Thursday, January 29, 2009

Something about myself. A ten year old boy who never grew up.

Readers of this blog who are unfamiliar with the goings on in Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore, may think reading the comments that there are many who think Singapore is a democracy based on the rule of law. The reader is warned that they may be Singapore government employees whose job is to discredit those who criticize Lee Kuan Yew's authoritarian rule. Please use your discretion as to how much weight you will give these comments.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A digression. Something about myself. When I was in Singapore from May last year to November, a lady whom I knew said to me that I was just like a 10 year old boy who never grew up! In fact that was the nicest words anyone ever said to me. I hope I remain so. Forever.

I knew Singapore well but the bus rides, MRT stations etc were new to me. I was after all many years away from Singapore. I asked her to take me to Changi beach to look at planes landing, to Labrador Park to see the ships pass by, to the railway tracks to see the trains go by. I love to see ships, planes and trains. And she said to me, I was like a 10 year old boy. But truly I love these things.

I think she guessed this was the last time I could see Singapore, since as you know, I was soon thereafter banned from entering the country by orders of Lee Kuan Yew. I think she felt sorry for me and she obliged by taking me to see ships trains and aeroplanes.

My father when I was a child took me on Malayan Railway trains almost every Sunday morning to Kluang or Segament in Johore only to catch the oncoming southbound train back to Singapore. I was fascinated by trains. I used to visit Paya Lebar airport to watch planes landing one after another, watching their glide path, holding steady straight and level just above the runway, before flaring with nose slightly up and tail down just before touchdown. I used to pretend to know certain officers on ships docked at Keppel Harbor and get passes to board them. On one occasion, I managed to board the MV Laos docked at the Keppel Harbor, I went to the galley and ordered Courvoisier Cognac, drank so much, that the French bartender took the cap off the bottle and told me to take it easy, reminding me it was Courvoisier that I was messing with. I was 17. It was my luck that I still managed to walk off the gangway to the dock in that state and not fall over the rail into the water. I am not sure whether this vessel is still in service. It belonged to a French company Messageries Maritimes. At that time, it was a cargo passenger vessel plying between Singapore and Vietnam, formerly French Indo China.

Any man is molded by his childhood. I had a happy one. My father had great wisdom and understanding of how a boy should grow up. My life with my father and mother was full of adventure stories, of Treasure Island, of Alexander the Great and his conquests around the world. Of mountaineers and sailors and airmen. He was a great newspaper reader. Once as a boy, he told me Gamal Abdel Nasser occupied the Suez Canal. Of course I did not know anything of Nasser or what in Heavens was Suez. But I knew it was a big thing, seeing the expression on his face. And it is these things that develop curiosity in a child. And also principles. Yes, principles, very important. He used to tell me always to speak the truth, never mind even if they take your head.

And of course, as a boy, I used to take all these things seriously. I admired airmen who made history by flying around the world in light aircraft, of sailors who crossed the oceans in nothing more than dinghies, of Edmund Hilary, first man to conquer Everest in 1953, of Dr. Bannister who ran the 3 minute mile. Of Krishna and Arjun in the Hindu Mahabharata, who overcame the evil in battle.

And it is these things that stayed with me ever since. And thank God, I am this way, thanks to my father and mother.

Honor is the foundation upon which everything has to rest. One has to earn money with honor, because without honor, it is worth nothing. It is better to be poor and honorable, than rich with dishonor. That is the teaching of my late father which has stayed with me forever.

I learned sailing at Changi Sailing Club. You could hire sailboats then. I once took out a 420 sailboat and took it around Ubin. It is surprising how narrow the channel is on the north side from Malaysia. I would say, perhaps 300 feet.

