Fashioning a Brand-New, Benign (World) Order

1 - Rice Goddess

Dewi Sri… the Balinese Hindu Goddess of Rice and Fertiity. [This work is by Balinese artist, Dodit Artawan]

What a difference a month and a bit makes!

In late February, when I wrote my previous post, I had just returned from Mexico, anticipating change but hopeful that life would go on, more or less, with some, but not major, disruption.

Little did I know just how extreme, and how global, change and disruption has been! Nobody could have, nor did they, anticipate change on this scale!

CHANGE has been the operating principle for me since December last year. My last post in 2019 – written after spending 2 weeks in seclusion in Bali – expressed my desire for lasting change in the way I see and care for myself, and in the way I live, work and achieve. Admittedly, I had been headed for a burnout, and the retreat and RE-SET, so to speak, had been critical.

Returning to Singapore, I immediately recruited the help of a professional, to take steps to enact that change. As I delved deep within my childhood to confront painful buried memories, the world itself imploded around me; an entire world order crumbled as nation after nation succumbed to the impact of the virus known now as COVID-19.

Some have described the virus as a kind of correcting factor – nature fighting back against years of man’s wanton exploitation and pollution of its (perceived) abundance.  Whatever it may be, “correction” is an apt descriptor, since the upshot of whatever we are collectively going through right now as a species is that we can no longer live, work and play the way we did – which was unsustainable, on multiple levels.

2 - Mona Choo

…signs of a broken world order? …auspicious clouds 祥雲 on the horizon? [This work is by Singaporean artist, Mona Choo.]

I must admit that I am a product of our global system – I am driven to constantly achieve, to keep going and to do more and ever more, to strive for a kind of perfection, all to the detriment of my own mental, emotional and even physical health. (Not to mention the planet’s environmental health…)

This “driven” nature of mine stems from a deep insecurity; a constant reckoning that I am never good enough; that I am not doing well enough, not by anyone’s standards, but by my own; by the standards of a “harsh authority” within me – an echo of my parents’ voices – constantly egging me on with cruel taunts as to how I’m ugly, worthless and how no one will love me should I not strive, all the time, to achieve perfection.

The global economy today, more than ever before, is one that is obsessed with individual success and achievement, often as expressed through conspicuous consumption. Singapore, being plugged into this global economy, is not immune to this obsession. In fact, to a very great degree, Singaporean society rewards individuals who are Type A-oriented, achievement-obsessed, career-focused, and therefore materially, experientially-rich.


Chaos… 混沌… White lotuses in a pond… [This work is by the late Singaporean artist, Chua Ek Kay]

The world today is one in which you are expected to be constantly moving – doing, disrupting, adapting, innovating, perfecting, bettering, upselling, upgrading, expanding…

ANYTHING but standing still. Because standing still is a kind of anti-progress; anti-achievement. Today, more so than any other age – one would get disapproving glances if one were to say that one was just taking a break to reflect.

Even now, as we are all told to STAY AT HOME in order to protect ourselves and others, the prevailing modus operandi remains to strategise increasing productivity – keeping up momentum – while at home; rather than standing still to reflect, to build knowledge, to focus on fundamentals (whatever they may be), to reset.

*  *  *

4 - ACM

ACM Main Facade, circa 6 April 2020, with brand-new facade banners in line with our new brand identity.

The end of last week – gosh was it just last week?! – was a major milestone and turning point for me.

For three and a half years since I took on the job as Museum Director, my momentum has been kept up by one goal alone, and that is to FINISH a process of renovating and transforming the museum; a process begun by my predecessor, and which I took on as my responsibility and obligation.

In my mind, COMPLETING ACM’S TRANSFORMATION was the singular focus and goal.  Nothing else mattered, and nothing would stand in my way. I pursued this focus with a vengeance; against all odds – by which I mean a large panoply of voices who were initially, vitriolically against the change of direction for the museum, and who constantly told me in a variety of ways how I’m not good enough for the job.

I would show them, I told myself.  Because I knew that the standards they set for me could never match the standards I set for myself.

