A return to Singapore
Over dinner one night, many months ago, mother told us something I would never forget. “Actually,” she said in Cantonese, “you [two] are sons of the Southern Ocean.” I do not recall the context of those words, nor the sentence that preceded it, but I was struck by the poetic truth embedded within. For although we consider Hong Kong our hometown, my brother and I were born in a rival city far closer to the Equator.
My early recollections of Singapore are made up of mundane, inconsequential details: a large banner proclaiming Selamat Datang – “Welcome” in the Malay language – at Changi Airport, flanked by its equivalents in English and Mandarin; the alternating bands of painted concrete and red brick at a residential estate called Pandan Valley; and watching the Macarena on MTV, which was then taking the world by storm. There were pop-tarts for breakfast, multicoloured packs of Yakult, and scrapbooks made by printing photos of faraway places I one day hoped to visit: the golden dome of Les Invalides in Paris, the Schönbrunn in Vienna.
We often rode the monorail to Sentosa, where the giant Merlion looked rather more fearsome than its smaller, more famous water-spewing counterpart. For a nine year old, Sentosa was a fantasy playground – I distinctly remember entering a miniature volcano, and barrelling down water slides that have long since disappeared: the green tunnels of the ‘Medusa’, and others named ‘Double Trouble’ and ‘Gang of Four’, both designed in a faux-Aztec style.
For our family, Singapore was also a springboard for other places around Southeast Asia: Phuket (Thailand), Penang (Malaysia), and Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Lombok – my first forays into Indonesia. From the terminal at Keppel Harbour we embarked on a cruise to Songkhla, although my siblings and I didn’t disembark in Thailand because we preferred to spend time in the ship’s arcade fighting off virtual terrorists. But when the Asian Financial Crisis hit in 1997, we stopped going on our annual trips to the region.
There is an expression in both Indonesia and Malaysia, the two countries on either side of Singapore, known as cuci mata. Literally to “wash the eyes”, it means taking in another view, a new perspective, and refreshing yourself by observing with a keen eye. It was the desire to cuci mata, to see how my birthplace had changed in those 17 intervening years, that would bring me back to Singapore. ◊