Thursday, 20 December 2007

1 year, 100 posts, 10,000 experiences

In retrospect, I'm glad I started this journal. Looking over the previous 99 posts, I have the same feeling I hav when review the notebook from my first China trip where I can re-read inane and insightful observations long since forgotten. I'm not a diary person; business organiser maybe, but personal diary no. Yet it is often suggested by diverse pundits from personal effectiveness, personal growth and even happiness experts that even just a one line note about your day made before going to bed is a valuable, long-term habit.

I digress though as this journal is not that much about me and a lot more about the people around me. I've learned a lot in the last year; there are certainly more known-knowns, but there are also more known-unknowns so there is plenty of adventure ahead.

It is appropriate at this time of year to reflect and I thought I'd pick out a few notable, even favourite posts from 2007:

Here's to the next 100. Happy Holidays.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Beep, screech, crunch, tinkle

It's a combination of sheet metal rumpling, glass tinkling and plastics shattering; the sound of a car crash is quite distinctive. It's also dramatic and fascinating and I'd be a liar if I said I didn't leap up and have a look out of the window when I heard it the other morning. Out on the main road, a taxi was mid U-turn across a dual-carriageway and a small black car had bumped into the back of it.

First rule of accidents: accuse the other guy before he tries to blame you. First rule of deciding who is really at fault: pick whoever was turning/changing lanes. In this case, the taxi was way out of line, starting from the left side of the road, turning across lane #2 to effect a U-turn is a dodgy manoeuvre requiring strict visual verification. The taxi driver looked like he'd swallowed a cigarette butt and was taking the other guy's ranting with glum acceptance.

But not so fast. I did say the horn was the first thing I heard. There's an old rule of aviation priorities: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. It highlights that no matter what the crisis,the first job is to keep the plane in the air. Next is to figure out which way to fly and only then, if you have time, do you get on the radio. Obviously, with co-pilots you have more options but it works for motoring as well. In an emergency, you should be braking and steering your way out of trouble. If you have time for beeping the horn, then you are not yet in an emergency.

I reckon the driver of the black car saw the taxi start to pull away and turn, gave it some sound as a warning, but only braked when the taxi started to block his path. A defensive driver would have given himself more options and braked earlier. The light impact of the bump indicates how avoidable it was.

The taxi driver will likely take the full rap, and he'll be well out of pocket. The LTA has just allowed taxi fares to rise slightly but driving a cab is not a path to riches. The driver will rent the cab from one of the big firms for about SG$105 per day (£35). In a 12 hour shift, he'll use $40-$50 of fuel and take about $200 in fares, thus clearing about $40-$50 cash. Have an accident and he loses the fares and has to pay for repairs. A tough break in an occupation that has so many risks with little financial upside.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Pirates of the Straits

Singapore is pretty well served for TV and video. There is cable with both free and paid content from StarHub. Arch-rival SingTel recently moved into the market with it's Mio box, an aDSL-based, Video-On-Demnd (VoD) service. SingTel lacks premium content (e.g English Premier League football) that StarHub has but has carved out an initial niche with some Hokkien programming. It's just been delayed, but sometime in the next few years the national Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) service will be deployed that will provide huge bandwidth for VoD so these services will improve considerably with more high-definition (HD) content.

So the future is certainly bright for online video, but what about DVDs, and their stubbornly popular cheaper bretheren VCDs? They seem to be doing quite well actually. Local shops sell some English/US titles for around £10 but mainly stock Chinese, Hong Kong and Korean discs. But any discussion on DVDs wouldn't be complete without acknowledging the huge influence of pirate copies that are freely available in Malaysia. And when I say freely available, I mean openly sold from stalls setup underneath signs that say "No pirate goods to be sold here" with policemen walking up and down. From Singapore, it's easy to pop over to JB in the car, have a nice lunch, get the car valeted, pick up some cheap essentials at the supermarket and get the latest films for about £1.20ea. New releases (apparently) should be avoided as they can be camcorder recordings in a cinema, complete with coughs and popcorn rustling.

Singapore doesn't allow such trade and is tough on sellers. I was told that you can order discs by 'phone and someone will deliver them in Singapore a few days later, but when pressed, it seems to be more urban legend than an actual service. I don't advocate such copyright infringement and the studios should follow Microsoft's lead (who are selling Windows in China for US$3) and sell at prices people can afford. It's interesting and concerning that whole countries can become comfortable with blatant illegality. People growing up in that environment become disrespectful of all laws and while that doesn't mean they will be immoral, they may well be amoral.

The distribution chain is undergoing change as well. In the US, the huge video rental chain Blockbuster is going through tough times with many stores closing and a new business plan. It's cheaper to rent movies by post than to go to the store so Blockbuster is planning in-store kiosks and movie downloads to migrate away from real-estate to cyber-estate.

Singapore has a company called CineNow which has kiosks in the local shopping areas where you can rent DVDs (and VCDs) from SG$2 (65p). It's a huge box with a selection screen and a slot for dispensing and returning discs. And being a kiosk, it's always open. It seems to be doing business but it's probably an interim distribution model before direct digital downloads or VoD are the norm. I presume the pirate discs will persist as long as prices remain high (in local terms) and the relevant authorities ignore the trade.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Material Aspirations

The traditional aspirations of Singaporeans are the well enough known to have their own Wikipedia page - the five C's: Car, Cash, Credit Card, Condo, Country Club. Inspector Clouseau would say that makes 7 Cs but stay with me. These embody the Singaporean dream of being rich enough to own an expensive house, expensive car, expensive club membership and have money left over to spend. All very materialistic stuff and no one is denying the essential truth of it.

An analysis piece by the Straits Times claimed it contained a new list: Competitiveness, Cohesion, Compassion, Compact, Choices. This roughly translates to "stay economically successful, watch out for the poor, keep the old in the loop". This is political spin designed to soften the collateral fallout from capitalist policies. So no place in our trivial treatise.

Meantime, the aspirations of Singaporean wives appear to have risen over the last 20 years according to this list:

I don't need a CAR, but I want a BMW
I don't need a CONDO , but I want a BUNGALOW
I don't need you to have CASH but I want you to own a BANK
I don't need you to have a CAREER but I want you to be a BOSS

... or better expressed as the new five B's: BMW, Body, Brain, Billionaire, Bungalow. More fantasy than the original five C's as how many single billionaire bank-owners are there?

Or how about the 1 - 5 lists for the different races. Singaporeans' recipe for Simple Living:

1 - One Wife
2 - Two Children
3 - Three Bedroom Condo
4 - Four Wheels (car)
5 - Five Figure (monthly) Salary
Malaysian Malays' recipe for Simple Living:
5 - Five Children
4 - Four Wives
3 - Three Figure Salary
2 - Two Wheels (motorbike)
1 - One-Storey Link House

Weather Widget

I've given up on my PC's desktop weather widget and closed it down for good. It was nice, showed 5 days worth of weather with little graphic representations and numbers for the daytime highs but most of the time, all the days show the same graphic and temperature.

That's not to say Singapore doesn't have weather or seasons, but the short-term outlook is pretty consistent at any time of year. It's now autumn, and as respite from the heat, is the best time of year. January will also be cool but that's supposed to be rainy season (and it does rain)

Singaporean autums (indeed winters, if you can call it that) do not have mass leaf colour changes and bare trees; on some trees, the leaves just go brown and fall off, causing the maintenance guys more work but it must be a confusing time for a tree as it's still warm and humid, so they just immediately grow a new set. All light, verdant green ones, which are very pretty, but I don't need a weather widget to tell me that.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Birdmen of Singapore

Bird fancying. What's that all about then? It's hugely popular here and within an HDB area, there will be a place with bird cage racks on the ceiling of the void deck, labelled with the type of bird to be appreciated there. My local one is for the Merbah Jambul.

Sunday mornings is the main event with, say 20 - 50 men, and it's always men, sitting looking at a ceiling full of hanging bird cages, smoking and chatting. The bird cages are all of an exactly uniform design and size for a particular bird species so it's a pretty sight and they are song birds, so there's some twittering audible over the traffic noise.

At other times, you see the cages hanging on the window bars of the flats. Animals are not allowed on trains or buses so moving them around means car, pickup truck, walk or cycle. For multiple cages, they use a carry stick to hang them off and the cages have neatly sewn cloth covers for transportation. This hobby has equipment.

My take is that it's Singaporean fishing; an ostensibly acceptable activity which men use to get out of the flat and away from the family for a while.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Acting Asian

One of the blogs I read regularly had an article about academic swotiness. I don't have first hand experience of this (obviously) but it is a perjorative within the American black community to be accused of "acting white". In school it is apparently used against pupils who academically excel. The article says this is now passe and the new term is "acting Asian".

Which makes me wonder what a Singaporean school kid would understand if accused of "acting white"? Given the famously elitist Singaorean school system it's likely the opposite meaning of the American one.

This segues nicely with another commentator who suggests that Children of Overbearing, High Stress Parents Hit Singles and Doubles. The hypothesis is that kids subjected to extraordinary stress to achieve academically will go on to be good solid performers in life. Probably not drug-taking dropouts or high-flying Nobel prize winners, but middle of the bell-curve.

