Singapore’s Former President S R Nathan died this week. So this is a fitting time to record for posterity my understanding of our relationship. It’s also the last time I can share this story without my being inhumanly dull. That’s all right. I’ve been using this story to be a bit dull for twelve years and that’s not bad for a standard-grade anecdote. It doesn’t measure up to the styrofoam peanut computer monitor incident of 1999, but not everything is.
Back in the day (2004) I was working at the National University of Singapore, in the Department of Computational Science. This was a department that did physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics from a computer science perspective. “Wait,” you ask, “how is that different from ordinary physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, and computer science, what with it being literally the 21st Century and everything being done on computers?” Our department would say that LOOK THERE’S A BIG DISTRACTING THING OVER THERE and run out to the Science Canteen to regroup. We were disbanded the next year.
It was the start of the school year. It was time for the Commencement ceremonies. Last year’s graduates officially received their diplomas and I realized all the time I had spent in United States academia had been a lie. “Commencement”! The word is right there in the name of the thing. WHY DO WE PUT IT AT THE END OF THE YEAR? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? This was enough to send me to the Science Canteen and drown my sorrow in tuna buns. These are a Singaporean food thing where you take a bun and put tuna in it. Well, they put tuna in it. You just eat it. Someday this is going to hit the United States big. Corn buns ought to too, but that’s probably not enough meat for the typical American. Chocolate buns may be just a little too weird. Too bad.
The department needed someone to be on stage for Commencement, one of those professory types in dignified robes watching the proceedings without nodding off. I’d volunteered for one of the school Commencements. The University ran two or three commencements for the various schools over the course of like two weeks because maybe they had too many subdivisions. He thought, from the doomed department. That led to the whole “Dubiously Wanted Pants” Affair but that’s another story. Then I got an invite to attend the main commencement, if I responded before the actual letter was sent to me. I checked and they told me that sure, they’d have a chair for me if I got there for 9:20 am. That’s like my third-best 9:20 of the day, but all right. I wore the pair of dubiously wanted pants and everything.
My participation got me marked for VIP treatment. This ran hard against my general level of self-esteem. I won’t brag about my low self-esteem because I couldn’t possibly bring myself to do it. But to have actually well-dressed ushers ushing me off past velvet barriers and stuff encourages the feeling of accidentally stumbling into a Nikolai Gogol play I never actually read or saw or anything. Also somehow all us faculty misunderstood something the first time we went out on stage so they had to call us back and send us out again. That’s just reinforcing so many stereotypes.
The ceremony was different from United States university commencements in that they only played like eight bars of Pomp and Circumstance at the start. They had to save time at some point. There were like twelve more school commencement ceremonies later that day. At this one they just blasted through the doctoral and master-degree candidates and presented them all to the University Chancellor, President Nathan. (Remember him?)
At the reception afterwards they still wanted me around and among the VIP section even though honestly. And our department didn’t have any doctoral or masters-degree candidates. So all I had to do was wander around the packed hallway, filling my plate with kueh (any of hundreds of desserts made by compressing sugar into Singaporean Hyper-Sugar) and bee hoon (the tastiest part of the bee) and then emptying it. And then I sneezed. I wasn’t yet skilled at sneezing into my elbow and I just managed to sneeze into my right hand instead. Not too messy but still, sneeze.
I saw a little clearing of people, off in the general direction of the bathroom, and I charged directly into it. It was a little open gap of people in front of President Nathan. He smiled at this fat, tall person who had just sneezed into his hand in front of him. I had always assumed President of Singapore to be a pretty easy gig. The country’s got a Westminster parliament scheme but with only one really organized political party. So there’s not even the occasional bit of choosing to approve a coalition government or proroguing parliament or anything for the Head of State to do. But he proved me wrong about the job’s easiness. He reached out and shook my booger-laden hand. I could never do something like that.
And then we had a conversation that, to the best of my recollection, was exactly this majestic:
“Good day,” he said.
“Good day … I’m honoured to meet you, sir.” (I would do my best to approach the Singaporean accent without sounding like I’m making fun of myself.)
“Where do you come from?”
“New Jersey. Um. The United States.”
“Ah. Are you a graduate?”
“Faculty, actually. I’m a teaching fellow.”
“Ah.” And he nodded and moved on to people not threatening to smear nasal goop over him.
This would prove to be our final conversation, for which I don’t blame him.