On giving up the Singapore passport 11 years ago and other ruminations
By Boey Kim Cheng
The black-and-white mugshot wears an untravelled innocence. Shining mop of black hair, face uncreased, keen expression scrubbed clean of worry, a bright note of youthful anticipation around the eyes, complexion as freshly minted as the passport was on its day of issue. Since then, the passport has aged quicker than the face, having travelled through the interrogating hands of customs officers and checkpoint sentries, well-thumbed as a used book, bearing watermarks of sweat-stains from being worn like an amulet in a money pouch around my neck, so that it hung close to my heart, a talisman safe and assuring. It has traversed a spectrum of geographies, felt my heartbeat surge and thump to the adrenalin of travel. Its thick pages store evidence of my travels, bearing visas of countries which no longer exist, and ink stamps which have almost faded to illegibility, but which seem to verify and validate my existence. More than the identity card which we are obliged to carry in Singapore, the passport is proof of identity, and a resume of my life as I would like to remember it. It is the sum of all its parts, a record of traces, the confused medley of entries and exits amounting to a record of the journey that has led me to where I am now: a migrant about to renounce his past.
It is hard to part with it, to say goodbye to the self, the lives stored in these pages. There are two volumes of it, scarlet books bound with a thick cloth ribbon sealed with a claret-red wax seal from the Immigration Department of Singapore. The validity of the first passport had expired, and needing to retain the permanent residency visa for Australia affixed to it, I had asked for it to be attached to my new passport. It is a strange sight, the double passport, and many a customs official have been amused and puzzled by it, flipping between the two and hesitant about how to handle the anomaly.
At the Khunjerab Pass, I remember the Chinese border guards passing it among themselves like Mao's little red book at the checkpoint, before one of them dashed off with it to a cinder block barrack across the road, or rather the highway, in the olive-green People Liberation Army winter coat and fur-hat, looking every inch like Lei Feng, the soldier transformed upon his death into an icon of patriotic, selfless service. This is the highest point of the Karakoram Highway, the snow-dusted fields stretched to the foothills, where desultory packs of yaks browsed, before the mountains rose up into the icy-blue sky. While I waited outside the control office, head reeling slightly from the freezing thin air, some of my fellow passengers took a chance to walk around. A group of Pakistani optometrists, who were returning from an optometrist conference in Urumqi, shouted excitedly, pointing in to a rise in the middle ground, where a golden-brown creature had reared up, sniffing the air. A marmot, I found out later. Overhead the clouds voyaged swiftly on, the dramatic succession of floating panes of light and shade like a time lapse video, the snow peaks and pristine blue sky alternately blindingly bright and vapour-dimmed. Bashō's words drifted across my mind: "Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives travelling. There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road. I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind – filled with a strong desire to wander." The weather changed a few times in the 20 minutes while I waited for the return of my passport; it snowed lightly, then cleared, then snowed more heavily as I shifted on my feet and wrapped my scarf more tightly around my neck, put on my gloves, and looked apologetically at my fellow passengers. They had patiently waited to receive their assorted luggage passed down from the roof of the bus, carried it through the customs, subjected themselves and their belongings to interrogation, then surrendered them to be strapped back onto the impossibly laden top of the bus, more precariously piled than before. It was a process to be repeated at the Pakistani side. Just as the driver started the engine, grinding the gears and sounding the horn, Lei Feng came jogging back, looking pleased, mission accomplished, and passed it to his comrade at the desk for the all-important stamp.
I see Lei Feng and many others as I read again and again the pages of my passport, riffling through them as the custom officials did, even though I know it by heart: the visas, the stamps, the dates of arrivals and entries, and exits and departures. Perhaps I am trying to reassemble from its jumble of half-legible stamps a kind of journey that has led me here, before I send it off on its final journey to the Singapore Embassy in Canberra. In these emigrant years, it has become a source of solace; often I would turn its pages like a book read many times from cover to cover. The moments, the journeys, the pauses between travels would materialise unfailingly. There is something to be said of the materiality or corporeality of memory; remembering is much a physical experience as it is a mental act; as Proust attests: "The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die." My passport is very much a Proustian artefact with stored memories, a memento mori, and there is indelible evidence of those moments, proof that I was there and did this or that. I only have to hold the thick red booklet and feel the pages thrum and sing. There is still promise in it, a continuing story, a good few years left before its expiry. A hoard of destinations, places, moments.