To steal from our earlier discussion of hedgehogs vs. foxes in business, you might say that the "overbearing parenting style" has a high expected value but low variance, whereas the "hands-off independent style" has extreme outcomes on either end of the distribution curve.

Singaporean parents (esp. Chinese) are stereotypical pushy of their kids and it is a national goal to get a Nobel prize winner. Personally I think such awards are lotteries and the small population of Singapore doesn't give them many chances to win, but the educationally-induced attitudes are a commonly cited factor also.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Path of Desire

The council have (suddenly?) started building a concrete path across the middle of the field. I suppose it will be useful. No-one walks across the field as it's always squelchy - there's no drains for the field which is why the frogs like it so much.

I'm not complaining; investment in public infrastructure is generally a good thing. It's practically the entire domestic policy of the Japanese Government for the last 50 years. We'll have to see if this serves an un-satisfied line of desire or if the fact that it bisects the Indian Sunday football pitch is the greater inconvenience.

It reminds me of the story about 2 pieces of Tarmac who were arguing in the pub as to which one was the hardest:

Tarmac #1: "Me I'm from the M25, bl**dy hard I am taking all that traffic"

Tarmac #2: "I'm from Heathrow, that's nuffin, I can take a Jumbo jet"

The pub went quiet and in walked this red piece of Tarmac.

Tarmac #1: "whoa, don't mess wih him, he's a Cyclepath!"

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Little Darlings

Pop quiz: scenario is an older Malay woman, a middle aged Chinese mother and her 10 year old son board a train and there's one free seat. Who gets to sit down?

Answer: in Singapore, it's the kid. Mums rush onto carriages and point out seats where their children can sit down. They even encourage them to go right up to the doors and run in past the alighting passengers and find seats. Nobody ever complains about this behavior.

It's a cultural, generational inversion. The old(er) are respected for their contribution to the past, but the young are revered for their role in the future, particularly for their potential earning power. Kids have it tough at school, and the pressure to succeed at examinations, move up to better schools and achieve scholorships is intense. But their elevation to Dauphin at the expense of common courtesy baffles me. They sit there fidgeting with energy while work-weary travelers slump into corners.

The MRT trains are running a campaign at the moment with several trains emblazoned their whole length with the tagline "Practise courtesy for a pleasant journey". It would appear courtesy is strictly relative.

Monday, 26 November 2007

God's Birthday

Not the God, but a God. The local temple held their (apparently annual) God's birthday party last night in a huge marquee on the field. The scale is impressive - a metal frame about 80m long and 30m wide plus 3 side tents for the catering, all floored with boards and fitted with lights, ceiling fans, portable toilets, a generator, stage, red carpet down the middle and TV projection screens for the video feed. Round tables, each with 10 chairs arranged in rows A - W, about 250 tables in all.

As I understand it, it's a fundraiser for the temple, so you buy table and then get to bid on auctioned items such as small table altars for $1000. I think they were a bit late getting ready as they worked until 5am Saturday on the tent, but they'll tear it down in 2 days.

This year's event seemed a little lower key that last year which featured a proper Lion Dance, complete with papier mache head, 20m body and man holding a pearl on a stick. This year, it was 10 guys in yellow and orange polyester jump suits with balloons and tinsel.

The surreal touch was provided by a funeral wake being held in the void deck just opposite the marquee entrance. A Christian affair for a Madam Woo, is observing 2 nights of services (Sun, Mon) followed by a service and funeral on Tues. Stood between the 2 events, I experienced the dragon dancers playing a big drum with 2 cymbals on asynchronous accompaniment, the compere shouting Hokkien into the PA about the next auction and the mourners giving a decent rendition of What a Friend we have in Jesus. You can't make this stuff up.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Vehicle Pax Disc

It seems more like a scene from the US-Mexico border: open, flat-bed trucks with working guys all sat on construction materials, tools and machines being driven around between dormitories and construction sites. Yet this is a common sight in Singapore. Not only common but legal and regulated.

Commercial vehicles are marked up with a black and white sticker showing the maximum number of passengers permitted to be carried. This ranges from 3-pax in a little Renault Kangoo van up to 43-pax for a long, flat-bed truck. They sit there, unprotected from sun, rain or accident. The number seems to roughly equate to "how many people can squat in this space?". There are no seatbelts, handles or any concessions to safety. And it's not just open trucks, closed-sided vans are used as well, and because of the heat, they tend to crack open the side loading doors.

The contrast between cars with mandatory seatbelt requirements and a bunch of guys sat on power tools is extreme. But it's just another pragmatic compromise. Singapore benchmarks itself against developed nations for economic strength, legal framework and to some extent, social issues. But mandating local companies to provide buses or mini-buses to transport workers would be an intolerable financial burden in a country where manual labourers are hired cheaply and vehicles are very expensive. Hence the compromise to maintain reasonable parity with neighbouring economies by trading worker's safety and ethical superiority.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Benign Autocracy

The preparation for the HDB upgrade continues. In the last week, they have diverted the SingTel (phone, broadband) and StarHub (cable TV and broadband) services, both requiring trenching work. [Side note, StarHub forewarned that the broadband might be out for the whole day Friday for re-wiring but I'm pretty sure it wasn't out at all.] When they laid cable TV services in England, there were "mole tracks" along pavements for the next decade where they laid the ducts. And you know, no matter how hard they try, it never ends up exactly level.

Today, a work gang turn up with a fancy German tarmac lathe and a Bobcat sweeper to rip off the top inch off half the car park and relay it with fresh tarmac. They'll need to come back and re-paint he parking space numbers and double yellow lines but otherwise it's as new. Bear in mind, in a couple of months when the lift-shaft works start, that whole area will be a building site.

To put this in perspective, my road back in England is a lunar landscape of mole tracks and repairs. In fact, the local council cheerfully admit they have a policy of patching reported potholes within days as it's an electorate satisfier, but a proper re-laying of the whole road is "off budget".

When I mention Singapore to people they usually end up talking about either the "ban on chewing gum" (it's not banned) or that "the place is nice but a bit controlling". Well, I hate chewing gum and am starting to think a strong anti-social behavior ticket and a commitment to public infrastructure investment is a good thing. I'm confused as to where that appears on the political left-right scale but then benign autocracy is a broad church.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Bend over to Pay

Starhub (a cable and mobile operator) has joined up with EZlink for a mobile payment scheme where you can use a special mobile phone (with a near field communications - NFC) chip to pay at trains, buses, libraries, and so on. SingTel is working on a similar trial with slightly different technology but same result.

I see a problem - it's a 'near field' system; you have to touch the phone to the reader, say at a bus exit door, on a station turnstile or on a counter top. How are you going to do this while using the phone?

I foresee comical gymnastics at MRT turnstiles and buses as people nod down with their heads to pay while talking, trying to look out of the corner of their eyes to check the display.

Of course, many people have the dreaded hands free style where people hold their phones near their heads and talk in a semi-handsfree mode. If you've ever been on the receiving end of this style you would have wondered why the caller always seemed to be standing on a busy railway platform, such is the background noise. Or maybe it will trigger greater use of those farcical Bluetooth wireless headsets (a la Nathan Barley). Whatever, it should be fun to watch.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Two Stories

1. The new Airbus A380 started service with Singapore airlines a couple of weeks ago and was an instant hit. People took their kids to Changi airport to watch it fly as if it was the Great Exhibition of 1851. As you know, it's big (compared to a 747, it's wider & taller but shorter) and the plush upper deck has separate, twin "cabins" with seats than become effectively a double bed. And many people have had the same thought, prompting the airline to issue a request that passengers behave only in a way that respects other passengers and aircrew.

As one couple interviewed after its maiden flight to Sydney, pointed out

... they make it romantic and ply you champagne, everything in fact except serve oysters. What do they expect?

2. The Malaysian ruling party, UMNO, is having their conference at the moment (imagine a 1970's labour conference in Blackpool but with more hats). One of the delegates who spoke during the debate on religion (!) was Madam Zaleha Hussin, a representative from Kelantan, who complained about the uniforms of AirAsia's (local budget airline) stewardesses. She was unhappy that they wore fitting skirts that ended slightly above the knee.

"They expose their calves, thighs and knees".

The UMNO assembly speaker, Badruddin Amiruddin went further to say that "the skirts were too short and exposed women's private parts".

Friday, 9 November 2007

Passive Aggressive Littering

You know how you read something and start punching the air "yes, yes, yes", not so much because of a new insight but because you suddenly realise someone else has the same frustrations as yourself? For me, this occurred when I read, a site dedicated to notes, signs and e-mails written in the passive aggressive style, usually about annoyances or asking people to stop doing things.

The one about cat fur posted in the letterbox hits home:

“okay, so i’m not sure if i’m in the wrong on this one,” says melanie from sydney. “i have a long haired cat who sheds a lot, so i just used to pick up the bits of fur and throw them out the window. i’m on the third floor and look out over the street, so i didn’t think it would upset anyone. but then i found this clump of cat fur in my Mailbox.”

This story is great on so many levels. There's the obsessive collection of a few hairs each day over weeks. The voyeurism of waiting for the falling fluff. The implied threat with shades of Fatal Attraction and bunny boiling.

