By Nazry Bahrawi
IF EAST Indies Heights is paradise on this tiny red dot of a state, then Henry Cheng's cosy attic unit at Nusantara Wing must be its seventh heaven.
Still #65 has not always drawn accolades. When the 35-year-old first laid eyes on it, he believed the small lot resembled the Devil's lair – cobwebbed corners, dank odours, and creeping crack lines.
But what really got to Henry was its desolate sense of barrenness. Still, it was within his meagre budget. And, of course, there was that breathtaking treetop-level beachfront view that was simply irresistible. Luckily there was nothing that some clever renovation works couldn't fix or hide. And with money as his saviour, damnation is not to be his.
So despite the vile appearance of neglect, Henry dictated his terms to haj travel mogul Tuan Ahmad Basari, who hounded by creditors, decided to downsize his expansive properties. And so they became neighbours; Henry's unit separated from Tuan Ahmad's by a mere staircase landing.
This purchase was made a decade ago – in the thick of the Asian financial crisis – when Henry, or Ah Cheng as he was dismissively branded then, was importing "made-in-China" thumb drives. But Henry had faith in the power of dollars and sense.
Today, he heads the Republic's largest animation company and owns shares in other successful technology ventures. Fortune is indeed a fickle mistress, and Henry's relentless courtship has won her affection.
In countless interviews, he told reporters that economic pragmatism was the bedrock of his rags-to-riches tale. "Money makes my world goes round, but reason makes it stay that way," he often quips, brimming with modesty.
These past few weeks though has seen him spending more time playing the politician as he lobbies for support from fellow residents at East Indies Heights. As chairman of the en-bloc sales team, Henry champions the greater good – all-round riches for his neighbours, some of whom are in desperate need of funds. A prophet on a holy mission.
And that thought has now bloomed a flush of red over his otherwise pallid cheeks as Henry reclines, both arms outstretched behind his head, on his stark white three-seater Italian leather couch. As he relaxes, he savours the sanitised, lemon-scented air – Henry is particular about creating a sense of natural freshness about his quarters.
Catching his reflection in the mirror wall lining his lounge, for a moment, he almost believes that he is staring at someone else – his rosy red cheeks, complemented by a sharp nose and cleft chin, assumes for him a guise that is uncannily Caucasian. As unnatural as it appears, Henry feels curiously pleased by this facade. He can't help it; it was his body's customary way of congratulating him. Just minutes ago, Danny Rumsley from the American developer Terra Realtors had succumbed to his will.
"You drive a hard bargain," said a sour Danny, having failed to convince Henry that East Indies Heights was worth only $25 million. "But that's our offer. So let us shake on our initial agreement."
Assuming his best impression of the American tongue, Henry had then glibly replied: "Well, I monitor the market closely, Danny boy. That agreement is void considering recent developments. Just last week, The Seasons Bay, not far from here, fetched $12 million… and we're much nearer to the proposed casino. So, I won't budge."
Rolling his r's further, Henry added: "Humorrr me, Danny, and I'llrr give you the deal. Don't forrrget, I have other offers."
Then he sat back, shrugged nonchalantly, and gave Danny a practised 'take-it-or-leave-it' look. At that juncture, Henry felt utterly invincible. He watched the man purse his lips while weighing his options.
Danny made a quick phone call. Henry waited. Within minutes, Terra Realtors had agreed to a record-breaking $30 million for East Indies Heights, $10 million more than what Henry had milked from last night's haggling with the leggy but English-deficient Ms Tao Qing Xin from up and rising Chinese developer Red Lotus Holdings.
If the en-bloc sale is a game of chess, then Henry fancies himself a master player who must now plot his next moves. The real work begins now, thinks Henry who has less than 24 hours left to deliver on his million dollar promises.
Tempting is the money, but at stake too is his good name. One wrong move, and bad rep among his influential neighbours is certain. Henry can feel the blood rushing to the tips of his ears, and struggles not to let that nagging sense of anxiety run wild. Relax, he tells himself, your plan is going smoothly.
