One hundred and ten meters to the top of Mount Faber on old, cracked steps fringed with cool aromatic greenery that hinted at the former jungle. Long-tailed squirrels mistaken for rats in the first glimpses; mynahs the only visible bird-life and the sign-posted monkeys still in their tree-tops possibly that hour of the morning.
At the pinnacle the cable-car to Sentosa was $26 without the various add-ons. The Reflections condos had appeared truncated on the climb.
Ah yes, the locally famous Taiwanese heiress or rich widow who had bought not a half dozen apartments, but in fact an entire tower, the guide Gabriel reminded. Love at first sight for the Empress, and easy to understand with such glinting serpentines overlooking a beach; Liebeskind in all the magazines fresh from his Holocaust triumph in Berlin. How could she resist? Potted plants and drapes would screen the Jurong Island petrochemical eye-sore.
Beyond across the water and haze the low wooded corner of Sumatra marked the horizon, its proximity a surprise.
An hour on another rise; a lesser hillock. Despite accomplished bahasa, the guide Gabriel did not know the term. Being not every-day usage any longer, it was understandable.
Bukit Chandu. Mount Chandu. What was chandu now?
Telling the tale to come over lunch the following day, Michael Tong from Klang, the former Port Swettenham, provided an unlikely translation.
—Couldn’t be Mike. Hardly likely. What?
Google confirmed. Former spelling chandu; new candu (Hindi).
Opium. Mount Opium. The British here had escaped the expense of importation for the small, local market.
How about that then?! Cheap and easy means to manage coolie labor under a hot sun.
The dens here had only been closed down in the mid-‘60s. Not entirely forgotten in Singapore; not without trace. (Rather than open a can of worms, the successors to the British had retained the old street names and localities in Singapura. Hence Petain, Clemenceau &etc. Add now Opium Hill. Alternate history has the father of the nation, Sir Stam Raffles, honoring the local Sultan with a goodly pipe that doubtless smoothed negotiations.)
There was a little museum atop Bukit Chandu that commemorated the Malay Regiment’s resistance to the Japanese invasion. Within the focus on the Malays seemed less than evident; perhaps the screens that were only briefly surveyed provided fuller particulars. A short pass through the rooms was sufficient for additional tidbits on the Fall of Singapore—the massacre at the Alexandra Hospital; the bluff of the Japanese General when his forces were not in fact so substantial; the British General wearing thereafter the moniker “Rabbit.”
As usual, some minor, faint and inadequate impressions of war delivered in these cultural institutions. Pity the poor schoolchildren.
The chief event of the day’s exploration took place under the portico leaving the Museum on Bukit Chandu.
In town for the Air Show, a number of Indonesian Army brass had come to pay their respects. Officers in impressive pressed uniforms, gold braid, high peaked caps, together with a good number of suits from the embassy it looked like.
A gathering of two dozen pressed close in a circle before the entrance. On the far side media cameras were trained on the inner group, where a clean-shaved young man in the center stood with clip-board. At first the board had not been visible through the throng and it appeared the man was reciting entirely from memory.
Among the group he was perhaps the youngest, in his early-thirties.
Most of the men held up their arms, hands open and palms showing. The man officiating kept his head bent at more of an angle than any of the others.
After these many months some of the wording was familiar.
Bowed like that it appeared the man at the centre might have been closing his eyes at points. In a number of passages in the latter part, when there were some rises and lilts in the rhythm, the chap did indeed close his lids and kept closed for stretches.
There was no turning of pages; no particular music was sustained in the verses; rhyme or meter not apparent.
Certainly the visuals were powerful. The wooden priestly sermons and prayers heard the last half-century and more could not compare to this young man’s concentration and focus.
Ten minutes the prayer lasted; possibly a short second part was added at the end. For the duration none of the eyes of the congregation fell on the man officiating.
There was some clenching and tightening that knotted the leader’s brows, without any marked strain. Hope and acceptance had been kept at a level here.
A well-practiced actor delivering lines rarely achieved a comparable visage.
Quietly the words welled from the center of the gathering enough to include the circle and not much further. A little font; a mountain spring was suggested. The strength of the flow in that subdued register was the most remarkable part.
