It’s been about two weeks since i last posted, and I am running on perhaps four hours of sleep, but after a whole week locked on the same topic, with the mind a powerful engine that keeps running and running ceaselessly, mercilessly, there is a part of me that is itching to create; to write, to make to mould, rather than to renovate and edit and circle endlessly around the same things over and over again.
So here is another meandering post writing about nothing and everything again, because I have about two hours before a consultation (an academic one, not a medical one), and about 30% of battery life left on this laptop. The mind meanders, and it itches to put some thoughts down in words, although it does not want to be shackled to coherent, tightly leashed order. Reader beware: the thoughts are loose and unconnected, slightly wild and undisciplined.
a. First, some context on the past two weeks. I spent Recess Week in Jakarta, on a Study Trip that “required” me to attend talks, conferences and lectures on Islamic thought and culture. This was the third iteration of this programme in the same number of years. Originally called the Inter-civilisational Dialogue, the programme has threaded its way through the mystically and tenderly beautiful cities of Istanbul and Tehran. This year, due in part to security concerns, the trip relocated to the unapologetically messy city of Jakarta, yet another (but underrated, and unconsidered) hub/node/centre of Islam.
2. Because Jakarta is just one cheap plane-ride away, and Singaporeans commonly associate this place with squalor and corruption, there were dramatically fewer applicants from USP. This was a blessing, and not even one in disguise. I had the privilege of speaking and sharing with people who were genuinely curious about the topics discussed, from a myriad of fascinating perspectives. We had pharmacists, political scientists, sociologists, engineers; undergraduates, Masters, PhDs, professors; Singaporeans, Polish, Iranian, Malaysians, Britons. Being squeezed into a small mini-buslet in the Jakarta traffic with these people and their bright, giving hearts and minds was an amazing experience. I felt like I was in the USP i had signed up for once again: learning and seeing from a myriad disciplinary perspectives about a thousand different issues (history, religion, sexuality, feminism, art, terrorism, bad singing and badder puns). It was an exhilarating intellectual experience, made even better by good humour and good (and cheap) food. More on this later, because I promised to write an article for USP Corporate Comms about this trip, which I suppose I will publish eventually here.
III. Speaking of USP, I was surprisingly butt-hurt in a recent event I had signed up for. In the idealistic spirit of multidisciplinary sharing, I had signed up to speak in a small ‘speakers’ series’ kind of thing, to ‘teach’ about an interesting topic in 20 slides. I was excited, of course. I’ve always believed there were many cute and fascinating things I’d come across in my history research that were worth talking about. Imagine my disappointment and disgust when the freshman managing committee of this talk series told me my two-sentence synopsis was “not interesting” and “too hard to understand”, perhaps “not relevant”. As a Writing Assistant in the USP Writing Centre and as a History major I’d always prided myself on honing my writing; on largely clear, precise communication when the situation demanded it. And I’d intended to present on my thesis topic, the history of the Singapore Zoo, in relation to independent Singapore. I was quite upset when a freshman who probably hadn’t even finished his foundation module in writing and critical thinking told me my honours thesis wasn’t interesting nor understandable. Fair enough, i suppose. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.
After all, I shouldn’t expect everyone to be find an escaped panther roaming in the jungles of Singapore in 1973 interesting. Nor a green polar bear who has lived in the Singapore Zoo for the past 20+ years (how did it get here?? Why did it turn green??). Nor how Ah Meng the Orangutan once escaped and climbed up a tree and refused to come down for tree (sorry, THREE) days, and then broke her arm when she tried to come down.
I guess my Honours thesis stood no chance. Who would want to listen to the history of the Singapore Zoo when you have more rarefied and fascinating subjects like “the problematic concept of stereotypes”? Yeah, I have no intellectual response to this except an emotional one. But instead of duking it out and arguing with people who would rather hear about “stereotypes” (wow so cool, stereotypes, wonder how they are problematic), I decided to turn my attention to other things. Some battles don’t have to be fought. At some point, I shall publish an abridged, accessible version of my thesis topic here; you can decide if words like “context” are too difficult to understand without a dictionary, or if the history of the Singapore Zoo is more boring than stereotypes.