Later I bought a Laser dinghy. It is a cat rigged, unstayed single sail one man boat, about 14 feet. Once I had a life and death incident. I took out the Laser, crossed the channel towards Ubin and headed towards Tekong Kechil, then Tekong Besar, and almost before Tanjong Pengarrang village in Johore, hit high wind. Not being an experience sailor then, about 500 feet from the Tekong shoreline, the boat capsized and turned turtle, with the mast underwater pointing to the sea bed, and the hull facing up. To right the boat, I climbed on the hull, grabbed the centerboard sticking up and managed to right her up. Only problem was the wind was abeam, which meant that she capsized again to the other side.

The trick was of course to face the bow into the wind and then try to right her. That way, the wind will not catch the sail when upright. This I soon realized swam around and turned the bow into the wind and managed to get her up. I then climbed from the transom on to the boat. Only problem now was, the mainsheet had slipped from the shackle block which meant that I had no control of the sail. The mainsheet was flapping in the wind at the end of the boom. The only thing I could do was to grab the boom with one hand, tiller on the other and managed to reach Tekong beach.

I was famished, dehydrated. No water to drink at all. Dying of thirst. I met a Thai worker driving a tractor on the beach. I think they were constructing Tekong Army Camp. I used sign gestures to say I was thirsty. He took me on the tractor to a large barrel containing water. I drank to my fill. The time now was almost 5 pm. It will soon get dark. I had to get back to Changi Sailing Club. I tried to push the boat back into the sea and get on it. Problem was each time the waves pushed it right back. Anyhow after a few attempts I managed to get on it and sail it.

The wind had almost died down. It was night fall. I was underway, but only just. Just after I passed Tekong Kechil it got completely dark. I was on the north side of the channel heading towards the beacon across from the sailing club. I was sailing very slowly just beside the beacon, about 2o feet away from it, when my hull hit a rock underneath! What! I was 20 feet away from it! Surely the water is deep enough. It was low tide you see, and the rocks were just under the surface of the water, unseen. And what was worse, there was no wind. And mine was a sailboat. No motor.

So I got out of the boat and stood on the submerged rock holding it. My boat had no lights. Not even a flash light.

Mind you the narrow channel between Ubin and Changi Sailing club is busy with large tankers and cargo vessel traffic moving across. By now there was no wind at all. If I did attempt to sail the boat across the channel, with what wind I had, what happens if the wind dies completely when I am in the middle of it, with a tanker coming straight at me!

I had to make a decision. One, abandon the boat, swim to the beacon and wait till morning for help. Two, take a risk and cross with what little wind I had and hope it will hold till I reached Changi shore. I told myself, Gopalan Nair, do or die, I will risk it. I am going to sail it across and hope for the best. There was a little wind and I managed to inch forward. I was hardly moving. But when I was in the middle of the channel, my worst nightmares came true. From the west Pasir Gudang side, true enough there was this huge vessel lying high above the water heading straight at me. And I was stuck in the middle with no wind! I could not move! The ship was going to hit me!

You learn in sailing a principle that if you rock the boat left to right hard repeatedly, you will get a little forward propulsion. And this is what I was doing frantically to move the boat out of the way of that ship. When he closed, he sounded his horn. Obviously he saw me. The channel being so narrow and deep water only in the middle, the ship can hardly maneuver out of my way.

I was lucky to be about 10 feet clear of that big ship when it passed me. It was lying very high above the water; with its huge propeller blades half exposed, obviously empty except for ballast, emerging from the water and splashing it with a load roar each time when they came around hitting the water. I was lucky my boat was not pulled towards it, being so close, as that would have been the end of me.

Tired haggard bruised and famished I managed to beach the boat on shore. The time now was about 9 pm. On the beach with a large beer in hand, and pot belly, there a large Australian. I told him briefly what happened. You can imagine my irritation when he asked me whether the boat was all right! For heavens sake I nearly died!

Rider Haggard's King Solomon Mines has a dedication at the beginning which reads as follows:

This faithful but unpretended record of a remarkable adventure is hereby respectfully dedicated by the narrator Allan Quartermain to all the big and little boys who read it.

Truly some boys never really grow up. And that is the best life any boy can have, whether you are a big one or a small one.

