Sunday, 29 April 2007

Bums on seats, luvvie

An inevitable effect of living in Asian countries is to confirm Westerners have big bums. Asians have narrower average hip widths and hence the compact MRT seats which their molded dimples in a bench design, installed down the sides of train carriages. Anyone sitting there becomes part of a sort of bum-width-analogue-computer. One big bum can be accommodated with a bit of squeezing up and elbow tucking. Two big bums near each other and it gets uncomfortably squashed for most locals.

The prized seats are the end ones (as in Japan) since you only have one neighbour and hence more personal space and half the contact with strangers. It was such an end seat that the amply-proportioned Indian lady spied and determined to settle into. She had the right idea. Approach sideways, slide in and rotate to settle the bum into the seat. All assisted by the colourful, frictionless silk sari. And for a moment, it looked like it had worked with the bum computer re-calculating everyone's position.

And then she released her held breath.

The computer crashed. Without any drama, a traveller a few seats down suddenly decided their stop was coming up and went to stand by the doors creating a gap. The computer rebooted and cultural requirements for personal space were restored. You just don't get this quality of vicarious enterntainment in taxis or cars.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

I don't like Chinatowns

I don't even like the word Chinatown. In this increasingly self-concious world where words are shunned for the wrong historical connotation, you couldn't put town on the end of any other country and expect to avoid criticism. Try it and see.

As a student, I used to make regular pilgrimages to Manchester's CT to stock up on packet noodle (decades before Asda stocked it) and London's is pretty good for food but mainly what I dislike are the inevitable red gates and other tourist labeling. It's a contrivance.

The one here in Singapore (yes, there is one) follows this traditional formula. It has shops, stalls and there is decent food to be found but why anyone would go to CT for a Chinese meal versus going next door is beyond my imagination.

It says quite a lot about the relatively non-Chinese, Western look and feel of Singapore's streets that you can have a CT and even notice it. At this rate, they'll open up a CT in Beijing for the Olympics. China recently built an English-style town near Shanghai, complete with cobblestones. If it is truly genuine, there will be a Golden Jade Chinese takeaway down a side street.

For authenticity, Little India is highly recommended. It has real Indians with fantastic Indian restaurants, spice sellers, gold shops, long-distance phone kiosks and moneychangers vying for the best rate for rupees. Everything is real, for a purpose. Now there's a proper ethnic minority quarter.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Never Say No

I first read of the idea that Singaporean workers never say No in a blog entry and mentally filed it under to be tested. Well, it may be true. Certainly my coworkers tend to say things like "I just do what the boss wants" and "She says, I do". I'd like to think it is just the usual distain of management sprinkled with a little Singaporian authoratarian icing sugar.

Alas, I am beginning to suspect not. The attitude is prevalent in the wider cultural context also, heavily influenced I presume by a paternal government, a strict educational system, mandatory national service (for men) and 5000 years of Chinese emperors. To me it's a real shame because I value ideas and innovation, neither of which tend to flourish in the presence of such attitudes. Or as another blog entry talking about business startups said:

"Singapore seems very aware of the importance of encouraging startups. But while energetic government intervention may be able to make a port run efficiently, it can't coax startups into existence. A state that bans chewing gum has a long way to go before it could create a San Francisco."

I'd hope to prove him wrong but the potter can only throw the clay that is a hand.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

How do you know?

I found an excellent blog the other day which retold an old eastern parable:

One day, an old farmer discovered that his horse had run away. "Terrible!" his neighbors said sympathetically. "How do you know?" asked the farmer.

The next morning the farmer's horse returned with two wild horses. "Wonderful!" the neighbors said. "How do you know?" asked the farmer.

The next morning the farmer's son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown off, and broke his leg. "Terrible!" his neighbors said. "How do you know?" asked the farmer.

The next morning, soldiers came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. "Wonderful!" said the neighbors. "How do you know?" asked the farmer.

It highlights how we make snap judgements on current events without allowing for future developments. It's a universal truth that we constantly ignore and makes a nice (irritating?) story to use while wagging your condescending finger at someone who has just jumped in with both feet.

My dept is being re-organised at the moment and of course, reactions vary (some well justfied, some less so). I decided long ago that in a large company, you are always between re-organisations. If you have a good boss/dept/project, enjoy! If you don't have a good boss/dept/project, hang on, change is coming down the line towards to you.

I know we have to make assumptions in almost everything we do (otherwise we would drive around every corner at 5mph in case there was a elephant in the road) but this chimes with my complaint about news (especially 24 hour news) which emphasises immediacy over reflection and influences all of us to the same rush of judgement. Just say "How do you know?".