There are the visa stamps from the erstwhile Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, countries that died and were reborn in rapid succession; the visas are signifiers to places which no longer exist. I remember standing in the cold spring rain outside the Czech Embassy in Budapest, the long queue of visa applicants just one of the many queues in the Communist capital. You queued to buy bread and milk in the sparsely stocked grocery stores; you queued to purchase food coupons in the state-run canteens; you queued to get assigned to a state-approved guest house.
There is also a special permit for Mount Athos stapled opposite the visa for Greece. It was a rather complicated process obtaining it and the imminent loss of the passport is made more painful by the memory. I had gone to the Greek Consulate in Singapore to obtain a visa and took the opportunity to speak to a consular official about my desire to visit Athos. He warned me it would be difficult but was sympathetic enough to give me a letter of recommendation, which was to be brought by hand to his friend in the Ministry of Culture in Athens. Here, in an office with a creaky ceiling fan and a portrait of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch overlooking a desk piled with files and papers, the weary-looking friend asked if I was Orthodox or had any intention of becoming a monk. He said that a Japanese man who had come to him for help a few years ago never left Athos; he became a monk in one of the 20 monasteries on the island. I indicated that I did not rule out the possibility, since Kazantzakis and monastic spirituality were my reasons for going there. He livened up as we discussed Zorba, and Kazantzakis' sojourn on Athos, described in Report to Greco; he urged me to visit Crete instead of Athos. He told me to wait while his secretary prepared a letter to be shown to the Pilgrims' Bureau in Ouranoupolis. A few days later, at the small harbour in Ouranoupolis, I met a young Greek man who looked like a monk; he had a lean, pallid and bearded face, and wore a black shabby coat and pants. He threw scorn on the permit which I had obtained at bureau kiosk next to the small harbour. He was going to try to get into Athos without a permit. He claimed to have walked to India and back without a passport, and was now going to Athos to be a monk. That night, as I walked on the pebbly peach next to the hotel, I saw him working his bamboo-thin frame into a very worn-looking sleeping bag.
At Karyes, the hub of Athos, reached after a drive up on a trailer attached to a small tractor, my passport was blessed by a monk who stamped my permit with a special seal. Today as I finger the permit and my passport I can see his gaunt and grey-bearded face, smiling, welcoming, peaceful, and the four German doctors in whose company I traipsed on narrow trails through oak and pine forests, over rocky headlands, through ravines, and gorges and along cliffs beetling over crashing waves and the silky blue of the Aegean further out, gasping as we tried to keep up with our monk-guides between monasteries in the surf-haunted and pine-scented air. The frayed permit is still attached to the passport, giving it the faint sanctity of a relic.
I remember the thrill of being handed my first passport, a slim booklet with navy-blue boards at the Immigration Department at Empress Place. It was a restricted passport, allowing for travel to only West Malaysia. It was the first time I had my own document, one that breathed an aura of importance, of magic almost. As I followed my mother past the high barrel-vault roof of the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station hall to the customs kiosk at the entrance to the train platform, I experienced for the first time the intoxicating whiff of departure, the excitement of travel made possible by the mysterious document. Then, holding out my passport for its first stamp, before boarding the night-mail train to Kuala Lumpur, where we caught another train to Ipoh to see my mother's relatives. It is a rite of passage, getting your first stamp as a traveller. To be given a passport is to be given possibilities, the permission to go and find the world out there, the selves awaiting your discovery. Having a passport gives you a sense of belonging, of being rooted; at the same time, it gives you permission to transcend that identity, to travel beyond the borders that define who you are.
For the last seven years since taking up permanent residency in Sydney, its bulk is a source of comfort and assurance. It holds the return ticket back, if the emigrant path should prove unviable. My wife too has a double passport. It reflects the double life we have been leading, the new start here and at the same time, carrying on sometimes as if we were still in Singapore. When we felt foreign and besieged by the demands that we conform to the cultural tenets of our adopted country, we fell back on Singaporeanness and the passport as a shield, an available if somewhat tenuous source of faith of who we are, or rather, have been.
