This Week: Singapore in the news

When I lived in Singapore I stayed in Bukit Timah, on the west of the island near a large nature reserve and beneath the city-state’s tallest peak, which is not the grandest mountain at just over 530 ft. Bukit Timah is just south of the bridge that crosses into the Malaysian border town of Johor Bahru, in the southern Malaysian state of Johor. At the end of February, 2008, soldiers combed this area and security along the border was tightened in an effort to catch terrorism suspect, Mas Selamat, who had escaped a maximum security prison from an unbarred window in a restroom. Fliers of Selamat with a mustache, without a mustache, every detail of what he was wearing, his alleged limp, his favorite meal (ok, that last one is from an interpretation by Singapore’s most famous satirists) — one by one, the government released more and more details and asked for vigilance.

The big news this week is that Selamat was captured in early April, over one year after his escape. Authorities believe that Selamat, who had been held without charges under Singapore’s Internal Security Act since his first capture in 2006, is  the leader of the Singapore arm of Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, which is responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings and an alleged plot to attack Singapore’s Changi Airport. News of his arrest came out last week, withheld, say Malayasian officals, to allow for continued investigation into the JI network. According to Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng, Selamat escaped across the Johor Strait on an improvised flotation device; weaknesses in border security, say Singapore authorities, will be addressed. Perhaps now is a good time to revisit another mr brown show classic, Blame It on Somebody (or perhaps the remix, or the follow-up episode Just Can’t Quit). For a good explanation of the whole story, read the account from AFP.

From FP Passport via International Economy via vesseltracker.com, global trade is taking a hit, and Singapore, the “world’s busiest port for container traffic” according to International Economy, is feeling the pain. Compared to last year, traffic in Singapore dropped almost 20 percent in January and February, 2009. See the short but striking report (and a really startling graphic) on a PDF from International Economy. Other indicators of Singapore’s financial predicament are the central banks’s move to devalue Singapore dollars and Singapore Airline’s move to give people $1 hotel stays.

And not related to Singapore at all, an Asia Pacific Arts story is getting a lot of buzz in the Los Angeles neck-of-the-woods. I’ll let the headline sell it: Hot Asian Actors Hollywood Doesn’t Yet Realize It Needs.

not usually a fan

I’m in Los Angeles, but I’m not a big Grammys watcher. This year, I might just let CBS run in the background.

I first listened to the music of M.I.A. in 2005, when Asia Pacific Arts took an early bet that she would become big news for the music industry. This year, her second album, Kala, has become a staple in my musical diet. It is absolutely layered and filled with unexpected sounds and lyrics. Maybe that’s why Paper Planes, nominated for record of the year, gave such great character to the most entertaining scenes of Slumdog Millionaire, and made a really great trailer (just the end part) for Pineapple Express.

She’s got guts, and not just with her music. She’s slated to take the Grammy stage this year, very pregnant, for a performance on the day her baby is due. It’s certainly garnered her a lot of attention. She wrote (in hot pink) on her MySpace blog:

I want you to know that , everyone has been asking me on the shows to talk about the sudden popularity im experiencing, the babies, the grammies the oscars etc

and i want you to know that this has been part of the plan from day 1.

Indeed, M.I.A. has a plan; she’s got something to say, and it will be interesting to see if a show like the Grammys, not well known for its risk-taking, will let her say it. And what the last hours of pregnancy looks like on stage.

Here are a few interviews, if you’re unfamiliar with M.I.A.’s story. The first is another great interview by Tavis Smiley, the second a basic CNN interview, a quick sum-up of the Sri Lanka conflict in between M.I.A. soundbites, that is getting some flack.

 


 

(I am also intrigued by Radiohead’s reported Grammy night plans.)

more than politics

This week I’m revisiting one of my favorite books, the famous fictionalized account of the last months in the life of South American liberator Simon Bolivar by Gabriel Garci­a Marquez. I cannot recall the first time I read The General in His Labyrinth except that it was early in my college career and it opened my eyes to world literature. My notes in the book seem completely unfamiliar — I appear to have fact-checked the book, not just against history but also to spot the moments which are fantasies of the character Boli­var’s troubled mind. Now, I read the book differently. I am drawn to Manuela Saenz, whom the General loves with an incomprehensible depth. What is more incomprehensible is the way that she loves him, despite his pride and his descent, or maybe because of those things. Here is one of Garcia Marquez’s earliest introductions to Manuela:

Manuel read to him for two hours. She had been young until a short time before, when her flesh bagan to overtake her age. She smoked a sailor’s pipe, used the verbena water favored by the military as her perfume, dressed in men’s clothing, and spent time with soldiers, but her husky voice still suited the penumbra of love. She read by the scant light of the candle, sitting in an armchair that bore the last viceroy’s coat of arms, and he listened to her in bed, lying on his back, dressed in the civilian clothes he wore at home and covered by a vicuna poncho. Only the rythym of his breathing indicated that he was not asleep.

Since I last read this book, it has been used many times to describe the descent of a different general, Prevez Musharraf of Pakistan. The New York Times took the book’s title for an editorial calling on American to “disentangle itself from the sinking fortunes of Gen. Pervez Musharraf.” Both the London Review of Books and the Washington Post reuse the novel’s title to headline reviews of Musharaff’s memoir.

I think this is an overly simple trope that belies the depth of Garcia Marquez’s work. Indeed, the novel is about a general in his darkest hours, during the last days of his power. But what is most dark and beautiful here is not the political turmoil, not as simple as the news events that color newspapers’ accounts of Musharraf’s last days in charge. It is about how a liberator gets lost because, even though his days in battle are over, in his final days he is still at war within himself and his memories.

It was a bit of serendipity that I happened to unpack this book from my moving boxes. I am thinking a lot about the lasting impacts of war these days, both for those who commit themselves to war and those who find themselves in its path. Perhaps this is why Manuela intrigues me so much; even though she is not at the fore, she plays such an intimate role in the General’s life, plunged into his wars because of her love and loyalty. It is this personal part of war which is hard to capture in news reports and book reviews, and is perhaps best understood through the lens of fiction, Garcia Marquez’s lyrical account in particular.

Completely apart from The General in His Labryinth, I also spent time last week writing some film reviews. Versions of a review of Chandni Chowk to China appeared in The China Beat and Asia Pacific Arts, as well as a review of the newest Deepa Metha film, Heaven on Earth, which also appeared in Asia Pacific Arts.

(Sorry for the lack of accents in this post — my website needs some work on the back end so they don’t show up as funny characters.)

emerging in California

flight to Los Angeles

After just over a week in semi-hiding, I am proud to say that I’m back in California. It’s been one year and one week of traveling and teaching and writing (and eating) in Asia and it feels good to back where the avocados are cheap and the toilet paper is two-ply, even in public restrooms.

And lucky for me, there are no Korea-withdrawals. Diamond Bar, California (where I went to high school) has two great, very large Korean markets. And just down the road I had a fruity drink and som tum and soft rock with a friend to fulfill my southeast Asia craving.

My semi-hiding week was for family and writing. I’ve found a surprisingly good work space in my sister/grandmother’s room and I’m starting to get back into the routine of writing everyday. A group of reviews from the week I spent in Busan just ran in Asia Pacific Arts, including one of the Malaysian drama/comedy/musical Sell Out! That shout out was just for you, Joon Han.

queuing for movies

They all said the Pusan International Film Festival is the premiere festival in Asia. I’m no Asia film scholar, but it certainly is a big deal here. I’ve never seen teenagers wake up so early to get movie tickets before.

On the third day of the festival, we also woke up early to get tickets to some shows we wanted to watch. My friend Brian Hu is fully accredited and can get tickets one day ahead of time. I, as an Asia Pacific Arts photographer, am not.

Last night I attempted to reserve tickets for shows today. The interesting thing about this festival is that it really is designed for Koreans here to see Korean films and international films with Korean subtitles that they would ordinarily never have access to. If you are a Korean resident you can buy tickets online, at ATM machines and in banks. It’s wonderful to see all the excitement – the festival is visible in one way or another all over the city.

sell_out_thumbail147x200.gifA foreigner, however, needs to queue up. They sell tickets in person only on the day the movie is showing, and the tickets sell out fast. I got in line just after 9 a.m. and by the time I reached the counter at 10:45, more than half the films showing today were sold out. I did manage to get a ticket to the Malaysian film Sell Out! by Yeo Joon Han, which I am really looking forward to. Considering I was tasked with teaching students in Singapore to be creative (no joke), it will be interesting to see Yeo’s lampooning of how corporate interests wreak havoc on creative industries.

I also picked up a ticket to 63 Years On, a documentary by Kim Dong-won about Korean comfort women (sex slaves in World War II) and how their lives are now. I’ve crossed paths with this topic so many times before that the film caught my eye and I thought I’d take a look.

In the coming days, I’m hoping to catch a few more documentaries, and some films from Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Tan Chee Wee, head of the Signapore Film Commission, gave brief opening statements at the beginning of an event adjacent to the festival, Asia Policy Plus, a two-day conference about film policies in the region. He speaks again tomorrow, so I’ll learn more about how films in Singapore are funded. Today, Tan talked about a bit about a funding scheme for new directors to make their first feature-length films. It seems that the Commission will take a large role in “nurturing” these films — and I hope to clarify exactly what that means. Brian is focusing on Taiwan and Hong Kong films and we’ll both be writing some short reviews for Asia Pacific Arts.