Monday, May 29, 2006

Down Time

I spent Friday afternoon sprawled on a parquet floor with some probationers as they drew out plans for a bout of community service to come. Armed with large sheets of thin paper and markers that smelt sharply of alcohol, they embroidered budgets, timelines and duty rosters. I leaned on my elbow and helped them along when they got lost at the price of rice or a tin of cheap oats. Now and then, I would raise suggestions for where they could shop for cheap food, only to be shouted down by the voices that knew better because they spent so much of their time hanging out there anyway (“Not Giant Ma’am! Sheng Siong lah!”). I forget sometimes, what it is like to be that age, forget just how much can be learnt from just listening sometimes.

It was a strange amalgam of compliance and anarchy, most of them were obliging enough to do the work and patient enough to take orders. Yet they ran around the room chasing each other with felt tip pens and sometimes refused to sit down when asked, pushed each other playfully against walls and hid illegal tails of hair by buttoning their collars over them. It was somewhat surreal having to oversee their activity and I went from being apprehensive to wising-up in one hour flat.

At the end of the day, I was noticing how they sized me up and tried to climb all over me because I was new while they treated the probation officers with a kind of grudging admiration and deference. My favourite moment of the afternoon was when they asked me innocently, “Ma’am, ma’am, are you a Probation Officer?”

“Not yet,” I replied, trying to be cryptic until I figured out their real intent.

“You want to be Probation Officer ah Ma’am?”

“Maybe,” I grinned.

“Don’t lah Ma’am,” one of the more unruly boys told me with an air of confidentiality. He looked over his shoulder, then mimed putting a gun to his head. “Probation Officer like want to kill yourself like that.”

“Then why you give them so much heartache?” I retorted, knowing full well it wouldn’t make a difference to his nonchalance anyway, and half-admiring him for it.

On Saturday I sat in a meeting for Volunteer Probation Officers, blinking sleep out of my eyes, forcing myself to concentrate absolutely on what the instructors were saying, despite the doodles that traipsed through my head and onto the paper.

On Sunday, I literally crawled from the sheets to be present at another event that involved both parents and probationers. At a Buddhist organisation, I stood with a large sign hanging around my neck while very old buddhist people and monks glared at me when I asked if they were involved in the probation (well maybe the monks didn’t glare, it could well be against their Code of Monkery or something, but one of them had a really nifty camera phone, so there). Women kept coming up to me and asking where the toilet was, while two couples actually put their hands together and bowed to me in Buddhist greeting, which I frankly didn’t know how to respond to except to say, “Uh… thanks.”

Later, we helped oversee the probationers while they noisily tagged each other with glue and coloured sprinkles and then spoke to their parents about their progress and listened to their questions about problems that they faced. It was difficult to sympathise with them when I could still remember wanting to rebel all the time and hating having to be home all the time and I actually fought to hide my giggles when one father lamented his son’s inexplicable affinity for convent school girls.

Today, I stepped into a Singaporean prison for the first time and gaped openly at the metal gates that rattled and swung by while police officers sent us through metal detectors and examined our cards. If you’re ever thinking of committing a crime, don’t. The prison smelt strongly of air that hadn’t flowed smoothly for a long time and the dirty white gates that rose like jaws from the ground and ceiling crossed crazily around the corridors and rooms, heightening trapped, claustrophobic feelings.

We sat in a tiny room that reeked of old metal and air-conditioning and talked to two boys who sat patiently, handcuffed to the wall. I tried to remind myself to push my emotions behind a glass wall and be calm and pragmatic about what I was doing, but it was difficult. It’s getting easier, but I still want to believe that everybody is good, is telling the truth, is as repentant as they claim to be. I’m still emotionally invested. And that takes energy.

It’s the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done. Seven day weeks are not uncommon here, after all, probationers never stop comitting crimes, people never stop needing someone to talk to. Real life doesn’t operate on a time-off basis.

