Saturday, June 26, 2010


The newly completed Marina Bay Sands Complex in Singapore

I just returned from a three-day visit to Singapore. My last trip was almost two years ago, to attend my niece Rebecca's wedding to her Dutch beau Dennis Kool. Back in the 1980s I used to spend half the year in the Merlion City, producing multimedia extravaganzas and chilling with a secret colony of Bohemians in Bedok.

Indeed, an early initiation into my lifelong fascination with metaphysics was triggered at the Singapore national library in 1968.

The old National Library in Singapore, circa 1968

A friend of mine had casually mentioned a teenaged Jewish girl he often saw hanging around the library; people were scared of her because she was overfriendly, so they concluded she was mad. I felt a powerful compulsion to try and find that Jewish girl and befriend her (at the time I was obsessed with Jewish princesses). So I loitered outside the library for an hour or so, hoping to catch sight of the girl - but saw nobody that looked remotely Jewish or even slightly crazy.

That's when I decided to nose around inside the library, which was huge and had a whole section labeled "Philosophy." I headed there and two books caught my eye: one was Richard Wilhelm's translation of the I Ching and the other was the Tao Te Ching (translated by Lin Yutang).

I remember making some notes about binary codes (yin-yang) and trigrams, and how they combine to generate the 64 hexagrams that constitute the Book of Changes or I Ching. Then, as I began reading the first verse of the Tao Te Ching, I felt goosebumps appear on both my arms and was suddenly aware of the central airconditioning....

On the Absolute Tao

The Tao the can be told of
Is not the Absolute Tao;
The Names that can be given
Are not Absolute Names.

The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth;
The Named is the Mother of All Things.

Oftentimes, one strips oneself of passion
In order to see the Secret of Life;
Oftentimes, one regards life with passion,
In order to see its manifest forms.

These two (the Secret and its manifestations)
Are (in their nature) the same;
They are given different names
When they become manifest.

They may both be called the Cosmic Mystery:
Reaching from the Mystery into the Deeper Mystery
Is the Gate to the Secret of All Life.

Later, while sipping a cup of tea in a cafe near the library, I caught sight of a long-haired girl seated several tables away. She smiled at me and, for a moment, I thought she might be the mad Jewish girl I'd been looking for. But I didn't feel prompted to walk up to her and start a conversation. When she got up to leave, I felt the moment slipping away - but paralysis stopped me from leaping up and running after her.

This episode marked a turning point in my quest for meaning. It was as if a seed had been planted in me that afternoon which would subsequently germinate and bloom into a sacred tree, offering enlightenment and shade and whose fruit provided spiritual nourishment.

Singapore has always been good to me, even though I can't see myself living there. Things were a lot different in the 1980s. Areas like Bedok and Serangoon Gardens where I used to hang out still possessed a slightly rural feel. In fact, a few minutes' walk from the housing estate in Serangoon Gardens (built for British servicemen's families in the 1960s), there was a real kampong with chickens, ducks and geese flapping around - plus a few musangs and monkeys and an occasional cockatoo.

In recent years, however, the city appears to have become more sanitized and regimented. The wildman in me feels a bit overwhelmed by the glitter and false glamor of Singapore's futuristic shopping malls. You can't even enjoy a smoke without worrying about getting slapped with a $1,000 fine. That's one reason why I kept putting off seeing my son-in-law about my dental issues.

However, apart from a massive queue at the Second Link that delayed my arrival for an hour, I was warmly welcomed to Singapore by a bunch of young Polytechnic students I met at the Novena Square MRT station. One of them, a 19-year-old named Chris Tan, insisted on carrying my heavy bag a few blocks and made sure I was headed in the right direction before running off to catch the last train to Outram. It's little things like this that reassure me Singapore is not quite as soulless as she's made out to be by her detractors. The PAP government's attempt to robotize the people and turn them into kiasu consumers hasn't been entirely successful.

And I have lots of family living in the gleaming glass-steel-and-concrete Republic that Lee Kuan Yew built - and which his son Brigadier-General Lee Hsien Loong now runs like a giant corporation.

For a start my first daughter Moonlake lives there with her husband Ansgar and their adorable daughters Allie (7) and Hana (5). Hongkong-born Ansgar - now Dr Ansgar Cheng - met my daughter at a friend's party in Singapore 20 years ago. Moon helps Ansgar promote and develop his thriving prosthodontic practice by taking care of corporate communications and the Specialist Dental Group website through which his international clients can make appointments for treatment.

Ansgar has always been a high achiever. Having obtained certification to practise his craft in Canada, America, England, Australia, Hongkong and Singapore, he finally decided to build a base in Singapore - to be near Moon's parents in Malaysia and his own in Hongkong. Dr Ansgar Cheng today ranks among the top maxillofacial prosthodontists in the Asia-Paific region. So when I began having serious issues with my teeth (or the ridiculous lack of them), I kept postponing the inevitable - partly because it was a hassle to commute to Singapore for treatment, but mainly because I didn't want to impose on his goodwill.

Moon was greatly amused by the fact that this was the first time, in the 18 years since they were married, that I had consulted my son-in-law about my teeth. Well, I suppose I wanted Ansgar get exceptionally good at his craft before subjecting myself to his professional ministrations ;-)...

Two years down the line Rebecca and Dennis are enjoying a robust family life in Pasir Ris with their two beautiful kids - Aydan and Nadya (note that their names are perfect palindromes!) Rebecca cut her teeth as a corporate lawyer and recently teamed up with Helen Chia LLC as a partner. Dennis Kool has enjoyed a checkered career - mostly as a kitchen designer, professional chef and F&B manager (yes, he likes his food!) - but he also happens to be a deeply passionate musician with a keen ear for audio engineering.

Over the years he has acquired an impressive array of multi-track mixers, studio-quality mics, Wharfedale speakers, and taught himself to use the amazing range of sophisticated sound sculpting software now available. Not only was Dennis Kool gifted with an excellent pair of ears, he also has a vast and wonderfully eclectic musical archive packed between them - plus the technical aptitude and taste to be a topnotch audio engineer. Dennis had asked me on a recent visit to Magick River to avail myself of his studio if I wanted to record my songs - so I took him up on his offer and managed to get two songs mixed down, one of which (Share The Beauty) I've uploaded. I wasn't 100% satisfied with my own performance (we didn't have unlimited time), but I now have no doubts about Dennis Kool's skill as sound engineer/producer. Dennis has decided on the name Trax Studio for his modest recording and mixing set-up.

Aydan (18) and Nadya (11) with their doting mum. Years ago, on her first visit to Magick River when I was still living at the High Hut, the 6-year-old Aydan got into trouble at Lubok Pusing and Rebecca jumped in to rescue him. The water was too strong and turbulent for her and she, too, got drawn into the whirlpool (that's what Lubok Pusing means). Fortunately, Mary Maguire jumped in and pulled Aydan out by his hair - though she experienced a few moments of panic herself (triggered by a "past-life memory" of drowning, perhaps?) Rebecca has sworn that she will sue the pants off anybody who says anything nasty about Mary Maguire!

Rebecca invited her mother (my big sister Mae) and Moon's family over for dinner the night before I left. I stuffed myself on sushi and 8-week-old prime beef, followed by taufoo-fa (beancurd in syrup) for dessert. Aydan played a few lyrical pieces on the piano and we even managed to persuade Nadya to sing (such a painfully shy girl she is, but she does sound like a little angel).

Well, these are moments to cherish at the end of the day - when a visit with the family reminds us how sweet it is to be loved and cherished, and how blessed one is to have such lovable, big-hearted family members.