For devotees of the obsessive genre, they also point out other sites dedicated to singular abuses of the word literally, apostrophes and quotation marks, to which I would add the work of Lynne Truss.

This week my local council sent a letter to each flat (must be important, normally they just post up a single copy on the notice board). Subject: LITTERING.

We have received feedback that some residents are throwing CIGARETTE BUTTS, UNWANTED FOOD, TISSUE PAPERS, etc out from their windows. Some of them are also littering the common corridors, staircases and open spaces.

Town Council takes a serious view of their irresponsible act and would like to appeal to all residents to immediately stop littering at the common areas, especially throwing litter out from the windows.

We wish to remind you that it is an offence under the town council by-law (COMMON PROPERTY AND OPEN SPACE) to litter the common areas.

I could rat out the guy opposite with the purple windows who smokes by leaning out of the window then flicking the butt down onto the grass, or the people above me who throw tissues out, but they didn't mention the Q-Tips. One narrowly missed me as I was walking in front of some flats a little while back and there was one in the lift the other day. What do you do with a Q-Tip in a lift? I used to use them to clean the heads of cassette players with denatured alcohol, and now I clear my ears with them, but neither activity has ever occurred in a lift. I feel a letter coming on...

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Deepavali & Cheap Laptops

Today is a Singapore public holiday for the Hindu festival of Deepavali, or Divali. Known in the West as the festival of light, Indians put up fairy lights on balconies and will be letting off fireworks and lighting sparklers when it goes dark.

It's another one of those discriminatory religious things at work:

Where exigencies of service permit, Hindu staff are allowed a half-day time-off on the eve of Deepavali. Annual leave taken on this day will be regarded as a full day leave.

Apparently, the Little India district will be all lit up with fire-walking ceremonies which I'll try to go to if I have time. It's crowded at the best of times but it's only a block down from Sim Lim Square (building full of consumer electronics) and the food is just heaven sent.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Hawker Centres and the Five Foot Way

Food Courts are the very heart of Singapore culture, representing their love of food, entrepreneurship and community cohesion. The history is a little more mundane. In the early days of Singapore, traders and hawkers routinely set up their stalls along the edge of the road in front of shops. Unregulated, the pavements were becoming clogged with stalls, stock, customers and traders. Sir Stamford Raffles mandated a minimum of 5 feet of clear space in front of shops, creating a "five foot way". The cries of complaint (riots) from hawkers who were pushed off their pavement space was met with the creation of "hawker centres", areas typically on street corners where traders could legally setup and operate. Thus the modern, covered hawker centre is a fixture of the Singapore street scene.

Hawker centres have a complex culture of their own and are not easily described. There are folk stories of hawker millionaires driving around in Rolls Royces collecting rents, and there is the rub. Sure, if you own 20 hawker centers, you can be a millionaire, but the average stall is rented for a few thousand dollars a month and run by people working 12+ hours a day for, say, 1 - 2 thousand a month take home.

Usually, there is an anchor tenant for the center who then sub-lets the individual stalls, arranges the common facilities (table cleaners, washers, trash) and does the advertising and promotions. They usually take the best stall, say the drinks concession in the corner but still, they are bearing much financial risk. They have to keep it popular, clean, safe and manage the sub-lets which turnover regularly, partly because the margins are so low. Even if they do this well, they are at the mercy of the weather (rain discourages walking out), local companies especially manufacturing with cyclical hiring and firing and even local parking or roadworks.

The curious facet for Westerns used to shopping malls with their carefully arranged McDonalds and Burger Kings is that stall owners work much more cooperatively with little overt competitive marketing. The dynamic here is that it is better for the whole center to succeed than for one stall to gain a slight advantage over their neighbours. An 'all ships rise on the tide' mentality.

Promotions can be flyers, new shop signs or even running a free bus around the local area to pick people up from companies during lunchtime. Fridays are probably the quietest days, with the busy hour between 11:45 - 1:15.

Life in a food court starts early with the breakfast crowd then stall owners preparing food for the lunchtime rush. This could be cutting up a bucket of chillies (why don't you just use a Moullinex blender?), making won-tons or cooking fish heads. It's all in the open - the granny cutting chillies will just use the nearest customer table.

One presumes that the signs over the shops are there for marketing purposes but their effectiveness is an open question, viz:

  • 6006 Claypot Delights
  • Feng Sheng Economic Rice
  • Wonder Cooking Home Kitchen
  • Soon Lee Pork Porridge / Macaroni

No matter, every Singapore has their favourite stalls and they will happily regale you with recommendations. Really famous stalls are sometimes notable for their bolshy owners who, for example, will only serve people sat at the few tables nearest their stall. I think this primadonna attitude is secretly admired and aspired to by Singaporeans.

I find myself entirely at home in food courts now but to Western visitors they are a daunting prospect. The shop signs are a rough guide only (remarkably, even if you read Chinese), you wander off and order your own food and usually it's "Self Service" meaning you pay at the stall and carry back to your table. Drinks are bought from another stall although there is usually a wandering drinks waiter, especially if they can sell a beer (good markup). You need to bring your own tissues as napkins and when you're done, just walk away and the table cleaner will collect, wash and sort the cutlery for return to the right stall (they all use different colour plastic bowls and trays). This habit of just walking away is pervasive and they look at you funny if you clear your own table in McDonalds. Plus making a complete pig sty of the table with chicken bones or anything else just discarded on the table is Okay in Chinese culture. It honours the Table God apparently. Yah.

Friday, 2 November 2007


I was vaguely wondering what Halloween would be like in Singapore. We already know the Chinese like communicating with their ghosts so one might expect some decent, cross-cultural bleed over. (They like setting fires as well so we'll see what Guy Fawkes night brings).

In retrospect, nothing happened. I have a flyer from the local shopping center which had Halloween Treats and the usual Lucky Draw but apart from the pumpkin jack-o-lanterns and bat silhouette theme, there was precious little actual ghost activity.

No trick or treating either, although I did have a lanky young lad wander up and ask me if I had StarHub cable TV "because I'm from StarHub and they are doing a deal at the moment". You have to imagine a school kid in jeans and a T-shirt wandering the hallways with his mate claiming to represent the major cable TV, broadband and mobile phone operator. Word has probably got out that there's a tough ang mo customer in this block and not wishing to disappoint:

Me: "You are from StarHub?!"

Sticking to his story he continued his sales pitch: "Do you have cable TV?"

"I don't watch television"

(stunned pause, but recovering well) "What about your family?"

"We don't watch television"

"Uh ... err .... but StarHub .... oh err ... right thanks"

The only reason he came over was that his mate had a phone call and was sat on the stairs, announcing his private life to the world. I'm trying to get used to this but conversations, meetings and even full on sales pitches are just awkward interruptions to the endless stream of mobile phone calls that obviously make Singaporean's lives so rich and fulfilling.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

New and Improved

My HDB block has been accepted for upgrade which means new lifts and covered walkways. There are currently 2 lifts inside the block serving ground, 5th, 9th and 12th floors. A new lift tower will be added to the outside (joining the external corridor on each floor), then they will upgrade one of the existing internal lifts and close the other one down. So still 2 lifts but both will stop an every floor.

It's the new, external lift tower that's the big job. It requires piling for foundations, then it's a stack of pre-cast concrete "U" shapes all the way up, then minor work at the base (the skirt, drains, tiling, and the power feeds).

The main lift work is scheduled for Dec07, and in preparation, they've started the service diversions; any underground pipes or drains where the new lift will be need to be moved. There's a nice note from the council warning of the disruption (noise from the machinery, concrete breakers, etc). The (Indian) contractors do a tidy job and it's only the noise that is sometimes bothersome.

The new lifts are nice, plus all have internal and external CCTV with a monitor outside at the ground level. One might imagine it's to spot homicidal maniacs from leaping out at you unawares, but more likely to discourage smoking, littering and peeing in the nice new lift. I've no idea if the CCTV feed is recorded but it doesn't make much sense if it's not. I expect there's hours of footage of Singaporeans madly pressing door-open and door-close buttons. Riveting stuff.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Fogging Redux

I realise I may have left regular readers wondering how many 'roaches made it into my kitchen as a temporary respite from the insecticidal fogging of the garbage chute last week:

  • Roaches: 1
  • Other small insects: 3

All of which were in that dazed, running around in a circle state that drugged up insects get (fair enough, 6 legs is a lot to manage when drunk). I squished the 'roach and next time I came through to check, the ants had found it and were trying to live until Christmas on the fallen bonanza.

You are supposed to tape up the chute so they can't get in but life's too short and I don't have any tape. I think my chute cover is an original from the flat's construction. I regularly get door-to-door salesmen trying to sell stainless steel upgrades which look pretty swanky and are probably insect proof, but it's a rented flat and the chute cover is built-in into a cupboard so visual appearance is not a concern. Anyway look at the "My Family and other Animals" type of fun I would be missing.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Hit The Bun

Singapore is one of the premier take-away food capitals of the world. For example, take the humble Otah (local name for Otak-otak), a regional speciality of mixed fish paste (usually mackerel) and spices, wrapped in a banana leaf and either grilled or steamed. There's variations using shrimp, cuttlefish or chicken. I don't especially like it as it's fiddly to eat and insubstantial but it's common to get some to add to a meal or as a snack. Yet this relatively minor dish has its own otah takeaway website.

