In one of comedian Louis CK’s stand-up routines, he talks about how there are people in this world that we’ve all unanimously decided never to love or have sex with.
It builds up to the punchline: “If you feel bad for them and are like ‘awww’, why don’t you go find one tomorrow and fuck ‘em? Nah? I didn’t think so!”
This joke refutes the romantic notion that “there is someone for everyone”, exposing the uncomfortable fact that for some, eternal single-hood is a lived reality rather than a joke to accompany the memes they share on Facebook.
I know this because I’m face to face with one of them, braising in the oily fragrance of Popeye’s fried chicken.
His name is Teo En Ming. On Facebook, he calls himself Turritopsis Dohrnii, the name for a species of biologically immortal jellyfish. Even though he’s only 40 years old this year, he regularly refers to himself as being 40 billion years old.
Late last year, he shot to internet notoriety when his aspirations to work in the Japanese adult video (JAV) industry were extensively discussed on HardwareZone. It was also revealed that he was bankrupt and soliciting donations.
According to at least one other blog, forum users were surprised to see that he’d managed to attend JAV Expos in both Taiwan and Japan, where he can be seen embracing women in various cute outfits. The article is prominently tagged ‘dirty old man’.
At the centre of all this intrigue was the fact that he is also a hobbyist photographer who pays models so they’ll allow themselves to be photographed.
But when I ask about his preparations to join the Japanese adult industry, all he says is: “Nothing. I just submitted my application to a few companies.”
He describes his photography hobby as just something he likes to do; he enjoys looking at the pictures from time to time after he’s taken them.
And while he says that his lifelong dream is to be a JAV actor so he can “be intimate with all the pretty Japanese girls in the world,” he has done little by way of turning this into a viable career prospect. He acknowledges that you need to be fit to have sex for a long time, but then admits that he doesn’t work out.
But very quickly after that, we digress. With a straight face, he goes on to share that he once approached former Workers’ Party Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang for help because the government was making him hear voices. According to him, he was then told that he should pay the Institute of Mental Health a visit.
He then goes back to describing his passion for pretty Japanese women. If his pulse is racing or his jeans are rising, it is not betrayed by his voice, his eyes, or his body language. He rattles off his justifications as though he’s describing the fast food restaurant we’re in and appears as self-conscious as an Ah Pek strolling through Chinatown.
Shortly after Stephen Hawking passed, En Ming changed his Facebook profile picture to one depicting the deceased physicist. From his profile page, we learn that he is a “World Famous Computer Professional like Edward Snowden and Master Photographer”.
He has recently switched his name on WhatsApp from Turritopsis Dorhnii to the ‘Emperor of the Multiverse’.
But why this fascination with the multiverse?
“It’s a way to comfort myself,” he says.
As he explains the concept of infinite parallel universes and how there is a different, possibly better version of us in each one of them, he adds, “This way, I know that the life I’m living is not the only possible life.”
Later, he shares that both his parents were not very well educated and didn’t complete their primary school education.
“We were and still are extremely poor,” he says, “Since my primary school days, when we were living in Yishun, my mother already suffered from mental illness. My father is a drunkard and heavy smoker.”
He adds that when he was much younger, he and his mother often went without food for long stretches of time because his father wouldn’t bring food home. From time to time, he would come home drunk. When they did eat, meals were often porridge with soy sauce.
Today, his life is defined by his unshakeable conviction that he is being monitored by the government.
“Why you?” I ask.
“Because I can be easily bullied? Or experimentation to study human behaviour? Government wants to study your behaviour and see how you fight back when you are being targeted?” he says.
None of this makes sense, and yet guys like En Ming, who call themselves Targeted Individuals (TIs), are not some ultra-rare breed of crazy person.
The New York Times, the Washington Post, Wired, and Vice have all run reports on TIs, people who are convinced their entire lives are under surveillance, from their mobile communications to their day-to-day activities.
En Ming’s story begins sometime in 2007 when he was working at the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA).
“One day, I was having a private conversation with my manager in his office. I told him: Singapore is not a democracy. And if Lee Kuan Yew is gone, Singapore would be more democratic. From then on, I was targeted by the Singapore Government.”
Two years later, when he was working at a different company, one of his managers “challenged me to complete an IT project within two or three weeks”.
“In response to his challenge, I used Lee Kuan Yew to make a bet. The targeting became worse.”
En Ming sincerely believes that the government is ruining his life. With every lull in our conversation, he takes the opportunity to launch into another recount of government surveillance. Even vehicles leaving the carpark the moment he exits his HDB lift are not beyond suspicion.
When he talks about being targeted, he refers to two specific things. The first is being made to hear voices. The “main thrust of the message” he tends to hear is simply, “We are here to punish you because you offended Lee Kuan Yew!”
The second is being stalked by teenagers, people that he describes as being the “ah beng and ah lian type”.
All of this has happened with less frequency since 2011. Of late, his preoccupation has been with how his Android phones tend to switch on by themselves.
