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Sunday, July 05, 2015 - 23:34 SGT
Posted By: Ham H. Let

Twelve Mostly Men

Mr. Ham: ...But anyway, I've written up a short story for you, if you are interested.

Mr. Robo: *claps paws together* Ooh! Sure! But, um...

Mr. Ham: I don't look like the type of hamster who writes?

Mr. Robo: Uh, yes.

Mr. Ham: I thought better of you, Mr. Robo. But nevermind. Here we go.

It was showtime.

The Coordinator strode into the dimly-lit conference room, and turned up the lights. Abruptly, he realised that he was not the first to arrive - there was an Indian lady, with the familiar press lanyard around her neck, already seated at the other end. Well, they both knew what they were here for. He exchanged a brief smile, as he took his seat.

Privately, he thought these "conversations" an utter waste of time. As a rule of thumb, he knew most of the questions - and answers - before they were raised, since the key participants were planted, and the remainder mostly heavily vetted. Honestly, he could have sleepwalked his way through the previous sessions that he had chaired, but somebody on top evidently felt that it made for good publicity, so there he was. It was almost never wise practice to go against the top.

He sensed the seat to his left being pulled aside, and turned to discover a middle-aged fellow positively beaming at him.

"Director Chan, sir?" the newcomer extended his hand. "I am Representative Yin from the Westwood North Group Representation Committee, pleased to meet you!"

The Coordinator had barely managed to stretch out his own hand, when he found it pulled from him and enveloped in the heartiest of two-handed clasps. He would go on to be astounded - if slightly flattered - when the fellow reeled off his entire professional history, but even this increduilty would be eclipsed when the guy requested for them to have a photo taken together, immediately after that. I'm just a Senior Director in the Ministry for Social Communication, he wanted to protest. Hardly a public figure!

However, it would have been ruder to refuse than it was awkward to accept, and the press lady was willing enough to operate the Representative's smartphone. It was, unfortunately, not to be the end of the Representative's blandishments, and the Coordinator was relieved when an old uniform-clad acquaintance entered. The Coordinator smoothly worked in a greeting to the colonel, then quickly introduced him to the Representative, who would be no less effusive in his praise. Hiding a smile, he immersed himself in the brief for the day, though he had it more or less memorized already.

Bloody Gregory Chan. The Colonel thought, after not managing to politely extricate himself from the prattle despite the passage of five very long minutes. The nerd must never have forgiven me for bruising his ribs during rugger back at Stamford Institution.

A tall, thin elderly Malay gentleman was the next to arrive. Clutching a weathered leather briefcase perhaps older than himself, he nodded to the Coordinator - with the Colonel and Representative still locked in their one-sided conversation - and left a seat between himself and the lady reporter, as protocol mandated. He glanced up at the wall clock. Ten minutes to six. Well, it appeared that he was early. Now, where was the coffee machine?

They began drifting inside in earnest now. A grey-haired lady, modestly if immaculately attired, shuffled in, and struck up pleasantries with the only other female in attendance. A swarthy, greasy-haired man, with his expensively-tailored silk shirt not quite managing to conceal his considerable paunch, and who smelt ever so faintly of cigarettes, was next to arrive. Surveying his options, he decided to place himself midway between the Representative and the women.

The following two were notably younger than the others already in the room. They had seemingly hit it up while walking along the corridor, the sandy-haired Caucasian in a full suit, and the fresh-faced local lad togged out in the latest Korean business fashion, as they conversed animatedly - the latter in a Midwestern twang, and the former in his Southern drawl. By unspoken understanding, this stopped once they were inside, and the suited one made his way across to engage the Malay fellow, while the other cosmopolitan contented himself with his smartphone, across the table.

There were but three seats remaining, and almost exactly as the minute hand on the clock went to twelve, a burly old man materialized in the seat to the right of the Colonel. If anyone had asked, those already present would have been forced to admit that they had not actually seen him come in; and yet, it felt implausible, given that he was well over six feet, and not a shade under two hundred pounds. Given that he didn't exactly radiate approachability, however, it wasn't as if anybody would be asking him about his entrance. Thus he sat undisturbed, silent as a stone, unreadable as a rock.

The Colonel, nearly at his wits' end, glanced at the Coordinator, who gave no indication that he would be beginning anytime soon. The w**ker.

Before he could excuse himself explicitly, though, he was distracted by the arrival of a stern-faced if not unhandsome lady, perhaps in her late thirties, wearing a blouse-and-pencil-skirt ensemble that was at once competent and conspiratorial. Well, this almost makes up for it, the Colonel mused. Why can't we have more of this in the army?

"I apologize, Mr. Chan." she said, inserting herself on the other side of the Representative, to the Colonel's barely-disguised disappointment, before he realised that the seat next to him had already been taken. "The taxi got held up. There was a jam all the way down Henderson Expressway."

The Coordinator finally looked up.

"No trouble at all, Dr. Wong." he replied, while scanning the table. Looks like my colleagues over at the Ministry for Efficient Transport are going to have more sleepless nights. "Well, it seems that most of us are here. If there are no objections, I'd like to start this Special National Conversation on Responsible Expression, without further ado."

The Journalist perked up. Time for work, then. The cassette recorder was already running, but she had learnt not to rely too much on it. News here was expected to be... carefully interpreted. For this, she had her trusty notepad. She looked down at the seating diagram that she had sketched out, with identities abbreviated, in her neat crabbed shorthand:

The Representative drew away from his victim, mildly annoyed. Hopefully, he had dropped enough names. Argh, he forgot the photo. Never mind, there would be time for that.

The Colonel cringed involuntarily, not understanding why.

