Dedication: Singapore still gets a large supply of its drinking water from Malaysia, and Singapore still sings its national anthem in Malay. Throngs of Malaysians watch Singaporean television productions, and work and study in Singapore. This short story is dedicated to all those who still think of Singapore and Malaysia as one country. Never before has this been more strongly felt than in the outpouring of emotions from Malaysians of all ethnicities in the face of the death of Lee Kuan Yew (d. 23 March 2015), the man who wept when the parliament of Malaysia expelled Singapore from the Federation in 1965; the man who would be prime minister, first and longest-governing, of his very own little island; the man largely credited for turning Singapore into what it is today. — MA.
I wasn’t planning on going to Johor Bahru tonight. I got into my car on an impulse after a telephone fight with K, my girlfriend. In our usual daily phone call, we said things to each other which were rather harsh, and in the heat of the moment I told K that I wanted to break up with her. And do you know what she said? She said that she didn’t care and that she was going to call Y, my rival, right away. At this point one of us—I don’t remember if it was her or me—hung up. It didn’t take me long to realise that what we were fighting about was nothing in comparison to what was about to happen.
It would have been a mistake to phone K back. Had I done that, she would have said “What? You waited an entire minute before you called me back? L, you don’t even care about me enough to call me back right away…” and we would have started arguing again. So here I am, in my car, driving all the way from Singapore to JB. How’s that for showing someone how much you care? Ok, ‘all the way’ is a bit of an exaggeration. The distance from my house in Upper Bukit Timah to K’s house in JB is only a few kilometres. It’s just that any place outside Singapore seems so far away.
What is K doing now? Is she thinking about me like I am thinking about her? Was she really intent on calling Y or was it just an empty threat? And if she really was dead serious about calling him, has she already done it? She just keyed in his number right after our conversation abruptly ended? Or maybe she wants to think about it first, call Y after she has cooled down a bit. Not that it would be better if she called him in a rational state of mind. Actually, that would be worse.
These thoughts are running through my mind as I am heading towards Woodlands. The order outside me – the neat rows of blocks of flats, the perfectly positioned street lamps giving off light in all the right spots, even the precision with which the trees splay their branches – cannot calm the chaos in me.
Y, like me, lives in Singapore and has lived for years in the hope that K would leave me for him. If K has already phoned him, Y would certainly want to see her and he would have, without a second thought, got into his car. This means that at this moment Y might be driving towards the causeway along with me. Any one of these cars keeping pace with mine could be his. I hate all of them, especially the ones with only one person in them: a man at the steering wheel.
There’s no point in pressing down on the accelerator to get an advantage. Speeding is not allowed in Singapore. And if I were to be stopped by the police, that would definitely blow all my chances of getting to K’s house before Y does. It would be just as unwise to speed once I am on Malaysian soil. Why reinforce the stereotype of the Singaporean who acts like a jakun the second he leaves Singapore? Besides, K’s house is on Jalan Straits View which is so close to the causeway. There isn’t much distance to speed anyway, even if I wanted to.
The only thing I can hope for is that Y was stupid enough to have taken the Second Link way to JB, which is a much longer route to K’s house. He might have thought that by taking the Second Link, he would avoid the traffic jam on the causeway and would get to K before I do. But doesn’t Y know that at this time of night the chances of there being a causeway jam are very slim? Everyone always thinks that there is a perpetual traffic jam on the causeway even when there is no traffic jam. Singaporeans say that the jams are Malaysia’s fault and Malaysians say that the jams are Singapore’s fault. Haiyah, who cares whose bloody fault the jams are! Anyway I hope that Y is racing down the Second Link so that he will be the Second Man to arrive at K’s house. I can’t help but think of the lines from William Butler Yeats’s poem, ‘The Second Coming’, which my English teacher at Raffles Junior College made us memorize for A-levels:
“The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
the best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity.”
I am already at the Woodlands checkpoint. Do I have my passport? Yes, here it is in my shirt pocket. It would have been quite stupid to reach Woodlands only to discover that I had to turn back because I’d forgotten my passport at home. That would have really given K and Y something to laugh about, that is, of course, only if they knew I was on my way to JB to see K.
