Friday, 30 November 2007

Acting Asian

One of the blogs I read regularly had an article about academic swotiness. I don't have first hand experience of this (obviously) but it is a perjorative within the American black community to be accused of "acting white". In school it is apparently used against pupils who academically excel. The article says this is now passe and the new term is "acting Asian".

Which makes me wonder what a Singaporean school kid would understand if accused of "acting white"? Given the famously elitist Singaorean school system it's likely the opposite meaning of the American one.

This segues nicely with another commentator who suggests that Children of Overbearing, High Stress Parents Hit Singles and Doubles. The hypothesis is that kids subjected to extraordinary stress to achieve academically will go on to be good solid performers in life. Probably not drug-taking dropouts or high-flying Nobel prize winners, but middle of the bell-curve.

To steal from our earlier discussion of hedgehogs vs. foxes in business, you might say that the "overbearing parenting style" has a high expected value but low variance, whereas the "hands-off independent style" has extreme outcomes on either end of the distribution curve.

Singaporean parents (esp. Chinese) are stereotypical pushy of their kids and it is a national goal to get a Nobel prize winner. Personally I think such awards are lotteries and the small population of Singapore doesn't give them many chances to win, but the educationally-induced attitudes are a commonly cited factor also.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Path of Desire

The council have (suddenly?) started building a concrete path across the middle of the field. I suppose it will be useful. No-one walks across the field as it's always squelchy - there's no drains for the field which is why the frogs like it so much.

I'm not complaining; investment in public infrastructure is generally a good thing. It's practically the entire domestic policy of the Japanese Government for the last 50 years. We'll have to see if this serves an un-satisfied line of desire or if the fact that it bisects the Indian Sunday football pitch is the greater inconvenience.

It reminds me of the story about 2 pieces of Tarmac who were arguing in the pub as to which one was the hardest:

Tarmac #1: "Me I'm from the M25, bl**dy hard I am taking all that traffic"

Tarmac #2: "I'm from Heathrow, that's nuffin, I can take a Jumbo jet"

The pub went quiet and in walked this red piece of Tarmac.

Tarmac #1: "whoa, don't mess wih him, he's a Cyclepath!"

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Little Darlings

Pop quiz: scenario is an older Malay woman, a middle aged Chinese mother and her 10 year old son board a train and there's one free seat. Who gets to sit down?

Answer: in Singapore, it's the kid. Mums rush onto carriages and point out seats where their children can sit down. They even encourage them to go right up to the doors and run in past the alighting passengers and find seats. Nobody ever complains about this behavior.

It's a cultural, generational inversion. The old(er) are respected for their contribution to the past, but the young are revered for their role in the future, particularly for their potential earning power. Kids have it tough at school, and the pressure to succeed at examinations, move up to better schools and achieve scholorships is intense. But their elevation to Dauphin at the expense of common courtesy baffles me. They sit there fidgeting with energy while work-weary travelers slump into corners.

The MRT trains are running a campaign at the moment with several trains emblazoned their whole length with the tagline "Practise courtesy for a pleasant journey". It would appear courtesy is strictly relative.

Monday, 26 November 2007

God's Birthday

Not the God, but a God. The local temple held their (apparently annual) God's birthday party last night in a huge marquee on the field. The scale is impressive - a metal frame about 80m long and 30m wide plus 3 side tents for the catering, all floored with boards and fitted with lights, ceiling fans, portable toilets, a generator, stage, red carpet down the middle and TV projection screens for the video feed. Round tables, each with 10 chairs arranged in rows A - W, about 250 tables in all.

As I understand it, it's a fundraiser for the temple, so you buy table and then get to bid on auctioned items such as small table altars for $1000. I think they were a bit late getting ready as they worked until 5am Saturday on the tent, but they'll tear it down in 2 days.

This year's event seemed a little lower key that last year which featured a proper Lion Dance, complete with papier mache head, 20m body and man holding a pearl on a stick. This year, it was 10 guys in yellow and orange polyester jump suits with balloons and tinsel.

The surreal touch was provided by a funeral wake being held in the void deck just opposite the marquee entrance. A Christian affair for a Madam Woo, is observing 2 nights of services (Sun, Mon) followed by a service and funeral on Tues. Stood between the 2 events, I experienced the dragon dancers playing a big drum with 2 cymbals on asynchronous accompaniment, the compere shouting Hokkien into the PA about the next auction and the mourners giving a decent rendition of What a Friend we have in Jesus. You can't make this stuff up.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Vehicle Pax Disc

It seems more like a scene from the US-Mexico border: open, flat-bed trucks with working guys all sat on construction materials, tools and machines being driven around between dormitories and construction sites. Yet this is a common sight in Singapore. Not only common but legal and regulated.