"It is our great privilege, of course, to have been selected for this meaningful event." the Coordinator continued. Yeah, right, he could have been at the Lagoon golf course for dinner with the wife and kids. "Each of you has been recommended by one of our partner organizations for your potential to make important contributions to the discourse. It should be emphasized, however, that we are here in an informal capacity as private citizens, in keeping with the egalitarian and inclusive spirit of the National Conversation."

The Caucasian raised an eyebrow a fraction of an inch. Actually, he was here on an employment pass. Somebody at the office must have missed the memo. Anyhow, it probably wouldn't be prudent to press the issue at this juncture.

"The main topic for the day, then, is the quite concerning spate of... irresponsible statements being made, particularly on social media. As you all are no doubt aware, extremely disconcerting insinuations have been made, and images posted, for public consumption. This is, as I'm sure right-minded residents will agree with, completely unacceptable."

Huh. the Caucasian attorney mused. I thought this was supposed to be, like, a conversation.

"I agree totally!" the Representative chimed in.

I wasn't done. "Thank you, Mr. Yin of Westwood North GRC." The Representative grinned at the acknowledgement, as the Coordinator sighed inwardly. "I suppose I might as well introduce everybody. Dr. Elanor Wong, psychiatric specialist from the Hospital for Mental Health. Mr. Hu, CEO of Ban Kim Holdings. Mr. Jayden Zhang, currently on attachment with the Ministry of External Affairs. Madam Mary Cheong, head counsellor of Living Word Community Services. Ms. Rukmani d/o Kannappan, reporter for The State's Times."

The Coordinator let his gaze pass evenly over the empty seat.

"Professor Muhammad Adil bin Yusuf, history dean at the New University of State. Mr. Josh..."

The door burst open, and a sorry-looking lad, probably in his early twenties, peered furtively around. Ah, the Youth of the Nation. the Coordinator thought. Well, when I told the Ministry for Population Development to send a token kid, I'd have expected them to have chosen somebody more punctual.

"Traffic conditions nowadays are less than ideal, I recognize." the Coordinator defused the intrusion kindly, as the pitiable wretch fumbled for words. "Have a seat, have a seat."

As the boy complied gratefully, the Coordinator noted that neither the Enforcer nor the Businessman had bothered to adjust their gaze. Interesting.

"Now where was I... Mr. Joshua De Nicolo, Association of Law. Mr. Leong, deputy commissioner, Criminal Detention Bureau. Colonel Mark Li, National Armed Forces. And I'm Gregory Chan, but you can just call me Greg."

The Coordinator took a deep breath. So, the preliminaries were over. Still, it gnawed at him. How had it come to this? He had graduated with honours in Classics from Oxford, and done his Masters at Cambridge under one of the leading phenomenological philosophers of the period, Sir John Axley, whom had highly lauded his thesis examining Heidegger's influence on Deconstructivism. There was talk of a junior fellowship at Fitzwilliam's, but he had decided to take the road safer and more travelled, back into the bowels of the civil service. You'll regret it, Chan. He could still picture the old Ax saying, as he puffed on his pipe. And indeed, here he was twenty years later, tasked with justifying locking a kid up for drawing tasteless pictures. As the old Ax would've said, shit.

"It is a disgrace!" the Coordinator was jolted from his reverie by a tirade from his left. "That boy must be stopped! He has no respect for his elders, for our leaders, or for God!" The Coordinator observed a few heads nodding in approval. The guy might be crude, but you can't knock his energy. Can't let him monopolize the flow just yet, though.

"Mr. Yin makes some excellent points." the Coordinator interjected, as soon as he was able. "I am sure that this is a view shared by many. Are there any other opinions?"

The Representative sat down gleefully. Jackpot! He was getting noticed! All that hard work was finally paying off. It was the same everywhere - you scratch my back, I scratch yours. He'd been warned that this place was different, but after his wife's volunteer hours at a premier primary school had allowed their daughter to win a spot there, he had realised that the world couldn't be that different, after all.

He started small, helping out at a block party or two, and was pleasantly surprised to receive parking concessions just a few weeks later. A couple of years later, he was a permanent fixture at his MP's side for his residents' meets, and things started going... well. Tickets to exclusive events. A friend's son getting bumped up the public housing queue, though he couldn't be sure of that. Nothing more direct, definitely. Then one day, he was allowed to stand-in for the MP, and a while later, he was rubbing shoulders with a full Minister! His proudest moment came during the last elections, when he was shown on national television during the coverage, waving a small party flag. True, the segment was barely a few seconds long, but so what? Yin Guozhong was going places!

"I think it reflects a lack of discipline in today's youth." the Colonel began. Can't let that guy steal all the limelight. "This is a reminder of the irreplaceable role that complusory conscription plays in building the foundations of our country." Reduce the service period? Hah, as if all those mega-events could get done without a ready pool of underpaid labour.

"Totally agree!" the Representative cried. "In fact, I am enrolled in the National Free Service Unit as an Admin Officer! Colonel Li sir, the army has instilled valuable values in me!"

"Thank you, Mr. Yin, for your unstinting support." F**k that, you have told me that thrice already.

Combo! the Representative thought happily.

"Excuse me, but I don't think that we should come down too hard on the boy." came a soft but steady voice from the back of the room. It was the Counsellor. "He is most probably simply misguided. With proper care, I believe that he will see the error of his ways, and be reintegrated into society."

"Perhaps Dr. Wong might be prepared to give her assessment on that?" the Coordinator suggested. "After all, she has been one of those who has actually been working closely with him."

Ah, it was her turn. "The subject's behaviour has been within acceptable metrics. However, it might not be recommended to continue with the current observational regime, without a specific goal." There, she had said it. It was the least she could do. She had once sworn the Hippocratic Oath, after all.

