It’s February 2021, how do you feel?
I feel better that Donald Trump is no longer hogging the headlines and we don’t have to see and hear him every day. I feel pessimistic sometimes about Covid-19 and how long it’s going to stay and affect the way we live our lives because I am aware all the time that I am growing older. The pandemic made older people feel old. No more kidding ourselves that 60 is the new 50 and all that. The message was clear and repeated daily on the cover of The Straits Times: Seniors, Stay Home. I turned 67 in the Year of the Plague, and that put me in the vulnerable group. For a while, older people were in all those videos being circulated widely, acting foolishly in public, refusing to heed safe-distancing rules, getting into scraps. That was awful. For months, I went only to the supermarket or to get a haircut. I still don’t enjoy eating out in socially-distanced restaurants. It feels sad when they are emptier than before, but it is also somewhat alarming when they seem more crowded than they ought to be.
Has Covid-19 made you fear death?
No, although I thought about it a lot more. My older sister and a cousin died during 2020. I had a couple of hospital stays during the year, for a kidney stone and then dengue fever. I was forced to slow down for months and that bothered me a lot because I put on weight and it’s been hell trying to get it off. I watched four people fight hard against cancer through the year, and one of them lost what was nothing short of a valiant battle to the very end. Watching him made me feel I wouldn’t fight as hard. If we live, we die. The idea of doing everything possible to prolong life, only to die slowly, is something I struggle with.
Were you depressed in 2020?
I was aware that I had bouts of a mood that would descend on me, when I did not want to speak with anyone and it made me retreat to a room and close the door. It still happens, though now I recognise the signs and know something is shutting down inside. Thankfully I also have a way of snapping out of it. Usually it helps to go into the kitchen and cook a meal. My wife makes us sit together for dinner and initiates conversation. She will tell us something she heard, or about a story in the news, or describe something at work and ask questions. She works harder at it when she senses I’m being quiet. Bless her.
What were you grateful for in 2020?
Everyone in our small family is safe, both my children are home. I’m glad I live in Singapore, a compact little place with a government committed to fixing things that go wrong. Its performance wasn’t perfect, and the situation in migrant worker dormitories was disgraceful and made me feel ashamed. But even there, Singapore put its resources into dealing with the soaring dormitory infections, and the community responded admirably to reach out and help.
What do you miss most?
Travel. We had a trip to Taiwan all planned, which had to be cancelled. I missed four work trips to Hong Kong, a place I like a lot. I’d hoped to visit my hometown, Kuala Lumpur, more regularly through 2020 to see my mother, who turns 92 in March. The irony is that I stayed away for a number of years after we had a falling out, which happens in families. By the time I started seeing my mum again, her memory had begun to fade.
I last saw my mother when my sister Barbara passed on a year ago. Mum was happy to see me. She made me sit beside her, held my hand and told people: “This is my son.” They already knew. Her memory has deteriorated significantly since. The last time we spoke on a video call, she faded in and out of being aware of who she was speaking with. Once, she looked at me and asked: “Who’s that?” It would be better if I could visit and sit with her now, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon. The Covid-19 situation in Malaysia looks a mess. The first three places I hope to travel to when we can are Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Taiping, Perak.
Which is home: Singapore or Kuala Lumpur?
I’ve lived in Singapore for 40 years, well over half my life, and there is truly no other place I ever think of moving to. This is home. But the immigrant always has heart problems. When I am in Kuala Lumpur, a city where many landmarks remain where they were when I was a boy, there is a familiarity that feels so right and I am at home even if years have gone by since my last visit. There is a comfortableness with places and people I do not experience in Singapore. I have cousins and friends who go back to when I was in school and all the way to kindergarten, and we pick up where we left off effortlessly. They forgive my absence.
What’s one thing that went right in 2020?
I gave myself a MasterClass online subscription at Christmas 2019 and the pandemic made me use it. I started with writing classes, then Yotam Ottolenghi came along. I began cooking Middle Eastern food after a trip to Syria in 2011, but Ottolenghi proved hugely encouraging, inspired many new meals, and made me get new coloured dishes too. My niece gave me a set of Ottolenghi cookbooks and now that I have his partner Sami Tamimi’s cookbook Falastin as well, I’m set. Then I started watching Salman Rushdie’s class. I’d never read any of Rushdie’s books because every time I tried, it was too hard on Page One. He also always appeared mean in pictures and stories about him, which did nothing to improve his appeal. But his writing class was superb and I was hooked all the way, and even watched some episodes twice. Ottolenghi and Rushdie made me renew my MasterClass subscription.
Was that your best buy?
This small painting by a Kolkata artist named Biswapati Maity makes me happy every time I look at it on our living room wall. I spotted it in the online catalogue of a Chennai art gallery. When it arrived, it pleased me no end. I love the look on the man’s face, his thinning hair and moustache, his umbrella and shopping basket. If he had round glasses, it would be me.