Commercial vehicles are marked up with a black and white sticker showing the maximum number of passengers permitted to be carried. This ranges from 3-pax in a little Renault Kangoo van up to 43-pax for a long, flat-bed truck. They sit there, unprotected from sun, rain or accident. The number seems to roughly equate to "how many people can squat in this space?". There are no seatbelts, handles or any concessions to safety. And it's not just open trucks, closed-sided vans are used as well, and because of the heat, they tend to crack open the side loading doors.

The contrast between cars with mandatory seatbelt requirements and a bunch of guys sat on power tools is extreme. But it's just another pragmatic compromise. Singapore benchmarks itself against developed nations for economic strength, legal framework and to some extent, social issues. But mandating local companies to provide buses or mini-buses to transport workers would be an intolerable financial burden in a country where manual labourers are hired cheaply and vehicles are very expensive. Hence the compromise to maintain reasonable parity with neighbouring economies by trading worker's safety and ethical superiority.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Benign Autocracy

The preparation for the HDB upgrade continues. In the last week, they have diverted the SingTel (phone, broadband) and StarHub (cable TV and broadband) services, both requiring trenching work. [Side note, StarHub forewarned that the broadband might be out for the whole day Friday for re-wiring but I'm pretty sure it wasn't out at all.] When they laid cable TV services in England, there were "mole tracks" along pavements for the next decade where they laid the ducts. And you know, no matter how hard they try, it never ends up exactly level.

Today, a work gang turn up with a fancy German tarmac lathe and a Bobcat sweeper to rip off the top inch off half the car park and relay it with fresh tarmac. They'll need to come back and re-paint he parking space numbers and double yellow lines but otherwise it's as new. Bear in mind, in a couple of months when the lift-shaft works start, that whole area will be a building site.

To put this in perspective, my road back in England is a lunar landscape of mole tracks and repairs. In fact, the local council cheerfully admit they have a policy of patching reported potholes within days as it's an electorate satisfier, but a proper re-laying of the whole road is "off budget".

When I mention Singapore to people they usually end up talking about either the "ban on chewing gum" (it's not banned) or that "the place is nice but a bit controlling". Well, I hate chewing gum and am starting to think a strong anti-social behavior ticket and a commitment to public infrastructure investment is a good thing. I'm confused as to where that appears on the political left-right scale but then benign autocracy is a broad church.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Bend over to Pay

Starhub (a cable and mobile operator) has joined up with EZlink for a mobile payment scheme where you can use a special mobile phone (with a near field communications - NFC) chip to pay at trains, buses, libraries, and so on. SingTel is working on a similar trial with slightly different technology but same result.

I see a problem - it's a 'near field' system; you have to touch the phone to the reader, say at a bus exit door, on a station turnstile or on a counter top. How are you going to do this while using the phone?

I foresee comical gymnastics at MRT turnstiles and buses as people nod down with their heads to pay while talking, trying to look out of the corner of their eyes to check the display.

Of course, many people have the dreaded hands free style where people hold their phones near their heads and talk in a semi-handsfree mode. If you've ever been on the receiving end of this style you would have wondered why the caller always seemed to be standing on a busy railway platform, such is the background noise. Or maybe it will trigger greater use of those farcical Bluetooth wireless headsets (a la Nathan Barley). Whatever, it should be fun to watch.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Two Stories

1. The new Airbus A380 started service with Singapore airlines a couple of weeks ago and was an instant hit. People took their kids to Changi airport to watch it fly as if it was the Great Exhibition of 1851. As you know, it's big (compared to a 747, it's wider & taller but shorter) and the plush upper deck has separate, twin "cabins" with seats than become effectively a double bed. And many people have had the same thought, prompting the airline to issue a request that passengers behave only in a way that respects other passengers and aircrew.

As one couple interviewed after its maiden flight to Sydney, pointed out

... they make it romantic and ply you champagne, everything in fact except serve oysters. What do they expect?

2. The Malaysian ruling party, UMNO, is having their conference at the moment (imagine a 1970's labour conference in Blackpool but with more hats). One of the delegates who spoke during the debate on religion (!) was Madam Zaleha Hussin, a representative from Kelantan, who complained about the uniforms of AirAsia's (local budget airline) stewardesses. She was unhappy that they wore fitting skirts that ended slightly above the knee.

"They expose their calves, thighs and knees".

