Nasi Ambeng, Ambeng Cafe by Ummi Abdullah

nasi ambeng, Ambeng Cafe by Ummi Abdullah, 430 Upper Changi Road, East Village

nasi ambeng, Ambeng Cafe by Ummi Abdullah, 430 Upper Changi Road, East Village

nasi ambeng, Ambeng Cafe by Ummi Abdullah, 430 Upper Changi Road, East Villagebonding; uniting

fellowship; friendship

redemption; adoption

Nasi ambeng, the celebratory dish of weddings and religious festivals; an occasion for sharing and bonding and talking about our week and the week ahead while shovelling in beef rendang, sambal sotong, sambal goreng, paru (cow lungs), begedil, ikan sambal bali, urap kencur, telur belado, ikan kering, ayam kalio with loads of nasi (rice). And chendol – with proper gula melaka.

Comfort food.

Ambeng Cafe by Ummi Abdullah (facebook, 430 Upper Changi Road, East Village)

“Democracy Kills: What’s So Good About Having the Vote?”

Sinar Pagi Nasi Padang, 13 Circular Road, SingaporeLunch at Sinar Pagi Nasi Padang (13 Circular Road) and we were talking politics loudly enough that neighbouring tables, who were discussing swaps and bonds when we sat down, had started to listen in.

Somewhere along the line I mentioned that I’d been reading Humphrey Hawksley‘s Democracy Kills: what’s so good about having the vote?

Rather than a tightly-woven argument with stats, Hawksley had chosen a more emotive approach with stacks of personal narratives. As one might surmise from its title, the leitmotif of book, as we travel from Africa to the Middle East and the Islamic world, to South Asia, to Latin America, to South East Asia, to Europe, is skepticism about the benefits of democracy.

We read about West-imposed elections in Africa ending with catastrophic consequences when would-be dictators took advantage of the weakness of fledgling political institutions to sweep into power.

We are brought to the Middle East where the relevance of elections is questioned in a society where power is commonly shared according to birthright and candidates are manifestations of societal (tribal) faultlines. And we are shown how wrong Condoleezza Rice is in alleging that dictatorships caused terror, so democracy would end it. Violence erupted whenever a Western power came along to overthrow a dictator, leaving a vacuum of power for various factions to fight over.

etc.

tauhu telor, Sinar Pagi Nasi Padang, 13 Circular Road, SingaporeDemocracy is not the panacea that the West (mostly, America) touts it is. Hawksley repeatedly suggests that American involvement in various countries is a fig leaf – it is about protecting U.S. interests and installing leaders they think will be friendly to them, rather than the welfare of the locals. Hence, the inconsistency in their labelling the democratically-elected Hamas as terrorists. Hawksley then contrasts the poverty and instability of suddenly-manufactured democracies with the prosperity and stability of monarch-ruled Dubai or authoritarian Singapore.

The oft-quoted dictum of Winston Churchill (from his speech in the House of Commons, 11 November 1947):

Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…

has just as often been forgotten. But, in any case, says Hawksley, it’s not enough just to observe this fact. More needs to be done:

  • educate the electorate: create a generation of people who can think calmly and critically, and reason well – something greatly hampered by sanctions on books
  • allow time for electoral candidates to make themselves known to the locals and not just be handpicked by eg. the Americans in Iraq, mentor them so they understand what the democratic system entails and know how not to be a bad loser
  • ensure proper planning for the future – it’s not just enough to plot to get rid of a dictator without a plan for how to run the country thereafter

a diet of yoghurt and muesli and political theory for breakfastWell, said AH, other than the absolute perfect rule of Christ over all (see, eg. Ephesians 1), perhaps the best form of government is the benevolent dictator. I suppose that’s just as feasible in this fallen world as a completely unselfish community-centred rational electorate.

Showing the Londoners Around Singapore in One Long Day

Two batches of Londoners descended in Singapore over the last month. It was so great to see them, but it made me incredibly homesick for Old Blighty.

Where to bring foreign visitors in Singapore? How to give them a sense of what Singapore is like outside of the constructed tourist attractions?

Singapore as Financial Hub

We started from the Central Business District – the shiny skyscrapers full of hardworking office bees that made Singapore a “financial hub”.

Tour of Singapore: Starbuck matcha lattes at One Fullerton
Tour of Singapore: Starbuck matcha lattes at One Fullerton

Singapore as Tourist Hub

Then a visit to the amazing loos in Fullerton Bay Hotel or Fullerton Hotel to freshen up (a highlight of their trip said two of them), before sipping matcha lattes (“we don’t get this in London”) at Starbucks, One Fullerton, and catching up (and charging phones).