There are the main food chains, McDonalds obviously and pizzas both of which follow the Western-style take-away scheme of drive-throughs and home delivery by suicidal moped rider. Staff are cheap and plentiful in Singapore so having 2 or 3 delivery guys on duty at a little McDonalds is feasible.

Having said all that, most take-aways are a "da bao" from a local shop. There is an online delivery service called DaBao, but in conversation, da bao will always be understood to mean going out yourself. Da bao is literally "hit the bread", or perhaps "strike the bun" for reasons I've never been able to fathom. Now we are talking rice (plain, sticky, fried), noodles (plain, egg, salty, thin, flat), satay+sauce (may need to be pre-ordered), rice porridge (plain, fish, meat), dim sum, bao (buns, either sweet or savoury), rojak (indian, chinese), glutinous rice in banana leaf (yummy with chestnuts), beancurd/tofu (plain, sweet, fried, egg, spicy), yam cake (plain, carrot, fried), perhaps steamboat or a clay pot stew, and so on.

I can have a sit down, Indian-style rojak for 2 people for about SG$4.50 (<£2). It's cheaper and much easier than shopping, cooking and washing up. Adding a big bottle of local beer (Tiger, Heineken) would be an additional SG$5.20 (£1.75) which seems poor value in comparison. Might as da bao, walk 1min back to the flat and pull a beer from the fridge.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Giant Solar Plant

Oh the vicarious joy of bad headlines (S'pore trumps 200 locations to seal deal for giant solar plant). What they are actually doing is building a new (~£2b) factory to produce photo-voltaic silicon wafers. For export.

So this is not a story about huge vegetables or even a positive environmental tale, something Singapore could do with as it has significantly higher per-capita, energy consumption when bench marked against similarly developed countries (hint: it's the air conditioning).

This is a good news business story as they beat out "more than 200 locations in 18 countries" and even though they were uncompetitive for land, electricity and labour costs, they were selected for economic security and political stability (plus an assumed dollop of incentives from the Economic Development Board). Which about sums up Singapore's whole foreign policy.

See if you can match the neighbouring countries against these descriptions:

  • military coup, corruption
  • institutionalised racism, corruption
  • religious fundamentalism, terrorism, corruption
  • single party state, corruption
  • basket case

The new factory's parent company is Norwegian. It's a no brainer.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Unionised Canned Peas

In Singapore, canned vegetables are unionised. The biggest (and hence dominant) supermarket chain is NTUC Fairprice, owned as a cooperative by NTUC. As a union, you can join and get benefits, mainly a loyalty card which returns a dividend as an annual cash back based on your spending. I have the card but I think I'm not spending enough to make it pay.

Fairprice is pretty good I suppose (I can't get exciting about a supermarket); it's open 8am-10pm daily and prices are low. Occasionally there is something available for much less elsewhere. I am still stinging from noticing that a can of mushrooms was on sale at "The Cheapest Supermarket in Singapore" (Yes, that's its name) for much less that at Fairprice. The flip side to their Tesco-like dominance of the local market is they control so much of what consumers see on shelves. If they remove a product line from their inventory, it virtually disappears from sale, so the potential for supplier bullying is considerable.

What they do well is provide the basics for living in Singapore. There's a whole aisle of rice, but no olives. A full wet market, fish, live crabs and sometimes 'field chickens' (frogs) but no lobster. Bread is the soft, white kind, with many variations of "bread with something sugary" inside. You can buy a rice cooker (£10), a wheelchair or a lottery ticket (30mins queue at the weekends). There's an aisle of drinks, but only 1 brand of diet pop (Diet Pepsi). Instant noodles differentiate themselves by the flavoured soups and whether they are MSG-free.

My favourite stock item is the twin pack of 15W red bulbs for Chinese God's tables (they're called Chilly Bulbs in case you needed to ask for some).

Friday, 26 October 2007

Excuse me, are you Muslim?

If you are bored in Singapore, just leave your front door open. I'm sat reading the paper and a polite, well spoken chap pokes his head in and and asks if I am Muslim. Racially, I'd guess he was Malay, but don't quote me - I not great at splitting Malay, Indonesian and Indian/Lankan.

I rather queered the pitch with my "I'm sorry?!", he repeated the question and apologised for intruding but my "Why do you want to know?" was enough to trigger his graceful exit.

I read a few weeks back about an English family that moved from Singapore to KL. Predictably, they were extolling the cheap housing, open spaces and laid back lifestyle. Lower salaries were acknowledged but the fun started when they moved into their house. Like all Malaysian houses, every window has grills or bars for security. Pah! says the Brit, "get them off, I don't want to live in a gage". Their first burglary was 3 nights later. Mind you, that's a story that writes itself. Note, while it might have been his Malay neighbours, I hear that the locals always blame foreigners (code for Indonesians) for the persistently high burglary rate.

The better part of his KL move was that a few days after moving in, he was visited by the religious police. Three polite and well-dressed guys turn up and an inquire whether this is a Muslim household. Apparently, they are looking for unmarried Malay couples or other such improper domestic arrangements. Such poking around by "mosque-affiliates" is illegal, but is tacitly tolerated and anyway, they were just saying Hello to the new neighbours, right?

So the poor chap who visited me may have been looking for a handout, checking my 'domestic' arrangements or just visiting his neighbours to wish them well. Who knows but I'm kicking myself for not finding out.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Tip of the Day

What you need to appreciate is that Singapore has official and unofficial recycling systems. The official one is as one would expect of a socially responsible administration. There are re-cycling points with bins for paper, glass and plastic, but I've only seen them in tourist spots like Orchard Road and a couple of MRT stations. There's stuff in them so it works to some extent at least but I get a whiff of propaganda over substance given the vast majority of rubbish is thrown anonymously down HDB chutes with no recycling applied.

Singapore is average when it comes to wasteful packaging. Extra wrappings would add cost but there is still a huge, unending mass of plastic bags, Styrofoam and bamboo chopsticks used by shops and stalls. Everything gets a cheap plastic bag, often of a dull red (possibly recycled) plastic that is such a characteristic sight it's iconic.

Supermarket shopping is a mixed bag, as it were. Some people use little trolleys like my grandmother used, but then just use it to carry their plastic bags. Because most people will be walking home, bags need to last a 10-15min walk so anything heavy is doubled-bagged. Anything cold/frozen must be separated, so another bag. Newspaper? - another bag. Smelly fish? - another bag.

NTUC have bag-less Wednesdays, which means unprepared people like me have to put 5cents into the charity jar. Given I use the shopping bags as garbage bags at home (you need lots of small, daily bags as you can't keep waste food overnight (ants) and the chute opening is small), the scheme develops an equilibrium.

The council now has re-cycling dumpsters at some of the void decks. It is supposed to be for cardboard, paper, plastic, glass, clothes, toys, books, and so on. What actually happens is people leave all sorts of junk in and around the dumpster, and the old ladies who earn some pennies sorting trash go through it hoiking out the cardboard and aluminium cans (30p for ~65 cans), plus anything else valuable. The trouble is they are pretty focused, and if there is a cardboard box full of junk, they'll just tip out the contents to get the box.

Some re-cycling is done direct from your door. During the day, guys go around every floor buying stacks of old newspapers (60p for a 1m high pile) and collecting old electric items to be stripped for copper and other metals.

The best sort of re-cycling is reuse, and here the ad hoc system works well. Just leave anything you don't want (old sofa, bed, furniture, toys, books) at the void deck, usually on a Sunday, and it's finders-keepers.

Judging by effectiveness, the half-hearted official programme compares unfavourably versus the scavenging locals who do a better job of re-using, sorting and recovering materials at lower financial and energy cost although I acknowledge that without the Indian cleaning guys to tidy up every day, the place would look like the municipal tip.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Void Deck Critters

If Singapore is a concrete jungle, then the HDB void decks are the leaf litter, containing a myriad of non-human life.

Cockroaches and mosquitoes are the main insect pests which are kept in check by regular insecticidal fogging, focusing on the garbage chutes and drains respectively. I'm no 'roach expert but here they seem torpid and slow moving. Even a lively one is easy to catch and squish. Tomorrow is fogging day and I'm supposed to tape up around the garbage chute to stop the 'roaches from escaping the insecticide. I've never bothered or have forgotten up till now and the worst that seems to happen is to find a dead/dying 'roach on the kitchen floor. There was one that managed to crawl as far as the living room before succumbing. Tough bugger.

There are lots of owned and stray cats, mostly with partially docked tails (not sure why). They are conspicuously un-neutered and a merry courting dance is a daily affair. I don't know that anyone is doing anything about this but we are far from over-run. It's fun to see them walking along in the drain gullies with just a pair of ears visible. Most are wary of humans but will readily approach a friendly call, and continue on their daily search for food when they ascertain you are offering none. Some idiot dog owners let their dogs chase cats but it's mostly harmless and cats can duck down into the surface drains and either wait or pop up yards away out of another drain.

