Saturday, June 24, 2006

Legends of Singapore (fortunately incomplete)

Maybe we could title this--How not to write a short story (Jerusalem will be the positive example). I could not get myself to finish the parody:

About 100 years ago, there was a young Malay boy by the name of Utama. As his name would indicate, he was none other than the 7th generation descendant of Sang Nila Utama himself--the one who saw the Lion. One day, he was walking by the beach of Changi when he heard a strange whisper from a nearby banana tree. He staggered backwards, his heart thumping in fear. He had heard legends of pontianaks haunting such trees...

He screamed as a boy's pale head appeared from the tree.

'Utama, be not afraid!' the specter howled thunderously.
Utama froze in petrification.

The head smiled a toothy grin before continuing:
'Behold, I am here to bring you good tidings. I am none other than the clever boy who advised the Sultan to plant banana trees along the coast of Singapore--the one who was stabbed by that jealous creep and the one whose blood made Red Hill Red!'
'You...are a ghost!'
'Of course! What else could a talking head from a banana tree be? But I am here not to curse you, nor to suck your blood--though I am very much deprived of it--but to bless. I am here to reveal to you your true destiny! And you can trust me. Surely you know how smart I am?' said the ghost, winking at him.

Utama breathed in deep. He had dreamt of this. He had dreamt last night that someone, something, will come and reveal his true life's quest.

'Go to the beach at Clifford Pier at midnight. There you will be told what to do.'

Thus at midnight Utama went obediently to Clifford Pier. There were some coolies resting around, smoking opium. Suddenly a cold wind blew and the coolies collapsed asleep onto the ground.

A lion's head popped out of the sea.
'Hi, I am the Merlion.'
'Am I so ghastly?' the Merlion asked, rather annoyed, 'but it's alright, Sang Nila had the same reaction. I do miss him. He was really a handsome prince.' The Merlion smiled wistfully.
'Aren't you supposed to be a lion?' Utama asked suspiciously.
'The top part yes. I am slightly mutated--a uniquely Singaporean organism that blesses these waters. My boy, one day my statue shall adorn this place! This is a sure prophecy. And my mouth shall spurt rivers of fresh water into the salty sea!'
'Is that what I am supposed to do? Raise funds to build a statue for you?'
'Oh, no, no. That will happen by itself. I will send a dream into the head of some rich and important man..Your mission is to rescue my egg.'
'Your egg?'
'As you can see, the lower part of my body is that of a fish, and fish lay eggs! It is part of my unique evolutionary heritage.'
'Um. Ok. So where is your egg?'

'Hidden somewhere in Bukit Timah hill for the last 700 years. Indeed, that was what I was doing when your ancestor saw me. It wasn't exactly dignified: I was laying my egg, squeezing it out with some difficulty, when this nice handsome young prince pounced onto me. Oh!'
'Surely you know where it is?'
'Actually I don't. I sort of wondered away with the handsome prince. After that I could not locate my egg anymore.'
'Are you sure the egg still...exists?'
'Of course. Don't you know that a Merlion egg can survive temperatures of up to 10,000 degrees (that, by the way, is the temperature of the sun!) and is able to smash diamonds!'
'But Bukit Timah is so huge! Where am I to find it?'
'Tomorrow, something important is about to take place in Bukit Timah: a group of goody old men will survey the hill to find a wastefully big spot to build a school. My feminine intuition tells me that they are going to build it right on top of my precious egg! Can you imagine that?'

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Punic Wars (Incomplete)

Originally intended to finish this months ago--but lost interest. Maybe will finish it in future:

Few people in the world today know or care much about the 2 great wars of classical Europe—the Second Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. Though they are remote in time and involved only relatively small numbers of people (by modern standards), it is no exaggeration to say that these two wars had historical impacts equal to that of the two World Wars. To put it simply, if the outcomes of these two wars had been different, the whole course of human history would have been dramatically altered.

This article will briefly describe and comment on the Punic Wars. I will leave the Peloponnesian War to perhaps another article.

Most people know vaguely about Roman civilization and its motifs—legions, gladiators, Caesars, togas, monumental architecture and of course, the very idea of Empire. Few however appreciate how the world today is still very much shaped by the legacy of the long fallen Empire. Let us consider a few examples.

The great European languages that now encompass the globe, whether French, Spanish or English, are descendant languages of Greek and Latin—the two main tongues of the Roman Empire. And our modern political and legal systems are very much shaped by the Greco-Roman philosophy that was taught and transmitted by the schools of the Empire. The very word, politics, derives from the Greek word, ‘polis’ (city), and the word Republic, from the Latin ‘respublica’. And of course, democracy is derived from the Greek word ‘demokratia’. And both the Parliamentary system and the Presidential system of governance have Greco-Roman roots.

