Saturday, 31 May 2008

East Coast Vibe

Singapore East Coast. Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/annegirl/522467774/Known as the East Coast, it's actually the South Coast stretching eastward from the CBD (Central Business District) pretty much from the fringe of the central area (where the Singapore Flyer is) all the way out to the end of Singapore, to where Changi airport is. That whole stretch is mostly residential with some high technology, entertainment and a red-light district (apparently) thrown in. The main claim to fame is that there is a beach; a thin strip of gritty sand between the grey/brown murk of the straits between Singapore and Indonesia where the cargo ships anchor waiting for their turn in port.

Thus the East Coast has the closest thing to a riviera that Singapore can muster. Big industry is zoned elsewhere and the investment is directed to cycle paths, bicycle rental kiosks, restaurants, camping, alfresco BBQ pits, chalets and even a water skiing pond (you are dragged around by an overhead wire).

Saturday we had a morning appointment just in from the beach and afterwards took a nice 5m walk back towards town. Everyone should do this periodically because it proves Singapore can be normal and fun. Joggers suffer in the heat but the determined ones manage a pained, sweaty shuffle. The sand is only 25ft across but it soon fills up with tents and huddles of young people hanging out, picnicking. Some intrepid swimmers brave the gloop; this ranges from Chinese in Lycra cozzies to fully dressed Muslim women sitting up to their waists, splashing around with the kids. Inline skaters, roller skates, the odd skate board and many hired tandem bikes with the poor guy at the front doing most of the work.

One word of advice; even on a cool, overcast day, walking in the shade of the tree canopy, wear a hat.

Singapore: 29, UK: 49

Peace DoveVision of Humanity has published their world peace rankings, putting Singapore in a relatively comfortable #29th place, well above Malaysia (#38), UK (#49th) and USA (#97). Topping the list of non-hitters are:

  1. Iceland
  2. Denmark
  3. Norway
  4. New Zealand
  5. Japan
  6. Ireland
  7. Portugal
  8. Finland
  9. Luxembourg
  10. Austria
  11. Canada
  12. Switzerland
  13. Sweden

So you might be wondering what is being measured here as some places (Iceland, Denmark) seem natural choices whereas putting Malaysia ahead of England seems to fly in the face of headline news. You can follow the link but comparing UK and Singapore highlighted some standout differences:

Potential for terrorists acts. UK 3, Singapore 2 based on a qualitative assessment of the potential for terrorist acts. Ranked 1-5 (very low-very high) by EIU analysts.

Number of internal and external conflicts fought. UK 4, Singapore 1, based on a UCDP defined conflict as: "a contested incompatibility that concerns government and/or territory where the use of armed force between two parties, of which at least one is the government of a state, results in at least 25 battle-related deaths in a year"

Estimated number of deaths from organised conflict (external). UK 2, Singapore 1.

The democracy and transparency scores drag Singapore down, especially freedom of press (8.3 versus 5.6), but beats UK on corruption (8.4 vs 9.3), an expected strong suit for Singapore.

One to watch perhaps is willingness of citizens to fight in wars. UK 2, Singapore 5 (higher is more willing). Interesting, but we've always got Glasgow...

Friday, 30 May 2008

Fuel for Thought

Exhaust PipeSingapore has no natural energy reserves and relies on imports of petrol and water from Malaysia, and natural gas from Indonesia. Both have notable stories this week.

The price of petrol is subsidised in Malaysia to the tune of S$17b per annum (£6.3b) as an economic perk to the masses. Good for Malaysians but also good for Singaporeans who see a big difference between the pump price on either side of the straits causeway. Today, a litre of 95 octane is S$2.186 (81p); it's about 30% less over in JB and to slow down rampant petrol trafficing, Singapore has a rule that local cars going over to Malaysia must have their tanks at least 3/4s full, otherwise you get fined (S$500) and they do check (by looking at the dashboard gauge so I suppose you could get sneaky if you really wanted).

