Suhaili is smoking by her bedroom window. It's been three days since she came back from prison, and she has so far resisted lighting up at home. But she had to make the bedroom her own again—her sister had been occupying it for the past year—and the only way to do that was to leave the smell of smoke in the curtains, the bedsheets, her pillow.
Everything in her bedroom was the same, and the only trace of her sister's residence was a poster of a Korean star she had forgotten to remove from the inside of the wardrobe door. When Suhaili first saw the poster, she was reminded of her own absence—the fact that she was not around to see her sister become a teenager.
Actually, there was another trace her sister had left behind. The bottle of perfume that Jasper had bought for Suhaili was half empty. Suhaili recalled that he had given it to her as a birthday present, just a few days before her arrest. It must have taken some restraint for Suhaili's sister to use only half a bottle in the space of a year. Or Suhaili's mother might have told her, "You can't use that, that perfume is Suhaili's." She was comforted by this thought. It meant that a part of her had always been at home.
Jasper had not written to her when she was in prison. She remembered the first few letters she sent him. Inmates were provided with a single sheet of paper, whose edges could be folded in and stuck together to form an envelope. How she had tried to squeeze in as many words as possible, reducing the spaces between them, her handwriting suddenly spidery and emaciated. The final letter she wrote to him consisted of nine words: 'Jasper, my love, please write back. Your baby Elly.' She wrote them in giant letters, which gave her a kind of release. No more for her those stunted, spring-coiled words.
It was Jasper who first introduced her to Ice. He had first taken it discreetly, spending a long time in the toilet, but it did not take long for him to start smoking up in front of her. She tried to make him quit, and broke his meth pipe on a few occasions, but he always found a way to get new ones. One day, Suhaili asked for a taste. Jasper resisted at first, but was soon teaching her the proper way to inhale.
Suhaili had a plan in mind. She would try the Ice with him, but would prove to him that it would be possible to quit. All it took was willpower. Suhaili prided herself on her discipline. She was working as a waitress, but still managed her time well enough to enroll in a hairdressing course.
A month later, Suhaili's strategy became more modest. She would instead help to 'pace' him. They would ration out their Ice sessions—once in the morning, and another after dinner. And then they started to take it about three times a day, then five, and by that time Suhaili had quit her job, her school, and had moved in with him.
She had also become acquainted with his dealer, and on the day of the arrest had met him to replenish their weekly supply. As it turned out, she was caught in a sting operation, and her urine tested positive for Ice and Ecstasy. She claimed to the investigating officers that the drugs that she was about to procure were for 'personal use'. She made the dealer promise that he would not mention Jasper's name to the police.
Suhaili finished her cigarette. She remembered the first time she met Jasper at the Italian restaurant, and his first words to her.
"Do you believe in angels?" he asked her.
"I don't believe in them, because I'm not really religious. But I see one now clearing my table."
On hindsight, she knew it was the drugs talking. Nevertheless, the memory left her with a pang in her chest. The day before, she had visited Jasper's walk-up apartment, only to find out that it had been rented out to an expat couple. They had never heard of Jasper. Suhaili wondered, as she had countless times in prison, whether Jasper himself had been arrested, had overdosed, or committed suicide.
She would not know that Jasper was now living in London. Her arrest was a sign for him to put his life in order. After he heard that she had gone in, he joined his parents in the UK and checked himself into rehab. He found a job as head of marketing in his father's company. He found religion. He thought of Suhaili sometimes, as an example of God's saving grace. He would tell some of his faithless colleagues: "At your hour of need, God will send down an angel to turn your life around. Such is His love for His poor creatures."
