The boy with the kite (i)

He drrrraaaaggggs
the fabric and
string behind him.

He promises himself,
It tastes the grass for now,
but soon it will kiss the sky!

Speed gathers in his legs, and –
(Sky and string won’t be his limit)
Air catches in his wings, and –
(One can be tethered but still soar,
free to romp in the playgrounds above)

If flight is a metaphor for freedom,
he bursts forth
and is free by proxy!
the wind disappoints and
and he drrrraaaaggggs
the kite behind him.

The boy, undaunted,
lives for this moment:
To do it all again.


Through photographs at the void deck: A lover’s perspective

We once walked past a void deck with a fan-shaped hole in the wall. It had sunny yellow paint as its border. Some void decks from older HDB flats have ‘hole in the wall’ features in different shapes and colours. These shapes were said to jazz up plain-looking housing estates.

Her eyes lit up with fascination. “Look at this shape!” She exclaimed excitedly, pointing at it and rushing toward it. “I remember some photographer taking a whole series of them.”

She was really into architecture and geometrical patterns while I knew nothing about urban landscapes or design. All I knew was that her presence lit up the spaces she inhabited.

Almost instinctively, I pulled out my phone and started snapping photographs of her exploring the shape in the wall. It was a personal habit of mine to take photos of my girlfriend. Through a series of pixels as my medium of choice, I could immortalise her different facets.

Every photograph captured a different mood:


I adored her because she had a mind brimming with curiosity and wonder – She wanted to find out more about everything that piqued her interest.

At that moment, this shape was her object of fancy.


She climbed into the hole in the wall and stood in it awkwardly. She struck a few poses and pretended she was a model. The absurdity of the whole thing tickled her and she tilted her head back in laughter. I did too – She looked so silly.

She moved nimbly between the spaces, but the fluidity of her motion could never be fully captured using still images. With all the images that illustrated different degrees of breakage and continuity from each other,  I was reminded of the passage of time.

A single photograph is a single time-slice. It captures only one instance within a universe in constant flux. How do we grasp hold of anything when everything moves so quickly?


Perhaps we should not be grasping at all.

I watched as her hair fluttered lightly in the breeze. It tickled her nose.

This picture captured her at her most content – free from the careless restlessness that plagued mankind – the hunger that could never be satiated.


In the next moment, she brushed the strand of hair aside.

I observed how absentmindedly we attend to something as insignificant like a single hair. The desire to scratch is subconscious, but we raise our hand to our face almost instantaneously in response.

We give in instinctively to this and that all the time, sometimes without even realizing it. Eternal contentment lasts forever only in photographs, when it should reside within us.


I once snapped a photo when her back was toward me.


“This looks like a pensive photo,” I said.

She said,

“How strange it is that photographs seem to have a pensive mood just because a subject has his or her back faced to the camera. Because there is no way to see their facial expression, there is so much about the subject’s mood that remains concealed. You cannot tell if the person is smiling or crying. You imagine and fill in the mood of the subject based on your own. It is your own pensiveness that bleeds into the image, colouring it with a contemplative quality.”

What she forgets is that this is also the image we see when somebody walks away from us.

Backs turned, facial expression concealed.

What could be more pensive and melancholic, than the image of someone leaving?






Guardian of the corridor

People know that I exist, but never seem to notice me much. This allows me to silently observe and be aware of all the comings and goings that happen in my block.

I listen to all the whisperings, but never contribute. I watch all the happenings, but do not partake in them.

I am visible, but invisible at the same time.

Perhaps it is in this way that I am not so different from the murderer. After all, the police didn’t have anything on him. He was an unknown stranger who walked amongst us, hiding in plain sight. Visible, but invisible.

Last week, he struck again. All the police knew was that it was a man who had been targeting females.

Claire was his most recent victim.

I overheard the neighbours talking it. “Her body was sliced open. Poor Claire. How could anybody be so cruel?”

