What Is Sorry For


The Aboriginal flag painted on a brick wall.
©bigstockphoto.com/ budastock

National Sorry Day in Australia brings people together in unity towards the healing of the Stolen Generations, their families and communities. From 1788, British colonial powers arrived by boat to the shores of Australia in search for land and resources – this was the beginning of a nightmare for Indigenous Australians as countless were forcibly removed from their families and communities. Numerous massacres were committed in this time; the unimaginable atrocities became a blemished chapter in the history of the world’s longest-standing traditional cultures. The trauma, injustices and grief persist today in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who experience inequality in economic, social and health spheres amongst others.

The first National Sorry Day was in 1998; the first public and formal apology made belatedly. Everything that follows (the reports written, research done, compromises made) are attempts at turning ‘sorry’ into action and transforming reconciliation from just lip-service. As a history student since high school, I have always been appalled at the wrong-doings that we can commit against each other as human brothers and sisters over and over, as if we never learn. Time and again, we let the distracting veils of self-interest make paper-thin excuses for cruel acts against one another – we let the politics have full reign, let the media deceive. Our democracies are lies we tell ourselves, for our votes choose us (not the other way round).

We are on a broken treadmill that never stops, running away from shame and guilt. We play broken recorders that repeat ‘sorry’s in different languages. Calluses grow on our palms as we try relentlessly, to wash away stains of our past. We try to forget – there are countries that choose amnesia by erasing the stories, literally, from textbooks; we try to repent – there are others that build endless memorials for those who once lived. Patience will run out, and so will space. The most important lesson of history is to reflect on our present and consider the ongoing acts that will soon become history.  

Today, suffering of all sorts permeate society even on an individual level. A beautiful paragraph encapsulates it,

“Today we have higher buildings and wider highways but shorter temperaments and narrower points of view. We spend more but enjoy less. We have bigger houses but smaller families. We have more compromises but less time. More knowledge, but less judgment. We have more medicines, but less health. We have multiplied our possessions but reduced our values. We talk much, love only a little and hate too much. These are the times with more liberty but less joy; more food but less nutrition. These are the days in which two salaries come home but divorces increase. We have finer houses, but broken homes.”

This is the paradox of our time. All over, humankind is facing brokenness in more ways than one. On a day dedicated to reflection of the world we live in from history to today, this is my invitation to step out of the ‘state of transparency’, where human suffering remains transparent and where crises remain ignored just because we think they do not directly affect us. For the ‘state of transparency’ to even have been a choice is a privilege that we earned no entitlement to and in this state, we fall prey to apathy, to live lives of ignorance and to run on treadmills we can never step off.


Asylum seekers signal for help while making their way across the Indian Ocean towards Australia in 2013. © Joel van Houdt / Hollandse Hoogte

Here’s my call to action. The first Indigenous Australians arrived on boats; then, in 1788, colonial masters from Britain arrived in boats. Today, ‘the boat people’ is part of everyday language to refer to refugees seeking asylum in other countries after fleeing their own. The tragedy of 59.5 million refugees in the world together struggling in-between, paying the human cost for our apathy and self-interest is a reality we can’t ignore – it is the ongoing act that will become history. There is always something you can do; start where you are and do what you can.

From today, I will be embarking on a month-long journey to lend my voice to those who go unheard, forgotten. In the lead-up to Refugee Awareness Week (18-25 June 2017), I will be raising funds for the refugee support efforts in Jordan. Syria refugees will be provided with education, medical services and ration packs amongst other necessities with funds raised at bit.ly/sherms4refugees.

Hopefully, then as we each make our little efforts count, National Sorry Day wouldn’t just be a ritual where we strive towards saying “enough” ‘sorry’s. Can any number of apologies ever be enough for the lives that stop living the day the boats arrived?

