"Excuse me, are you Singaporean?"

I hollered about this on Twitter and Facebook last week, but thought I should plonk it here for posterity.

Magazine publisher Burda Singapore decided to launch a new women's magazine, August Woman, and they hired my smart and funny friend Ci'en to be the editor. A month before I moved house, Ci'en contacted me and said hey, for our debut issue, would you like to write the "Last Word", an opinion piece on the last page of the magazine about any current social issue.

Despite being behind on packing, and still having to buy stuff for the new flat, and having no idea what I would write about, I said yes.

Fortunately, I made Ci'en's deadline with a piece that made her happy and that didn't require much editing. It's called "Excuse me, are you Singaporean?" (yes, with a nod to you-know-who) and here's a line that was cut from the final version (because of word count) that gives you an idea of what it's about:
...whether they’re pink-NRIC-carrying non-Chinese, work permit-carrying migrant workers or non-white travellers.
The magazine is selling for $6.90 in stores now --- look for the classy white cover with a black and white photograph of Kylie Minogue on it.

If you read women's magazines, grab a copy. If you don't but wouldn't mind supporting my writing, grab a copy --- I promise you that my article doesn't mention a single cosmetic product or fashion tip, although it does talk about how we look to each other.

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The radio, these days

This afternoon, while I was ironing some clothes, I decided to turn on the radio for some white noise. (I know, who does that anymore, right?)

In the 20 minutes or so it took me to iron a playsuit and three shirts, one of which was a pesky linen shirt that took a long time to get all the wrinkles pressed out, the radio station (Class 95FM, to be precise) played exactly two and a half songs, a slew of ads and a long shpiel by Casey Kasem (how is he still on the radio?)* about some pop star that I was supposed to give a damn about. There were two different car ads, the same ad for the "Wedding Dress" exhibition at the National Museum ran twice, and there was some insipid rambling by DJs and a listener of the "Car Tunes" programme, repackaged into an ad for the programme that made me want to stab my eardrums out.

Two and a half songs in 20 minutes. Never mind whether I recognised any of them.

And they wonder why no one listens to the radio for music anymore.

* Edited to add (3:30 p.m.): Cruz Teng informs me via Twitter that it was probably Mike Kasem, son of Casey, whom I heard on the radio earlier. In which case my question is: how is it that they sound so uncannily the same?



I'm quoted in the paper today

I was interviewed by David Ee, whom I got to know when we were both working at POSKOD.SG and who's now with the Straits Times, for his story today, "Buangkok villagers charge 'entrance fees'" (subscription required). We had a long phone conversation about tourism, heritage, cultural consumption and capitalist exploitation, but I knew that for a news piece like this, I'd be lucky to get a five-word quote in.

As it turns out, he gave me three concluding paragraphs:
Writer Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, 38, who covers heritage issues, said nostalgia for a fast-fading heritage may result in Singaporeans "loving a place to death".

She felt that charging people "entrance fees" was the residents' right. She also said that visitors should not see the kampung as a tourist attraction but as a place where people live.

"Some visitors just go there to take a few nice snapshots on a Sunday afternoon. They're not interested in getting to know the residents and their way of life."
(Thanks to G-man for sending me the article.)

Do I sound too stern? I wasn't trying to be, but there's a fine line between appreciating something and consuming it (see also Chek Jawa, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and any number of "ethnic" "tourist villages" in Southeast Asia).

In Singapore, there's a further desperation to heritage and conservation matters: If not enough people visit (as with Bukit Brown cemetery before it was threatened by urban redevelopment, and Bidadari cemetery before it), the authorities can use it as an excuse to take it away. If the place is deluged by visitors, whatever qualities it had that gave it cultural value in the first place might be changed beyond recognition.

Which brings the issue back to some of the problems underlying tourism or travel-as-consumption (which I know I'm complicit in as a travel writer and museum researcher). What drives the compulsion to see and touch places with our own eyes, be it a kampung or Angkor Wat? What makes us look at people as exhibits of the culture(s) they supposedly represent, instead of as human beings with some of the same impulses and yearnings we-the-visitor have? What makes it easy to objectify people and cultures, and why do we keep falling into that mode of seeing?

Now you know how much David had to condense to get those three short paragraphs.

I like questions rather than answers. Questions keep us thinking.