11 September 2015

Forest People

I went to the pharmacist this evening.

There is much haze again here in Singapore as the Indonesians continue their insane deforestation programs to plant palm oil by setting vast tracts of forest on fire.

Palm oil is touted as being a diverse and environmentally friendly product but when one considers the enormous damage done in clearing the land – it is in fact horrific. The Banking sector proclaimed last year that they will dissuade such atrocious practices by imposing financial penalties or restricted credit on palm oil producers - but I have yet to see any impact at all.

None whatsoever.

Some people believe that there are a number of Singaporean Companies that actually own – or have a substantial interest - in the palm oil companies that are wreaking such havoc.

Perhaps even the Singapore Government themselves.

The smoke clouds that are generated by the burns are enormous and much precious wildlife is killed. Some of the beautiful and already endangered Orangutans have been killed in these fires and governments seem powerless to prevent this catastrophe.

The name "orangutan" is derived from the Malay and Indonesian words “orang” meaning "person" - and “hutan” - meaning "forest".

Thus they are the "Forest People".

Their genetic link to we humans is incredibly close yet their behaviours are very distant.

The orangutan do not start wars or murder species and they never burn down the environments of other creatures.

I have been to see these incredibly intelligent and gentle ape species in both Borneo and on the Indonesian Island of Sumatra and like - but unlike - the smoke from the haze, the encounters simply took my breath away.

There are rare times when to witness such beauty and delight and joy elicits tears moreso than laughter.

This was such a time.

To say it is very distressing to think that man is destroying their habitat would be a vast understatement.

It is an abomination.

I have been much hardened by the great cruelty and injustices that are a constant in this world but I was greatly touched and moved by seeing the Orangutans in the wild.

Such moments are as rare as they are magical and we need to snatch them when we can.

The memories are indelible.

The extinction of the Orangutan is inevitable unless we stop.

It may already be too late.

We in Singapore and Malaysia choke on the smoke.

We call it the burning season.

So anyway, I was feeling a bit wheezy and I had run out of Ventolin. I have occasional bouts of asthma. Yes Mum - I know that this is likely to some degree smoking related yet I definitely suffer more in Singapore during the burning season.

I normally stock up on inhalers when I travel. Ventolin is available over-the-counter everywhere except Singapore but I forgot to re-supply myself when I last travelled.

I knew it was going to be a struggle to get the pharmacist to sell me any for we have danced this waltz before. However the local doctor's clinic was closed and I thought I would give it a crack anyway. I walked down to my local pharmacy and confronted the old fella behind the counter. He is a local man named Ken from whom I have bought stuff before.

For many years.

I have mostly purchased stomach related medications that I stock up on for when I travel to India or Nepal. I have found that it is best to be prepared for stomach ailments when one travels to India - so this pharmacist and I know each other well.

"Good evening uncle" I smiled.

The term “uncle” is one of endearment in Singapore that is used generically to refer to elderly men. Yes we also use “aunty” for the old girls.

"I am feeling a bit wheezy and need some Ventolin please. Can Ken?"

“Lah” I added – just for the hell of it.

The words “can” and “cannot” are used liberally by the natives on the Island – as is the non-sensical word “lah” - and I too enjoy their use.

"Good evening" he smiled back.

"Cannot lah. You need to get from the doctor"

"Ah I know this Ken and you also know that I know this,” I replied

"But the doctor's clinic is closed and I think I might need some Ventolin tonight. I need some now in fact"

"Cannot,” he repeated.

"You need to see the doctor tomorrow then"

"OK lah" I said.

I was still smiling when I said this but I was exaggerating my wheeze a little. I was trying to extract a little sympathy. 

"Why don't you just sell me one inhaler uncle? I won't tell anyone if you don't"

"Cannot,” he repeated. 

He was still smiling himself and although his wrinkled face showed some signs of sympathy I knew he wasn't going to budge.

"It is against the law", he repeated.

"But I don't think anyone can abuse Ventolin can they?" I implored.

"Surely no one has overdosed on Ventolin before have they?"

"Cannot,” he repeated.