-The name Suhaili is a Malay/Muslim name. However, Suhaili signs off as 'Elly', a more English-sounding name. It is quite likely that this gesture provides her with a more 'Westernised' identity, something she is more comfortable with under certain circumstances (especially when interacting with her English-educated Chinese boyfriend, Jasper)
-'Ice' is slang for methamphetamine, also known as 'crystal meth'
-In Singapore, those caught for drug consumption automatically receive a prison sentence in a 'drug rehabilitation centre', which is effectively a prison
-expat couple is short for 'expatriate couple'. In Singapore, most expatriates are from the US, UK, Europe, and increasingly, India
The Birthday Party
Nur Jannah always told her son, Shafiq, to make friends with the Chinese boys. She said, "If you have Malay friends, you'll always be talking. You won't know what the teacher is saying." She believed that Shafiq would pick up some of the habits of the Chinese by mixing around with them. For her, this meant a competitive spirit and a natural aptitude in Maths.
Since her divorce, Nur Jannah had been making dresses to supplement her income as a food stall assistant in the day. In the evening, when Shafiq looked up from his books, he would see his mother hunched over her electric sewing machine, the light from its pilot lamp glinting off her spectacles.
One day, Shafiq came home from school with a plastic bag of some chocolate bars and candy. Before Nur Jannah could start scolding him, he explained that a boy was giving them out because of his upcoming birthday party. She asked him what race he was, and whether Shafiq had been invited.
The next day, Shafiq came to class and asked the boy, Terence, whether he could go to his birthday party. Shafiq was shy, but did as his mother had drilled him: he told Terence that he had bought a birthday gift and could he please go to Terence's house to present it to him. Terence gave Shafiq his home address, and throughout the day kept on pestering Shafiq to tell him what the gift was. Shafiq replied that it was a 'secret', but the truth was that he had no idea.
During the party, Nur Jannah realized that she and Shafiq were the only Malay family present. It was her first time visiting a bungalow and she found a corner for herself in the balcony, under some hanging pots of ferns. One of the women sat beside Nur Jannah and started a conversation. She introduced herself as Terence's aunt.
"My English not so good," Nur Jannah said.
The woman looked puzzled. As if sensing that his mother was in some kind of danger, Shafiq appeared, holding a plate of fried vermicelli.
"Shafiq, you can't eat this," Nur Jannah said.
The woman chuckled. "Don't worry, there's no pork. The hot dog is chicken."
"No," Nur Jannah replied. "He eat this later he get stomach ache. Shafiq, you wait for the cake later OK?"
After the cake was cut, Terence entertained everyone with a short recital on a baby grand piano in the living room. He then opened his presents, and squealed excitedly when he unveiled a PlayStation set. Among his other presents were a railway set, a Lego fire station, and a remote-controlled racing car. Nur Jannah grabbed Shafiq to leave before Terence could finish unwrapping all his presents. She thanked the hosts and told them that Shafiq was not feeling well.
Later that night, after brushing his teeth, Shafiq asked Nur Jannah, "Mama, can I have a piano?"
Nur Jannah looked up from her sewing. "Why?"
"So I can play in a concert and make a lot of money. And then I can give you the money and you don't have to work anymore."
"We don't have money for a piano."
Shafiq bit his lip. "Then can I have a gun?"
"What gun, sayang?"
"The big water gun that you bought for Terence. But I want the blue one. Blue is my favourite colour."
She wanted to tell him that her way of showing love for her child was not through buying toys. It had to do with the pity in her breast when she watched him leave for school each morning, walking down the lonely corridor, shifting his shoulders from side to side so that the weight of his box-like backpack could be centralized. She remembered one day when he turned around, unexpectedly, to smile at her, and how she had to force her hand to clench a goodbye wave. It was a hand that was going to cover her mouth, to stifle a sob; she had felt at that moment that she did not deserve to have Shafiq in her life.
But all she could say was, "Because you're my son."
-'The woman chuckled. "Don't worry, there's no pork. The hot dog is chicken." ' This episode shows the inadequate knowledge that Terence's aunt has about Muslim dietary rules. Muslims are not only prohibited from eating pork, but also are required to consume food that is 'halal' (meaning 'ritually clean' or prepared according to set rituals). Since Nur Jannah has doubts over whether the 'chicken hot dog' is 'halal', she devises a hasty excuse so that Shafiq will not consume it.