I welcome thoughts, ideas and emotions at shng4630@uni.sydney.edu.au



Let’s talk about Race


Absence is silent and for as long as we do not actively search for it, we will remain dangerously unaware. The last in a series of three on issues I strongly believe deserve a heightened awareness, this one is uniquely Singaporean, on race. Earlier pieces explored the ongoing regional Refugee Reality little of us are aware of and the Rape of Nanking, a forgotten but crucial chapter in history. Today, I take a few steps backwards and come closer to home, where we (arguably) live and breathe oblivion – I first hope to clarify that the intention of this piece is not to accuse but to encourage a more mature consensus.

*For the benefit of the rest of this piece: Racism refers to the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

Our late Deputy Prime Minister S. Rajaratnam composed the National Pledge that we recite day after day in school as students. The National Pledge encompasses not only the aspirations of our pioneers for Singapore as a nation, but also a promise within society about how we would treat one another as fellow Singaporeans. We pledge, I quote, “regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society based on justice and equality.” At a panel discussion as part of the Singapore Theatre Festival, the original draft of the pledge was quoted as the opening to the discussion. Once more, I quote, the earlier National Pledge started with, “We, as citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves to forget differences of race, language or religion to become one united people.” Understandably, it was edited by our late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to omit the “unrealistic goal” of forgetting differences.

The underlying tension with regard to race lies in the differences (in tradition, culture, language, amongst others) of races. For quite a while now, our concept of ‘multiracialism’ has revolved around what Mohammed Imran (a Singaporean interfaith activist) calls the “4 ‘F’s” – Food, Fashion, Festivals and Face. From my days in primary school, I recall the costume-swapping festivities in Racial Harmony Day Celebrations and the Match-The-Dots activity sheets associating the “4 ‘F’s” to the 4 “main races” (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others). Kudos to our National Education, as every Singaporean child who has undergone primary school education would be able to quote the horror of the 1964 Maria Hertogh Riots amongst others to illustrate the gravity of preserving “racial harmony” in Singapore. This model of “racial harmony” has effectively allowed for the co-existence of races in Singapore but also unintentionally allowed for brewing racism.

In the recent panel discussion on race, playwright Alfian Sa’at recounted his experience of having his play, “Geng Reibut Cabinet (GRC)”, receive an ‘M-16’ rating. The play takes place in a fictional country very much like Singapore in terms of its political system and meritocratic principles. The crux lies in that the majority and minority races of this country are swapped – the Chinese, a minority and the Malays, a majority. Then, in the course of the play, touchy issues with regard to subtle structural racial discrimination are raised. He remarked that the receipt of the rating surprised him because a “rating system originally devised to deal with immaturity towards sexual content and coarse language” was now used as a defense against racial discussions. The rating system, a tool for government intervention to regulate conversations and protect public good, now reflected Singapore’s “fear towards discussions of race”. It is as if constructive conversations about what “racial harmony” truly means are muted, ironically, in the name of “preserving racial harmony”.

The result, then, is that racism occurs along with our superficial understanding of different races (recall the “4 ‘F’s”). We create judgments and stereotypes, then silently reaffirm them with observations from our everyday. Simultaneously, blanket sanctions (like rating systems) initially formulated to guard against ‘hate speech’ are now confused to suppress ‘speech about sensitive issues like race’ altogether. It will be little surprise, then, to find the rifts between races slowly widening from the prejudices we form but do not talk about.

We can do better.

The danger in not talking about race and racism is the lack of understanding towards the grave consequences of the latter. The consequences here refer to more than the racial riots that we were taught, but the social problems resultant from our subconscious prejudice. For this, I thank the play “Geng Reibut Cabinet (GRC)” for my heightened awareness. The plot of the play follows a political party campaigning for leadership of a GRC. This political party consists of 3 Malays and 1 Chinese; the Chinese lead, Catherine, was regarded as a “token” in the party to show “proportional representation of the community’s needs”. In the play, Catherine expresses cumulated frustration towards the futile efforts of “self-help Chinese groups” – the incredibly slow progress of the Chinese community in the play was a result of limited resources passed down from generation to generation. She illustrates, at one point, that for a long time in history just as wealth had been passed down in the Malay families through generations, generations of poverty had been passed down for the Chinese families. Her fellow politicians try to explain to her that the social problems of the Chinese are a “community problem” rather than a national one, dismissing Catherine’s plea for the nation’s people to be regarded as “one human race” so that the Chinese community can be liberated from the psychological traps built by prejudices.

