Cissy generation

There was a time when the teacher was God and pupils respect him out of neither popularity nor affection; there was only fear and fear was what maintained decorum in the classroom. Fear was what compelled every pupil to complete his homework and sit upright in class.

Abuse? What abuse? Spankings and slaps and ear-pullings were common occurrences and physical pain was expected by anyone who misbehave.

Is it any wonder we have brought up a generation of young people who take offence at almost every ‘political incorrectness’?

Is it also any wonder we have brought up a generation of cissy soldiers whose duffel bags have wheels and trolley handles?

Confessions of a book lover

My books number to about six hundred, a miserly albeit not easily amassed collection of papered darlings that accompany my frequent anti-social episodes; they are treasure.

Whereas friends tremble over the latest iPhone and iPad, my vice lie in the stuffy fragrance of dust-powdered hardcovers and crumpled paperbacks.

As a child, I did not twist my parents’ arms over an Optimus Prime, Tomiya cars or some action figure. I howled over my father’s refusing to buy a Famous Five story book or a Ladybird hardcover edition of the animated Brave Starr series. My sons, nowadays, would have begged to violate my already credit-less wallet for a Ben 10 action figure or the Japanese spin-top toy called Beyblade Metal Fight. 

Do not get me wrong, I was like any other boy who loved action cartoons such as Transformers, Brave Starr and The Visionaries but when it came to the tangible, I prefered story book editions of these cartoons instead of action figures.

Many of those books are probably either in some second-hand bookshop or have long been incinerated. I am not the sentimental fool to hoarde, even books, at the expense of pragmatic housekeeping. My one regret though, was when I dumped my precious Stephen King mass paperback editions down the rubbish chute during one hormone-spurred manic episode as a result of an evangelical Christian delusion concerning the evils of the horror genre. That was the end of my Stephen King days.

Books can be vistas through which we elope to a gaiman-esque universe where magic becomes real and the macabre an inch away from reality. Sometimes, they are microscopes into the messy human condition: many great literary works do just that. When I was still living with my parents, books were stacked liberally on my desk and on the floor, frustrating my brother who shared the already cramped room. He must have thanked the gods that I moved to my own place, which was located across the street from my parents’, after I got married.

I was delighted when we first bought bookshelves for my books. I shelved my darlings almost immediately. I love to gaze at my books and sometimes rearrange them. They continue to multiply, with more genres and subjects. According to my mood at a particular time, I will display certain books, be it world history, theology, philosophy or natural science. I will sardine-stack the rest into the roomy cupboard drawers.

As a book lover, one recognises immediately the dizzying drumbeats in the chest and the slightly crazed sparkle in the dilated eye as one anticipates the deflowering of a newly purchased book. One caresses the spine and reads the summary on the back cover. Over and over. Then like a teenage lover one rips the shrink-wrapped plastic off the virgin covers and thumbs through the crisp pages and inhales deeply the musty dank fragrance. It is all good.

It takes some time before one actually reads the book. All that smelling and fingering is foreplay, the prelude to the real thing; which when occurs, will not stop until climax is reached.

Life goes on

The eatery at the Bus Terminal overflows with swarms of office workers and students snaking past food stalls and taking away dinners; the privileged few gorging theirs at crammed seats, some eyeing blankly the smallish flat-screened television up front. This is working-class Singapore in the heartlands, at dinner time.

Our family of five, are among the privileged few. We squash ourselves beside two young Chinese blokes minding their own meals at the corner and a Malay-Muslim ‘auntie’ slurping her soup. Darling settles the children as I waddle along the rows of people to find the ‘Korean’ stall. The children loves the ‘Saba’ fish.

It takes fifteen minutes to settle the children’s meals. Then it is my turn. The usual rice with ‘Yong Tau Foo’ soup. Darling opts for the same without the rice. The animated Malay-Muslim lady smiles at the children. We talk. It is not often Singaporeans have the chance to chat with strangers in this overcrowded wasteland of zombies and smartphone worshippers. People mind their own business a lot, here in Singapore. I miss the human warmth of rural life, despite never having lived in the countryside of rolling hills and dung-scented pastures. I can only imagine.

Her children are all grown, three of them, twenty-three to thirty, and single. The eldest still waiting for a flat before ever deciding to flash the ring. Our kids must have ‘boasted’ to her about their yet-to-be-born sibling for she nods towards Darling about drinking lots of soup. It surprises her for a Chinese family in 21st-century Singapore to not stop at two. There are many who even cringe at the idea of bringing up children. Darling hails from a family of robust Hokkien peasant stock, all nine of them, despite the ruling party’s social darwinian policies in the 1970s. I on the other hand have only two siblings. Sedentary city-dwellers, we have never lived in the ‘kampungs’ of pre-HDB Singapore.

I told Darling when we got married that my ideal would be five, although one or two fewer will do just fine. I told the auntie, unabashedly, and touching her shoulder, that children are blessings from God.

She smiles.

In a sense I fancy the Malay-Muslim community, at least in Singapore. Most Chinese, I tell her, are individualistic and self-centred. We see things in terms of dollars and cents, from the wedding dinner to the marital bed, and from having children to their university education. We think we are gods and we plan ahead. The Malays, according to the Muslimah, see life differently. There is no such thing as a ‘singular’ Malay person. There is always ‘family’ and ‘community’.

As I struggle with the beads of rice that litter the green bowl, sip my peppered soup and crunch vegetables and pieces of egg, the Muslimah asks to take her leave. She has finished her meal and drink and time for her runs late. Darling and I bid her goodbye. The three children nod their heads and grin their goodbyes amid facialised debris of food.

The lenses of the black framed spectacles blur as my smallish eyes beneath register the slow-mo demise of the diminutive figure of the kindly Muslimah as she clutches her bag and twists her way past the hordes of everyday zombies into the stickly hot night.

I stretch a smile to Darling, and at the squabbling kids I muster a sickly frown before returning to the unfinished bowl under my sweat-beaded chin.

Life goes on.