My Quiet Place

My teen years were a period of growing pains; many times I would just take my mountain bike and ride aimlessly, regardless of day or night, rain or shine, in a bid to quell my anger (mostly when me and my mum get into a disagreement), frustration (mostly when my dad doesn’t accede to a request I make), sadness (mostly when I break up with a girlfriend) or depression (a precursor for a much more serious emotional problem). From my home in Ang Mo Kio, I have ended up in places as far as Changi Village or Jurong Point by sheer pedaling power and hours of determination, but of the many places I have been to, I find myself returning to one particular place on more than one occasion; Upper Pierce Reservoir.

It begins with a long winding hilly road surrounded by trees – lots and lots of trees. It is a peaceful, secluded stretch of road, though sometimes its serenity is disturbed with the passing of a car. The air is always crisp, and the sounds of nature constantly surrounding you.

The woods surrounding the road is also home to 2 varieties of monkeys; the native long-tailed macaques that form family units more aggressive than Italian mafia, and horny lunchtime lovers steaming up the windows of their Honda Jazzes, falsely thinking this stretch of road was quiet enough for them not to get caught having a quickie (hence the peeping-tom term “liak gao” or “catching monkeys”); I’d slow down and smile into the window every time I see one of those parked cars, making sure the driver realises I’m right outside before I ride off.

The road dips and rises with the concentration of hills that make up the Thomson area; on a bicycle, the journey into the reservoir is challenging and calming at the same time. And though maintained quite well by the National Parks Board, the lush greenery gives you a sense that it is really nature taking care of itself, apart from the road itself and the odd barrier post to keep sleepy drivers from driving off the asphalt.

A few downhill dips and gear-churning climbs permeated with a couple of turns later, and the reservoir finally comes into view. It is a simple place. Park benches strewn here and there, a path leading round the edge of the reservoir water, chain-linked concrete posts to remind your children not to jump into the water and pollute our precious drinking source, but most importantly, the quiet. I pick a bench, sit down, look into the farther reaches of the water, and let the quiet consume me. I try to contemplate my life, but somehow the lake won’t let me. The serenity of the surroundings soak into my mind, sweeping away any notion of life’s realities. Granted, being here won’t necessarily solve any of my problems in life, but the lake doesn’t care about my problems, or anyone else’s for that matter. It cares only that you’re there looking at it, and it is looking back at you, and nothing else matters.

The Playground Bully

Through the early part of my childhood, one person consistently plagued my playtime down at the playground. As much as I enjoyed playing with the neighborhood kids, and particularly spending time with the girl of my very young dreams, there was always a fear whenever I headed down to the playground that I would see him.

He was easily twice as old as me, skinny, and twice my height. He had his hair cropped short as though he stayed in a boy’s home by choice, wore glasses, and would always hold an ugly gaunt sneer.

He only targeted me when I was alone, and whenever he did catch me on my own, always taunted me, threw things at me, tripped me up, whatever physical abuse he could throw at me, he did.

I did what I could to either get him off my back or avoid him. I tried everything from getting my parents to confront him, confronting his parents (I knew where he stayed), running away from him, calling passing cops on him, but he would always come back, and I would always get hurt one way or another, and sometimes even cry.

This went on for a full 3 years, from when I was 9 years old. And one day when I saw him sitting in his void deck, one leg up, looking rather pleased with himself when I told myself I had enough.

I bolted home and raided my dad’s toolkit, found a screwdriver and hammer, and put it in my backpack. I ran back to his void deck, and took out my hammer, then proceeded to charge at him as fast as I could. He turned and saw me, let out a snigger, and dodged my attack with ease. I was too small; he was too fast. Those were the same reasons why he could always best me, and the same reasons why it could last for a good three years.

But I was determined. I swung at him, again and again and again. He just kept dodging, and laughing, and dodging and laughing. Then he got up (yes, he was still sitting down) and started running towards the playground, taunting me in Chinese, “Catch me if you can”.

I ran as fast as I could after him, tears beginning to stream from my face. He was already at the playground, perched in the beak of the stone pelican, before I was even halfway there. When I finally got there, I took a minute to catch my breath and wipe my tears away, eyes locked at him in a killer’s stare. I put my hammer back in my backpack and walked towards the pelican, hand still in my bag. When I was close enough to him, I drew out the screwdriver and started stabbing wildly, hoping to catch his legs.