And unlike physical hard labour which is tiring but easily rectified by rest, this job is emotionally and mentally draining too. There are no hard and fast rewards, or problems that are easily solved with equations, theories or in writing. There is seldom any thanks for the effort that is put in, rather the clients are defiant, reluctant, angry.

The whole enterprise comes together in a conundrum. How do you help the parents be better parents without telling them how to do their job or taking away the authority that is rightfully theirs? How do you explain to a teenager that his lifestyle is harmful to many people in many ways even though it breaks no moral code or dictum? How can you have any time to yourself at all when you have to be there day and night, reachable by phone or email anytime of the week?

There are many things to love about this job. It never ceases to be challenging and working with young people breeds wonderful ideas and an unflagging sense of energy. Eventually, with perseverance, differences are made to most people and there is a variety about this job that staves off the boredom of being crouched over a desk all day. Most of all, there are people to talk to, people to work with, people who need help and who can help in return.

But all this comes at a price. I once wondered if people who gave up their personal lives for other people ever felt a deep sense of regret at the end of the day because they were missing out on the wonderful feeling of ego-centricity. Despite all that is waxed lyrical about spending time on people and helping being its own reward, there is a kind of dogged exhaustion that persists through it all.

I watch my colleagues go about their jobs and troop to court, prison, hostels and homes, write policies, laugh, cry and scream over their cases and I am filled with a deep sense of admiration for the spirit that they possess.

I like this job, a lot (says the girl who can barely keep her eyes open).

But I have to be frank with myself. And to be frank is to admit that I may not be able to cope with the intensity of it all. Worse than that, I couldn’t see myself giving up the chance for a life that is all my own, a world in which a seven day week is a normality, in which being let down and fought against is expected. I want to possess the same madness and tenacity, but it’s growing increasingly clear that I may not have what it takes.
Somehow, it all seems to fall back on the age old maxim “It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it”.

Which then begs the question, “Will that someone ever be me?”.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Paper Music

“I laugh sometimes when I think about
Céline at a typewriter
or Dostoevsky...
or Hamsun...
ordinary men with feet, ears, eyes,
ordinary men with hair on their heads
sitting there typing words
while having difficulties with life
while being puzzled almost to madness…”

-- one thirty-six a.m, Charles Bukowski

I’m not a big fan of Bukowski, but God, I just love that insight.

As If I Could Get Any Stranger!

Because this blog is, ya know, self-centered and all about me, I thought I would collect a series of RANDOM WEIRD THINGS ABOUT ME ™ just so that I can collate, in the most scientific way possible, how quirky (to use a euphemism, folks) I can be. For my own personal reference, mind.

It’s not like I’m weird or anything, okay *eyes wander suspiciously and face twitches*. So. In the spirit of, you know, “idiosyncraticnesses” (and yes, I reserve the right to make up words too, you flodderblurps!) May I present: RANDOM WEIRD THINGS ABOUT ME ™ numbers 1 and 2!!


Those automated taps that the government has taken to installing in public toilets really frighten the piss out of me. I suppose in a toilet, this is not a bad thing, so long as you are close to a cubicle. But still. I know that we’re supposed to be a modern and fully-automated society where you just wave your hands (or, a PAP sign) and presto chango, things just happen, but this is just taking it a bit too far.

It’s bad enough that we have toilets that flush when they sense movement, more often than not when we’re still too close for comfort! (May I point out that the toilet sensing movement usually means there is a person in front of it and hello, because toilets are made for peeing, said person is sometimes still carrying out said action…)

Now we have freaky taps that I wave my hands in front of, and absolutely nothing happens. And then, just as I am standing there, all dirty, wondering what to do next, the water SUDDENLY comes spurting out, giving me the shock of my life.

And it’s always fecking cold.


I am just a great, big klutz (stop laughing, M). I not only trip/ fall/ get stuck/ get lost/ walk into the men’s toilet* at any possible occasion, I also knock things off supermarket shelves, for real.