Empat. Which brings me to the elephant (or any other animal of your choice) in the room – the reason why I am so sleep-deprived. The whole of this past week has been centred on finishing up a full draft of my thesis for my supervisor. Surprisingly, I have managed to meet the deadline, albeit 2000 words over the 15,000 limit, probably conceptually problematic, grammatically jagged and narratively boring. My supervisor is an exceedingly strict marker; he uses pens of two inks to delineate the grammar and content issues he has with your writing. I await his judgment….but nonetheless, I am proud of this baby I have brought to term.
Wu. The tentative title of my honours thesis is Nature Condensed: An Environmental History of the Singapore Zoo. More on Environmental History in another post, but basically it considers the development of human society through non-human lenses. For example: how did tiger attacks in colonial Singapore reflect the development of human society in the early 1900s? What can we learn about colonial Singapore by looking at it from another angle? It’s a revisionist approach unlike any other I’ve encountered, and it marries my two great loves – narrative and nature, into one field. I’m excited by it…I just didn’t know how to incorporate it into my magnum opus that is supposed to be the culmination of all my training in University, my honours thesis (in theory).
6. Last night, as I finished up the conclusion of this monstrously long work (it ran initially into 18,000 words and 31 pages), a part of my over-awake mind reflected on the long way I had come after so many semesters, after so many essays. Looking at Singapore, and the Singapore Zoo through the eyes and effects of an orangutan, or a polar bear, was the kind of history I wanted to write. Sure, we need our political historians. But history gives us another way to be curious about everything around us, because everything and everyone has a past and has a journey: whether it’s the phone you’re reading this on, or the very clothes on your body, or the sunlight you feel on your skin, or the smell of the air this rainy afternoon. I suspect Singaporeans don’t care very much for history because they think it’s all about memorisation, about men yammering on about their great deeds.
Tujuh. In Jakarta, I took care to ask everyone I met where they came from, because Jakarta strains daily under the weight of too many migrants: both from around the world, and from around Indonesia. There were Bugis boatmen from faraway Bone, in Sulawesi. There were lecturers who’d lived in Malaysia during Suharto’s regime, who were born in Banten. There was a student who went home only once a year to his hometown on the vast island of Sumatra. There was a maid who worked in Yishun who was going back to her town in Central Java (‘Taggal’, i heard, but I’m very likely wrong), who saw her children only twice a year. Everyone has a story. People are endlessly fascinating. There are epics and odysseys they, and we, have all undertaken. History sometimes allows me to follow them in that journey, through another dimension, through the illusory, immediate fabric of the here and now.
History is rightly placed in the broader field of the Humanities because like literature, it examines the fundamental issue of our humanity: our human flaws and failures, our aspirations and our anxieties, our greatest conceits and celebrations.To walk through a space and know a little of its history is to feel, if only momentarily, like you are standing astride numerous dimensions and parallel universes. The past feels not only like a another country, but another galaxy altogether. I’m an apologist for the discipline of History. Sue me.
VIII. My aggregated draft is probably going to be shot to pieces by my supervisor, but the 17,000 word Frankenstein’s monster which I sewed together and submitted last night left me with a sense of pride. Maybe I’m a nerd, loaded to the gills with facts and unable to connect with normal human beings. Most History majors I know are like that. But to know a little more of the past feels exciting. It’s like wearing a different pair of eyes to see the world you once thought you knew. Sometimes I feel like a shaman, who has entered a different plane of reality, for having known what took place in this very space, twenty years ago; or that the pond in the Botanic Gardens once harboured an escaped crocodile; or that they once used to gas people on this very spot.
Jiu. And so, because my battery is running out and I also need to pee, I finish off this meandering, ‘update’ post, talking about nothing and everything. There are too many thoughts in my head. The mind is so tired it is no longer tired; my thoughts are everywhere and nowhere; I am always most creative when sleep-deprived, because the thoughts blend, bleed and overlap into each other, the walls don’t work anymore. I hope you’ve had a good week, and if not, hang in there. As Chris Martin sings, “the sun must set to rise”. I close with this quote that is over-used, but that is always so true after every and any voyage I make, whether physically or discursively.
10. “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
(Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky)