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|Essays · Travelogs · Poetry · Comedy · Art · Digifilm||spring 2007|
Evidence of Dissent
April 28, 1996,
Sunday, April 28, 1996, 3:37 PM
Mostly, the kids went shopping and tore around having fun with [read "making fun of"] Simon and me. All in good fun, though; they are Thai kids after all. The most memorable event was the dated (1977) Malaccan "Light and Sound" show that pounded out through weather-proof speaker-poles under an ongoing downpour. The natural lightning and thunder show was far more impressive than the prerecorded one. From a few ungarbled words here and there, I learned that Malacca was founded a long time ago by some king and then was invaded and taken over lots of times. Then it got independence from Britain in the 60's and became part of the new state of Malaysia. There was lots of grandiosity about the "ancient glory" of Malacca. There were no lasers or images projected anywhere; just a bunch of lights going on and off amid the trees and buildings while the recording played.
All the kids knew I had been sick and had taken the day off, so when I showed up in the evening at the stadium for the show, I got rousing ovations from them. They're enduringly endearing, these little muffins. And nutty too. When we first got to the hostel and were assigned rooms, a squadron of boys, on realizing how hot their non-air-conditioned room was, and how cool -- cold even -- our air-conditioned room was, occupied the room and pleaded to sleep there, even if on the floor, even if with us in our beds. Typically, the boys had zero homophobia in their joking, "I sleep with you!" and then laying in the bed as if to demonstrate how desperate they were to get out of the heat. They did the same thing with Simon, and teased him a lot about drinking beer, because earlier they had come upon him having one in a restaurant.
They also yammered quite a lot in Thai, saying many things I didn't understand, among them, things that required use of my name, like, "David yak Tak." I asked Simon (who knows much more Thai vocabulary than I do) what "yak" means, and he said it's a general term meaning "to like something." I think "Tak" is the name of one of the boys. Or maybe it's one of the girls -- who knows, or cares! One of the kids told me I was "very handsome," and "a gentleman." Later Simon joked that "it's a bit reversed, isn't it? Usually it's the teachers trying to climb into bed with the students!"
"Yup," I laughed, "That's Thailand!"
BTW: No, we didn't allow any of the kids to sleep either near us or with us.
Back in Sing-Sing-bore: Evidence of Dissent
But then I asked for directions to the nearest toilet and found it. How do you tell whether you're in a totalitarian state? Check out the bathroom graffiti:
"We pay and pay because Lee Kuan Yew got no money to pay for coffin." (with the words "Lee Kuan Yew" mostly erased)
"Singapore Government is very desperate." (with the word "desperate" partially erased)
and, most prominently, a series of phrases with the first letter of each word underlined, as if to satirize organizations by altering the meaning of their acronyms. For instance, "No Such Pay (for the minority National Solidarity Party) and Pay And Pay (for People's Action Party, the ruling party in Singapore.) Next to the PAP inscription, someone in a different handwriting had drawn a large curly bracket and written "go to hell."
Watch What You Say in Singapore...
Perhaps all this intestinal storminess is just my "Don't Tread on Me" muscles reacting isometrically to this political culture.
Seriously, it all makes me feel rather pessimistic for the prospects of freedom on this planet. Western Governments are stumbling over themselves to be the first to get access to the 1 billion-plus consumer market of China, and no one so far has had the guts to say, "Wait a minute -- we're not doing business with you until you clean up your act on human rights." Is Singapore a model for the world of the future? Brisk economic growth and tightly restricted personal freedoms? I'd like very much to point to Singapore as a sterling example of the failure of "constructive engagement," as the strongest evidence yet that capitalism in and of itself does not bring freedom but only creates wealth. However, I don't think that argument is as air-tight as I'd like it to be, simply because of the geographic reality that Singapore is just a small island and it's presumably much easier to maintain a police state on such limited territory than in, say, China... unless, of course... you've already shown that you're able to do so for at least 50 years... (sigh).
David SaiaDavid Saia traveled extensively in Southeast Asia in 1995-96. These travelogs were originally sent out via email to a select group of friends and acquaintances. The collected travelogs, now in manuscript form, are awaiting print publication.