A Reporter’s Memoir: NO HARD FEELINGS

An irreverent look at life, faith and politics…

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A preview of the front cover
A preview of the front cover
About Ismail

Written by ibekay

February 27, 2009 at 4:43 pm

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Conversation of…

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Conversation of the Deaf

and Dumb


I was in Kaifeng(Central China) last week when I read my old friend and former colleague Maidin Packer’s great letter to PM Lee urging him to explore all options for the future of Singapore. The letter was also carbon-copied to several ministers. 

By any yardstick it was a well-written piece. Backed by facts and figures and amply illustrated with personal anecdotes, it does not lack ideas on the future options facing our tiny island Republic. 

Obviously Maidin has benefitted immensely from his days as MP and parliamentary secretary in several ministries to pen a finely-tuned letter that warmed the hearts of many thorough-bred Singaporeans, while not stepping on the toes of his former colleagues. 

I think the government will be quite happy to include his ideas in the ongoing National Conversation to reconcile the PAP with the people on the road that is to be taken in the next decade or so. 

After the initial positive response, the first thought that came to mind is: Is there really anything new in the letter that PM Lee and his inner circle do not already know? 

My gut instinct is NO. As currently composed, the present PAP mafia dons and their small coterie of advisers could not have been ignorant of any of the issues raised by Maidin. 

NO, there is nothing in the letter that has not already been discussed, debated and rejected in favour of the growth-at-all-costs policy. 

No right-thinking Singaporean is against growth – slow or fast. The problem is that such a policy as implemented in the last ten years had the unique distinction of enriching the top 20% of the population while impoverishing the bottom 20%. 

The question is why. Why the unseemly haste to become the world’s no one, to be the richest country in the world, even at the risk of alienating the working classes? Is it because of geopolitical realities or an underlining strategic imperative? 

In short, is there anything that PM Lee, former MM and ESM know that we the common people do not know? 

Could it be that, just as the sleep of some American leaders are haunted by the spectre of the yellow hordes peering at them over the Pacific, the sleep of some of our leaders are being disturbed by the chatter of the brown hordes beyond our backyard? 

It is not inconceivable. History provides many examples of the tendency of nations and their leaders to demonise their potential enemies based on real and imaginary fears. 

An example of self-serving hallucination was during the Cold War when the Americans grossly and persistently exaggerated the threat from the Soviets to justify enhanced defence expenditures that benefitted mainly the industrial-military class. 

Another pertinent case was the self-created hysteria in American and its allies over Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. 

As I see it, it was a Malay-dominated government that willingly – and I think happily – gave Singapore its independence almost half a century ago and over that period not a single bullet has been fired in anger nor has there been any action or event that even remotely threatens its existence. 

Yet, fears of the brown peril – real and imaginary – remain unabated. The Singapore Malays have already had to pay a heavy price over the last 47 years as they were marginalized in the security services and it may take another 47 years by former MM Lee’s reckoning before there could be any appreciable improvement.         

Now, and over the last ten years, the non-Malays too have begun to feel the pain because of policies that have been designed to counter and eliminate any possible combination of threats from within the region to its existence. 

The Malays too are also suffering from the same combination of policies, and for them it is like being penalized twice for belonging to the wrong colour. 

If the National Conversation on the future that we want for Singapore and our children is to have any meaning, it must include all relevant issues including geopolitical and regional realities, and the issue of discrimination against Malays in the security services. 

But I am not hopeful. PM Lee said at the recently-concluded APEC meeting that the government initiated dialogue is not about slaughtering sacred cows. I take it to mean that sensitive issues too would be excluded. 

If that is the case, then the National Conversation that is designed to last for one year might end up as the conversation of the deaf and dumb.

 No Hard Feelings


Ismail Kassim

19th September 2012


Written by ibekay

September 19, 2012 at 11:51 am

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  Down the ka…

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Down the kampung path

Once as ubiquitous as lallangs and coconut trees, kampungs have become extinct in Singapore.

It’s the price of progress and Malays – like other Singaporeans – have accepted and adapted themselves well to living in public flats.

But among those who grew up under its wide embrace, nostalgia for the old ways of life in a kampung still runs deep.