Cats with permanent hosts may never leave their flats or its immediate environs. My near neighbour's cat stays within 10yds of the front door, hiding behind plant pots to avoid kids and bikes on the landing. The poor animal is tortured because it lives next to the lifts so when he hears the doors open, he doesn't know whether the incomer is friend or foe. Lonely, neurotic and armed with claws. A potent combination.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Right Leg Ringxiety

Singapore has a modern mobile phone culture and I carrying mine pretty much 100%. I've adopted what Nokia's user survey identified as the middle-aged, male, mobile-on-belt style with the phone set to vibrate and ring. [The survey also found that most women put their mobile in their handbag (us: purse), and missed 50% of calls]. Devotees of this phone-on-the-belt style suffer phantom vibrations that you think are the phone. Indeed, some suffers of this ringxiety syndrome have reported this when they are not even wearing the phone, like an amputee's ghost limb.

On the one hand I'm glad it's not just me, but probably gastric movement or femoral blood flow. My new found journalistic drive is a bit annoyed that I didn't write about it earlier as now it looks like a "me too" article. But it got me wondering that if a vibrating phone can cause you to become aware of such background body signals, what else could we wear to make us more self-aware?

It seems logical that a passive object wouldn't work. A ring doesn't make you think about marriage all the time. I imagine a cross hung around the neck doesn't induce spiritual thoughts. Glasses don't make you think about your eyes. We blank these passive objects out of our conscious thoughts as they fade into the backdrop of our senses. The brain is wired to look for differences, for novelty. It begs the question, would a placebo heart pacemaker work as a device to focus our attention after we were trained to worry about it's alarms?

Friday, 19 October 2007

Perfect Weather for Brits

Singapore's climate is pretty dull by English standards; being just 1deg North of the equator means it's 'hot' (28 - 32C) most of the time with a rainy season from December through March, or thereabouts. December can be cool and it's odd to be reaching for a t-shirt against the on-shore breeze. September through November has afternoon thunder storms which are terrifically dramatic, but pass through within an hour.

The Singapore National Environment Agency has an info sheet on lightning, and we average 171 thunderstorm days, mainly between 2pm and 6pm. That's a lot, and there are many ground strikes, but few people injured as people take cover and buildings with their lightning strips and rods provide good protection.

All this makes it perfect for English expatriates. Imagine getting up on an August morning and it's already a little warm, the sun puts some heat on the face and the blue sky promises a cracking day. Thoughts drift to a pub lunch and sitting out in the beer garden. That's Singapore. Without the pubs.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Guess What I'm Pointing At

Number #2 on a list of 10 travel faux pas is to pat someone on the head in Thailand; it's a Buddhist taboo where the head is considered to be sacred, the seat of the soul. Not one I'm likely to be troubled by but carrying on the same theme, and abandoning the numbered list format, it warned about pointing with a finger in Malaysia. You notice this as they sort of close their fist but leave a little bit of the thumb sticking up. A bit like Bob Dole when he was campaigning for the presidency before he lost badly to Clinton.

At least this gesture works because the fist and vestigial thumb are at the end of an arm which has of the directional effect. The article continued with the Filipinos' habit of "shifting their eyes or pursing their lips and pointing with their mouth". And I thought they just fancied me.

My contribution would have been self delusional Asians who point with their noses, or more precisely, their nostrils. The action is to tilt the head back slightly and then jut forward with the neck. Using a gesture, while no doubt suitable for Romans, but adopted by people whose noses can hardly hold a pair of eye glasses is a cultural miss and makes "looking with the eyes" seem inspired.

Turks use a similar nose up gesture (imagine a kind of mildly disgusted tut) as a way of indicating "No". The Japanese apparently say "Yes" but mean "maybe, probably not". The French say "Non" just to be awkward. Working at the United Nations must be an absolute riot.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Hokkien is Chinese for Yiddish

Yiddish has given the English language some great words. Who hasn't admired someone's chutzpah, been called a klutz, kvetched about work, aspired to be a mensch or watched a schmaltzy movie? We sprinkle our thoughts with these strange words whatever our religious persuasion, partly because of their evocative, onomatopoeic charm and sometimes they are just the bon mot.

Singaporeans use Hokkien in the same way, as raisins in a linguistic scone. And there is a saying that the 5 'k's define the Hokkien character:

  1. Kiasu: afraid of losing, being beaten
  2. Kiasi: afraid of dying
  3. Kiabo: afraid of having nothing
  4. Kiabor: afraid of the wife
  5. Kia Chenghu: afraid of the government

There's a couple of others that spring up. Kaygao means to be very calculative, scheming, Ke kiang means trying to be smart while Kiamsap means stingy.

I am bemused by the tension between kiasu and kiasi when applied to stocks and investments. They correspond to bull and bear sentiments and for a Hokkien holding stock, it must be a sort of personal hell trying to avoid either losing out or losing the lot. Oy vey!

Monday, 15 October 2007

Day of Celebration, Let's Eat

Saturday was the public holiday marking the end of Ramadan, called locally Hari Raya. I know what you're thinking: do I get a workday off in lieu? Yes, to be taken anytime in the next month but if I was Muslim, I'd have got Friday afternoon off as well. The Lord giveth and he taketh away.

Hari Raya (it's Malay for "Day of Celebration") is super simple. You go home and have a family party. I knew this was coming actually as I was in the baking ingredients shop at Sembawang station a couple of weeks ago (buying bread flour) and the place was packed with Malays buying cake mixture, blocks of lard and arguing the finer points of single versus double chocolate chips.

Sunday was visiting day with everyone in their best clothing. Mothers desperately trying keep the hats on boisterous boys and young ladies checking the line of their new outfits. I met one such visiting party waiting to make their way up to the 12th floor. As I descended, I could hear the clamour getting louder and the lift doors opened to a wall of bright silk & batik. I slightly wish I hadn't been holding an empty wine bottle at the time as the Westerners' reputation for alcoholic obsession needs no reinforcement by me. Recycling can be a socially thankless task.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Coffee please, and hold the ants

They mean no harm, but they are starting to bug me. I've dubbed them micro-ants since their primary distinguishing attribute is their small size. They live in the kitchen somewhere; everywhere in fact there is a fallen crumb, uncovered food or an open garbage bag.

Blind and using a complex communication mechanism seemingly based on waggling their antennae, they scour the work tops and mobilise the cavalry for significant booty. Scouts are seen everywhere, walking under the keys of my keyboard, around the sink, along the window sills.

If scientists are to be believed, Darwinism can evolve very quickly to produce environmental adaptation. In which case, my ants are bucking the trend somewhat: they like the kettle. You and I can see the downside of this attraction pretty quickly. I end up cooking a few every time I make a hot drink. The good news is that boiled ants float, so converting a con leggy back into a con latte merely involves a pre-flight check and asbestos finger tips. It makes you wonder what Starbucks is hiding under the frothy tops of their drinks.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Singapore Confidential

I have the whole of Singapore visible, exposed and revealed right outside my window. Its inner secrets, its unspoken desires and aspirations, its sheer ordinariness. HDB blocks are dense, urban flats; 12 - 16 floors of cookie-cutter housing with walls of windows facing each other.

The Heartland.

It's inevitable that you get to know your neighbours really well. Not well enough to know their names or even recognise them on the street, I mean really well, like what colour shorts he wears around the house (beige) and when he does his ironing (Sunday, 5pm). It's enforced voyeurism. Like Rear Window without the optical assistance or dead body.

My fellow-travellers include the Indonesian construction worker on the unfurnished 12th floor who is rarely in and empties whole ashtrays out of the window. The Singaporean mom cornering her son in the second bedroom threatening to hit him with a cane if he doesn't study harder. The nicely decorated (carpeted) 4th floor flat with a huge, white-covered reclining chair in front of the big TV and the work laptop abandoned at the dining room table. The Filipino maid working a constant cycle of washing, hanging up, ironing and folding. The quiet family with the God's table permanently aglow with 2 red bulbs that look like the eyes of a slumbering demon at a bleary 5:30am. Lap dogs following their owners around hoping to be let downstairs so they can chase a stray cat down a drain culvert. Kids screaming until their throat hurts more than the lack of an ice lolly. And below, maids washing their master's car of the city's dust, tired workers slumping their way home, reckless pizza delivery bikes banking around the corners, taxis dropping fares and going on shift, mad joggers and embarrassed husbands with pampered dogs on long leads.

I know these people. Men comfortable, wearing just a pair of shorts and a paunch. Women solving domestic chores in a t-shirt reduced to an grey, non-colour by constant washing. Kids bouncing off soft furnishings. Teenage daughters talking for hours with the boyfriend at the window.

And last but not least, the hairy ang mo watching and typing.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Wealth, Health, then Accessibility

My new theory of economics is that you can judge the state of a nation's development by its pavements. Based on a single observation, I have crafted this theory in the grand tradition of unitary datum point analysis.

It goes like this: First there are no pavements (you can just use the road), then pavements are added for convenience, then they are neglected in favour of cars, then they have a renaisance in the age of the health concious (joggers), climate concious (walk, cycle), commericially conscious (pedestrianised high streets) and then the socially concious with the installation of dropped kerbs for wheelchairs. The final, crowning glory stage is the addition of tactile inserts (knobbly tiles) for the blind or partially sighted to help feel the edges of roads.