But he was still too fast. Stunned that I was going through such great lengths to hurt him, he scrambled up to the top of the pelican, knowing I was too short and weak to climb up after him. I managed to climb up onto the mouth of the pelican, and through the round access on the top of it’s beak, tried again and again to jab him with the screwdriver. The futile attack went on for a good half an hour; with each stab, my anger increased and the pelican was getting the brunt of it, but not him. He just kept on dodging, kept on laughing, like I was playing a game with him, and he was winning.

And he did. I lost my energy, my pride, my anger. I lost the battle. And I went home, tears still streaming down my face.

But perhaps i did send a message across with that attack. Perhaps he realised after I had left that there was a limit to little children’s patience, and he had pushed mine too far. Or perhaps he thought that if a kid could come up and try to stab him with a screwdriver, one day that kid might actually succeed in doing it. Or maybe he just got into too much trouble and really got locked up in a boys’ home. Whatever the reason, after that day, he never picked on me again, and when I saw him again, it was always far away enough for us to never cross paths.

The Curse of Being an Only Son

Having had three daughters for a good decade before I was born, my mother took on certain habits while bringing up her children that would no doubt leave less than desirable consequences on me.

For example, I wasn’t born with curly hair. My mother had taken it upon herself to be my personal hairdresser from as early as I remember. She was inspired by one of my foster cousins (though a cousin,she was still over 20 years older than me) who was a heartland hairdresser working in a salon at Whampoa.

But while the initial stages of my mother’s self-imposed training only involved straightforward haircuts (which by themselves were already quite a tedious process lasting at least an hour or two per session), it started getting worse as I commenced kindergarten. So began the days of curlers, that terrible perming chemical sting that got into my eyes, nose and skin and painfully itchy scalps, and by the time I started primary school, my mother had mastered the “side pyramids”, a hairstyle I sported throughout my first few years of primary school that involved two large triangles of curly hair growing out the sides of my head.

Permed

As I passed my streaming year into Primary Four, I finally decided I had one perm too many, and my mother and I had a big fight about her using my head as a platform for launching her non-existent career in the world of hair fashion, which thankfully concluded my period of curls and chemical burns on my ears. But it didn’t end there.

There was another ritual my mother would perform on me during that period that involved various concoctions of vegetables and juices which my father, sisters and I were forced to down in the mornings, and the pulp of these strange and not always pleasant drinks carefully collected and kept in the refrigerator. To my knowledge I was the only one who was subjected to the nearly daily torture that my mother claimed were skincare facials.

Yes, my mother gave me facials. Every weeknight. For four years.

Using ingredients sourced from the good earth (these ingredients were in fact derived from the pulp repository of her elderly, yellowing juice blender), my mum would spread the green contents of the bag she saved from the morning’s juice blending extravaganza, all around my face. She would make me lie in bed stock still for 45 minutes to an hour at a time with the muck on my face, saying it was good for me and people outside pay top dollar for this kind of treatment. What i never had the mind to explain to her was that those people were not 10-year-old boys who, as most 10-year-old boys go, have a tendency to get restless and start fidgeting a lot after 3 minutes, leaving green splotches of top-dollar vegetable muck on her bedsteads and my sleeping clothes.

Over time, I developed a theory about facials thanks to my mother, which I believe to this very day. If you start off treating facial skin as you do with any part of the body, meaning just soap it off when you shower and do absolutely nothing else, it will expect nothing more and won’t give you any flak for it like acne or rashes. Conversely, if you start showing your facial skin a bias of any sort, and start pampering it with skin creams, toners, moisturisers and vegetable masks, it would start expecting more out of you while the rest of your body goes on with its life. And if you stop pampering it, it will most definitely give you a piece of its mind.

I proved my theory in Primary Six, when I finally had a heated discussion with my mother about the facial treatments much like the one I had with her about the perming sessions, and she stopped doing it. Later that year, I’d develop an acne outbreak that lasted through most of my secondary school life, a year-for-year payback for the period of time my mother so lovingly slapped vegetable muck on my face night after night.

