Monday, May 17, 2004

Life, Honour, and Identity

Everybody loves a suicide - every case of suicide is clouded by mystery and intrigue. Where a human life has ended prematurely, endless speculation and finger-pointing will follow. I venture to say that this is the case even when the facts of the case were clear for all to see. Instead every sliver of news - fact or gossip - is only slurped up deliciously to add to the hunger for more salacious ones. Recall these famous suicides: Cantonese pop singer Leslie Cheung who threw himself off a building, poet Sylvia Plath who stuck her head in a gas oven, and Nirvana's Kurt Cobain who shot himself in the head. Even Wikipedia has compiled a list of famous suicides. Google for the keyword suicide and you'll find 7 million results.

When my youngest aunt committed suicide in the midst of her post-natal depression, needless to say, the entire family was stunned and shaken. I alone had so many questions; I didn't even know my aunt was depressed! Grappling with this self-induced guilt and regret for not knowing my aunt better and possibly preventing her suicide, I wondered what would motivate me to climb up a ledge, look 20 storeys down, and eventually push myself off. Not being privy to family gossip only fueled my own curiosity and imagination.

Lacking the stats to support me here, I can only surmise that depression and mental illness appear to be major causes of suicide. Here in Singapore, stress is probably the major social and environmental factor leading to depression. For teenagers, it's stress from family, school, or peers (remember the teen who wanted to die in Royston Tan's "15"?); for adults, it's stress from family or work. While not comprehensive, I would think these are the common causes. So as I read this headline "In the wake of a death" in yesterday's ST LifeStyle section, I expected an uninteresting article about a stressed-out housewife who fell into depression.

In a nutshell, last September, Mdm Quek Bee Lian was suspected of abusing a toddler while babysitting him and after she was questioned by the police, she became troubled and depressed and committed suicide. An award-winning documentary explaining her death and aptly titled Innocent was featured in the recent Singapore International Film Festival.

While I didn't watch this film, reading about Mdm Quek's death got me wondering about this lesser discussed cause of suicide: being dishonoured, or losing honour. In simple local terms, we could define it as a profound loss of face - as the well-known Chinese phrase goes, "no face left to face people". Indeed, scientist David Kelly, the chief executive of Hyundai, and the Japanese couple who ran a bird-flu infected farm were all compelled by their loss of honour to end their lives.

What is honour? Definitions that stuck out to me were "good name", "reputation", "dignity" and "personal integrity". These are words I hardly hear on a daily basis. And the subtitle "have you no honour?" seems meaningful only in Chinese drama serials about fighting swordsmen and their pugilistic wonderland.

Yet us, Asians, are supposed to espouse values such as hard work, loyalty, place collective needs over individual ones, personal and family values such as honour and integrity... what are all that??? Perhaps these are values that we only realize and then begin to hold on tightly when they become compromised or impinged upon. Meanwhile a 25yo like myself continues to muse and mull about life as I seek to discover my modern Singaporean identity.

In Bend It Like Beckham (2002), our Indian protagonist chases after but eventually gives up her soccer aspirations for the sake of preserving the integrity of the family name. Finally, a hilarious but assuredly triumphant scene sees her scoring a penalty kick over the imagined personas of her family. While most rejoice her personal victory of being one step closer towards becoming a female professional soccer player, some would angrily ask, what of the trampled value of family integrity?

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