The UMNO assembly speaker, Badruddin Amiruddin went further to say that "the skirts were too short and exposed women's private parts".

Friday, 9 November 2007

Passive Aggressive Littering

You know how you read something and start punching the air "yes, yes, yes", not so much because of a new insight but because you suddenly realise someone else has the same frustrations as yourself? For me, this occurred when I read, a site dedicated to notes, signs and e-mails written in the passive aggressive style, usually about annoyances or asking people to stop doing things.

The one about cat fur posted in the letterbox hits home:

“okay, so i’m not sure if i’m in the wrong on this one,” says melanie from sydney. “i have a long haired cat who sheds a lot, so i just used to pick up the bits of fur and throw them out the window. i’m on the third floor and look out over the street, so i didn’t think it would upset anyone. but then i found this clump of cat fur in my Mailbox.”

This story is great on so many levels. There's the obsessive collection of a few hairs each day over weeks. The voyeurism of waiting for the falling fluff. The implied threat with shades of Fatal Attraction and bunny boiling.

For devotees of the obsessive genre, they also point out other sites dedicated to singular abuses of the word literally, apostrophes and quotation marks, to which I would add the work of Lynne Truss.

This week my local council sent a letter to each flat (must be important, normally they just post up a single copy on the notice board). Subject: LITTERING.

We have received feedback that some residents are throwing CIGARETTE BUTTS, UNWANTED FOOD, TISSUE PAPERS, etc out from their windows. Some of them are also littering the common corridors, staircases and open spaces.

Town Council takes a serious view of their irresponsible act and would like to appeal to all residents to immediately stop littering at the common areas, especially throwing litter out from the windows.

We wish to remind you that it is an offence under the town council by-law (COMMON PROPERTY AND OPEN SPACE) to litter the common areas.

I could rat out the guy opposite with the purple windows who smokes by leaning out of the window then flicking the butt down onto the grass, or the people above me who throw tissues out, but they didn't mention the Q-Tips. One narrowly missed me as I was walking in front of some flats a little while back and there was one in the lift the other day. What do you do with a Q-Tip in a lift? I used to use them to clean the heads of cassette players with denatured alcohol, and now I clear my ears with them, but neither activity has ever occurred in a lift. I feel a letter coming on...

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Deepavali & Cheap Laptops

Today is a Singapore public holiday for the Hindu festival of Deepavali, or Divali. Known in the West as the festival of light, Indians put up fairy lights on balconies and will be letting off fireworks and lighting sparklers when it goes dark.

It's another one of those discriminatory religious things at work:

Where exigencies of service permit, Hindu staff are allowed a half-day time-off on the eve of Deepavali. Annual leave taken on this day will be regarded as a full day leave.

Apparently, the Little India district will be all lit up with fire-walking ceremonies which I'll try to go to if I have time. It's crowded at the best of times but it's only a block down from Sim Lim Square (building full of consumer electronics) and the food is just heaven sent.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Hawker Centres and the Five Foot Way

Food Courts are the very heart of Singapore culture, representing their love of food, entrepreneurship and community cohesion. The history is a little more mundane. In the early days of Singapore, traders and hawkers routinely set up their stalls along the edge of the road in front of shops. Unregulated, the pavements were becoming clogged with stalls, stock, customers and traders. Sir Stamford Raffles mandated a minimum of 5 feet of clear space in front of shops, creating a "five foot way". The cries of complaint (riots) from hawkers who were pushed off their pavement space was met with the creation of "hawker centres", areas typically on street corners where traders could legally setup and operate. Thus the modern, covered hawker centre is a fixture of the Singapore street scene.

Hawker centres have a complex culture of their own and are not easily described. There are folk stories of hawker millionaires driving around in Rolls Royces collecting rents, and there is the rub. Sure, if you own 20 hawker centers, you can be a millionaire, but the average stall is rented for a few thousand dollars a month and run by people working 12+ hours a day for, say, 1 - 2 thousand a month take home.

Usually, there is an anchor tenant for the center who then sub-lets the individual stalls, arranges the common facilities (table cleaners, washers, trash) and does the advertising and promotions. They usually take the best stall, say the drinks concession in the corner but still, they are bearing much financial risk. They have to keep it popular, clean, safe and manage the sub-lets which turnover regularly, partly because the margins are so low. Even if they do this well, they are at the mercy of the weather (rain discourages walking out), local companies especially manufacturing with cyclical hiring and firing and even local parking or roadworks.

The curious facet for Westerns used to shopping malls with their carefully arranged McDonalds and Burger Kings is that stall owners work much more cooperatively with little overt competitive marketing. The dynamic here is that it is better for the whole center to succeed than for one stall to gain a slight advantage over their neighbours. An 'all ships rise on the tide' mentality.