"Are you sure he's not autistic?" the Counsellor chirped, concern writ large on her round face. "I read it in the papers. He's not right up there, some doctors said." she tapped the side of her head, a gesture widely associated with mental infirmity. "It wouldn't be his fault, you know. Some are just born like that. We have to help him, love him."

"It is not impossible." the Psychiatrist managed. That was not, at least, strictly untrue. The subject was as coherent as could be expected after being strapped to a metal bed for days on end, with the lights being on throughout the entire ordeal - which was to say, not very.

"It has to be." the Counsellor asserted firmly. "He can be saved. I can arrange for our people to talk to him, we are good at it. God willing, he will come around."

"We appreciate the offer." the Psychiatrist replied. Come on now, it's not like that hasn't been tried already. Honestly speaking, she wasn't sure if the subject had even lost those debates. She couldn't be confident about the second part either, since the Hospital already had multiple self-professed messiahs and deities in permanent residence. This sort of thing tends to inure one against expecting miracles.

The Coordinator, sensing imminent dead air, looked about. "Jayden, might you have anything to add?"

The Scholar gazed up from his smartphone. Fortunately, he had just completed the Candy Crush level. "Oh, it is all very unfortunate." he said, grinning disarmingly. "It is essential that we strike the correct balance between freedom of expression, and cultural sensitivities. I have every confidence that we will arrive together at a satisfactory resolution to this challenge."

"Thank you, Jayden." Despite himself, the Coordinator found himself taking to the youngster. Damn, he's good.

The Scholar smiled beatifically. It was all so easy. Tell 'em what they want to hear, and you're in. He'd be honest, he was fairly smart, academic-wise, but plenty of his classmates at the Sino-English School were smarter. Why then was he a recipient of the prestigious Foreign Distinction Scholarship, while many of them were languishing at local universities?

He was great with people, that's why. You'd be surprised at how far a dab of social savvy could go, when half of the candidates were soulless characters who couldn't see past the cover of their physics textbooks. He'd amused himself snaring the interviewers - to the military men, he was the dutiful, responsible lieutenant. To the scientists, he was a seeker after knowledge. To upper management, he was a man of class and style. To the ladies... hah, that was the most fun of all.

This had earned him four years in sunny California at UCSB, where he'd enjoyed the best that the Golden State had to offer. The girls were pretty and the pot was cheap, though of course he'd hold off consumption for a couple of months whenever he was scheduled to fly back. That said, he was frankly surprised that the government had even entertained the notion of legalizing weed - a sign that the fuddy-duddies were coming around? Heh, you jest.

He was under no illusions about his career trajectory - he had seniors ahead of him, they had friends in high places. He calculated that he could hit Ultrascale D, with some luck, by the time he was forty-five. Near fifty grand a month, inflation-adjusted, a cushy appointment that wouldn't be in the glare of public scrutiny. It was all planned out. And then, his mentor had to go and fall out of favour, and here he was, effectively in exile in the Siberian Affairs Office.

Oh, he could jump ship and snag a new patron, but after more consideration, he began to question if it was worth it. Yes, he was self-interested - who wasn't? - but once, he had actually dreamt of introducing change. Progress. Shaking things up for the better. Let's just say that five years of watching status-quo rebranding being refined to a fine art, had significantly dampened his ambitions. RPF Minimum Sum renamed to Basic Retirement Sum, ECA grades renamed to bands, Marine Cove to Marine Cove... no. Nothing was going to happen.

Nah, he was gonna cash in his chips. His bond period was about to be up, he'd ace the exit interview, and hop on the next plane back to the States. His old drinking buddies back there had some leads for him, a couple of well-paying analyst positions, and well, the sky was the limit. Yeah, he almost forgot, they might be banning alcohol and smoking here. Eh, at some point, a guy's gotta say that enough is enough. He had gotten a taste of flying free, and if they wanted to stuff him in a cage, it had better be f**king gilded. Or he would end up like that Gregory chap, tied down by commitments.

The Coordinator turned back to the table, realising that he had lingered a wee bit too long in that direction. This Jayden boy has a future. That was some charisma. "Mr. Hu?"

"We cannot be having this, for sure." the Businessman said, tapping two beefy fingers on the tabletop. "Such disobedience is not in our interests. Our economy has been built on cooperation, on order. This may seem a small matter for now, but such attitudes cannot be allowed to spread."

He didn't particularly want to be here, and doubted that the meeting would have any impact at all, but as Acting Chair of the Commerce Federation, he had no choice. There were plenty of fires to fight. If those governmental jiak kantangs knew just how many workers were on the verge of striking - sorry, sitting in - they would be shitting their pants. Lanjiao Push for Productivity and Tighten the Taps, understand? They could make all the Powerpoint charts they wanted, he was the one going to have to train Ali from some backwater village to operate an earthmover. And after all that, they would just collect a fat levy and make more Powerpoint slides.

"I think the focus should, first and foremost, be on the boy's well-being." the Counsellor sniffed.

Great, the Businessman barely restrained himself from rolling his eyes. Another bleeding heart angel. If it was up to him, he'd just have thrown the idiot in jail like he wanted, and get on with life. The cheebye kia could flash himself in Parliament for all he cared, as long as the money kept rolling in. Cash was Number One in this country, anybody who mattered knew that well. No money, what are the politicians going to give away as election season angpow? No money, where got shiny new toys for the National Armed Forces to play with?

"There need not be any concerns on the rule of law, I am sure." the Colonel proclaimed grandly. This was, after all, his area of expertise. Had he not, after all, mobilized ten thousand soldiers to provide security for the last Statehood Day Rally? Sure, it had burnt a few weekends for his men, but it was for the glory of the nation, and hey, he finally got that promotion. He'd started a step behind, having only snagged a second-tier local scholarship, but he was now in line to make brigadier-general before retirement. And that, it went without saying, guaranteed a sinecure and second career.