The chap carried the day without any apparent effort, by the power of his simple faith, the awe and earnest of his beseeching.
Little news thus far a week after the killing at Telok Kurau. The wake had been a procession and one half. A friend in the next street had sent pictures of the floral tribute on the pavement outside the house. Rich bouquets standing in glossy paper-covered stands a meter high, with ribbons and cards. (At the opening of a new store here, hairdresser, food or clothing, similar fanfare from well-wishers was commonly found surrounding entrances.)
What was more too, at the dinner table a couple of nights ago another report of buses ferrying people over to the house to offer condolences. Charters it seemed.
A great stir; terrible shock understandably.
The three story house in a sought-after neighborhood had been pictured in the newspaper on the following morning, woman shown supervising what looked like another maid hosing down the paving behind the gates. (The rawness of media coverage here was often eye-popping. A week ago following the beheading of the Canadian by the Abu Sayyaf group a medico was pictured alighting from a van with a shaped red and white plastic bag in hand.)
Reports in the newspaper of a string of successful engineering outlets run by the husband of the victim—three in the initial mention and subsequent suggestions had five.
Serious middle-class. The pictures of the house and tall fence had conveyed as much.
At its passing good always got a fair acknowledgement and money piles even better of course.
Late middle-age victim cut a handsome figure of that type. One commonly saw neighboring PM Najib’s wife in colorful dresses with a satin sheen of the same kind—classic tropical finery for a particular generation and caste.
The killer was the twenty-four year old domestic helper hailing from Lampung, Sumatra.
Such events were not unknown in Singapore. Lesser recent cases of ructions involving maids included an instance where urine had been added to Madam’s tea and CCTV showing the slapping of an elder or child.
Not all unhappy domestic arrangements and exploitation; only the worst troubles made it into the papers of course. (Last night for the iftar breaking of fast meal three Indo lasses sat on after their food well beyond eight o’clock wise-cracking and larking. There was no “curfew” of any kind applying to them; one of the girls surprising with her English.)
Mention in the present case was made of a household rule for the Lampung girl at Telok Kurau: single phone call monthly back home had been mandated. (Regulation of use of the phone in domestic service was a common problem.)
Ma’am was knifed in the bathroom and then Sir injured when he came to investigate. Following a tussle the girl dragged out-doors where passing foreign workers helped disarm.
Possibly the girl will hang eventually. In Saudi Arabia a domestic helper was currently facing execution.
This morning Rina told an interesting, parallel and somewhat amusing story prompted by the present case.
Five or six years ago there had been a similar incident where a young eighteen or nineteen year old kampung girl killed her Madam somewhere out near Rina in up-scale Bukit Timah. Another girl in the neighborhood had known the perpetrator.
In her usual manner Rina proceeded with what she knew and no adornment.
What to do now? was the question The next step.
Taxi was called in this instance. Called by the girl.
Oya. OK. Not outside expectations.
—She call taxi. You know why? Rina teased briefly. (Perhaps she had only paused briefly. Rina was a better story-teller than she knew.)
Well, a getaway of course. Stuff the bag of bones into a suitcase and get the innocent cabbie help lug. Would not be the first time. Wrapped in towels and blankets, short ride in the boot of the car no-one the wiser. Even had the cabbie copped a whiff the girl might have managed that with aplomb. (For all the lack of schooling and sophistication, one would under-estimate these kampung lasses at one’s peril.) Cabbie served the best blow job of all time. Dynamite. Sent the man off properly. Poor duffer in up to his eyeballs helps weigh down the suitcase with rubble from a nearby building site where they get by an old pal at Security and Heave-ho! into the deep murky waters off the coast with a favorable tide. Or the lass was simply going to hightail, catch a ferry to her homeland. (An Indo compatriot of Rina’s again.) Hide out in her aunt’s kampung in Kalimantan where the tigers still roamed, nevermore to be found.
There were numerous permutations, too many to mention. Rina could only be offered a sample.
Seems the Ma’am might not have been of the best kind there in Bukit T. either. That was the word later. Some of the daughters of coolies here in fact deserved a proper spanking, if not worse.
Rina’s hand had made the chattering jaws.
Wild young girl eighteen or nineteen listening to that day in/out. Boiling point reached eventually.
Patiently Rina waited for the guess. No need hurry.
In all of Rina’s stories she always had the upper hand, as she subtly always had in love-making too. Light, deft, subtle mastery.
Well then, the Cabbie rolls up for his fare. But he wasn’t going anywhere.
This girl had just killed her Ma’am: what she needed now was to be taken to the PO-lice station.
That was supposed to be how it goes, she knows. (Not one to try any avoidance herself this gal. Face the music.) But how was she supposed to find them here in this maze of towering buildings?
Ahmm. Well then. What about the man just please call them instead? Madam was upstairs, he could go take a look for himself.
You assume some googly-eye from the Cabbie prompting the invitation.
(Somehow the details had filtered down to Rina and the other girls in the neighborhood.)
—Nooo, saith he. Man would be staying right there where he was.
Girl had not been in the employ long, just like the Telok Kurau.
Lashing out at the carping Witch was one thing, but the official follow-up now. How?
Rina didn’t know whether she hung.
Barely perceptible denting in the old moon. After some scrutiny perhaps it was visible down at the bottom.
The night before, Tuesday, the orb had been screened behind cloud and haze. Late that evening Beechoo had been met coming down from the MRT at Paya Lebar after her meditation class. Bee rarely missed a full moon meditation. Morning classes were difficult for a night-owl; evening a great deal easier.
The energy obtained from meditation was always stronger on the full moon, according to Bee.
A month ago her group had gathered in a field under a tent in the shape of a pyramid, if the story was properly received. Like the moon, though probably not to the same degree, pyramids too generated energy. And a crystal within a pyramid generated more again.
At the meditation center Bee attends they sell two or three pyramids for use at home, priced according to size. The larger the pyramid, the greater the energy generated; those holding a crystal inside greater again. Over the last twelve months Beechoo has proven this for herself many times over.
Bee’s meditation is of the simplest form. One merely sits in place, on a cushion or mat, cross-legged, hands in lap and eyes closed, attending to one’s breath.
The breath was the key of course. Thoughts—of whatever kind, whether troublesome or entertaining—must be let pass. Simply attendance to the breath.
The full hour now Bee can quietly sit attending. Energy and calm come in, and positive joyousness too. On numerous occasions Bee has experienced all this through her meditation.
Of course it was difficult returning to the trouble of the world. The trouble of the world remained, fixed and unchanged. Taking the calm and quiet of the meditative state into one’s daily life was the challenge.
Ideally one should meditate every day. Like any other discipline, this was not easy. For newcomers Bee’s school recommended the forty day cycle. Sticking to the meditation for forty days brought immediate benefit even to newcomers.
Hopefully one night Bee will show her pyramid, the fifteen or twenty dollar item with the crystal attached.
Tonight, after two days of waning, below the slightly dented orb a single, solitary star trailed behind.
Usually stars were completely invisible in Singapore, an unfortunate limitation of the tourist potential. What the Straits Times would do on the PR with a star-strewn skyscape over the iconic cluster of towers around Marina Bay!
Orchids and other strategic plantings aside, Singapore was entirely bereft of nature. Mynahs and stray cats around the hawker centers were about as close as it got. (After annoying the traders and shoppers in Orchard Road with their squabbling, the former look like being fed to introduced hawks to overcome the problem.)
Here the built environment stood in place of nature—the Durian building, the Lotus Flower, the elongated Marina Bay Sands Skypool surfing the hazy empyrean.
Yesternight at dusk the reds, violets and blues in the west visible from Mr. Teh Tarik’s tables came as a shock, a reminder of some other place and time. Only advertising hoardings here carried such arresting and dramatic streaks.
Pavle Radonic is an Australian author based the last few years in S‑E Asia, where—stranger than fiction—a role as an interpreter of Islam has slowly developed. An Honours graduate in English from La Trobe University (Melbourne), his work has appeared in a range of literary journals and magazines, Southerly, Wet Ink & ABC RN (Australia) and most recently Big Bridge and Ambit.