So I fought, and I strove, and I moved ahead with the force of a revolution, forcibly shifting the brand and profile of the museum by doing special exhibitions that would be seen as ground-breaking and completely different to what ACM had done before; and yet were still guided by what ACM fundamentally was and stood for, at its core.

Even as I strove to do different and distinctive exhibitions, I steered the progressive refresh and re-opening of our permanent galleries, one by one, each one more gorgeous than the next, keeping my mind on the final flourish; the final “prize”, by which I mean the completion of what would be the crowning glory of the new museum – the 3rd floor, which I had re-conceptualised on the theme of MATERIALS & DESIGN; and which would contain our most beautiful galleries of all: a Fashion & Textiles Gallery, a Jewellery Gallery and a Ceramics Gallery.

5 - Materials and Design

Promotional banners for the MATERIALS & DESIGN GALLERIES on the 3rd floor, in the main lobby of the museum.

Each time it seemed I was close to finishing the galleries, the goal-posts kept shifting.

For starters, I realised, upon taking the job, that given this was something NEW that I wanted to introduce to the Museum, there was no $$$$ to do it; I would have to raise the money myself. And raise it I did, in the course of 2018, through a successful Fundraising Gala, and through a major gift by one of our most important patrons – whom I see as a mentor of mine – towards the Jewellery Gallery.

And then, due to my requiring the galleries – especially the Jewellery Gallery – to be the most beautiful galleries anywhere, the complexity of the design/scenography for the galleries resulted in the process of installing the galleries being continually lengthened, and the opening of the galleries being postponed four times from November 2019 till end March 2020.

Then just when it seemed everything was on track, COVID-19 hit, and up till the very day the galleries opened, it was never clear if we would actually be able to complete and open them. Travel restrictions resulted in the gallery launch party being postponed by one week, and then new health advisories had us scrambling to cancel press and official launch parties – such that there was no launch per se.

6 - Fashion

FASHION & TEXTILES GALLERY – designed to a “white box” concept. Due to the fragile nature of fashion and textiles, and thus their specific conservation requirement, the gallery displays will be changed once every year, to feature rotating displays of our very large collection of historic fashion and textiles. This display, titled FASHION REVOLUTION, traces the development of modern Chinese fashion from the Qing Imperial Robe through the Republican Period to the “Mao” Suit.

In the end, the galleries did open to the public on 4th April, for three days, before new “circuit breaker” advisories meant we had to close the museum for a month, along with all other non-essential workplaces in Singapore, as Singaporeans were told to stay at home and work from home.

For three and half years since I’ve been on the job, I’ve waited and have been planning for that moment when we would open the 3rd floor galleries with a BANG – a massive, celebratory party with champagne and canapés, to mark the completion of the Museum, finally!!

And at that party, I would choke and tear up with emotion as I delivered the speech thanking our donors and my colleagues, and marking a milestone in the history of the institution and in my career.

Yes, I had envisioned this moment in my mind so often now that I could see it vividly.

So it was somewhat of an anti-climax that there was no party after all. No champagne and canapés. No celebration. No fanfare.  No guests, even. We opened the galleries with barely a squeak, and with barely anyone in the museum. We were lucky we were able to open them at all.

What did happen, however was that the day before the galleries opened, our important Patron, the one I consider a mentor of mine, and who had given a third of the jewellery pieces in and a major gift of cash towards the Jewellery Gallery, came by on a work visit to view the Gallery which bears his parents’ name, to give us the final nod of approval, after which we had the official go-ahead to open.

7 - Jewellery

MARY & PHILBERT CHIN JEWELLERY GALLERY – designed to be a contemporary take on an ethnographic gallery, in tribute to ACM’s former self. Features primarily Southeast Asian jewellery. The highlight of the gallery is a series of 6 full ensembles of Southeast Asian jewellery. This gallery is also quite simply the most beautiful gallery in the Museum; it’s crowning glory.

That visit and nod of approval, I now realise, meant so much more to me than any launch party would have. It was a quiet, contemplative, even stately visit, made in the midst of such great uncertainty around us. We viewed all the galleries on the 3rd floor leisurely and deliberately. He gave me feedback, as he always does, on details of design and placement of objects; and educated me on the facts behind some of the key pieces on display.

