I was born in Singapore in 1990. George HW Bush was President of the USA. The Berlin Wall fell, East and West Germany were reunited, and the Hubble space telescope was launched. Thatcher resigned. Mandela was released. Encyclopedia Britannica reached its all time highest sales. The pope was John Paul 2. The first McDonald’s and Pizza Hut outlets opened in Russia and China. Smoking is banned on all cross-country flights in the US. Voyager sends back the Pale Blue Dot photograph. Gorbachev is elected President of the Soviet Union. The WHO removed homosexuality from its list of diseases. Microsoft released Windows 3.0. Nickelodeon studios opened. Joanne Rowling gets the idea for Harry Potter while on a train, and begins writing. Iraq invades Kuwait, initiating the Gulf war. Civil war breaks out in Rwanda. Tim Berners-Lee begins work on the WWW. Home Alone was released. Lee Kuan Yew resigns and Goh Chok Tong becomes PM. The world population was 5.2 billion.
When I was maybe 7 or 8 years old, I was watching my schoolmates playing football in the field after school. I was so engrossed that I missed my school bus. Irrationally, in tears, I decided to wander and try and find my way home by myself, navigating by landmarks. And I particularly remember feeling rather lost because it was National Day season, and all of the blocks of flats were covered in Singapore flags. These days you don’t see many people putting up flags anymore. And that strikes me as something that has changed about Singapore. It’s just an odd little detail that sticks with me.
I never knew what Lee Kuan Yew was like as a Prime Minister – by the time I was old enough to know what a Prime Minister was, it was Goh Chok Tong. So I never really learned the fear and respect that older Singaporeans had for LKY. Singapore was already prosperous by the time I showed up, and I got to witness it becoming even more so – buses became fully air-conditioned, tickets gave way to tap-and-go cards.
I remember when Princess Diana died. I remember a black car and flashing lights, and I remember a massive procession that was all over the news.
I remember thinking Sir Stamford Raffles was a pretty cool guy when I was a kid. Bill Clinton was the first US President I remember, and he seemed to me like a manifestation or representation of what was “good” about America. Tall white man, friendly, charming, charismatic. He had more personality than Goh Chok Tong, for sure. The other leaders I remembered – Mahatir in Malaysia, Suharto in Indonesia. Thaksin, Yingluck, Thailand’s a mess with coups and such. Sukarno.
I never understood the conflict in the Middle East. To this day, after all the reading and watching of histories and whatnot, I still feel like I don’t really. I don’t understand why people feel so strongly about Israelis and Jews, for example. But maybe it had to do with the fact that Hitler and the Holocaust seem so long ago that I don’t feel it. Still I feel like people who talk about these things talk in a coded language I don’t understand. Why do Malay Muslims in Southeast Asia feel so stongly about Palestine? I mean, I sort of understand, but I also sort of don’t.
9-11 was the global scale event of my time – I was 11 years old when it happened and I remember phoning at least one friend to tell him what happened. Back in the day where we had to use landlines to call one another. I remember my dad’s behavior being a little incongruous – he seemed to think that the Americans must’ve deserved whatever was coming to them, after whatever interventions they had done elsewhere in the world. I watched the news for hours – every single TV channel was being interrupted. The newscasters were worried. I watched as each of the towers collapsed and a thousand people died, as people jumped from the towers.
I remember the memes back then, too, before we stated calling them that. The “we’re going to kill you Osama” memes. Stickdeath getting all patriotic and coming up with ways and means to kill Arabs and brown people. I remember that there was a message read to us in school the next day – probably from the Minister of Education, talking about the importance of being vigilant and safe. And I think it was after that that security in schools was stepped up, with stricter controls for who could go in and out. Prior to that I seem to vaguely recall walking in and out of everywhere with no problem. Same for airport security, probably.
I remember my dad bringing me to an opposition party rally probably in 2001.
I had a world globe when I was a kid and it had the USSR on the map. I used to play Red Alert, which was about an alternate timeline where Hitler was killed and the USSR expanded westward. I had an odd fascination with them – I liked their typefaces, I thought “The Reds” was pretty cool. The Cold War ended before I was born but it seemed to echo through my early days.
I remember being 18 and watching Obama, a black man, get elected as POTUS. I was so excited. It seemed like the dawn of a new era of maturity, open-mindedness and so on. Then came marriage equality. It took me a while to warm up to caring about gay rights – when I was a teenage boy I was naively, superficially homophobic in the way that teenage boys tend to be, in groups, mocking one another.
I remember the big tsunami in 2005. My parents were in Sri Lanka at the time and I was worried that they might’ve been dead. I tried to be stoic about it and figure out what my life would be like if they did.
I remember being a little bit sad when Goh Chok Tong handed over the PM role to Lee Hsien Loong. I heard rumours of nepotism – how can the former PM’s son be PM – but I don’t think it personally bothered me too much. The SG Govt seemed infallible and could do no wrong. I think I was about 15 when I learned about things like Operation Cold Store thanks to a passionate history teacher.
When I was in the military, there was an instance where some soldier had self-radicalized with the intent of becoming a terrorist. I remember we were ushered into a meeting room and our commander (who I admired) told us we were not to speak to the media, not to blog about it, etc. I remember feeling vaguely outraged at being told not to blog (if my memory serves me well), but it wasn’t something I wanted to blog about anyway so eh. It was with good intentions I’m sure, but it just reminded me of the nature of power and security and all that good stuff.