But all is not well in seventh heaven. Henry's persuasive rhetoric had only secured seven votes at the 10-unit East Indies Heights so far. Even then, he is hesitant to claim responsibility for the swaying of Tuan Ahmad. When Henry first approached him to become assistant chairman of en-bloc sale team, the typically sceptical man agreed enthusiastically, as if the en-bloc sale was his own idea. Personalities aside, as a team, they are Procter and Gamble, Johnson and Johnson, Marks and Spencer. They closely studied last month's changes to the Land Titles (Strata) Act and know all they need now is one more vote to meet the 80 per cent majority consent cap.
Feeling the blood rushing to his ears again, Henry fights to suppress the countless what if scenarios – all leading to bad ends – which now threaten to engulf his hyperactive psyche. He stands up briskly and hurries to his bedroom, desperate to shake off the incessant worrying. There, on the wall directly above the headrest of his mahogany king-size bed is solace – a set of laminated magazine and newspaper cuttings.
His nervous, darting eyes now focus on the first frame, which had famed Singapore interior designer Celeste Kwang writing in last year's February issue of Interior Today of #65: "Singapore has not seen an interior like Henry's. Though not much by way of space, its eclectic fusion of neo-colonial architecture and scores of avant garde sculptures and paintings hint of an artistic mind."
Henry is accustomed to editorials about his visionary business acumen, but this is the first time his taste for the finer things in life is discussed publicly. Finally someone notices, he grins as he adjusts that teak-framed article on his bedroom wall. To Henry, that gem of an article is his most prized possession. But when questioned by guests, he will instead point to a costly large painting that features random splotches of fierce red amidst an expansive blue backdrop hung to charm in his living room. This earns him praises from his art critic guests, but frankly Henry abhors what seems like an amateurish attempt at art.
Calmed, Henry heads to his disinfected homogenous-tiled kitchen where he left his jet-black diamond studded Nokia Vertu mobile phone. Time to meet Tuan Ahmad. Two rings and several seconds later, Henry receives an invitation to his neighbour's home.
Just as he is about to leave his orderly kitchen, his eyes chance upon the unsightly wooden, tribal-designed saltshaker he had borrowed from his good neighbour last month. Then he remembers why it ended up in his sterile kitchen. It was Sunday, he had guests and Clara – Henry's highly successful investment banker – was in the midst of cooking her famed Babi Masak Keluak when she suddenly discovered that she was out of salt. Henry was left with little choice but to borrow some granules off from Tuan Ahmad.
Amidst his angular white marble kitchen top and shiny black ceramic-glass cooking hob, Tuan Ahmad's saltshaker looks not just unsightly and misplaced, but primitive. Henry grimaces and heads out.
The journey to Tuan Ahmad's place barely takes a minute, but Henry dreads every second of it. He detests passing by the row of multifarious potted plants – hibiscus mainly, but also jasmine, orchids and other indigenous flowers – that lines the corridor leading to his neighbour's apartment. The neatly arranged clutter of flora, to Henry, disturbs the concrete serenity of the place, and makes the urban air reek of the tropical jungle.
Staring at the ornate metal grille gate that adorns Tuan Ahmad's thick wooden entrance door, Henry decides that his neighbour's sense of style is much too elaborate for his liking. He rings the doorbell, and it almost immediately opens to reveal a beaming but scruffy face of an older man in a white skullcap, light blue loose T-shirt and a green chequered sarong.
"Ah, Encik Cheng! Marilah masuk. Or as they say in your tongue – come in," says Tuan Ahmad welcomingly. Henry peers at the goateed, weathered face of his neighbour, noticing how he looks at least a decade older and a whole less convivial in the absence of a smile. Somehow this image conjures up the word 'Janus-faced', a term a reporter once used to describe industry spies during a casual conversation.
Tuan Ahmad's norm of calling Henry "Mr Cheng" was a recent phenomenon that came with newfound respect after he had stumbled on an interview with Henry that was published in his favourite Indonesian business magazine Di Bawah Lindungan Kapitalisme. As he is cordially ushered into Tuan Ahmad's densely decorated living room, Henry hides a self-satisfied smirk. That's one less person calling me Ah Cheng.
"Jemput duduk," says the hefty man as he gestures for Henry to sit on his cushioned rattan chair. Henry catches a whiff of musky incense in the air, and it surprisingly puts him at ease. Replying in kind, Henry nods politely. He utters a muted Terima Kasih (thanks) to his host.
