Recently, I had an eight-hour layover in Singapore. I called my old college friend Mahmood, and he agreed to pick me up at the airport, and spend some time with me. When I met him outside the arrival area, he said ‘Hey Khaleeli, great to see you after what, fifteen years?’
‘It’s been a while’ I replied. ‘You looking good Mahmood.’
‘By the way, I forgot to tell you that I had to attend the Rotary Club luncheon today. Can you join me as my guest?’
‘I’m the Social Secretary. I arrange the speakers, get the hotel etc.,’ said Mahmood.
‘Where we going?
‘Today, the event is at the Raffles Ballroom.’
‘Very fancy. I hope I am dressed appropriately.’ I was wearing sweat pants and a polo shirt.
‘He looked at me and said ‘I think you’ll be OK.’ It did not sound too convincing.
He got a phone call that he put on the car speakerphone. It was his administrative assistant.
‘Mr. Mahmood, we have a problem.’
‘There are only opportunities, no problems in life.’ He winked at me as he said that.
‘This is not an opportunity Mr. Mahmood. Our speaker had eight Singapore Slings at the Tiki Bar and he is out cold.’
‘That is a problem!’
‘What should we do Mr. Mahmood?’
‘Give me a few minutes. I’ll think of something.’
Mahmood was sweating in his air-conditioned car. ‘Hell’ he said. ‘Who can I get at the last minute?’ Then he looked at me. He gave me that look I had seen before. The soulful gaze he gave the girls he wanted to date, when we were in college.
‘Oh no’ I said. ‘You are not thinking about me.’
‘Come on Khaleeli. Be a sport. You can do it, for old times’ sake.’
‘What, me speak to the Rotarians dressed like this?’
‘Not a problem. I’ll find some clothes for you.’
That’s how I ended looking like a bellman, wearing a jacket with big gold buttons, and pants that had red piping down the side, not to mention the patent leather shoes. All that was missing was a hat, and I would be taking guests to their room.
There must have been over three hundred people in the grand ballroom. The crème de la crème of the Singapore business society had taken two hours off their busy day to attend the event. People were talking, laughing, drinking, and schmoozing.
Mahmood led me to his table. ‘What am I to talk about Mahmood?’ In all the excitement of finding me clothes, I had forgotten to ask him the topic.
‘I am going to introduce you as the best-selling international author of several books.’
‘Uh. Mahmood, I only wrote two books.’
‘That’s more than one, so it’s several.’
‘Also, I only sold four copies of my book. One of them, my friend bought by accident.’
‘Then we will say that you sold several copies. No one is going to ask for the exact number.’
‘If they do ask.’
‘Trust me, they will be more interested in the desert, cherries jubilee.’
‘And this international bestseller. International?’
‘Well. Your wife read the book in the US and I read the book in Singapore. So, it makes it international.’
He had a counter argument for every one of mine.
‘What is the topic Mahmood?’
‘Global warming? I really do not know much on that topic.’
‘Khaleeli, you wrote two books. Make something up.’
‘How long do I have Mahmood?’
‘Let’s say fifteen minutes, twenty at most.’
Mahmood is at the dais giving the introduction. ‘Today, we have M.K., an international best-selling author who sold lots of books to talk about…’
A hand went up in the crowd. ’Yes, Mrs. Chong. You have a question.’
‘Mr. Mahmood, when will we get our dessert?’
‘Only after Mr. M.K. speaks about global warming.’
‘That’s very wrong Mr. Mahmood. You are holding us hostage. I want to have two scoops of ice cream if this is the case.’
By now, half the crowd has left the room. When I stand to speak, I notice that one man is playing on-line Mahjong and others are busy checking their emails.
‘Global warming is the threat of our generation’ I begin.
‘Excuse me’ the man playing on-line Mahjong asks ‘what is your name?’
‘My name is Muzaffar Khaleeli’ I reply.
‘Mr. Mahmood’ Mrs. Chong interrupts. ‘I thought M.K. was Michael Kors, the designer. Where is this guy from?’
‘I am from India via the United States’ I add.
The mahjong player intercedes ‘Mrs. Chong, the quicker he finishes, the quicker we get our cherries jubilee.’
‘Thank you’ I say. ‘As you all know Singapore faces a grave threat from the rising oceans due to the melting ice caps. Last year alone, the international airport had to be closed for two days, twice, due to cyclones like Theresa and Dolores.’
