Miss Ng was a council house kid of sorts. Her family rented from Mr Lee’s Housing and Development Board. A truly Utopian organisation, it leased affordable property in projects that contained any and all of the amenities that residents might require. To a Westerner, the Ng family apartment was small, a long way from the ground and contained a confusing mixture of swinging and sliding doors. Just as every workplace washroom in America bears an instruction, ‘Now put on your smile’, any mirror etching forced upon Miss Ng would read, in block capitals, followed by three exclamation marks, ‘WIPE ANY SMILE OFF OF YOUR FACE!!!’.
She owned two well-practised expressions, frown and total blank. Her bedroom was a small but neat room, shared with both her younger sister and with a giant picture window view of the other HDC high rises in their neighbourhood. Between the residences, busy roads were fringed with palm trees. Any gaps were filled with rows of red slated terraced houses, inhabited by the wealthy landed. There was even the occasional tennis court and swimming pool. She adjusted her necktie and straightened both of her badges. One announced her as ‘Miss Ng’. The other, beneath a golden representation of a lion, exclaimed ‘Forward Singapore.’
If there was a base unit for muck and dust, Miss Ng’s size three and a half shoes would be touching -273, absolute zero. They shone, as did her black hair, undoubtedly combed at least 273 times. Not deliberately, but as soon as she added her red and white pillbox hat, she did look rather like a fast-food restaurant waitress, but high class, top-notch, imagine the Fullerton had a drive-through.
On this day she must go to Kovan, an upmarket sub-division with more than its fair share of respected foreign permanent residents (PR’s). Also, more than a few of the suspicious EPs (Employment Pass) holders. She would travel by bus and Comfort taxi (or walk and boil). Unhelpfully, her unsuspecting appointment lived partway between two MRT stations on two different lines. Even the most enthusiastic realtor couldn’t claim walk-in access to the rapid transit system. En route, she must arrange the weaponry of her trade; questionnaire, two pens, three blank sheets of paper and a clipboard. All was not well. A little ripple troubled the city-state, as if a water boatman on gossamer wings had landed without permission on the Right Honourable Mr Lee’s infinity lily pond at Government Palace. Miss Ng would swat it with a clipboard. Her emailed instructions had been headed, Re: Disorderly Resident. She stepped out of her parent’s apartment and onto the case.
* * *
My wife, Tai Tai, has a simple answer to any political question asked at the front door, or anywhere else for that matter, she shouts out my name at the top of her voice then whispers, “I’ll leave that to you,” as I arrive.
A sonder bureaucrat stood before me on the step of 28 Dumfries Avenue, Kovan, the luxurious house that we rent for a pittance, from the mysterious and absent Mr Stein. Outside, Miss Ng stood slightly to the right, avoiding a large puddle caused by the only flaw in our perfect home, the water tank’s perpetual motion drip.
When interrupted by the gate buzzer, Tai Tai had been entertaining Moira Fitzgerald and Mrs Bakshi, her companion ladies who shop. A journalist’s and a doctor’s wife respectively, they reside in the neighbouring two houses. I’d been in the kitchen fighting with the electrics. No matter what Mr Stein’s occupation, it wasn’t electrician. There were some interesting additions to the fuse box. There were also phone wires and sockets everywhere, even in the side garden, where they had been exposed when turning over soil to quieten our maid Rose’s chickens.
“My name is Miss Ng.”
Our new visitor cut straight to the quick, no further introduction necessary, pen poised above clipboard as if Alexander the Great pondering a nasty knot blocking a door in Gordium.
“Why you not vote for Mr Lee?”
I should have known that something like this would happen. I had been warned to expect it. A few scenarios drifted through my mind, ranging from denial to apology. Before any of them had a chance to settle, Miss Ng broke the silence.
“Mr Lee needs to know.”
More silence from me.
“Mr Lee wants to help you. Mr Lee wants to be your friend.”
Perhaps some kind of an explanation on my part? Better plan, just close the door in her face.
“No thank you,” I replied firmly and unsmiling. I began to push the door to.
Miss Ng beat me to it. She moved her left foot very slightly. Heel towards the door frame, shoe upturned, sole rather rudely pointing towards me, her toes prepared a size three and a half wedge. Did I say sonder bureaucrat? Make that sonderkommando. I reconsidered. So did she, placing her feet back together and standing to attention.
“Perhaps Miss Ng might like to come in?” My wife called from the front room, where she was dragging a Turkish carpet out of sight while continuing to entertain her lady friends. Miss Ng looked puzzled, or rather the middle part of her brow expressed puzzlement via the emergence of a single crease. The rest of her face remained inscrutably blank.
Concluding that Miss Ng lived in a simple world of straightforward commands, I issued an order. Pulling the door further open and standing to one side I said, ‘Come in,’ in my most confident voice. She followed me into my downstairs office. I stood beside my comfy chair. Rose appeared with a stool. Miss Ng waited for me to sit before sitting too. The record was stuck.
“Why you not vote for Mr Lee?”