My First Crush

The old playground of my prepubescent years was a hive of social activity ranging from the friends I played with, the bullies I battled with, the ruffians I took pains to avoid, the adults that watched over us and managed our time at play, and, in my 9th year of existence, first love.

It was never something that was properly set in stone. I was 9, she was 10. We were still at an age where girls think boys are smelly, and boys thought girls were gooey. But even though I kept my feelings to myself for the better part of the time we spent together, from the moment I laid eyes on her, I was spellbound.

She had just moved in with her family, and came to the playground for the first time. I was with my usual band of boys, 2 brothers and a chubby little boy that we would always pick on, but hung out with us anyway because we picked on him a lot less than the other groups at the time. After a little bit of egging from her parents, she came up to us and asked if we could play with her. I remember when I saw her for the first time that day and the many days that followed; long hair tied into a ponytail, swaying from left to right as she walked, the wind carrying her scent towards me each time she came near. Her eyes, large, brown and soft, windows to a fragile soul pure enough to crack the grimiest of little boys’ hearts. And how I melted each time she smiled at me for the first time every time we met. I was smitten.

That first time led to a second play date the next day, and then a third the next day, and again, and again, and it continued on just about every weekday for the next 3 and a half years. The school holidays were of course the most intense, and each day we played, we grew closer, though our understanding of the relationship between boys and girls at the time still very much involved smell and goo, and this was evident through our playful belittling of each other.

I remember days when the belittling would go a tad too far, and I would make her cry. I seemed to be the only one in the group that ever made her cry, and throughout our years playing together, it happened on a number of occasions. Sometimes I would wonder if it actually meant she felt a certain way about me enough for me to hurt her feelings, but every time, I would feel guilty for making her unhappy.

Interestingly enough, it was a couple of years before the chubby boy found out about my infatuation with our only female playmate. And, as with all chubby little boys with loud squeaky voices, he snitched on me with all the other boys the very next day, and the entire entourage then went on an extended tirade of teasing me for having a crush on her, in front of her, much to my embarrassment. Through that time, I never admitted it in front of the entire group, and as such, she would laugh it off sheepishly and we would continue as we usually would with our chosen gameplay of the day.

We all had curfews; the boys had to be home by 6. I usually could stay on till 7.30pm, and she would sometimes stay with me. We got close enough to share time talking to each other, but not close enough (nor brave enough) to actually convey nor confirm our feelings for each other. It led to an exchange of phone numbers, and we would spend hours in the evening talking with each other on the phone about the inane things 10-year-olds always talk about, me always making her laugh, and her always showering me with her laughter.

Months went by, then years. I was starting my secondary school education, and she was already in the second year of hers. That year, we spent the most time with each other, because we would board the same public bus to school every morning, and reconvene in the afternoons for our daily playtime routine. It was the only time in my life when I was motivated enough to wake up early in the mornings just so I could spent those few precious minutes at the bus stop and in the bus with her.

Up until this time, I had only plucked up enough courage to prod her about having a boyfriend without actually saying I wanted to be with her. One night, I decided to try.

It would be the last phone conversation I would ever have with her. In fact, it would be the very last time we ever talked.

I honestly didn’t know what happened. We were about 30 minutes into our usual phone banter when I asked her about boyfriends again. After saying she really didn’t have one, I rather prudishly asked if I could be her boyfriend. The short silence that ensued told me immediately I had made a fatal mistake, and she abruptly broke off the telephone conversation, saying it was time for her to go, and the line went dead.

The following day, I woke up early to head to school as usual, hoping to see her at the bus stop as usual. But she wasn’t there. A day later, I still didn’t see her. I went to her place to find out what had happened, but was greeted by her mother, and a rather cold, “She’s busy!” before the door slammed on me.

On the third day, she finally reappeared at the bus stop. I tried to approach her, but sensed something was wrong when she not only tried hard to avoid eye contact, but was actually inching farther away from me. The bus came not 2 minutes after I saw her, and just like that, we never spoke to each other again.

