In what would have been one of his last public appearances, John Pilger in an address to the Trondheim World Festival in Norway on 8 September 2022, charted the history of power propaganda and described “how it appropriates journalism in a ‘profound imperialism’ and is likely to entrap us all, if we allow it.”
It was to be a Saturday afternoon spent reliving the past in more ways than one. K and I were midway through a vinyl hunting spree. We had gone in the morning to Chinatown and then to Burlington Square for the unboxing of new shipments of second-hand records imported from Japan. We revelled in being as nerdy about music as we were 30 years ago, when we were two teenagers dressed in our green schoolboy shorts traipsing around town.
Not wanting the feeling to end, we headed to the Peninsula area in Singapore, the familiar site of many an old vinyl hunting spree in the 1980s. Sadly, the old Funan Centre has been torn down, but next to it, the twin Peninsula and Excelsior shopping malls remain untouched by time. Having paid homage to the old Roxy Records, we decided to check out a new record store that had opened a few months ago in the basement. It was not easy to find in the tight maze of street wear and tailoring shops, but eventually, we located it and pushed open the doors.
“You!” was the first thing I exclaimed. Looking up at us from behind the counter was KF, our old schoolmate from Catholic High. Although we were never in the same class, we both knew him as belonging to a small group of music fanatics in school — the type who cut out and displayed magazine ads for new releases on their school files. We would meet in the corridors between classes or after school on the sidelines of the basketball court, comparing what were in our slim white Valentine or black Dada record store plastic bags.
I remember KF for being soft-spoken and stylish. His fringe was just the right degree of floppy and he always wore his school uniform buttoned all the way to the top in a sort of signature look. I had run into him a few years ago at a business meeting and I knew that he worked in the financial sector. The record store is a new side project that he and his wife decided to embark on late last year. We don’t know his wife at all, but the carefully curated records in the store were unmistakably KF — a thoughtful mix of synth, punk and metal, paired with the biggest, most complete collection of retro J-pop I have ever seen.
When we finally said our goodbyes to him, vinyl duly purchased, all I felt was envy and admiration. Envy because he had realised what must have been one of his childhood or teenage dreams. Admiration because he actually had the guts to do it, even though the chances of succeeding are far lower now than they have ever been in our lifetime.
Growing up, I myself have had more than a few dreams about what I wanted to do with my life. One of the earliest ones was to be a priest in the Catholic church. But later, I realised that I was only attracted to the public speaking part of the job and not at all the core business of practising and preaching organised religion, which I have since long abandoned. In my teens, I had ambitions to be a future magazine editor, inspired by a twin love for writing and pop magazines; and a two-year stint as art director of my junior college creative publication College times.
A little later, inspired perhaps by a love of philosophy — which was my major in university — I wanted to be a teacher. I was in love with the idea of discussing ideas and opinions with others purely, it seemed, for the sake of gaining knowledge and broadening one another’s minds. I guess that’s how young and idealistic we all were at some point in our lives. In time, such foolish dreams inevitably get crushed by the passage of time and a growing sense of practicality as one grapples with the very real obligations of earning a wage, supporting a family and building a sustainable career.
My generation, however, did not anticipate the equally devastating effects of globalisation and technology. Today, being a magazine editor is probably not the job that I had thought it would be. In my youth, a magazine reader found delight in the stories an editor curated and commissioned, the visual impact of its layout on the printed page and the artful linear flow of content from cover to cover. Today, all of that is still there, but is much less valued by readers —many of whom don’t even consume magazines in print.
Younger audiences don’t appreciate long-form journalism or notice a carefully styled picture or impactful page layout. I, too, had delusions of opening a record store, but that dream seems crazier and crazier by the day in a retail environment much transformed by foreign Internet search and e-commerce giants. Every single one of those records in KF’s store can be searched for online, ordered and shipped to Singapore in days. It seems heroic, even childish, for him to be fighting this unstoppable trend while trying to add value to customers amid high retail rents and falling foot traffic in malls. So, other than albums by The Tourists and Kraftwerk’s Karl Bartos, I took away two things from my visit to KF’s store the other day.
The first thing is that even as each of us wants to fulfil a long-held dream, we also collectively have the power to crush it. As consumers, we decide every day who to give our business to — what to read, what to buy, where to buy it and who to support. We can source the cheapest and most convenient options through Google and spend our money in vast online market places such as Amazon and Lazada, enriching Paypal, UPS and all the other e-commerce and logistics players in between. But if we don’t support the dreams of the passionate entrepreneurs within our community that have the gumption to try and fulfil them, who will?
The second is that however impractical dreams can seem, they are still worth pursuing — at least going by how much in his element KF seemed that afternoon. I partially realised my dream of becoming a magazine editor by joining The Straits Times 18 years ago and becoming an editor and columnist. There is still time, I reckon, to pursue my other dream of becoming a teacher —even if it may pay less and what I teach can’t be something as obscure as philosophy in Singapore.
It is just a matter of being clear about one’s priorities in life and having the courage to take a chance if the right one comes along. So, here’s to KF and everyone else out there like him. Someday, we’ll find it, the rainbow connection — the lovers, the dreamers and me.
(The Straits Times/ANN)