While Henry can barely converse in Singapore's national language, his comprehension of Bahasa Melayu has improved over the years ever since his clientele base expanded into Malaysia.
Besides, Henry firmly believes that English is the lingua franca of the modern, globalised world. And it is with this inherited colonial tongue that he now speaks: "We only have until tomorrow. So let's cut to the chase. First, the good news: One more vote on our side and Terra Realtors will pay us $30 million. That means $3 million apiece. Sounds good?"
With an eager flint in his eyes, Tuan Ahmad replies: "Masha'allah! This is very good news lah. Well done. You have turned into a true-blue towkay. No more a two-bit businessman."
The art of insulting your guest amidst praises; Henry makes a mental note to learn this from Tuan Ahmad. Then a big slap lands on Henry's back, at which point they both laugh heartily. Just about then, Puan Normah – Tuan Ahmad's homely spouse – clad in a loose baju kurung, emerges from the smoky kitchen bringing with her a jug of steaming teh tarik and homemade banana fritters.
"Ahhh Tuan Henry. I know you coming. So I masak jemput-jemput lah," she says warmly.
"Eh, no need to go through so much trouble. But terima kasih lah," Henry replies with no trace of that American accent.
Puan Normah has always thought well of Henry – underneath that occasional conceit, she believes, is a kind soul trapped in materialism. Her husband then shoots her an affectionate wink, and she returns that gesture with a shy smile. As an accidental audience to this open display of affection, Henry feels a sudden pang of envy; he can only wish his marriage had that same soulful intimacy.
Neither can he possibly fathom the depth of their pain last year when their only son Kassim died right outside the corridor. Only 17, the poor boy was later diagnosed with a hole in his heart.
Not wanting to linger on that sad episode, Henry turns to his neighbour, reverting back to a slight American accent: "Ok. So we need one morrre vote, and three residents had said no so far. At the Indochina Wing, we've got the General, retired now, but in the midst of starting up a restaurant. Then there's also the construction tycoon Mr Tang Swee. In our wing, we have Ibu Lily Prasinto. I hear she's struggling to keep her late husband's spice business going. Between them, who should we target?"
"Ah Cheng, I said before, Ibu Lily is our best bet lah. Yesterday I spoke to her while you were entertaining that Qing Xin woman. Leggy girl. Ibu told me she is undecided but I think we can make her agree." That Tuan Ahmad has reverted to calling him Ah Cheng makes Henry wince.
"Trust me, she can be wooed. She listens to the woes of her many daughters. We Malays call it berhati perut. She has heart. I know her daughters don't always listen to her. But don't forget tau, her household is bigger than yours or mine so it is harder to manage, right? If we convince her that the money can keep her family together and help her business, we stand a chance," reasons Tuan Ahmad in a raspy smoker's voice.
"But why not the other two?" probes Henry, playing the devil's advocate. "Alamak! You want to invite trouble eh? The General, or 'Degenerate' as some of us call him, sold you his family heirloom so he can fund his restaurant. Then all of a sudden now, he throws a tantrum and says he wants to buy it back. And don't forget ah, that adopted teenage Malay boy of his. Kesian, you know. That poor boy was forced to change his name, and learn a language that is not his. No wonder he always runs away from home. I don't think we can convince him!" Henry did not find the General all that bad, but maybe his neighbour is right. "And Mr Tang Swee?"
Tuan Ahmad lets out a long guttural laugh that grew into a rattling cough. Taking a sip from his cup, he says: "This one ah. Lagi teruk lah. First, he is a ruthless businessman. He never worked twice with any suppliers. They don't like him because he squeezes them dry. I know because some of them are my clients also. Then he treats his construction workers like slaves. Just because they come from Bangladesh or Thailand ah, don't mean you can forget basic care ah? You know, I heard that once ah, he holed a few of them up in a public toilet. Can believe or not?"
Wearing a look of pure disgust, Tuan Ahmad adds: "And do you know that he locks up his teenage daughter at home. Yes, he refuses to let her go out tau. Why? She gave money to his workers! So unless Tang Swee mends his ways, we can also forget him."