It would be almost a decade before I saw her again. I moved to Little India after I completed my national service, and almost entirely lost track of my old life back in Ang Mo Kio. Then one day as I was window shopping at the IT mall, I saw her. She was working at one of the laptop dealerships in Funan. It took me another round around the floor of shops before I worked up the courage to walk into that store (besides, I just started working and couldn’t afford a laptop). As I pretended to enquire about one of the display sets near the entrance, I realised she didn’t recognise me at all, and while she had looked up when I initially walked in to see what I wanted, she then waved another staff on me with detached disinterest.

Another couple of years later, we crossed paths again, this time at one of the IT shows in Suntec. I was taking a break from the busy exhibition after a hairy round of squeezing around visitors looking at nothing in particular. Heading towards an exit where an ashtray was available, I spotted her leaning over a railing, dressed rather smartly with an exhibitor pass around her neck, having a smoke. I took out a cigarette of my own and, in a bizarre whim, approached her to ask for a lighter. With a tired look, she handed me the lighter she was holding in her hand. I lit up, and returned the lighter to her with thanks, and she turned back to join her friends in blank conversation.

I have never seen her since.

Bearing the Conflict of a Nation

Overheard on the radio this morning that Singaporeans really need to make up their minds about whether creativity should be groomed or suppressed. Government calls for nurturing creativity are constantly stifled by members of the public voicing their disagreement over how creative agencies disrupt their way of life.

Consider the recent Ulu Pandan bear sighting incident, which turns out to be a publicity stunt for Philips shavers. I think the first question running through everyone’s heads upon learning the facts behind the video is, what in the name of the God of Public Relations does a bear eating out of a trash can have to do with shavers? Does the bear need any part of itself shaven so it can dig into a trash can? Is there a high incidence of electrically shaven animal fur being swept up on the bus stops in Ulu Pandan? Of all things, Philips decides to choose a bear, in Ulu Pandan?

I’m sure Fleishman-Hillard got what they wanted, in the end. I’m blogging about it, which will count as another addition into the post-campaign statistic to be presented to their client. But at what cost to Philips? And to what effect? No one’s asking about the shaver. Everyone’s asking about who’s in trouble now, though.

That being said, I must applaud the agency for pitching this into action. in a closed culture of complainants such as ours, it is refreshing to see a corporate entity willing to go out on a limb for the sake of creative thinking and experimentation. And actually, like the Flying Dutchman on radio this morning, I too am quite fed up with the public reaction over this matter (and this would include the public sector figures involved as well).


PHOTO: SCREENSHOT FROM STOMP

I will agree that the stunt was misguided, but instead of taking it up with the law, shouldn’t the matter be redirected to MICA instead? We understand in the media industry, light touch regulation is maintained by MICA. On the one hand, it’s “light-touch” because we do want the creatives in our nation to be able to exercise and grow their talent as only creativity can be managed. On the other side of the coin, doesn’t “light touch” also mean creatives shouldn’t be put on the guillotine if the mistakes they make, however misguided, were executed for purely commercial reasons?

The balance between our nation’s constant call for growth in the creative industry and public dissent over how experimental our antics are becoming is creating a rift not unlike the beginning of our 1964 racial riots. No wonder I can’t even get an entry-level job in advertising; our ad people just aren’t willing to take the risk on mavericks that dress up in bear suits to get attention.

Make up your minds, people.

Wait a Sec, My Mum’s Not Malay!

A few months into my first kindergarten year, my mum decided I was independent enough to go to school and come back on my own. Not an unreasonable assumption; the PCF kindergarten was just one HDB block away, and I’ve been there countless times already with my mum to buy sundries at the convenience store along the same stretch. Besides, given the exciting proposition of having that much freedom at 4 years of age, the last thing I’d do was protest against the instruction.

And so I left my house, white shirt wrapped in a red checked jumper (the de facto PAP kindergarten uniform at the time), a curly haired midget carrying a dinky school bag, riding the elevator down by his lonesome, excitable self for the first time.

The Blogfather, circa 1982.
The Blogfather, circa 1982.

The day’s 2-hour school stint came and went without incident. I remember walking out the classroom door, reminding myself not to expect my mother waiting outside to pick me up. I was a free man ? at least for the 2 minutes it took me to walk back to my own block, which I dutifully did.