Kampung living is in many ways community-based with its own unique interplay of values and religious rituals, customs and traditions leading to an emphasis on harmony and ‘’gotong royong’’(cooperation)

While many are contented to reminisce, Sharifah Hamzah felt compelled to record for posterity her kampung journey from birth at Kg. Lorong 108 till as a young woman she saw the house she called home being torn down by the bulldozers.

The result is Kampung Memories A Life’s Journey, Revisited – a delightful little volume that she describes as a ‘’semi-memoir.’’ It is a welcome addition to the scarce literature in English on the Singapore Malays heritage.

Though rather sketchy in parts, her book has managed to cover practically every aspect of the kampung kaleidoscope, from mouth-watering delicacies to games little children play to social norms.

The idea for the project was mooted years ago when Sharifah, a law graduate, was still living in Singapore and working as a magazine writer. As a result, she went round to many other kampungs to observe, talk and interview the residents.

To put it simply, her aim was to ‘’catch the last memories of kampungs before their demolition to make way for urban renewal’’.

The material was kept in cold storage for years. It was only after marriage and living in California that the call to write and publish her kampung memories became too strong to resist.

I can understand her passion. Though my origins were in government quarters, for five years of my boyhood I lived on the fringe of Kampung Ellis Road at Tanglin Post Office.

I had two sets of friends; English-speaking school mates and Malay-speaking kampung boys, most of whom were school drop-outs, and from both groups I learnt both vice and virtue in equal measure.

So for me reading Sharifah’s recollection was just like walking down memory lane, filled with images of hunting birds and collecting fruits, playing football and loafing around and picnics at Changi Point and Hari Raya dinners at Islamic Restaurant.

Why so much nostalgia? Let me reproduce a quote from the book: ‘’tempat jauh lagi dikenang, inikan pula tempat bermain.’’ (far places are still remembered, what more your playground)

Like me, Sharifah too decided to self-publish through an online printer rather than to go through the hazzle of finding a publisher.

The final product is a presentable little book, good enough for Wardah Books in Kampung Glam and Select Books at Tanglin to want to stock it.

I hope her book will encourage those with their own stories to tell to follow in her footpath. Record your memories for your children and grandchildren. Do it while time is still on your side.

Ismail Kassim

25 July 2012

Written by ibekay

July 25, 2012 at 12:59 pm

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  Let Alfian …

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Let Alfian entertain with his haunting tales….

Malay Sketches, the latest offering from poet and playwright Alfian Sa’at, attracted by attention for two reasons.

First is his reputation as an enfant terrible on the local literary scene, with a dazzling array of works and awards under his belt.

I have read several of his short stories and know from first-hand how entertaining and – provocative – his prose can be.

The second is that it reminded me of another book with the same title that I wanted to read decades ago, but somehow never managed to do so.

The original Malay Sketches was by Frank Swettenham, Governor and Commander in Chief of the Straits Settlement. It was published in 1895.

Alfian makes no secret that he has deliberately decided to borrow the same title, possibly to provide continuation with the past, when the Malays as a community stagnated under British colonial rule, while their rulers and petty chieftains prospered.

As a prelude to his collection of 42 short and ultra-short stories, most of which are less than 500 words long and a few under 100, Alfian reproduces a paragraph from Frank’s preface:

‘’The tale of these little lives is told. If I have failed to bring you close to the Malay, so that you could see into his heart, understand something of his life…then the fault is mine.’’


Using the same yardstick, I can say that Alfian has not done badly. Through his vivid sketches of a spectrum of characters, readers will gain rare insights into the Malay psyche as an ethnic minority in Chinese-dominated Singapore.

Don’t be misled by the simplicity of the chapter headings; his tales of hantus and toyol, tetek and nonok and pontianak, exude sufficient charm and humour to haunt the imagination.

Like an artist who could capture an evocative scene or a haunting portrait with just a few bold strokes of the pen or pencil, Alfian only needs a handful of words and phrases to make his characters and their dilemmas, leap out of the pages to entertain and more important – to illumine delicate issues.

Like, for example, his short tale on The Convert.  Readers can feel for themselves how heavy is the burden of just being a Malay and/or Muslim in security-obsessed Singapore, with its real and imaginary fears.

Even an old hand like me, who has for years given much thought on minority problems, has emerged more enlightened and sympathetic to, for instance, tudung wearing after reading Losing Touch.

But it is his story on Two Brothers that resonated strongly with me, especially when in the course of a conversation on Singapore and Malaysia politics, one of them says:

‘’I used to think that things were different in Singapore. I thought we had different rules, different standards. But I realised we’re the same. When it comes down to it, it’s all about race. Sons of the soil, sons of the Yellow Emperor. They’re the same.’’

That’s what I – and many other Malays of my generation – thought so years ago. We were then, perhaps, naive and idealistic.

Brought out by Ethos Books, which has emerged as a leading and daring publisher of local works in recent years, the 220-odd pages book comes replete with eye-catching illustrations by artist, Shahril Nizam Ahmad.

So friends, why wait? Rush to Wardah books at Kampong Glam for your copy of Malay Sketches.

Ismail Kassim

1 July 2012

Written by ibekay

July 1, 2012 at 3:59 pm

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My friend Iskandar, the great potter


Long have I heard of this talented potter and dreamt of meeting him, but it was not till years later when our paths crossed on the Road to Tehran that I finally caught up with him, and discover the man behind the craft.

Act 1: early 1960s, the back room of 62 Monk’s Hill Terrace

As a trainee ‘O’ level teacher, I discovered Omar Khayyam and through his delightful quatrains was introduced, aside from the delights of the grapes, to the world of the potter and his pots of clay.

Whenever I felt bored in my little room in my father’s government quarters terrace house, I would snatch my little Rubaiyat companion and read my favourite verses from this irreverent Sufi poet.

Sober or high, the Rubaiyat never fail to delight and enlighten me of the foibles and frailties of the human pots of clay.

Some of my favourites included references to the divine potter and just to quote two:

Then said another –‘’Surely not in vain

My substance from the common Earth was taken

That He who subtly wrought me into Shape

Shall stamp me back to common Earth again.’’

Another said – ‘’Why ne’er a peevish Boy,

Would break the Bowl from within he drank in Joy;

Shall He that made the vessel in pure Love

And Fancy, in after Rage destroy?’’

 Whenever I felt remorse then, I would think of the Rubaiyat and console myself, saying that ‘’in fashioning me the Potter’s hands did shake – feverishly’’.

Act 2: early spring 2008, in the land of the mullahs, ayatollahs and also the Rubaiyat

Although the potter lives practically a stone’s throw from my sister’s place in Kembangan where my father also lives and I know his younger brother, Rahim, we never met until I joined a 12 day tour of Iran organized by friends from the Bukit Timah campus days.

Aside from Iskandar and his lovely wife, Saleha, others in the small group included Jailani Rohani, Aminahton, Amin Sidek, Moksim Salleh, Aziz Hussein, Jamal, Ashfaq and Abdul Malek Ishak.

It was on the long dusty bus ride from Tehran to Kermanshah that I finally came face to face with the potter in the flesh – Iskandar Jalil, small-built, short, wiry and tanned, but warm and down-to-earth.

Early next morning I saw him standing by the bus, dressed in a thin cotton T-shirt, track pants, sneakers, while other were holding tight to their jackets, as the cold spring winds swirled around us.

‘’Doesn’t he feel the cold?’’ I casually asked Saleha. She replied: ‘’He is always like that, quite immune to the cold.’’ I told myself that this potter might have been an Eskimo in his previous life.

A few days later, while touring the ruins of Persepolis – once the capital of the mighty Persian Empire – I noticed the care that he took taking shots from his small but upmarket Sony digital camera, often giving instructions to Saleha on how to pose or how to take shots of him.

I asked him on his photography and he let me view images from his camera; I would see the touch of professionalism reflected in the tightness of the composition and the attention given to perspective. In Malay, you say: ‘’ada standard lah.’’ (high standard )

Next, I noticed he always had a tightly packed haversack on his back from which he often drew out a big, thick, black dairy-like notebook, to write. I was curious and on one occasion peeped over his shoulder; in big bold letters he was writing down the name of the place in addition to sketching the entrance. They took up almost the entire page.

I told myself these were signs of ‘’a big heart and a bold spirit.’’

On the second last day as the bus was taking us back to Tehran from Isfahan, except for the potter, the rest of us were slumped against our seat, a little weary and possibly a little home-sick.

Iskandar, born in 1940 and could be considered as our ‘’abang’’ (elder brother) were going round tirelessly from seat to seat with his big black note book.

