Waking up my numb skull

Jul 2002    


AS I stared at Ground Zero, New York City, looking at the huge hole in the ground where the World Trade Center once stood, I was filled with a sense of dread. It was eerie and psychologically very disturbing.

But I was also feeling rather numb and anesthetized. It must have been all the repetitions on TV of that all too familiar scene showing planes crashing into the twin towers and of people jumping off them.

A friend of mine tells me that the only reason why some of us pay astronomical prices to eat kuay-chap or Teochew porridge is to remind ourselves of how simple food used to taste. He says we have forgotten because our spoilt palates are now more attuned to haute cuisine served in fancy restaurants. So we pay a premium to taste what ordinary folk eat.

At first, I thought chye-por omelets, braised pig intestines and chye-buay are being gentrified. In fact, I believe that lots of what used to be bog-standard are now being, or have been gentrified. I call this the “upper-middle-classification” of the “delights of the lower classes”, which, on the whole, are the sorts of things the upper classes would not touch, unless they are upper-middle-classified and expensive.

Look at otah, it used to cost a few cents, but now some restaurants serve them at several dollars a piece. And the humble fried rice, something you whip up at home when there is nothing else to eat – I mean, all you need is leftover rice and eggs — (that is, before those dreadful instant noodles loaded with hair-removing sodium glutamate made their debut) is now something of a piece de resistance at some restaurants.

My father once told me that when he was young he observed how trishaw riders got by with only 15 cents a day for lunch and dinner. At lunch, a trishaw rider would buy a bowl of porridge for five cents, and would spend another five cents for a small serving of fried peanuts. He would finish the porridge, wrap half the peanuts in a piece of paper, and take them out at dinner where he would again spend five cents for another bowl of porridge.

Today, especially during the Chinese New Year period, I hear of kids complaining all the time that they are bored of shark’s fin soup, bak kua and abalone.

Yes, the good life can make us numb to how tough things used to be.

I used to paint the town red whenever I landed a management-consulting contract worth a few thousand dollars. Today it is not unusual for the firm I work with to sell consulting projects worth billions of US dollars. Do we leap with joy? No, we have become numb to such staggering numbers.

About a year ago, someone I knew accepted Christ as his Saviour. When I shared with him some misgivings I was experiencing at that time with some Christians, he started getting preachy on me. My retort was “Let’s see how strong your faith is several years from now.” No, I was not trying to be nasty. You see, my friend is a multi-millionaire, a nouvelle riche. Like many of us in peaceful, open and prosperous Singapore, he pays very little for his faith.

How many of us would still be Christians if we were persecuted for our faith? In our comfort, we easily forget that there are still people in this world who must suffer for being Christians. In our happy circumstances we forget that faith in Christ is no small matter – to quote the TV character Phua Chu Kang, “Don’t pray, pray ah.”

Yes, let us not play the fool and treat our faith as insignificant. When the time comes for us to stand up and be counted, how many of us will stand up indeed? At the expense of our jobs, our loved ones, even our lives? Is it not easy to proclaim to the world that we are Christians when it costs us so very little?

In our prosperity have we forgotten those who have nothing to eat? In our comfort have we forgotten those who must worship in secret? If we do, we must wake up. The Bible tells us that to whom much has been given, much will be expected. (Luke 12:48). We have an obligation to return a portion of our blessings to others.

If we wait for the Lord to remind us, it might be a very painful reminder – one that may shock us to our very core, one that will be guaranteed to wake us up from our stupor. Can we handle that? I would rather wake myself up than have the Lord give me one of His wake-up calls. I have had a few of those in my life, and I know what they are like. They can be brutal.

Dr Michael Toon-Seng Loh is a member of Covenant Community Methodist Church.


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