We learn from history that the cruelest of conflicts can arise from the sense of superiority based on racial (or other) backgrounds. Years ago in Singapore, the Chinese were the immigrants whose character was doubted as a result of British’s fear. Yet today, our sense of insecurity has similarly gripped us, allowing the future of those with differing religious or racial ba grounds to be restricted by our imagined future if they are allowed to prosper.

Our nation should celebrate the achievement of racial understanding in a broad sense – that we have standardized the recognition of our differences from a young age and drilled in the minds of our children the gravity of friction surfacing between races. Until we mature as a society to shift this consensus, though, we will always be socially privileged or disadvantaged based on the fact that our race is a majority or minority respectively. That, in itself, is the manifestation of our existing racism. I imagine that the landscape of Singapore’s “racial harmony” will, one day, allow Singaporeans to live their everyday not being “reminded that they are a minority race” as Mohammed Imran said and perhaps, we could begin with Alfian Sa’at’s suggestion of anti-racism campaigns. The difficulty lies in that such moves would require us to acknowledge the presence of racism in our society. We have to admit that we make irrational conclusions about behaviors and habits based on race and that these irrational conclusions influence the future of fellow Singaporeans unfairly. What happens, then, to our pledged “justice and equality”?

Let’s raise ‘race’ in conversations, I challenge you.


Singaporean Taste of Nostalgia


The arts have always been a medium for reflection and for learning: the value of plays (the carefully crafted scripts and skillfully practiced deliveries), stories behind exhibitions (the narrative we make of our past) and appreciation for art forms less explored – each offers profound takeaways. With the intention of uncovering more lessons as such, this month sees conscious effort invested into these artistic experiences. A recent visit to the Permanent Galleries at the National Museum of Singapore inspires this piece on the value of nostalgia.

The Permanent Galleries were only reopened to public in recent years after being closed for renovation. The entire re-curation and re-arrangement of the exhibits put together a more human recount of the “Modern Colony 1925-1935” and “Surviving Syonan 1942 -1945” chapters of the Singapore Story. Rather than grouping the exhibits based on aspect of society (i.e. food, fashion), the chronological categorization provided a relatively more holistic display of the lives of Singaporeans then. Consequently, museum-goers (like myself) can take away a nuanced illustration of society in the different time periods – the ‘entertainment avenues’ during the years Singapore was ‘Syonan-to’, the love stories that emerged from the Japanese Occupation or the affluent upper class in the 1920s were perspectives newly introduced into the revamped Permanent Galleries. It is promising that our national narrative continues to evolve along with the public’s growing thirst for historical truths.

My previous piece explored the Rape of Nanking and the lessons this historical atrocity offers for us even in present-day. Similarly, here, I would like to propose that our sense of nostalgia that holds onto the past is just as important as remembering to forget. (I once wrote about “remembering to forget” because of the detrimental effects the weight of the past can possibly have on us.) Offering another piece in the same puzzle, this reflection is uniquely Singaporean for its contextualized observations and experiences:

In a recent W!LD RICE Production as part of the Singapore Theatre Festival, the play titled Geylang told the story of tension between Geylang residents protecting their homes and members of the Ministry hoping to “redevelop” the neighbourhood, uplifting the old buildings completely. This story is relatable for many Singaporeans, regardless of age – given the incredibly rapid pace of (re)development, we would all know a place or two that once was without even a significant fraction of our lives passing. For me, I think of King Albert Park and Jurong Entertainment Centre where I played for a large part of my childhood. For as long as I’ve had to say goodbye to places, I have justified the farewell to these places with the necessity of economic development. “We have to stay relevant, stay competitive,” we were taught. A close friend recently shared her hesitation to reconnect with a teacher who had once influenced her greatly. Reason being, the school in which the teacher had taught her in was being demolished and there was no longer a “common space” for their reconnection to take place. I have attended numerous neighbourhood trails, each emphasizing the importance of our “common spaces” to create meaningful memories and forge friendships. Today, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) runs programs like Our Favourite Place that supports projects that encourage community interaction in “common spaces”. Yet, we are inconsistent in our attempts to value these spaces – ignoring cries against destruction of the old while expecting initiative in new “common spaces”.