Finally, he came to me and handing over his book, said: ‘’Ismail, can I have your name, address, e-mail and phone numbers.’’

He was the only one in our party who did it.

(Unfortunately, Omar’s home town of Nishapur was not on the itinerary. Anyway, our Iranian guide told me there was nothing to see – no monument, no tomb. The mullahs obviously frowned on his Rubaiyat with their plentiful references to taverns and wines and the timeless potter.)

Act 3: One evening about eight months later in 2008, at a renovated 3-storey terrace house in Jalan Kembangan

 Toward the end of Iran tour, I told Saleha that I had heard much talk about their newly renovated home. The result was an open invitation for tea.

After much procrastination, I finally asked Jailani to arrange, and he too needed a little prodding, before he rang up and that was how he and I, and his wife, Aminahton, ended up being graciously treated to a tour of the house.

All I could remember is the minimalist-style, hardly any furniture except for basic wooden stuff and lots of artefacts from his travels and pots, big and small, in varying patterns, scattered all over.

When it was time to say good-bye, the potter took out two small bowls from the cupboard – one dark black, the other light tan – and placed them on the table before us. He then took one in each hand, raised it to eye level and then threw them on the floor with some force.

They landed with a loud thud, rolled a little and then remained still, intact. He picked them up and placed them on the table and asked us to examine the bowls.

We were stunned, speechless. Incredible, there was not even a whiff of a hairline crack. ‘’They are almost unbreakable – a matter of heating technique,’’ he said.

Added the potter: ‘’Take one each. Decide who wants what.’’

I gestured to Jailani and he slowly reached out for the light one. I was happy to take the dark one. So unexpected, so generous, and I felt a little overwhelmed.

Today, the bowl is prominently displayed in my study, perched securely on the topmost shelf above my writing table, flanked by an art book and a little bird house.

Act 4: 14 October 2011, Art-2 Gallery at the MICA building, the opening of the five-day solo exhibition and the launch of a limited edition book – iskandar jalil Images of My Pottery Travels.

About 300 odd pieces, the creme de la creme – of his prodigious output over the last five years are on display in the grand foyer. They come in varying shapes and sizes and colours – bowls, pots, plates, teapots, plates and an assortment of figurines, and their total value by my estimate come to at least S$ a million.

The guests start streaming in from 5.45 pm and by 6.30 pm when the proceedings began the entire place was jam-packed with fans, friends and admirers.

Dressed in a bright brown long-sleeved batik, the silver-haired Iskandar said that he held a solo exhibition every five years.

‘’This is my sixth solo in the last three decades and I think it is going to be my last.

‘’But I will not stop pottering. I will very soon start on another journey, another pilgrimage. My target is to work with up and coming artists from any media and hold joint shows in which I hope to pass my knowledge to them.

‘’I like to teach and I like to help. And any artist who like to join me for a show, please contact me,’’ he added.

Guest of Honour Professor Tommy Koh who is also Ambassador-At-Large then described Iskandar as a master potter and beloved guru.

‘’I am almost speechless. It’s a fabulous show, ‘’ he added and then went on to elaborate his qualities as a teacher and as a traveller, which fitted nicely with my observations.

‘’At 72, you are still young and still capable of producing great works. We look forward to another solo exhibition and if I am still around, I will be honoured to come and open it,’’ added Prof. Koh.

The exhibition will run from the 15th to the 20th of October.


Ismail Kassim

15 October 2011


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October 15, 2011 at 9:06 am

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In Gedungku, memories are made of this…


I just met a girl named Hidayah Amin, or Cik Idah in short, who possesses the three Ps – passionate, persistent and plucky or rather pushy, depending on one’s frame of mind – in great abundance.

With such drive, she has obviously been to places; National University of Singapore, Fulbright scholar at LeHigh University, an internship at the United Nations, and currently a graduate student in Cambridge University, to mention just a few.

Her professor at Cambridge mentioned me by name, and that was the start that led us to meet at Wardah Bookshop in Bussorah Street to exchange views and books.

I presented to her my No Hard Feelings memoir (2nd print 2009) and she, in turn, gave me her Gedung Kuning Memories of a Malay Childhood which was published last year.

Like me, she too felt compelled to tell her story. Unlike me, she managed to get others including the Singapore Heritage Society on board her personal project.

