THE AUDACITY OF HOPE

It’s around noon on Christmas Day and it’s quiet
here in Singapore as I contemplate the screen in front of me.

It’s been years since we’ve spent Christmas in any place other than Malaysia. The last time was in 1997 when I travelled to Georgia in the United States where Rebecca, with Raisa in tow, was pursuing her PhD. We had a lovely time – the cold be damned – and we even had a Malaysian friend, whom we hadn’t seen in ages, drive eight hours from Tampa in Florida to join us for the holidays.

But the Christmas of 2020 has been quiet. We attended church like we’ve been doing since March this year, via the Internet. In the beginning it was novel in the sense that we could choose where we wanted to hear mass. We could choose Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia or – if we could wait – even the United Kingdom.

We’ve since plumped for Bishop Gregory Homeming, a thoughtful Carmelite priest from Lismore in Australia. It was convenient too: the time difference ensured that the service would be online by the time we’d breakfasted.

I suppose that’s one of the biggest triumphs of 2020: the Internet’s coming of age. Hitherto casually taken for granted, it’s insinuated itself into our daily lives in ways that would have beggared belief only a year ago.

Now it’s been stress-tested on a global scale as never before. We shop, we attend Church mass, we talk to friends all over the world, and continue to earn our daily bread through its providence.

I’ve seen Rebecca glued to the PC for meetings that have gone on all day. Thankfully, mine have been shorter.

And I’ve seen the screenshot of the Virtual Leaders Meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Community (Apec) where 21 leaders simultaneously met at a night meet hosted by Malaysia.

Under each leader’s image was an identification: their country followed by the leader’s name. And no one seemed to see the irony of having RUS-Putin under the dour visage of the Russian autocrat.

Even the Orange One was there, at least in person if not in spirit because Twitter’s time stamps will attest to the fact that he continued to tweet wrathful denials of his loss to “Sleepy Joe.”

2020 will be remembered chiefly as the year of a virus that’s infected over 79 million worldwide and killed 1.8 million people. It’s also the year that proved the Peter Principle, where a nincompoop rose to his level of incompetence to burden the richest country in the world with the greatest spread of the disease.

And yet, there’s been no Great Depression and thanks to masking up and social distancing, there’s been no overwhelming of hospitals anywhere. More importantly, there’s been no mass deaths a la 1918.

Indeed, there’s a lot less pollution afoot with less air travel and far less traffic. Despite the Donald’s best efforts, the world’s gone greener and the oceans are cleaner.

The year witnessed a triumph for democracy at least in the United States where President Biden offers the chance for a more sensitive and tactful world.

Conversely, democracy failed abjectly in Malaysia where a legitimate government fell because of unscrupulous elements in that same government. Those same elements now lead the new Malaysian government, alas.

But this too will pass. And 2021 must surely be the Year of the Vaccine, the year when mankind will shake off a long nightmare to take our lives back with renewed promise and hope anew.

Happy New Year, folks.

IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS

Since we stay at one of its service apartments, we are allowed to use the facilities at Singapore’s Shangri-La.

And as soon as you step into its lobby there’s no mistaking the time of the year you’re in. As you head towards the gymnasium amidst the Christmastide and its inimitable carols, you almost forget there’s a pandemic about because of the normalcy of the scene: families taking photographs under the towering, bauble-bedecked tree stretching up to the roof.

There’s a smell of chocolate in the air and it’s strongest near the escalator that takes you down to the gym. The reason isn’t immediately obvious and then you get it: the tableaux of three dazzlingly white polar bears playing with presents amidst the snow and ice next to the escalator is fashioned entirely out of chocolate.

Only when you’re on the escalator do you realise why the scene isn’t completely normal: everyone’s wearing a mask.

We decided not to go back for Christmas this year after cases in Malaysia began spiking four months ago. It prompted Singapore to tighten its rules. Previously, when we went back, we only needed to quarantine for a week at our apartment when we returned. Now we had to do it for two weeks at some government facility and, being foreigners, we had to pay for the privilege.

