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"