Singapore is in the middle of a project to retrofit these inserts into every pavement / drop kerb. To improve accessibility generally, they are also upgrading civic center shopping areas with wheelchair ramps. I'm not complaining, there is the odd wheelchair user, but I've never seen a blind/partially sighted person on a pavement so the effective value is pretty low. Which is why, of course, it's at the end of the development cycle, when all the really useful stuff has already been done.

We now have a development model for national development which we can use for national comprison. I'm putting Malaysia (for example) about 20 - 25 years behind Singapore on this scale.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Singapore Rock & Roll

Two earthquakes in two days (closer to 2 in 10 hours) makes you think, or at least wobble on your chair. If I was closer than the +700km of these two, I'd be more concerned. Having lived in Japan induces a familiarity and hence lack of concern, although if I thought about it, I would say I am more confident of Japanese building design & construction.

The first one was around 9:10pm and induced a slow, gentle swaying to my chair for what must have been 30 - 40secs. The second at 7:10 the following morning was a repeat and at 7.8 and 8.4 on Mr. Richter's fun scale, they are impressive expressions of natural energy for the distant observer. An R8.0 quake is rated as a Gigaton of TNT equivalent which sounds impressed but rather glosses over facts like the quake was 30km underground. And it's a log scale so R8.5 is a lot bigger than R8.0 and R12 means the earth cleaves in two.

And that's it. No more drama, no damaged buildings or injuries. The office facilities dept. sent around an e-mail confirming all was well, that "Singaporean buildings are built to withstand earth tremors" and offered helpful advice in such circumstances, including the ill-phrased "buildings are not normally cleared to avoid causing panic but staff are free to auto evacuate".

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Budget, Low-cost or just Cheap?

I took a Tiger Airways flight the other week and therefore used Changi's Budget terminal for the first time. That's what it's called: "Budget". Getting there involved taking the bus to the main terminals then getting on a shuttle to the Budget terminal. If I'd know that's what it was, I could have saved myself 20mins by getting off the bus on the main airport access way and crossing the road to it.

It's a new (2006), purpose-built facility, but looks like a low, converted warehouse-cum-shed painted in bright yellow with the logo and tagline "Pocket the Difference" all over the place. "See the Difference" more like. The plaque says it was opened by the 2nd vice-minister for paperclips or something.

I think only Tiger Airways flies from there. Check-in was a 25min queue with the usual delays from people trying to check-in over-weight cases or trying to take over-large items as 'hand carry'. [BTW, I saw an extreme example of this recently at Heathrow with a couple trying to check-in 2 cases of 34 and 37Kgs. The legal maximum for a single item is 32Kgs (Health & Safety), so they had to remove 7kgs (while standing at check-in) just to get to legal, and would then still be 24Kgs over their ticket allocation.]

Departure lounge is Okay with a reasonable selection of food, drinks, dodgy souvenirs and a handy money exchange kiosk. Queuing at the gate, our documents were checked again by the same ladies from check-in and I wondered if they were the stewardesses as well (they weren't but it was shades of Bob Newhart's Grace L. Ferguson Airline & Storm Door Co.). It's a walk yourself to the plane job; no jetways. On-board, they spent 15mins going up and down the plane checking seat belts, electrical items (Airbus A310, so no phones, iPods, games etc), kids, tray tables, luggage etc. I haven't seen such dumbing down in cabin crew since I last flew on China Southern in the late 90's.

In-flight, everything costs extra (drinks, snacks) and officially they ban bringing your own on-board but it was a well ignored rule, not least by me.

The return is similar and the Duty Free shop in the luggage re-claim hall is really cheap (£6 for a litre of Gin!), so there's a huge queue being served by staff displaying a level of work disengagement normally reserved for Soviet cabbage farms.

The final security X-ray was the slightly apologetic affair that characterises Singaporean officials who know their processes inconvenience the many to catch the few. Apparently (given our port of embarkation) they were on the look out for illegal "snakes in liquor bottles". Being verifiably unencumbered by pickled reptiles, we were free to beat a hasty retreat from the yellow shed.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

China's Unsung Heroes

There are already 93 million Chinese called Wang and the number's growing (the top 10 Chinese surnames are Wang, Li, Zhang, Liu, Chen, Yang, Huang, Zhao, Zhou, Wu). The problem is that Chinese names are traditionally 3 characters, starting with the family name, then adding 2 personal names. The Chinese Government controls the choice by publishing a list of acceptable family names. The resulting surname (or as seen in a recent e-mail: "sir name") shortage is causing confusion apparently.

The ministry's suggested solution is to allow double-barreled combinations. China Daily gives the example of a baby whose dad's surname is Zhou, the mother's Zhu, and who could therefore be called Zhou, Zhu, Zhouzhu or Zhuzhou.

Note that wives usually retain their own name but children would take the father's. We can now play the I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue game where we announce the arrival of Mr. Ng and Mrs. Sung with their son Ng Sung He Ro.

You don't need double-barreled names to have problems. Everyone one I know here has problems with romanised Chinese names, most notably in e-mail where I hear daily Long/Leung/Leong or Chee/Chie/Chea debates amongst people of all levels of Mandarin fluency. Worse yet, a Mandarin Seng is a Hokkien Sing so people pronounce the same name according to their language bias.

As far as I know, my company's e-mail always uses the Mandarin romanisation but that just means they may be called something slightly different and you can't tell. A minor additional confusion is that Westerners are shown as "<first> <last>", but for some reason, Indians are added "<last> <middle>-<first>", leaving their given name in the wrong place unless they complain to the Admin and have it switched around. It's no wonder business cards are so important and exchanged with almost Japanese levels of reverence.

My chief gripe is with Chinese who take a Western name as well. While Mike Tan is easy, it may be used in addition like TAN Kuan-Hiat Mike. So he might be "Mike" at work, "Kuan-Hiat" elsewhere but you still need to be able to spell the whole thing for e-mail. It can occassionally be fun such as a lady I worked with a few years ago: Ms. Heidi Ho. Strangely, I've never forgotten her name.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

EQ & Employee Disengagement

I attended an in-house, company presentation entitled "Enhancing EQ" by an external HR consultant, ostensibly part of the company's EAP.

It wasn't a great presentation partly because the goal was to promote their business (rather than educate the audience) and partly because it's a huge topic. Having said that, I could summarize the 1 hour easily:

1. Obvious: We all have emotions / feelings.

2. Interesting: People have different emotions about the same event.

3. Crucial: Our sub-conscious plays a huge and often unappreciated role in our emotional responses.

Explaining #3 wasn't even attempted except via some trivial examples and given it is the main point, left me, and I suspect others, confused and unsatisfied. A double-whammy was that she managed to emphasise employee dissatisfaction without offering hope or remedy. At one point, when she asked what our emotional reaction to being fired would be, the room almost pulsed with a collective "woo hoo". D'oh!

This slow-motion train wreck of a presentation did contain one fascinating point, mentioned in passing, that a Gallup survey found Singaporean workers were amongst the worst for workplace disengagement. Now this needs investigating ...

The original Oct 2003 Gallup survey is for paid/registered users only.

The next best is a Singapore Commentator piece itself referring to a NY Times article (now unavailable) but adds some fascinating words on the Freudian psychology of bullying bosses (which is a topic all of its own).

Better, there is a Government reference in a speech by Ms Yong Ying-I, Permanent Secretary (Manpower) which is worth reading in its entirety, but for example, quoted:

... that Singaporean workers were among the least committed workers amongst the world's developed economies.
... some 12 % of Singapore's workers felt actively disengaged from their jobs. But this ISR survey goes further in concluding that the key driver for their lack of commitment was their disenchantment with corporate leadership

I liked the "we needed productive, disciplined workers" part. Disciplined? I think she was heading for "obedient" but missed for whatever reason.

Para #8 explicitly cites the danger of dissatisfied knowledge workers seeking employment overseas to find a conducive workplace. Ouch. This is dynamite stuff and very much on-message as far as I am concerned.

Para #16 lays into the school system, e.g.: "When the human spirit is dampened down, there can be no passion."

I give up on the excerpts; just read the whole thing. It's all true I tell you.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

My Ghost is Richer Than Yours

My neighbours are engaging in a one-upmanship contest to see who can burn the most paper Hell Money to enrich their ghost relatives in the afterlife. I'm awarding the current record to a bunch of guys who executed a lightning raid on Monday afternoon. They bought boxes and boxes of Hell Money and constructed a circular wall of paper wads about 1m high, over half a meter across like a fat oil drum. They then filled the middle with loose sheets before setting the whole thing on fire and retreating.

On one level it was quite impressive but I take issue with their chosen location - on the pavement next to the green area. The result was a mass of smouldering paper, loose sheets scattered across the grass and burnt grass and scorched trees. Even after the torrential rain all day Tuesday, the soggy mass was still warm. Morons. The maintenance guys cleaned up the mess quickly enough but that's not the point.