That doesn't stop everyone filing up before driving back; it's an expected optimisation, like pressing the Door Close buttons in a lift; if you are Singaporean, it's just something you do. Many people pop over during the weekend, buy some cheap goods, go to the supermarket, valet the car, have lunch then drive back, filling up the car at the line of petrol stations just before Malaysian customs.

Now Malaysia has announced a ban on foreign-registered vehicles filling up on fuel within 50km of Malaysia's borders. It's to reduce the costs of the Government subsidy & it comes into force today (Friday). The impact to the local JB economy could be severe; at least the JB business owners think it will be, predicting some of the 300 stations within the ban zone will close:

"Die already lah, really die. Business will be down. There are so many kiosks, some will have to close shop."

With some station's patrons being 90% Singaporeans filling up that seems likely although the dust hasn't settled yet and this knee-jerk blanket ban needs more finesse to be workable.

The other energy story is natural gas piped from Indonesia via Batam. The Singaporeans pay well for the gas, about 3 times what the local Batam businesses do and with local shortages in Batam affecting trade, the locals are sabre rattling. Singapore has more than one source of gas, but it is used for ~80% of the local electricity production, so blackouts would follow any significant and prolonged interruption in gas supply.

Everybody seems to playing down the issue and it doesn't look like it will escalate like the Russian / Ukrainian spat last winter but if some Batam guys decided to get creative with the pipeline, who knows what will happen?

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Urban Trash

The TipSingapore is having another cleanliness drive, particularly litter in the HDB estates and the Government has formed a workgroup to look into dirty habits in the heartland. In reality, it's a simple issue with well understood themes:

Dense HDB living with small individual and large public space reduces personal responsibility. People who in past times would have swept their yard daily now just leave the corridor to be jet-washed by the council.

Littering is perceived as victimless and unpunishable. People who throw tissues and Q-tips out of bathroom windows are never going to be caught. It's the same spots on the void deck apron and under some kitchen windows that are littered; it's patently a minority at fault.

Same with smokers who as a global group seem to be unconcerned that cigarette butts are not biodegradable and, yes, I can see them in the bushes, drains, grass, etc. There's a chap opposite me who smokes at the window (so as not to befoul the flat); he'll stand there, smoking and spitting then flick the butt down onto the void deck apron. Since he stands in exactly the same spot each time, the ledge below his window has a large grey stain from the flicked ash. No one stops him.

The communal letterboxes at the void deck are strewn with junk mail leaflets; I don't blame residents, it's hard to pull out the contents without scattering these 2 x 3" scraps and few bother to stoop down to pick up junk mail. The authorities could stop this in an instant by banning private marketing flyers just as private condos do.

Setting fires for spiritual purposes is passively condoned by the authorities. The daily piles of ash, burnt walls, blobs of wax, burnt joss sticks and smoke continue despite the supplied braziers mere yards away.

Dog walkers? I don't think I've ever seen one with a poop bag. People just know not to walk on grass verges.

The ST article also mentions foreign workers which is low blow; numerically it's a local problem and the lack of enforcement against local recidivists makes this sound astonishingly patronising:

"They do not know that this is an offence here. Therefore, the town council staff and grassroots members have to give them advice. We need some time to educate them."

Apparently our local council is making an extra effort and just today we received a flyer from the local MP in this very topic:

"CLEANLINESS IN HOUSING ESTATES

1. If we look around our estates in mid-morning, by and large, they are very clean. But this doesn't remain for long and by the afternoon littering creeps in. Bits and pieces of paper are strewn from the HDB void decks to the parks and streets in private estates. By night fall it gets worse. Littering has become a persistent problem. Not only is it unsightly, it encourages breeding of pests like mosquitoes, which transmit diseases like malaria and dengue.

2. The National Environment Agency will extend litter enforcement from HDB town centres to the housing estates such as lift lobbies, void decks and letter box areas from April 2008. The first phase will involve a select group of constituencies. Further phrases will be introduced pending a review by NEA after the first three months of operation.