"It is against the Law. If you cannot breathe you must go to the Hospital"

"Oh well" I replied.

"I hope I last through the night then Ken. I don’t wish my death to be on your conscience" 

This is pretty much what I expected so I wasn't too surprised.

As I was turning to leave Ken said, "Mr. Peter you should take some crocodile meat"

I wasn't sure that I heard him correctly. So I said, "Pardon me?"

"You should take some crocodile meat. For your asthma".

He looked deadly serious.

"Where should I take this meat uncle? And from where do I get it?" I enquired.

"It will cure your asthma" he beamed - without answering either of my questions.

This is the Singaporean way.

"OK" I said.

"Give me an inhaler of crocodile meat please then".

I pulled out my wallet.

"Cannot,” he said.

"It does not come in an inhaler"

"Alright" I replied

"Give me a bottle of crocodile meat pills then"

"Cannot,” he once again stated.

A theme was emerging here.

"You must get the fresh meat of a crocodile"

"You have?" I asked - knowing the answer already

"I do not" he smiled.

"So where can I get it?" I asked

"From Australia" he retorted with delight.

"Cannot Ken" I said.

"It is against the law"

"Not in Singapore" he said.

With some smugness I might add.

Imagine that.

You can't buy a harmless life saving drug like Ventolin over the counter here but the pharmacists are pushing asthmatics to purchase and consume the raw flesh of a viciously dangerous animal from Australia.

The bizarreness of this place never ceases to amaze me.

I just Googled asthma and crocodile meat and yes, Chinese Medicine Practitioners in Singapore do in fact recommend the consumption of raw crocodile meat for the prevention of asthma.

They don't tell you where to get it from though.

I will have to send home for a crocodile tomorrow

6 September 2015

A Boy on a Beach

On breezy evenings I open my front and balcony doors so the wind can flurry through.

Singapore is hot and humid all the time and I like to freshen up my tiny apartment with wafts and drafts whenever I can. My English neighbours from across the hall are like-minded and on occasion wee Liam wanders in and we sit and chat.

Liam is nearly five years old and he loves Postman Pat and chocolate ice cream and his little brother Daniel.

I was sitting on my sofa this evening feeling self absorbed and pithy.

Watching the news has been horrifying the past few days.

More horrifying that it normally is.

The conflict in Syria seems never ending and the plight of the enormous wave of refugees being forced from their homes and fleeing for their lives is heart breaking.

Liam walked into my apartment dressed in his Fireman Sam pajamas and he asked me straight out why I was looking so sad.

We don't muck around with small talk and idle chitchat.

I told Liam that the news about what was going in the world was distressing me. In a moment of tenderness and benevolence and kindness – and in a flash of innocence that only a five year old possesses - Liam gave me an almighty hug.

It was as welcome as it was unexpected.

My television was on at the time and images of refugees desperately trying to board trains in Hungary was on and then the most despairing of sights came on the screen.

The little 3-year-old dead Syrian boy floating face down in the shallows of a Turkish beach.

It was a haunting thing to see.

It is an indelible image that has rapidly become symbolic of the horror of the conflict that has been raging in Syria since 2011.

I saw Liam looking at the TV and I immediately grabbed the remote and turned the television off.

Liam then asked me if that was the little boy who drowned in Greece with his Mummy and his brother and I told him that it was. He informed me that he had seen the picture before at home and his own Mum had explained that a lot of families were trying to escape a country called Syria where bad people were making wars.

I told him this was true.

Liam told me that he thought that the bad people should stop fighting and he thought that they might if they saw pictures of little boys drowned and then everyone could go home.

I told him that I wished that this were true.

I told him that I thought that some people thought that war might sometimes seem be a necessary evil but I thought that no matter how necessary people think it may be - it is always an evil.

I told Liam that I did not think that anyone would learn how to live together in peace by killing each other's children.

At Liam's suggestion we made a cubby by putting a couple of blankets over two chairs and we sat in it on the ground and I put on one of Liam’s videos that he keeps over here for his visits.

We watched Postman Pat together on my big screen television.

