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.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Walk on the grass as much as you want

I was in Malaysia when my host asked me how I liked his lawn. I remember saying it was "nice, but it isn't grass". The resulting debate was only solved years later when I was able to point him to a real lawn as comparison. The English are absolutists when it comes to lawns and the happy ending is that my host moved house and now has a really nice lawn.

Singapore has green verges and public areas everywhere. Together with the wide-spreading trees which shade the roads, they manage to take the harsh concrete edge off the environment.

But it's still not grass.

The local soils are a heavy, reddish clay and the constant high temperature (27-33C) would dry out standard English lawn grass. Instead they use what is locally called Cow grass (Axonopus compressus). It's pretty ugly up close but it is very hardy & grows slowly so is ideal for municipal use.

It is so hardy that laying it on new verges or repairing areas is an interesting technique. Just roughly level off the ground and then spread tuffs of the cow grass over the area and step it in. Job done. With the sunshine & rain, it just grows. It's not a bowling green - the Indian guys who play Sunday morning football have to accept considerable pitch-induced randomness.

Parks are cut every fortnight using a ride-on mower for large areas and strimmers for the slopes and tight spots. The workers are all Indians since, according to the National Parks dept., "our locals shun such jobs which are considered to be tough". I can't remember where I got the idea than Southern Indians were better at tolerating outside jobs but I asked them once and they said "No, we feel the sun like everyone but other people won't do it and a job's a job".

Monday, 25 June 2007

Trust me, it's real money

I received an old style $2 note in change and shown in large copperplate writing was This note is legal tender. A quick check in the wallet and it's written on all of them, although modern ones use smaller letters with less prominence. This particular note is of the Ship series, issued between 1984 and 1999. [Checkout the $10,000 note (= ₤3,300).]

I appreciate the concept of legal tender, something which was tested by the guy ahead of me at the supermarket checkout who succeeded in buying $21.20 of goods with a $1,000 note. Technically, they could have refused under the rules of Legal Tender.

My point is that the bank note design struggles against our increasingly cynical attitude to product marketing such as Real Leather (leather is leather, a shoe maker of distinction just puts "leather"). From there, it's only a short step to "Unlimited offer (conditions apply)", "99% fat free", "New & Improved" and "Free Gift (with purchase)".

I predict the text will get smaller on successive bank note issues.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Kiasu Or What Lah?

Kiasu is an Hokkien adjective meaning fear of losing, although before I read up on the word, I would have defined it as "pushy, edgy". It's been called a uniquely Singaporean national characteristic but I've worked in China and they have something very similar. It's described as pejorative because of its negative connotation but locals will freely acknowledge it so I would say it's just an accurate description.

One widespread expression of kiasu is a keen interest in offers, cheap deals, gifts, vouchers, discounts, lower interest rates, investment schemes, stock trading, lotteries and any other method to get something for less effort. MLMs ("hey, it's MLM not a pyramid scheme") abound and get pushed at work.

The immediate impression for ang mo is one of general pushiness and lack of courtesy. Queuing is a bit hit and miss. Bus stops are a free for all, lottery ticket queuing is patient and ordered. The Free Fruit table at work turned into a melee of pawed fruit and people leaving with armfuls (some brought bags) despite the 1 piece per person intention [I ended up hanging back and just asked someone leaving with a whole bunch of bananas for one - how kiasu is that?]. The supermarket is Okay although if a new till opens up there'll be a stampede. MRT platforms have lines marked for queues either side of the doors to permit people to exit first but it's poorly heeded and at rush hour you can end up being pushed back on the train. Trying to reserve seats or tables at busy eateries with umbrellas or packets of tissues is another trick.

An interesting side effect is that it works reciprocally; people expect you to push your way though as required, so in elevators, if you are at the back when the doors open, you'd better push your way out or someone playing the control panel like a church organ will have the doors closed on you. I've had people leap in at my destination floor and press the Door Close button before I've even got off. Same with buses & MRT; any notion of having a quick look round to see if someone wants to get past is rare - I've heard people actually complain "Why didn't they get off sooner?". Bus drivers will drive past a bus stop unless someone at the stop makes it pretty clear they want to get on - it really is a Demand Stop system.