3. Keeping our estates clean is a shared responsibility. It rests with YOU and US. We are ultimately the ones who either make our estates clean or we destroy this beauty with litter everywhere. Between the two, I think your choice is obvious. You want to keep the surrounding areas clean. So let's make a committed collective effort and STOP littering and throwing unwanted receptacles around our estates.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Er LEE BEE WAH
MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC"

Note that the focus is on public health (discarded plastic bags & drink cups may collect water & breed mozzies), not civic pride or aesthetics.

Nothing will change because the daily clean up by the council is an environmental deus ex machina. No matter what mess is created, the faithful council cleaners will be out before 6am restoring order; people do not need to take any personal responsibility. The article confirms this with evidence from the Cleanest Estate awards:

"Yuhua Village Market and Food Centre at Jurong East Street 24 - one of the winning food centres - had relied heavily on stallholder and town council help to keep its premises spotless"

I wouldn't say Singapore is especially blighted by littering; Hong Kong & Malaysia are worse. But Singapore invests heavily in cleaning up and it would enhance a sense of natural justice if some of the above niggles were taken seriously instead of workgroups and photo-ops of MPs jet washing pavements.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Gone but not going away

Mas SelamatThe saga of escaped detainee Mas Selamat continues. The Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng announced to parliament the disciplinary response to his escape.

From the ST article, 9 staff will be affected:

Who: Two Gurkha guards. They escorted Mas Selamat for his weekly family visit on Feb 27 and let him out of their line of sight.
Penalty: Demoted.

Who: Special duty operative. A junior officer who handled his family visit. She did not take immediate action when alerted by the guards. She also did not observe procedures such as noting how many sets of clothes he had, which is why he had more than one set on him when he escaped.
Penalty: Dismissed.

Who: Special duty operative's supervisor. Failed to assess security regarding detainees' use of the Family Visitation Block toilet.
Penalty: Letter of reprimand. Relieved of all supervisory duties.

Who: Technical officer responsible for CCTV upgrading at the Whitley Road centre. Did not ensure that the system was recording at the time of the incident
Penalty: Letter of warning.

Who: Chief warder. She approached the superintendent to allow detainees to use the toilet at the Family Visitation Block
Penalty: Letter of warning.

Who: Whitley centre's deputy superintendent. Lack of supervision over subordinates implicated in the case.
Penalty: Demoted with pay cut.

Who: Whitley centre's superintendent. Lack of supervision over subordinates implicated. Also failed to take appropriate action upon discovering the unsecured toilet ventilation window.
Penalty: Dismissed.

Who: ISD Command Director and officer-in-charge of Whitley centre.
Penalty: Relieved of his responsibilities to oversee the centre.

All in all, a fair and weighted response although some have already claimed the ultimate boss, the minister, should resign (Japanese style) to take responsibility for the whole fiasco, I think this approach is better because it distinguishes between Management and Policy.

A Minister sets Policy and directs operational matters as a delegated function. If a minister fails to respond to an issue raised to her, then sure, she becomes part of the operational chain of command. In this case, guards didn't guard, a window was left unsecured (they sawed off the handle to prevent it being opened when they should have fitted bars), CCTV wasn't properly working, and so on. These are Operational matters, not policy.

When it comes to politics, cynicism knows no bounds and one of the reasons I am keeping an eye on this story is that it clearly is an embarrassment to the Government that puts great store in competence. The view floating around the blogoshpere was that the story would be allowed to run for a while, the Government would take its beating, then a line would be firmly drawn under the affair and that would be that.

So I was waiting for this line to appear, and so far, it has not. The out-going border checkpoints are still clogged with vehicles being laboriously inspected (the local residents have complained about the frustrated car and truck horns at all times of the day and night). The fugitive's picture is still all over the place, in stations, bus shelters, shopping malls. Even the Straits Times website (free pages) have the image permanently showing and if a Government-directed line was being drawn, you can bet it would be seen there first. It looks like this story has a way to run. Unless they catch him of course which would spoil it for socio-political commentators.

