Interview

What the Trump-Kim Lunch Menu Tells us About Singapore Identity and Politics (and that Damn $20M)

Lunch was served as a classic 3-course affair: appetisers, mains, and desserts. For each course, (I suppose as in the traditional way) there is a choice of 3 dishes. For example, for the appetiser, you can order the prawn cocktail (American) OR the green mango kerabu salad (Singaporean) OR the Korean stuffed cucumber. But if you’re the POTUS or a dictator, I guess you can have more than one item per course.

Since there are 3 choices in each course, it may be assumed that each choice can be categorised into American/Western, Korean, and Singaporean cuisines.

American Cuisine

The American cuisine is represented by prawn cocktail with avocado salad (starter) and beef short rib confit (main).

The prawn cocktail is a really strange choice because it is super old-school, popular in the 60s to 80s, when Trump was in his prime (20s to 40s). English food writer Nigel Slater wrote that the prawn cocktail has “see-sawed from the height of fashion to the laughably passé” and is now served as an “ironic wink.” Of course, it shouldn’t been seen as ironic when served to Trump (although the man is a joker, snatching away jobs from comedians). Serving prawn cocktail plays to his sense of nostalgia or it could mean Trump has not let go of his past.

Trump loves beef and likes to eats (well-done) burgers wherever he goes in the world. The beef short rib confit–which I suppose is sous-vide?–is really a smart upgrade. As many foodies know, cooking beef well-done destroys the texture and taste of the beef; it becomes dry and hard. But the beef short rib confit is cooked over time, so it is thoroughly cooked and becomes tender and delicious. Smart move.

Korean Cuisine

The Korean cuisine is represented by oiseon (Korean stuffed cucumber) for starter and daegu jorim (soy braised cod fish) for main.

Singapore Cuisine

The Singapore cuisine is represented by green mango kerabu salad for starter and sweet-and-sour pork with fried rice for main.

Photo Credit: Season with Spice

Green mango kerabu salad is a Peranakan dish. This is a puzzling choice because few Singaporeans have eaten or even heard of this dish before. I have eaten at at least 1800 eateries in Singapore and blogged more or less for about 10 years but have not come across this dish. Why not serve rojak for salad? Furthermore, the dish is too similar to the more popular and famous Thai green papaya salad (som tum) and it becomes confusing to differentiate between national cuisines.

The sweet-and-sour pork with fried rice is, like the beef, another smart dish to offer because the dish is familiar to both Americans (through their Chinese food takeouts) and Koreans (who have their own version of the dish called tangsuyuk 탕수육). But ultimately, this is a Chinese dish; it is not a Singaporean dish.

Why didn’t we serve Singaporean cuisine? Where are the chicken rice, nasi lemak, ayam buah keluah (pictured above), chilli crab, and laksa that STB has spent millions to promote all over the world? Isn’t this a good chance to put Singapore food on the world stage which is often stated as a reason for us paying $20M? We have four internationally recognised Singaporean eateries, serving Singapore cuisine, awarded Michelin star. The Americans offered their cuisine (and Trump showed his personality through the American cuisine); the Koreans offered their national cuisine; but why did we offer an almost-Thai dish and a Chinese dish?

Because we are nice hosts. We bend over backwards to accommodate guests and make them comfortable. We take selfies with them at Garden by the Bay and we celebrate their birthday in advance. We offer our guests the kind of food that they are familiar with, Thai food and Chinese food, and not the food that shows our heritage and identity. We say yes to everything. When Kim wanted to come to Singapore, several agencies came forward to sponsor him, including the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and HotelPlanner.com. But Singapore taxpayers had to fork out 20M to pay for a dictator who has likely assassinated his own brother. We pay because we are good hosts.

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While being a good host is essential because Singapore is a “small red dot” and depends on the kindness of other nations, the problem is being excessively accommodating makes us spineless, lacking in character, as can be seen from the lunch menu. We are so insecure about our standing that we dared not even offer Kim and Trump our world-famous Singaporean cuisine that we are so proud of, but instead we offered Thai and Chinese food and 20M.

Photo credit: Hindustan Times

Let’s be clear about this. 20M is a small price to pay for putting Singapore on the world stage [whatever that means, and as if Singapore isn’t already on the world stage. We host the yearly Shangri-La Dialogue and F1, and hosted the Ma-Xi Meeting. And why don’t we spend money on healthier outlets such as arts (Ilo Ilo winning Cannes) and sports (Joseph Schooling in Olympics) to put Singapore on the world stage?] The issue isn’t with the money; Singapore is rich, we are the third richest country in the world.

The problem is Singapore, being spineless, doesn’t make a clear ethical stand. When you buy sharks fin, you’re supporting animal cruelty and shark extinction. When you buy shoes made by children in sweatshops, you’re supporting child abuse. When you sponsor Kim’s trip (outside of the necessary security measures), the money spent on him is a tacit endorsement on what he stands for. (Also: did we pay for Trump? It doesn’t seem implausible since Singapore likes to be fair to both parties.)

We can host them, but sponsoring them is a different matter. Hosting and paying for the Summit are two separate issues. Hosting may lead to denuclearisation but paying for them is legitimatising their atrocious behaviours. We can be gracious hosts AND not sponsor their holiday at the same time; North Korea can pay for themselves or find other sponsors. We can host but why should we pay for a dictator? Where do we draw the line of supporting criminal, abusive, immoral leaders? We can afford to pay but why should we pay for a dictator who inflicts suffering and pain on 25 million citizens of his own country? Why don’t we use that 20M to pay for schoolteachers’ parking for 20 years?

It boils down to the same reason as offering non-Singaporean food during lunch: we are amoral crowd-pleasers. We pay 20M because we want to please them. We are that fat kid who, in order to be liked, makes self-deprecating jokes to please others, even the bullies. The lunch menu is an example of a self-deprecating joke, and like the effect of self-deprecating jokes, trying so hard to please others is detrimental to ourselves.

The menu is strategic and clever but because of the need to please, we forgo our national cuisine and efface our identity. Without the representation of Singapore food, the menu makes it look like the Summit could have happened anywhere in the world. We have completely lost our identity and our self and our sense of self worth while trying to be agreeable; in pleasing everyone, we have lost ourselves. Perhaps it’s time we learn how to be cordial and, at the same time, set boundaries, be firm, and retain our identity.

I leave you with an image that sums up what I have said:


Photo credit: Kiasu Memes for Singaporean Teens


Written by Dr. A. Nathanael Ho.

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