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Monday, Sept. 04, 2006 - 10:20 a.m.

He stands between two palm trees, and no longer recognizes this place. He was here as a child, at this island, on this beach. Fifteen years ago, his parents had brought him here to Sentosa. Then, Siloso beach had a few families unfurled on rattan beach-mats, eating curry from tiffin containers and watching the children splashing in the lagoon's dirty green water.

He sits down on a rump of sand between the palm trees. Bikini-ed girls play beach volleyball, a little yellow ball drawing parabolas in the space above them.

He clutches a fistful of white sand and watches it disappear in the furrows between his fingers. This sand had been bought from Indonesia; an Indonesian hill somewhere in Sumatra had been turned into a beach in Singapore. He thinks that there might be some of the original sand buried under this Malibu-esque sheen. That sand, he remembers, wasn't white. It was a greyish-yellow, like the sand from construction sites. There were even black cursive streaks tarred onto the sand near the water's edge - not an ancient hieroglyph as he and his brother had hoped, but the remnants of an oil-tanker collision off Sentosa's waters.

Behind the beach is a massive public toilet with showers. Back then, he had followed his mother in there so she could wash his sand-coated body and face. He is not quite sure, but he thinks that in all probability, he must have seen his first naked woman in that toilet, as the shower cubicles had no curtains. The initial naked woman, trapped in the sulci and crevices of his eight year old brain. Was she an overweight housewife? Would she reappear? At his mock execution after the Prague revolt, all Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert could think about, was an obscene graffiti of a naked woman. He had seen it in a public toilet as a young boy.

But it cannot be washed away. The taste of saltwater still stains his brain. In the lagoon with his younger brother, both prone in the shallow water, letting the waves push their bodies towards the shore, until their hairless chests were scratched by sand. The occasional, cold currents that wrapped around their ankles like snakes, and then unwrapped themselves and left. Or him alone, walking deeper and deeper into the mysterious green water, and the flash of panic when his toes could no longer scrape against the sand of the lagoon floor. Water up to his ears, his mouth open to the sky, seawater swirling around his tongue. And that first time in the lagoon with the yellow plastic goggles. But the water was so murky that anything beyond an (eight-year-old's) arm length disappeared into a green liquid shroud. He swam underwater with his brother, and things - a white cockle shell on the lagoon floor, his brother's six-year old body, vanished as soon as he put distance between them. That was his first disappearing act.

The rattan-mat held all five of them. The family and the nanny from Malacca, who had brought up the pair of brothers. She said the two boys were lucky, and between asking the deities at the Balestier Road temple for the week's 4D numbers, and getting the family Pomeranian to pick numbers from scraps of paper, she would ask the two boys to predict the winning combination, sometimes while she fed them on the rattan-mat itself. Eventually the casinos will be built on Sentosa, and gamblers will play roulette over this very spot. But the historical records will show that the first person to attempt the divining of numbers here on the beach was an old lady from Malacca.

The nanny thrust one spoonful of rice into his mouth, and while he chewed, thrust another into his brother's mouth - the efficient feeding of children. And as he chewed, he would look at the machine-gun pillbox that was on his left. There were a few of them left, built by the British in World War II, scattered on the beach. They rose out of the sand abruptly as ominous artifacts, but families continued to picnic next to them. They were squat, concrete structures, facing the sea, expecting an enemy that came instead overland. Their machine gun slits were boarded up by wood, their doors padlocked, and their exteriors were painted in a green-black camouflage pattern. Standing before the locked door, the pillbox was like a magical ingress, a time machine to a sometimes unhappy and often unrecorded past.

When he was a boy, he wished that he could breach that door, enter its secret blackness, and peer out from the machine gun slits at the horizon of the sea. But he does not know that they contain a terrible view. The machine gun slits are like the slits at the back of the cinema wall, projecting a shamanistic light into the blackness.

Below the horizon of the sea are the bodies of Chinese men massacred by the Japanese during the Sook Ching operation, including a rickshaw puller who to this day, does not understand his own death. They were carried out on boats and thrown into the water, fulfilling the Chinese fear of drowning. It is 1970, and a Gurkha stands at an observation post watching the sea. It is night, and his duty is to watch for Indonesian saboteurs arriving by boat, but he has unshouldered his rifle and is dreaming of Nepal. 1852, and at the government's malarial research station on the island, a man is trying to focus a microscope on a mosquito specimen. 1643, the last Bugis settler on the island dies of an unknown fever. Things have been forgotten and some details have been lost.

It is 1971, and a man drops his entry form for a contest into a mailbox. Pulau Blacang Mati (Isle of Death from Behind) is to be redeveloped for tourists and a new, less inauspicious name needs to be chosen. The man proposes the name, 'Island of St. George', because that was the name proposed by a British army captain in 1827. Secretly however, 'George' is his father's name, and he wants to remember his dead father every time he visits the island. The name 'Sentosa', the Malay word for tranquility, is chosen instead. All the other proposed names have since been burnt.

He gets off the sand, watches the sky turn orange, and the sun drop into the sea. At the monorail station, there is a large crowd of a hundred people waiting for the train. Sun-burnt tourists, families with their noisy children and sullen maids, tired youths holding onto radios and beach towels are all crammed on the small waiting platform. He thinks that each person has forgotten something. And no matter how cleanly he remembers some details - the lagoon salt on his tongue, the sticky sea-water infused skin on the monorail trip back to the ferry terminal, he has forgotten others, like that first naked woman.

He looks at the bodies of people around him. An aura of negative space, containing childhood toys, lost telephone numbers, an unremembered insult, surrounds - and defines them. All their bodies are packed together, each - a victim in someone else's war, a continuation of another's forgetting, a black hole on the spreading, unalterable map of our collective amnesia.


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