You know, that’s the kind of thing that’s only supposed to happen in comedies, but it’s true. When I was at Giant with my friend Priya, who shall remain nameless, I was carrying a big, yellow, ugly-ass backpack (I’m not sure if it’s the backpack or the story I’m about to relate that’s weirder), we were looking around the shelves and I swung around, and my backpack actually knocked several boxes of something off the shelf.

And then I turned to look at what I had knocked down and my backpack knocked things off the opposite shelf, just like in a freaking Charlie Chaplin movie. And then because people were turning to stare, and I couldn't stop laughing, the poor friend had to drag me out of there like billy-o. It sounds unbelievable, I know, but if you were there…

What can I say? The damn aisles are just too narrow.

Well, then! Now that I’ve got that off my chest!

I guess it’s back to work now. As if washing the balcony, mopping the kitchen floor on all fours, bathing the dog and ironing the clothes weren’t enough.

No rest for the wicked!

*delete where necessary. Or in my case, don’t delete at all. Pffft.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Better Left Unsaid

He sits across from me, acutely aware of my scrutiny, yet too afraid to meet my gaze. He tugs at the hem of his polo tee which is faded at the collar and greying in the sleeves. Behind his glasses, his eyes dart from the Madam to me tentatively. He is scared, but not unwilling.

I cannot bring myself to look at him for too long, I am frightened of what he will think of me, what his mother will conclude. I know that he is not an animal in a cage, not meant to be subject to a rude and unwavering perusal, but I can’t look away, his smile is so white, so shy, so sad.

“Why did you do it?” the Madam asks him, a practised edge to her voice.

When he speaks, he is soft and unsure, mumbling and tripping over his words. He tries to tell her that he didn’t really do it, that he was subject to a temporary frivolity, but his words are swallowed by the silence of disapproval.

I cannot help myself, I feel bad for him. I feel bad because he has to work two jobs and his mother was recently diagnosed with cancer, because he has no father to speak of and no joy to fill his days, and bad because he made one mistake and will be punished for it for all life to come.

His mother is so gentle with him, and I can’t help but feel that he is just a soft, quiet child, misguided by hours of idlenes whiled away in boisterous company.

He is just 19.

He doesn’t want my pity, and pity isn’t what I feel for him anyway.

Rather, it’s the thought that but for circumstance and chance, it could have been me. The line between being a precocious, questioning child and a defiant one that challenges authority runs so fine; who’s to say where anyone might end up? And if it had been me, would I have been as calm, as apologetic, as ready to cooperate?

Something is wrong with the system when a person who has committed a small offence in which he did not play an active role is made to wait nearly two years for an evaluation. Something has to be done when families that fall apart are not provided with the resources to protect and educate their children before further harm can be done. Something has to be said about the amount of fucking red tape that leads to the slowing of processes and the loss of concern shown to people who need it the most.

I know, surely, that someone has to take action against all the crap that’s piling up before it comes tumbling down around their ears, but it was not the time, nor the place for me to say it. I simply couldn’t speak. Besides, I wondered as I tried to deflect my vision from them, what must they think of me, creamy and officious in my straight-backed chair, taking notes as if they were a science experiment in action?

Who was I to waltz in and tell anybody how to do their job or run their lives?

Instead, I watched as his mother gently placed a hand on his shoulder, watched as the Madam probed deeper into his confused, troubled history and watched his smile waver and pitch as he tried to maintain his equanimity.

“I am good boy now,” he pleaded, eyes bright.

And I wanted to believe him.

But right then and there, it just wasn’t enough.

Monday, May 15, 2006


A simple, light circlet of hematite with the muted sheen of gunmetal kissed by fire. It winds itself around my fourth finger, head-biting-tail-biting-head, neverending perfection in a shard of stone.

I’ve only had it for four days.

