg traps are well concealed. Regardless, the best on my list belongs to Lim’s Fried Oyster in Berseh Food Centre located in the neighbourhood of Jalan Besar, a five-minute walk from Farrer Park station. A small plate of this only costs SGD5 (USD3.50) and can be shared amongst two friends if the general intention is to share myriad dishes. Mr Lim has been frying oysters in Singapore’s treacherous heat for twenty years, but he still maintains a chirpy disposition when you speak to him, so that’s a plus when you’re on a holiday in a foreign country I suppose.

The second dish is called Char Kway Teow, which is in Hokkien, a local dialect. What the dish consists of are essentially stir-fried ricecake strips coated with dark soya sauce, giving it a brownish overall tone. You’ll also find little cockles, some vegetables and bits of Taiwanese sausages in it. Again, this dish can be 91-fried-kway-teow-1found in every hawker centre, so I’ll offer you the benefit of my experience and announce that the best Char Kway Teow comes from the kitchen of 91 Fried Kway Teow Mee in the Golden Mile Food Centre situated along Beach Road, a five-minute walk from Nicoll Highway station. This stall does not come with the amicable host cum boss like the previously mentioned one, but they do provide you with a generous amount of leafy greens atop the dish – a trademark you will not find elsewhere. Price of a small plate that feeds one starts from just SGD3 (USD2).       

There are numerous seafood stalls in hawker centres that will give you a fulfilling return on investment, but there are also plenty that jack up prices for foreigners or use substandard ingredients on the supposition that tourists lack the experience to tell the difference. This is an ugly business practice that does not represent Singapore in any way, so I will make use of this piece to caution as many travellers as possible, hopefully ensuring a pleasant trip all-round. Seafood stalls in hawker centres offer a wide range of Chompsfishes, crustaceans and vegetables to go with rice. The average prices of each category of food are SGD15 (USD10.50), SGD9 (USD6) and SGD6 (USD4) respectively and may vary according to size or season. Hai Wei Yuan Seafood BBQ in Chomp Chomp, the name of a hawker centre, is by far one of the best seafood stall in the lower price range, as opposed to the higher price range seafood stalls that operate in a restaurant of their own rather than within a hawker centre. Hai Wei Yuan in Chinese means sea-taste-garden, which basically translates to “A taste of the Sea in a garden”. The stall is lively and enthusiastic every time I’ve been there. The vendors are a courteous and well-mannered bunch who told me that they’re just proud to be able to maintain their family’s time-honoured tradition of trading seafood while making waves and money. They also have Hawker food triomenus clearly displaying the prices for every dish and the size of each dish to prevent any accusations of foul play. My personal recommendations are the Sambal Stingray, La-la (bamboo clams), and stir-fried Sambal Kang-Kong (Water Spinach). Chomp Chomp is located in Serangoon Gardens, a 10-minute bus ride from Serangoon station on either bus 315 or 317. Once you’ve settled down with seats and a Sugar Cane drink, walk over to stall one and place your order. I’m certain you won’t need to go out of the way to visit any other seafood stall in town again, ever.

Lastly, experiences are crucial to every traveller. It’s why we travel to places we have never been to, filled with people we may not even understand. People like us feel a sense of accomplishment mixed with enlightenment when we become truly integrated with the country and its culture, things that were so far away from us that the distance is sometimes unimaginable. These encounters are often surreal and astonishing, defining our good and best days. In Singapore, it is relatively easy to trek across the country’s prime locations without falling victim to a catastrophic accident like in Western films. It also allows you to save on transport, meet interesting people and stumble upon fascinating places you may never see again. Bars and clubs are too expensive to be mentioned on this list, but if you do meet a local Couchsurfer or traveller, request that they bring you to meet the local Couchsurfing community. Crack open a cheap bottle of beer or white wine and lay back with them on a breezy night wherever they bring you. It definitely beats hurting your eardrums in a stuffy club and not getting any conversation in at all.

Condos here are fairly easy to breach, especially if you’re not local and are entering a condo near Orchard. You could give CondoCity Square Residences in Farrer Park (3-minute walk from train station) a try, or The Quartz in Buangkok (3-minute walk from train station). The pools in there could remind you of a simple pool party, if you gathered enough friends. Otherwise, the sleek beach chairs and alfresco chill-out spots could do you just fine. These experiences get you up close and personal with the local lifestyle at no cost. There is also no need to worry even if you get caught as the security guard would just escort you off the premises. Most of the time though, they wouldn’t take the risk of upsetting a possible resident.

Nature sitesNature is scarce here, but there are still worthy places you may visit. Mount Faber, a 10-minute walk from Harbourfront station, is a hill in the south of the country that elevates your sight of the neighbourhoods in the south. You can also catch a good view of Sentosa and the monorail and cable cars it uses, accompanied by the ocean surrounding it and the few islands situated beside Singapore. Bukit Timah Hill is another natural site to explore with locals and expats all around day after day. Pay a visit in shorts, singlet and covered shoes on a weekend morning if you intend to mingle with adventurous locals there. You can take bus 173 from Bukit Batok station and alight after 15 stops at the bus stop Southhaven II.

Cycling is another economical way to maximise the experience with this country’s natural sites and landmarks. All our roads are bicycle-friendly and there are various rental kiosks in park connectors all around the island.
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A park connector is essentially what we know as cycling and running tracks that go on for miles, connecting countless neighbourhoods and their sporting residents. Bicycle rental fees start from as low as SGD7 (USD5) per hour, excluding optional safety gear.

This is, of course, but one local’s perspective of the country. It may not represent the views of the masses, but it does, indubitably, bring you closer to a nation in an affordable way – how it should be everywhere. With that being said, I can only hope the journeys I inspire manage to teach you a thing or two about yourself and the wonders around you.                

The Newfound

You’re the newfound Me
An unwavering tidal breeze
Heart and soul all intact
Knowingly so imperfect

The stars don’t shine on us evenly
I noticed atop an observatory
Words were merely passing letters
as I hid in front of the haters

Darkness brought along grief
while loneliness could sought no relief
Buried so deep you couldn’t hear
The cry that lived too many years

But you’re the newfound Me
The unreserved tidal breeze
You brought my muted plea
above the merciless and roaring sea
There I had paused in thought
of what humiliation was wrought
But what kind of defeat
would braving the roaring sea meet?

You’re the newfound Me
The unyielding tidal breeze
Heart and soul all intact
Resolute and imperfect