27 Apr 2018

Scribblers - People

A Tale of Paths

When two Singaporeans living overseas cross paths for the first time, you can be sure that soon there will be lots of chatter and loud laughs

Lim Monica Devi

“Hallo Miss, you know where is the driver ’a not’?”

I had just walked past two Chinese-looking men in pilots’ uniforms. Nothing strange as I work at an airline and staff from various carriers arrive at our crew centre regularly. It was a Friday evening and I was keen to leave the office. However, instead of groaning inwardly thinking “Do I look like the receptionist? It’s Friday evening, I want to go home.”, and just saying “Sorry, no” and hurrying along my intended path, I stopped and did a near-180o turn.

If you’re thinking I stopped because one of the men was an Oriental version of George Clooney – taaeeeehhnnntt WRONG! Oh, maybe I have a thing for men in pilots’ uniforms? Taaeeeehhnnntt WRONG again!

So why do you think I stopped?

Simple. It was the accent.

Unmistakeably Singaporean. Almost.

Sometimes Chinese-looking Singaporeans who converse in English when away from Singapore (without using a lah, lor, leh or makan in their speech) can be mistakenly identified as someone from Hong Kong. But since I knew that Singapore Airlines cargo planes land at Brussels Airport where I am based, the chances of said Chinese-looking men being from Singapore were high.

So I just had to find out.

And it turned out that my hunch was right. The two pilots were indeed Singaporeans! Of course I grabbed the opportunity to hear more of the Singaporean accent and chatted with the pilots while they waited for their missing driver to turn up.

About 40 minutes later, the driver turned up and explained in broken English that what would normally have taken 30 minutes had turned out to be an hour long crawl as two lanes were closed on a 3-lane road. The pilots were gracious, and despite their long flight over, shrugged and charitably said “c’est la vie!”, then boarded the van to their hotel in Brussels, after bidding me “a weekend of good makan!”.

From experience, many Singaporeans away from the island are usually a reticent and humble lot who get jobs done quietly and efficiently, while preferring to keep a low profile (I suspect this is probably to save ourselves the hassle of trying to explain to the listener where exactly the island lies and that no, it’s nowhere near China or India – although admittedly, as Singapore places our stamp on global affairs more firmly and becomes a choice location for many, companies and individuals alike, this mistake is now fast dwindling). But when two Singaporeans living overseas cross paths for the first time, you can be sure that soon there will be lots of chatter and loud laughs drawn from topics like local humour, the food from back home, the community songs that we sung while at school or the latest achievement by another Singaporean bursting onto the global scene and making the world pay closer attention to an island that was hitherto, largely unknown in many everyday circles. 

A dose of local humour usually gets Overseas Singaporeans roaring with laughter while away from the island

But it is not only Singaporeans making a splash in the global arena that makes Overseas Singaporeans proud to associate ourselves with the Little Red Dot. It is also the efforts of many Singaporeans who have continued to live on the island, forging new paths for themselves and for the country.

On a recent flight from Singapore to Brussels via London, I sat next to a young Singaporean girl. Elodie* had graduated from SOTA (School of the Arts Singapore) and had gone on to work on the recently renovated Novena Church on Thomson Road. Her eyes glowed with pride as she recounted how she had worked on details of the stained glass panels in what was to become, by all counts since, a grand and impressive iconic building in Singapore. 

It is amazing that we now have stained glass panels in Singapore that are as breathtaking as those in the Notre-Dame Cathedral (Paris)

It stirred in me an unexplainable pride to hear a younger Singaporean speak with such enthusiasm about her passion. I listened to her relate, in hushed tones ever mindful of the other passengers around, the intricacy and the long hours that were involved in the painting process. That an education in the arts now offers viable career options in Singapore left me impressed (and somewhat envious). Tough definitely, but it was refreshing to hear that there are more young Singaporeans who are braver in their choice of studies, despite the constant push for STEM subjects with its greater emphasis on science and technology, both in Singapore and globally.

It gave me hope that part of what I had penned upon the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew three years ago, about my wishes and dreams for Singapore as we enter a new era would come true. Elodie was showing me that she was indeed the part of Singapore that would continue “to grow a soul”. As the fifth stanza in my memoriam on Facebook read:

Not everything has to do with awards, certificates, accolades. There must be time to simply stand and stare, to be able to do something simply because one enjoys it, without having to think about the monetary implications. Sometimes, enjoyment must be reason enough.”

Listening to Elodie that night, as the Airbus A380 flew west away from the island, gave me hope. In this age when artificial intelligence and cold algorithms determine what we see, do and hear. In a time when fake news abounds and one has to think twice before believing all media reports. When the whispers about an improbable, but highly possible, immortal dictatorial robot overlord begin to grow stronger by the month. That even as the world spins ever faster and many are left behind in the race, there will still be those few on the island who will keep it human and spirited.

To these few, I raise my mug of instant teh tarik, and say “Nurture that soul, keep that love for the spirit alive. It will be tough, but without you and your passion, without your love for the arts - what makes us human, what makes us laugh and cry and weep and sigh and creates all these sometimes illogical emotions - all will be lost to pre-defined rules that replicate themselves most logically in an utterly indifferent and uncaring fashion. Forge the paths that you love today so that those who come after will continue to have a warm and loving island to call home.”

The poem by William Henry Davies is a somewhat good reminder to maintain a well-balanced life

*Name changed upon request


Read the stories of Singaporeans living overseas.