Just then, the sound of the azan – the Muslim call for prayer – from the radio brings a halt to Tuan Ahmad's caustic tirade. As if rousing from a hypnosis session, his neighbour, who for a moment ago was much animated, suddenly turns silent. Getting up, Tuan Ahmad excuses himself to perform the early afternoon prayers. He retreats into his room.
Left alone in the cramped living room, Henry ponders on Tuan Ahmad's suggestion. His neighbour may be sarcastic, but he had lived in East Indies Heights much longer than Henry. Henry also recalls that Tuan Ahmad is a renowned syair writer in his heydays. That means he understands human nature well, figures Henry.
Besides, Henry is better acquainted with Ibu Lily than the other two. He even shares a certain affinity with her youngest daughter Intan, who turns 12 next week. Whenever Clara wants to buy spices from Ibu Lily, Intan will play the middleman, marking up the price so she can keep some of the profit for herself. In Intan, Henry sees his younger, eager self. The choice, it seems, is clear.
Gazing at the cloudless January sky outside, Henry can tell that it is going to be one of those rare red sunsets in sunny Singapore. Henry is not normally superstitious, but right now, it feels as if God is reaching out to him, assuring him that East Indies Heights – at $3 million apiece – will make history tomorrow as Singapore's most lucrative en-bloc sale to date.
But his fantasy is rudely interrupted by a sweet but steely voice: "Mas Henry, you want more water?"
"No thank you, Ibu," he replies as he paces back and forth nervously on the parquet floor of Ibu Lily's vast apartment. "How about you, Tuan Ahmad?" asks Ibu Lily in that sing-song voice of hers. "It's ok. I am fine too," comes the raspy reply that hints a tenor of exasperation. Henry finds the widowed Ibu Lily cultured – her lithe gait reminiscent of a dondang saying performer.
But she can also be capricious. Once, she bought from him an Acer desktop and then later returned the product after a day' s use, claiming it defective, demanding instead for a brand new Hewlett-Packard laptop. As a gesture of goodwill, Henry had obliged her, though grudgingly. That indecisiveness is rearing its ugly head now. After three excruciating hours filled with uneasy interregnums, Ibu Lily is still undecided.
The overpowering scent of exotic spices that at first seemed sweet now turns nauseating. Henry's nostrils flare in distaste. Getting tired of pacing, Henry plants himself squarely on Ibu Lily's traditional red mahogany couch that creaks as he sits himself down.
Ibu Lily's apartment is bigger than Tuan Ahmad's and Henry's, but its interior is filled with, in Henry's mind, strange miniature statues – some Western, others clearly Hindu or Islamic.
This eclectic mix of East and West extends to the rest of the house. Her ethnic furniture – mostly made of teak – reminds Henry of Tuan Ahmad's. But she also has some radical Western decorative art pieces such as an Andy Warhol-esque picture of a cola bottles in her living room. Art like the latter, he has to admit, is closer to his taste.
Elsewhere in her apartment, outside the tense circle of three in Ibu Lily's hallway, there is merriment in the air as her many daughters bounce in and out of the rooms. Intan has now twice interjected the guests' contrived but courteous exchanges, each time speaking at length to her favourite "Uncle Henry".
But now as Henry sits staring at a mesmerising demi-God clay figurine and listening to Tuan Ahmad launches yet another offensive to convince Ibu Lily, he suddenly remembers the diamond necklace and earring set that his host's late husband Pak Aris Nasution sold him when he had first moved into East Indies Heights.
Pak Aris had then told Henry: "My wife loves these. I gave it to her as our wedding gift. I am auctioning them now only because I desperately need to revive my business. You buy them from me, Henry?"
Recognising a valuable antique when he sees one, Henry quickly agreed. Pak Aris' only term was to keep this matter a secret from his wife. He knew that Henry was a man of his word, and he was right, until now. During Intan's countless visits to his home, Henry had oftentimes overheard her telling his wife how much her mother missed her wedding gift.
"Sorry, Ibu," Henry says now, disrupting her midway through her strained polite conversation with Tuan Ahmad. "If you sign the papers to support the en-bloc sale, I can offer you something in return," he begins in a measured tone. He adds with one eyebrow raised: "To sweeten the deal."
Like a teenage girl courted by the most popular boy in school, the slender widow giggles coyly: "Apa itu, Mas Henry?" Hesitating, Henry fashions a serious look and slowly answers: "Your wedding diamond necklace and earring."
She gasps. "You…how…Aris said they were…stolen from us when robbers broke into our apartment…" A transfixed Tuan Ahmad, mouth agape, eyes darting between the two, watches intently as the drama unfolds. At the back of his mind, Henry is sure that Tuan Ahmad – a staunch family man – disapproves of his underhanded tactic.
Still he presses on. Henry has to. He is running out of time. "I'm sorry … but your late husband did not want you to get upset. He needed money, you see ...". She looks at Henry. A horrified expression now taints her elongated, distinguished face. His confession has hurt her, but it is bad form to let emotions get in the way of business. Reason, Henry reminds himself. Reason makes my world stays round.
"I know you want it back badly, and I can sell it back to you at a very affordable price. But I will only do so if you sign the en-bloc agreement. Besides, your husband would…"
"SUDAH!" suddenly shouts Ibu Lily, who continues in a harsh, edgy pitch: "You don't know anything about my husband, and now you smear his name in my house! Shame on you, Henry Cheng! You brought the curse of bankruptcy into his life, and now upon me too!"
Her outburst, Henry imagines, enraptures her children who are now watching her perform from behind their room doors. That air of merriment is gone.
"But…," says Henry as if to protest, and then stops himself. Instead, he heaves a heavy sigh. No use arguing. Exercise reason, he tells himself. By now, there is a stoic look about Ibu Lily. Her misty eyes seem listless and faraway.
It is Tuan Ahmad who breaks the silence. In a compassionate voice, he says: "Ibu Lily, I tak setuju with Henry's proposal, but I would advise you as a friend that signing the papers is your best option. With $3 million, you can move into a less expensive place. Then use some of that money to bring life back into your business. You will also get your priceless possessions back."
A lengthy silence, then Ibu Lily says: "On one condition. Mas Henry must donate $10,000 of his proceed to Intan's higher education fund." So the matriarch has spoken. Tuan Ahmad nudges Henry, nodding profusely as if to prodding him to agree.
It is for the greater good. And the amount is negligible considering that he will earn $3 million if she signs. Plus, if Intan does well, he might even hire her. So it's really a no-brainer, reasons Henry. "Ok, I agree," says Henry, careful not to show the delight in his eyes.
As he looks down in feigned remorse, he catches from the corners of his eyes Ibu Lily reaching out for a pen, and Tuan Ahmad handing her the en-bloc agreement.
But the dondang saying performer in her is clearly absent. This time, she looks genuinely hurt.
The last function at East Indies Heights' only multi-purpose hall, before it is to be demolished, is perhaps its most grand. Nearing death, The Irrawady is buzzing with life.
It had been the site of countless birthday parties but today it is furnished sparsely with four long tables and chairs facing a mobile stage, playing host to a throng of human bodies – residents and their supportive family members, eager property agents mostly from Terra Realtors, serious-looking journalists and a jittery Henry Cheng.
Putting on his best poker face, Henry frantically sorts through the papers as the room fills up. Perched in one of two seats at the red-skirted grand table on stage, Henry's fidgeting is hinged on a nagging worry: Tuan Ahmad is late. Henry must begin the meeting proper in five minutes. Impatience hangs ominously in the air as the noisy crowd mills about restlessly.
Looking up a moment, Henry's eyes met with a journalist's, who motions to the face of his ticking handheld watch. Where the hell is he, fumes Henry silently. I need his documents, God damn it.
Just then, a familiar voice rises above the crowd's vexed conversations, immediately bringing the room to a halting silence: "I am here! I am here!" All eyes have now turned to the entrance of The Irrawaddy where a fashionably smart figure in a narrow neck black tie, pink striped shirt and straight-cut pants stands peering back at Henry.
For a split second, squinting against the stage lights that momentarily blind him, Henry imagines that he is looking at a mirror image of himself, a doppelganger.
Shielding his eyes with his raised right palm, he now makes out the distinctive goateed face of Tuan Ahmad. As his neighbour hastens on stage, Henry finds it odd that Tuan Ahmad now bears a disturbingly smug look – his eyes not meeting Henry's and his nose defiantly high up in the air.
