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.