2018 has been an extremely challenging year.
Despite all, I have somehow managed, this year, to always carry myself with a sense of purpose, duty and positivity, smiling and laughing through the many lunches, dinners, drinks, meetings, tours, speeches I’ve had to helm even as I have oftentimes been just a little lost, conflicted and grieving.
My resolution for 2018 was to keep calm and smell the roses. I defined this resolution as follows: a) to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity; b) to take time out to succor my mind and soul; c) to be able to see beauty all around me, in the simplest of things; and d) to see the best in people and in the world.
I must say that on the whole, I’ve achieved my resolution. I was just a wee bit prescient in setting this resolution in the first place. As if to remind me of my resolution, I took to exclusively wearing floral ties, floral pocket squares and floral socks for the most part of the year as I went about my work. My (somewhat eccentric) rationale was that beauty was a kind of armour, and so I surrounded my body with roses (and their thorns), in order to steel myself with courage.Don’t get me wrong. 2018 has been a great year. I’ve achieved lots this year.
At the museum, I’ve been able to witness my short-term vision for the institution made tangible in an extremely well-received special exhibition (our only one this year), in three equally well-received brand-new permanent galleries, and in all the festivals, programmes and activities we’ve undertaken this year.
It’s great seeing vision become reality. There’s only one thing to say to this: Yay!!!!!!!
I continue to see my being at the museum as a tremendous privilege. Not least because I know that there is something wonderful about being able to work, all the time, with so much beauty, from across space and time. Each time I feel particularly down or lost in my office, I only have to walk down to our galleries, and there amongst the many works of art in them, I find peace and clarity.
And I must add that there have been many, many moments of this nature this past year.
The museum, and my own love for museums, has also brought much beauty in my life. By way of the many places my work has taken me to this year. By way of the many exhibitions I’ve had the chance to view in the course of work and leisure. And by way of the many works of art I’ve had the opportunity to encounter and to handle with my bare hands as we install new galleries and plan for future special exhibitions.
Speaking of travel… In 2018, I also morphed into somewhat of a diplomat, at least of the cultural variety.
Never in my life have I travelled as much as I have this year on official business, representing Singapore and the museum on international museum associations and advisory panels, at museum conferences, travelling exhibition openings and meetings to discuss future exhibition collaborations.
Never in my life have I had to hold my own against so many museum directors, curators and collectors from all over the globe, and from so many different cultures, ALL of them extremely wise and way more experienced than I am.
And I am pleased and proud to say that the museum itself has also been a venue of choice for diplomacy and diplomatic events, welcoming royalty, heads of state, ministers and ambassadors from all over the world.
Through it all, I have acquitted myself as best I can by always demonstrating a sense of childlike wonder and passion for my work, and by always insisting on affording a sense of Southeast Asian warmth and hospitality to our guests.
And I have to thank all our ambassadors/high commissioners and our colleagues at the foreign ministry, for the opportunity, support and sincere regard for the museum this year.
Then, of course, there was my book, SINGAPORE 1819 – A LIVING LEGACY, launched in October.
It was hard getting this book done while working full-time. People did not and still do not realise just how much effort, resolve and determination – and how many bouts of late night drinking – it required to get the book done. It was grueling, grueling work – by the time the book was published, I didn’t want to look at it again. I still don’t.
I am, however, extremely pleased by how it turned out – not just how lovely it looks, but how it provides a very different, somewhat against-the-grain view on Singapore heritage that takes as its initial reference point, Singapore’s essence as a cosmopolitan, colonial Asian port city, and highlights its global, cross-cultural nature (rather than more nationalistic elements, if that even makes sense).
There have been some small mistakes in the book despite multiple rounds of editing – signs of just how unlikely and precarious the entire process of putting the book together was. Some readers have taken offense at these slight errors. I apologise. I am only human. These shall be corrected in the second edition. In the meantime, hold on to the first edition as it will be a collector’s item in the future.
But minor setbacks aside, the process of putting the book together – particularly the amassing of the many images in the book – allowed me to see Singapore with rose-tinted glasses, uncovering what was beautiful, surprising and less well-known about my city, re-experiencing it with a sense of curiosity and wonder.
In the process, I fell in love. My city became for me, a precious work of art, to be admired in all its intricate detail, and appreciated for all its flaws.
I would like to thank my publishers once again for the opportunity to (re-)fall in love with my home. Here’s to the next book – on Asian port cities from Bombay to Tokyo. =)
It wasn’t all hunky-dory in 2018. All that travel and constant work at the job and on the book made for a very, very lonely year.
I have never felt quite so alone and vulnerable as I have this year, speeding along as I did, my feet barely touching the ground; and if I wasn’t speeding along, spending all my waking hours either at the museum or staring at my laptop screen working on the book.
This year I turned 40 – a milestone sort of age. And so I reflected pretty frequently in the course of the year on whether or not the life and profession I have chosen was indeed worth it. Particularly since the nature of the profession made it very difficult for me to draw a line cleanly between the professional and the personal.
[Witness how the museum has “seeped” inexorably into my personal blog.]
More than once this year, I faced challenges that have necessitated me reviewing and clarifying my core values. I’m happy to say that not once have I compromised them – I have always chosen the course of rebelling charmingly, where I need to, as much as I can, to preserve my integrity.
And I would be remiss if I did not mention that I have also been at the receiving end of tremendous kindness, generosity and encouragement in the course of the year – something that played a HUGE role in keeping me going.
The lowest point for me this year had to be the death of my beloved pet – my cat, Baby.