Friday, 23 May 2008

YouTokenism

Padlock. Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ninaoa-photocraftAt this rate, I'm going to sound obsessed by censorship but I'm only reacting to the news, and it segues nicely from the report a couple of days ago about the arrested blogger and his vindictive diatribe.

The new news is that Singapore's Media Development Agency (MDA) has just adjusted its banned website list. I knew the Government can monitor telephone calls (LI, or Legal Intercept) but I am fairly ignorant of any Internet controls and presumed all adult sites were illegal or blocked or both.

The ST article relates how the MDA has put 2 popular video sharing sites onto its list of 100 blocked sites because of uploading & sharing of adult-themed videos. These 2 sites are #19 and #33 on the current Singapore 100 most accessed sites ranking.

First question: what are the sites? The article was sensibly silent on this but the top 100 sites list is easy to find (they are the unimaginatively named YouPorn and RedTube). I've never heard of either of them but what's more interesting is that now that the MDA has added these 2 sites to their 100 blocked sites, they'll have to drop 2 sites already on the list.

Next question: what happens if you try to access a block site? According to another blogger, you get a blank web pages with:

The site you requested is not accessible.
For more information please check Media Development Authority.

The MDA doesn't publish the full list of banned sites but at least they are upfront about the block when you hit one. In England, BT introduced blocking of kiddie porn with project CleanFeed in 2004, and it's now mandatory for all UK ISPs.

So panic over; this is symbolic censorship, not the Great Firewall of China. The Government can validly claim to be blocking morally contentious web content, while the populace gets on with enjoying the other 100 million sites on the Internet. You can't dam the Yangtze with a pebble. Apparently, the block list only affects home Internet connections; offices and commercial connections are unrestricted.

By the way, the most popular sites in Singapore are:

  1. Yahoo.com
  2. Google.com.sg
  3. YouTube
  4. Windows Live
  5. Blogger
  6. Friendster
  7. Google.com
  8. MSN
  9. Facebook
  10. Wikipedia

Baidu, the Chinese search site is at #14, MySpace at #35. So US mainstream companies dominate, highlighting a surprising absence of big-hitting Asian web portals. Addressing this issue is the MDA's real day job as they try to establish Singapore as a regional New Media and gaming development hub.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

High Crimes and Misdemeanors

Scales of JusticeI know what treason means, it's actions disloyal to your country, but sedition is different; it's actions to destabilise or foment opinion against the Government. Wikipedia defines it thus:

"Put simply, sedition is the stirring up of rebellion against the government in power. Treason is the violation of allegiance to one's sovereign or state and has to do with giving aid to enemies or levying war. Sedition is more about encouraging the people to rebel, when treason is actually betraying the country."

The reason I'm explaining this is because Singapore has a sedition law and it's getting used against people who publish on the Internet, ie, bloggers. The latest was Tuesday; a Chinese man was arrested and had computer equipment seized for a blog post 2 months ago. Unfortunately for him, someone actually read it and linked to it on a popular socio-political blog (tomorrow.sg) saying how stupid this guy was. Then people complained. Then the police turned up.

So what did he say? It was an unnecessary, ignorant, crude tirade about a guy sitting on the floor of an MRT carriage. Where he got into trouble was that he stated and taunted the guy's race so he potentially fell foul of Section 3(e)

"(e) to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore"

Previous cases of sedition include (from the ST article):

  • April 2008: Ong Kian Cheong, 49, and wife, Dorothy Chan Hien Leng, 44, charged under Sedition Act and Undesirable Publications Act for allegedly distributing evangelistic publication that cast Prophet Muhammad in negative light.
  • 2006: 21-year-old accounts assistant given stern warning for putting up offensive cartoon of Jesus on a blog.
  • 2005: 27-year-old man becomes first since 1966 to be jailed (for a month) for posting racist comments online. In connected case, 25-year-old given day's jail and fined maximum $5,000. Later that year, 17-year-old blogger given probation.