‘Mr. M.K. why do cyclones have to be named after women all the time?’
‘I don’t know Mrs. Chong. Maybe because women like Eve and Delilah caused trouble.’
The Mahjong player said ‘Mrs. Chong, can you submit your questions on line? He has to finish talking for us to get our desert.’
‘In a hundred years Singapore can be under the sea’ I add. ‘We will not be alive, but our children will. We have to act to save our future generation.’
If there is one thing that all Singaporeans agree on, it is the well-being of their kids. They indulge them with treats, extra food helpings and goodies. Now more people were paying attention to me including Mrs. Chong and the Mahjong player.
‘I have a solution for this crisis. In Singapore, all men have to complete military service. So, you have an army ready at all times. You just have to call on them. And that is what I propose to do. Day after tomorrow, I am saying day after tomorrow, because you need one day to prepare, and get your gear and stuff ready, we will all assemble at the causeway. I suggest you bring your bicycles. No cars. It will cause a traffic jam. As in any military campaign, surprise is the key element. At seven o’clock, when the sun is not too hot, we are going to cycle across the causeway and take over Johor Bahru in Malaysia. And Singapore Airlines will provide air support, and will land troops at the Johor Bahru airport. The cyclists will advance by land, the military by air. In a pincer movement, we will capture Johor Bahru and make it a part of Singapore.’
‘Why do we want to do that Mr. M.K?’
‘Because Mrs. Chong, Johor Bahru is higher than Singapore. So, in a hundred years, when the island is half under water, your children will be high and dry. They will be calling me a visionary.’ I paused and waited for applause. Silence.
‘Are you done? Mr. Mahmood, remember you promised me two scoops of ice cream.’
Two hundred miles to the north, at Putra Jaya, the capital of Malaysia, the Aide de Camp to the Prime Minister walked into his bedroom and woke up the politician.
‘Datuk Prime Minister, please wake up’ he implored.
‘Who is the Prime Minister?’ the politician asked sleepily.
‘You are Datuk. You are the Prime Minister.’
‘Yes Datuk. Once again, you are the Prime Minister.’
‘Five times. You have been Prime Minister five times.’
‘Five. Wonderful. One more time, it will be a sixer.’
‘Datuk, we have discerned a credible threat to the homeland.’
‘There is evidence that we will be attacked.’
‘Who? The Japanese!’
‘No Datuk, not the Japanese.’
‘Then the Germans for sure.’
‘No Datuk. This is not World War Two.’
‘By the Rotary Club of Singapore.’
‘Yes. The Rotary Club of Singapore plans to attack us the day after tomorrow.’
‘Yes Datuk. They have a detailed plan. They have instructed their troops to pack only British food like cucumber sandwiches and scones.’
‘Just in case the smell from the makan of the Indian or Chinese food gives away their location.’
‘Very clever chaps!’
‘Yes Datuk. What should we do?’
The Datuk said something that no one could understand. The Aide de Camp told the butler ‘Quick. Bring the Datuk’s false teeth from the bathroom.’
A few minutes later the butler brought the teeth on a silver tray. The Aide de Camp pushed the teeth into the Prime Ministers mouth.
He said something that no one could understand. ‘Please? Again.’ He repeated it, and still his words were unfathomable. Finally, the Datuk took out his teeth and put them back in. ‘Imbecile’ he told his Aide de Camp. ‘Did you not read the signs. One says Top, the Other Bottom. You military people only know Left, Right, Left, Right!’
‘What should we do Datuk?’
‘Issue Proclamation 101.’
‘Yes. Issue that.’
‘But Datuk, we issued Proclamation 101, two times already this week.’
‘Issue again. Third time, we could get lucky.’
Mahmood took me to the airport that evening. On his way back home, he was stopped by the Police and spent two nights in jail. His crimes included sedition, spreading falsehoods, and serving warm ice-cream with cherries jubilee. He was released only after Mrs. Chong wrote to the Straits Times and said that if anyone had to be arrested it was that ‘M.K. fellow.’
I have not been back to Singapore or Malaysia since that incident. I am afraid I will be imprisoned for telling humorless jokes, which is a serious crime in both countries. Maybe, the Mahjong player will come to my rescue, but I am not taking any chances.