Consider the Platonic Form of the Oyster

With apologies to M.F.K. Fisher.

We were sat at Greenwood Fish Market, on oyster promotion Tuesday, discussing platonic forms so loudly that several tables snapped round to look…as if one of us had said a cuss word in polite company.

It started with NC being rather put out that the “Frenchmen” with their little box of Michelin stars could tell us what good Singapore hawker food should taste like. This led to my suggestion that it wasn’t their nationality that was the issue, but their possible lack of cognisance of, say, the Form of Char Kway Teow.

There must be a Form of Char Kway Teow – an agreed essence, aspatial and atemporal; a perfect Idea of what a Char Kway Teow is. At the lowest common denominator, it is what we expect when we go to a CKT stall; the opposite of what we spit out, together with a few choice Hokkien words, crying through oily lips,”You call this char kway teow?!”

Good CKT, then, is CKT that tends towards this Form of CKT. How else can you call something “good” (as opposed to “The Good” which is a whole other discussion) if there is no ideal form that it more closely resembles than other offerings?

But Parmenides. For we come to the Form of things by observation and experience; yet the things we experience are constantly changing.

What then of the Form of the Oyster?

And what to make of our little minerally Irish Oceans, and those sweet musky Barron Points?

oyster Tuesday, Greenwood Fish Market, Singapore

What of the briny sweet fresh les perles du bassin No. 2 at L’Oyster Bar in Arcachon?

L'Oyster Bar, Arcachon, France
L'Oyster Bar, Arcachon, France
L'Oyster Bar, Arcachon, France

Ah, and those tasty bivalves (“they don’t turn milky here in the summer”) eaten with thinly slice baguette laid with good French butter and Lou Gascoun pâté?
L'Oyster Bar, Arcachon, France

Or slurped up at La Cabane de l’Aiguillon accompanied by a crisp white wine, sitting in the setting summer sunshine with the salty sea-breeze in your hair?

La Cabane de l'Aiguillon, Arcachon
La Cabane de l'Aiguillon, Arcachon

I’ve been working on an overview of Psalms this summer. And with the Psalms, there is no trouble considering the Form of the King. He is clearly described in Psalm 2, absolutely sovereign, incomparably divine:

Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
    and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
    the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
    and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
    on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
    today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
    and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
    and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
    be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear,
    and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son,
    lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
    for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.  (Psalm 2, ESVUK)

This is the King you are looking for as you progress through the books of the Psalms, and indeed as you cross through the rest of the Old Testament prophets and arrive in the Gospels.

Dinner at The Clifford Pier, Fullerton Bay Hotel.

The Clifford Pier, Fullerton Bay HotelWhen a couple of bankers book a table at The Clifford Pier at Fullerton Bay Hotel (well within sniffing distance of Lau Pat Sat) to give our American visitors a taste of the local cuisine, one must feel that we can be quite optimistic about the state of the economy after all.

The restaurant was named for the creature it once was – a crowded busy point of arrival and departure for seafarers and cargo from all over the world. Now whitewashed so that it would have been barely recognisable to a coolie, with the air-conditioning put in, and populated by couches so springy you kept sinking into them as you struggled to gain enough height to shovel a morsel into your mouth, it considers itself a “heritage chic destination”.

keropok appetisers. Saturday night dinner at The Clifford PierThe evening began with bowls containing three varieties of keropok, all slightly warm, properly shatter-able. A favourable wind was blowing, we thought.

uni cold noodles. Saturday night dinner at The Clifford PierNext up, the uni glass noodles (S$28). The uni wasn’t as much the star as the umami bomb of salted egg yolk, truffle (shavings helped along by some oil I suspect), salmon roe.

wagyu beef satay. Saturday night dinner at The Clifford PierThe next two dishes contained wagyu beef. Was wagyu really necessary, we wondered, thinking of the satay street outside Lau Pat Sat where the beef satay was skewered with chunks of fat to baste the meat while over the charcoal. But seeing that that ship had already sailed, the wagyu beef satay (S$28) considered on its own terms was reportedly tender and flavourful. There were just two skewers though, hardly enough for a growing man (sideways or otherwise).

