Friday, October 31, 2008

On Empires

No empire is eternal; All empires are destined to die.

There are three ways in which empires die- Decay, disintegration, and destruction. The first two deaths are internal, while the last is external. Decay occurs through decadence or gradual weakening of the state; Disintegration is when the empire splits into multiple factions, each opposed to another; Destruction happens when an external power annexes or disbands the empire.

There have been many vast empires, often made by the power of a single great conqueror. However, while there are vast empires, and while there are lasting empires, there are no vast empires that last long. The conqueror's empire, fueled by expansion, is doomed to fail, as when the conqueror dies, few can fill his void. Alexander was great, but the Macedonian empire disintegrated upon his death. This tale is repeated throughout history.

Perhaps the greatness of a conqueror should not be based on how vast an empire he commands, but on how long his empire can endure his absence. A ruler that spends his energies on strengthening the organs of the empire, that focuses on longevity rather than size, might be able to create an entity that by far survives himself.

And yet, the resulting nation might only be staving off the inevitable. The stronger the systems that prop an empire, the more inflexible the same systems become. With the passage of time, the same rules that ensured strength in the past would become inefficient and irrelevant. The nation does not die outright, but rather fades into the shadows. It decays.

Sometimes, I wonder about the fate of Singapore. Admittedly, many systems are in place to ensure the survival of this nation. And yet, while the same systems are immutably strong, they are also lacking in flexibility. Hence, while I do not think Singapore will experience a catastrophic end, I do fear that eventually, it would fade into irrelevance.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Heart in the Freezer of a Provision Shop

At the end of the street, where the road curved upon itself to form a U-turn, there stood a small, dingy provision shop. The shop was staffed only by its owner, a man entering his middle age, and whom was known only as "Uncle" or "Shopkeeper". The shopkeeper was a man of few words and fewer emotions, and this aloof demeanor served as a ward to keep the otherwise unruly children of the neighborhood away.

I often visited the provision shop, as it was the nearest to where I lived. The trips there were short affairs often made shorter by the clinical and businesslike manner of the provision shop owner. Items were gathered, prices tallied, and change given. Very often, the only words exchanged were the names of the desired provisions, and the total cost of the purchases.

Only once did I manage have something resembling a conversation with him. I remember that it was a warm day in April, where the air was humid and clinging. I gave up trying to fight the stale and uncomfortable atmosphere that seemed to linger in my apartment, and left it to seek for cooler refuge, namely the new cafe up the street which had the boon of air conditioning. Still, the pilgrimage was of some distance, and the heat got to me the instant I made a step outdoors. I made a stopover at the provision shop to buy something cool to relieve the heat.

By coincidence, the ice cream freezer in the front of the shop was empty. It was only a moment later that I realized that the freezer was silent - it had probably malfunctioned, and its contents moved elsewhere. The shopkeeper, seemingly having read my intentions, wordlessly directed me to the back of the shop, where a larger freezer was located. He then left me to make my own selections.

This freezer was probably meant for storing provisions in reserve and not for display, as the freezer doors were thick and opaque rather than being glass paneled. Without a clear view of where the ice cream was stored in the freezer, I had to rummage blindly amongst the contents of the freezer. I could have asked, of course, but the downside of spending more time looking was more than displaced by the relief provided by the cool draft of chilly air from the freezer.

It was then that I noticed, in the back of the freezer, a large block of ice encasing a dull, reddish lump. I wanted to bring the ice block closer for a better look, but the shopkeeper immediately appeared behind me, and intoned,"That would be my frozen heart."

And he told me a tale, a tale of a young man and his childhood sweetheart. Times were bad, and the young man left his hometown to seek work. Promises of eternity were made amidst tears of temporary parting.

Everything else faded, but Time, cruelly, did not dull the feelings of the young man.

One day, a single letter, hesitantly written, was delivered to the mailbox of the man. On that same day, the man cut out his heart, and froze it within the recesses of his freezer.

I was so taken aback by the shopkeeper's tale that I had absentmindedly left the freezer door open, though, somehow, the chilly draft matched the atmosphere of his tale perfectly. I was expecting more of his tale, but it had ended as abruptly as it had started.

"Please shut the freezer door. The warm air might thaw the contents, and lead to spoiling."

I shut the freezer door, while the shopkeeper left and headed for his usual position at the counter. As he moved away, I managed to catch one final line from the reticent man.

"But things frozen will still spoil, as the freezing merely slows the decay..."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Buried Treasure

This story is the second of a trio. Read the first here.

With heavy panting, we dragged the chest out of the shoveled pit. Eagerly, we opened the chest. Yes! The treasure of Gold Rogers was ours to keep!

It was by a fluke of luck that we had chanced upon the map leading to this secret location- we had overheard a bunch of drunk and loose-lipped fools blabbering out the site where this remarkable horde was buried. Still, only our sheer tenacity had enabled us to evade our pursuers, who were all equally intent on the treasure which now lay in front of us.

Though we had the treasure, we knew that there was no reasonable way to carry it to safe shores now. News had gotten out that Gold Rogers' treasure was being unearthed, and the authorities were on the lookout for anyone with a sudden and unexplained horde of gold. Pirate gold was a seizable asset, and none of us had any intention on enriching the government and being left empty-handed.

There was only one alternative, which was to wait for the news to die down. Of course, in the meantime, the treasure had to be hidden somewhere. Fearing that the original location would be easily compromised, seeing as to how easily we had unearthed it, we decided on a new location to rest Gold Rogers' gold.

