On the intersections of engagement
By Toh Hsien Min
It's odd as it turns out, but I've been travelling around the region quite a bit recently. In the last four months or so, I've been to Ho Chi Minh City on a few occasions for work, to Kuala Lumpur for the KL International Literary Festival, and to Bali for the Ubud Writers' and Readers' Festival. I'm not sure why this suggests itself to me as something of note (though it does suggest itself when, as some know, I'm scrabbling around for something to rattle on about for an hour or so just to have an editorial just so the whole issue can go out): whether it's the possibility that I haven't been travelling much in the region "because it's there", or whether it's an unusual turnaround from my university days when I not only travelled every vacation but even once declared an unofficial mid-term break to spend a few days in Zürich on the paper-thin pretext of a postal errand.
Between the stress of working in a different linguistic and cultural environment in Vietnam and the relative familiarity of KL (where one writer then working with the Singapore Tourism Board was bemoaning the difficulty of selling "Uniquely Singapore" to Malaysians) there's certainly a broad enough scope to tease out some of these possibilities, but it was only going to Bali that brought one idea into stark relief. Here was, by all accounts, one of the most restful places on earth, and I couldn't find more than three days in my schedule for it; even when I had got there and checked into the most beautiful room, in the middle of the old palace in Ubud, surrounded on all sides by soft light and moss-encrusted stone carving, with a patio and long bath facing onto a lotus pond in bloom (all of which, I must record, I am grateful to the Ubud festival for arranging), I had fourth and fifth thoughts about extending. In the end, I didn't; I had arranged a meeting for the Thursday, and had all sorts of other obligations, not least this journal. So it struck me: it wasn't that I was starting to dislike travelling or (heavens!) leaving Singapore; rather, I was quite possibly finding it very difficult to switch off. One could be juggling six or seven different projects at the same time, but travelling cuts into all of them with a definitive thrust.
Nevertheless the Ubud festival was good fun. The 'Poets from Malaysia and Singapore' reading that Alvin Pang and I were involved in turned out to be 'Poets from the Philippines and Singapore' because Eddin Khoo had taken ill and Dinah Roma was reading with us. It was one of the most fun readings I've done - the multi-national audience was warm, the readers were taking off from each others' poems, and we hung around at the venue chatting till midnight - and a quite pleasant way to end a day that had begun on a bomb scare. Someone had called the police early in the morning with a threat, and a squad of uniformed policemen had come to the morning's keynote address with a sniffer-dog. One day shy of the second anniversary of the Bali bombing, it wasn't a threat the organisers could take lightly; and I'd love to say that it drove home how important it was to engage with our neighbours and that we were in some more than symbolic way assisting in the island's economic and spiritual recovery, but the only two Balinese men I spoke with who had even hinted of where they thought the island was going had one source of strength already pinned down - Bambang - and though I wasn't inclined to probe into the local politics that was still at odds with the flicker of glee at seeing the NYSE sink steadily in the run-up to the 2nd November biggie: 7 out of the 8 times this century the market has sunk in the two months before the US presidential elections, the challenger has won it. Four more years of an isolationist, unaccommodatingly unilateral, ultra-right US administration will see "engagement" start to become only a synonym for "skirmish", and forgive me but it's not an attractive prospect. All of which is a rather rambly way of saying: I don't think, short of being political leaders, we as individuals have much impact as far as engaging with our neighbours go, but I don't think we've much of a choice, schedule or no schedule.
It's encouraging then to see many examples of engagement in this issue of QLRS. Charles Lowe's short story immersed in China, John Rothfork's essay on Confucianism in Kazuo Ishiguro, Masturah Alatas's essay on an Italian education, Yong Shu Hoong's poem on a relative's migration to Adelaide, and even Robert Yeo's short story on trying to comprehend a colleague's homosexuality: all of these at least query the possibility of the understanding the other, and some arrive at deeper revelations than many might expect. It was also a difficult issue for me to work on because of the sudden surge in the quality of poetry submissions, and even as I tried to decide on the poems to be published, I wondered on more than one occasion what the outcome might have been if the poem had been submitted for a different issue. Theoretically we could easily publish more if we wanted, not having the same physical limitations as print journals, but there's always been an element of keeping the issue in proportion. And on schedule.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 1 Oct 2004
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