wagyu beef rendang. Saturday night dinner at The Clifford PierThe meat in the wagyu beef rendang (S$29) would have been described with that hackneyed phrase “fork tender”, and was equally well-marinated and well-powered.

crab roll. Saturday night dinner at The Clifford PierThe crab bun, unfortunately, wasn’t anything to write to your landlubber girlfriend about.

rickshaw noodles and laksa, satay, kong bak bao, kueh pie ti. Saturday night dinner at The Clifford PierRickshaw noodles (topped with soft-boiled egg), laksa, satay, kong bak bao, kueh pie tee.

We were deep in conversation at this point so have nothing to report here, except the content of discussion.

Now, per Ephesians 3:17b-19, this is the trajectory of life the Christian should expect:

you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

And this is demonstrated in the way one acts towards the rest of Christ’s body and indeed towards Christ (by, inter alia, not coveting – which is idolatry); walking in a manner worthy of the calling with to which all Christians have been called (see Ephesians 4-5).

dessert: banana fritters and profiteroles. Saturday night dinner at The Clifford Pierdessert: banana fritters and profiteroles

Attendant to this end is God’s gift of the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers to teach this knowledge, and the Spirit to strengthen such knowledge and obedience.

And so it became quickly apparent how the lack of proper bible teaching even in churches advertised as being concerned with Word ministry led to insular, legalistic lives keen to follow rules of godliness set out by the newest Christian book fad or in reaction to the most recent Christian outrage; rather than the steadiness of mature manhood.

(not quite) jazz singer. Saturday night dinner at The Clifford Pier

Fair wind and following seas, we might have said as we parted. But perhaps we would not have gone far wrong with this reminder:

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16)


Birdie Num Num Gastrobar, 54 Jalan Kembangan

A mono-taste dinner; the sort you have after a break-up when you would rather be curled up in bed crying fruitlessly; that meal a kind friend has forced on you so you are mechanically putting food in your mouth because you were properly brought-up.

Except, there had been no break-up, and all four of us were in high spirits and famished when we arrived at Birdie Num Num (facebook. 54 Jalan Kembangan).

Thus ravenous, we ordered two starters: the foie gras and scallops,
Birdienumnum Gastrobar, 54 Jalan Kembangan
Birdienumnum Gastrobar, 54 Jalan Kembanganpan-fried foie gras is hard to do well – a little overcooked, and the liver-y taste overwhelms, as it did here. The others hastily left me to finish this. The scallops, equally difficult not to render rubbery, were small but had been cooked over a well-controlled fire.

Each of us had a main course. They were, in ascending order of saltiness, the cod, the duck confit, the beef cheek, and the lamb shank:

cod fish. Birdienumnum Gastrobar, 54 Jalan Kembangan
duck confit. Birdienumnum Gastrobar, 54 Jalan Kembangan
beef cheek. Birdienumnum Gastrobar, 54 Jalan Kembangan
lamb shank. Birdienumnum Gastrobar, 54 Jalan KembanganThe cod was a little tough, the duck meat – good and moist, the beef and lamb – tender. But the salt content in the marinade/sauce/stew so dominated everything else that there was only a hint of the difference between the dishes.

We might have gotten them on an off-day.

In society, we appear to vacillate between expecting consistency from humans, and not – “oh! such a hypocrite!” we might spit at someone who has acted inconsistently, and yet “oh, he’s only human” we murmur about another who hasn’t performed up to his usual standard.

Perhaps it is in one’s character that we expect continuity and stability. Then Jonah 4 is most amusing. There, Jonah the reluctant, rebellious prophet of God has a hissy fit about Yahweh’s consistent character:

“I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster…”

We too know this from Exodus 34:6, 2 Chronicles 30:9, Nehemiah 9:17 and 31, Psalm 86:15 etc. There has never been any change in the character of God. Which is why Jonah could expect his stay of judgement, and so refused to warn the evil city of Nineveh to repent of their ways in the first place.

What a guy! What a God! You couldn’t have made this up.