Nobody knows exactly when the passport came into currency, but the Egyptians had it; so did the Romans and the Chinese. It wasn't, of course, the modern booklet that we carry but a foldable tablet called the tractorium in the Roman world. It bore the names of the reigning emperor and holder and a validity period.
One of the earliest references to a United Kingdom passport is from the reign of King Henry V where, in a 1414 Act, there is a mention of "Safe Conducts", by which the King enjoined foreign people that they should allow his subjects to travel freely. In return, no subjects of the King should injure or rob a foreigner who carried a "Safe Conduct".
The word passport itself, according to Martin Lloyd (in his 2005 book, The Passport: The History of Man's Most Travelled Document), was first found in an act of English legislation "forbidding soldiers to leave a garrison without any license or passport." The Privy Council appears to have granted passports at a very early date and certainly exercised this power from 1540 (when the Council Register commenced) until 1685. One of the earliest passports still in existence was issued on June 18, 1641, and was signed by Charles I. Up to the days of Charles II, all British passports were signed personally by the sovereign, but during his reign a second form of passport was introduced, issued by the Secretary of State. From then until 1794, two forms of passports were in existence, the Royal passport signed by the Sovereign and countersigned by the Secretary of State, and the other issued in the name of the Sovereign but signed by the Secretary of State alone. Since 1794, passports have always been granted by the Secretary of State and a record exists of all passports which have been issued from that date. As a promise from the Sovereign of Safe Conduct, "passports" could be issued to people of all nationalities. It wasn't until 1858 that the UK passport became available to UK nationals only. With this change, the passport became for the first time a document of national identity as well as an aid to travel.
On the continent, passports became mandatory in the 18th century and early 19th century, especially during the French Revolution, when it became a means of surveillance and control. In The Charterhouse of Parma, the word "passport" is invoked on numerous occasions. Stendhal's 1839 romantic thriller is the forerunner of modern spy novel where Bond-like agents routinely clear checkpoints using fake passports. The hero Fabrice, a young, idealistic Italian aristocrat, is travelling on false papers to France to join Napoleon. As he approaches the Austrian border, he realises that in Italy "especially in the neighbourhood of Po, people talk about passports all day along" and shudders with relief when he gets through the police office at Casalmaggiore on the passport of the man he has just killed. He wonders: "How did that clerk, whose eyes were so full of suspicion, who read my passport through at least three times, fail to notice I am not five feet 10 inches tall, that I am not 39 years old, and that I am not strongly pitted by small-pox?" This was the pre-photograph age and the passport carried a lengthy list of descriptions of the bearer; there were as many as 20 points of identification besides the obvious ones like nationality and gender, and these included height, eyes, teeth, complexion and anomalous features like a hare-lip or a limp.
Passport requirements were enforced more rigorously with the rise of nationalism in the 19th century. However, even as late as the early part of the 20th century, passportless travel and mobility was still possible. In his autobiography The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig gives us a glimpse of this possibility: "Before 1914, the earth had belonged to all. People went where they wished and stayed as long as they pleased. There were no permits, no visas, and it always gives me pleasure to astonish the young by telling them that before 1914 I travelled from Europe to India and America without a passport and without ever having seen one." If the words of the young Greek man I met on the way to Mount Athos were true, then passportless travel was still possible in the 1980s.
In Tang China, travellers had to obtain a permit from the Emperor before setting out from the Tang capital Chang'an (meaning long-lasting peace, now called Xian) into the western regions. Without it you were turned back or faced a worse fate, capture and slavery. Xuan Zang the Buddhist monk tried three times to procure a passport for his journey west to bring back Buddhist scriptures but was refused because of unsettled conditions in the early days of the dynasty. He sneaked out illicitly and was apprehended. He records: "As I approached China's extreme outpost at the edge of the Desert of Lop, I was caught by the Chinese army. Not having a travel permit, they wanted to send me to Tun-huang to stay at the monastery there. However, I answered, 'If you insist on detaining me, I will allow you to take my life, but I will not take a single step backwards in the direction of China.'" Impressed by his courage, the garrison commander let him go. After this, Xuan Zang was able to obtain letters of introduction for safe conduct from the Khan of the Western Turks.