The result is a highly readable and well-produced book, with glossaries of Malay and Javanese words, maps and references that place her subject in the larger context of the culture and history of Singapore and Southeast Asia.

Her family saga began with the arrival of Haji Mohamed Noor Bin Haji Ali who relocated to Singapore from Solo, Java, in the late 19th century to set up a food business.

It was his son, Singapore-born Haji Yusoff who built the family’s fortune based on songkok (caps) and tali pinggang (belts) and became one of the pillars of the Malay-Muslim society, noted for both his business acumen and his philanthropic activities in and around Kampung Glam.

When Gedung Kuning was put on sale by the descendants of Sultan Hussein in 1912, her maternal great grandfather, Haji Yusoff, wasted no time in buying over this historic building, which is adjacent to the Istana Kampung Glam, for his two wives and their children.

Cik Idah is the fourth generation. She was born and grew up in Gedung Kuning, together with other descendants of Haji Yusoff until the government took it over under the Land Acquisition Act in 1999 to turn it into a Heritage Centre. It is now known as the Tepak sireh restaurant.

Despite protests, the government stood by its decision to compensate the family only $3.6 million for the 13,254 sq. feet stately mansion, which by today’s property prices, looks like daylight robbery.

Obviously, she was peeved at being turned out of her home. But her loss is our gain as it made her conscious of her heritage, and propelled her to want to share that legacy with readers in 28 simple, short stories on growing up in Gedung Kuning.

From such humble materials as a mango tree, nenek (grandmother), emak (mother) and ambin (raised platform), she manages to pull them together into a vivid account of how one girl looks at the life around her.

Through her eyes, we get a glimpse, not only of her family’s contribution, but also the Malay-Muslim way of life that revolves around Islamic festivals and rituals, customs, traditions, fears and prejudices.

At another level, hers is not an unfamiliar story. It is a recurring theme in Malay-Muslim society that the first one or two generation built the wealth, and the succeeding generations lived off the patrimony and squabbled over wills and legal suits and untrustworthy trustees.

In the case of this family, there is at least the hope that Cik Idah might be able to resuscitate, if not the family’s fortune, at least its good name.

The story of Cik Idah, the girl with the 3Ps, will hopefully inspire other Singaporean, especially Malay girls and also the boys, to rev up their drive and pursue their goals with greater focus and determination.

The downside, of course, is that you may be called names, and as she confessed to me on that hot afternoon in the bookshop, a top Malay PAP leader conferred on her another ‘P’ when he called her a pest. I assume it was said half out of exasperation and half in jest.

Given the scarcity of literature in English on the Singapore Malays, I consider her book a valuable addition.

I find particularly the many old photos from the family album reprinted in the book as a visual treat of a way of life long gone by; among them is one showing retired Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, garlanded, and with a black Malay songkok precariously perched on his head, on a visit to Kampung Glam.

I hope that Gedung Kuning will inspire other Malays to pen their stories. You don’t need to be at the pinnacle of your career or be a household figure before you start writing. Like Cik Idah, everybody can also do it.

Some years ago a group of Malay graduates including myself got together to plan a memoir of a generation, with everyone contributing a piece. But it never got off ground as only one member responded.

I still hope that the project can be revived and I am still prepared to play my part to bring it to fruition.


Ismail Kassim

12 October 2011


P/S: Gedung Kuning is available at Wardah and selected bookshops. Wardah, which has a fine selection of books on Sufism, has also started to stock my NO Hard Feelings memoir.

The bookshop is owned by the family of the late Ahmad Ibrahim, Singapore’s first Attorney General and one of the sharpest legal minds. It is now managed by his grandson, Ibrahim.


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October 12, 2011 at 8:42 pm

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Another nasty remark, another denial

…what’s next?

And what are we to make of the latest controversy involving our octogenarian and venerable ex-MM’s clarification that he did not describe Islam as a ‘’venomous religion’’ in his meeting with US Senator Hillary Clinton in July 2005.

On the day the WikiLeaks report was published, a group of friends at a Hari Raya gathering unanimously felt that certainly he was capable of saying such a thing and that he probably did say something to that effect. Even a few staunch PAP supporters in our midst concurred.

After all, who was it who publicly said years ago, that it was only prudent not to deploy religious Muslims in the army to ‘’machine guns’’ units.

The next day he denied that he had used the offensive word or said ‘’anything which could have given that impression.’’