I lied to Maria this morning. I told her that I had not seen her tudung. I was supposed to iron the ensemble she was going to wear for her interview: her baju kurung dress and long skirt, and a matching cream tudung.
As Maria was putting on her clothes, I heard her cry out, "Mak, where's my tudung?"
"Tudung?" I asked. "Which one?"
"I'm already late, Mak. Where is it?"
"Why do you want to wear your tudung? Your hair isn't fully dried yet."
Maria walked out of the ironing room and glared at me. "So what if it's not dry?" she said. "It's my hair." She went into her bedroom and I followed her. She opened her drawers and threw out various scarves. It looked like a magic show that had gone very wrong.
"Why are you messing up the room like this?"
"I'll clean it when I get back. I'm late, Mak!"
I stood at the doorway, wondering how to phrase what I had been meaning to tell her for the past few months. Maria had already picked out a light yellow tudung.
"Maria, you've gone for so many interviews already. All your friends who graduated with you have already found jobs. I feel so sorry for you, but I don't know how to help you. Just for today, why don't you try not wearing your tudung? You can wear it again after they've given you the job."
"I can't just put it on and take it off like that."
Maria left in a huff after taking some cab money from me, and left me to lock the gate. I watched her from the window as a taxi stopped for her. Somehow I imagined that as she slammed the door shut, a corner of her tudung got caught in the door. I have never seen such a thing happen before, but I pictured her anger like this small flag being whipped in the wind.
A few hours later I was at my sister's house, helping her to pluck bean sprouts. A translucent nest of roots was being formed on a piece of newspaper. My sister apparently noticed that I was plucking the roots too close to the stems.
"Don't waste," she said. "We can eat that part, you know."
"My mind's on other things," I said. "I'm waiting for Maria to call."
"Has she found a job yet?"
"She hasn't," I said. "All these job advertisements keep asking for people who speak Mandarin."
"What to do," my sister sighed. "It's become their country."
When my sister sent me off at the door, she asked if Maria would consider giving tuition classes to her son. She must have forgotten what I knew: that she sends her son to Mendaki tuition on weekends. I thanked her as she passed me some mee soto for dinner later.
On the cab ride home, I started thinking about my sister lying to me about her son's tuition. I had also done the same thing with Maria earlier, when I hid her tudung in a drawer in my room. But God would know that our intentions were good. Maybe Maria finally listened to me and at the last minute decided not to wear her tudung for her interview. My sister was right; this had become their country and one had to play by their rules.
My handphone suddenly rang. When I answered it, I heard Maria's voice excitedly telling me... the music in the cab was loud so I told the driver to turn it down. Maria informed me, almost breathlessly, that she had been offered a job. I reminded her to say thanks to God and secretly in my heart felt that my own prayers had been answered.
After Maria hung up, the taxi driver restored the volume of the radio. A Chinese song started issuing from the speakers just behind my head. I leaned forward and said to the taxi driver, in the friendliest voice I could make, "Apek, can change the station or not? Change song please?" I did this because I knew that Maria had worn her tudung for her interview.
-the 'tudung' is a headscarf that Malay/Muslim women wear. It should not be confused with the Iranian chador or the Afghan burqa.
-'Mendaki tuition on weekends' refers to tuition, often at a subsidised rate, provided for the Malay community by a 'self-help group' called 'Mendaki'. Mendaki was first set up in 1981, supposedly to address the poor performance of Malay students in schools. Some of its schemes include weekend tuition sessions, as well as bursaries and scholarships for academically-inclined Malay/Muslim students.
-'Apek' is a term used by Malays to refer to older Chinese men. The term 'ah pek' is itself from the Hokkien (a Southern Chinese language) and literally means 'elder man'.