"I'm relieved, sir." the Businessman responded, with as much sincerity as he could muster. Bloody paper generals, sibei jialat. He remembered well that BG that a minister's aide had gently suggested he put on his board a few years ago, only it wasn't really a suggestion. Yeah, the man had graduated third in his class from West Point, got his Ranger tab and obligatory Master's in Public Administration from Harvard, but damn if he was an absolute disaster at business.

Hell, the guy could have just collected his ten k's a month quietly - he was willing enough to provide it, certainly - but no, after getting his ego puffed up, he was all over the general staff meeting spouting phrases like "streamline operations", "proactive disruption", "client-centrism" and, most laughably of all, "thinking outside the box". It was like he thought it was one of those National Armed Forces Productivity Drives, where the underlings filled out suggestion forms, he selected a few for cash and prizes, and everyone went for a coffee break.

And not only that, the very next day, the BG (retired) had gone on a "surprise inspection", and the next thing he knew, the BG (retired) had hauled Robin up for having his legs up on the desk, and talking back to him. He could almost see the US$50 million-a-year Wiryanto account evaporating before his very eyes. He had no idea how he managed to save that one, but it ended with BG (retired) "promoted" to a plush downtown office where he would be out of the way, and him personally making the KTV rounds with Robin to smooth matters over. Being a towkay easy life? You wish.

"You're welcome, Mr. Hu." the Colonel acknowledged, inclining his head. I know this type. Slimy bastards. But filthy rich. In any case, I'll be showing them how to run a modern organization with best practices, soon enough. Or perhaps he would enter politics. Not that he was that eager, mind, but the odds seemed good. Hey, his previous division commander was getting fast-tracked through the incumbent party cadre ranks.

The Businessman put on a suitably servile expression. It couldn't be helped. The government of the day was intent on packing as many ex-military scholars into top positions as possible, and it was showing. It was a running joke in the KTV VIP rooms - this is a country where you've got an admiral in charge of land transport, an army general in charge of shipping, and an electrical engineer in charge of finances!

Now, he could concede that they were probably intelligent individuals, but put it this way - if some hotshot tycoon had been parachuted in as Chief of Defence, no matter how clever and capable he had been, did anyone imagine that his abilities would automagically carry over, or that some "conversion course" could make up for it? It was as if twenty-over years of experience and relationship-building counted for nothing!

The Businessman half-listened to the Colonel blather on about the benefits of regimentation, while he refilled his glass. It's like he actually believes that. It was hard to tell with these people. At times, they appeared decently street-smart, while other times, they were impossibly naïve. Like when BG (retired) was insistent that the main value of the new integrated resorts was as a "world-class shopping destination and convention centre", when it was plain that the bleedin' casinos were there to facilitate the washing of monies!

And that brought him back to the scandal a few years ago, when some blasted fuerdai from the mainland rammed his Maserati into a bus-stop, at a hundred miles an hour. It was a wonder that only four died, including the driver himself. This was one of the times when he was thankful for the standards, or lack thereof, of local journalism; they really reported that he was a "self-made entrepreneur", and that the young ladies he had with him were "students he was giving a lift home to"! The relevant embassy was grateful, so there was that.

Ah, they were small fry in the grander scheme, after all. He knew who were the ones who were truly controlling this world. Not their real names, of course, no - you wouldn't find them in try-hard rolls and magazines like Forbes and Tatler - but he had an inkling of their existence, which was more than could be said for most. It wasn't markings on a ledger, it was what you could have when you wanted, and in this, he had to admit that he was a tiny fish too. He rotated his jade ring about his finger out of habit. Maybe someday. He had clawed his way up from being an unpaid coffeeshop helper, so why not?

"...and as our exemplary record indicates, if nothing else, the National Armed Forces, Constabulary and Defence Auxiliaries will stand firm in our devotion to maintaining public security."

The Enforcer, who had yet to say a word, stiffened imperceptibly. The videos had been all over the Internet. Police vehicles fleeing from a mere rowdy mob, servicemen - sergeants at that! - trashing their own bunks... back in his day, they would have deployed the ang chia, broken a few heads, and had all the rioters face-down on the ground in minutes. Not stand around and watch their cars get overturned and set on fire. But the Colonel outranked him, and there were outsiders here, so he kept his mouth firmly shut.

He closed his eyes and leaned back. He liked the old ways. It was so simple, all black and white. He remembered those times. He had dropped out of middle school to help with the family finances after his father died, and soon got recruited into one of the six main brotherhoods that prowled the dusty Tangtown streets. He was always bigger-sized than his peers, and they had a name for him back then: Lam Sua Hor, the Blue Mountain Tiger, for the district he came from.

It was a strong-eat-weak, winner-take-all world, and he thrived in the cesspool of cabarets and gambling halls, and then he came. A man of steel, decked in pure white, who spoke so eloquently of a better future for all, and unlike so many opportunists then, actually acted on what he promised. Slowly, he was convinced. One day, he simply walked into a police recruitment station - they could not afford to be discerning in those days - and left his former life behind.

This put him in conflict with his sworn brothers, and they cursed him as an oath-breaker, but he did not waver, because he was in the right. He endured the departure ceremony, which entailed being pummelled for however long it took a joss-stick to burn down, and reported for work the next day having fallen down the stairs. His superiors understood.

They had a new name for him after that. Zhao Gau. Running dog. He didn't mind. He was right. The Prime Minister was always right. Lorong by lorong, alley by alley, they rooted out the enemies of the state. Triad members, communist sympathizers. It was all the same to him. Some went tamely - he recalled a wispy schoolteacher asking to be allowed his spectacles. Others were violent. He stroked his forearm. The scar might have vanished, but on rainy nights, it would always ache where the parang had gone through his rattan shield.

