A Burning Bird | O Thiam Chin | Granta

A Burning Bird

O Thiam Chin

F was a friend I got to know during my national service in the army, a compulsory rite of passage for all male Singaporean citizens. We were picked to serve in the Guards formation after completing our advanced training in the School of Infantry Specialists. We were part of the twenty or so cadets chosen out of hundreds to spend the remaining nineteen months of our national service in the Guards. We were posted to the same company, Bravo, and to the same platoon, and there we began our friendship. It was 1998, I was twenty-one and F was my first Malay friend.

I was never good at making friends in school. Introverted, stubbornly shy and aggressively passive, I got by mostly by myself, with one or two close friends throughout my childhood and adolescence. The few friendships I struck up were always with boys with similar temperaments – reserved, reticent, inhibited. Loners and outsiders, the last to be picked for games, those who looked down, burning with a fire of embarrassment, when called on in class. I was happy with these friendships, with what they offered me, what they took from me. The fact that we spoke the same mother tongue, Mandarin, or had the same socioeconomic background, working-class Chinese, were factors that were invisible or irrelevant to me then, though they might have aided immensely in the initiation of these early friendships. Of course, I had other classmates of different races—Malay and Indian—had studied and played with them, but nothing ever bloomed out of these interactions, although that didn’t bother me much. At that age, I was aware of the stark dissimilarities that existed between us, between people – different languages, traditions, cultural practices, dietary habits, skin colours – but they were mere distinctions that indicated our differences, and not clear dividing lines that marked and separated one from another, like borders or boundaries. We were different, that I knew, but then, at that age everyone was unknown to me. The knowledge and weight and implication of race had not yet occurred to me, though the fact that I was slowly becoming aware of these differences was growing and ripening inside me.

Moving through the stages of secondary school – neighbourhood, co-ed, middling – I soon grew used to mixing with classmates of the same race and language background, natural since out of the thirty-plus students that made up my class there was only a handful of Malays and Indians, three or four at any one time. Already at that age, we were all trying to find our own cliques and tribes, marking our differences via our preferences and likes and interests, demarcating our territories. The laws of each tribe were imperceptible, intangible, but strictly enforced, fervently upheld. I instinctively understood the unspoken rules – those who are on the outside are always vigilant to any changes or threats – and swiftly fell in line.

In the democratic hours of lessons and study time, we might smudge and cross the lines, but out of class and during recess, the forces of our native tribes would exert their own gravity, pulling us back into our safety zones, the Chinese in one corner, the Malays in another, and the Indians yet another – there were the Eurasian students, but they were so rare in my school that they barely registered. Overlapping and crisscrossing these tribal lines were more lines, some more valued and privileged than others: academic excellence, popularity, athletic prowess, looks, acerbic humour. Above us, the impalpable markers of race and gender and class and all the things that came with them; and alongside them, the hard, incontrovertible fact of our changing bodies, the dawning of new hungers and appetites.

In my teens, I became morose and taciturn, finding solace in Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins; I surrounded myself with like-minded peers, developed a carapace, and learned to defy authority figures, in my own quiet ways. Outwardly my body was a thing apart from myself, foreign and restless and ungovernable. Inwardly, I was experiencing new moods and sensations, arising from the physical changes I was undergoing and the overall sense that I was made very differently from the other boys around me. In no time, this disparity became very real, very concrete.

In the ensuing years, transitioning from secondary school to polytechnic and later national service, this gnawing sense of incongruity continued to deepen. In the army, where a good part of our surface identities and behaviours were systematically erased—same shaven heads, same uniforms, unconditional subservience—I had wanted nothing more than to hide among the masses, to be one of the guys, to suppress anything that might draw attention to myself. F was different in the same way that I was different, and that’s where our similarity ended. He was a natural leader, a fact that immediately became apparent to our platoon commander and later the officer commanding. He was well-liked by his men, not just from his own section and platoon, but also from the other platoons of the company. He understood all the rules, those explicit and others unspoken, and sought to rise above any expectation, to be exemplary. He was driven in a way that the rest of us, the Chinese sergeants, were not – it’s just national service lah, don’t need to be so on – as if he had been called to the task, to this vocation. His uniform was always neatly ironed, sharp creases down the front, his boots polished, his khaki beret angling at a clean forty-five degrees, his combat gear in tip-top condition, his locker shipshape, even his bed was tucked in every morning, hospital corners. Did he, a minority, feel the compulsion to do better, to be at his best, because he had already been marked, singled out, by the fact of his race – there were very few Malay men in leadership positions then – or was it entirely his nature, his perfectionist streak?

