Paiseh silence

In Singapore, our colloquial language has a word “paiseh” (pronounced pie-say), which means something like embarrassed or shy, usually used in a context of being reluctant to trouble others. It is actually very much a part of our culture, but sometimes this also leads to a worrying indifference towards acts of injustice or discrimination.


I wrote this article on one of our local lifestyle websites, about how this “paiseh” culture of silence also enables sexual assault. With the silence of bystanders, perpetrators get away scot-free, and the blame usually falls on the victim in our typically conservative culture, for “wearing that dress/skirt/shorts” or “asking for it” because you “chose to hang out in certain places”.

Because a lot of discourse has been made about victim blaming, which exists even in western cultures, my opinion piece is a rallying call to bystanders to look out for one another instead, and not be afraid to speak up. An important issue like sexual assault is a good place to start in changing our MYOB culture of “mind your own business” and “don’t create trouble for yourself or others”.

Anyone in other countries or cultures also able to relate to Singapore’s paiseh culture?


Dragonfly Eyes (2017)


Watched a very haunting film at the Singapore International Film Festival last night, and need to get it out in words.

Dragonfly Eyes is the directorial debut of acclaimed Chinese artist Xu Bing. It’s hard to classify the film into any genre, but I would say it is definitely avant-garde (for its groundbreaking techniques), and falls into the categories of mystery/thriller.

The most striking thing about this film is that it is made completely with raw footage from surveillance cameras, web cams and live streams on the Internet – evidently a postmodernist film that immediately makes one think of issues such as the Big Brother of George Orwell’s 1984, the dearth of privacy in today’s age, and the footprint we leave online in the absurd, ever-present world of the Internet.

The story was assembled after sifting through 10,000 hours of footage they had collected, and reducing it to 81 minutes of random arbitrary scenes ranging from an accidental drowning, a plane crash, to prayers in a temple. The story is pieced together with the help of voiceovers of the main characters. According to the editor Matthieu Laclau, there was no fixed script and the story was improvised along the way depending on the type of footage that they got.


Qing Ting, a young woman, leaves the Buddhist temple on the hills for the city, where she finds a job as a worker in a cow factory and meets agricultural technician Ke Fan. Ke Fan falls in love with her to an obsessive extent, and goes too far when he assaults a rich lady who bullies Qing Ting, and ends up in jail. When he is released, he finds out that Qing Ting has changed her identity and undergone plastic surgery, and is now Xiao Xiao, a popular online celebrity on live stream. He desperately wants to see her again and attempts to track her down.


Click READ MORE below if you’re interested in analysis of the film from the perspective of cinema studies.


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Culture is not an excuse

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Watched this video Scared Straight: Out of Advertising, and as much as it was funny and entertaining as a parody, it also disturbed me quite a little. A parody is an exaggerated from of something in order to entertain, but inside there is always some level of truth.

So essentially this video portrays #agencylife as such:

  • Ruins family life (creative director hasn’t seen his son since he was an ultrasound scan 4 years ago)
  • Losing your soul and sacrificing your principles (“You know what I gave up for these (awards)? Everything.”)
  • Insatiable thirst for Awards (although no one seems to see the point)
  • Bitter, cynical, dehumanised bits of what’s left (of your soul)
  • Be prepared to lose your dignity and your self-esteem stripped bare
  • Respect (and self-respect) has no place here


While the video was kind of cruel to idealistic young graduates looking to enter advertising, unfortunately from personal experience, it is all true to a certain degree.

And if you can’t take it, you’re either weak, ‘not cut out for this industry’, or it’s simply failure on your part. 

Seriously?!? Doesn’t this sound a little familiar – like victim blaming?? “You chose this career yourself.”

I’ve been told once too often in response to burning out, “Well this is the nature of our industry.” 

While I respect industry standards, I feel this is used too often as an excuse to conveniently dismiss the need for change. Or to numb oneself to the possibility or duty (if you’re in a superior position) to improve the company or industry culture.

It’s always easy to push the blame to something bigger than individuals or teams, whether it is the government, big corporations or “the industry”.

It’s like Big Brother in 1984 – who’s this guy anyway?? No one actually knows yet everybody obeys the hell out of him. 


Culture is created by people, and the collective is built from the individual. I think this is worth thinking about because it doesn’t just happen in advertising.

My partner is a civil engineer in a company dealing with structural design. As an ordinary member of the public, you would think that this industry prizes safety and quality above all else. Right??

The reality is, a lot of the work involves different parties and stakeholders pushing responsibility to one another. No one wants to take responsibility. And what’s more appalling is, like any other industry, everything depends on cutting costs – it’s a numbers game. The fact that they are constructing public goods that affects the safety and lives of an entire country’s citizens doesn’t insulate this industry from the capitalist economy’s laws of supply and demand.

When questioning the way things work, my partner was told blatantly by fellow engineers, “It’s the nature of our industry.”


On another instance, I read this NPR article, which deals with the contentious topic of sexual harassment in the workplace (remember what I said about victim blaming earlier?). A female chef who complained about sexual harassment by her male colleagues was told by the HR department, “Sorry this happened to you, but that’s the way kitchens can be.”


You see, whether it’s a kitchen, an office, or an industry, this is how things will turn out and continue to be if everyone lives to conform. Even if it is company or industry culture, we should not continue to accept and condone things that are not right and not beneficial – for ourselves, each other and the bigger picture – in the long term.

After all, how many actresses/singers/performers had to put up with, “This is Hollywood for you,” before the Harvey Weinstein case actually got people to pay attention??


