Here in the bars, bazaars, and dens of iniquity that make up the ex-pat Far East, you run into your fair share of cads, chancers, and rum fellows – the sort of chaps whose eccentricities and slight quirks go unnoticed amid the teeming masses of Asia. The broad-minded and perpetually distracted Oriental, it seems, has a nasty habit of lumping all White men in together and glossing over the subtle codes and hierarchies by which we define ourselves.
It was no surprise, therefore, when on a recent trip to Singapore, I ran into an old European acquaintance, whom, I had been reliably informed, had died and been buried a long time ago back in his native Europe, a place where he had never really fitted in, leading, on occasion, to unfortunate excesses of behaviour that saw him blackballed from most of polite society.
As he pressed me for news from home over cocktails at the Raffles, I could see that he had done extremely well for himself out here, and seemed far, far younger than he had any right to be.
The bartender and waiters were clearly in awe of him; while, from across the room, came the deferential glances of the city's movers and shakers, and the realization that I myself could not be a complete nobody to be in such exalted company.
"It's really all down to my old chum, Lee Kuan Yew," he told me warmed by his fifth daiquiri. "Without Harry's help, god knows what I'd be doing."
After I had checked into my hotel – definitely not the Raffles on my budget, but somewhere cheap and cheerful with geckos on the wall and Russia Today on the satellite TV – I wondered how he had managed to pull off such a remarkable recovery. Back in the old country he had been reviled, but these people clearly loved and venerated him.
I thought no more of this impenetrable conundrum and spent the next day visiting the sights – SentosaIsland and ChangiPrisonMuseum. Towards evening, after the usual short, intense tropical downpour, I made my way to the famous Merlion Statue, the symbol of this rootless city state that was created by the British as a convenient coaling station and anti-pirate base for their worldwide web of trade. And there he was again!
He was standing next to a gaggle of Western tourists, dressed unbelievably in his trademark black under the still broiling sun, but looking as cool as ever. With my right arm upraised I hailed him from the distance. He turned to look at me as if disturbed from a reverie, then quickly resumed his trademark look of smug strength that always reminded me of a bank manager who had just turned down a loan.
"I often come down here at this time of the day," he said in a slightly breathy voice. "I seem to be strangely effected by the sight of the sun departing west."
There was something uncanny about his appearance. While I was drenched in sweat from my touristy exertions, there wasn’t a single bead of sweat upon his pale skin. The only sign of the tremendous heat was the glistening sheen of the melted wax in his neatly groomed moustache. Inevitably we resumed our conversation of the night before. I asked him point blankly why he had made so good out here.
"Well, as you know, the movement with which I am associated grew out of the class conflict of the early twentieth century; an antidote to both Communism and the excesses of global capitalism, and a movement at whose heart lay the idea of perpetuating the harmonious interaction of the various classes in society," he said, starting to relentlessly roll one wordy phrase after another, as if speaking to a large hall of people who had foregone a night at the cinema in order to listen to him.
"Well, I'm sad to say that we were all barking up the wrong tree," he continued without a pause. "The class conflict, about which so many of us got excited in those far-off, heady days, was a mere mirage, an insane illusion, a tragic misreading of the wider situation. Class, it seems, was not the ultimate factor and only seemed to be so because the preceding political state had been the highest development of ethnically-based national centralization. By positing our whole existence as an antidote to imaginary or temporary class conflict, those of us in our movement historically limited our relevance."
Since he was speaking voluminously, the tourists, who had been taking pictures with the Merlion, now backed away and started looking askance.
"But why here, in Singapore?" I asked, keen to dampen the ardour of his tirade with the occasional question.
"I said that class conflict, as a historical phenomenon, has been grossly exaggerated, but this does not mean that we live in an inherently peaceful world," he resumed at slightly reduced volume. "There is still plenty of conflict in the world, but class conflict is the exception; not the rule. The real seed of conflict is race! Hence I am here. Singapore is not riven by potential class conflict – everybody here is just keen to make money to the best of their differing abilities. No! The real danger in a place of this nature, with Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Arabs, all living cheek by jowl, is racial conflict. That's where our movement, with its ethos of suppressing group conflicts, really comes into its own! Our fellow Westerners are always sniffy about the strict censorship here, the lack of pornography, the draconian anti-litter laws, the birching, et cetra, as if they were referring to the quaint conservatism of a childishly backward Asian state. They don't realize that this is their own future. Each of these measures reflects the central goal of avoiding mass, brutal, and bloody race riots. Just imagine a Malay reading a pornographic magazine featuring a Chinese girl on a train, or an Arab spitting out chewing gum in front of a Hindu temple, and you will understand why Singapore has to be the way it is; and the rest of the world, too, as each country gradually becomes more and more ethnically diverse and more crowded. Singapore is a rather upmarket version of how the rest of the world will ultimately become, and it will be a world ruled by the spirit of F…”
"Sir Oswald, sir," a voice cut in. We both turned to see a couple of smartly dressed men backed up by two other, bigger, less smartly dressed men. On the lapels of their suits they all wore badges showing a red streak of lightning bisecting a blue circle that looked vaguely familiar.
"Sorry to interrupt, sir," the smartest dressed man said, "but their Excellencies require your advice on a most important national question and have sent the limousine."
"Duty calls!" my old acquaintance said, then turned and walked towards the waiting limousine, followed by the four attendants. Alas, that was the last I saw of him.