And thus, we buried his treasure and left the island. On making landfall, we decided to drink in anticipation of the day when we would finally retrieve our well-deserved gold.


The following story is the first of a trio that I wish to write.

It was then that I noticed a healing scab on my arm. It was a long, thin scab, perhaps from a paper cut. But I really had no idea when I had gotten the superficial wound.

It seemed to be healed, with the edges of the scab being flaky and dry. Unwittingly, I began rubbing at the scab, slowly peeling it away.

A thin sliver of blood oozed out. The wound had not completely healed after all.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Thunderboil Fingers

The old man pointed at the wall, and streams of energy streaked out, puncturing and piercing the plastered surface. Seemingly amazed at his ability, he continued to repeat his actions, leaving the wall pockmarked.

Flabbergasted by this reality-defying act, I genuflected before him and asked how he acquired the divine skill. He did not seem to notice me, and started mumbling to himself.

"Finally, after 80 years, I have mastered the mysteries of the Thunderboil Fingers !! They had thought me to be mad, locking me up in this sanatorium, but now I can finally prove my sanity !"

The old man then turned to me, and continued.

"When I was a young boy, I saw an old man practicing the skill. Amazed, I implored him to teach me his art. He gave me a manual for the Thunderboil Fingers, which I have been practicing ever since. He warned me that the skill should be studied slowly, and the effects would only be apparent after a very long period of study."

"And so, I practiced daily, though I never saw any results. People thought me to be mad, but I knew in my heart that one day, I would prove everyone wrong. Now, finally, after over 80 years, I have mastered the skill !"

As the old man was speaking, tears came out from his eyes. The moment which he had been anticipating for his whole life was apparently too emotional for him to bear.

Then, he died. It was quite possible that the exertion had exhausted what feeble strength that he had. I searched the old man's body, and found the manual for the Thunderboil Fingers. It was a complex and arcane work, clearly requiring much study to understand.

The sanatorium management came and asked me to explain the events that had transpired, and I gave a clear account of what happened. When I pointed to the hole-ridden wall as evidence for my account, they were unconvinced, and claimed that I had drilled holes into the wall.

They claimed me to be insane, and locked me up, possibly for life. In this clearly unfair situation, what else could I have done? I started practicing the Thunderboil Fingers.

Just you wait, I'll be out in no time at all.

Writing and Perfection

It was something that I gradually came to realize, and then grudgingly accept- that I am indeed a writer of limited skill and variety.

Upon reviewing the past few pieces of fiction that I had written, my limitations were obvious. Everything I wrote was of a length shorter than that of a short story, and none of the stories were happy in setting or ending. To express this in another manner, I am only capable of writing short, gloomy tales.

After a brief conversation with a friend, I arrived at the conclusion that my writing was somewhat characteristic of my personality. I have no patience for the bells and whistles, for characterization or description. When I read, my eyes filter the most useless pieces of information and retain only the most concise of statements. One consequence of this is that I have utterly terrible spelling, as I simply do not vocalize the words that I read.

It dismays me that ultimately, I am unable to externalize the tremendously perfect ideas that do exist in my brain. In my head, everything is perfectly visualized, and perfect in character. Viewing the stories is akin to watching a movie or living a scene in life. Yet, translating that vague perfection is difficult, even impossible.

Perhaps one reason why I only write short gloomy tales is that it is much easier than to externalize perfection. The entire point of gloomy tales is to invoke thought, and to encourage philosophy. The mechanism therefore serves the purpose. However, the stories that exist in my head are to invoke perfection, to convey ideals. As such, I avoid writing.

Perhaps when I have acquired sufficient skill and courage will I then attempt to put to paper what I consider to be my most promising ideas. Otherwise, I fear that I will only mar and taint, and hence not do justice to, what would originally be complete and beautiful.

Monday, October 06, 2008

On Talent

Each of us has an internal ranking list of talent, where we, whether consciously or unconsciously, judge others and rank them on basis of their talent. This list determines much of our attitudes to others, of whether we are deferring or condescending, or of whether we are to admire or to hold in contempt.

Sometimes, we will encounter individuals who are of vastly inferior talent, and yet hold stations or possess achievements far beyond their innate capabilities. Such individuals draw out our negativities, especially if their innate talents are lesser than that of ours, and yet their accomplishments are greater than that which we have achieved. We would deny, of course, that such negativities are merely green envy, and that which is "mistaken" as envy is merely a natural distaste for the unfairness of the world.

It is indeed true that unfairness is ever present in this world. Those born into families of great wealth and power have a paved path to success. Some have the fair hand of lady fate to thank, being blessed with a series of fortunate events that were in no part a result of their own actions. We all know of such individuals, who we might rightly judge to be sorely unworthy.

Then, there are a select few that have little talent to speak of, nor do they possess any inherent or unfair advantage. And yet, through sheer perseverance and hard work, they achieve what is thought to be impossible. These individuals, far more than those examples stated earlier, incite our hate and envy, for they possess what we lack the most.

If we ask anyone to choose between being talented or hardworking, most would choose the former. This seems odd. We decry of familial wealth as being an unfair advantage, and deem those with supreme luck as being undeserving. And yet, would talent, which comes from the womb and is not a result of our actions, possess any higher moral ground to stand upon? None, I would think.

It is only perseverance and hard work that is worth anything. The actions that we take in pursuit of our goals, the overcoming of the limitations that we are all born into, the blind and dogged determination to do what is thought to be beyond us - all these are, far more than any innate and unfair advantage which we often use to justify our superiority over others, the true hallmarks of the worth of any human being.