Jia Lok wakes up to the scent of a public bathroom. As always. It is familiar to him, a world that he knows. His world. It is not known whether it is one that he wants, or maybe he doesn’t know that there could be better. A better world. Such as yours. He is lucky today.
Much like that day, the other day (what exact day is unknown as well), he gets to shower. Of course, in a toilet smelling of fish. But enough for people like him.
His identity is unascertained. His face, unidentifiable. Not like there would be anyone around who knows him. He has no family. No more. Maybe he used to, but his past is simply there, but also not there. Nowhere. He walks around faceless. Everyone just knows him as that guy lying on the street corner, the guy sitting cross-legged with the meager beggar earnings of the day. He is there. Just there.
Yet, some things like him exist but don’t belong. No sense of belonging. Even right now, you ask “Who is he?” I don’t know. You may wonder where he belongs in your little world. Your world, your story. Who is he? Where is he from? Well, the latter question has an answer
This is in Singapore 2019. This is actually a lie that I didn’t makeup. The Singapore story is your story, but now you may have to share. With Jia Lok. Sorry for the inconvenience.
This is Singapore 2019, everyone, I mean everyone, has a big car, lives at least in a decent HDB. Everyone gets a good education, top of the line. We are a powerhouse, 50 yrs young but a bright, rising nation lingering on the horizon. We rose through the ranks of the world, respected. Somewhere in here is the narrative of strength and unity.
Our flag, great and strong that flaps in the wind with might over all our greatest institutions. There is a woven tapestry, the written story of our treacherous journey to success and prosperity. One that all of us today lie through our teeth about how we are proud of our ancestors, honoring their plight and efforts while at the same time grinning inside that you are fortunate to exist in PERFECT Singapore. How WE built it up, how we are so perfect. Kids sing: Together, together as one, we are so much more! ONE SINGAPORE! The lyrics are great.
Jia Lok remembers sitting in his soggy clothes on a small construction level, watching the parade below. He feels nothing. Maybe he doesn’t know. He is fine with admitting it.
What the nation is singing, he doesn’t understand. It makes no sense. Maybe they forgot about him, he hopes. This is hope because reality is worse. There are some leftovers from the cafe he works at, in his rucksack. Lim sits across from him. His reaction was the same.
“You ever wonder what it’s like?” The rest of the question did not need completion. He knows what he means, but honestly, Jia Lok doesn’t know how to finish it. Maybe the unbearable pain renders him clueless. He puts down the food, instead grabbing the cigarette pack and the clinging of many empty bottles was heard as he rummaged through. He had this, and the clothes on his back.
When he stood at the back of the cafe that night, and his fellow waiter Josh asked him what that was, he had hidden it from the sight of Josh, which he knew would turn into a disapproving, flinty, volume-speaking look that actually didn’t care. Like the other time, he had been caught with the beer. He had almost been fired at that time. He learned to be careful, to survive (which he was already barely doing, even with a job).
He needs alcohol to survive too. He needs it. He needed it so bad he spends his salary on it, and sits in toilets, living in the past. He sees prostitutes. Has even seen someone get murdered and been dumped away in the trash. Right in front of his eyes. He has seen it all. But no one important has. No true Singaporean lives in this hell. Of course, all this happens in Geylang.
Every night he returns to his home, a stuffy, piss-soaked firetrap.
One night a drunk man had urinated all over him. It had been warm. At least he wouldn’t be shivering in the cold night air. There are cockroaches scuttering there to accompany him, crawling over his face. It is dark, damp, disgusting. At least there is a place that is suited for him.
They understand him. He was used to seeing the bright side of things because he does not want to get to the point of killing himself. There is constant moaning, thumping of women who are disgusting, who are so empty they sell all they have out. At least, that is what they are in our story: nameless street-walkers.
Uneducated. Crime rampant. Very dirty. He sits on the curb, illuminated by the green and red neon from those clubs of depravity. The men in business suits pull up in a Rolls. The women exploit themselves for money. The men take their dignity, in return for money which is not much to them, but everything to poor girls, enough to justify shameful defilement. The sounds of vapid lust torture him, a maddening melody. He sits there, eating cold, dry Mee Pok, basking in the bright, warm lights of the clubs.
He needs the beer, to drown out the pain which stings.
Sad, empty, shallow, cold, hard.
A foreign place of sin that seemingly welcomes him with warm familiarity. The best that Singapore has to offer. Jia Lok is living in the dark times of 60s Singapore.
Except it is Singapore, 2019.
So he simply shook his head and smiled at Josh. “It’s my medicine!” he gesticulated wildly while laughing. Inside he wanted to die.
Lim heard the question, which hung in the air and refused to go away. Jia Lok regretted asking his companion, for neither of them had the answer.
“Like what?” Lim understands his partner’s question. His response was intentional, a pathetic attempt to confront his prison of circumstances. To face it, whatever IT was.
Jia Lok hated his friend, his friend who also slept in dirty toilets or grimy alleyways or on tacky, sticky benches at void decks. He also hated himself. For everything which he later found to be nothing at all. Is this his fault? No.
He watches the show in silence above, looking at all those government scholars who walk the international stage of recognition, the men of power who can sit in the senate of the great and mystical. He is watching them intently, not wanting to reply to Lim. He wonders if they forgot, he hopes.
But you see, they didn’t. They don’t give a damn. Because they are mighty, they wrote the Singapore story, so why care about Jia Lok, that destitute that looks just like any other homeless person, the only difference being that he, today, happens to be crammed into the foul-smelling third stall of the hawker center near Bukit Panjang today on November 16, 2019, not that you care for the details.
Jia Lok forces out the finished question. “To be like them.” He didn’t want an answer. Lim got up and went away. Jia Lok looks back down. Fairy tales are being recited, many stories below on the floating platform of halcyon nobility, pride, perfection and utopia. It emanates promise, spreading nation-wide.
There is an animation, beautiful CGI re-enactment of stories, rousing, stirring stories reminding us to preserve this haven, this paradise that is the product of hard work. There are hong tou jin, the passionate politicians who only want the best for Singapore, and of course, us, proud Singaporeans. We belong. It motivates us. But not Jia Lok. HE is not one of us.
The peaceful voice of the female narrator booms far and wide, telling Singapore how lucky they are.
But then there is Jia Lok.
This is Singapore 2019.