As I entered the lift, I pressed the button to my floor, then the door closing button, and waited. The old lifts of that era had white walls filled with little brown flower prints, and in a point block, moved painfully slow. It would take almost a full minute to reach my floor, and when you’re a kid left alone in an enclosed space for such a long period of time, you start getting a little edgy.

The lift door opened, and as per habit, I climbed up one flight of stairs to the floor my house was in. I noticed outside our flat that my mother stocked up a lot more plants than usual, and the shoe rack was no longer there. Wow, the time she saved picking me up from school really did wonders for my Mum’s efficiency. I reached the door to my house and knocked, calling out to my mother at the same time (back then, I was too short to reach the doorbell).

There was no answer. I knocked on the door again and called out to my mother, louder this time.

Still no one. I knocked again, this time shouting obnoxiously at the door.

This time, the door opened. A Malay woman stood behind the gate, looking down at me quizzically.

I stood there, staring back at the strange woman with dark skin and brown batik frock that was supposed to be my mother. We both froze, eyes locked for a good 3 seconds. Then I started to cry.

The Malay woman panicked, opened her gate and stepped out of the house, crouching down to pat me on my shoulder in a vain effort to calm me down. “Adoi! Poor boy! Why are you crying? Are you lost? Where you stay?”

In between sobs, I told her she wasn’t my mother and where’s my mother and this isn’t my house and my house is on the 22nd floor and I’m on the 22nd floor and this isn’t my house and she wasn’t my mother and I wanted my mother.

“Alamak! Silly boy,” she said, “This is the 20th floor!”

She put on her slippers and led me up the 2 flights of stairs to the correct floor, where she helped me ring the doorbell and handed this sobbing little idiot back to his rightful owner.

Later on, I learnt that the 2 lifts in my block serve different floors. I also learnt to look at the wall sign indicating which floor I was on before proceeding. And finally, I learnt that if I notice a lot more plants than usual at my front entrance, it’s probably not because my mother was working harder than usual at her gardening skills, and it probably wasn’t my house in the first place.

The Blogfather Origins: The Dog That Threatened My Sexuality

One of my father’s deepest concerns for me as the only son in a family dominated by females is that I would turn queer. My own experiences with exploring my sexuality and also exposure to the homosexual community as I waded through my teenage years provided me with a number of opportunities to convert into an alternative lifestyle, but it is safe to say that through it all, I have developed a healthy amount of respect for all manners if sexes to declare I do not know what I have missed by remaining heterosexual.

My father’s fears, however, stemmed from a much more micro view of my behavior, mainly two things in my childhood: my toy stuffed dog, and the voice I gave him whenever we have a conversation.

Valentine-1
Image via eBay user moxie301

I first saw the dog in the hands of one of my sisters. It was a gift from her boyfriend, and when its big floppy ears, smooth short brown fur and big sad eyes beckoned, I decided it had to be mine. Said boyfriend had to get her a replacement, the same Samuel the Spaniel, but somehow puffier and less enticing. The dog stuck with me for a pretty long time. I went everywhere with it, I tucked it into bed at night, I slept with my arms around it, and I couldn’t sleep when it wasn’t in bed with me. eventually, I grew so attached to it that my family members thought I was into soft toy dogs and I got one almost every birthday and Christmas; by the time they wised up, I already had about 9 stuffed dogs in my room.

My dad was not impressed. This was my first soft toy; previously my father had gone to great lengths and much expense to ensure I had a straight boy’s education in play. Expensive Lego sets, Star Wars action figures by the dozen, more construction sets, Matchbox cars, even an Atari 2600 (which he ended up playing with more than I did). But I guess there came a point where I needed to manifest my expression of love onto something that wasn’t hard or needed assembly, and the dog was my opportunity.

Perhaps I could have done better to alleviate my father’s fears. The fact that I practically wrestled a soft toy away from my sister didn’t really help things. Then there was the fact that I named it Valentine, mistakingly identifying the martyred lover’s name as female. But the kicker for my dear old dad was that I used a nasal, high pitched girl’s voice to mimic the dog’s responses to my conversations.

That voice irritated the hell out of my dad. I’d do it everywhere as long as my dog was with me; in the house, in the lift, in the car, at the dinner table, and in public too (before I was old enough to realize it looked and sounded kind of weird). At one point, while I was teasing my mum with the dog in the elevator, my dad could take no more, and threatened to bitch-slap me with the dog if I ever used that voice again. That was the moment I decided maybe it would be a better idea if I spoke to my dog in private from then on.

My dad needn’t have worried about me all that much. For a long time his homophobia rubbed off on me very much the way he wanted it to. Imagining the physical relationship stemming from such a lifestyle was like doing a math question and deriving the wrong answer; it just didn’t seem logical to my teenage mind, and early encounters with sexual predators in my secondary school life deepened the fear. Subsequent (friendlier) independent encounters with the alternative lifestyle would not only drill in my own sexual preferences further, but also allow me to understand exactly how and why homosexuality exists. But that’s another 2 or 3 more stories for another 2 or 3 more posts (update:?one of which I would later publish that got picked up by Pink Dot).

My relationship with that stuffed dog was slightly more complicated, though. I had a hard time weaning myself off of my childhood security blanket, and ended up sleeping with the thing all the way till I was 24. In fact, the dog is still in my old room back at my parents’ place, a little worse for wear and the lining for its ears patched with pieces of an old flannel shirt I used to wear. That room has now been converted into my dad’s study, and my dog has been staring at the back of my dad’s head every time he sits at his desk ever since I moved out 4 years ago.

Update: My mother threw the dog away without informing me. I was going to take a photo of it to include in this post when I republished it, but after crying for 8 months, I decided to republish this post in its memory. Goodbye, Valentine.

This Used To Be My Playground

I spent a large portion of my childhood playing at the playground with a bunch of neighbourhood kids. It was a wonderful time, filled with games of hide and seek, police and thief, tok ka (police and thief with the sole police roleplayer hopping on one leg) and the old classic chicken-protecting-chicks-from-the-big-bad-wolf (which children always mistakenly call “?????” despite the broken relationship premise and the wolf’s inglorious non-mention). It was a time of fun and laughter, petty child scuffles, numerous bruises, scratches and mudstains on clothes, and childhood crushes that never developed into anything more.

But the most memorable of my times in that sand-covered playground with brick and cement climbing structures and rusty metal parts was the day my parents brought me down to visit the playground for the very first time.

My father had a day off, and my mother thought it would be a good idea to spend a day with just the three of us at the playground to utilise the facilities that the government had so kindly provided for the residents in their housing developments. We dressed up as though we were all going out to a restaurant, my mother in a flower dress, my dad in his shirt and pants, and me in a button-down shirt with sleeves folded up, a pair of kid-sized jeans and my best shoes. All that effort for a visit to a playground not 10 metres away from the foot of our apartment block.

I remember my parents watching me as I tried to climb everything, from the strange-looking pelican with the holes on his beak, to the splintering seesaws that creaked under my 5-year-old weight, and the tall slide with the big steps that I struggled to put each foot on. But I was having a lot of fun, and I was being watched by the 2 most important people in my life, so I was also feeling a lot of love…

… for a good 7-8 minutes.

I was climbing up the tall slide for the second or third time. As I was reaching the top, I lost my footing and slammed my chin on the top step of the slide (which, might I remind you, was made with granite granules and cement). I started to cry, and my parents rushed over to me, carrying me down from the slide, and checking my bleeding chin.

My father decided that one accident was enough for the day, and we went home. I was crying my eyes out, but couldn’t find the words to express the pain I was feeling, and that pain wasn’t from my chin.

Many years later, I recounted this story to my wife, telling her the real reason for my tears that day, and what really haunted me. That day, I blamed myself for falling down, for cutting short the playground visit, for making my father decide that it was better for us to go home and nurse my bleeding chin. I blamed myself for ruining my father’s day off, and effectively cutting short my own personal time with my parents, a rare moment where it was just the three of us, without my sisters to distract them from showering their attention on me.

My father never did bring me down to the playground since that day.

And as I finished telling my wife about that day, I started weeping in her arms, and cried myself to sleep.

The Blogfather Origins: How I Came To Be, According to My Mother

It would be worth noting at this point that I had a brother, but that he had tragically passed away 15 months before I was born. Of his short, 3-year life leading to the tragic event, and the reason behind my conception, my parents have related to me this family tale.

Stanley-insetMy brother was born feet first. Those who know the birthing process will know this is one of the most difficult and dangerous of birth complications. At the time, ultrasounds were unheard of, and caesarians unpopular. When my brother was finally born, the usual smack on the bottom practised by physicians of that era was only greeted with a tiny “meh” before my brother fell back into silence, eyes closed but nonetheless breathing.

It was my father’s reaction that was more startling. He told us much later in my life that when he first held my brother in his arms, he had a strong feeling in his gut that something was wrong, that the life he held in his hands was not one that would last. Whether that was a reflection on hindsight or truly a grim foreboding, who’s to say?

Stanley-1

My brother was brought home. For the next three years, he would exhibit instances of some rather unchildlike behaviour. As he passed his first birthday, he would plonk himself on the sofa of our old Toa Payoh flat, right in front of the TV, at 5.30pm sharp, without the help of a clock or watch, nor the knowledge of how to tell time in the first place. Then he would grunt at my mother and point at the television set, because 5.30pm was the exact time his favourite cartoon would start. This happened daily, and it fascinated my mother, but she thought little more of it.

Once, my brother put his hands on the hot plate of a coffee maker in the kitchen and scalded both his hands badly. My mother was quickly on the scene when she heard a scream from the kitchen, but found my brother not crying in pain, but looking at his burnt hands with a strange curiosity, and making no sign of pain nor any other noise throughout the process of my mother patching his hands up.

Throughout his short life, my brother never uttered a single discernible word other than the grunts and sounds he makes to get things done around him (like turning on the TV). That was not to say he didn’t understand anything. My father took note of the fact that by the time he hit 18 months, he understood everything. He took instruction very well, and was even able to understand conversations, listening intently to every word anyone around him spoke.

Stanley-News-ClippingIt was his third birthday when the accident happened. Never mind that the scooter was going at only 20kph (the rider confirmed this with my father, saying his scooter was faulty and he was actually riding it to the workshop). Never mind that my second sister was with him at the time to greet my auntie who came bearing birthday presents for my brother. It was a split second; before my sister knew it, he was halfway across the road, and then he got hit in the head. He passed away an hour later in the hospital.

My father was devastated; my second sister said she had never seen nor heard him cry ever or since. And she never really forgave herself since, either.

My mother, of course, was the hardest hit. For weeks she refused to leave her bed, until one of my aunties decided to offer her some closure by bringing her to a medium to speak with her deceased son.

(Bear with me here, particularly if you’re skeptical about such things. My mother has a penchant for drama when she relates stories like this to us.)

The first question she asked when the medium announced my brother’s presence was, why? Why so soon, and why us? To this my brother replied (through the medium), “Mummy, if I have caused you grief, I am truly sorry. I was never meant to stay long; if I had not left at 3 years old, I would have left at nine, and if not then, at 12 years of age. I am a celestial being, come down to experience life as a mortal. I have learned much of the world, and you have cared for me well. Please forgive me; I promise to make it up to you.”

The rest of that conversation was sketchy at best. It would be useful to note at this point, that this “medium” business was not of a medium getting possessed by a spirit and speaking in tongues, but more of a Ghost Whisperer deal, which would explain why the medium was speaking in Hakka when my brother never spoke a single word of any language in his life, much less the Hokkien that was my family’s dialect.

Stanley-Mum

My mother added that in the night that followed, she dreamt of heaven, and my brother. She described herself in a beautiful white place, and surrounding her were all these little cherubs (without wings; more like a nursery filled with naked babies sitting in clouds), and my brother leading a way in for her. In the dream, my brother told my mother, “Please, pick a child. It is my way of repaying your kindness to me during my life on Earth.”

My mother replied, “My son, if you were to gift me with another child, I only ask that he be handsome, smart and filial. You may help me pick one.”

My brother smiled, and said, “I will try my best.” And my mother woke up, a heavy weight lifted from her shoulders.

This was the story that my mother told me, the same story that convinced my parents to try again for another child, a story without which, I wouldn’t be here.

But my mother ended off the story by voicing this one regret. She said when she was talking to my brother about the traits she wanted of her new child, she had neglected to include “hardworking”.