“Obviously, the Singapore Government planted spy apps on my Android phones. Otherwise, it would not keep powering up by itself,” he tells me.
“And I think the motive is to provoke me into getting angry. What I don’t understand is, since the Government can read my mind and thoughts by remote neural monitoring, does it really need to hack into my smartphones, laptops and computers to plant spy apps? Is it because if the government don’t do these tangible activities, I will not be afraid and frightened?”
He then thinks aloud, questioning the motives of the government: “Provoke you into getting angry, make you paranoid, make you frightened?”
On some days, when I’m conversing with En Ming over WhatsApp, I think it must be really hard to be this guy.
But I eventually surmise that we must all live some version of this.
Turritopsis Dorhnii gravitates towards conspiracy theories for the same reason we nurture toxic relationships or become alcoholics. The realisation that you alone are responsible for what happens to you comes with immense pressure. In the face of this, submitting to an abstract, higher power can be a source of great comfort.
Once you’ve decided on the thing that must be responsible for all of your misery, whether it’s God, the government, your supervisor, or your neighbour upstairs, everything falls into place; anything can serve as justification for your paranoia.
For instance, whenever he discusses his work, he adds that TIs tend to have trouble staying in their jobs. Likewise, he points out that targeted individuals don’t have friends. Whether this is the result of choice or the work of the mysterious universe, it’s not clear.
However, when we get to the topic of dating, we get a little closer to what I think is the truth behind his scepticism towards human connection. To a question about why he’s never tried to date, he answers: “It’s not worth the effort.”
Later, he adds, “In addition, my IQ is average or seriously below average. It does no good to my children to inherit my genetic code at all.”
This is resignation, not wisdom.
It’s also what traps him in the feedback loop of his delusions. If you look up ‘Targeted Individuals’ on RationalWiki, you will find precise counter-arguments for every single allegation TIs have made against established institutions.
As the above-mentioned article points out, not all TIs clearly suffer from mental illness in a clinical sense. Many are victims of more banal neuroses and have found that this solidarity in the shared experiences of other persecuted TIs can be a way of rationalising the state of one’s life.
After all, En Ming tells me, “Many people have commented that I am Super Duper Ultra Fat and Ugly. Furthermore, I have no money, no savings, no career, no credit card, no bungalow, no luxury car, no yacht, no private jet, and no space-going rocket. I have the LOWEST Socio-Economic Status (SES) in Singapore and probably the whole world.”
Beyond his wild ideas about how the world works and his more peculiar personal interests, there’s actually very little that’s remarkable about the man.
He habitually laments having knee problems and how his doctor has recommended that he lose weight. As a result, he no longer eats fried food and or takes soft drinks that contain too much sugar.
His eyesight has been deteriorating, so he worries he won’t have enough time to save the money he needs to travel the world. The US and South Korea are at the top of his list, although he occasionally contemplates going to Bangkok to apply for political asylum.
These days, he worries more about his parents; his mum is in an old folks’ home, while his dad is hospitalised in Tan Tock Seng Hospital. A few days ago, En Ming was informed that his father had started refusing to eat or take his medication.
For these reasons, he tells me that his parents have never pressured him to find someone and settle down.
This is how the conversation goes:
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No. Never. Never in my life. I’m so fat and ugly. Nobody wants me!” (laughs)
“Let’s say you have to choose one. Be a JAV actor, get a girlfriend, or get married. Which do you pick?”
“Because then I can be intimate with all the pretty Japanese girls.”
“Do you know that pornography and real life are nothing like each other?”
“Not that it matters to me anyway.”
“Have your parents ever pressured you to find someone?”
“Nope, they can’t even fend for themselves!” (chuckles)
For a 40-year-old man, this sounds either a little immature or completely divorced from real life. Some assholes might even suggest that these ideas are precisely why he deserves to be alone.
Yet En Ming has never had the opportunity to insert his penis into a woman’s vagina, only to eventually discover that it’s not the answer to all of life’s eternal questions.
It’s rough. (No, I’m not still talking about vaginas, you pervert!)
At the same time, it’s not that simple. For all his idiosyncrasies, En Ming’s experience is symptomatic of a larger group of older, single men who have never known romance. The solution to their struggles lies not in finding someone to have sex with, but in being seen.
Going back to that earlier Louis CK joke, it’s not just that we’ve all decided these guys are ugly and unfuckable. It’s also that, for reasons unknown, they’ve simply never learnt to socialise with the opposite gender. For them, consuming a woman’s body from a distance is much easier than having a conversation.
And the rest of us make life harder for them by ensuring they know just how weird or inadequate we think they are.
As for all that other stuff? My hunch is that it just so happens he’s found solitude in these various communities, from those who participate in ‘paid model’ photoshoots to those who claim to be victims of government persecution and experimentation.
Or perhaps he’s right. That there really is a government conspiracy afoot, in which we are all royally screwed.
Have something to say about this story? Think the government is spying on you? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.