As an Englishman, this feels very strange. Robust personal speech in England is not protected by a constitution as in America but having an angry, both-barrels rant doesn't feel like a criminal offense. I haven't read the full blog post (he has already deleted it and plans to write an apology) but I don't see incitement or a subversive intent. If he was a Hollywood celebrity, he would issue a written apology, check into rehab then tearfully repent on Oprah. Better to shun intolerance; gagging the source is at best unimaginative, and at worst, generates publicity.

England has not had race riots in recent memory (unless you count Brixton and Toxteth?) whereas Singapore has (1964) and the Government is determined to not just create but enforce a peaceful, multi-racial society. The issue of public expression is contemporary with the British Government's attempt to frame a Racial Hatred law so strict that comedy clubs would have to close due to lack of source material.

Only last week, the Singaporean Government wrote in response to an open letter from a group of prominent bloggers that its regulatory light touch of the Internet was clearly working and is now open to an even lighter-touch regime. So far, it's all sledgehammers and crushed nuts.

So I started off a teensy bit smug that England doesn't have or need a law on sedition but the Internet is turning every home into a printing press (which must be registered in Singapore) and the legal balance between this new-found public expression and social responsibility is in flux.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Gone Missing

Barbie. Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/patrick_q/The annual Miss Singapore Universe beauty pageant crowned Shenise Wong as the winner last night but you'll have to read about in the paper as it wasn't televised by MediaCorp due to falling audience interest. Shenise is pretty, tall, dark and a foreign exchange broker who when asked what animal she would most like to be chose a dog, for its loyalty and intelligence.

Even with the publicity from films like Miss Congeniality, a Sandra Bullock and Michael Caine light comedy of a few years back, the tense world of lip gloss and sling backs is a sub-cultural backwater. The Straits Times have a discussion board that is often refreshingly down to earth and welcome contrast to the stuffy tone of the main paper. On this topic, the apathy was tangible so when one commenter linked to the missosology.org and I initially mis-scanned it as misogyny.org (how Freudian is that?).

This is the kind of sideways contextual teleport that is unique to the web. The site's About This Website is a hoot; it was setup by a Filipino in 1998, initially as a personal site, but by 2001 was dedicated to the various Miss Whatever competitions, and was quickly creaking with 115 hits a day, requiring a change of hosting company. Wow, 115. Per day.

Shenise and her canine fantasy now go on to represent Singapore in the international finals held in Vietnam in July.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Vesak

Monday is a public holiday in Singapore, Vesak Day, (also known as Wesak) is the "Buddha's birthday"; it's not really his birthday, more a combination of his birth, subsequent enlightenment and final nirvana (achieved by death). Tagging the celebration as a birthday should be considered a Western cultural influence and possibly a simplification of the complexity of Indian subcontinent's spiritual narratives.

Travelers may face congestion with the ICA warning on Thursday to expect the two border checkpoints over to Malaysia to be extra busy as many people head off home or for a short break over the long weekend. On the plus side, the trains will run all night Sat and Sun.

Singapore and Malaysia set the date as the 15th day of the 4th lunar month, and since Chinese New Year was 7th Feb 2008, so Vesak is ~22nd May 2008. In keeping with the Buddha's teachings and way of life, Vesak is perhaps the quietest of the public holidays as Buddhists don't go around setting fire to things, letting off fireworks, having lavish parties or other such excesses. Instead, there will be events at temples, charitable works, readings of sutras, modest vegetarian meals and compassionate behavior. Ommmmmmmmmmmm.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Going Underground

Minehead. Credit; http://www.flickr.com/photos/glenbowman/Singapore is looking to dig itself out of its real estate troubles. I can imagine the meeting:

Official A: Okay Gentlemen, settle down. As you know, Singapore is an island and despite our best efforts at land reclamation, we can't build out much more sideways without sparking an international boundary dispute. The hi-rise factory idea isn't working out. We need a new plan.

Official B: How about building underground? We could claim ownership down to the earth's core.