I’ve been warned not to wander when it gets dark. “Jo, don’t go out past ten OK? There are so many perverts out there.”

I didn’t understand. Why should my freedom be curtailed just because some people are unable to control their impulses and sick desires? Don’t tell me not to wander, because that’s not the real problem.

Teach the killers not to kill.


A week later, the neighbourhood had seemed to move on from the murder and the block was buzzing with chatter about James.

It’s almost astounding how quickly the world moves on from one trivial event to another. Humans talk about how some animals do not have episodic memory, but don’t humans forget too?

James lives on the same floor as me. A Vietnamese woman had recently moved in with him. From what I understood, Ivy was his Vietnamese wife.

I heard a neighbour say, “James earns so much but so what? He can’t find love.” Another person added, “He can’t find, so he buy lor. The woman is just after his money.”

Unlike some of the more obnoxious neighbours who spread vicious rumours about the foreign bride, I find Ivy to be a sweet and good-natured. Sometimes, she sees me along the corridor and she stops to say hello. On certain days, she offers me some of the food she has prepared. We don’t talk because I don’t speak her language, but I understand her intentions when she gestures to the food she has made. Kindness is a universal language.

Ever since Ivy’s arrival, James’ face is no longer dull and ashen. His voice is upbeat when he greets us on the corridor.

Humans cope with loneliness and the need for companionship in different ways -Why do we not look upon the old lady who buys a puppy with disdain? Is love no longer love when dollars are forked out for the arrangement? What do we know that makes us worthy to judge relationships that look different from ours?

James and Ivy take care of one another and find joy in spending time with each other. From what I see, Ivy and James have plenty of love in their heart.

Sometimes that is all that matters.


Rumour has it that Kurt and Andrew are not just best friends, but lovers.

It started when Kurt moved in with Andrew – Kurt said this would be temporary because his flat was undergoing renovation. But Kurt never left, even after months had passed.

I was at the lift lobby when I heard a neighbour quip: “Eh, they gay ah?”

One neighbour said that he had never seen Andrew with a woman before, but added “But he looks straight leh!” Another had insisted that they were gay, because “If not, why they stay with each other?”

Perhaps I knew more than the neighbours did. For a split second, I had a glimpse into the private lives of Kurt and Andrew.

I remember it being a particularly warm night. As I passed their flat on the corridor, I witnessed them sharing a kiss on the sofa. A kiss on the lips typically signifies that two people share romantic affection for each other.

It was Kurt who noticed me at the corridor.

I stopped in my tracks and stared mutely at the pair, unsure how to react or proceed.

Kurt and Andrew exchanged glances, then broke into a chuckle. “I don’t think Josephine is the type to judge us.” Andrew said.

Kurt smiled at me. “Goodnight, Josephine.” He got up and closed the door behind them.

Kurt was right, I wasn’t the type to judge. There are many things I see about humans that baffle me, but we don’t necessarily need to judge what is different from what we are used to.


It was around five-thirty in the afternoon when I recognised Ivy’s scream. I dashed out of my house in the direction of the scream. It led me to the corner staircase.

Ivy stood face-to-face with a man. This man had a blade in one hand and a mask over his face. Lily lay splayed open on the steps as blood gushed from her wounds.

The man’s eyes widened in shock when he saw Ivy. He swung the blade at her and motioned for her to stay back. Ivy raised her hands and pleaded with the man to not hurt her. Distraught by the blood and the man brandishing his blade, she began to sob violently.

Afraid that this would draw attention, the man panicked and tried to flee.

I was quick on my feet. Running past Ivy, I leapt at the murderer and bit down hard on his calf. He let out a scream as the pain shot up his leg. As the man struggled to get me out of the way, this bought some time for Ivy to get help.

In the confusion of the tussle, he dropped the blade and tripped over his own feet, falling flat on his face. Kurt burst in just as the man was down on the floor. He seized the man’s arms and pinned him down. “Call the police!” He said to Ivy.

When the police officers arrived, Ivy explained everything. She lifted me up and carried me, stroking my head as she told them how I bit the murderer, buying her some time for her to get help from Kurt, who happened to be home at that time.

The cat murderer had finally been stopped by the unlikeliest combination of heroes.

I noticed that people have started opening up to Ivy and Kurt once they were recognised as the heroes of the neighbourhood. “They caught the murderer. They so brave ah? I heard he had a knife eh.” “Ya! Lucky got them.”

It started with a smile, and then small talk. Gradually, the residents started having conversations at the lift lobby, in the corridors. Then, they exchanged food.

While I am glad that the neighbours have grown closer, I also feel slightly confused. Humans are so strange – They needed an incident like this before they were willing to interact with Ivy, Kurt and Andrew. Yet, after talking to them, the residents have realised that they are like each other in many ways. They have hopes, wants and fears. They enjoy a good meal, and look forward to spending time with their loved ones.

All this could have taken place in the beginning if they had just talked to them instead of talking about them!

Since the incident, the residents have also started calling me “Guardian of the corridor”. Some would give me treats and rub my belly. These days I am not longer invisible, but I still quietly observe. I prick up my ears and pick up on all the murmurs that the wind carries.


Things I wish somebody told me about university

With the release of the examination results (the eighth and final SMS that I will receive!), I was prompted to reflect deeply on the past four years. I realised that there are so many things that I wished someone would tell me when I was a year one student. These are the things I wish somebody told me about university:

Be patient: You will find your passion and it’s OK if your interests are not like the others.

It took me three years to truly discover what I enjoyed about politics. Unlike many of my peers, what fascinated me was not political parties, elections and international relations.  I was interested in philosophy and political thought, but I was never content to merely wade in realms of abstraction.

I loved images so I became a visual culture nerd. I tried to rethink what ‘politics’ entails and explore the political dimension of visuality. I delved into images of all sorts and tried to make sense of its meanings.

I wish someone told me earlier on that it was OK to not be interested in the conventional PS things. People would often ask me “How is that political science?” or “Isn’t that cultural geography or sociology?” And that was when I realised that the function of my major was not to constrict or limit my learning to a particular field, but set the parameters of which I framed my research. Fields are never neat, discrete blocs of knowledge. They overlap, overlay and interact.

Your growth and capacity for growth will be your biggest takeaway.

I clung most tightly to my grades in the first semester, and (ironically?) it was also the semester that I did the most poorly. Subsequently, I became less worried about how well I would do, and grew more concerned with how I was do-ing. I was still really nervous when I received my results, but less-than-ideal grades no longer affected me as much.

I wish someone would have told me that it is more important to really be present in classes, because with the ebb and flow of every semester, everything slips past us all too quickly – at the end you find yourself wishing that you savoured it all more. It is more important to take ownership of your work by choosing something you feel for, directing your own topic and engaging others/other materials to improve on your thoughts. If you don’t care about anything now, why would you care about something later? If you never cared about someone else’s perspectives on a matter now, why would you later on? These skills would translate to life skills where it is imperative to engage others and also, myself, in a process where we learn and develop and be open to healthy discursive spaces.

After all, this is what university should hone. Not just academic knowledge and technical skills, but also the capacity for mindful conversation that is so important for being a citizen. The capacity for empathy, openness, and willingness to grow.

[I often wondered, what does university reward in terms of grades? You can read the full post here.]

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Source: Somehoodlum

Men are not smarter or better by default.

I spent a great deal of my life under the impression that men were more well-read, more intelligent, and more competent. I cannot explain why or how I was conditioned into thinking so, but I know of several others that shared this same perception.

I realised that just because the men (sometimes) had louder voices in classes, it surely does not mean that they were more intelligent (if we can even have a metric for evaluating intelligence). Just because they (sometimes) interrupted me with articulate sentences, fancy jargon and name-drops, it does not make their point more valid than mine.