Perhaps, we have become afraid of being attached to places we will one day have to bid farewell to.

A subsequent production I had the privilege of watching, titled Hotel, had 10 scenes. Each scene was set a decade apart in the same hotel room. In the play’s final scene, an old man diagnosed with terminal stage cancer had chosen to spend his final months in the hotel room rather than his own house because “it is easier to cope with something temporary instead of something permanent.” It leaves me to question if the ease with which we come to terms with buildings and places being temporary is a symptom of our choice to undermine nostalgia. After all, in Alfian Sa’at’s literature, he proposes that nostalgia has no value; for if it did, then some things will still be around. Here, I recall the futile fight for Bukit Brown Cemetery. The reconnection with the arts in this period has inspired a deep sense of nostalgia as it evokes reflection on the past of not just our nation but in my own life – the relationships once shared, memories once made and the values once valued. It is in nostalgia that we find the deeper lessons: when we start drawing dots, finding patterns, understanding change and continuity.

It is needless to say that the Singapore consensus to pursue economic development deserves much credit for how far and how quickly we have come to where we are today, in the past 50 years of independence. I am reminded, though, of the forward-looking attitude encouraged at a series of SG100 conversations. Just as it is important to celebrate, we have to actively create what would be worth celebrating. First and foremost, for our urban landscape, we have to start considering where nostalgia has a place in all this.


Close to Home Complex

I realiseIt’s been a week since the last time I published anything; for this past week I’ve been reading more than writing and trying to make sense of some thoughts that have lingered on my mind for more than a while. And finally today, I check in from a Starbucks Coffee outlet closest to home– you know in the past year, I’ve barely stepped into this place more than twice though it’s definitely the most convenient Starbucks outlet to my home, there’s no competition; it’s a strange aversion that has made me choose to travel far, to go the distance, just for a cup of Starbucks Coffee that really tastes similar, if not identical, to the coffee this outlet serves. I think this is because of something that I shall call the Close to Home Complex. It seems that whenever I want to enjoy myself or find some kind of getaway, or go on an adventure, an escape, I yearn for it to be as far from home as possible. It’s an illusion that I try to create for myself: that I’m out of my comfort zone, away from my security net and my humble abode is miles away from wherever I head to, as if it’s only then that I can truly takeaway new and refreshing experiences.

But recently, I see that sometimes the best lessons and sometimes the most valuable ones can be learned close to home.

I was thinking about the ups and downs that my family has faced together this year, the pleasant surprises or the not so pleasant– they had a way of revealing the crack lines in my family’s relationship I once imagined to be perfect. I preferred to believe that my family was void of all the realistic portrayals of marriage and family: those with betrayal, unhappiness, arguments, fights and suspicions; to believe that we were special, or different. And while my stand on that still holds, this year I think I’ve slowly come to terms with accepting the imperfections in our relationship and I’m learning to love us the way we are. I think the family I thought we were was more of a dream that I hoped we were; but witnessing what I have in the past year and especially in the holidays where we’ve spent so much more time together, I now see that the kindest of people and people who love each other greatly, can still hurt one another, deeplyI guess I only learn this more clearly now because it’s been months since my sister left– with her departure, and the lack of a security net that once allowed me to remain oblivious to happenings around the house. It’s also only at this point that I realise the kind of protection she has so silently provided me. (Thanks sis)