Funny though, how I already feel lost when I’m not wearing it.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Best Kept Secret

It really feels like I just upped and ran away this time. I’ve just returned from a wonderful week in my mother’s hometown in Malaysia where all my other family members reside. In many ways, I love going to Trengganu so much because it’s a familiar, laid-back place if there ever was one. Nothing much ever changes and the pace of life is slow, relaxed, and almost dreamy in comparison with the mad flurry of the city. I love that there isn’t a cinema and that there are so few big shopping centres in town centre that the main departmental outlet calls itself “The Store”. I love that so many of my family members live there and that I get to see my cousins whenever I go. The best part of this holiday, however, was that M got to come with me this time, owing to an almighty cock-up in the coordination of schedules with my other family members.

Which suited me just fine, of course.

We were a little nervous at first, that it was going to turn out to be a boring visit or that she wouldn’t like my family, but I’ve always wanted to share the bit of my heart that I leave in Trengganu with someone, and there’s no one I’d rather have shared with than her.

Trengganu is a lot like many parts of Malaysia, a lazy small town who’s inhabitants care more about enjoying life’s pleasures than getting ahead in it and for just five days, it was wonderful to have no aims, no pressures and no expectations hanging over our heads. Instead, we spent lazy days lying about the house and reading or playing on the computer while my grandfather dozed on the couch and channel surfed.

Every morning, we ate around the large island in the kitchen, smiling contentedly at each other over buns or nasi dagang. Every afternoon, M spent some time on the computer while I took my grandfather for walks round the garden, each round remembered with an angsana seed in his pocket, and massaged his shoulders in-between.

One morning, we went to town and met my Gee Tiao Kong whom I seldom get to spend time with on busy Chinese New Years. This time, we took a leisurely stroll with him in the sweltering heat, dodging in and out of little shops crammed with antiques, curios and hanging batik. We walked round The Store and then Gee Tiao Kong took us back to the shophouse where he lives and showed us around. I’ve loved the shophouse since I was a little girl. We go there every Chinese New Year and to me, it is a treasure trove of memories and mystery from the dark, cool little antique shop in the front to the unevenly-sloping linoleum-floored rooms on the second floor. The steep wooden staircases and little nooks fitted with shelves always provided wonderful hiding places and little gambling dens for our improvised games of blackjack and bluff.

This time, I looked at the shophouse through an adult’s eyes and saw just how much space and time it held. The smooth concrete floor was worn smooth by years of feet and the eyes of my ancestors peered down at us from the yellowing photographs on the wall. Real, actual people, not stories that I’d heard, or eulogies from another time. It was a little like going backwards in time and I could almost imagine the days when my mother used to stay in the room above the store, shivering in the biting monsoon weather.

Another day, we drove with Tua Ee and Uncle Wru down to the dam in central Trengganu and stood in the hills, marvelling at the sheer size and beauty of the water that stretched and wound its way through the hilltops. Halfway through, the wind blew rainclouds into the valley and we ran, laughing in surprise, as winds laced with skeins of rain beat us back to the car. Waves stirred by the impromptu shower chased each other across the dam and M tried to immortalise the moment on her camera.

Later that afternoon, while walking around the estate, we picked sour berries from the trees and M stole a ripening mango from a neighbour’s tree. My grandmother couldn’t contain her laughter as she rinsed it in the sink and chastised us for our crime.

On the last day that we were there, my grandmother drove us to the beach to buy hotdogs and rootbeer floats and M bought a kite printed with a picture of a bird. I’ll never forget the way the kites looked on their makeshift rack, bright with colour and translucent against the sunlight and the azure sea.

A perfect moment, my happiness crystallised in the hand that held mine.

That night, the bus raced through the night bringing us back home and I looked out of the window while M slept, warm and quiet. The rivers and streams looked white in the night, like deep snowdrifts in a forest.

This trip has made me feel real again, made me look at the little things, the important things, the special things. To me, it will always be our oasis in time, a time when I can remember what it was like to just be, and be happy.