We drank chocolate milk and Liam explained to me again who all the characters were.

He taught me the Postman Pat song.

His dad Warwick poked his head in early on in the piece and Liam told his Dad that I was feeling very sad because of seeing the people having to leave their homes because of the war. He then asked him if it would be all right if I came over for a sleepover.

It was one of those moments that I could contain neither the tears nor the laughter and I tried in vain to blink away the wetness that clouded my eyes. 

Life is full of ups and downs and peaks and troughs and moments of tenderness that take my breath away. There are climactic times when clarity and peace and joy strike like a thunderbolt and one sits above the clouds. This was such a moment and it was an apogee of sorts.

The empathy and virtuosity of little children astounds me at times.

It really does.

I told Warwick that much as I would like to come over for a sleepover I had to get up early the next morning so I would have to take a rain check this time.

Liam’s dad nodded his understanding and he told me to send Liam home when he became a nuisance.

Liam is never a nuisance.

When Postman Pat finished Liam wanted to talk more about the refugees and I pondered how much I should explain such horror to a five-year-old boy.

He asked me what the war was about and it was a very good question. I told him it was just bad people doing mad things but I think few people do actually know what this conflict is all about.

It started as a civil war nearly five years ago with a large group of civilians holding protests demanding President Assad’s resignation. The armed forces came down hard on the protesters and shot many.

Which triggered more protests.

The violence has escalated ever since and more than 220,000 Syrians have been killed. More than 4 million Syrians have fled their homeland and the UN estimates that nearly 8 million are displaced internally.

The population of the country is – or was – only 22 million people.

Neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have been inundated with refugees for the past 4 years and it is only in recent weeks that a tipping point has been reached as more and more terrified Syrians have fled their homes.

The war has become more than a civil war too.

It has become a sectarian battle that pitches the country’s Sunni Kurd majority against Assad’s Shia Alawite sect.

Muslims are killing Muslims.

The Russians and Iranians have been providing aid to the Assad government with weaponry and Arab states like Qatar and Turkey and Saudi Arabia are helping the Sunnis. As too are France and the US and the United Kingdom.

The United Nations have as usual proved completely impotent.

To add to the terror and to complicate things further the terrible extremist group the self-named Jihadists – the Islamic State - are raging a war within a war and have taken over large swathes of the country and reign in terror.

It is hard to see how this nightmare will all end.

I didn’t explain any of this to Liam of course. I just told him that the people he had seen on television were very frightened because of the war that was going on in their country but they were very brave to leave their homes. I told him that leaving was not an option – it was a necessity - and it was dangerous as well.

I told him that it was why little children had died trying to escape on boats. 

Even though he didn’t ask, I reassured Liam that we were quite safe here in Singapore but the whole world needed to help these people and wars just had to stop.

He told me that he agreed.

We put another Postman Pat video on but after awhile Liam fell asleep. I picked him up and carried him home and I put him into his own bed. He was clutching his little plastic dinosaur effigy tightly in his little fist – the green one.

He told me once that it was his favourite thing.

He roused as I lay him down and as I bent over to tuck him in and I planted a goodnight kiss on his forehead - he handed me his dinosaur and he told me that I could keep it.

He told me not to be sad anymore and that he was my friend.

The little figurine is standing up on the table next to me now as I write this. A wave of sorrow is flooding through me again as I think of all the little Syrian children who must be so frightened right now.

Wars are so dreadful.

I wonder how can we keep having wars on terrorism when war is an act of terrorism itself. I know that the situation in Syria is complex and emotive and fanatics are difficult to stop but the world needs to assist the hundreds of thousands of people displaced.


They are human beings.

There are little kids.

They need to be provided with assistance with dignity and respect.

There simply can’t be any more little children drowning at sea.

No more little children dying in war.

No more dying at all.

All I can do is hope that perhaps my children’s children can live in a better world and I might one day be asked, “Hey grandpa, what was a war?”

I will return the dinosaur to Liam tomorrow.

I can't get the bloody Postman Pat song out of my head.

He has a black and white cat you know.

It is driving me mad.