In the religious field, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church will not be what they are without the Roman Empire. Indeed, there would almost certainly be no Christian Europe without the Roman Empire. And without the classical learning preserved by the Eastern Roman Empire, Islamic civilization will not be what it is. To give just one example: the architecture of mosques, with its domes and minarets were derived from late Eastern Roman architecture.

In short, the word will be an extremely different place today if Rome had not conquered Europe, North Africa and the Near East to forge one of the greatest Empires in history.

And yet it was never inevitable. One of the most crucial moments in history was when Rome and Carthage entered into a life-and-death struggle for supremacy over the Western Mediterranean—the 3 Punic wars. They ended in the total victory of Rome and made her the supreme power in Europe. From then on, the path to Empire was clear. Yet it could well have turned out otherwise.

By 264 BCE, through centuries of warfare, most of the main powers in Italy had become the subordinate allies or colonies of the Roman Republic. By a generous and shrewd system of extending citizenship and a superb system of alliance management, she could tap enormous manpower reserves of up to half a million men. Yet she lacked the technological expertise of the Greeks and could only besiege fortified cities with great difficulty. More importantly, she was primarily a land power and had no substantial navy. Economically, she was also not extremely wealthy—she was primarily an agricultural power and while the lands of Italy were fertile but they hardly like the plains of Babylon or the Nile delta.

Carthage too was a Republic like Rome. Both city states were in fact renowned in classical times for their extremely stable constitutions. Some Greek philosophers, like Aristotle, attribute such stability to how the two city states mixed the elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. For instance in Rome, the Consuls embodied the elements of the monarchy, the Senate, that of aristocracy, and the Tribunes, that of democracy.

But other than this one similarity and the fact they were both great powers, Rome and Carthage were practically the antithesis of each other. Carthage was perhaps the greatest naval power in Europe. She was after all founded by Phoenicians settlers (in Latin, 'Punic') from Tyre (in present day Lebanon). Rome on the other hand was the supreme land power of Italy, but had little to no naval capacities. It was the classic struggle between the elephant and the whale. Yet the Punic wars were interesting precisely because the elephant would learn to swim and the whale to walk.

The first Punic war started in 264 BCE, when

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Awful Daybreak

Introduction: As a supreme negative example, I recently wrote a piece incorporating some of the worst possible features of a descriptive essay. Enjoy. =)

How not to write a descriptive essay

It was quiet. Then there was a stirring, rippling and tinkling as night shivered uncontrollably in freezing cold fear. Fear! Horror! Terror! For her end was near! I could hear her loud howls as she wailed and tore her hair with her black cloudy claws. The temperature dropped so low that polar bears would flee in terror and ice cream would transform into delicious diamonds.

Rain fell from heaven! Tears! O! The queen of the dark was weeping dark soggy tears, flooding the earth with slime. The Niagara was a mere drop in this flood; nay, it was the universal deluge—it was as if the Amazon, the Nile, the Yangzi river and the mighty Singapore River had all gathered into one supreme, unstoppable, invincible, incredibly ocean-like, tremendously awesome, wondrous flow!! Owls, her children, fluttered like cute butterflies in wild abandon, while she—the fat queen of the abyss—shrieked and ran across the heavens with a ripped dress; her footprints scattered randomly and the resounding thunders burst a million eardrums and car windows.

O! O! But she had no place to run. Her eyes opened wide. Once so powerful, once the demonic ruler of the dark, she whimpered as her last tears ran dry. Her worshippers held their breath for an hour—in fear and awe. Her empire was at an end…She hung herself in despair from a rope tied round the moon.

As Plato said, ‘Humankind is war’. Yes and all is war, war! Conflict is the grandparent of all things. Yes.

The mighty God, muscles bulging till it cracked his golden armor, burst up from the horizon in a flash. A thousand trumpets sounded from behind from the flocking crows and swans that heralded the Majesty. The whole earth groveled and millions fell down prostate to worship the Power that was matchlessly invincible, omnipotent and supreme.

I was in rapture, in ecstasy. Golden joy burst like the Amazon from my feeble heart, filling my heart and roaring out from my mouth, nose and forehead. My heart burst into life like a tropical jungle; monkeys, peacocks and birds of paradise seem to multiply and fill my heart with their beastly songs. I also burst into mighty song as the Spaceship of the Sun, the great Alien One, filled the sky, burning up all impurities in men and beast alike. The Incinerator Supreme, the Cleaner Invincible suck up all dust from our souls like a Divine Vacuum Cleaner and blast life into the rocks which stood up and started a tap dance.

Indeed, as Einstein said, ‘incineration is the source of all life’ and as Shakespeare puts it, “Rubbish is the rich soil from which all fake quotes arise’. Such immense profundity can only be appreciated under the sweet caress of the muscular Shakespearean sun.

The valleys shook and buildings tumbled down as the earth shook, dancing and waving her hands to welcome her Sovereign. I stood up screaming my praises of the sun. Daybreak!!!! E=mc2!!! Nuclear Fire that consume the world! Yes.