Kiasu presumably contributes to the reliance on mobiles and text messages. Customers expect to be able to talk to you anytime (so every meeting is interrupted by someone's mobile) or called back instantly otherwise. Managers expect their staff to behave this way. It sounds like a Customer-Comes-First attitude but I think it's just culturally-validated impatience.

So Singapore is an experiment in interpersonal capitalism. In theory, the pushier people out compete the others, but what if everyone is equally pushy? You would be back to equality of opportunity but with fewer social graces. Hmmm.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

A new anti-Spam law came into effect at the beginning of June which tries to give consumers better rights when receiving unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE). It applies to e-mail and phone text messages (SMS) and requires that the text ADV be placed at the beginning of the Subject Line (or the beginning of the text if, like SMS, there's no subject). And secondly, that there be an Unsubscribe mechanism clearly included.

I've seen these ADV things for a while and completely ignored them. Duh. The first SMS I received had the ADV misspelt (double duh!) and to reply with an unsubscribe costs me money. So, that's not working out too well then.

Then I read of a story about the only Singaporean working on Beijing Olympics who has a local mobile but kept his home one also and is racking up roaming charges on received SPAM, so much so he's going to have to cancel his SG phone.

It's a tough nut to crack for sure, and it's easy to criticise, but these rules only apply to the responsible, local, law-abiding originators. In my case, that's maybe 0.1% of what clogs my Trash folder everyday.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Race, the final answer

As part of my Singapore PR application, my race is coded as European, again. They must have copied it from my original Employment Pass (EP) but I quizzed the chap taking my thumb prints and I could have had Caucasian but also English is in their official list.

It also shows my religion as Free Thinker, but that's another story.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Your Permanent Resident Correspondent

My PR application is approved. Looking back, it wasn't as bad as the application form suggested it might be. There were lots of questions, dates, education, addresses, photocopies and so on leading up to the application, then sit back and wait. They promise a response within 3 months, in my case less than 6 weeks, with is an award letter requiring:

  • medical including chest X-ray (tuberculosis) & blood test (HIV)
  • HR endorsement letter
  • 4 photos
  • and, all in, $200 of fees plus a 4-hour wait at ICA, Lavender.

I did the medical with SATA who were excellent and at SG$42 (£14) including the X-ray, a bargain too. They are a non-profit setup after the war to tackle tuberculosis primarily but are now a general, private medical service. I recommend them highly.

ICA is well organised and if you get stuck in the queue outside the building you can examine the vehicles on show with secret compartments for illegal immigrants. Forget cup holders, these things have serious storage. The PR section isn't the busiest but I attended on a Thursday AM during school holidays. Big mistake, apparently. +1 hour for the first desk, +1 hour for the IC section, +1 hour to get my passport back (with Re-entry stamp).

The IC requires thumb prints, both electronic on a scanner and ink block onto the front and rear(?) of the IC form. It's the first finger prints I've ever done and it still feels criminal even though I know I better get used to it.

So I have the Passport stamp, a receipt slip for the IC, a strange yellow A4 card which I mustn't lose under any circumstances and another trip down to ICA next week to collect the actual IC. I don't have to do National Service (NS) but in 2 years, I'm eligible to apply for citizenship.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Family Day, 25th May

The posters for this are still up at work and the constant reminders have finally sunk in. It was part of National Family Week 2007, and the Centre for Fathering (CFF) organized a nationwide "Eat with your family day 2007", describing a family meal as a "A ritual of the heart". They aim to promote family bonding by encouraging everyone to spend quality time with their family through the simple ritual of sharing a meal and other family bonding activities.