If I have so far painted a picture of F as stern and unrelenting, that was only one side of him. Beneath the serious facade, F was a fun, quick-witted man, able to see the funny side to nearly every situation, to make a joke out of it. He also had an uncanny ability to imitate anyone. During downtime and in the privacy of our eight-man bunk room, F would give a perfect imitation of, say, a certain platoon commander from Charlie company, right down to the exact facial tic, the nervy pitch of his voice. All the officers were given a good roast by F; no one in authority was spared. He recognised, even respected, the power structure of such authority, but wasn’t beyond mocking it. A joker, some of us took to calling him, a title honourably conferred. A fool, a wise one, as if from a Shakespearean play, speaking a different, deeper truth.

Apart from his keen perspicacity, or maybe as a result of it, F was very alert and sensitive to his immediate surroundings, to the minute gestures of others. Perhaps this sensitivity had come out of him being who he was among us – an esteemed leader, Malay, a popular figure – though I could have easily ascribed it to his personality, his thoughtful character. He had needed to be on his toes, not just for his role as a platoon sergeant, a commander to his men, but also to respond or react quickly, to adapt himself to any change. It’s a survival tactic and also a shield, a disguise.


How does a friendship begin?

Living in such close proximity in camp, it was hard to avoid rubbing your life against that of another. Every habit or fault was on display, laid open for scrutiny. Personal boundaries were often trespassed, leading to tension or fighting. F stayed above the fray, mostly by minding his own business, by not choosing sides. He was private about almost every aspect of his life, while most of us were unabashed about oversharing: girlfriends, drinking binges, bike races, money, sex. Whenever one of us tried to get him to open up, his reply would usually be: Leceh lah, nothing interesting.

For a long while, we remained on casual, friendly terms, not getting into each other’s way. A quick conversation between tasks (common refrain: rush to wait, wait to rush), a wry smile exchanged over a platoon commander’s gaffe. And one day, during a lull in a field exercise, he came up to me and I offered him some water, and we sat and talked and bitched about our commanders, our sad, tragic lives wasted in the army. And then we became friends.

What is a friendship between men? What does it entail, what form does it take? As a child, it was instinctual, at least for me, to make friends with someone of the same sex; girls always seem too foreign and forbidding to me. With boys, it was much easier: we played games, we tagged each other, we fought; nothing more was expected. In adolescence, things remained somewhat the same, though the rules were vaguer, murkier: we still played games, we still pushed one another around, but we fought much harder, more viciously. Nothing was stable, fixed. Once, I pushed a good friend to the ground during art class over a caustic comment he made, and that spelled the end of our friendship. I became blasé about making friends, too complacent about keeping the existing ones, too leceh to make new ones. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I was just discovering my own interest in other boys, something that further complicated the whole matter.

What then is a friendship between two gay men? Is it based on frankness, a shared camaraderie, a common identity? I’d never have been able to voice such a question, let alone put it out in the open, at that point in time, when I was still serving my national service, in an environment that did not speak of such things. If there were other people like us in the army, they all kept to themselves, rendered themselves invisible, blending into the crowd, camouflaged by their uniforms. Not all perhaps, for a few were easily recognised – there’s something to be said about certain men, when they are put in highly regimented environments with other men, who can sniff out even a tiny whiff of weakness and actively seek to stamp it out; toxic masculinity, they say now, but it has always been around, permanent and indestructible, like radiation – like rabbits in a lion’s den. There was a clerk who used to slink around the camp in his grey T-shirt and black shorts, bearing a stricken, wary look in his eyes; rumour had it that he was charged and court-martialled and later counselled for some ‘inappropriate’ thing he had done or that had been done to him. Whenever I saw him, I’d let my gaze fall anywhere but him, not wanting to make even the slightest contact. Was I culpable or complicit, as well?