Promotions can be flyers, new shop signs or even running a free bus around the local area to pick people up from companies during lunchtime. Fridays are probably the quietest days, with the busy hour between 11:45 - 1:15.

Life in a food court starts early with the breakfast crowd then stall owners preparing food for the lunchtime rush. This could be cutting up a bucket of chillies (why don't you just use a Moullinex blender?), making won-tons or cooking fish heads. It's all in the open - the granny cutting chillies will just use the nearest customer table.

One presumes that the signs over the shops are there for marketing purposes but their effectiveness is an open question, viz:

  • 6006 Claypot Delights
  • Feng Sheng Economic Rice
  • Wonder Cooking Home Kitchen
  • Soon Lee Pork Porridge / Macaroni

No matter, every Singapore has their favourite stalls and they will happily regale you with recommendations. Really famous stalls are sometimes notable for their bolshy owners who, for example, will only serve people sat at the few tables nearest their stall. I think this primadonna attitude is secretly admired and aspired to by Singaporeans.

I find myself entirely at home in food courts now but to Western visitors they are a daunting prospect. The shop signs are a rough guide only (remarkably, even if you read Chinese), you wander off and order your own food and usually it's "Self Service" meaning you pay at the stall and carry back to your table. Drinks are bought from another stall although there is usually a wandering drinks waiter, especially if they can sell a beer (good markup). You need to bring your own tissues as napkins and when you're done, just walk away and the table cleaner will collect, wash and sort the cutlery for return to the right stall (they all use different colour plastic bowls and trays). This habit of just walking away is pervasive and they look at you funny if you clear your own table in McDonalds. Plus making a complete pig sty of the table with chicken bones or anything else just discarded on the table is Okay in Chinese culture. It honours the Table God apparently. Yah.

Friday, 2 November 2007


I was vaguely wondering what Halloween would be like in Singapore. We already know the Chinese like communicating with their ghosts so one might expect some decent, cross-cultural bleed over. (They like setting fires as well so we'll see what Guy Fawkes night brings).

In retrospect, nothing happened. I have a flyer from the local shopping center which had Halloween Treats and the usual Lucky Draw but apart from the pumpkin jack-o-lanterns and bat silhouette theme, there was precious little actual ghost activity.

No trick or treating either, although I did have a lanky young lad wander up and ask me if I had StarHub cable TV "because I'm from StarHub and they are doing a deal at the moment". You have to imagine a school kid in jeans and a T-shirt wandering the hallways with his mate claiming to represent the major cable TV, broadband and mobile phone operator. Word has probably got out that there's a tough ang mo customer in this block and not wishing to disappoint:

Me: "You are from StarHub?!"

Sticking to his story he continued his sales pitch: "Do you have cable TV?"

"I don't watch television"

(stunned pause, but recovering well) "What about your family?"

"We don't watch television"

"Uh ... err .... but StarHub .... oh err ... right thanks"

The only reason he came over was that his mate had a phone call and was sat on the stairs, announcing his private life to the world. I'm trying to get used to this but conversations, meetings and even full on sales pitches are just awkward interruptions to the endless stream of mobile phone calls that obviously make Singaporean's lives so rich and fulfilling.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

New and Improved

My HDB block has been accepted for upgrade which means new lifts and covered walkways. There are currently 2 lifts inside the block serving ground, 5th, 9th and 12th floors. A new lift tower will be added to the outside (joining the external corridor on each floor), then they will upgrade one of the existing internal lifts and close the other one down. So still 2 lifts but both will stop an every floor.

It's the new, external lift tower that's the big job. It requires piling for foundations, then it's a stack of pre-cast concrete "U" shapes all the way up, then minor work at the base (the skirt, drains, tiling, and the power feeds).

The main lift work is scheduled for Dec07, and in preparation, they've started the service diversions; any underground pipes or drains where the new lift will be need to be moved. There's a nice note from the council warning of the disruption (noise from the machinery, concrete breakers, etc). The (Indian) contractors do a tidy job and it's only the noise that is sometimes bothersome.

The new lifts are nice, plus all have internal and external CCTV with a monitor outside at the ground level. One might imagine it's to spot homicidal maniacs from leaping out at you unawares, but more likely to discourage smoking, littering and peeing in the nice new lift. I've no idea if the CCTV feed is recorded but it doesn't make much sense if it's not. I expect there's hours of footage of Singaporeans madly pressing door-open and door-close buttons. Riveting stuff.