I remember there was once I had to present and defend my argument to the class and receive constructive criticism. Two other men had very similar research questions. One kept insisting that my position was indefensible without properly attacking my premises or qualifications. After the class, he came up to me with the other man and they both advised me to alter my position…to be the same as theirs. One said, “Trust him (referring to the other man). If he’s so smart and he can’t find a way to reconcile this, I think it’s very difficult. You should change your claim.” (BTW I didn’t. I worked on my argument, stuck to it, and did well for the paper.)

I realised it is important for us to recognise and be confident of our own strengths and merits – If we change, it should be because we genuinely believe it to be an improvement, not because we want to suit what others think.

Two disclaimers:1. I’m not saying that men are less intelligent. Sometimes I feel smaller just because someone presents themselves in a particular way. 2. My experience just happens to involve men, although I’m sure the same can be said for women!

We are all lost.

It took me four years to gradually figure out what kinds of jobs I wanted to do. Even though I’ve already started work, I am still finding my way.

I think too much pressure is placed on university students to know their path (“What do you want to do? Huh you still don’t know? You must think about it you know!”). I also feel that there is also a lot of unnecessary (unspoken, super paggro) peer pressure – to attend different seminars, a myriad of job fairs and interviews, a flurry of camps and overseas trips, exchange etc. (“Eh how many resumes did you drop off at the career fair?” “…I didn’t go for the career fair” / “Why didn’t you go for exchange? It’s really once-in-a-lifetime experience you know!”).

It is good to have a plan, to think about the direction we wish to head in and to go out and experience things. However, if you don’t want to do all these things your peers are doing, that doesn’t make your future less bright. Doing all these just because you don’t want to lose out is disorienting at best, disillusioning at worst.

We will always remain explorers and navigators of life, regardless of our stage of life. Just because we ‘grow up’ and ‘embark on a career’, it doesn’t mean we are any more ‘found’. Learning never really stops and we are always in a process of discovery.

We are all lost, just different degrees of adrift.

What does university reward in terms of grades?

Image may contain: plant
Image credit: Hayley Powers via The Artidote

At the end of my first semester in university, I had a less than satisfactory cumulative average point (CAP). I was really disappointed because I was expecting to do better (first world problem I know– I’d completely missed out on the fact that I was currently receiving a university education in one of the top institutions in Asia).

At some point, I stopped clinging so tightly to the end-result and tried to focus on learning as much as I could, for every class. It was also perhaps most ironically, that I started to do really well once I stopped expecting much. That was when I questioned: What is it that university rewards in terms of grades?

Was it the amount of content you could spew within a span of two hours during the exam? Was it the number of empirical examples provided to substantiate your point? Could it perhaps be the originality of your argument?

For secondary school and JC, it was mostly rote learning and regurgitation of certain essay ‘templates’ that would guarantee good scores. I think in some senses, university does privilege candidates with such a background. I say this because I believe content and empirical examples to be a necessary but insufficient condition for doing well.

Why insufficient?

Because university grades also (attempt to) measure curiosity, independent thought-development, and synthesis. At least in my opinion.

One thing I disagree with for the university grading system (especially for FASS), is timed exams. I believe that timed, closed-book exams aren’t really useful in determining curiosity of the student, nor the ability of the student to formulate good questions and develop sound solutions with the help of research. Timed exams are less about independent research and arguments, but more about how much content you can reproduce.

Sure, the ability to respond under pressure and time constraints is a practical skill. However,in most practical situations, we are required to first, identify a problem, research on a matter, and sometimes even consult with others before formulating a solution. To that end, I believe that research papers and projects are a better way to evaluate a student in a more holistic fashion. I also believe that research papers were where I was more likely to do well.