Seeing that these valuable lessons have been taken away from the people closest to me, it appears that I could possibly start learning from myself more often. Amongst the articles I have been browsing day and night recently, I have chanced upon a series of Mommy Bloggers (yes, it’s actually a profession you know), each talking about their experiences raising children and the lessons they have learned from their children. These reminded me of the lessons I’ve learned from my students and juniors– they always had a way of making me reflect on my childhood and what I was like when I was younger, or the things I have been through. The two articles that remained etched in my memory are these posts on PSLE:



The lesson that PSLE, our first standardized test teaches us, for example, is the very nature of the assessment defines little of us: it forgoes the other things we are made of like personality and preferences, the kind of choices we make and the person we want to be. I occasionally question if I consciously act upon this lesson I have acknowledged for a long time now. You know the same way mothers learn from their children’s experiences, we can learn from what we were like as children. It’s strange to say it like this, but it seems we continuously learn and relearn the same lessons, though in different forms. But weirdly though, we take a while to make sense of the lessons that our past can teach us and even longer to actually act on these new lessons learned when it is only with these reflections that we continually lead lives we prefer to be living and keep being better versions of ourselves. It’s like reading a story about someone else’s life allows you to see valuable lessons clearly but less so than when you try to learn from the story of a life you supposedly know best, your own.

So with the ‘me’ time I have enjoyed this week and reading I’ve done, one of my first lessons: to learn from myself and those closest to me.

SWF14: The World Before Singapore

SWF144‘The World Before Singapore’ was the second panel I attended in this year’s festival– featuring Isa Kamari, John Miksic and John van Whye, the panel examined Singapore’s pre-colonial and colonial world, exploring the difference between the numerous narratives that the authors have concocted with the known facts that historians have discovered compared to the Singapore that we know of today. Without spectacular discourse, the main insight for me through this panel was the importance of increasing our curiosity towards the pre-Raffles past of which little had been taught to us. This curiosity would, in the words of John van Whye, ‘open up more complex dimensions to our past’ and allow us to understand also, the changes or continuities we have faced over the years.

In discussing this curiosity, a question left unanswered is “how far back can our understanding of Singapore’s history go?”, which kept me thinking about the importance of historical fiction. As the artifacts we can find from our past are limited, and the amount we can derive accurate facts from are even more so, the historical fiction that these authors write serve to offer different narratives that help us make sense of the little we have found from our nation’s past. With the understanding that it is in our nature to prefer stories and patterns that make sense of the bits of information that we have, I’m beginning to see a new tenet of the complexities in the nature of history.

And in discussing the nature of history, it seems that besides serving as an important tool to help us highlight continuities (on top of changes), it also serves as a source for robust debate and promote a community of thought. Apparently in the 1840s, it was written that “Singapore (has) hidden treasure– industry and intelligence”, which is not all that different from the state of Singapore today, suggesting that we really are more similar to the people before us than we think. It highlighted to me that after all, many elements of our lives from culture, practices, beliefs and perceptions are passed down from generation to generation easily, leaving the present with strings of continuities that can be questioned for their relevance in today’s global context. And here’s where the art of history comes in– where the very flexible nature of history, with the space that it allows for thought and interpretation, comes the space for debate, conversation and discovery that always, always goes on in search for identity. To today, this conversation and discipline remains important for a balanced view of where we came from and to encourage an enriching take on the story of how we became the nation we are today.

This panel certainly left me with more thought was I visited the Singapura: 700 Years exhibition in the National Museum of Singapore. And pardon the relatively drier posts that I shall be working on the document the many things I learn from this absolutely enriching festival, every panel leaves me with new insight, new inspiration and a lot more to be thinking about.

Until We Die

Lately I’ve been indulging myself in countless history books reading about the international politics and how the world has evolved war after war over the past century till today. It intrigues me to know these things were done, these wars were fought, issues discussed, systems tried and all these leads up to where we are today.

I guess that’s why I’ll be taking History in College despite my terrible grasp of the essay writing skills for now.

Anyway, enjoy the music, so privileged to have heard him live once at the Singapore Writer’s Festival- those who didn’t go missed out.