What does whatever going on in Myanmar have anything to do with me? Many Singaporeans are probably thinking. I thought the same about the 1988 uprising in Yangon. I was just a child, not even in grade school, barely aware of the country’s existence. Later, in secondary school and junior college, I began to encounter Myanmarese students, most who left home after the uprising, many with rumoured wealth or ties to the junta (now of course, all denied).
Then at college, I met N. Tall, gangly, with a cheerful disposition but a seriousness beyond his years, he commanded attention when he spoke even though his English was not fluent. N, me, and a third friend C, a grad student from Malaysia, formed an unlikely—or one could also say predictable—trio, bonding over our shared tastebuds and fondness for the irreplaceable sweet-spicy tang of Southeast Asian food.
It was over one of those meals, at a Taiwanese eatery along University Avenue that will always remind me of the diner in Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, when N spoke of the nights he spent in the jungle, trying to flee to Thailand.
“The satellite phones, the security technology they used to hunt me, they were all from Singapore.”
I looked up, eyes wide. Across the table from me, N continued eating. In his eyes, not a hint of blame or anger.
“I didn’t know,” I said, putting down my chopsticks.
“It’s always Singapore,” C said in a teasing voice. “The things you don’t know about your own country.”
N and C exchanged a conspiratorial smile, then continued eating, as though what they had just told me was of no consequence at all. But the burden of that new knowledge weighed on me throughout dinner. Did I have an invisible neon sign over my head, flashing Singapore! Was that what I reminded N of every time he saw me? The hunger and the terror he must have felt, all those months in the jungle, that they were getting closer, with the help of my country’s defence technology.
“I haven’t seen my family in fourteen years,” he said that night.
N always had a wide smile for everyone, but for the first time, his eyes were wet. He blinked and looked away.
We lost touch after I graduated from Berkeley, then years later, reconnected. Even over social media, I could feel the warmth of his personality. I often talk to friends about you that I once had a little sis in Berkeley who is such a smart gal, he wrote. I felt bad for not keeping in touch, and his message made me want to cry. Not long after the 2012 elections when Aung San Suu Kyi returned to power, N told me he was planning to return home. “Things are changing rapidly,” he said, a hint of cautious hope in his voice.
After he moved home, we made plans to meet up in Yangon, but then life got in the way. Over sporadic messages I got the sense that Myanmar’s progress was perhaps even beyond what he had initially hoped for on his return. And then—
—first phone lines, then the internet was cut off. Every day, the temperature in Myanmar rises. Everywhere around me in Singapore, everyone goes about life as normal in our COVID-free bubble. What’s it got to do with me? Not thinking, not knowing has become a default state of sorts in Singapore. Nothing to do with me. Because it’s so much easier to breathe that way. That’s how complicity works: not knowing. Not knowing that the thousands of Myanmarese who make a living in Singapore, who haven’t returned home in more than a year, are worried sick about their family, worried sick about home. Not knowing that Myanmarese are calling for a boycott of Singaporean products not because they hate us or because they want to hurt us but because they are desperate. They are desperately sounding the gong, trying to wake us up: we are connected in more ways than we know, to the two young protestors’ deaths today. We have a voice, and if we don’t use it when we can, one day we will forget how to use it at all.
(Photo: Mawlaik jungle in Myanmar, source: Wikipedia Commons)