I could see Xuan Zang leaving through Chang'an's western gate, "The Portal of Distant Travel", as the Dunhuang-bound train left the city walls behind, making for the endless sea of loess hills. Before him was terra incognita; the Taklamakan has variously been translated as "Place of No Return", "Sea Of Death" and "Place of Ruins". It was where demons lurked and apsaras flitted, ghost voices travelling over the dunes to torment lost travellers. The adventures that make up The Journey to the West, where the mythologised monk survives the perils of the road mostly because of the wit and strength of Monkey, were my childhood staple. It was serialised on TV; the Shaw Brothers had also made a film of it that I saw in Jubilee Cinema on North Bridge Road. But it was the serialised comics that drew me most. Hand-sized, inked black and white on thin paper, they were bundled in a cloth-bound cardboard wrap with a loop button, like old Buddhist sutras.
In Xian, I had visited the temple attached to the Big Goose Pagoda where Xuan Zang had retired after his odyssey to translate the sutras fetched back from India. There was a dark bronze statue of him with his staff. I couldn't flesh him out. But as I returned my bulky passport to its hiding place next to my heart, after flagging it to ensure special treatment as a wai bin by the carriage supervisor, I felt a spike of thrill. This guy had defied imperial order and gone out passportless into the wilds. He had nothing but his monk's robes to commend him, and was armed with nothing but his determination to fetch the sutras. Mythology took on the flesh of historical reality, as I saw the intrepid monk with his bamboo hat, staff and backpack walking resolutely on the path above the river that kept the train company as it wound through the interminable loess hills that marked the beginning of the Gansu Corridor.
I had a foretaste of being parted with this beaten Singapore passport once. In Islamabad, I had left it at the Iranian Embassy to apply for a visa. When I returned three days later, the staff couldn't find it. I was told to return the day after, for it was Muharram and the embassy would be closed. For the first time, I felt what it was like to be passportless in a foreign country, like the many Afghan refugees I saw camping on the fringes of Islamabad. In a city designed to house embassies and consulates, where gated mansions and residences predominate, it was strange to find refugee camps pitched in parks and small plots of forests around the city.
In the deserted youth hostel a long hike away from the diplomatic enclave, a newly-built block where I seemed to be the only guest, I had actually been approached to sell my passport. The Singapore passport is perhaps the most coveted in Asia, as Singaporeans are entitled to travel without visas in most of Europe. The two men, one in leather jacket and the other in kurta, identified themselves as Afghan refugees and told me about their plight, how they had fled the Soviet occupation and been stuck in the refugee camp for more than a decade now; they needed passports to get out of this limbo. They tried again a few more times, hovered around the empty hostel and then disappeared. The incident had disturbed me and I was shaken. For the next two days, I walked the soulless capital aimlessly, rootless, rocked by a deep anxiety that comes with being stateless, robbed of the assurance the passport gives. Having a passport and valid visa can turn you into a temporary resident in a foreign place. Without it, you are homeless, your identity erased. When, at the appointed hour, the man at the Iranian embassy produced the familiar red book, I appreciated for the first time my place of birth, the gift of the right to travel and identity that citizenship gives. It connected me with home, albeit momentarily.
In Eilat where I stopped on the way to Sinai, I was again asked to sell my passport, this time by a Jordanian who was running from army service. He offered me US$5,000, similar to what the Afghans were willing to pay. He asked me as he rolled me a joint in the dorm room where we were alone. I turned both the offer and joint down.
Then there was this scrawny, almost wasted Singaporean I met in Paharganj in Delhi. His straight long hair dangled past his shoulders, framing a bloodlessly thin face, with ashen lips and badly stained teeth. He was sniffing badly, a further sign of serious drug addiction. He spoke Hindi and was known to the locals. It didn't take long for him to confess that he had spent time in the drug rehabilitation centre on St John's Island in the 70s and was now on the run. As we sat smoking over our chais, a nervous backpacker came and John sneaked him a sachet in exchange for rolled-up bills. He was a dealer, but claimed he also worked for the Interpol. A few chais later, he asked me if I would sell my passport; he had sold his twice and needed one now to renew his Indian visa.