Rose re-appeared with two mango juices. It wasn’t California. There was no need for the staff to hide when an official called. Illegal immigration was unheard of, one of a multitude of positives to Mr Lee’s iron grip.
A checkpoint at Woodlands controlled the causeway to Johor Bahru on the Malay mainland. The days when that causeway carried one double-decker bus (red and advertising cigarettes) per hour between clumps of palm trees were long gone. It was very busy, entry was tightly controlled, exit closely monitored. Likewise, at Changi airport and at the seaport, an iron curtain, further reinforced by bureaucracy, was wrapped around the Lion City. Knowing all of the comings and goings was yet another one of Mr Lee’s strong points.
I ummed and ahhed. I didn’t even realise there’d been an election. I suspected that ignorance would be no excuse, “I thought Mr Lee was sort of retiring from the front line of this sort of thing?” I ventured.
“Mr Lee is the People’s Action Party, the People’s Action Party is Singapore, Singapore is the People’s Action Party, the People’s Action Party is Mr Lee,” she explained, staccato, ordering the universe in twenty-six words. The single line across her brow reappeared, “Why you not vote for Mr Lee? You have nice house, pretty young wife, Mercedes car on the drive. What does Mr Lee have to do for you?”
Mr Lee wasn’t a great believer in significant others, partners or life companions. If you were opposite sexes, adults, not too closely related biologically and under the same roof, then you were husband and wife. As for same-sex couples, I doubt if anybody had ever dared mention to him that such a thing had been invented.
“Mr Lee wants all of the votes. It is good for democracy.”
The People’s Action Party never got all of the votes but, at one time, did win all of the seats. Although those circumstances had changed, some of the non-PAP members of parliament were more like Mr Lee than Mr Lee was. From a Western perspective, this all seemed a bit paranoid but from the Oriental perspective, with a yearning for harmony and order, plus a nod at the Malay states troubled and sectarian past, it was all-important.
“I’m not a permanent resident,” I realised aloud, relieved, “I don’t get to vote. I’ve an employment pass for six months, at the Singapore Consultancy, in the Zhēn Xiàng tower at Marina Bay.”
A weight lifted from my chest, allowing me to speak more freely.
“I would have voted for Mr Lee if I could have. Honest. Early and often, if it was allowed. I’m a big fan.”
Her face went completely blank. Then, like an incoming storm tide, the line on her brow reappeared.
“Mr Stein. You are Mr Stein?”
The Gospels of Mark and Luke mention ‘Mark’ and ‘Luke’ not at all. Saint Matthew’s gospel mentions ‘Matthew’ twice, which is how it derives its name. Likewise, the only reason that myself and Tai Tai thought our landlord to be a Mr Stein was because of the signatures on the bad amateur oils hanging in the front room. I felt like punching the air. Miss Ng’s mention was like finding a scribble on an ancient papyrus proving something important.
“No, I’m Mr Worth. My wife and I are Mr and Mrs Worth.”
“Where is Mr Stein?”
“I don’t know. Never met him,” I replied honestly.
She addressed her clipboard. Had it been a computer, it would have been shouting, “No, no, no!”
“Mr Lee needs to know where Mr Stein is,” she pleaded.
“You have his address,” she continued. I wasn’t sure if that was a statement or a question.
She drew the wrong conclusion from my silence. “I am at the wrong house, your neighbour? Is he Mr Stein?”
On cue, there was polite tap-tap on the office door. It slid open to reveal our neighbours. The ladies wanted a vignette of me being crucified by a four-foot eleven girl, who was sat on a stool, dressed for the burger counter. As if applying vinegar to a wound, Moira Fitzgerald announced that her journalist husband, following my wife’s request, could find no reference to a Mr Stein through his newspaper, the Straits Star. Miss Ng scribbled furiously.
Mrs Bakshi pierced my side with a spear, “Mr Worth, you wanted to know about Mr Stein’s curious Turkish carpet? The one that the Korean took too much of an interest in at your party?” She giggled like a schoolgirl. Steam began to rise from Miss Ng’s pen nib. “Can I recommend a Mr Jeremy Tan?”, Mrs Bakshi continued,” He’s very good. He told me all about some old pots and pans that I bought on impulse at Katong.”
Miss Ng wrote that down too. No doubt she was composing a Re: Re: Disorderly Resident (FAO Mr Lee personally – prepare a flogging) e-mail to be typed in red caps-lock and underlined in blood.
While they were having their fun, I was thinking. If Mr Stein had left the territory, the bureaucracy would know about it. Likewise, if he’d changed address. The only other possibility seemed to be that Mr Stein was in-hiding in Singapore. Very strange. I must contact this Mr Tan and see what he had to say about that Turkish rug. Being familiar with the Eastern Med, I recognised the style. I knew where the rug had come from but I was unable to date it. Brought back in normal times, it would suggest that Mr Stein had been no more than a tourist, from more difficult times, the implications would be very different and very suspicious indeed.
To be continued……
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file