I came home today and found ‘squeak’ lying there lifeless. Usually, I would offer a greeting and squeak would be extremely excited, as what follows my greeting is usually a nut or a cookie crumb. Today he just lied there motionless….I first bought squeak from that Chinchilla shop at Serangoon Gardens. He was no bigger than half a thumb and awfully stinky. The ‘mousy’ smell I’d call it. It has a dirty brown coat and extremely ugly in many sense. One could imagine the shop owner caught a wretch animal off the street and trying to make a buck out of it… no, two bucks out of it. Whatever it is, I came home with squeak that very night, spending more than twenty bucks on his new home and toys. Days went by, squeak began to grow. He had a stout body, hairless tail and a terrible mousy smell. But he lived with me all through those meaningless and lonely evenings. Occasionally, I’d let squeak out of the cage and ramble on my bed. Once in a while, he would pee a puddle, just droplets but enough to send me swearing.

This evening, squeak left me for some paradise unknown to our superiority. As I took his weightless body in my hand and carried it out to the garden, I felt a genuine sadness. He has given me so much, much more than I could ever recall. He stirred my imagination and opened a window to a Lilliputian world. Beyond that, I felt there had been moments when I felt contact between his tiny being and my own. Sometimes when I teased him, he’d nibble my fingers; when I stole his nut he would squeak non stop in protest. It felt as though an affectionate message was passed between us. I buried squeak amongst the grass and walked back to the house. I was sad, for squeak, but more so for me. The size of a friend has nothing to do with the void he or she leaves behind.

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I was at the Rotaract Clubhouse today helping the young men sort out the donations they received from the public in support for the campaign this Friday to Cambodia. As we unwrapped the bags and bags of clothes and soft toys, some needed to be discarded because of their unsuitability. We left the many bags of toys and books outside the clubhouse so as to make space for the boxing of those stuff we wanted to bring along with us.

It was not before long before a few ladies in green came over and started to put their hands on the stuff we left outside the clubhouse. I smiled at them and told them if they’d like anything, they were most welcomed to help themselves because the stuff were all quite new and mostly usable, just that we were unable to lug them along due to the designated maximum load we can put onto the plane with our ticket.

So these ladies started helping themselves – an old soft toy for one’s grand-daughter, two pencil cases for another, a brand-new table tennis bat for the third, and a stack of Mr Men booklets for the indian lady’s youngest daughter. They were all delighted in this new treasure trove to what we deemed as junk.

A quarter of an hour later, a staff from Estate Management office came and made some loud noises about these ladies not working accordingly and garang guni-ing outside the clubhouse instead. His hostile voice rose higher and higher until I could not take it and walked straight out in front of him and asked him what the issue was. Immediately he mellowed and apologized to have raised his voice as he was not aware I was in the clubhouse.

He said and I quote, “These cleaners are like houseflies. They see piles of junk and they will fly around. The only difference is they don’t buzz but yak yak yak.”

I was appalled by his response and had a take a quick moment to recompose myself. Then, I told him that if these ladies were houseflies as he claimed, then he would probably be Sheltox – simply opened his mouth and the stinking toxin spurts out like no one’s bloody business. I told him there was nothing wrong with people taking second handed stuff for their folks and that I grew up with such toys and books as well.

The man immediately apologized and explained that he was joking. I told him I was however not. He repeatedly apologized and made way into the stairways before he disappeared along the corridor.

Although I was a irritated by this man’s conceitedness, I was more disheartened that a well-educated young man, probably fresh from the University, would mock these ladies with a label of ‘houseflies’. Perhaps he had grown up in a silvery environment where life took him on a headstart over the others, or that he would be one of those God favoured more than the others, that did not give him the right to dismiss the dignity of those who were less blessed than him.

I continued to help the few aunties select what was best for them to bring home to their families. Half an hour later, they were all smiles, grabbing bags of dolls and toys, and broken luggage bags, sauntering cheerfully bidding us goodbye with heaps of thanks.

I turned and told my Rotaracters that we may not give people the best of what we could, but the least we can give them, is the dignity of a fellow human being. I wanted them to bear this closely in mind before I grabbed my keys and headed back to the office.

It was an afternoon that I will remember for a while.

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Muy Th’ngay

And so my journey ends.

I have seen the sleaze of Phnom Penh,
the dreams of the Cambodian Youths,
the majesty of the Angkor Temples,
the dances of the Apsaras,
And the hopes of the Mekong River;

I have heard the chortles of the Battambang girls,
the weeping of the Killing Fields,
the chants of the Ta Prhom Monestry,
the rebuttals of the Sihanoukville Traffic,
And the echos of the Silver Pagoda;

Yet the greatest of these fond memories lies in a simple conversation.

Me (to older orphan): Can you tell him (Sulamon) I am going home and this is goodbye?

Older Orphan (in Khmer): xxxxxxxxxxxxx

Sulamon (in Khmer): xxxxxxxx

Me: What did he tell you?

Older Orphan: He said, “Can you tell father not to go please?”

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The Rescuers

It was barely twenty-minutes. I woke up from a sickly afternoon nap after nursing a temperature of 39.4 degrees. The temperature went down a little after the nap and it was really a good sleep therapy. I was immersing in the delight of recovery when there came a panicky knock on the door.

I opened the door only to find two little Malay boys in their school attire. They were frantic and tried to utter some words to me. After they caught their breathe and composed themselves, they told me to look at my kitchen. I turned my head in horror, to find that my terror-of-the-house had started another circus stunt of hers – she crept out of the kitchen windown and did a nice pole walk on my quilt hung nicely out to sun. The lure was the brown pigeon which seemed oblivious to the bird-eating machine approaching it.