A long time ago, if a man wanted to see his sayang on the other side of the Johor Straits, he probably just took a boat across and he didn’t need a passport. Today, it would be hard to imagine Singapore, the island, and Malaysia, the peninsula, as one nation. It would be like pushing a child back into its mother’s uterus. Which child, or even mother, would want that? You want to know what started the fight between K and I? I had said that I didn’t mind moving to JB to live. Life is cheaper in JB. You can get more for less. A house with a garden, for example. But I would never leave my job in Singapore. I could commute. Singapore is so close to JB after all. But she said no, it’s not that she doesn’t want me to live closer to her so that we could see each other more often, please don’t take it the wrong way. It’s just that she prefers to come to Singapore to visit me. But she would never want to live there…
I am now on the causeway. I have about a kilometre to go. The water all around me, bathed by the moonlight, is looking particularly still and shiny tonight, like a tight sheet of plastic cling film pulled over a bowl of soup. The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
In the minutes that have passed, it has not escaped my attention that my cell phone, which is sitting sullenly on the seat next to me, has not beeped even once. And when it does beep, it will probably be to inform me that it has changed networks because it has entered Malaysian territory. Without a passport.
I didn’t turn my phone off because I was hoping K would call me back. But evidently she is playing hard to get. She is trying to show me that she is not weak. I’m always the one who has to make the first move. Unless K, too, has had the same idea as me and she is on her way to Singapore to spring a surprise visit on me. For once she has swallowed her pride. So any one of these cars on the causeway, going in the opposite direction towards Singapore, could be hers.
Suddenly I don’t want to reach my destination anymore. The best lack all conviction. Part of me wants to turn back because I think I am going to find K waiting for me at my house. However, if K doesn’t find me at home it might dawn upon her that I have come to see her instead and she would immediately make her way back to her house in JB which, alas, I am no longer thinking of going to. Or else she may think I have, on the rebound, gone to see another woman, in which case she will definitely pay Y a visit.
Another part of me is thinking: can you imagine if I reached K’s place only to find that it hadn’t even crossed her mind to come and see me? Worse still if I find Y sitting next to her on the couch, maybe even holding her hand or with his arm across her shoulders, trying to console her. The worst are full of passionate intensity. I can just imagine him coming out with the whole pathetic story about how he has been unhappily in love for years, and when the opportunity presented itself he would have been a fool not to take it. Of course it was my fault and I had to accept the consequences of my actions.
It has also occurred to me that if I don’t find K at home, maybe she has gone to Y’s house instead and not to mine, not after first coming to mine and when she does not find me there she goes to Y’s house to spite me like she had threatened to do anyway. No, she goes to Y’s house first because that’s where she intended to go the second she got into her car. And Y, not finding K at her house, would rush to my house and not to his, knowing how his brain works.
Essentially, the only way to make it impossible for three people—L,K and Y—to declare how they really feel about each other is to travel up and down this causeway, forever missing each other, chasing each other round and round like cowry shells in a game of chongkat, causing either the lack of conviction or intense passion to rise.
Before I know it, I have reached the end of the causeway. I am already in JB. The beep from my hand phone lets me know too. I am waiting in line to pass through immigration. There are only a few cars before me.
It’s my turn now. The immigration officer looks at me. Then she flips through my passport. Then she scrutinizes my arrival card on which I have truthfully ticked ‘other’ in the ‘purpose of entry’ section. Finally, she stamps my passport. I know what she is thinking: cheap shopping in JB has now closed, so a man alone after midnight in a Singapore car must only be coming to JB for cheap sex. Or cheap food. Or both.
On my way again. I am not able to tell if I am in Malaysia or Singapore despite, or maybe because of, the City Square Mall on Jalan Wong Ah Fook. Singapore has Orchard Road, New York has Fifth Avenue, Paris has Champs Elysee, London has Oxford Street, Milan has Via Montenapoleone. And Johor Bahru has Jalan Wong Ah Fook.
If I turn left, I go towards Jalan Straits View where K lives. Theoretically, I could just keep driving on and on, on the Asian Highway, all the way to Ulan Bator, Cape Town or Leningrad. I have decided to turn right instead. I stop at the nearest food stall and order myself a bowl of laksa. There are people selling food even at this time of night. Good. This way I will be less hungry during the drive back to Singapore.
Masturah Alatas is the author of a work of juvenile fiction, The girl who made it snow in Singapore, and The Life in the Writing, the first biography of Malaysian sociologist, Syed Hussein Alatas. She has recently completed a novella which has as protagonist the Italian adventure novelist, Emilio Salgari, caught up in his own adventures in Borneo. Born and raised in Singapore when Lee Kuan Yew was Prime Minister, Masturah now lives in Italy.