My father retains romantic notions of a harmonious family meal, perhaps with learned discussion of current events. John and Bobby Kennedy were expected as youngsters to be read up on the news and ready to discuss salient issues at mealtimes. As a 10-year old, I just wanted dessert and to watch TV.

HR embraced the event with an e-mail on that morning allowing us to leave the office 30mins early, work load permitting: Remember, the family is the basic building block of society (work load permitting).

Saturday, 16 June 2007

All Out Mozzie Warfare

It's Dengue Fever season again and the full might of the Singaporean bureaucracy is being applied to the problem. It's a nasty disease; potentially fatal, infectious with no current vaccine and is spread by mosquito bite. This year, the number of cases shows an alarming rise with 200 new cases per week.

The basic plan, codename If They Breed, You Will Bleed, is a war of attrition by reducing the number of possible breeding places for mosquitos plus a concerted round of fogging (insecticide smoke blown into drains, rubbish chutes, under buildings, etc).

Mosquitos lay their eggs in stagnant water so any pool or standing puddle is a potential menace. Hence the campaign based on the 10-minute Mozzie Wipe-Out to be performed around the house daily. Basically, empty out flower vases and buckets, cover the outside laundry pole pipes and clear out any blocked gutters.

The laundry pipes takes a moment to explain and is an unusual example of lack of joined-up thinking in the design of HDB flats. To hang out laundry, the flats have hollow tubes buried in the outside walls below the kitchen windows to hold bamboo laundry poles which stick out, away from the building. The problem is that the hollow tubes collect rain water and are then a major mosquito hazard. The solution is very low tech, just put a rain cap on but it's a manual action, prone to neglect, and they can get dislodged by the wind. The council even have a bamboo-pole-cap inspector touring the flats (he could do this from the ground but he seemed to want to come inside anyway?).

For me the biggest threat is to one of the most impressive plants seen around Singapore, the Fan Palm tree which is out of favour with the authorities because water collects at the base of the leaves.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Life in the Void

HDB flats have a consistent design that includes an empty ground floor creating a Void Deck; just pillars, lifts and mail boxes. There are no flats at ground level (which would be unfavourable considering security and disturbance).

This design has extreme utility. The sheltered but open space is used for events (weddings, marriage receptions, funerals, ballots), community facilities (clubs, restaurants, aviaries, pre-schools) and supports a rich and diverse life.

Most have concrete tables, sometimes marked out with a checker board (10 x 10) for games. The chairs are just concrete 'mushrooms' or perhaps a semi-circular bench. Sure they are uncomfortable with no backs but are actually a lovely cool spot for homework, reading the paper or just getting out of the flat. Plus, the whole lot can be regularly jet-washed with the rest of the void deck.

Chinese culture has a rich vein of ancestor worship, most commonly expressed with family altars in living rooms and the burning of papers, hell money, josh sticks, etc on the concrete margins of the void decks. There are BBQ-like braziers for this purpose but are rarely used. Most people have a favourite spot for their daily bonfire which create stained patches that even jet-washing fail to shift. Candles burn down to blobs of hard-to-remove wax. When it rains the fires move a few feet to the shelter of the void deck. I (once) tried putting one of these out and just ended up with dirty shoes. Stupid me.

The communal array of mail boxes is there, surrounded by the litter of junk mail. Even with great care, it's hard to pull the mail out without scattering the little slips like confetti, and who bothers to stoop down to pick up junk mail?

The neat council notice boards with announcements and Dos & Don'ts such as littering, bad parking, danger of falling items and dengue fever management. Chinese go for shock value rather than gentle persuasion so pictures of piles of rubbish and bicycles stored outside 10th-storey windows (roped to the concrete sun shields on each floor) are preferred over a simple list of guidelines like don't kill people with falling items.

Bikes and motorbikes are not allowed parked on the deck but are tolerated. The young guys with nice bikes (or just lots of stickers) do ritual, group cleaning on Sunday morning using the service tap for water (again not allowed but the "key" is not hard to get).

