31 December 2014 @ 06:34 pm
On a New Year's eve, as I prepare for the traditional midnight run I have with some friends, here's the traditional summary post for 2014, in no particular order.


1. The Turkiye trip - Acheivement unlocked! 16 days backpacking with one bag, eating with the Turks, attempting to speak Turkish, visiting Muslim and Christian shrines. All done for a grand total of S$2000. Travel buddies Ants, JY and I agree that we'll be talking about this for years.

2. A book at work - Less of a milestone and more of a painful rite of passage. After more than 1.5 years of work, on November 28th, I helped to publish a commemmorative book for my company's 50th year anniversary. Over the course of doing this, any of the experience of self-publishing last year got blown out of the water, as this project morphed into a five-figure monster that involved the president of this country, numerous photoshoots, sleepless nights and at least two people getting fired/ not having their work contracts renewed. My bosses got most of the credit, but even then, the response to the launch of the book was tepid: once in a while someone asks where to buy it. But I shouldn't complain. I'm glad I got out of this alive.

3. Second attempt at teaching the Bible - Still not sure on this, but in August I was asked to teach some youths in my church about the Bible. So I dusted off some notes and took several sessions. I did this before at my former church, but I would like to think I've learnt from my mistakes. I'm more careful with absolutes, careful not to dictate things but still emphasising the need to read properly before making an interpretation. Since the subject matter is heavy, I try to be open-ended. The most fun I had in a church-setting for a while, especially after a lacklustre year of missed expectations at church.

People/ Groups:

4. My grandmother - In quiet moments, I realise I do miss my grandma after her sudden passing in September.

5. Project "TR" - The anthology that was to be a follow-up to a book of short stories me and some writers self-published last year got off the ground in May, and was finally completed in November. This new group, however, has taught me the very meaning of patience. In part because I spent most of the time dealing with two people with equally strong characters (one apparently has asperger's, making him brilliant but arrogant sometimes). Great writers to hang out with though.

6. Team NUS Dinosaurs - Not seniors, but dinosaurs. This is the year the fruit of several years of patient training and waiting took off. As word that more seniors were training back at home base spread, eventually enough of us gathered to form a training group of our own. So while I spent most of 2013 training alone, this year I've had the privilege of being in the company of old and new friends, an entire sub-division of working adults trying to get back to race fitness. After a year of mooting the idea, we'll be runninbg our first race as dinosaurs in February 2015.

7. The Saturday morning MR running club - Mostly it's just me and Kewen. But extra points go to all the random people who join us once in a while for a 10km run around McRitichie Reservoir on 7am on Saturday morning. We've had some national athletes (whom we didn't know were nationals), dinosaurs and strangers. Because if you're mad enough to wake up at 5am on a Saturday to run around a jungle, you deserve to eat any buffet lunch you want afterwards,

8. Pasir Ris east writing interest group - Just 3 people, but thanks to them I'm still churning out stories. A well-needed lifeline for my written work in a very quiet year.


9. That 19-hour bus ride - From 5-6 November, Ants and I took a 19-hour overnight public bus ride from Fethiye to Sanliurfa as part of Turiye trip. It was cheaper and more direct than taking a plane. On the trip, we saw mountains turn into forests and then into plains and finally desert. Thanks to our great bus attendant Yildrim, whose English was limited to numbers, we had unlimited orange juice, water, tea, lemon-scented colonge, Turkish TV and jokes about how 'Arab' we seemed to look.

10. Being the replacement - This year I was the 'replacement runner' for many of my friends. I took their place in whatever races they couldn't run because of injury, work committments or family issues. This ironically meant I had a free pass to the two biggest races of the year - Sundown and Army-Half. It's strange to be at another person's beck-and-call, and to adjust training accordingly. And an error in overestimating my ability led to me crawling on the ground with vicious cramp at Army-Half. But still: worth every bit.

11. Helping some Canadians - Cementing my relationships with friends and family from Vancouver and Calgary, I'm increasingly enjoying hosting them. I had an awesome day at East Coast with a cousin, and hope to host a good friend in January 2015. In an era where kindness seems like an afterthought, I hope I can be hospitable to them like they were to me. (So, Vancouverites I know, if you want me to host you, email me!)

12. Hiking the Rail Corridor - Over two Sundays, Simin and I hiked the most of the Rail Corridor trail, tracing the old route Malaysian Railway trains took during the glory days of rail travel (or up until 2011). Ducking mud and potholes from Tanjong Pagar to Kranji, the Rail Corridor is at the moment the only cross-island offroad trail left in Singapore. Great trail, great experience, great company.


13. The People in the Trees (Hana Yanagihara) - Best. Novel. I've. Ever. Read. Long and fantasical, it's supposed to be loosely-based on the experience of an anthrolopologist who finds a lost tribe on a remote island and the source of their longevity. It's part fanatiscal, part a thoughtful exploration of ethics. If you had the key to immortality, woiuld you reveal it to the world in exchange for fame and riches, knowing you could ruin an entire civilisation? As a sociologist who has doubted anthropology, I was hooked.

14. The Golem and the Jinni (Helen Wecker) - In 1800s New York, two spirits in human form - a Golem from the Jewish Lower East Side and a Jinni working for Syrian immigrants - meet. This amazing premise spans continients and delves into both European Jewish history and North African folklore. While it doesn't explore a lot of deep issues, the key theme in the book reflects its title: the most unlikely people can become the strongest friends.

15. Redeployment (Phil Klay) and The Corpse Exhibition (Hasan Blasim) - I put these two together because they're mirror images of each other. Both short story collections are about experiences during America's war in Iraq. The lovely prose takes flight when it confronts some of the most insane and crazy subject matter: a rabbit that signals the death sentence of a pair of hired killers, candy as the only way a chaplain can talk to his soldiers about PTSD and more. Phil Klay's Redeployment also has the best and most riveting opening line I've read theis whole year: "We shot dogs."