Two haunting things today

1) David Foster Wallace’s essay on understanding Franz Kafka:

…to imagine his stories as all about a kind of door.  To envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. That, finally, the door opens…and it opens outwardwe’ve been inside what we wanted all along. 


2) Grief is love with nowhere to go. 

Winterson wisdom

My favourite quotes from Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?


On happiness

…But earlier meanings build in the hap, in Middle English, that is ‘happ’, in Old English, ‘gehapp’ – the chance of fortune, good or bad, that falls to you. Hap is your lot in life, the hand you are given to play. How you meet your ‘hap’ will determine whether or not you can be ‘happy.

What the Americans, in their constitution, call ‘the right to the pursuit of happiness’ (please note, not the ‘right to happiness’), is the right to swim upstream, salmon-wise.

Pursuing happiness, and I did, and I still do, is not at all the same as being happy – which I think is fleeting, depending on circumstances, and a bit bovine…Happy times are great, but happy times pass – they have to – because time passes. The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is lifelong, and it is not goal-centred. What you are pursuing is meaning – a meaningful life.

On life

There are times when it will go so wrong that you will barely be alive, and times when you realise that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms.

In fact, there are more than two chances – many more. I know now, after fifty years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.

Life is layers, fluid, unfixed, fragments. I never could write a story with a beginning, a middle and an end in the usual way because it felt untrue to me. 

But then I understood something. I understood twice born was not just about being alive, but about choosing life. Choosing to be alive and consciously committing to life, in all its exuberant chaos – and its pain. 

She smiles. She doesn’t judge herself and she doesn’t judge others. Life is as it is.

If I can’t stay where I am, and I can’t, then I will put all that I can into the going.

Gertrude drives on. She says, “Right or wrong, this is the road and we are on it.”

On literature

A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.

Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.

The more I read, the more I felt connected across time to other lives and deeper sympathies. I felt less isolated. I wasn’t floating on my little raft in the present; there were bridges that led over to solid ground. Yes, the past is another country, but one that we can visit, and once there we can bring back the things we need.

On love

…there are so many kids who never get looked after, and so they can’t grow up. They can get older, but they can’t grow up. That takes love. If you are lucky the love will come later. If you are lucky you won’t hit love in the face.

The love-work that I have to do now is to believe that life will be all right for me. I don’t have to be alone. I don’t have to fight for everything. I don’t have to fight everything. I don’t have to run away. I can stay because this is love that is offered, a sane steady stable love.

On capitalism

I did not realise that when money becomes the core value, then education drives towards utility or that the life of the mind will not be counted as a good unless it produces measurable results. That public services will no longer be important. That an alternative life to getting and spending will become very difficult as cheap housing disappears. That when communities are destroyed only misery and intolerance are left.

Time is only truly locked when we live in a mechanised world. Then we turn into clock-watchers and time-servers. Like the rest of life, time becomes uniform and standardised.

On feelings

Nobody can feel too much, though many of us work hard at feeling too little. Feeling is frightening.

When we say ‘I think’ we don’t leave our emotions outside the door. To tell someone not to be emotional is to tell them to be dead.

I panic when my feelings are not clear. It is like staring into a muddy pond, and rather than wait until an ecosystem develops to clear the water, I prefer to drain the pond.

On madness

Probably we are less tolerant of madness now than at any period in history. There is no place for it. Crucially, there is no time for it. Going mad takes time. Getting sane takes time.

Creativity is on the side of health – it isn’t the thing that drives you mad; it is the capacity in us that tries to save us from madness.

Why be happy when you could be normal?


This is a very touching, personal mediation on love and loss, and a raw, unflinching look at life and the mess of human emotions. Written as a sort of sequel to Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, in a more autobiographical style and focusing heavily on her relationship with her adopted mother and her desire for maternal love, this is definitely more rough, honest, vulnerable, messy, and more real than most of the books I have read. Reading something so personal, it feels like I was going through a journey with the author herself, and it feels as cathartic to read as it must have felt to write.

The writing style seems a bit modernist, as though the writer is writing purely from her unrelenting thoughts or sometimes even stream of consciousness – but that’s the beauty of it, because that’s how our inner mind works in real life. Breaking the traditional conventions of linear time, plot and narrative flow is a very effective technique in this case, and one that the author admits is not entirely pre-mediated. She was writing this in real time, and at one point where the language gets more fumbled and sometimes chaotic, it was because she wanted to show how the process of inner turmoil, a mental breakdown and a downward emotional spiral really feels like, and it is powerful.

To be honest, I didn’t really enjoy Oranges, because the language and writing style there somehow didn’t captivate me…but I’m so glad I read Why be happy when you could be normal?, for this was completely unrestrained and as close to being human as it gets. I picked up this book not knowing what it’s really about actually, mostly intrigued by the title. But when you get to the point where the significance of the title is revealed, it really hurts, just like at many points in the novel.

Perhaps as someone who understands the experience of a dysfunctional family, I really related to her need and search for the meaning of love and identity, especially the part where she had difficulty being loved and trusting that she could be loved. I think our families really play a pivotal part in our early life and sometimes their influence sets the tone for our entire life. Jeanette talks about her experience of being an adopted child, but what I got out of it was really a close look at the nature and workings of family and human relationships. It is also a touching testament to the depth of human resilience in the face of immense adversity, helplessness and hopelessness.

Ok after this review I’m giving it 5 stars instead of 4, because I really wanted to give a 4.5. If you relate to what I wrote in this review, you should probably read the book.