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Pasar Patois

Soon after arriving, I was asked how I was getting on with Singlish? "Fine" I said, I've been working in Asia for years. "Ah no", they said, Singlish is different, it's not just an accent, but an amalgam of languages including many loan words, mostly Hokkien, e.g.

"Wah, it's cheem ah?", meaning it's complicated or deep.

I don't speak Hokkien or Hindi or Urdu or much Malay so all loan words could be a problem to comprehension, but that's nowhere near the most interesting aspect of Singlish.

In linguistics, diglossia is a situation where, in a given society, there are two (often) closely-related languages, one of high prestige, which is generally used by the government and in formal texts, and one of low prestige, which is usually the spoken vernacular tongue. Singapore has a diglossic continuum of elite English, through Singlish and ending in Mandarin/Hokkien Chinese. People speak different languages, by choice, depending upon the situation. On the street, pasar patois ("market speak") mixes language, accent and vocabulary to establish the speaker's social class. And people migrate up and down the continuum to suit the situation, a bit like putting on a posh accent when going into an estate agent.

Regular readers here will now be wondering what the Government is doing. Checkout the Speak Good English movement launched in 2000 to encourage improvements in English. It is focusing on encouraging standard English sentence construction, rather than the common direct Chinese-to-English transliteration, e.g.:

Singlish: What time start?

English: What time does the event begin?

I like Singlish as I like all languages. It's a magic code to achieve things, like saying "peng" to a Thai taxi driver to negotiate the price down, Singlish can sometimes get more done than standard English. If there is a problem at work, a quick "How to do?" works wonders - it sounds familiar, non-threatening and invites cooperation. Sounds good to me!

Thursday, 19 April 2007

The Karaoke Effect

As a follow-up to the local polling on HDB lift upgrades, the results are now posted on the void deck noticeboard. The scheme was supported by 90% of voters, opposed by 6%, and the rest failed to vote. There were no spoiled ballots. Given 75% was the minimum support required to carry the proposal, it comfortably cleared this hurdle.

I'm not surprised it passed. It's a terrific deal with owners picking up a maximum of 10% of the cost and the strong support is reflected in turnout figures most national elections only dream about. Proxy voting was supported which must have helped the turnout despite the short (1 week) notice.

Works could start in 4Q07, although a fly in the oitment is that since Indonesia has banned gravel exports (don't know why), the price of raw bulding materials (sand, gravel, cement) has more than doubled, so the estimated cost of works my need to be revised.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Carpe Diem! Kids

It's no great revelation to say that Singaporeans are encouraged to aspire to high educational achievement. Some would go further to draw a parallel between the strongly tiered school system and society & government. But I digress. It is Government Policy for English-medium eduction as a means to foster multi-culturalism (everyone must learn a 'foreign' language) and global competitiveness.

My favourite local education establishment is a branch of the Carpe Diem pre-schools chain. Pre-schools are big business here. the Ministry of Education (MoE) provides a list of Pre-Schools and as of 1st Oct 2006, it lists 488 registered schools:

439 have Chinese tuition, 234 have Malay and 84 Tamil.

30 schol names contain the word Church, 20 Mosque

24 are named after Montessori and there's a lone Jenius

And my favourite pre-school? Not listed interestingly, so it must be one of the many, many private companies competing to offer the best start on an education ladder that might last 16+ years.

Carpe iuventus I say.

Monday, 16 April 2007

Nice work

This isn't a political blog, partly because I don't know enough about local politics to sensibly comment. I'll make a small exception this week because the big story is the pay rise that MPs awarded themselves. The Prime Minister now earns £1million per annum.

While not passing comment on the numbers, I've never had a problem with politicians earning decent salaries. They usually only earn it for a short while and it is entirely counter-productive to make such important public roles unattractive to talented people. I prefer capable professionals, not idealistic also-rans.

Apparently, the dog-whistle argument propounded was that it reduces the temptation for corruption, and hence is a stabilising force. If you find this risible, you likely have not had to live and work in a corrupt environment. It's corrosive to progress and becomes a dominant force in shaping politics. No thank you.

Singapore OK

It's easy to make fun of the Singapore government. Not in a political sense (although I don't deny the possibility), just in a gentle, cynical way. They try so hard to guide & chivvy their flock to behave more in line with their vision of an internationally respected, ordered, western-style society. And all respected cultures need good toilets. Just ask the Romans.