Official A: Brilliant!

Singapore recently complete a major project to move much of its military ammunition storage into underground rock caverns. Despite the cost, it's worth it to free up the valuable surface land (300 ha) needed to provide a safety buffer zone around the ammo bunkers.

Now, eagle-eyed watchers have spotted a new tender issued to explore the feasibility of other 'underground rock cavern' (URC) facilities:

Singapore is looking at building underground power stations, water reclamation plants, wafer fabs and R&D labs, data centres, warehouses and port and airport logistics centres to free up surface land for other economic uses.

I thought the explosives cache was a good idea and they were sensible enough to say that the bomb storage is under a disused quarry, not housing estates. Well, that's what the claim, anyway. They're also building a petroleum storage facility under Jurong Island for crude oil and oil products like naphtha, condensate and gas oil, which also seems reasonable if only because of the neat symmetry of oil extraction and subsequent storage.

It's a pot pourri of ideas: ammo (dangerous); oil (practical); warehousing (economic); data centres (secure); factories (strange); R&D labs (huh?). Aren't geeky engineers pale enough? Notably, they didn't say what sort of R&D, perhaps it's something ... risky? The concept also puts the Singapore Government in league with some paranoid and sinister people, for example:

  • James Bond super villains had secret, underground facilities.
  • Dictators and military types love bunkers.
  • In Silence of the Lambs, the psychopath held captives in a well dug in the cellar.
  • In the post-apocalyptic Matrix, mankind had retreated underground.
  • Austrian men like holding women in cellars. [what is that all about?]

The English language is full of negative associations with that which is below us: "underworld" (hell), "under-hand" (sneaky), "under the table deal" (corrupt); that was "beneath even you" (contemptible); although ironically "downtown" is not perjorative. Whatever the practical and economic merits of the idea, it puts them in undistinguished company.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Expensive Suckers

Henry Vacuum CleanerSingapore seems caught up in the global vacuum cleaner conspiracy. Local evidence was found during an aimless wander around a hardware store in Vivocity, the shopping mall down at the harbour front. Such stores are pretty rubbish by my standards; all bubble packs and finished goods with few raw materials. Anyway, they had a vacuum cleaner on display, nothing super fancy, a drag along the floor model on casters with a hose. The ad copy went "Why spend twice as much?" Sticker price: S$1,760 (£660).

I've seen this design before with a glass bowl holding water that has some beneficial filtering properties. The paper has a gwai loh writing a regular column (not as good as this blog, I assume you) and a recent article related his inability to resist door to door sales people and how his wife hastily intervened before he bought a $3,000 vacuum cleaner, a snip at $50 a month on the drip feed.

I had woman peddling Hoovers at my door. She didn't have it with her, I imagine it was downstairs until she got a prospect, so I don't know what it was like but for investigative purposes I'm sorry I didn't pursue it.

I've heard similar tales in England. My ex boss' son (nice but a tad on the delinquent side), sold a deluxe £800 model for a while. It claimed a cast iron case with heavy duty motor and a special nozzle; you set it in the corner of a room with the nozzle blowing air down one wall. After a while, it sets up a circulating air current which cleans the dust out of the room's air.

Reality check: a vacuum cleaner consists of an electric motor driving a fan, a (plastic) casing, hose and optionally, a filter. At the factory gates in China, we are looking at less than £10. For me, Dysons are pushing it; every one I've ever used clogged then broke. A sales lady in John Lewis once confided that most Dysons were bought by men (flashy, macho design you see). Personally, I have some hope invested in those robot ones that scuttle around all day annoying cats. They're a bit fragile and underpowered at the moment but seem ideal for hard wood flooring.

So there's established precedent for aspirational vacuum cleaner sales though I wonder about the psychological sub-text: "My house is dirty, ergo I am unworthy. Spend a lot of money in penance and I can be rid of my sin." You'd be better off donating money towards genetic research into reducing human skin cell production but I suppose if you insist on spending £1,000 on a vacuum cleaner, it might as well be for spiritual reasons.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

An Irritating Truth (lah)

Rosetta StoneI've written before about how Singaporean speech is an eclectic tonic of English and Chinese with mixed vocabulary, grammar and accent. For balance sake, I should point out examples of excellent English use.

