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.