My father asked me last night to remember a moment in time when I was happy about something in my life. I didn’t tell him that it was this moment of five days, stretching like the perfect sea, the real warmth of the sun, the real touch of skin on skin. I want to go back with you once more, to finish the things we didn’t finish and to start the things we didn’t start. For now, the memory of this oasis will sustain me through the faceless pressures and expectations of the mundane.

This oasis, this love, this secret.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Losing the Good Fight

I don’t understand this strange, nameless ennui that’s been gripping me of late. It feels as if I’ve been spending a great deal of effort on something, although I can’t put my finger on what it is. In a way, not understanding is more tiring than the tedium of it all.

Perhaps a holiday will do the trick.

Just let my heart be still, for a little while.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Man in My Life

This is my dog.

He's kind of small in the scheme of things...

Even though he can be too big for his boots

Sometimes, he’s caught red… uh… pawed while making mayhem in my closet

He likes to chill out too

Meet Chip, my Jack Russell Terrier who’s just turned eight, going on two. Our love story is one that stretches many years, many biting incidences and many many laughs and tears. I love most animals in the world (short of cockroaches, which are more like six legged aliens than anything) but dogs hold a special place in my heart.

I do, however, as in most aspects of my life, have weird taste. M and I have a running difference about this because she seems to prefer dogs who are handsome, well-behaved and have a certain pedigree bearing about them. It’s not that I don’t. I love dogs with long luxuriant fur, good manners and handsome, well-bred faces as much as the next guy.

But in my heart, I also have a huge soft spot for dogs that are not quite perfect. The dogs with lopsided ears and short, rough fur, bright, naughty eyes and pseudo cowboys names like Max, Hunter, Ranger and Bandana. In other words, the mutts. The dogs that don’t really have a pedigree to call their own, but instead, own an indescribable charm that is part playfulness, part spunk. Maybe it’s because I’m a mutt myself, without pure bloodlines or perfect breeding.

My own dog was the runt of his litter and has a funny bowlegged, pointy eared appearance that isn’t really befitting of a prize terrier. My family wanted the other puppies in the cage, the ones who sat upright and looked picture perfect with their floppy eared insousiance, right out of the owner’s manual. I went for the muttly looking dog who bounded to the cage to lick me in greeting and who was so much smaller than the other dogs that people sometimes compared him to a cat.

Two days ago, he turned eight and I’ve never regretted bringing him home. He remains a happy, healthy dog who still behaves like a puppy and maintains the boisterous curiousity of his younger days. I only hope that he’ll continue to lie at the foot of my bed and nudge me awake with his cold, wet nose for a few more years.
And that he’ll stay the heck out of my closet.


In other news, I spent a large part of my Saturday evening ankle deep in mud at a Worker’s Party Rally. Me, the PAP supporter of the century! At the end of the two hours, I looked like I had just stepped off the slow boat. It was actually a lot of fun though, and I thought, a great insight into the way that these rallies actually worked in reality.

The workers party speakers weren’t really native to the English language and so things got pretty amusing. One memorable gaffe:

When one Worker’s Party Member commented that the PAP was making a “molehill out of a mountain”. The public looked vaguely confused for a second. I’ve been told that it came out in the right order in the newspapers, but trust me, I was there! Journalistic integrity, my ass.

Jokes aside, I thought they did a commendable job of making themselves heard despite the fact that they didn’t say anything revolutionary or really stirring. They did, however, promise an awful lot, including that they would speak up courageously in parliament and that they would commit to the real needs of their people.

That’s when it struck me, that really, the opposition promises a lot of things. And there’s nothing wrong in that. I just realised that perhaps they have the easier job in some sense because they can afford to be idealistic. After all, when you’re not the ones in power, it’s easy to tell people how things should be going. I just wonder what it would be like if the tables were turned. Of course, it’s precisely that kind of optimistic idealism that a party needs to be kept in check. I don’t suppose it will really make a difference to the elections. But it’s nice to know that some people haven’t lost their vim.

And finally, there’s a possbility of an interesting little holiday coming up, if all that’s in the works goes well. All fingers crossed!