In any case, with Malaysia under movement control and our daughter in Amsterdam it wasn’t hard decision to make.

If you had to be somewhere else during the Yuletide season, Singapore’s the place to be with some additional advantages. Like many Malaysians, both Rebecca and I have family here and my niece, for example, has kindly invited us over to her place on the 23rd.

The other is that the island republic can seriously put on a show when it comes to Christmas. Only 20% of the country is Christian but the statistic belies the spectacle the nation puts on.

Carols were already being played on radio stations by November, while glittering, trees in tinsel and twine began sprouting in shops all over the place by early December.

It’s clearly a transactional Christmas in these parts and they make no bones about it. Even before Deepavali rolled around this year, the Christmas lights began blazing along Orchard Road on November 13.

We were out for dinner two nights ago and the lights along the 2.2- kilometre road were something else. Spectacular is one word that comes to mind. Over the top are three words more.

And then there’s the Botanical Gardens where a loop-around is about 4 miles. That was too long so we just cut through diagonally. Volunteers have done a fantastic job trimming every other tree along its length in Christmas splendor. You can imagine how the gardens might look like at twilight. It gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling.

Rebecca’s baked her pineapple tarts and thrown in some panettone for good measure. So, we’re all set.

We’ve invited four friends – all Malaysians as well – for dinner on Christmas Eve which is just nice as our dining table only seats 6.

Merry Christmas everyone!

HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS!

The tree in the lobby of the Shangri-La is beautifully lit and so tall it almost brushes the roof. Around it are scattered wrapping paper and presents on a bed of snow. And a milk-white polar bear nuzzles her cub much to the delight of tourists who crowd around the tableau to pose for pictures. 

You can tell Christmas had come to Singapore.  

And they really take it over the top here. The Christmas music is relentless and unending, cheerful carols ho-ho-ho’ing everywhere you go. Thankfully, I like its sound, but I can understand how its omnipresence might drive some people around the bend. And if you’ve seen one Santa, you’ve seen a mall. 

Orchard Road at night is spectacular, all two kilometres of its length brightly lighted up, a strutting visual phantasmagoria that’s flaunted for the gawking visitor. The shopping complexes, meanwhile, strive to outdo one another in their own visual displays.

It’s been like this since early December although only 18% of the republic is Christian. But it makes for good tourism. 

We return home tomorrow. Unless, you hang out in Pavilion a lot, Christmas in Kuala Lumpur is decidedly more muted. Indeed, growing up in a Hindu family in Seremban, I didn’t know anything about Christmas beyond the fact that it was a holiday and my father didn’t have to go to work.

It all changed when I met Rebecca. But it only came home to me when Raisa came along. You only understand the “joy of giving” business when you appreciate the happiness a child feels upon receiving something from Santa. 

I liked it that Raisa believed and I loved if when she oh-so-seriously wrote to Santa requesting stuff. Nor did she ever ask for very expensive things, she was always pretty considerate. I have since discovered that there are three distinct periods in a child’s life: when you believe in Santa, when you don’t believe in Santa and when you are Santa. 

The bubble burst when she was eight. Her cousin Emmanuel told her there was no such thing as Santa. He was feeling particularly aggrieved because Father Leonard, then of Jesus Caritas Church, had pooh-poohed his belief in the fat guy in the red suit. Emmanuel just wanted to pass on his disillusion, but I didn’t appreciate it. 

This will mark the first time that Raisa will not spend the holidays with us. She will, instead, spend it with her in-laws in Austria where it is truly beautiful and like all the movie clichés because I have the seen the pictures she sends: the house lights aglow amid the snow falling outside on to a landscape shrouded in white.  

But we return tomorrow, and I know Rebecca will bake her pineapple tarts as soon as she gets home and although I am not crazy about them, I am crazy about its idea and the smell of the fruity jam that will pervade the whole house.

That’s the smell of the season right there. Its very notion cheers me up. Throw in a beer, my wife supervising children opening 

presents, laughter and my cup runneth over…

…Merry Christmas everyone. 🎄🎅🏽