Alfian Sa’at: Government Reaction To Sabah Tragedy Not Opportunistic Propaganda

Today is the National Day of Remembrance for the victims of the Sabah earthquake.

I’ve seen some commentators wondering if there is some political mileage to be extracted from this observance. Whether there is opportunism involved, in putting a caring face on a government otherwise known to be indifferent to all the quieter tragedies happening in our country–like poverty, or the poor treatment of migrant workers.

And I’d have to respectfully disagree that it is ‘propagandistic’. One can make the case that the SEA Games can be propagandistic. The flag on the winner standing on the rostrum, the currency of national pride in precious metals, the torch relay featuring Singapore’s favourite son (Fandi, and its favourite grandson? Irfan), the rah-rah of the Opening Ceremony.

The Mount Kinabalu tragedy is so senseless–many of the victims so young, the disaster so unforeseen–that it beggars belief. And I doubt that anyone has any standard operating procedure for public mourning. Can one fly the flag at half-mast for ordinary civilians rather than statesmen? Should one enforce that minute of silence at SEA Games venues before the competitions? But I also think these kinds of state rituals are an attempt to give some meaning to something that resists any kind of meaning. People are trying to comfort one another as best as they can, and if they can’t bring the lost ones back to life then they’ll try to do something exceptional, including flying flags at half-mast and declaring a day of remembrance.

And they do this not to demonstrate that they have the power to do so, but because they are powerless to do the one thing we all sometimes wish we could do. And if calling the children ‘little heroes’ and the teachers and guides ‘selfless spirits’ gives some amount of consolation and closure then oh God let them have this spoonful of mercy to help them face the void.

Maybe it’s because I’ve lost someone recently, but when I think of this National Day of Remembrance I don’t think of the government or the PAP at all; I think only of the grieving families. I think of those bedrooms that you no longer simply walk into but which you have to confront and which confronts you. I think of my mother’s own bedroom, which I can’t walk into without feeling that it’s all too much. The watch I bought for her, whose battery had died, which I always thought of replacing but somehow never got round to it. The moisturiser we used to rub on her legs when she was undergoing chemo and then beside it the Johnson’s baby oil that I rubbed on her joints just after she passed away, on the doctor’s instructions, so that she would not stiffen into a crooked shape. All the things she used to keep–the pens (tested periodically for ink), the towels, the paper bags, stacked neatly but their handles an impossible jumble of plastic and twine–but never used because like all hoarders she believed that the day will come when they will be awakened from their slumber and find their use…but when they wake how do I tell them their owner has gone? And why do I invest those inanimate things with consciousness, as if…if they were alive then it would mean so is she.

So maybe I can’t keep a critical distance and see some bigger picture, but on this National Day of Remembrance, I am thinking of those families, only those families, and the hairbrush that still has hair stuck in it, the set of keys with the keychain worn down by fingerprints, the exercise book only half-filled, the dent in the bolster foam, the cabinet shelf which someone could have reached one day without tiptoeing, and all those tender dreams where the loved one returns, the dreams that you don’t ever want to wake up from.


Source: Alfian Sa’at

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