Of course, we would never have been able to articulate it back then. Some things are just not said, the words all but fail. It’s enough that we knew, at some level. Perhaps I had sensed something in F that I couldn’t quite put a finger on, but it was there, something more felt than seen, a quiet pulse under the skin. He was tough, yes, but underneath that, a muscle of gentleness; he was neat and particular and by the book, with an air of fastidiousness that bordered on the obsessive. Control is paramount, for it allows you to take charge, to limit the unforeseen. Self-control, critical and necessary, for it disciplines the appetites, the wayward eye. F abided by these codes, and yet they did not contain him.

For as I got to know him better, he became more relaxed and comfortable with me. I was a friend, a confidante, his audience of one. In our private time, away from the glare of others, he would go beyond his repertoire of imitations to small song and dance performances. One moment, he was Cher, jazz hands flapping around his long-lashed eyes, belting do you believe in life after love, I can feel something inside me say, I really don’t think you’re strong enough, no, and in the next moment, he’s Madonna, pouty lips and vixen stare, striking a pose, voguing. Ah, did I mention he was a dancer, a rather good one? I’d be sitting at the edge of my bunk bed, eyes agog, while he worked through his steps, snapping and twirling, fully in the dance. He would often end the spectacle with his back to me, head over his shoulder, winking, and I’d laugh and clap in approval.

While we were open and frank to each other in some ways, in others we were apprehensive, hesitant. For one, we did not feel a need to talk about what was seemingly self-evident. Had our actions and words been sufficient to make that known? I don’t know. The closest F came to making a confession, to coming out to me, was when he was sharing his thoughts – his crush, his infatuation? – about a platoon commander from another company, going on at length about his feelings for him, and yet avoiding any words that might suggest something untoward. At one point, exasperated by his pent-up emotions, he had pointed to his chest, as if words were no longer enough to do the trick, and said: ‘It’s like I have this huge white bird inside me, that is burning and trying to get out, trying to escape, but it can’t.’ I nodded, pretended to understand what he was saying, and quickly changed the topic.

Even now, I often wonder about this huge white bird caged inside F, inside me, that aches to be freed, to be free – is it still burning?

For one thing, F was a deeply pious man. He prayed every day, whenever he could, whenever it was possible. He observed Ramadan, even during outfield training and field camps. His faith was an important, integral part of his life. Even if he could have, it would have been next to impossible to come clean about what was plain and apparent. We are all bound by what we believe and hold true.

Our friendship lasted as long as it could. For many years, after our national service, we would come back for our annual reservist training for a few weeks. F was still in Bravo company, while I’d long been transferred to HQ. We still talked, but by then, a chasm had opened up between us, something we couldn’t quite bridge. And then after we completed our full cycle of reservist training, we lost contact and he disappeared from my life. From time to time, I thought about reconnecting with him via social media, but eventually gave up the idea. It would be too troublesome, too leceh, to do so. Life pushes on, and it’s time to let go.


When The Arts House – a literature centre running from the former parliament building at the heart of Singapore – wanted to create a different kind of library, one grouped by themes and leaps of the imagination, rather than any readily searchable order, they chose the name ‘The Troublesome Library’. Like all libraries, it is a place where you have to ‘take the trouble’ to find insights and wonder. But trouble finds people everywhere (not only in libraries), in all kinds of shapes and at all kinds of moments, and is a kind of theme of its own. In parallel with the opening of its new feature, The Arts House supported a literary series on the theme of trouble.

Image © Gramicidin 

O Thiam Chin

O Thiam Chin is a Singaporean writer. He is the author of six short story collections, including Free-Falling Man (2006) and Love, Or Something Like Love (2013), and has been longlisted thrice for the Frank O’ Connor International Short Story Award. He is also the author of three novels, including Fox Fire Girl (2017) and The Dogs (2020).

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