Some Messy Words

Hello, o you loyal and dear blog reader of these Messy Words. In today’s return to more regular broadcasting, you will read wandering opinions and thoughts.

It is a rebellion against concrete structure, meaning and tight, rational prose. It is a rebellion against the stylistic discipline I’ve been straitjacketed into the past weeks.

A lot of people have been asking me when my next post will ever come up. Even Kar asked me if she could read my next post soon. I tried writing something a few days ago, just to realise everything had dried up because of stress, panic, and lack of sleep. Probably the writer’s version of erectile dysfunction. If all writers had penises. But not all writers do. Or something to erect. An opinion, maybe. That would be a very hard opinion to follow, I think.

Trust me, I was desperate for inspiration. In my writer’s block i even tried to write a post about writer’s block, which was eventually stonewalled because: a. it began to sound overly prescriptive wouldn’t be writer’s block if i could actually finish an article about writer’s block (so #meta) c. I really had writer’s block.


The reason why this site has been so silent for weeks is because its writer ran into the perennial bugbear of the Humanities undergraduate – term papers. This week, I had to contend with four academic deadlines: two were 2000-word essays; the other two were class presentations. I also had two applications to different places to complete: one for an application to do Graduate Studies at NUS, and another for a week-long programme to Jakarta later in February next year, known as the Inter-civilisational Dialogue. That makes a grand total of six deadlines I have just surmounted.

There’s one more in a few days time, known as the “ePortfolio” demanded by the Senior Seminar of the University Scholars Programme. I had a crisis of confidence last week trying to figure out what the hell to put inside that assignment, which basically wants you to survey the collated corpus of works you have produced in the past three years of university life, and reflect on what you have learned. Sounds like a very useful, cool-beans project in principle. Sitting down to read your past writing and abstract some kind of essentialised Learning Point irritates the young academic in me who has learnt that the world is not in black and white, nor even fifty shades of gray, but a countless spectrum of wavelengths. Complexity. Trying to draw out “lessons learnt” from two classes and drawing a straight line between them ignores the way in which the human being learns: through a continuous culmination of experiences and epiphanies, interweaving and strobing; like the swell of light as the waters of the river you stepped tentatively into lap at your legs. The whole exercise has been difficult to get into, but I’m beginning to appreciate, albeit grudgingly, the structure a false dichotomy can confer onto your reflection as a learner. I only mean this half-sarcastically. Sometimes you need to simplify and essentialise things in order to discern meaning and patterns from it. That’s how history is distilled to, from the chaotic jungle of the past. Like a professor once described, while the Past can be a foreign country, History isn’t the Place itself; it’s just a map. What are you looking for?  Politics, class, race, gender?

On the related topic of gender, I had a mild Facebook argument with a friend because I had been sarcastic about a picture of a sanitary pad with the words “Imagine if men were as disgusted with rape as they were with periods”. There are actually men who are just as, if not more disgusted with rape than periods. I’m not denying the importance of feminism, and I am trying my best, in my language and action, not to deny the everyday experiences of women. Just for the record, I didn’t, and I do not. I just happen to be of the peculiar belief that women’s rights and experiences can be vocalised and articulated without hating on men, or casting men as insensitive, sex-crazy monsters. We are not.

I don’t debate that history has been dominated, obsessed and pre-occuppied by the views of men. I would like very much for women to be better recognised in our pasts, and our present realities, and in our futures. I wished I had dared to take the gender history module offered by the NUS History department, but I was too terrified by the fact that the module had been invaded by men-hating (so-called) “feminists” who didn’t believe men and boys had any right to express an opinion in class. Because, you know, feminism is apparently about only women talking, and men not having a right to speak. On the basis of their sex/gender. Apparently. I used to have an atheist phase where I would try to debate with any Christian friend I knew about God and religion. Now I am wiser, and know that gender is an even more emotionally charged issue to avoid. Simplifications and misrepresentations of any group simply irritate me. Unwisely this leads me to draining online battles that are actually worth very few internet points.

A friend and I presented on the 1969 Malaysian racial riots, a grievously depressing episode in the history of that wonderful country. Picture that: the state sanctioning the use of military force on its own citizens, namely the non-Malay ones. Picture that: the streets of KL awash with blood, choked with decapitated heads and lopped-off limbs. Just about forty years ago, just a four-hour bus-ride away. Our neighbours to the north. Sometimes I think that people who sneer at the PAP Government’s construction of “vulnerability”and fear-mongering haven’t read about the 1969 Malaysia racial riots, or the 1966 Indonesia Communist massacres (in many villages across all of young Indonesia, suspected communists lined up and decapitated, systematically and calmly. Heads cut off and hung out as a warning). Or maybe I’m just a government dog labouring under my false consciousness. Labels have powers.

I went to Prof Farid Alatas’ office at the Sociology Department today to be interviewed for the Inter-civilisational Dialogue. I’ve never seen an office decorated so simply, spaciously and elegantly. Flush with my pretend-knowledge about the 1969 Riots, we had a very nice chat, as I tried desperately to justify why I should be allowed to for a one-week trip to Jakarta in my last semester in school, although I had no tangible research interest in Islam or the Malay World. The thing is, actual academic work aside, I think I’ve been more privileged than your average Chinese Singaporean with insights into Islam and the Malay World (of course they are not the same things, don’t conflate my statements). It all started with a module on a History of the Malay World in my second year at university; continued along as I learned about the Ottomans and their grand Caliphate; then went to Istanbul, and for the first time in my life, watch in awe to see men bow before their God in a mosque; then to Tehran to learn more about Shia Islam; then had some conversations with Malay friends in Singapore; then studied a little about Islamisation and Malaya, kerajaan and Bangsa Melayu in Malaysian history class…and all this from a stupid, rude Chinese boy who once had no Malay nor Muslim friends at all. I think I’ve come some way. And for all that, I’ve learnt very little about Indonesia in the Malay World. I hope February next year will give me a chance to do so. *fingers crossed*

I submitted my Masters’ application to NUS last week. I never thought I would be an academic, but flirting with the idea seems to be a pleasant experience. I actually get a high digging through archives and finding weird facts about the past. If “the past is a foreign country” then exploring it through accounts and archives is another way to sate the wanderlust. Reading William Cronon made me decide that if i ever became a historian, I would be an environmental historian. Nature and narratives have always been two very big interests. Telling stories about nature to shape the way people perceive the world, and possibly save it? The thought is electrifying to a nerd like me. If things work out (or don’t, in other areas), I want to write the history of the Rain Tree in Singapore. Why? Well, partly because it’s everywhere in Singapore. And you know what? It’s not a native tree. It comes all the way from Central America, around the Brazil/Peru rainforest belt of the Amazon(?) The British brought it here in the 1860s/70s. Since then the Rain Tree has taken like a fish to water or…a tree to the tropics i suppose. This foreign talent has even acquired a local name – Pukul Lima, or Five O’Clock, for the way its leaves closed at sunset. And do you kno why sunset was at 5pm then? Because the timezone in Singapore wasn’t the same as it is now. So embedded into the Malay name of a South American tree is the story of timezones, and international structures of time; imperial networks and global flows of supplies and demands. You can learn a lot from a name. Labels have power.

So: there you have it, a short, meandering post about everything and nothing. No topic, no header, just some thoughts and ideas and opinions I’ve encountered into the deeper and darker and more desolate corners of my semester.

Fierce, opinionated, rash Rui will return once he has repaid his sleep debt of several weeks, when he finds something to be irrationally cheesed off about, so that you can be mildly entertained. Tell me what you would like to read!

P.S. Lack of sleep gives me muscle aches. I think I’m getting old.




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