If the Businessman evinced a flicker of recognition at the motion, he hid it well.

"Thank you, Colonel Li, for your insight on the security implications." the Coordinator said. "Mr. De Nicolo, might we have your expert judgment, on the legal angle?"

"The actions of the plaintiff are well-considered." the Lawyer replied. "Procedurally, the steps taken have been beyond reproach. As far as I can tell, the accused has been allowed all reasonable legal representation, and he has been held in accordance with the laws of the jurisdiction."

The Psychiatrist pursed her lips. Saying nothing in fifty words is an impressive skill.

"Excellent, Mr. De Nicolo. And, uh, on the specifics..."

"Technically, my personal view is that it is an open-and-shut case." the Lawyer shrugged. "The statutes are on the book, the facts are clear, the defendant is not contesting them. Frankly speaking, this case would not have been at all high-profile, had it not been for the personages involved."

"So straightforward, indeed!" the Coordinator chuckled.

The Lawyer joined in, glad to be relieved of his duty. As a general principle, he disliked dispensing legal advice when he was not billing for it. Yale Law wasn't gonna pay for itself. Now, he could have said that with interpretations as wide as "wounding feelings", selective prosecution must be a practical consideration. He could have argued that the images were rather pathetic as obscenity went, and that he would have gladly bet that any teenaged children of those present would have seen far worse. He could have pointed out that the local judiciary had the strange practice of disallowing wholly-qualified counsel for cases of especial interest.

But, the Lawyer thought, as he rearranged his cufflinks - why should he? It wasn't as if it was going to make any difference. They had it in for the kid, he was already damned in the court of public opinion. At least they were only out to diagnose him with insanity, unlike a neighbouring country that he would not mention, where the kid might well be pinned for buggery.

He did concur on one point. It wasn't really his problem. He was an expat, he was here to make his packet before leaving, and he wasn't going to apologize for that. It was down to the citizens to stand up for their own rights, and from what he could make out browsing the native watering holes on the Web, the kid was screwed on that end. The government says, whack him, and the standard response would be, how hard? The folks back in Alabama might not be particularly well-informed, but this herd mentality was another thing altogether.

Privately, as one of his colleagues had confided to him on their usual weekend bender at Klarke Key, it would have been so much cleaner had they instituted a lèse majesté law. Hah, that took him back to last summer, when he was partying it up in Pattaya with Big Benji. The moron got drunk, and began yelling some rather unpalatable remarks about their monarch right in the middle of the street... goodness knows how they escaped with skin intact then. F**k Benji, he owed him one. Anyway, they've belatedly introduced one, so it seems.

Back to the case. Honestly, it was a bit of a head-scratcher, after they dropped the Protection from Harassment charge. Without that, the kid was basically a pale, unfunny imitation of George Carlin, Christopher Hitchens, et al., and they had never been an issue here! But yeah, he didn't want to get involved. One thing was for sure - a place that had to rely on people elsewhere to come out on behalf of their rights, was not a place he wanted to be in for the long term. Without considering how apartment rentals were draining him dry...

He swivelled around, and bumped into the Enforcer's elbow.

"Oh! I am so extremely sorry!"

The Enforcer seemed briefly at a loss. "No problem, sir."

The memories continued flooding back. His first commissioner was a Brit, an ang mo gau. Rowan sir, if he recalled right. It came harder now. Then there was Tan sir, and then Hong sir, who had seconded him to the Bureau proper.

He had learnt things. How to move like a panther, footfalls soft as a feather in a light breeze. How to blend unseen into the night. How to incapacitate a man with a single strike. And there were the other skills. They were civilized, lawful agents - they never tortured their captives - but there remained a lot that could be done while staying within the letter of the law.

A few of the practices got into drama serials. Turning up the air-conditioner, dazzling with desk lamps, punching through phone books, that sort of thing. There was much more where that came from. Haphazard loud music through the night. Bed frames raised a couple of inches on one side. Slippers with grit embedded. You'd be surprised at what eventually gets to prisoners. They had learnt from the best, the Mexicans that had arrived for a year in the mid-Seventies, and then disappeared. A few in the department whispered that they weren't actually Mexicans at all, but he took no note. That was what Hong sir told him, and Hong sir's word was enough.

Actually, he didn't understand what the whole "conversation" was for. He remembered shaking with rage when he first saw those images with the Prime Minister sir's face. It was unforgivable. To treat a great man like that, even before the mourning period was over! If it was up to him, he'd have personally arrested the disrespectful punk, broken a few bones, dumped him into solitary confinement, and thrown away the key. Was there a need to ask for permission? The Prime Minister would never have done that. He was elected to rule, so he ruled. That was what had made the nation strong.

For all that, he couldn't shake a nagging feeling. Decades of being an interrogator had granted him a certain insight into the characters of men, so he believed. And, as much as it pained him to admit it, the si ginna had more conviction and backbone than most of those seated about the table. He would die before he said that, of course, but that didn't keep it from being true. His sixth sense seldom lied.

It felt so long ago now. The countless hours spent in the infamous Room 201, where he had seen and heard it all. Mousy intellectuals who should never have been there, and blubbered everything, and more, by the second session; scum of the earth gangsters, who wouldn't flinch as you dislocated their joints. They were enemies, on wholly different sides, but on some level, he reserved a modicum of respect for them. Even the most degenerate mobster tended to have some code, some belief. You could 讲道义. The commies by and large actually thought that their way was fairer.

But now? The Enforcer felt slightly uneasy. He couldn't properly read half of the men in the room, and what his gut did tell him... it wasn't pleasant.

The Scholar grimaced. Failed Candy Crush Level 181 again! Man, he didn't want to have to pay for more extra lives.