No one should be surprised that the National Environment Agency has a long-running OK campaign to set toilet standards and distribute posters for qualifying loos. It's all good stuff. Operators (?) of public toilets need to:

  • Ensure that all sanitary pipes and fittings are in good working condition
  • Provide soap and toilet paper
  • Provide litter bin
  • Provide sanitary bin for female toilet
  • Provide a working hand-dryer or paper towels
  • Provide a cleaner during peak hours
  • Cleaning schedule to be displayed prominently
  • Provide a channel for feedback through signages

If I ever write a book, perhaps it will include a theme of public toilets and cultural health. In England, public toilets have McDonalds signs over them. Here I tend to look for shopping malls or food courts, oh, and OK signs.

Friday, 13 April 2007


Yes, that was shouted. I was probably 11 and was cycling on the pavement in the village. The policeman (a real one: big, rotund chap able to make children cry with a look) wasn't asking, he was telling. Fair enough, I'd passed my Cycling Proficiency Test (remember those?) that year at school as a condition of being able to cycle to school.

So you can imagine what I think about the idea of only using pavements for cycling. No-one ever cycles on the road in Singapore.

This produces some absurdities. Some people cycle slowly, almost at walking pace - so what's the point? Others are trying to get along and end up having to stop, go around or just bully their way through the pedestrians. Some do this nicely with a little tinkling of the bell, which can get quite persistent behind me as I am not in the habit of leaping out of the way.

I've been hit twice already. More side-swiped I suppose. The first one was a woman barreling towards us - there wasn't enough space for everyone and she couldn't slow down even if she had been inclined because she was holding her mobile in the hand traditionally reserved for the front brake. The second was yesterday, another woman getting along. She just misjudged it I think, but the doppler effect of her receding "Sorry ..." made me smile as I was rubbing my arm.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Language sufficiently foreign sounds like monkeys

Okay, bear with me on this one. The premise is from an old Sherlock Holmes film where people are viciously attacked and witnesses describe a short, muscular man talking in a strange, foreign language. The good detective quizes them about what it sounds like "Romanian?", "Peruvian?". Upon further questioning they admit they have never heard any of these languages, it's just what they imagine it would sound like.

Fast forward about a hour because the that's how the Basil Rathbone SH stories were arranged. The 'clue' is early on and the rest is just prancing around for the cast. The answer is that it is a trained attack monkey/ape, hence its sounds were never inteligble speech but given the presumption of human origin, were attributed to unknown foreigners. (Hey, it's an old film).

I was reminded of this on the bus today as the usual unwillingness of people to move away from the doors (why is that?) caused a jam at the front and the driver had to shout a bit to get things moving. Now, I'm reasonably accostomed to Chinese, Malay, a spot of Hindi, Philipino, but whatever he was barking out was something completely different. Possiby Hokkien as there are a lot of native-Hokkien speaking bus drivers for some reason. Still, the tone left little to the imagination.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

Karaoke democracy

The flats where I live are up for the IUP (Interim Upgrade Programme) which means a mid-life pep up, specifically new lifts which stop at every floor (instead of just ground, 5th & 9th floors) and some covered walkways which will make moving around in the rainy season easier. This is Singapore, so although it is 90% funded by the Government. and 5% by the local council, the last 5% must be met by the residents and supported by a 75% majority. Hence it's polling weekend, the info packs being distributed at the beginning of the week by eager volunteers (only 5 days notice eh?). It's a no brainer, really. If you own a flat, there's no way you could get such subsidised value (about SG$1,500 = £500) any other way and your property value will rise. There's lump sum, deferred pension lump sum, weekly payment scheme or even almost complete deferral for indigent cases.

They built a natty info station and polling booth in the void deck, with models, posters, helpful staff and electronic polling machines, carpets and air conditioning. People leave with plastic gifts. All a little over the top.

So why the 2 nights of karaoke? Concerned that participation may not reach fever pitch, they setup a tent with 150 chairs and an all-comers karaoke machine set on stun. There is something heroic about woeful public performance, no matter what language its in. I don't know what it says about the democratic process, I'm just hoping it ends at the promised 10pm and I can get some sleep.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

I've been depressed for 400 years

I was reading a Guardian article talking about how we have become melancholic since medieval times based on a combination of personal depression and reduced social festivities.

"Urbanisation and the rise of a competitive, market-based economy favoured a more anxious and isolated sort of person - potentially both prone to depression and distrustful of communal pleasures."

This struck me as a revelation. It seems to describe the Britain I know since Thatcherism, and resonates with all modern industrial cities which are characterised by harried, fearful, surly people rushing to get to work, then rushing home to sit alone in front of the TV.

Singapore is no worse that other large cities of my acquaintance for street courtesy but I am sure the omnipresent work culture here fits the pattern. I'd risk going further and suggest the Chinese are generally more susceptible to the driving work ethic (to get the car & flat screen TV). Indians & Malays are more likely to be seen smiling and laughing in the street.

Amateur sociology? Yup. Commentary on cultural happiness? Probably.