Uncle S, By The Fire at Alibabar the Hawker Bar (125 East Coast Road)

“Uncle,” they call out by way of greeting as they approach his cubicle, in deference to his advanced age and also to his curmudgeonly exterior. They come for wisdom on a pressing issue, or a blessing to proceed on a particular document. And uncle dispenses all sagely (with a little scolding), staring over his reading glasses, before dismissing them brusquely.

No one on the Circle Line train he takes to and from work, every day from Monday to Friday, would have guessed that Uncle S, in his drab office attire and non-descript laptop bag, boasted a life populated with dead bodies in jungles, hangings, drug mules, child murderers, a bitter divorce, and a united nations cast of girlfriends. Lunchtimes can be quite a treat when he gets out one of his stories.

Because of all that he has seen, Uncle gets quite philosophical at times. Hearing of us chat about upcoming weddings, he would say dismissively,”If there is a buffet, why do you want to eat a la carte? If all you want is milk, why buy the whole cow?” etc.

Last Thursday, as we were about to head home, a gym-going colleague chided the rather rotund Uncle for having his paw in the office Toblerone stash again, to which he replied he had only one life to live so he was going to do as he pleased, which led to a discussion about reincarnation (he being Hindu-ish, and the other two colleagues being Buddhist) and the afterlife, into which I pitched (having finally finished writing an email) the Christian concept of salvation.

By The Fire, Alibabar the Hawker Bar, East Coast Road, Singapore

Dear Uncle S could not conceal that gleam in the eye that litigators get when they are about to launch an offence. It was an oldie from a cheeky ex-mission school boy: why go and tell people about the gospel? Without missionaries’ interference, the cannibals in the Amazon would have been judged by a lower standard than people who had been told about Jesus and then refused to believe.

My reply, as I was telling people over dinner at Alibabar the Hawker Bar (facebook, 125 East Coast Road, Singapore), was this:

  • God’s standard of judgement: we are not judged primarily on our adherence to a religion, but our relationship with a person, God who created the whole world, who revealed himself in the Bible. Do we relate to him rightly as a good God, worshipping him, trusting him, wanting to obey his every world? That’s how you should relate to someone in complete and rightful authority over you.
  • All men know this God: how would people know about God, that he is all powerful and worthy of worship? Why, it should be plain from mere observation of the world, and also their conscience (Romans 2). So everyone everywhere, of every language and race, are without excuse. God is not to be accused of being unfair, all humans are themselves culpable.

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:18-20)

  • Yet, all men deliberately rebel against this God:

21 For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:21-23)

By The Fire, Alibabar Hawker Bar, East Coast Road, Singapore

So what of the purportedly innocent Amazonian cannibals? They are a myth. There isn’t anyone who can be considered innocent. Can they be held accountable for eating the people they killed as a sign of respect? Yes. It is a sign of God’s judgement on them, as are all sorts of other commonplace horrors in our shiny cities:

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s decree that those who practise such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practise them. (Romans 1:24-31)

This is why Christians are so desperate to tell people both the bad news and the good news – on one hand, that we are under God’s wrath, and on the other hand, there is salvation in believing that God’s Son, Jesus, died to pay for those sins, so we can now be back in right relationship with God.

…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:9-15)

By The Fire, Alibabar Hawker Bar, East Coast Road, Singapore

Now about dinner. The corner kopi tiam that is now Alibabar is well-known to be an incubator of food start-ups. Saveur (now the Saveur Group!) began here I recall. One of the more recent occupants is By The Fire (facebook), set up by Immanuel Tee (of Immanuel French Kitchen at Salute Coffeeshop) and Alexander Chong.

The scotch egg with runny yolks were very decently seasoned indeed as was the deeply-flavoured binchōtan-ed grilled pork jowls. Weighing in at S$6.90 (£3.45) and S$15.40 (£7.70) for these tiny non-gastropub portions though, made it all a little hard to swallow too quickly.

Still trying to get a handle on what even non-wage-earning Singapore students deem “reasonably priced” at hipster kopi tiams.

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.


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