The Coordinator stole a glace at his watch. Thirty minutes to go. Let's see, who hadn't participated yet? There was the Enforcer, but for some reason, he didn't quite want to have to prompt that man. The Journalist wasn't supposed to take part. That left... the Professor and the Intern, who was trying extremely hard not to meet his gaze. Later, boy.

"Prof. Muhammad Adil, we'd be honoured to have a historical perspective on these developments."

The Professor set his cup down carefully. Time for the lecture, then. He could recite it backwards by now. Dropping to his accustomed sotto voce, he delivered the spiel. Marian Hergoth, 1951. Interfaith clashes, 1956. The Prophet's Birthday incident, 1963. Racial disturbances, 1968 through 1970. He could feel his audience getting into it - he genuinely loved weaving a narrative together, and it didn't hurt that he knew all the material like the back of his hand. He hadn't won the Teaching Award five years running for nothing.

It could have been over in two minutes, but it lasted twenty, and nobody was complaining. Why should they? Storytellers were welcome in every culture. Emboldened, he had risked a short overview of the recent Little Bharat riot. The Bureau man was especially attentive during that one. Come to think of it, had he seen him somewhere before? He jogged his mind. 1970, Mustapha Road, where he had been caught between the barricades. Then, a hulk of a man, in the khaki fatigues of the era, had burst through the north side, scattering fighters like tenpins, and he managed to slip out. Those eyes... was it him? It was hard to tell. Everything had happened so long ago.

The Coordinator was impressed. "A very informative lesson, prof! Clearly, we can ill-afford a repeat of those dark days."

The Professor tilted his mane of white hair. Of course you would say so. It was what I was invited for. The model answer.

He might not have looked it, but he liked to think that he had some academic pedigree. He could trace his ancestry back to Javanese royalty, and enough of the old wealth stayed in the family that he had been a researcher of independent means, long before "international outlook" became a criteria in university ranking lists. His travels had taken him to Groningen and Salamanca, where he had studied the European forces that shaped this little corner of the Earth.

To be honest, his actual interests had been in contemporary history, but after observing the sad fate of academics who had stuck their heads out too far, he had resolved to specialize in 17th to 19th century Straits history. There couldn't be anything overly controversial in examining the life of Yap Ah Lay, c. 1836-1884, after all. He had kept his head down and his nose to the grindstone, and carved out a cosy niche for himself as a leader in that subfield, paper by painstaking paper.

He knew, certainly, that the arts and social sciences had been regarded as something of a "dumping ground". There were the sincerely interested, and then there were those who were only there because their preferred course was full, but they still wanted a degree, any degree. He didn't judge. The tree of his learning was open to all. To those that wanted to understand, he mentored patiently. To the rest... he tried to make it easy.

It was bad to say so, but the second group probably outnumbered the first group considerably. For a yarn, one of the teaching assistants had once altered the year of the nation's founding in his lecture notes, from 1820 to 1821. A couple of students did raise the discrepancy during tutorials, but when the first quiz came back, well over half of the responses to this most fundamental of facts were wrong. The resulting complaints never failed to bring back a smile.

Faced with a throng of furious freshmen fearful that their 19/20 score might have doomed them to an A- or worse in the module, and thus wrecked their perfect GPA, he had tried to explain that, well, it was simply an incontrovertible fact that Sir Ruffles had landed in 1820. We don't care. was the response. Your handouts state that he landed in 1821. Therefore, he landed in 1821. Where are our marks?

He didn't win the Teaching Award that year.

An indispensible part of scholarship was introspection, he had tried to get across. Are you actually convinced that your stand is correct, or did you just fall in with the majority crowd, and get disconcerted whenever you discover that your core ideology is apparently no longer the "in-thing"?

Then again, could he blame them? The very reason why they were here, was because they had been fairly good at memorizing and regurgitating the facts - and indeed, entire question and answer sets - that their previous teachers had wanted. Well, not overly good at it, of course, otherwise they would be doing medicine or law or chemical engineering. And suddenly, they wanted a knowledge economy. With creativity and critical thinking. Well, he could play along.

"Quite correct, Mr. Chan." the Professor said, a twinkle in his eye. "Hopefully, they are well behind us, and newer generations will only have to concern themselves with developing more... technical innovations."

The Colonel brightened. This was a phrase he had heard often. "The National Armed Forces prides itself on Innovation."

The Scholar concurred. "There were some wonderful timesaving ideas back when I was with the 412th Brigade, sir. A true logistical breakthrough."

"Well said, Mr. Zhang." the Colonel nodded approvingly. What a fine young man. Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, nailed on officer material. His unit could do with more such talent.

"Thank you, sir." He had no choice, he had to say something, anything, otherwise he would have burst out laughing. What bullshit, the last time they were in the news for "innovation", it was for skimping on paying a local inventor his proper dues for a mobile medical post concept. The other agencies weren't much better, from the horror stores he had heard from those in his circle. Suggest a food truck, and they'd turn around and collect a license fee from you to operate one. Nah, if he was going to dabble in a start-up, he'd head to Silicon Valley. At least the VCs there didn't try to lowball you off the blocks.

The Coordinator checked his watch again. Almost there. Oh yes, there was the Intern. He stared at the cowering mess across the table. Eh, perhaps not. He'd spare the poor kid, and everyone else the sight.

The Intern sensed the Senior Director's sight pass over him again, and he heaved a sigh of relief. Whew.

This entire gathering was well above his pay grade. He hadn't signed on for it. He had just been trying to make a few extra dollars and gain some work experience during his polytechnic holidays, and he was more than satisfied at the gig he had landed, writing Excel macros for an obscure stat board affiliated with the Ministry for Population Development.