Through a research project or paper, I could synthesize what was taught with what I independently researched and thought about. I realised that the more I was passionate about the topics I was studying, the more I was willing to read and research about them. I wanted to develop my ideas, speak to people about it and get feedback. I also tried to explore unconventional angles to frame creative research questions or to approach the same topic with a different lens. All these contributed to me not only having a decent (and clear!) grasp of the content and having necessary examples/cases to support my argument, but also enabled me to construct original arguments. I was rewarded for displaying all these in my papers.

I have suggested what I think is the reason for me doing well in school, but I don’t claim that this is the golden formula. It has worked for me, but there are so many other factors at play in determining one’s grades.

For instance, I am aware that I have been extremely fortunate and privileged to 1. Have been given the opportunity to be in school and 2. Have a very supportive family that ensured I could concentrate on getting my degree without having to worry about family finances during this time. I did not have to juggle work and school just so I could help support my family. In other words, I had the luxury of time to concentrate on school. Many people do not have this opportunity.

Secondly, I know of many deeply curious and intellectual individuals who seemingly ‘do not do well’ in school. It just so happens that my intellectual development and how I presented these developments also coincided with the testing system. People learn and grow in different ways, and this doesn’t necessarily manifest in the current modes of testing.

In conclusion, while I have somehow figured out the ‘sweet-spot’ for doing well in university, these operate on certain crucial premises that do not apply equally to everyone. It doesn’t mean that they have not learned or developed as much as individuals who received good grades. Yet, society still privileges (to different extents) paper qualifications and first class honours – the holy grail of CAPs.

Perhaps we should also be asking: If grades are an imperfect indicator that operate on certain assumptions, what else can we use as indicators of an individual’s skills and thought-processes?

Image credit: From The Marquette Educator

Helen’s vision

Image credit: MAGGRAV

I was eight when my mother brought me to have my fortune read. It was a small shop behind Fu Lu Shou complex and the place smelled of incense. It was an earthy scent –like a blend of oak, sandalwood and citronella. The orange signboard read ‘HELEN KOH GEOMANCY’.

My mother told me, “Aunty Helen is very good with all these things. She studied geomancy so she knows what she is doing.”

I asked, “What is geomancy?”


We were ushered into a room where I was instructed to sit down. I sat facing Helen and she took my hand.

“Girl, the spirits are showing me that glass will cause your death if you’re not careful.”

Helen furrowed her brow, and then continued, “I see snowfall, and you are shivering… You need to be wary of snow. It will chill your bones.”

Other than that ominous warning, I didn’t remember anything else in particular. I was too young to comprehend the gravity of her words, but my mother took it very seriously. My family avoided holiday destinations in the winter, and I was persuaded to avoid handling or being near glass whenever possible.

When I turned twenty four, I told my mother that I wanted to go work in America. She was convinced that it was a bad move. To her, it was the land of guns, gangs and rampant racism. Worst of all, it snowed there.

As a child, I went along with my mother’s wishes. However, I grew increasingly weary of letting what I perceived to be my mother’s superstitions constrain my decisions.

I went ahead with America anyway. A prophecy made by a woman who consulted some spirits in a stuffy shop was not going to stand between my dreams and I.


“You need to be wary of snow.”

I was twenty eight when I died. It was not winter when it happened, but it had been snowing all year.

The snow came in the form of fine powdery whiteness. Coke. I nearly smiled, thinking that Helen could have told me that “Coke is not good for you” and my mother would have prevented me from drinking soft drinks. Either way, we got it all wrong.

“I see snowfall, and you are shivering.” I burned up and shook violently as waves of nausea crashed against me. I desperately needed to turn to my side, but my limbs no longer belonged to me. I was still lying on my back when I began to vomit. I choked and struggled against the vile liquid sloshing back against my throat.

Glass will cause your death. Glass. That’s what they called it around here. Not meth, just glass.

My lungs were on fire.

My vision blurred with patches of brightly-coloured circles. The colours bled into one another until a rich blood-orange blend resulted. It was nearly the same colour as Helen’s shop signboard.

It was the last thing I saw as I drew my final breath of air.