It's sort of the system here: dump whatever you don't want on the void deck. It gets picked over by residents (who take anything useful), then scavengers (for cardboard boxes, cans and other re-cyclable materials), then cats have a look for anything edible, then the whole lot gets cleaned up by the ever-reliable, Indian contract cleaning staff in the morning.

There is now a re-cycling wheelie bin on the void deck. Not all void decks, just a selection but it's a start. I can't figure out how one bin can take cardboard, paper, cans, glass & plastic, but I guess the low labour costs of separation makes it viable.

And that's just the human life on the deck. I'll leave cats, dogs and cockroaches to another time.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

HDB Flats and the nature of Civilisation

While some may say kiasu is the defining Singaporean characteristic, others may cite the slightly overlapping issue of elitism but for me, it's maintenance of public amenities. The Romans figured out early that civilization meant good public services and toilets. London at the time of Queen Elizabeth I ruled the seas with barely disguised state-sponsored pirates keeping things in check, yet the city itself was a stinking, fetid mess with open sewers until the Victorians came along and Joseph Bazalgete created the underground cathedrals of the modern sewerage system.

Singapore is designed as a best-in-class place. It benchmarks itself against the world and picks the best ideas for implementation. One of the things it decided early on was that public infrastructure is vital, but they had the wisdon to understand it needs to be maintained constantly and given periodic re-investment. The million HDB flats are the prime example of this with the UIP bringing new lifts, walkways, play areas, replacement water tanks and park features. [Note the later has a twinge of pretentiousness; I was walking towards Khatib the other day and a newly opened corner feature proudly proclaimed the area as Khatib Vale. Nice, except it's dead flat in every direction.]

Concrete pavements are ripped up every 10 years or so (seemingly whether they have been damaged by tree roots or not) and relaid. HDB blocks are repainted every 5 - 7 years. Mold, peeling paint and tired looking blocks just aren't tolerated.

Today, my block's corridor lights were still on an 10am. Strange as they are auto timed to come on around 7:15pm -7:15am daily. I was actually considering 'phoning it in as a fault when I heard the clanking of an aluminium ladder on the concrete and sure enough, a chap was visiting every light fitting and not just checking its operation, but replacing every single one of the fluorescent tubes with a new one. They don't wait for them to fail here, they pre-replace.

I impressed even if I also realise the tubes are full of mercury and will end up in a landfill somewhere.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Race (Redux)

I've written before about my quandary over what to enter in forms for Race:. Where locals would just enter Chinese, Indian, Malay, and so on, I'm left with no obviously correct choice.

My latest perspective on this is the explicit acknowledgment that my Western origin should be exploited for its difference, diversity and ability to impress (!). Examples include a recent conference where I was told "we need people like you to come to Singapore" and at work where my boss wants to "capitalise on my ethnic background".

I feel special, but not in an entirely good way.

What I have noticed is a settling out of where I try to fit in and where I am happy to stand out as different. I haven't gone as far as wearing a bowler hat to customer meetings but it would be an interesting experiment. And as for the forms? Perhaps I should just put Different and go ahead and exploit myself.

Monday, 4 June 2007

What's the Chinese for Gezelligheid?

The Dutch are a funny lot, and as contributory proof, I give you the word Gezelligheid. It's one of those complex words without a direct synonym but cosy comes close. It's best explained by example: if you arrive at a Dutch threshold and there's a warm draft of air from the fire, pot pourii in a bamboo bowl, candles flickering on the window sill and a welcoming glass of gluvein, the visitor might well exclaim gezelligheid.

Not only is there no Chinese equivalent, it's hard to think of even a similar concept. Chinese don't have the Western dinner party culture and 'house proud' tends to be measured by lot size and the number of plastic Grecian columns holding up the car porch rather than the ambiance of the interior.

Chinese/Singaporeans don't have the same habitual social niceties as most Europeans either. In Germany, especially rural Germany, strangers passing on the street say Morgens! to everyone. It's really rude not to and a necessary and expected part of public life. Such behavior would be shunned here; you just don't catch people's eye but rather walk past each other as unspeaking zombies.