He didn't have to talk most days there, which suited him just fine, or interact with the other temps. He knew they thought he was weird, he was used to it, back since his secondary school days. And then, out of nowhere, his boss had pulled him up, and ordered him to attend this National Conversation.

He had been mortified - he didn't understand how his parents could have been so proud, when he told them. His father's best shirt didn't quite fit, and the heavy metal timepiece they had bought him for the occasion suspiciously read Lolex, but he did come across as more presentable than usual. Then, he got a second shock - he had thought that these conversations were large-scale affairs where he could disappear into the crowd, but it turned out to be a round-table discussion!

Well, it was almost over. Nobody had asked for his name, which he hoped would mean that his supervisor wouldn't get any negative feedback. He wouldn't be fired, and he could continue to earn his S$1000 a month. He needed it. His parents had tried to keep it from him, but he could hear their anxious whispers each night, through their thin three-room flat walls. The provision shop wasn't doing well, and he estimated that they had been in a hole for half a year already.

His dad put up a brave face at breakfast each morning, and passed off his ringing handphone as new business contacts, but he could guess that they were actually from irate suppliers. He always ended with the same admonition - study hard, boy, and go to university. Daddy will find a way to pay.

Definitely, his elder brother wouldn't be any help. He hadn't worked a day since coming out of the Institute for Technical Innovation, and then the army, and spent most of his time curled up in the top bunkbed nowadays. He had done a bit of searching, and while he was not too surprised that no welfare was available, he was astonished to find that his brother was not, technically, considered unemployed! How could that be?

The media was painting a rosy picture every which way he turned, salaries rising across the board etc, but he wasn't feeling it. He had done his sums one day, as realistically as he could, and the cold figures stared back at him. There was no way he could make it work. His mum was coming down with kidney failure, and he knew how much that cost. If everything else went well, and he got through his military service, and then somehow through university, and then earned the median graduate wage, he projected a big, fat, zero.

I'm sorry, mum. the Intern reflected glumly. I don't think there will be grandkids.

"It seems that we have come to the end, of this very fruitful National Conversation." the Coordinator piped up. Five minutes early should be acceptable. "First of all, I would like to thank all of you for your active participation. We are, of course, all concerned about the boy, for all he may have done..."

"Yes, we should all pray for him." the Counsellor exclaimed. "The Lord will deliver him, praise His name."

The Coordinator gulped. This could be a dicey faux pas. He looked out of the corner of his eye. Thankfully, there weren't any huge reactions. The Malay professor was studying his fingernails intently, the Indian reporter doesn't seem to have noticed either, the rest appear indifferent...

"Why, how thoughtful of you, Madam Cheong!" the Scholar agreed. "I'll be sure to do that whenever I can."

Phew. the Coordinator thought.

"That's nice, uh, Jayden." the Counsellor thanked, ever so slightly flustered. How pious. Christ Himself could not have asked for a better footsoldier.

She had been on His mission for her entire life. A convent education, then a theological college - all-female, it went without saying - and then a firm dedication to spreading the Good Word where she had been chosen to be born. It was no accident, that. Everything happened for a purpose.

Years she had spent, sowing the seeds, reaching out to children from troubled backgrounds. Not all of them allowed themselves to be saved, sadly, but each one was one more for the Heavenly Kingdom. She had read with disgust about how gay mar... - no, forebear the thought! - had been allowed in the United States, and had fallen to her knees there and then. O Lord, she had beseeched. O Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

And He had answered! She reaffirmed her calling on this mortal plane, that very day. America had fallen into decadence and decay, they had turned their back on the Lord, and they would be punished in time. They had learnt nothing from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Fire! It was written. An all-consuming fire, falling from the sky! Praise the Lord!

The Psychiatrist's eyelids twitched uncontrollably.

And yes, her job. To continue gathering lambs for the Shepherd of Men. America had fallen, the West was falling. Where then could be His new Kingdom on Earth? Asia, of course! She trembled at the thought of witnessing His unsurpassed glory, as was foretold. All had to be prepared. There had been some setbacks, admittedly. Her friends had tried to bring the Alliance of Women for Awareness and Education into holy communion several years back, but had been rebuffed. Lord, forgive them too.

No matter. Any obstacles were but temporal. It was a Test, and she would not be found wanting. If not today, then tomorrow. She prayed everyday. In the mornings, as she faced her little home alcove with its sooty crucifix, she prayed for others to be freed from the sin of idol-veneration. When she anionted herself with fragrant oil whenever she had a headache, she prayed for those still bound to the useless superstition of sipping water with paper charms placed in it. And when she passed by those amulet-sellers, on her way to work, she never, ever failed to clutch at the cross on her necklace, and invoke Isaiah 2:6 for their deliverance.

And when she... was that man staring at her chest? The... the impropriety! What did he think he was doing?!

The Enforcer looked quickly away. There were few men who had ever managed to make him do that, but then, she was not a man. Fool, he admonished himself. You are getting sloppy in your old age.

But this one, he could understand. Mei, his dear Mei. She had a necklace just like that one. How long had it been? She had been gone from him for twelve years now, and he still visited her grave every Sunday, with a single carnation. It was her favourite flower. He remembered when she had first told him that, his Mei full of sweetness and light, like it was yesterday.

He had first met her when he was the Lam Sua Hor, prowling the untamed streets, and she was a giggling teenager peeking out of the back window. The Sikh guard had chased him away, but they had managed to communicate anyway. It was why he had changed his path - a banker's daughter could not be expected to marry a common ruffian, after all.

To be fair, a police constable, second class, wasn't that much of a step up, but Mei had been adamant, and her father eventually gave in. It was clear that most of her relatives never did approve. In the Amoy Road chapel, that beautiful eighth of September, there were only a few dozen guests in the pews. For the traditional tea ceremony later, none of the relatives from her side deigned to participate.