Jason wanted the whole works for his wedding. Hawa, his wife-to-be, was actually nervous about having the bersanding ceremony, where bride and groom would sit side by side on a dais. She thought that too much attention would be focused on the fact that he was a Chinese man, dressed in traditional Malay garb.
However, when they were choosing her bridal baju kurung, Jason had marveled at the exquisite designs on the songket. Hawa told him, "The silk is from the Chinese, the gold threads from the Indians, and the craftsmanship is Malay."
"Do I get to wear it too?" Jason asked, clearly excited.
"Muslim men can't wear silk. But you can have the cotton songket to wrap around your waist."
"And do I get to slip in a keris too? With the handle sticking out at the waist? I've seen it in photos."
"Don't be ridiculous. What for? You want to circumcise yourself under your songket is it?"
For the akad nikah ceremony, Jason had memorized the words he was to say in one breath, while shaking the hand of his father-in-law. It could have been uttered in English, but Jason wanted to impress his prospective parents-in-law by doing it in Malay.
"I, Jamal Bin Abdullah (his Muslim name), receive the hand of Hawa Bte Iskandar, with a dowry of $200, in cash." The kadi, a stern-looking man, made him repeat the line, but this time replacing the word 'ringgit' with 'dolar'. Jason glanced at Hawa, who had taught him the words the night before. She blushed, realizing her mistake. Jason sped through his sophomore effort with ease, and there were smiles all around.
A few months later, Jason was informed by his superior that he was to be transferred to another unit. No explanations were forthcoming. He was told that he could still keep his First Sergeant rank, but that he would now be trained as an Infantry Specialist.
"But I'm a Combat Engineer," was all Jason could say, blinking at the letter in his hands. His superior sighed, avoiding Jason's eyes, and said, "It's a directive from Manpower. But you shouldn't worry, you'll still be getting the same pay."
It was only later that night, lying beside his sleeping wife, that Jason thought of an answer to his superior: "I never went around telling all of you to call me 'Jamal'. I'm still Jason." But was he? He turned towards his wife and kissed the back of her neck. She stirred and arched her back to rest in the concavity of his body.
Two years later, in an editing room, a producer was reviewing rushes to be used for a montage for the National Day Celebrations. Ordinary Singaporeans were asked to respond to the question, 'What will you defend?' A yuppie-type with black-framed glasses said, 'My job.' A scout hesitatingly said, 'My future?' A woman at a food court said, 'Myself'. And then Jason appeared on the monitor. He was wearing his army uniform, with his green infantry beret. He stared straight into the camera, and in a slow, measured tone, said, 'I will defend my family. My beautiful wife, and my one-year-old son.'
The producer thought this was the most heartfelt and sincere testimony, and slotted it right at the end of the montage. It helped that one could almost detect tears filling up the soldier's eyes.
-the Singapore Armed Forces has a policy of not recruiting Muslims in what they consider 'sensitive' areas in the armed forces. These include posts in Intelligence or Artillery in the army. There are practically no Malay/Muslim officers in the Navy and Air Force. The rationale, as it is understood (but never officially announced), is that Singapore's immediate military threats are its predominantly-Muslim neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia. A Muslim Singaporean soldier is believed to have his loyalty tested because of supposedly conflicting forces: nationalism vs religion. There is so much paranoia about this that someone who converts to Islam is often re-posted to a 'less sensitive' unit, often the Infantry.
-the 'akad nikah' ceremony is probably the equivalent of the solemnisation ceremony in a Western wedding. There is also the 'bersanding' ceremony, where the Malay bride and groom sit on a dais as if they were king and queen for a day.
-the kadi is a religious cleric, one of whose duties is to perform marriages.
-a 'food court' is basically a place where there are stalls selling food. In Singapore, they are the updated/gentrified version of what was known as a 'hawker centre'.
Originally published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore Vol. 9 No. 2 Apr 2010