No matter, thinks Henry. He's here now and we can soon seal the deal. With a confident smile, Henry rises from his chair and addresses the audience: "Everybody! Quiet please! Settle down into your seats. Now, please put your hands together and welcome my good neighbour – Tuan Ahmad Basari."
A resounding applause fills the room as Tuan Ahmad takes his place beside Henry. In his hands, Henry notices a stack of papers. Pulling Henry aside, Tuan Ahmad whispers to his ears: "Sorry I am late but I got the General and Tang Swee to agree. They told me they hate crowds. So they're not here. But here are their papers."
Fantastic, thinks Henry, a hundred per cent vote. Nodding his approval, a beaming Henry speaks into the microphone: "And now dear friends, I am proud to announce that East Indies Heights will make history as Singapore's most profitable en-bloc deal." Pausing for dramatic effect, Henry continues: "At $3 million apiece…"
"Wait, wait, Henry," interrupts Tuan Ahmad unexpectedly, wearing about him a grave look. His neighbour turns now to face the audience. In a remorseful tone, he says: "I have an important announcement to make. You see, Henry has nine signed agreements in his hands. If I submit mine, it would bring the total to ten, or one hundred percent majority vote."
The crowd, as with Henry, has now become silent. For the first time, Tuan Ahmad speaks with a near perfect American accent. His characteristic smoker's rasp is also absent. After a short pause, his neighbour continues: "But I am not going to sign it. After much thought, I herewith submit my resignation from the en-bloc sales committee because I can't bear to see the place where I raised my family be reduced to rubble."
"What!" shrieks a stupefied Henry. Gasps and murmurs from the crowd now threaten to get louder. Unfazed, Tuan Ahmad continues in his booming voice: "In fact, my wife and I have registered our objection officially to the Strata Titles Board last week. We just can't bear to part with the place where so many of our happy memories were made, and where my only son breathed his last…."
Now flustered, Henry suddenly stands up to face Tuan Ahmad and cries: "What are you talking about!"
"Calm down neighbour," says Tuan Ahmad in a steady, calculated tone that only Henry can hear. Turning back to the microphone to face the audience, he says: "But we know, despite our best effort, the deal will still go through. Henry, the business maestro that he is, has managed to garner a 90 per cent majority vote. We…my wife and I…concede defeat. Congratulations Henry. You did well."
As soon as he utters these, Tuan Ahmad hurries for the exit, and is lost from Henry's sight within seconds as he merges into the crowd. Silence from the multitudes as they absorb Tuan Ahmad's words, then a bevy of smiles, and soon victory cries consume the room.
Some have now made their way to the stage, patting a stunned, wide-eyed Henry on his back for delivering the economic goods. Henry's reputation is clearly intact; his good neighbour has ensured that with his dramatic exit speech.
But as the eager journalists begin to swarm him for quotes, Henry springs to his feet, pushes past the bodies, and retires to the back room, closing the door tightly behind him. Staring into the quiet nothingness of the dark, unlit room, far from the maddening crowd outside, his bewildered mind begins to comprehend what just happened.
Suddenly he understands. "That cunning bastard", he says out loud with a tinge of admiration. Good form, indeed. He fumbles for the light switch. Where there was once darkness, there is now light.
He pores through his stack of documents and takes out that crucial document – the amended Land Titles (Strata) Act. He scours through its contents, and after a few seconds, rabidly punches Tuan Ahmad's number on his mobile.
"Hello," answers a collected voice at the other end of the line. Henry can almost hear the triumphant smile in Tuan Ahmad's voice. "Don't fret Henry. You still got what you wanted kan?"
Henry sputters his words: "You…you are one sly… dog, Ahmad. You knew …you knew…with the amendments, the Strata Titles Board would grant minority shareholders with valid objections a higher portion of the proceeds …your speech…the press…they…they have little choice but to oblige you."
After what seems like eternity, Tuan Ahmad coolly answers: "Money makes my world go round, Henry. But reason makes it stay that way. Check mate."
Click. The line went dead.
And for the first time ever, Henry feels strangely human.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 3 Jul 2009