As good citizens and good Muslims, I feel we should accept his explanation at face value and move on.

For the sake of academic argument, however, I feel there is no harm in exploring what actually could have taken place on that occasion.

1: The offensive word was used intentionally for reasons not easily fathomable;

2: It was a slip of the tongue during the course of the conversation on how best to deal with Islamic terrorism;

3: It was an adjective coined by the American side to add a little colour to the proceedings; and

4: A deliberate attempt by the note-taker to inject his own bias and prejudices in the report.

I leave it to readers to decide on what they think was the most likely scenario. For me, I have long suspected our venerable leader of having all kinds of negative images of Malays, Muslims and Islam arising from his political struggle for the PAP and he in particular to be given a leading role in Malaysia after Singapore joined the Federation.

From his tears when announcing the Separation more than 47 years ago, it must have been a traumatic event for him. It meant the shattering of all his ideals and aspirations.

To me what is important in the latest controversy is not so much what he actually did say, but what most Singaporeans think he said or is capable of saying.

Actually, many Muslims would applaud him if he had used ‘’venomous’’ to describe the more intolerant elements in their midst including preachers, religious teachers, Islamic bureaucrats, and even rulers, especially the autocratic and hereditary ones, that still deny their citizens basic human and civil rights.

Some of these rulers are still being assiduously wooed by Singapore for business reasons, and some of them are among the US’s list of best friends.

In fact, one of the root causes of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the last few decades is the result of massive funding by the House of Saud to spread their own narrow version of what they considered to be the true faith.

Unfortunately, when the nasty label was applied to Islam the religion, all Muslims from mullahs to modernists and from extremists to moderates, to doubters and nominal believers, will instinctively come together to defend the faith.

In his younger days, he acquired a reputation as a wordsmith who, though never flinching from spelling out the hard truths was, never off the mark in his remarks.

The same cannot be said of some of his recent utterances. Like two years ago, when he urged his predominantly Chinese constituents in Tanjong Pagar, to be more conciliatory towards newcomers from the PRC so as to make sure that the composition of the SAF remained unchanged. Though cautiously couched, the ethnic undertone was unmistaken.

Several weeks later he stood up in Parliament to demolish a plea from NMP Viswa Sadisivan that Singapore lived up to its Pledge of extending meritocracy and equal opportunities to all communities in all sectors of national life.

In that address, he told the Malays that – like the blacks in America – they would have to wait for a long time before they could expect equal treatment in the military services.

On that occasion I posted a commentary – For love of country, talk back if you disagree – in which I pointed out that history ‘’is replete with examples of great leaders who overstayed and caused harm to their cause in the latter years of their rule.’’ As an example, I cited Chairman Mao Zedong.

Years ago I remember that an order was sent out to gag the late S. Rajaratnam, on grounds of alleged dementia, when he started expressing views that made the top PAP leaders uncomfortable, but which struck a responsive chord among many Singaporeans.

I am not suggesting that the same action be adopted again. Certainly, the situation does not yet warrant such a drastic move.

But it may be time to start thinking about the negative implications of some of his remarks, which if he continued along the same lines, will complicate the PAP government’s efforts to recover ground lost in the recent general and presidential polls.

For example, just a week ago, the attention of many readers including myself was drawn to an ST report in which he uttered a three-letter word – WAR – when asked to comment on the resolution of the longstanding Malayan Railway land dispute.

To use that word in the context of the landmark bilateral deal, described as mutually beneficial, was in the view of many readers unnecessary and uncalled for.

In China, the Chinese have preferred to remember Mao’s for his contributions to the nation and ignore his mistakes and errors.

I think Singaporeans, including the Malay-Muslim minority too, should adopt the same approach to our venerable ex-MM.

No Hard Feelings.

Ismail Kassim

9 Sept 11

Written by ibekay

September 9, 2011 at 8:56 pm

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Robert’s Routes blazes a

It takes courage to write on one’s life, but to write so
explicitly as well-known poet and playwright Robert Yeo has done in Routes A
Singaporean Memoir 1940-75 takes even more courage.

It is a welcome addition to a genre that has been neglected
for obvious reasons; Asians are generally reticent, particularly on intimate
matters. With few exceptions, the majority of those who have penned their
memoirs have come from the political arena, like Lee Kuan Yew or former
detainees such as Said Zahari and Teo Soh Lung.