Then on to the necessary cheesy photos with the Merlion and the ArtScience Museum and Marina Bay Sands:

Tour of Singapore: cheesy photo pitstop with ArtScience Museum, Marina Bay Sands, Merlion

Singapore as Juxtaposition Between Old and New

After, a stroll contrasting the colonial buildings and new modernist ones, munching ice-cream sandwiches from the S$1.20 ice-cream uncle: the Victoria Concert Hall and Victoria Theatre, the Old Parliament House and current Parliament House, the Old Supreme Court and current UFO Supreme Court (a trip to the top allows a good view of the city – but no photography allowed in the building), a peek into the unopened National Gallery.

Singapore as Multi-Racial and Multi-Religious Society (and “Foodie Hub”)

Then a rest stop at St. Andrew’s Cathedral with the sun coming through its lovely stained glass, throwing colours all over the pews:

Tour of Singapore
Tour of Singapore: stained glass colours, St. Andrew's Cathedral
Tour of Singapore: St. Andrew's CathedralThen to Maxwell Market for delicious chicken rice and other “hawker delights” like char kway teow and chai tow koey, and refreshing ABC (apple, beetroot, carrot) and carrot-orange juices, before popping over to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple:

Tour of Singapore: Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
Tour of Singapore: Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
Tour of Singapore: Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
Tour of Singapore: Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

We’d wanted to check out Lepark at Pearl Bank Centre as an example of how old buildings were being repurposed by young indie folk. Alas, they were closed that day:
Tour of Singapore: Pearl Bank Centre

Ah, some nasi padang washed down with bandung and teh tarik and milo dinosaur at Kampong Glam, off Arab Street

Tour of Singapore: teh tarik at the sarabat stall in Kampong Glam
Tour of Singapore
Tour of Singapore

before being kitted out with appropriate wear for the Sultan Mosque:
Tour of Singapore
Tour of Singapore
The visitors loved how friendly everyone in the temple and mosque was – how they didn’t have to worry about appropriate wear beforehand, and how willing to answer their endless questions. “Can we take photos here?” they’d nervously asked the docent at the mosque. “Only if you post on facebook!” came the cheeky answer.

A gander down self-consciously hipster Haji Lane, then we stopped off at Raffles Hotel for another freshening up (without a Singapore Sling in the Long Bar this time):
Tour of Singapore
Tour of Singapore

Before heading to Ku De Ta atop Marina Bay Sands to watch the sun set and the lights about town come on:
Tour of Singapore: Marina Bay Sands
Tour of Singapore
Tour of Singapore: Marina Bay Sands
Tour of Singapore

Tour of Singapore: view from Ku De Ta atop Marina Bay Sands

Across the bay for some satay and tourist touting on the street next to Lau Pat Sat:
Tour of Singapore: satay stick trophies next to Lau Pat Sat

Thence to Little India (a little too late for the Hindu temples, sadly), for gawking in amazement at the flower garland makers, some (erm, North) Indian on banana leaves:
Tour of Singapore
Tour of Singapore: Apollo Banana Leaf Curry
Tour of Singapore: Apollo Banana Leaf Curry - box of mints
Tour of Singapore: Apollo Banana Leaf Curry - after-dinner mints

A spin around the amazing Mustafa which had almost everything anyone was looking for, then to Geylang for pek at the red-light district and a dessert of the king of fruits – durian! and its friend the jackfruit:
Tour of Singapore
Tour of Singapore - Geylang jackfruit

Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy Street, and the Bioethics of Mercy Killing

Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy Street, SingaporeBeng Hiang at Chinese New Year

Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy Street
Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy StreetBeng Hiang on a normal weeknight, and even then, there was occasion for a blast of their classic “Happy Birthday” recording

Whenever I returned to Singapore from a long stint abroad, we would always head straight to Beng Hiang Restaurant (currently at 112-116 Amoy Street, but moving to 135 Jurong Gateway Road in June 2015. facebook) from Changi Airport, to inhale some of that absolutely delicious fish maw soup, hei zhou and ngoh hiang, dark hokkien noodles, and tender kong ba bao.

Our family, having eaten there for at least 30 years since they were at Murray Street Terrace, were on nodding terms with the Boss With The Tie, who was always polite enough for a smile and some small talk, even if neither party knew the other’s name.

fish maw thick soup with crab meat (蚧肉鱼鳔羹), Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy Street, Singapore
fish maw thick soup with crab meat (蚧肉鱼鳔羹), Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy Street, Singaporefish maw thick soup with crab meat (蚧肉鱼鳔羹)

I was last there a fortnight ago, stuffing some Londoners with the delights of Hokkien cuisine. Later that night, all that good stodgy stuff fuelled a night working on the bioethics of family-assisted suicide (FAS) or physician-assisted suicide (PAS).