Such ad-hoc fires are illegal of course. There are brick incinerators between the flats and at this time of year, the council puts big metal cages on the grass field so fires can be lit safely, in a contained space. But it's technically a spiritual devotion so the authorities turn a blind eye and we have to tolerate the anti-social pyromania of the few.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Constant State of Suspicious Alertness

It's tough for the Singaporean Government to get the populace excited about terrorism. Basically, there isn't any. It's true that their political alliances with mainstream Western states might make them a soft target for Indonesian Muslim extremists - it just doesn't feel likely. Even the story of the local lawyer trying to go to a training camp in Pakistan was shocking as much for its strangeness than the threat.

So the problem facing the Government is how to create a constant state of suspicious alertness without actually alarming anyone. Their approach is one of straight shock-value.

For example, the extremely graphic videos shown on MRT platforms complete with a dodgy character leaving a bag on the train, getting off and then punching numbers into a mobile phone followed by an explosion superimposed over a train going into a tunnel. Then montages of the Madrid and London attacks. Really, it's X-rated stuff.

Signs around the MRT stations proudly proclaim the number of CCTV cameras in operation. Many stations have TVs at the turnstiles showing the CCTV feed (good for spotting receding hairlines). They've deployed retired Indian guys with clipboards at the turnstiles to question anyone coming though with bulky luggage. My security check proceeding like this when he approached mumbling something and gesturing at my pull-along suitcase:

Me: Sorry?
Man: Luggage?
Me: Yes, luggage
Man: Okay

I believe that's called passenger profiling. I suspect this form of awareness campaign has the unintended consequence of making Singaporeans more fearful of traveling (and working!) abroad. And that hurts the national business plan.

Monday, 20 August 2007

The Church of Tai Chi

My alarm is set for 06:30, but I know it's time to leave for work when I hear music from downstairs echoing around the concrete blocks like a cathedral choir. The local ladies congregate before 8am, stand around a ghettoblaster at the kiddies play equipment, limber up for a few minutes then, with varied levels of skill and enthusiasm, practice their tai chi exercises.

I say enthusiasm but it's pretty tame stuff - upper body and arms mainly, certainly no swords, lengths of silk, flying drop kicks or Jaws of the Tiger. They don't even stand with their knees off lock. If it's raining, they could easily move a few yards under the void deck and continue but invariably they just sit down for a chat.

One morning I walked past and a Jane Fonda workout tape was punching out a disco beat and instructions which meant the volume had to be kept down so as not to drown out the gossip. By 20 past 8, everyone's sat on the benches chatting or reading the paper. Which is all they wanted to do in the first place I reckon.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Die Hard in Singapore

I came home yesterday to an apocalyptic scene with groups of people setting fires around the base of my flats. It looked like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie with smoke drifting across the concrete landscape as if to try and hide the buildings from enemy fire. No one was being arrested or fined, each group quietly intent on their own conflagration. It's the middle of the eighth lunar month in the Chinese calender, so it's the start of the hungry ghost festival.

Hungry ghosts wander about causing trouble so earth-bound relatives keep them appeased with offerings. You need to burn Hell Money, joss-sticks & candles, and leave food offerings (usually a couple of oranges). It was nice to see some people actually using the provided BBQ-like braziers. It doesn't do anything for the smoke but there's less mess around the flats.

I'm going to have trouble with this if it goes on too long. I have a slight sore throat anyway (I'm bravely fighting off the major infection going around work) but even with my door closed, suffering in the resulting hot apartment, I went to bed with my eyes stinging from the smoke.

This morning, the Indian maintenance guys are doing their best to clear up but they don't interfere with anything still smoldering, and the remains of the wax candles are hard to clear. The joss-sticks are usually placed in threes with their bases stuck in the same spot so when they burn down to just the sticks, they look like the triggers of anti-personnel mines buried in the grass verges.

I haven't figured out the exact logic with respect to the ghosts. You don't get rid of rats by putting food out and I wonder if ghosts are really bothered by the smoke. I suppose quietly ignoring the ghosts is out of the question?

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Parades, Flags and Mobile Phones

Last Thursday, 9th August was Singapore National Day and hence a Public Holiday. With formal 'independence' from Malaysia in 1965, this is the 42nd annual celebration. The main event is the parade which even has it's own website using this year's tagline "City of Possibilities".

It's hard to judge the significance. There was a lot of civic decorations put up, bunting along the roads, billboards and posters. On the day itself, there were people dressing for the part with NDP t-shirts and washable tattoos of the national flag. At work, some people expressed pride and excitement, others just kept working. I didn't attend the parades and I don't watch TV but I could have seen a video-cast on my mobile phone or accessed webcams via the Internet.

The Prime Minister's speech seemed on-message and non-controversial citing prosperity, good governance and attention to social cohesiveness.

Most importantly, it taught me that Thursdays are the best choice for a Public Holiday. You get a short 3 day stint, a holiday, a dress-down, go-home-early Friday and then a weekend. Perfect.

Saturday, 11 August 2007


Singapore's population is a little over 4million, with somewhere over 2m as citizens. The difference is foreign workers, cleaners, maids, factory workers, programmers, and so on. Plus many daily commuters from across the straits in Johor Bahru, Malaysia.

This imported labour seemingly places Singapore at the top of the food chain for workers: they consume but no one consumes them. The Singapore lion king of the labour jungle. Certainly the labour and immigration ministries have big buildings processing hundreds of people daily through slick processes.

Or does it? There's a rumour that many Singaporean citizens are leaving for foreign jobs and livestyle, but it's hard to substantiate as it's a touchy subject.

I'm pretty sanguine about such expatriation as it's an inevitable coming-of-age for Singapore where the flow of talent becomes bidirectional. The Government probably views such emigration as apostacy, but it's just the force of osmosis - a difference of concentration across a permeable membrane causes an exchange of molecules.

I was introduced to a collegue at work and she asked about my circumstances in Singapore. I explained we came over here from England and quite by reflex, she just blurted out "Why?". I hear of colleagues trying to get jobs in England and I might ask the same question.

That's osmosis.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Accidental Re-cycling

Discarding things by throwing them out of the HDB window is a seductive habit. It starts innocently with some speck of fluff or a hair. Easier to just drop it out of the window than walk to a bin. No harm, no foul, right?. It might have been blown in from outside anyway. For me, it stops there, but I see others with fewer inhibitions.

First up are the smokers who can't be bothered to walk downstairs but don't want to smoke in their home, so end up stood by the window for 5 mins. No prizes for where the cigarette butt ends up. The ultimate of this is the chap who emptied his ashtray out of his 12th floor window, causing a confetti of ash and butts to float down.

There's a whole middle area of sweet wrappers, bits of food but the one that intrigues me are Q-Tips, you know, the double-ended cotton buds on a stick. They are the second most common item seen on the ground, indeed I was nearly hit by one but I can't figure out what they are being used for. It is personal hygiene or cleaning a mobile phone earpiece? It's proving tricky to find out.

Since most people have their living room windows open most of the time, I imagine those on lower floors are getting a raw deal here with junk thrown out above being blown or sucked back in. I've found thngs on my kitchen floor that I know are not mind so it's real scenario. If I then threw it out the window, the cycle could repeat. Litter that does reach the ground is swept up by the cleaning crew who are out by 6am but I wonder what is the record for the number of times it was thrown away?

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Random Sightings Around Town

Side of Jurong Marine ice delivery van: "Hotline: 6265 7337"

Side of van: "Killem Pest Pte Ltd"

Side of van: "More than just ship spares"

John Little dept. store selling Bum brand socks: "Bum Socks"

Car window sticker: "Bunnies are not toys"

Subway station: "Station monitored by over 40 cameras"

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Singapore is Middle Earth

J.R.R. Tolkein's Middle Earth is populated not so much by characters but races where each individual Orc, Elf, Dwarf, Troll or Human has the same morals and ethics. This makes it extremely easy to follow the stories as any character can be assessed by their race. There might have been an Elf who swore but she never survived the final draft.

Singapore relies on large numbers of foreign workers to operate. I don't mean foreign like me, I mean Indonesian and Filipino maids, Chinese construction workers, Indian maintenance guys, Malay factory workers, and so on. One sees guys on push bikes with a pair of large 10-gallon, ex-paint tubs on the handlebars washing cars in the HDB lots (one is soapy, one is for rinsing): all Indians. There are scavengers of the HDB rubbish collecting cardboard, electronics, metals and aluminium drink cans (going rate +60 cans for SG$1): all Chinese.

This suggests that not only are many jobs just not done by locals, but on the other axis, jobs divide into neat racial buckets. Maybe it's because people tend to hire in their own image? Maybe it's old-boys-networks? Traditional trades? Racial stereotyping? Or just a cognitive bias such as the Halo Effect causing me to reinforce an initial perception by rejecting non-fitting data. You tell me.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Singapore's Public Expression of Beauty

A number of conversations eventually converged to a question: "In what way does Singapore express beauty?. Let me tease this apart and see where we reach.

The first strand is the oft-quoted stereotype that Singapore is dull, controlled and staid. For a start, it depends what perspective you are coming from and what you are looking for but not finding. I'm in the "I know what you mean but I don't like the generalisation" camp. Foreigners tend to quote the bubble-gum ban and that there are lots of Do's and Don'ts. I would point out the relatively low crime level, lack of grafitti, obvious investment in infrastructure and excellent public services.