Outside, the world was on the brink of implosion. But in here, there was calm; there was a sense of timelessness. We were looking at jewellery, after all; and jewellery, to both of us, represented the highest tangible form and expression of human creativity and innovation, of the timelessness and resilience of the human imagination.

And as long as we had imagination, creativity, innovation and resilience, we would all be fine, humankind would survive.

We took a photo together; a simple innocuous photo of us both smiling in the Gallery.  He would not know – and I didn’t tell him – that this photo marked what was THE most important and momentous day of my career thus far as a museum director.  A day I had been waiting for, for more than 3 years.

On hindsight, so I deliberated, a usual opening launch party with champagne, canapés and hundreds of people would have been less meaningful than this quiet, dignified contemplation.

8 - Ceramics

CERAMICS GALLERY in the Kwek Hong Png Wing – refined, rarefied minimalist. 4000 years of Chinese ceramics displayed in an uber-contemporary, space-age, Star-Trek-ish space flooded with daylight.

9 - ACM-logo

Our brand-new logo is an update on the earlier one. The logo is now a proper square, with text resized so they are plumper and more visible. ACMRed has changed its hue slightly, and we’ve dropped our full name “Asian Civilisations Museum” so that we’re now, just, ACM. 😁

*  *  *

Later on that evening I cried, succumbing, finally, to the immensity of the moment.

I reflected on how lucky we were, how lucky I was, that we were still able to open the galleries, despite all; that after shutting the museum down, we had a home, and a family and loved ones to go to, to seek solace; that we were here, safely ensconced, in Singapore, where, if anything, plans to combat the virus have been swift, rational, decisive and broadly accepted without much fuss.

I reflected on how we had had the best laid-plans – plans that had been set in place years in advance; but that the universe itself had an order of its own, an order that was beyond our ken; far more inscrutable than we could ever have imagined.

In the face of this IMMENSITY, sometimes there is no choice but to LET GO – of everything that had been painstakingly set in place; of all the pent-up effort and invested resources; of the constant looking ahead to the future – and just go along with the FLOW, live in the MOMENT, appreciate the RIGHT-NOW.

10 - Airplane Window

View beyond the airplane windows… Who knows where we’re going? Who knows when we’ll be able to travel again? [This work is by Japanese artist, Sakamoto Tokuro 阪本トクロウ.]

Speaking of letting go…

I realise now that the opening of the galleries and completion of the museum was also a sort of letting go for me on an existential level.

In putting the final touches to the new ACM, I was, in effect, also saying goodbye to a version of myself that had held court, so to speak, these past 3 and half years. A version of myself that had at its core, that crying child begging for approval at the foot of the stairs of my parents’ house 30 years ago.

That version of me existed simply to achieve based on someone’s else’s yardsticks (in this case, the museum’s); and this achievement was un-egocentric, in that it was ultimately pursued as means of pleasing others and proving something. The old Kennie had lived his life based on an internal (world) order that was harsh and authoritarian, and that stemmed from a lifetime of trying to prove something and to please those who were closest to me.

The process of self-archaeology that began in Bali and had been guided along, with professional help, these few months, needed a kind of pivot – a symbolic milestone. For lack of a better alternative, the opening of the galleries became that very pivot.

From 4th April on, I was no longer the same me. I could…can, feel it palpably. It’s a new kind of feeling… a liberating, even louche, couldn’t-care-less-‘cos-I’m-done-bitches sort of attitude.

Though of course, one could say that nobody, at this point, is the same him or her any longer!

That’s what happens when one encounters a pandemic in full swing. Nothing is likely to ever be the same again – not even ourselves! – when the pandemic blows over. Because it WILL blow over.

11 - Laozi

Lao Tzu 老子 on his ox. Legend says he tired of the world and disappeared off into the West… The Tao Te Ching 道德经 encourages 無為 “non-action” and 自然 “going with the flow (or tao 道)”…

This is the end of the world; the end of a World Order that began in the ‘90s, survived the 2000s (and 9/11) and accelerated out of control in the 2010s.