Thanks to NC, access to Ronald Dworkin’s Life’s Dominion was a useful starting point. Too often, people are more than eager to shop for a side to take in such a debate, to carry a political part badge, without being about to articulate clearly what their position is, or to engage meaningfully with other parties without a lot of name-calling.

What is necessary for this hot potato as for any other topic is to first identify the issues, to listen carefully to each party’s stance and understand each party’s rationale for arriving at their respective conclusions, before either agreeing, refuting, or rebutting each point in a constructive manner.

五香虾枣 ngor hiang and hei zhou. Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy Street, Singaporengor hiang and hei zhou (五香虾枣)

Dworkin attempts to reconcile the different vocal (American) camps by saying that actually, everyone believes that human life is sacred and wants to preserve the sanctity of such a life.

The difficulty comes in teasing out the different rationale behind this idea that life is valuable. Dworkin proposes categorising the bases for the inherent inviolability of life in terms of the following:

  • critical interests – what makes a life successful rather than unsuccessful – when someone has made something of his life, not just wasted it (p201); a steady, self-defining commitment to a vision of character or achievement that the life as a whole, seen as an integral creative narrative, illustrates and expresses (p205). None of us wants to end our lives out of character (p213). So Dworkin would have approved the integrity of Sandy Bem, the Cornell psychology professor, who chose to die when she found out she had Alzhimer’s, since that was repulsive to her vision of herself as an astute and original thinker (The Last Day of Her Life, New York Times).
  • experiential interests – what makes life pleasant or enjoyable minute by minute, day by day (p201).
  • dignity – decisions about life and death are the most important, the most crucial for forming and expressing personality, says Dworkin. Therefore, to be denied the freedom to choose how to die is an affront to the self-respect and dignity owed to that person by others.

kong ba bao (stewed pork belly with soft buns), Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy Street, Singapore
close-up of a kong ba bao. Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy Streetkong ba bao (stewed pork belly with soft buns)

I could be mistaken about Dworkin, but he appears to conflate “value of life” with “the good life” (in all its philosophical glory). Related to this is the fact that although he raises the “religious” argument of inherent value of life, he doesn’t quite seem to understand how all-encompassing the right of the divine is on our lives.

The Christian believes that:

  • contra Dworkin’s self-determined dignity: God gave all life; he knit us in our mother’s wombs; he chose us before the beginning of time! (Ephesians 1:4); he redeemed us with the blood of his Son (Ephesians 1:5), and not only that, made us alive in him, raised and seated us with Christ in the heavenly realms! (Ephesians 2). Therefore we do not choose to dispose of our lives in a manner and time fitting to us, because it is not our right to do so;
  • contra Dworkin’s human-determined critical interests: his/her critical interests are tied up with God’s purpose for him/her (“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10));
  • as Dworkin mentions, experiential interests in pleasure may be outweighed at times by critical interests. But more than that, awkward as it sounds, there is purpose to suffering. For “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:4-5)

sweet dessert soup. Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy Street, Singapore

Cheng Mun Chee Kee Pig Organ Soup, Foch Road

Cheng Mun Chee Kee Pig Organ Soup, Foch Road

Having never, in my entire time in Singapore, partaken of the organs of a pig, I did not see the attraction of Cheng Mun Chee Kee. And surely if these organs have filtered a lifetime of waste…

But rather enjoyed the vinegared pig’s trotters and the antics of my dinner companions, whom, it seemed, were the evening’s entertainment for the rest of the coffeeshop.

It was amusing to think how the specialty coffee industry is a sort of half-way house of the undecided modern; a holding place until one’s life’s path appears a little clearer. What opportunities to minister and serve those tarrying at the crossroads!

Keng Eng Kee Seafood, the Book of Esther, and the Feast of Purim

Keng Eng Kee Seafood, 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, SingaporeMet the usual gang at Keng Eng Kee Seafood (124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, facebook) for an early birthday dinner. E had successfully booked us a table despite her terrible Chinese, and even managed (accidentally) to pre-order two crabs (having cluelessly said “yes” to something one of the staff had offered over the ‘phone).

Keng Eng Kee Seafood, 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, SingaporeThe homemade tofu, coffee pork ribs, deep-fried goby fish (laden with lard) were delicious on white rice: Homemade tofu, Keng Eng Kee Seafood, 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, Singapore Coffee pork ribs, Keng Eng Kee Seafood, 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, Singapore Deep-fried Goby fish, Keng Eng Kee Seafood, 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, Singapore

The salted egg prawns were good, but just not as outstanding as the other dishes: Salted egg prawns, Keng Eng Kee Seafood, 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, SingaporeThere was a lot of loud cackling with this gang, even more so when we repaired to Salute Coffeeshop for Brothers ciders and draught wheat beer.