16. Cinnamon and Gunpowder (Eli Brown) - This Jack Sparrow-ish novel centers around a chef who gets kidnapped by a fearsome female pirate queen, and forced to cook to survive. Even though I'm not a fan of pirate stories, I read this to see what the protagonist (the sarcastic chef Owen Ridgewood) would conjure up with his limited resources at sea. It's both a novel and a cookbook for dangerous situations. I'm still wondering whether it's really possible to make yeast on a ship that's not been to land for 3 weeks.

17. Rock Springs (Richard Ford) - I acquired and reread this book in February. This was the book my first creative writing teacher, Professor John Young, told me to read to improve my writing. After my second reading, I can safely conclude that this book is a great example for the most basic techniques of short story writing: strong characters, unique situations, tough settings.

My Soundtrack for 2014 (Music)

18. Come and get it, Krewella - The drama of their bandmates suing each other notwithstanding, they produce really good EDM music. I liked this song because it sums up the aggression of a competitive life, driven by endless training and late nights. You just want someone to challenge to make it all worthwhile.

19 Shine, Benjamin Francis Leftwich (remixed by Kygo) - I've been listening to this subset of EDM called chillstep, and Kygo is its pioneer. I listen to this when I needed calming down - after runs on the MRT, walking home alone, before hikes and deadlines.

20. It's a longer road to California than I thought, The Wind and the Wave - Beautiful song about the uncertainity of living life, maybe with or without someone. I mostly remember this song for the mellow feeling it first gave me while listening to it on the rolling hills outside of Mersing in Malaysia.

21. If so, Atlas Genius - The travel song. I had this on replay on my long bus and plane trips, and like the music video for this song, I imagine myself cycling through a thousand places on a thousand journeys. Because daydreaming is good.

22. Silk, Giselle - Not strictly a 2014 song. But a great song to relax to. (It seems that I've abandoned my love of hard, melodic rock this year. But well, we'll see if it proves just to be a blip). 
31 December 2014 @ 12:34 pm
I'm going to do something different. In addition to traditional summary post at the end of each year, I've compiled a quick run-through of the places I've been in 2014 - which is really just two places in Malaysia and a lot of city-jumping in Turkiye (Turkey).

Without question, these trips were the highlight of 2014. All the planning, coming-and-going and walking has made me realise Singapore is a small, sometimes close-minded place. Not for bragging rights (maybe a bit) or for that old adage that 'travel broadens horizons' (it does, though), I love travel because I think I enjoy seeing the new and unfamiliar. It helps that I had good company.

There's nothing more beautiful than waking up in a city/ town/ village that's not your own, and then spending the whole day walking to around attempting to understand it.

Jalan dunia - walking the world with two eyes openCollapse )
10 December 2014 @ 01:34 am

It's been 4 months since my last post. And yes, it's awful that I've lapsed from procrastinating about what to post to not posting at all. So, to whoever is still reading, here's evidence that I'm still alive.

And the process of redesigning, remaking, reimagining my life continues, one step at a time.

It hasn't been easy. In these last 6 months, after one bad incident at work, I've been brutally cutting off all the slack that I've accumulated over all these years. I've thrown out tons of old clothes, old notes, old stuff. I've cut loose all the people that have been holding me down. And more. It's been immensely satisfying to offload certain responsibilities and items that, mentally, I've been beholden to for years - the idea that I've to be accountable to my old YF, the burden of committment to serving in a church, even the idea of church and being Christian. I'm finally tackling these long-established issues of identity. And, far from being umcomfortable, I'm enjoying the process of questioning, dismantling and throwing away.

As a result, I've replaced being a supposedly dedicated mentor with being an observer. I've replaced the uneasiness at not being a useful person at church with a call-me-if-you-need-my-expertise kind of attitude. Instead of forcing myself to go to church and ending up miffed at some of the things that go on there, I give myself room on Sundays, and end up doing what I love. Which means I'm mainly outdoors hiking with S___.

Does this make me any less Christian? Or any more of a backsliding hypocrite? I don't really seem to care anymore. But does it make me happier by an iorta? Absolutely.

Eventually, though, I think I will eventually come to the conclusion that I'll need to quit my job and do something decisive about my life.

Likewise, it's with a definite certainty that I'll deduce that this LJ is surplus to the new life I want to fashion for myself. Surplus, meaning it's a repository that holds too many memories, and was relevant for a period of time when I was not who I was now.

But I'll cross that bridge when I get there. For now, I'm content to tackle one thing at a time.

The crown jewel of all this has been the 1-16 November trip to Turkey I took with my secondary school buddies Ants and JY. I needed to challenge myself. I needed to do something that I wanted to look back on and say, shit that was dangerous. And I (we) did it. Travelling free-and-easy, hopping on and off buses through the rugged Southeast, speaking Turkish as we went along, standing on a hilltop in Mardin and looking out over the Mesopotamian plains into Syria and Iraq, praying in mosques because we were awed by the places we'd been to.

WP_20141110_16_01_05_Pro (2)
On a hill in Mardin - looking out into Syria, with Iraq somewhere on the far left

It helped, of course, that this was my second time there. But with two clueless Singaporean guys to fend for, I'm glad I took the trip with them. Going solo would've isolated me; travelling with them reminded me about how seeing things for the second time can still be amazing.

This is what my life has morphed into now - seeking the purpose, both in the daily grind and in the extraordinary. And not being sentimental, not being afraid to cut out what isn't absolutely meaningful. It's terrifyingly efficient. But now, I believe, is the time for me to move on and out. I will no longer be captive to another's expectations or be afraid.

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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