Baby was always there each time I returned home, patiently – and sometimes impatiently – waiting. Because he was always there, I took him for granted. Something else was always more important. If it wasn’t the job, it was the book, which took up all my time when I wasn’t at the job. It didn’t help that I didn’t like being at home, because I felt so lonely at home. It didn’t strike me that he would have felt the same.
All in all, I was never there for him this year. I was a terrible parent.
That explains why I am now still suffering the aftershock of his sudden death. Still wracked by guilt at the thought that I killed him through neglect; by the thought that he had died of loneliness, sitting, as he did, night after night, month after month, in the darkness of an empty home, waiting for attention that I could not give.
Even though I am not religious, I have, this year – more than ever before – sought divine intervention.
Thankfully, I needed to look no further than the museum for this. In November, with the launch of our three new permanent galleries, we completed our second floor dedicated to the theme of FAITH & BELIEF and presenting masterpieces of Sacred Art from all of Asia’s grand world religions.
What this means is that all the deities and ancestors are now physically present at the museum.
I have insisted on regarding the deities and ancestors with awe and respect, by having the works of art in our Faith & Belief galleries lit and displayed with utmost reverence, acknowledging and heightening the sense of the Divine that inhabits these works of art and pervades these galleries 物有靈氣.
And I am pleased and moved when I see guests, or staff – our security guards, for instance – bowing and paying obeisance to the deities and ancestors in their midst. I often do that silently myself.
This is the only place in Singapore to have all of Asia’s deities and ancestors under one roof. I believe that one must accord them the proper respect. Because in according them the proper respect, they will, in turn, protect the museum and everyone in it, including me.
While I am not religious, I can perhaps confess that I am spiritual.
And so I conclude 2018 by praying – to all the assembled deities and ancestors at the museum – for overflowing blessings for everyone who works for and at the museum, and for all the friends and visitors who step within our doors, however far they may have hailed from.
And I pray also for peace and harmony for Singapore and the world, regardless of faith and belief. Because this is what we most need in this time of divisive and jingoistic rhetoric.
BEAUTY, DIPLOMACY, FRAGILITY, DIVINITY – this was 2018 in a nutshell.
With the door closed on 2018, it is time to take on 2019.
In keeping with the previous three years, I have decided on a resolution that is more of a guiding principle for the year, rather than a goal to achieve.
This new resolution will come as no surprise. It is hinted at in the preceding paragraphs – and has already been an implicit operating principle for me. In expectation of another year of great opportunity but also great adversity, there is only one thing to do – hunker down and stand firm(er) on first principles.
While in 2018 I resolved to see beauty all around me, in the simplest of things, in 2019, I shall go one step further and resolve to INSTIGATE SUBVERSIVE BEAUTY ALL AROUND ME.
This means, first of all that I shall respond to ugliness with beauty. However I am treated – and in the course of my work, I am sometimes, perhaps inadvertently, not treated as well as I hope to be – I shall always respond with respect and utmost courtesy; with firmness of resolve, but always polite.
My friends and colleagues know that one of my oft-repeated mantras in life is to “nice them to death”. This year I shall “nice them all to death,” armed, as I will be, with a smile and with laughter, because laughter and a smile disarms, creates a moment of uncertainty, when flashed at one who least expects it.
But don’t worry, I have a gun in my glove compartment if all fails. =)
This year, I shall also pursue beauty to an unconventional degree. Beauty of the kind that breaks your heart, that brings tears to your eyes, but that also makes your heart leap with joy, and moves you to burst into song, or dance when there is no music playing.
I pursue beauty because of what it stands for – excellence, aspiration, harmony, hope; the best of (and from) each and every culture, faith, community, individual; a basic and universal human value and need.
And because I understand that beauty has the power to subvert hearts and minds; to inspire and to move; to bring down an empire 傾城之美. Pursuing beauty for its own sake is these days regarded as an act of subversion as mankind trends towards chaos, disruption, divisiveness, difference.
In 2019, at the museum or for myself, I shall also champion and demand radical new ideas and perspectives, beautifully “gift-wrapped”.
By “radical”, I mean ideas and perspectives that change the entire way we view the world, view Asia and view ourselves; ideas and perspectives that are completely original, unique, non-obvious and against the grain, which only the museum and I are able to explore due to our very specific background and context right here in Singapore.
Let me state upfront that I don’t believe in courting controversy, because I believe that one should never be rude or give offence. Particularly in Asia.
Therefore these perspectives shall always be “beautifully gift-wrapped”, so to speak – delivered in a fashion that is subtle, never obvious, never imposing or likely to give offence, always swathed in curiosity, beauty, wonder, relevance; such that one may fail to recognise them for what they are at first, but when one finally does, the impact is profound.
Finally, in 2019, I shall continue to see the world with child-like wonder, never taking myself too seriously. Whatever may happen to me, to my friends and family, to the museum, or to the world at large, I shall continue to be just a bit wide-eyed, eccentric, whimsical, self-deprecatory, and possibly even a wee bit silly; I shall continue to be always positive, always curious, always questioning, and unafraid to speak my mind, gently and politely.
This year I shall close some doors and (re-)open others, pursue new beginnings and new relationships with gusto. I shall celebrate small and large victories with great cheer, and soften setbacks with a warm cup of tea or a sweet glass of wine with those I love.
And above all, whatever may come, I shall laugh and laugh and laugh merrily and at the least provocation, in such a manner that you too, will laugh and laugh and laugh along with me, forgetting all your sorrow, or anger, or anxiety.
2019 will be a spectacular year. I can feel it.
Happy New Year to everyone!