I often wonder if that was what my father did with his British passport. In the few possessions in the shabby room where we found him, above a Bugis Street shophouse, feeble and helpless after what appeared to be an attempt to starve himself to death, there was a British passport. It was a thin navy-blue document, its cardboard cover gold-embossed with the royal coat of arms. On the recto page were the words "Passport" and "Colony of Singapore" in English and French; under Nationality were the words "British subject". On the second recto page was a studio photograph, his handsome well-sculpted dimpled face with slick, well-groomed hair tilted to the left. Clearly it wasn't a requirement in those days to look straight at the camera. He wore a tie and white shirt; I had never seen him in formal attire. It occurred to me, writing this, that I have never seen any wedding pictures of my parents, or any photograph of them alone together. They must have been among the lot that my father tore up in one of his manic outbursts. There weren't many pages in the British passport and there was not a single stamp, no evidence at all that he had travelled. I vaguely recall seeing his Malaysian and Singapore passports one of the many times he sought refuge at my uncle's apartment, but there was no trace of them when we found him. Only this British passport that had mysteriously appeared.
After his funeral, we cleared his one-room rental flat in Beach Road for return to HDB. The passport had disappeared. Only the photograph remained, a bit of the passport page glued to its back. I can see him going to pawn it, as he did with many things before filing for bankruptcy. Or finding a black-market dealer somewhere around Bugis Street or Sungei Road, and getting the money for another bout of hard drinking and gambling.
Sometimes I dream of him travelling with his British passport, its pages receiving its first stamp, giving him a second chance in life. He is leaving Singapore and the past behind, settling in future life in the UK, as one of his friends did. We might have ended up carrying a different passport.
In an age where belonging to two or more places is fast becoming a norm, with many migrants holding two or more passports, we are compelled to give up these storied and memoried documents because Singapore, which in the last few years has been reinventing itself as a global city, does not subscribe to the idea of dual citizenship.
Our Iranian, American, Canadian, Chilean and Indian friends commute between country of origin and adopted home with apparent ease. Of course, the emigrant or immigrant has to negotiate between the old and new lives, navigate that difficult in-between terrain between the old and new countries, and the questions of identity and belonging are never easily resolved. But having dual citizenship and two or more passports ensures that the transition is less painful. Having to give up the old passport is like being compelled to choose, to renounce the first half of your life, a good part of the story of your life, and start with a clean slate.
Next to the scarred red body of the Singapore passport, its golden coat of arms a shield with five stars and a crescent flanked by a lion and a tiger, I place the virgin dark blue Australian passport, emblazoned with combined shields of the six states flanked by a kangaroo and emu. One well-travelled, voluminous, sweat-stained, slightly odiferous, the other slim, unimprinted. For the first time, I see before me what I have done and am about to do. To cross a real border, a kind of Rubicon that will alter the idea of who I am. Once the passport is surrendered and destroyed, there is no going back, as the letter from the Immigration Department of Singapore warns. The other will, I suppose, in time be filled with stamps and visas, and I will grow accustomed to its lighter weight, its different coat of arms and the description inside. Place of birth: Singapore. Citizenship: Australian.
Now I am about to betray the gift, turn my back on my country that at the moment is experiencing the worst economic downturn since its birth. We are both 40 now, my country and I, and going through a kind of mid-life crisis. In the last few years, it too has felt the need to change, to adapt to changing global forces in order to survive. I too am trying to remake myself, but most of the time I find myself trying to preserve the store of memories from home, rather than make new ones.
Perhaps that is why we have decided to give up the passports, as if it is easier to make a clean break, a fresh start that way. To cross over wholly. It has been a strain, being in between places, holding divided allegiance. We have wrestled with the decision for a few years now. With each year away, we feel more isolated and excluded from the lives of our friends and families, mourning the passing of places we grew up in and loved, estranged from the new.
Still, a sense of misgiving and betrayal clouds the decision. Without the reassurance of the trusted passports, I feel like an inadequate Xuan Zang riding into the desert beyond the western gates of Chang'an, taking on the demons populating the terra incognita, and taking the first steps to being reborn. I think of my father's unused and vanished British passport, the blue thin booklet empty like the one I have now. The blank pages aching for the first stamp, the first departure and return. Each time I hold the surviving photograph and touch the back where it had been attached to the passport, I feel a distant breath of promise: the untravelled roads ahead, the possibilities. Maybe he had thought of emigrating when he applied for it. It will remain a mystery, an untold story that I have to live with. Perhaps as my new passport fill up with stamps and visas, the story will unfold, between entrances and exits, between departures and arrivals.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 2 Apr 2017