Gopalan Nair
39737 Paseo Padre Parkway, Suite A1
Fremont, CA 94538, USA
Tel: 510 657 6107
Fax: 510 657 6914

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Gopalan Nair said...

An explanation. A cat rigged boat is not to be confused with a catamaran which is a twin hulled boat. A cat rigged boat, like the Laser is a single hulled boat with a single mast, positioned well fore of the boat with the sail and lines running aft to the cockpit, slightly aft of center.

The mast is unstayed meaning there are no shrouds running from the mast to the sides of the boat to keep to keep it upright. Instead the mast is is inserted into a block in the hull, through an opening in the deck to keep it in position.

Happy sailing.

Anonymous said...

Finally, a post that does not attack Singapore.

Seriously though, I hoped that vessel had hit you.

Gopalan Nair said...

To Jonas Lim,

I am not attacking Singapore. It is Lee and his dictatorship, his corrupt judiciary, and his minions who do the dirty work, I am attacking. Please understand the difference.

And if the vessel had it me, I would not be able to write these blog posts. At least someone had wished that I survived. God perhaps?

Anonymous said...

Returning to Singapore means something different for me.

Even though it is a country of my birth, the Singapore I knew is the place and time that I left behind when I left for good. My kampong was no longer there, demolished in the 70s. Even my favourite Rochore Mee store was no longer there. What are left behind are convenient hawker food where the people no longer stick to time-consuming traditional way of cooking, or the taste changed to catered to a population that no longer understand what is delicious food.

For personal reasons, I will never return to the place that has hurt me so much.

Yes, I missed some of the things in Singapore terribly, but I have re-built my life abroad. My life is here now, my wife is local and my kids are borned here.

It is good to have fond memories of the place of birth. I wondered what happened to my friends, a few had passed away prematurely due to the hectic lifestyle - stroke, cancer. Even the one who died of asbesto-related disease did not receive the workmen compensation.

But the reality of stepping into 21st century will shattered these fond memories. Why go "back"?

Gopalan Nair said...

To anyonmymous, Feb 1, 0516,

You are reading this blog therefore you must be still interested in the situation there. You could do what you can from there for the sake of democracy. Perhaps you already are, I do not know. But if not, your efforts will be appreciated.

Anonymous said...

to anon 5:16,

"Even my favourite Rochore Mee store was no longer there."

great. so the meaning of life of the person who ran the "rochore mee store" boils down to this: to stay alive long enough to welcome you home with a bowl of your favourite local dish.

change happens, everywhere: get with the program.

Anonymous said...

Anon of Sun Feb 01, 05:16:00 AM PST

Just a passive reader trying to gain some ideas about the 2 "different" Singapores.

Singaporeans will themselves make a tryst with their new destiny, the destiny that is envisaged in the Singapore pledge, never fulfilled but never forgotten either.

I will be an arm-seat witness to the event that will happen in my lifetime.

A god-like idolised benevolent leader is still a mortal.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad that vessel didn't hit you. You're a God-send to deal with that dictator.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Melodrama. Dying of thirst after a day (?). Caught in the wake of a tanker booming down on you while you pelvic thrust your way to safety.

I think your penchant for exaggerated prose is showing in this lil' entry of yours.

Maybe you'd be better off sticking to your usual rants. At least those are fueled with the fires of passion. This one seems just too contrived.

Anonymous said...

Singapore IS a democracy,

where 'democracy' is taken to refer to the sense of freedom which one who has been underdeveloped intellectually and perspectivally enjoys.

S/he who has 'matured' to be little confuses little for much. I don't expect the majority of the people here to have the intellectual capacity to understand that...including those monkeys confusing 'rants' for 'comments' above.

And to Jonas Lim, this is not an attack on 'singapore', just a dispute with that sector of singapore that self-centeredly identifies itself as the 'whole' of singapore. Yours is a view borne of insecurity and perspectival and political idiocy.

To Gopalan Nair, you really shouldn't entertain tirades, just intelligent or inquisitive arguments...though i do applaud your efforts to do so.