Ramesses II, in the Valley of the Kings, one of my childhood fantasy heroes; lithograph by Victorian painter David Roberts (1838)

Promiscuous reading

ALL THE IMPORTANT THINGS that I ever known in life, from Pharaohs to platypus, were gleaned from indiscriminate, promiscuous reading in my Primary school days a half-century ago.

In Primary 2 (at age eight, 1958), I finally mastered the trick of recognising written English words and pronouncing them. To pass time between chanting the multiplication table and school recess, our form master taught us Western chess (which I found was not as flexible or interesting as Chinese chess) and argued with us over Realpolitik issues such as the Cold War and the American-Soviet race to land the first man on the moon.

The following year (1959 when Singapore gained self-government status from the British colonial authorities) I stumbled upon a set of dusty books known as The March of Time (Secondary school history textbooks, but I didn’t know it then). In those days, teachers did not give out homework, and so after school, I spent the long, languid afternoons reading through all six volumes, from the cave men, pharoahs and Queen Boadicea in Volume I to the formation of the United Nations in Volume VI. I filled my childhood fantasy re-living British military exploits, such as the conquest of Quebec (1759) and the suppression of the Sepoy Mutiny (1857). I could not understand why two tiny nations, Rome and England, seemed to win nearly every war that they fought. I used to get a kick out of reading Hannibal defeating Roman armies and almost capturing Rome itself. And when I read about the British being defeated by Zulus, Boers or Afghans, I would yell in delight. But until today I still have nightmares over what I saw in comic book illustrations of Sepoy soldiers being tied to the mouth of canons by the British and being blown apart.

I knew the reason the British were victorious against Africans and Asians was their superior firearms (just as during the early part of the Hundred Year War in France, the English had archers who could bring down French armoured knights from a distance). But why were the Romans victorious when their weapons and fighting skills were no better or worse than those of their enemies?

It was only after several decades of mulling over military history that the answer dawned on me: the Romans had superior organisation. The basic fighting unit was the tightly-knit heavy infantry Legion of roughly 5,000-6,000 men. They had a clear chain of command and Order of Battle (or Orbat), and every man knew exactly his role and duties. Their enemies were mostly mobs of barbarians who simply yelled and charged and fought in a melee.

The Roman Empire crumbled when the Legions faced horsemen from Central Asia who were equally well-organised in battle formation. Superior organisation is therefore the secret of success for any army, any corporation and any state.

As a kid, there were of course many other topics I couldn’t understand, such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the mutual slaughter of over one million Hindus and Muslims during the 1947 Partition of India (under the British Raj, they seemed to get along well), and the idiotic decision by the Japanese to bomb Pearl Harbour. Any school kid would tell you that dwarve nations (such as Japan) don’t go around kicking giants (America), no matter how benign the big guys are. My older family relatives who suffered horribly during the Japanese occupation of Singapore and Malaya, grouped the Japanese dwarves with goblins, trolls and other stunted monsters.

Among the most exciting reading material I had, besides cowboy comic books of the Kansas Kid, Kit Carson and the Lone Ranger, were the adventure stories of H Rider Haggard. I gulped down tales of Alan Quatermain, King Solomon’s Mines and She Who Must Be Obeyed, and in conversations, would casually toss in Zulu words like kraal and assegai.

I read through all Ian Fleming’s James Bond books in Primary 4 (1960) and half-suspected there was a lot of “adult stuff” which I was not supposed to know, like martinis that are shaken, not stirred (see Dr No), and scantily-clad girls who needed to be stirred, not shaken. (I also learnt that the Martini-Henry was the most coveted item in the lawless North West Frontier region of British India.)

I read several thousand-page documentary-style historical novels or “factions” (e.g. Exodus by Leon Uris on the founding of modern Israel; Chesapeake by James Michener and a biography of the Manchu Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi). My first movie was also a historical romance, Ivanhoe, where I fell in love with an impossibly beautiful young Elizabeth Taylor (I wish I’ve not seen photos of Miss Taylor in her old age!).

Elizabeth Taylor as the Jewish maid Rebecca in Ivanhoe (1952)

I assumed then that every other 10-year-old boy read the same stuff that I did because when I talked to my classmates while playing chess, they were as knowledgeable as I was. In between drawing Egyptian hieroglyhics and arguing over the merits of castling early in the game, we discussed passionately the Cold War and which country had the most powerful nuclear arsenal. We already knew concepts like fallout and the difference between fission (uranium) and fusion (hydrogen) bombs.

Hence, it came as a shock to me as a grown-up to get blank stares from people in the workplace when I made references to interesting general knowledge stuff I have gleaned from my extensive reading, such as the seminal battles that changed the course of history (the fall of Malacca to the Portuguese in 1511 which began the European empire grab in the East, the Japanese capture of Port Arthur in 1905 which encouraged the Japanese in their murderous war in China, and the massive French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 by the brilliant General Giap, which tolled the decline and collapse of Western influence worldwide) and other tipping point events. By the way, General Giap died this year (2013) at age 102.

And when I said “Cogito Ergo Sum” to prove to myself my existence, sober, simple-minded folks thought I was going nuts. Incidentally, the first indivdual to utter something along this line wasn’t the French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596–1650) but an obscure fellow named Yahweh who hid between a burning bush to proclaim, “I am that I am” (see Exodus 3:14). Yahweh, a tribal deity with global pretensions, was trying to impress Moses, a sophisticated prince brought up in the worldly court of the great king Ramesses II, surrounded by awesome and awful gods like Osiris, Horus and Amon Ra. Incidentally, these three gods were the archetypes for the Christian Trinity.

So, nowadays when I talk to co-workers and acquaintances, whether PhD holders or retired journalists working as taxi drivers because all their life savings had been spent on beer and babes, I avoid these airy-fairy childhood topics and instead say insipid down-to-earth things like, Wah lan, 6.9 million people, how to live in this rat hole? and ask which car park senior civil servants go for a blowjob. And when the ruling elite insist a 600 sq km island can take in 10 million people, my response, like any suffocated Singaporean, is to cry, kanninoupu! (the Hokkien equivalent of the American cry of frustration, “What the fuck!”).

I don’t believe boys can learn anything intellectual after 12, simply because raging testosterones kick in at that threshold age and their imagination and dreams are suddenly filled with female birds, boobs and bare bodes. After 12, male thinking is transferred from the cranium to the hairy ding-dong region known as the scrotum. – Francis Chin, May 10, 2013


Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca in Ivanhoe
Rameses II, lithograph by David Roberts (1838)