Theirs were more in the nature of political memoirs and
their basic motive was to tell their side of the story for posterity.

In Routes, Robert has done the opposite; his recollections
is highly personal and come complete with details of boyhood peccadilloes,
loves and escapades, scenes from his work and career as a teacher and lecturer,
and excerpts from his poetry and plays.

According to the great American writer Gore Vidal, a memoir
is ‘’how one remembers one’s life, while an autobiography is history, requiring
research, dates, facts double-checked.’’

On this basis, I would classify Routes as an auto-memoir.
Like a historian, he has adopted the chronological approach, arranging his massive
material mined from dairies, letters, press reports, poems…to supplement his recollections,
on practically a year by year basis.

All in, his tome takes 23 chapters and 384 pages and that
also is only for the first half of his life up to the age of 35 years. He has
no preface and on the basis of his one-page acknowledgement, it is not possible
to know what drives him to tell his story, why he decides on 1975 as the
cut-off point, and whether there will be a second volume on the latter part of
his life.

In the hands of others, such an approach might result in a pedestrian
offering, but somehow Robert’s Routes has escaped that fate.

I think his instincts as a playwright came to his rescue. He
has cleverly presented his materials like in a slideshow, interspersing
intimate details of personal and family life with eye-witness accounts from public
life such as Lee Kuan Yew breaking down on TV when announcing the separation of
Singapore from Malaysia.

By interspersing his prose liberally with excerpts from his
poems or letters sent to or received from family and friends, and selections
from press reports on several of his literary offerings, he has managed to vary
the contents to the extent of sustaining interest.

Every chapter is preceded by two quotes, from a variety of
sources including hit songs; some of them do help to set the mood, but some of
them, I suspect, have been put up as embellishments.

I wish Robert had given more emphasis in his account to his
literary works. Still, the inclusion of excerpts from some of his poems and his
efforts to put them in context, have to a large extent added spice to the book.

It is like adding ‘’sambal
’’ (dried shrimp-based chilli paste) to complement Malay dishes
that has the effect of making even ordinary fare much more mouth-watering.

Overall, I find Routes interesting enough to be able to
plough through from beginning to end without any hardship, but somehow at the
end I find myself not fully satiated, like having a meal minus the dessert and
coffee. So I hope Robert will come up with a sequel.

I think I first met him in 1973 at the bar in Pantai
Valley’s Guild House, possibly through one of my female colleagues in the New
Nation paper to whom Robert was at that time, to borrow a word from Bukit Timah
campus days, ‘’smelling’’.

I can still remember the hint of glee at which she
subsequently confided in me of the attention being showered on her by an ‘’up-and-coming’’

I am only three years younger than Robert and for people like
me reading Routes is like taking a walk down memory lane, meeting a number of
old friends whom I have lost touch with, such as Dudley de Souza, former NN
education Correspondent, whose accounts of reporting life in NN fuelled my
interest and perhaps pushed me on to the journalistic path, and Chandran Nair,
former head of Times Books International, to whom I still remember with much
affection as the man responsible for turning me into an author in 1979 with the
publication of –  Race, Politics and
Moderation  A Study of the Malaysian
Electoral Process.

To the younger generation of readers, they may possibly be
regaled by his accounts of boyhood life playing with tops and marbles and
catching fishes and spiders, and have their eyes opened by his references to the
days when the PAP ruled Singapore with knuckle dusters, and students wishing to
go for further studies needed to apply for a suitability certificate.

In a book that is almost technically perfect, I spotted without
any effort a number of little slips such as a few instances of repetition in
almost identical sentences like, for instance, having to queue to go to the jamban (Malay word for toilet).

On two trivial matters, I hope I will be forgiven for
nitpicking. The first is that the red-light terrace houses along the infamous
Desker Road are not single but double-storeyed, and the second is that the
difference between male and female spiders lies in the shape of their bodies
and not in the length of their limbs.

With about a hundred illustrations and a nice cover to boot,
Routes will attract even the casual reader to run through its pages and maybe,
like me, get drawn to read from cover to cover.

I hope that more Singaporeans especially those from the
literary and arts circles will be inspired by Routes to come out with their own
accounts of life in Singapore.


Ismail Kassim

24th August 2011




Written by ibekay

August 24, 2011 at 11:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized