20 July 2014 @ 06:08 pm
So a lot of things happened over the last month or so. I had a bit of a falling out with my boss, thought of quitting (then decided against it), and dove straight back to work. A second project for a new writers' anthology is in the works. Because of these two big things, I've never worked so much overtime in my life.

It feels funny that after all the energy and enthusiasm of travelling, and the devoted precision with which I managed to get things done over the first half of the year, the next months look to me like a long dive into the multiple piles of paper I have at my workstation. My colleagues say I'm paranoid because I print everything out: drafts, reports, email threads - because I like to have these physical copies on hand if anything goes wrong. Typical cover backside attitude.

Right now I would love to write or to daydream, but constant worry over the deadlines I'e got to meet (at work, for the anthology) eats me out. So I settle for running and swimming as usual. It's all I can seem to do right now without feeling any sort of negative emotion. 
03 June 2014 @ 01:34 am
Before the post-holiday afterglow dies away, I need to pen some down some observations on the people I met in Sungai Lembing and Kuantan. These observations come because I had the privilege and fortune of staying in a local guest house in the kampung itself, and with a bunch of Canadian, European and Malaysian guys and girls at a backpackers' in Kuantan.

On 'rural' kampung residents:
There's some truth that rural folk are easier to get along with the urban city-dwellers. At least in Sungai Lembing, SJ and I had no problem going up to people and talking to them - even in my halting Malay and less-than-perfect Mandarin. We were invited into houses, given lessons on the tin-mining and personal histories and given drinks for our trouble. Never once were we asked for money or photographs. Anyway, in 'rural' Malaysia, the divide between what people elsewhere might perceive as suburban and rural isn't very clear: residents in Sungai Lembing drove motorcycles (cars too expensive, they said), had large houses built of both bluffs of the Kenau River (vacated in December due to flooding) and many had lived in the town for years after the tin mines shut down.

Sungai Lembing is not technically in decline, although almost 75% of the shops in the town centre are shuttered during the day. It is busy every morning till around noon, when the hikers and trekkers leave. It's absolutely dead at night. So I assume most residents are either involved in renting guest houses, conducting tours or manning the remaining stores. Sand mining still goes on upriver.

3 types of travellers
After all the travelling and meeting people, I've concluded there are 3 types of travellers:

1) First, there are the wannabe backpackers. People like me and SJ. Who hold regular jobs, and are just passing through. We have the money and are willing to pay a bit more for comfort, even though we profess that we can handle the cheapest accommodations available. We take on the mantle of daring travellers because we have no tour guide, travel light and rough it out on buses. (Believe it or not, almost everyone back home thought we were quite mad to put our holiday at the mercy of the Malaysian public transport system). We have a clear, if not fixed, itinerary, and we've done our research. I don't think I could've just gone to Kuantan without the one week worth of research I dug up.

2) Then, there are the North American and European hostelites - those for whom the term 'backpacker' was invented for. The Malaysians, SJ and I really admire their guts: they travel for years (a Canadian girl was doing 5 years), and they're willing to rough it out in the toughest conditions (Kuantan in May without air-conditioning at night). We admit they have different values from us Asians - how can they just leave their family for years, without income, at working age? - but we don't want to judge. Perhaps where they come from they're taught to think as individuals first. That has benefits too.

(Although I felt that they exist in a kind of western backpacker bubble - on Saturday night in Kuantan, with the pasar malam (night market) in full effect, I invited some of them to go out to get some food and teach them some basic Malay. But they were more interested in staying in the hostel and watching DVDs. The Malaysians said that most were interested in going to the beach or going to the bars).

3) Finally, there are the wanderers, the crazy travellers. This title goes out to Choon Chyuan and Alex, two Malaysian guys from Melaka who we met while they were on their semester break. No destination, no itinerary, no preparation. They just go, looking for interesting places, getting by on the hospitality of all around them. They're so far the only people I know who have the balls to hitch-hike in Malaysia. 
29 May 2014 @ 12:08 am
I took a short holiday over the weekend to burn off the stress of work. So on 21 May, I braved a six-hour bus ride to get to Kuantan, in the state of Pahang, on Malaysia's east coast. Malaysia has been receiving a lot of bad press lately - a missing commercial jet, kidnapped tourists in Borneo, supposedly incompetent politicians and an out-of-control crime rate among them - so hopefully this trip proved that we (myself and my colleague SJ) and anyone else can still take one bag, $100 in hand and have a good time in the country north of our fair city.

Most of my time was spent hiking and trekking in Sungai Lembing, a former tin-mining town in the hills of Pahang with the friendliest people. I also spent a solid day in Kuantan city, doing the typical tourist thing of checking out beaches and shopping centres.

This is a sort visual travelogue.

Four days in the abode of tranquilityCollapse )
30 April 2014 @ 12:12 am
"In seasons of distress and grief,
My soul has often found relief
And oft escaped the tempter’s snare
By thy return, sweet hour of prayer!"
- Sweet Hour of Prayer, words by William Walford

10 years ago today, I remember being sick and stuck and home, assignments piling up; it was the era when I still actually cared about hockey, and I was worried about a must-win A Division hockey match with St Andrews looming after AC's disastrous 3-0 loss to Raffles; perhaps worst of all I had just come out on the bad end of a short relationship - the one that crashed and burned over hockey training and one bad mistake - the one that would define all my other relationships for the next 8 years - and it was like stabbing myself in the throat: hurting and hurting like hell.

10 years ago, on 29 April 2004, I had a very terrible birthday.

April 2004: AC hockey team training camp at Bandar Penawar, Johor, Malaysia

Sometime in between then and the SAJC hockey match, I remember flipping a Bethesda hymnal and I seeing the hymn 'Sweet Hour of Prayer'. Ever since then, I don't think I've even sung it once in any congregational service, and my memories of the tune are at best hazy. But for the 18 year-old who played hockey and breathed literature with every waking breath back in 2004, those words, especially the last four lines of the first stanza, were good poetry. They reminded me of the best that faith could offer, even if faith (and God) seemed absent and hollow during those dreadful few weeks of at the end of April 2004.

It's now 2014, a decade from those very simple days of JC. In the meantime, I've been to NS, university, graduated and got a job. Life went on. (For reference, I recovered, AC beat St Andrews and through the long-sighted wisdom of the friend I wronged, we salvaged the friendship, she became a Christian and is now happily attached to a great guy).

It's tempting to take all those milestones (successes) from those 10 years and wear them as badges of honour. Celebrate your successes, my boss always reminds me, because you never know when they'll dry up. But the truth is, I felt that everything has been quite accidental. Or if you're a faith-believing person like me, accidental is perhaps a flipside of God-directed.

Essentially though, nothing has changed. I still worry and fret about things that will probably be insignificant in a year's time. I admit I've become a bit of a blaspheming questioner when it comes to all things religious, being purposely self-depreciating when no compromise can be reached. And I still live and breathe obsessions - it's just that they're no longer hockey and literature (running and fiction replaced them).

February 2014: NUS cross-country 'old birds'

But it's been 10 years. When the day has come and gone, I will sit down and read the last four lines of the first stanza of William Walford's hymn. With an entire decades' worth of reflection, these words are at worst just good poetry. At best, they've been a bittersweet victory song.

(On reflecting on this photograph that Ben took at Kelvin & Stella's wedding on 26th March)

When evening wraps its arms around your eyes,
smoothens your back, massages your feet -
when time persuades you to turn aside
to rest, to recover, to finally step to sleep -

let everything be just music to your dreams:
the pop and spit of shoes on dry grass,
the slippery clap when someone from our team,
sweeps past you in a rashing, reeling rush;

the shuffling struggle of breath drowning in lungs,
the willing whisper of wind on your face,
the careless chatter of waterless tongues
the gunfire of applause at a race;

the sluiced stutter of sweat-stained clothes,
a stopwatch's programmed whine,
the warnings of cars sawing down roads
the tattoo of someone's chasing feet behind.

Listen when every voice falls out and away,
and silence coasts in like an enormous bird -
under its wings hear the last things we say -
the lush landscape of our shared words

here in the wisp of water, the lapping of loose waves,
where the sea communicates with land,
while you and I, together, try to save
our memories, buried in the shush of silted sand.

(For all the NUS crossers, past and present, I've had the opportunity to run with)
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24 March 2014 @ 12:16 am
"You should make make amends with you,
if only for better health.
But if you really want to live,
why not try to make yourself?"

- Make yourself, Incubus

"I guess everything seems more clear here on the other side."
- The other side, Tonight Alive

NUS varsity christian fellowship invited me back to speak last Tuesday. I had to answer some questions about career and life, to give my Arts juniors advice on how to navigate university life and what's beyond.

Besides me, another of my close juniors who had just graduated (Shermaine) was also speaking, along with a soon-to-be-ordained Methodist minister who graduated about a decade back (Winston).

These sessions are illuminating only because the teacher can immediately be the one being taught. Even though I had the benefit of going first, several minutes into the whole thing it seemed clear that I wasn't the best person to give advice. Some of the personal experiences I offered were very specific, and to not confuse them I deliberately left out talking about the intersection of my cross-country and Christian experience (something that even I have yet to fully understand). The recent thrill of living 'a second undergraduate life' in the last months, dinner-ing and hanging out with my team's juniors, is perhaps a crucial indication that I'm yet unable to see things maturely. Or objectively.

Perhaps it was good advice to some people. But I don't want to think too much about something I can't control. Instead, these are things I thought were useful:

1. People worry because we fear loss. People fear uncertainty even more, because we fear perceived losses or missed opportunities. (Because Winston was referring to the Bible, he mentioned it's not very productive to see life in terms of gains and losses, but rather to reach the position the apostle Paul reached in his letter to the Philippians)

2. An Arts education is helpful because it's flexible in the skills one chooses to accumulate. But it's still better to accumulate virtues, not just skills.

3. In life, there will always be struggle. But struggle never ends.

4. And struggle is good. It helps us deal with expectations, perfectionism and irresponsibility. In doing so, we find our finest moments in struggle.

5. The biggest problem with the working world is: performance is too often conflated with character.

6. Classes and paper degrees can only prepare you so much. Experience is still the greatest teacher.

7. That said, dealing with bad grades is no different from dealing with bad results at work.

8. Learn to distinguish between true guilt (screwups you make) and false guilt (screwups outside your control).

9. Lastly, Winston's closing remarks on calling: "Live however you are living now in God's presence." (i.e "live wherever God leads you.")

After everything was over, there was a short moment when we were all supposed to go for supper. It's a typical Singaporean student thing - you go for supper even if you had dinner an hour ago for the company. But I declined. There can be only so much of a life you left that you can revisit. 
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18 March 2014 @ 12:45 am

Trying to write everything down before I forget this.

Three things happened today. First, Singapore's two-month long drought was finally broken by a tropical storm of epic proportions. So after weeks of browning grass, wilting trees and record low levels at McRitchie reservoir, we get an hour on non-stop rain. It seemed like the perfect answer to Saturday's passing drizzle. When the thunder came and the heavens opened, I was having brunch at Changi Village, thinking the beating of raindrops was someone playing very loud club music.

Then, because of this rain, I ended up getting stranded in a hut along Changi beach for almost 45 minutes as I watched nature unleash wind and rain on this drought-parched landscape. The palm tree beside the hut was getting bent sideways. Later when the rain died down, I walked along the rain-lashed beach to the final bus-stop along Changi Coast Road. Everything had turned a wet, soppy grey. The water bullied the seawall. In the fog, Ubin and Tekong looked like reclining monsters with green backs. Watching the rain is serene. It cleared my head, washed away a squatting dread.

Last, before the rain and thunder, I was at the Passion North East Run at Pasir Ris park. Ke Wen and I ran two rounds around the park in what I felt was the most chilled out race ever. In total, there were probably less than 800 people, and the organisers seemed to think that men are more important than women (a men's veteran category, but no women veterans; prizes for the men were more than for the women). As usual, there was a mad rush at the start and I lost Ke Wen.

But then a god-send: two runners came by and I hung on with them for almost 10km. We played surged, traded leaders, kept so close sometimes I nearly stumbled over their feet. I paced behind and they kept me from the headwind by the open beach. Together we chased down at least 6 others who started ahead and all the women elite runners (save the top two) who started one round later. In photographs, the three of us are everywhere, a blue pack stuck so tightly together we obscure each other's faces. It's funny how when you're competing so hard you have a sort of unspoken understanding with people who are both your competitors and friends.

(Only later, reviewing photographs posted on Facebook by race organisers, did I realise I was actually pacing Kek Hong Ling, one of the masters of local distance running).

I lost the blue pack just right at the end. And so, for the last two kilometres, I was in that special place: still moving but tired as hell, trying to enjoy the scenery but knowing there was someone chasing me, just cruising along. In short: in a state of near bliss, in prayerful mediation to my Creator for being able to reach such a state of being a well-crafted machine. 
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28 February 2014 @ 01:12 am
I'm having a second undergraduate life. Instead of growing up as an adult and taking all the trappings of being a breadwinner and whatnot, I return to NUS after work and go running. Sometimes I join my former team for intervals; sometimes I head to the hills for some quiet time. But without fail, I have dinner with those who want dinner. And no matter where we go, our conversations stretch long into the night. We contemplate why some track-and-field world records have not fallen, the wisdom of running while having all sorts of dreadful ailments and why we all are such [insert negative sentiments here]. Then on the way home, I'll accompany one of the guys (it's always guys - my guess is that most of the ladies won't want to join us for such late-night dinners) halfway home and I stew in deep, philosophical thoughts all the way home.

I'm trying to enjoy this for as long as it lasts.

Because work is always work, and even recreation is getting predictable. But this secret life of former runners, some champions, some salarymen, some stubborn owls, was completely unplanned. And when good comes from unplanned things, prior experience tells me it doesn't last. So enjoy it.

In the meantime, because a new rule at work has carved up my lunch hour into ungodly stay-in-office shifts, here's a video of what I watch when I have to eat in - everyone's favourite singer Shila Amzah completely own a Mandarin song that she's memorised from scratch at a Chinese reality TV singing show: