Friday, January 22, 2010

Faces at the Border

Here some of the precious moments in Maesot I will always cherish. The children especially love the camera. It's the easiest way to get them to open up to you. When you whip out your camera, they will first be coy, then curious. They'll give you a side look, then inch closer to you and your lens, and finally they will smile and give a nice pose. And when you offer to show them a picture of themselves, their eyes light up, they'll run over to you and put their little eager fingers on your camera, and give you the best smile which you will never be able to capture on your camera.

Two delightfully mischievous boys from the Agape Boarding House, which is partly supported by an NGO called Room to Grow

Many of the children adopted at Agape are street kids. Some are orphans, while others were abandoned by their parents.

Young boys collect garbage for recycling and earn about 20 Baht a day - enough financial incentive to keep them out of school.

Just some men sitting at a promenade by the River Moie delineates the Thai-Burma border

Children playing at the playground in the refugee camp where I visited. This one had the sweetest smile ever.

Children in the refugee camp leaving their classrooms after school

Thursday, January 21, 2010

What good is being knowledgable if you're Stateless?

I have just returned from a trip to Mae Sot, a Thai-Burma border town where many illegal migrants from Burma live and work. Mae Sot is also full of foreigners working for various NGOs supporting these illegal migrant communities as well as the refugee camps in the surrounding areas.

I spent a couple of days in one of the camps and what I saw there, simply blew my mind away. Coming from Singapore, I had a certain perception of what refugee camps are like - dirty, unsafe, and full of idle people sitting around waiting to be resettled in the U.S. or waiting for handouts.

Nothing could be further from that. The camp was bustling with life. There were schools for the children and everywhere you go, you hear the sound of children reciting something in the classroom, or laughing and playing when the teacher's not in class.

There streets with little shops selling food, meat, veggies, nick nacks, CDs, DVDs (!!!) etc. There were tea shops that served the most amazing Yu Tiao (YES! They had yu tiao in a muslim tea shop!!) and teh tarik (though it was on the sweet side).

The camps were divided into zones and then districts and each district had a leader, and all the leaders would gather every month or more frequently to discuss problems and issues, sort out logistics and even disciplinary cases, and vote on the decisions to be made.

The whole camp was a fully functioning eco-system of trade, economy, eduction, recreation and social ordering. It was simply amazing.

The youth I met and spoke to were very well read. They had read about Lee Kuan Yew and they could tell me how great he was making Singapore a great nation out of nothing, especially when it comes to water. They knew very well what was happening in the world outside the camp, in the U.S., in Europe etc.

The basket ball courts and takraw courts you see around the camp were projects created, managed and funded by the refugees themselves. They even organise talent competitions, sporting events etc. These were highly motivated individuals, with a drive to make life as normal as possible in a situation that is far from normal.

My translator told me one evening over dinner that what I saw while in camp - the smiles, the positive energy, the optimism - all of that was a mask for a deeper internal frustration that many of them suffered because they are Stateless.

"Mentally, they are destroyed. Our morale is destroyed. Because we know we are nothing. We have no country. We cannot get proper jobs with no papers and no identity. Everything is no to us. We are just pawns in a big political game," he told me.

I couldn't help but feel a pang of guilt somehow. Here I was, a girl from a developed country, 10 years younger than him, earning 10 times more than him, buying him a dinner at a seafood restaurant that would have cost him an entire month's salary, and talking to him about how amazing I found life was in camp.

The few days in camp, was for me a novelty, a cultural capital that I accumulate through the stories I bring home and the photos I show off to my friends. It was part of my personal desire for adventure and out-of-the-norm type of traveling experience.

But for people like my translator, and all the kids I met in camp, that is their reality. That is their jail.

What did I have to offer them? Nothing.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Loneliness is easier than Love

I have recently come to realise that loneliness is so much easier to deal with than love.

I'm quite happy to be sitting at a cafe by myself with a coffee and a book; or have a meal at the hawker centre on my own and chat up friendly old couples who are ever so happy to chat to youngsters (relatively speaking) like me.

I look at them and I wonder: how on earth did you guys stick together? And how on earth do you still look so happy together after so many decades together when I have friends who are barely married for 2 years and thinking they would die if they had to live another day with their husband/wife?

I've been lonely for the last 3 years. There have been times when I did wish I had someone to hold my hand, give me a hug and be my pillar of strength and wisdom. But I always had my girlfriends. Though it's not the same, they'd nonetheless hold my hand, give me a nice big hug, smack me across the head and tell me to quit whining.

When I compare the pain of loneliness to the pain of losing love or giving up a love that's not meant to be, I think I'll take loneliness any day.

Even the worst bout of loneliness can never be worse than the sick, twisted pang in your stomach when you see him walk by and not be able to talk to him; the feeling of words choking your breath you want to throw up; the oppression of just being in the same room as him even though you don't see him.

Give me loneliness any day. At least with loneliness, you can control it with your head. Emotions are their own master. They just make fools of us all.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Responses to MM Lee's NatGeo Interview

Something I chanced upon...


The Temasek Review, Singapore - 1 Jan 10
CNA’s spin on MM Lee’s NatGeo interview, minus the “hide” remarks

Written by Our Correspondent

Stung by the massive outcry in cyberspace over MM Lee Kuan Yew’s disparaging remarks about Singaporeans, the state media moves into a damage control mode in a lame attempt to limit the fallout from the PR disaster by omitting the actual words used by Lee in the interview with National Geographic magazine in July 2009.

Though NatGeo journalist Mark Jacobson’s article which was based largely on the interview first appeared in the online version of the National Geographic magazine on 20 December 2009, it made the headlines only after The Temasek Review had highlighted Lee’s words 5 days later.
In an article titled “Social cohesion key to keeping Singapore going: MM Lee” published on CNA yesterday, Imelda Saad tried to lessen the negative publicity surrounding Lee’s message with a toned-down version:

“Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has expressed concerns over how the younger generation may be less driven compared to the growing number of foreigners in the country…..Mr Lee noted that if Singaporeans do not work hard, they may lose out.”

[Source: Channel News Asia ]

Channel News Asia is owned by MediaCorp, the sole broadcasting company in Singapore. It is in turn controlled by Temasek Holdings whose CEO is Ho Ching, the daughter-in-law of Lee.

Contrast this to Mark Jacobson’s passage in his article “The Singapore Solution”:

Over time, the MM says, Singaporeans have become “less hard-driving and hard-striving.” This is why it is a good thing, the MM says, that the nation has welcomed so many Chinese immigrants (25 percent of the population is now foreign-born).

He is aware that many Singaporeans are unhappy with the influx of immigrants, especially those educated newcomers prepared to fight for higher paying jobs. But taking a typically Darwinian stance, the MM describes the country’s new subjects as “hungry,” with parents who “pushed the children very hard.” If native Singaporeans are falling behind because “the spurs are not stuck into the hide,” that is their problem .”

[Source: National Geographic ]

Nowhere did Lee express his concerns about the younger generation. In fact, he said plainly that it is their “problem” if they are falling behind the Chinese immigrants.

If Mark Jacobson had misquoted Lee in anyway, he would have been sued for defamation a long time ago. Since Lee has not taken legal action against him, we can safely assume that Lee had meant what he said and the article is a fairly accurate reflection of Lee’s thoughts about Singaporeans and the new Chinese immigrants.

Furthermore, the words “less hard-driving and hard-striving” and “the spurs are not stuck in the hide” were indeed mentioned by Lee as recorded in the full transcript of the media interview as well.

It is unbecoming of Channel News Asia to deliberately distort the words of Lee in order to lessen their impact. Perhaps Lee had wanted to send a wake-up call to young Singaporeans who are getting “complacent”?

CNA should interview Lee and asked him to clarify what he has meant exactly in the interview instead of trying ways and means to twist and turn his words in order to salvage his embattled image.

In the past, Lee’s words would have gone unnoticed if the state media did not report on it. With the continued growth of the new media and socio-political news sites with a large readership like The Temasek Review, it is foolhardy to continue to practice self-censorship to pull a wool over the eyes of the people.

Note - the bold red words by Temasek Review