The next World Order, one can but hope, will be a benign rather than a harsh World Order– a slower, calmer, more reflective, more forgiving, more sustainable World Order.

We don’t know if we’re going to emerge from this pandemic – the most serious, truly global crisis of our time – unscathed. We don’t even yet know our enemy fully – this disruptor-corrector-whatchamacallit-damned-virus-disease-thing that has a deceptively-innocuous, Sci-Fi, Star-Wars-ish name.

12 - Manila Galleon

Manila Galleon, lost, somewhere in the now… Is help coming? [This work is by Philippine artist, Aldrine Alarcon.]

On the personal front, I, too, have no idea, where I am headed, who I will be. I don’t know what the new Kennie would look like, not yet. Unlike for the museum, I have no 3-year Transition Plan for myself. I don’t think planning should even come into the picture – or I would have squandered my money on all those weeks of therapy.  =)

All I can do is go with the flow and hope for the best.

Hope for and gently, leisurely fashion, in my own time, a brand-new, benign authority/order within myself; one that will be more forgiving and tolerant of, more predisposed to self-care (rather than self-flagellation) for, the flawed, imperfect, beautiful soul that I must be.

This predisposition to self-care is so that that I may, in turn, be better able to love those around me – my family (eventually) and my closest friends – and to be better able to encounter love, of the romantic kind…

*  *  *

13 - Unicorn

Unicorn – something that is highly desirable but difficult to find or obtain. [This work is by Philippine artist, Luke Alarcon]

So here we are on Day 6 of Singapore’s so-called “Circuit Breaker”.  It’s the eve of Easter Sunday, and the middle of Passover.

The “CB” – as we Singaporeans refer to it – is an almost-total-lockdown. We’ve been told we must Stay At Home, and refrain from doing anything outdoors except for essential activities like exercising outdoors, or buying groceries. Laws have been enacted such that it is now illegal to visit each other for any kind of social gathering. Nope, not even our loved ones, except – again – in essential and exceptional circumstances.

It’s taking some getting used to.

You see, because recently, I’ve opened myself up again to love… ❤️

It happened quite out of the blue… And is possibly maybe a little too soon.

But the one good thing all this has gotten going, and the one thing different about this time,  is that – up until this week, at least – I have been experiencing a kind of CALMNESS within.

I have been able to, actually, God forbid… CHILLAX. 😎

It’s been extremely comforting.  I think I may actually be happy.


Am I falling in love?

14 - Chimaera

Chimaera – a thing that is hoped for but is illusory or impossible to achieve. [This work is by Malaysian artist, Shafiq Nordin.]

But the circuit breaker has literally broken the circuit.  Grrr… Just when we were getting close… now this.

This past week I’ve been consumed by yearning and I’ve been just a wee bit down.  While I crave physical presence and physicality, all I have is an echo of it on my phone. Not Narcissus but only his reflection.

But thank god for modern technology! Thank god for WHATSAPP, that doughty sprite of an app!  I can’t imagine what life was without you!!  LOL.

I think it’s clear I’ve gone stark raving mad.

But I know I have to hang in there. What else can I do?

Hang in there, Kennie.

…dream of all the cities you’ve journeyed to, for real, and on this blog… and all that epic romance I’ve tried to conjure up these past few years…

That could help in the counting of those (empty) nights till the cock, or the rooster, rather, crows…

Till the rooster crows, everyone.

In the meantime, happy Passover and Easter.

15 - Rooster

…till the rooster crows.  A rooster heralds the dawn of a new day… and perhaps also, a new world order…  [This work is by Japanese artist, Ito Seiwa 伊藤 清和.]

About Kennie Ting

I am a wandering cityophile and pattern-finder who is pathologically incapable of staying in one place for any long period of time. When I do, I see the place from different perspectives, obsessive-compulsively.
This entry was posted in Art & Architecture, Cities & Regions, Culture & Lifestyle, Heritage, Home, Landmarks & History, Museums, Photography, Singapore and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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