It rankled him a little. He had knelt before their god, what was offering a couple of joss-sticks to the ancestors? But it was okay. Mei made it okay. He walked her to her church every Sunday morning, but he sensed that she was terribly unhappy, although she said nothing. He asked, and was troubled. This was not a thing to be taken lightly. He stood before the altar of his fathers for a night, and then his old Ma knew too. She bowed her head. He kowtowed, crying, the first time he could recall doing so since he came of age. I am sorry, my father. he wept. I am an unworthy son.

Actually, it was not that bad. He was not the only son, so the altar could be passed to his second brother. The next time he went to the church with Mei, he entered with her. The elders, mostly white and plump, seemed disapproving, but they had no real reason to refuse. He had washed himself that day, and for thirty years after that, he had kept to the same routine. He didn't really understand most of what was being said - his comprehension of English had never progressed beyond the most rudimentary orders - but Mei was there, and she did.

It was only when her condition began to deteriorate, that he began thinking about the afterlife. Would he see her again? Would they be together? Yes, the stately priest had said. He was happy. And his parents, and his siblings? Most of them had gone, by then.

Are they of the faith? the priest had asked.

He shook his head.

Then no. the priest had said.

He had risen and walked out. Mei would leave, in the wee hours of the morn, and she would be laid to rest, in the plot in the courtyard she had picked so long ago, with the willows overhanging the headstone in the shade. She had never liked the heat. He had stood outside while the service was completed, and he had indeed never since stepped foot within the House of the Cross. The souls of his brethren were not his to give. They greeted him no longer, but none dared stop him on his lonely weekly trek, his carnation held tenderly in the fingers that once beheld her hand.

Forgive him, my Lord. the Counsellor murmured. He knows naught what he does.

"...and to conclude, may I confirm that the participants are in agreement with the Government's actions?"

There. It had to be said.

The Coordinator made one last scan. Dear Colonel Li was for it, obviously. As for the Enforcer, well, for him the government was always right, wasn't it?

The Enforcer had gone. It was as if he had never been there.

The Colonel sat in contemplation. He could almost feel that star on his shoulders now. It was between him and Senior LTC Phang from Armour, he figured. A good score during the next wargames should do it. He'd call his ops team back for another trial run later. Now, if only he could get out without having to take a photo with that man...

The Lawyer shrugged. As he had determined from the start, it was none of his business. He supposed that this was his pro bono contribution for the month. Raju and the others from the firm were already at O'Callaghan's. He hoped that they had selected a good bottle of Scotch. Too bad for the kid, maybe he could consider emigrating, when he gets out.

The Professor swept his papers back into his briefcase. There was nothing that could be changed. The threads had been tied together long before this. There would be no protests at the university in support, that much was certain. Ancient compacts had lapsed with the passing of the old man, however. As a historian, he could not help but be intrigued.

The Intern relaxed. He had survived. He had been preparing his lines on denouncing the boy, because that was what those in charge wanted, but had been worried he would flub them. He'd probably keep his job. He wondered if a buffet had been catered. He could do with dabao-ing a plate or two extra, he was almost out of funds for the week.

The Counsellor was praying. It always works.

The Scholar had finally completed Level 181. Hah, that will show Vincey. He'd craft that letter of resignation tomorrow, he wanted to beat Level 200 by today. Then, he'd ask around, about which to choose between Francois Banque and Silverton & Sons. Oh yes, he should reconnect with Cindy Lachlan too, he'd need a pad to crash back in Cali. He smiled. Religious chicks were the easiest to beguile.

The Businessman stumbled back into the corridor. Finally. This had been the most egregious waste of time he had the bad fortune to be involved in, since some Ministry of Industrial Trade talking head had cajoled him into a three-day visit to Guangzhou, to "consider real estate opportunities". Yeah, like he was going to fall for that again! Hmm, he should really go back and have a few words with that Representative fella, he could use a contact like him. But first, a smoke.

The Psychiatrist tapped on the Uber icon on her iPhone. She had done what she could. Perhaps it was time to consider moving back to Melbourne, where she had been forced to undertake her medical studies, after being denied by the gender quota here. She'd have to consult her girlfriend, but she saw no reason why she would be against it.

The Representative walked about. So many selfie opportunities! Of course, he didn't want to have his picture taken with just anybody. Not that oddball with his head down throughout, for one. Why was the Colonel hurrying off like that? A toilet emergency, he imagined. Was the towkay approaching him? Haha, Yin, you have made the big leagues!

The Coordinator reclined. It was done. He had to admit that the thought of returning to philosophy had often crossed his mind, but it was too late now. He had a mortgage, his wife had an art collection habit, then there were Corrine's piano lessons, and Alexander's one-on-one tuition in three subjects. It didn't come cheap, but it had to be, if his son was going to qualify for Stamford Institution, and not have to settle for... he shuddered. Cheena High. He needed a hot bath. The monograph on Derrida would have to wait.

The Journalist watched as the remaining participants left, one by one. They might have assumed that she was writing up her report, but they would have been mistaken. The five-hundred word copy had already been typed up the day before. She just had to switch a few words around. Hey, you got used to it, after a few years with The State's Times.

They were all gone. That was it, then. Another National Conversation successfully concluded.

She switched off the lights, and left the room.

Mr. Ham: The End.

Mr. Robo: ...that was a little long, wasn't it?

Mr. Ham: Eh, almost ten thousand words. Not to your liking?

Mr. Robo: I dunno, it felt a bit... cynical.

Mr. Ham: Cynicism is what idealists call reality, I like to say.

Nurse: Mr. Robo, it's time for your bath.

Mr. Ham: That's it for today then. See you soon. *friendly smack* Oops, it fell off...

How many themes can you identify?

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