However, that wasn’t the cause of panic. The quilt may be sprawled over two bamboo poles, it was not well pegged and may just give way anytime. I live on the third floor and quite apparently, the kids saw the cat performing this i-want-to-eat-the-bird acrobatic stunt from where they were and panicked. It wasn’t before long that one of the pegs gave way and there was a scream from below. I looked down from the window and saw the most hilarious sight.

There were another four boys and a girl below. They were each holding a corner of a spread-out jacket reminiscent of a safety net which fire-fighters use to ensure safe plunges. Amongst the screams, they were cursing one another for getting out of the right spot which they predicted the cat would land should she fall.

I had to contain my laughter. I tapped on the food dish twice and the cat made way into the house safely.

I could almost feel the earth heave a huge sigh of relief. I told the kids to stay put and I made way down with the two malay boys. After that, I rounded them up and took them to the provision shop and bought every kid a Cornato ice cream cone. I told each of them I was very touched by the kindness they showed when they witnessed the cat in “distress” and the springing into immediate hilarious action (which was pretty sensible if you ask me). I was still giggling but was genuinely impressed. I told them they had done a great job and encouraged them to always keep this righteousness in their hearts before hurrying them to be on their way home.

I was sure they would have a good story to tell the day after in class, being the heros of the day, and I am more certain that everytime they pass by my block, they will look up to see if the cat is up to another stunt or not. But what I am really assured of, is if ever my cat ever tries the suicidal act again, these heros will be all ready to spring into action again – without a shadow of doubt.

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The Yellow Ribbon

I remembered there was once when a burly man walked into my father’s bakery in response to his recruitment ad for a kitchen assistant to the baker. This man was well dressed and clean shaven. I recalled his soft-spoken tone as well as the way he hesitated to answer some of my father’s questions. What I could vividly remembered was that when I father asked him about his criminal record, he kept quiet – for a long time. Then he apologized and turned away to walk out. My father stopped him and patted him on his shoulder, telling him it was ok, just say it out. The burly man actually cried and then uttered slowly that he was an ex-convict. He had been in drugs for many years and he really wanted to start afresh – if the society would allow. He wanted to make up for what he had done and the suffering of embarrassment by his family over the few years.

My father told him, “If you do not mind, let’s begin your new life here.”

That was 17 years ago when Thomas walked into the shop to ask for a job. Today, he runs my father’s branch in Henry Park and built a small business into one of the most successful bakery in the vicinity.

Sometimes we just need that bit of faith in the others to create a miracle.

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I had a late night yesterday and after alighting the final bus journey for that particular bus, I walked home slowly. The quietude was soothing and despite the flickering street lights, I feel no apprehension. I headed for the main road and then I saw them.

There were about 10 of them, all mongrels, congregating together and amongst them, there was one of them lying on the road. Casualty of modernity – possibly a hit and run. I walked towards the pack and peered at the carcass lying on the ground. Indeed, the dog had passed on. It was not an easy sight. Yet, I had do something. I cannot let the carcass lay in the middle of the road, to be further manipulated by the traffic. So, I walked towards the lifeless animal – that was when the pack started to growl.

One by one, they snarled and I could tell it was not just a scare. Two of them were in pouncing position. I retreated my steps and sat by the road. A few cars whizzed by and every time one did, my heart would skip a beat. Then slowly, I chuckled some noise and extended my hands. Slowly, one of the alpha males came over and sniffed. Then he allowed me to pat.

In no time, the pack was all around me, and seemed to express their remorse for the unfortunate accident. They did not wag their tails at any time and constantly looked at their departed friend. I gave a few of them hugs of condolences before I stood up and walked towards the carcass again.

This time, they allowed me.

I took the carcass to the side of the road and returned later with a trash bag. After allowing the other dogs to sniff the dead animal, I knotted the bag up and brought it to the nearest garbage center. At that hour, it was the only thing I could do.

The pack followed me all the way to the dumping ground before finally they came for their last pats and then headed off back into the street which led them to the old Fire Station – probably where they came from.

As I watched them disappear into the street lights, I could not help but wonder how many of us actually have friends that will do the same for us, should one day mishap seize our lives.

How many will stay with us even after we parted and remain faithful to the memory?

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I picked up photography lately and thanks to my new mobile phone which captures images brilliantly. Being an amateur, I started taking photos of all sorts, particularly scenic, picturesque ones, and then do an analysis on how each composition can be made better. After some time, I came to a realization that sun rises and sun sets are some of the easiest photos to take – because they are naturally beautiful. The worse ones are those taken in the mid noon sun or at night, when light is glared beyond belief or marred by the shadowy clouds respectively – a good photo will thus become a feat. Therefore we tend to walk away from this “unsuitability” and focus on the ‘wows’ of sun rises and sun sets because they give rise to beautiful images.

I want to share some sentiments on this but yet my mind is blank for some reasons. Maybe it was the late nights. Maybe not. But one thing perhaps I can express is that, never be afraid to find the jewel in the mud – sometimes it is in the bleakest hope that we find the biggest miracle, and in the worse weather we find shelter. Afternoon suns are glaring and provide the technical disadvantage to photography – and it is only when the courage of the photographer who sees beyond the comfort and suitability that will capture one of the best photos during this time – and perhaps even more brilliant than the very common dusk-and-dawn ones.

To those who will eventually become teachers – I hope that they will pick up the courage to take a nice picture of the many many afternoon suns they will come across in life – and in doing so, make a difference in them to the world.

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