Recently I was walking down to the bus stop and approaching at a distance was a lady with a big smile on her face. My mood was immediately lifted as, frankly, you don't see many smiling faces on the way to work and my response was involuntary, almost sub-conscious. It lasted about 3 seconds until she approached closer and I could see she was an older lady with permanent, deep crow's feet and a strange, mouth-open grimance as a resting countenance. My mood fell back to workday sullenness.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Laundry Day

Dry cleaning is expensive. That's what I always was told. It was a special event for valued items to give them a new lease of life or prepare them for a special event such as a wedding. Dry cleaning brings back powerful early memories of using Laundrettes with the heady smell of ICI Perclone infusing the air.

In Singapore, it's cheap. At my local LaundryLodge, it's SG$4 (£1.30) for a pair of trousers, only SG$3 for (wet) cleaning and pressing. At smaller premises 'round the back of the supermarket, prices are even lower. The cleaning is not done on the premises; the 'Lodge is just a counter for drop-off and collection and there's the slight rub - it takes a week to get picked up and shipped off to some anonymous factory for processing. In this case, more than a week to cover Thursday's public holiday. It's open 6 days a week until 9:30pm, offers Free Collection / Delivery (* conditions apply) and I can join their club as a life member and get 10% off. The clothes come back all neat in masses of plastic wrapping (I try to decline as much as possible), and my local 'Lodge is a split shop with an old couple who do Alterations and Repairs, so you can get trouser pockets mended and buttons sewn on at the same time for another couple of $.

It's the low prices of basic services, transport, taxis, cleaning, food & rent that keeps Singapore so competitive. And it's the army of low paid workers who keep the services cheap.

Friday, 1 June 2007


I just finished the process for converting my English licence to a local one. Its worth briefly outlining the process as it's a good example of local bureaucracy. I can get a Singaporean license but first need to pass the Basic Theory Test (BTT), which is a 50-question, computer-based, multiple-choice exam, pass mark is 45 (90%).

At an approved centre (there's 3 of them), apply for BTT with Passport and EP (employment pass), pay $6, select a PIN, receive ID card (for website and service kiosks) and a test date 2 months hence. The test dates are always 2 months hence, even though subsequent checks show empty places as close as next week, these are reserved for students of the (commercial) school which operates the BTT. With a bit of hassle, you can change the test date to be closer, but this is best done in person.

The school operates a vast system of learner cars (white Honda Civics) being run around a closed course and the local roads. In my case, I can just wait for the BTT and swot up on the Highway Code ($4). Judging by the pages being studied at the last minute, it's the Arm Signals given by Traffic Officer that are most confusing although I thought the right-of-way at junctions a tad odd as well. The rest seem pretty close to UK signs and rules.

Come test day, I need my Passport and EP again (to ensure the identity of the student) and I'm allocated a computer terminal in a room with 40 others. It's multiple-choice (A, B, C) with occasional video clip animations. The touch-screens respond best to nails (not finger tips).

Q: If you hear the sirens of an ambulance approaching but cannot determine their location, do you:
a) Move into left lane and slow down
b) Pull over and stop
c) Continue driving in current lane

The test is not that hard, but many questions are tricky - it is worth having a bit of a think as there's plenty of time. When you're done (or bored), press finish and either Pass or Fail on the spot.

When you have passed the test, get a printout of the result at a special machine and apply for the license. It's more ID checks, EP checks, photocopies plus originals of license, photograph and $50. It seems to take ages to process the form but then I get a confirmation slip which says I can now drive and the license will arrive in 2 weeks. Eight days later, a neat photo-card license arrives by recorded mail.

It's all terribly civilised, efficient and predictable, like all Singaporean bureaucracy. I am on driving probation for a year - I mustn't clock up more than 12 demerit points. It doesn't explain how I would get a demerit point but I imagine I will find out.