Those who were in study groups in Adam Road Presbyterian Centre mentioned that they were going through the Book of Esther.

Esther’s a really short read and, intriguingly, takes place during the reign of the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces. There is no mention of God in the book, but his handiwork is everywhere.

Esther 1 sets the context of the story: the court of an internationally powerful king who, powerful and prosperous as he is, can’t get his wife, Vashti, to do his bidding.

Esther 2 seems to be the usual rags to riches story for Esther, except for the repeated idea that any suggestion that Esther was a Jew(ess) would have jeopardised the whole thing. She keeps silent on the strict advice of Mordecai, her uncle.

In Esther 3, narrative tension escalates dramatically with a plot on the lives of all Jews by Haman the agitated Agagite. “Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces with instruction to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods” (Esther 3:13).

There seems little hope that even Esther can do anything about this. But Mordecai now says that this is not the time for silence. Further, “14 For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)

Meanwhile, it seems quite certain to Haman and his friends and wife in Esther 5 that Haman’s star is on the up, and he can do to Mordecai whatever he wants.

creating head in wheat beer, Salute Coffee Shop, Bukit Merah

But a great and wonderful reversal takes place. A series of fortunate events or really, the divine hand at work? And again we see the regrettable impotence of the king, who, having first been unable to distinguish his friends from self-interested courtiers, was later unable to undo his own edict. Still the Jews are saved, and we can be certain from whom their rescue issued – the biblical phrase “and the fear of the Jews fell upon” (or variations thereon) is reminiscent of God’s protection of Israel in the Exodus as they passed through various lands belonging to hostile people.

And Queen Esther and Mordecai the Jew (how the writer of Esther emphasises this!) institute the Feast of Purim to celebrate the event as “22 as the days on which the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and gifts to the poor” (Esther 8:22).

According to some reports, Christians are the most persecuted people on the earth now. And while Christian Concern and Open Doors quite rightly highlight and agitate for protection of the rights of Christians, the assurance is that there is a God who will be seen, in the great sweep of human history, to have preserved his people for eternity.

Salute (not Salut) Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1, Alexandra Village, Singapore

Salut Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1 Immanuel French Kitchen, Salut Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1 Immanuel French Kitchen, Salut Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1

We were at Salute Coffeeshop in Bukit Merah for Immanuel French Kitchen (facebook), headed by Immanuel Tee.

foie gras, Immanuel French Kitchen, Salut Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1The pan-fried foie gras (“coated with black miso and served with dashi broth and daikon noodles”) was a promising concept, but lacked the crisp exterior that should have come from being in a pan, and would have helped with jer lat blandness of the liver.

French duck confit, Immanuel French Kitchen, Salut Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1Duck confit is difficult to get just right. Cooking it is easy enough – just fish out from its rendered duck fat bath, pat dry, and put on the pan. But to get the contrast of textures – the crackle of skin and the tender flavourful flesh, takes experience. One of Immanuel’s assistants cooked this dry duck leg – a pity. Also there was a lack of cohesion to the dish – you took a bite of the duck, and one of the mash, but there was nothing to bridge the distance.

pork belly cooked in kakuni style, Immanuel French Kitchen, Salut Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1Pork belly cooked in kakuni style (“served with mushrooms, onsen egg, potato foam”). I guess none of this is a reflection on Immanuel’s ability as a chef, but he might want to train his assistants better.

Two Wings (facebook) was another stall within the coffeeshop: Two Wings, Salut Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1The wings are allegedly made according to the Carona Chicken recipe from yesteryear. As fried chicken wings went, they were alright, said H, but probably not worth S$12.50 for 6 pieces. I just remember the chilli sauce being the highlight of Carona, not the chicken.

Representing the Germans was Stew Küche (facebook): stew and pretzel, Salut Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1The stew in a claypot accompanied by a pretzel, wasn’t anything to write home about, said B. And the pretzel was more hard than chewy.

avocado shake! Salut Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1Dismissive of the beer and the exorbitant prices of other drinks, B brought over some avocado shakes from the Alexandra Village hawker centre.

A coffeeshop filled with un-coffeeshop-like food isn’t new but is something fun that we’d like to see more of. While Singaporeans love to flock to the newest eating place, quality and value-for-money are what will continue to draw returning customers once the shine (and instagram-worthiness) was worn off.

Where to find good reasonably-priced French food in Singapore?

Before I left Singapore, there was a good and cheap French stall in a kopitiam at 269 Queen Street called “Le Cuisson”. Sadly for fans of French food in coffeeshops, they are now “La Cuisson” at Prinsep Street – proper French grammar, proper restaurant space, and proper bistro prices.

And there was the reasonably-priced Le Bistro at the Singapore Indoor Stadium – that’s closed shop as well.

Le sigh.