But we are looking for beauty, not neatness. What about high culture, The Arts? There are theatres, public galleries, museums and smaller boutique art galleries. There are music clubs and bars but I haven't seen much of an Indie scene, independent music festivals, concerts and the like. Perhaps Singapore's size can be cited here.

What I had in mind when I formed the query was how everyday people express themselves creatively. I'm thinking social activities, book clubs, dance lessons, gardening, music, DIY, customised cars, clothes, ...

I think this is where Singapore's neat and tidy public spaces start to have an effect. Blocks of flats don't allow a lot of scope for personalising the exterior spaces. Potted plants is about as far as most people get. Cars are expensive and mostly new (wrecks fail certification and the taxes means there are no cheap, old cars) so customisation is restricted to alloy wheels and stickers. Over 90% of people live in flats, so not much gardening. For the same reason, DIY is internal and limited: no patios, BBQs or conservatories here.

What about street art? There are some buskers, often disabled people playing an organ and selling tissues. I've never seen music students earning noodle money on the street, nor have I seen pavement chalk artists. Okay, bit of a blank there.

Keeping caged song birds is popular but that's a pastime, not a creative art. Same with the ladies practising Tai Chi in the mornings.

I heard about how the Housing Board designated an area of HDB blocks for artists where they could live and create. Perhaps this sums up the general case. Because public spaces are created and maintained by the authorities and are a bit 'sterile', personal art and beauty is an indoor activity. Or maybe I need to get out more?

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Speaking in Mother Tongues

Last week's Sunday Times led with MM Lee encouraging Singaporeans not to give up on their Mother Tongues. His pont is that while English has been promoted as a national asset for economic vitality, other languages, even if spoken less fluently, are important too. Now, to be fair, he wasn't just talking about Chinese keeping their Mandarin for working with China and Taiwan, but also Malays keeping up with their Malay, and so on.

I should perhaps explain that Mr. Lee Kwan-Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore has become MM Lee, or Minister Mentor (MM), a cabinet-level, advisory position. As an aside, there's a read across here to long-time Malaysian prime-minister Dr. Mahathir who stepped down a few years ago and has used his retirement to continue a political commentary.

This is a hard nut to crack. Let's take the example of a Chinese child growing up in Malaysia/Singapore. Her Mother Tongue might be English, although her Grandmother's Tongue might be Cantonese or Hokkien. At Singaporean school she'll learn in English, at Malaysian school, possibly Malay, then English later if in a science stream. Singaporeans learn Mandarin Chinese, and may also study a foreign language such as Japanese.

Frankly, it burns kids up.

So what do we drop? Grandparent language (Cantonese, Hokkien) would mean a break in family culture. Malay is the national language, plus it's useful for working with Indonesia. English is the prime target language for Singapore and international affairs. Mandarin is many Singaporean's native tongue and what about doing business with China? Plus language is the expression of culture so there's a lot at stake here.

So while I applaud MM Lee's call to retain a Mother Tongue, we both know it isn't that simple and I expect the mish-mash of languages used with varying fluency to continue. Indeed, it's one of the local charms.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Knock Knock, Who's There?

Living in a flat 10 floors up, the front door becomes the only portal to the outside world. Almost uniquely, I leave mine open most of the time to let the wind in and so I can see what's going on out on the landing. Indeed, my desk is just inside the door. There's a couple of downsides to this, but not probably the one you imagine, that is, lack of privacy. As a hairy pink foreigner, one glance at me and most people keep their heads down as they shuffle past. Result!

The issues are noise and smell, the latter being the worst offender by far. Let me explain. Noise-wise, it's kids screaming. A feat of human vocal ability that leaves me unable to hear my own radio and yet does not render the little blighters deaf. How's that fair?

The smells are all those of combustion. Incense sticks outside front doors and most bizarrely, even charcoal burners used to boil big pans of water to cook rice, etc. The prevailing Southerly wind blows the smoke through the front door and past my nose giving me an instant headache, the sort I get (psychosomatically?) from smokers. It's all against the rules of course. Open fires and big pots of boiling water on landings are hardly safe or neighbourly but it's just another facet of Chinese domestic life transplanted Lock Stock into an HDB flat, rules or no rules.

There are people who eagerly stop at my open door: charities. Frankly, I get the impression they have a hard time finding anyone to even open their door, let alone talk to them, such is the desperate tone in their voices. Let's see, we've had Ice Cream-selling students trying to fund school books, Boys Brigade (which has girls as members) seeking funds to give Bibles to (Muslim) Malays, the Singapore Cancer Society wanting direct-debit donations and even a plastic bucket-selling Malay lady, though she gave up early on.

Since all doors are supplemented with an additional metal gate, these conversations occur through bars, like an Alcatraz librarian dealing with his clientele. I've never considered myself threatened and prefer the feeling I can get out than fearing someone would come in. Singaporeans say they have Low Crime, not No Crime.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007


On the face of it, Singapore taxis are superb. There's loads of them, they're cheap, they know where most places are, they're honest (no tips, strictly using the meter which I've never seen or heard of being tampered with), they're clean and the drivers are nice to the point of being almost chatty.

There's 2 types of taxi; one is the standard type which are 3 year old Japanese exports, Toyota Crowns, with the same auto door closing mechanism as the dead giveaway. Most are in decent condition although I've been in a couple which, frankly, needed a major overhaul or scrapping due to mechanical wear. The other type are the Executive sort which are all Mercs, C-class I think, in white livery.

The only ruse I've heard about is the On Call play by which a driver sets his lights to be "on call" (going to a pickup) for which he can legitimately charge an extra SG$3 (£1) except he's actually cruising. At peak demand times (late at night, heavy rain), people will flag down such empty cabs and willingly pay the extra charge so the driver can earn a small bonus. For true geek-dom on this and other taxi related matters, see the SG Forums.

This utopian transport system is only marred by how much the drivers are paid. Generally self-employed, the driver rents the taxi from a big company by the day for SG$90 (£30). With the Government-controlled low fares, many work 13-hour days to cover the rental and gas costs. Working 7 days a week, they can pull in about $3,000 pm (£1,000), which is not a lot but tends to, ahem, be considered as net pay in such an all-cash economy.

Taxi drivers are therefore, another low-paid cog in the local economy. Lend them your support.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

I See Dead People

This blog is about Singapore life, so let's talk about death. First off, there's a lot of it about. I can't remember the last time I saw a funeral procession in England. We don't like death; we are embarrassed, unsure how to empathise with the family and wish it would quietly go away.

Here, there are different rituals depending upon culture (ok, race), religion and family wishes but it ends up in a melange of traditions. The one downstairs at the moment is for a Chinese lady (there's a big black & white photograph), so everything's in white including the coffin, white curtains forming a room and white plastic tables & chairs for mourners. But she must be Christian, as there's a big cross at the foot of the coffin, although no other symbols.

A work colleague's father passed away and I went along to pay respects at the funeral parlour; actually an anonymous, austere, mostly windowless 4-storey warehouse. It's a busy place as viewings only last a day and the turnover of clients, relatives, friends, flowers and cards requires close management. He apparently didn't have any particular spiritual wish so the family chose a neutral ceremony followed by cremation. These situations can be awkward but I must confess to being at a short-term loss for words when asked if I wanted to see the body (the coffin had a glass insert at the head end).

Buddhist send offs can be quite fancy especially if they were paid up Soka members. They get a full event at a void deck all in white with priests, music, speeches and ceremonies.

If there's a hearse and procession, then a Chinese would have family dressed in white shirts following the hearse, often with their hands on the back as if pushing it, followed by relatives and friends, then a Chinese band (opera style with drums and cymbals) and possibly a Dragon troupe as well. Indians have their own hearses painted bright and gay (no chance of moonlighting as a limo) and their own procession.

All of life's acts are played out in the dense public confines of the HDB flats and it's doubled or tripled the number of dead people I've seen in only a few months. This is good as I'm more relaxed about the whole thing.

Friday, 29 June 2007

Who put that building there?

A dramatic incident at a nearby HDB recently tested the responsiveness of our emergency services to the full. Not a terrorist attach, but an elderly Indian gentleman parking his Ford Focus. Aside: Singaporeans always park by reversing into the bay while Malaysians park nose in. I'm not sure what this means but its predictive accuracy makes it a cultural DNA test.

Anyway, our driver loses the plot while reversing and manages to mount the 5" kerb, cross the pavement and strike a 4" water pipe at the HDB base, fracturing it where it emerges from the ground. So we get a 20' fountain of water and instant crowd with kids splashing around, playing games. Pride aside, no one is hurt so we just need a 'phone call to the emergency maintenance line (it's Sunday) to shut off the water and effect a repair before the header tank on that block empties, leaving dry taps.

What we get is a police car with 2 officers, then another police car, then an ambulance with 2 paramedics, then the 24hr callout van from the services company, then finally a truck with 2 more guys who have the spanner to shut the water off. The paramedics get out a trolley and fluff a pillow. An officer tapes off the area with Police Line - Do Not Cross (in case you get wet?) and the head spanner man used a PDA to take digital pictures and e-mail them to HQ.

It was quite a circus before the water was shut off (crowd cheers and disperses). The mtc guys ordered some spares and worked into the small hours to repair it.

Another blow struck against the War on Error.