A newspaper covered an explosion in some Bukit Merah flats which blew out windows and substantially destroyed or damage several units. After describing the neighbours collection of belongings, the article went on to quote the fire dept:

"A gas leak is believed to have contributed to the explosion"

Well, Duh! But I wonder how many people would have carelessly used "caused" in this instance? A cause is certainly more definite but likely overstating the body of evidence. Next up is an example of a colleague answering the 'phone in the office:

"Yes?" ... "This is she" ...

That's nice and absolutely correct. It's all a matter of background of course. Schooling and parents' speech at home are primary contributors.

But 2 memorable examples from over 18 months is worrying thin evidence of strong language competency. Singapore should be in a supreme position to capitalise on its widespread English and Mandarin ability. They should be a regional Rosetta Stone, valuable in the global marketplace but, in all honesty, the opportunity is being squandered by the casual mish-mash that is Singlish combined with the regional accent.

I think it's quaint and fun, but the harsh economic reality is that the status quo vox populi may be cute & comforting but on the world stage, it's baby talk that needs to be left behind.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Generation Game

Generation-Y. Credit: http://flickr.com/photos/dalechumbley/The weekend paper had a multi-page spread about Generation-Y Singaporeans in the workplace and how their attitudes on life and work differ from previous generations. Given that the purpose of children is to rebel against their parents, I'm wondering where the story is.

Anyway, Gen-Y is loosely defined as those born roughly between 1978 and 1994 and is a simplistic progression from Generation-X (originally coined as a pejorative by fiction writer Douglas Coupland in 1991).

The key characteristics of Gen-Y are that they grew up with digital technology and now use it as part of their everyday lives, so mobile phones, video games, X-Box, Facebook, MySpace, SMS, IM, Twitter; all of which is supposed to explain the Gen-Y trait of seeking instant gratification. How it explains their penchant for using scooters in the office, getting Celtic knot tattoos, piercing their faces with metal bars and saying "Whatever" a lot isn't explained.

The Times had an vaguely amusing quiz to determine if you are a Gen-Y:

  1. Do you have your own web page? (1 point)
  2. Have you made a web page for someone else? (2 points)
  3. Do you keep in touch with your friends via instant messaging? (1 point)
  4. Do you SMS your friends? (2 pts)
  5. Do you watch vidoes on YouTube? (1 pt)
  6. Do you remix videos downloaded from the Internet? (1 pt)
  7. Have you bought & downloaded music from the Internet? (1 pt)
  8. Do you know how to download free (but illegal) music? (2 pts)
  9. Do you blog professionally? (1 pt)
  10. Do you blog as a online diary (2 pts)
  11. Have you used MySpace at least 5 times? (1 pt)
  12. Do you communicate with friends viz Facebook? (2 pts)
  13. Do you use e-mail with your parents (1 pt)
  14. Do you SMS your parents? (2 pts)
  15. Do you share photos from your mobile phone with friends (2 pts)

Score yourself as follows:
0-6 points and you are a baby boomer
7-12 points, you are Gen-X
>12 points, Gen-Y

At about 13pts, I am a Gen-Y apparently, despite being ~15 years too old. My ever faithful partner in life scored as a Baby Boomer. Both reasonable results given the quiz covered use of digital technology, not wider attitudes towards work, politics, personal goals, and so on.

The end of the article included a list (gack! about as predictable as a montage in an action movie) of 8 ways to get the best/most from Gen-Yers:

  1. Be Precise. Set concrete, aspirational goals to direct their ambition.
  2. Boring is Bad. Work needs to be challenging and changing.
  3. Constant Recognition. Feed them a regular diet of reinforcement and constant feedback. Do appraisals monthly or quarterly.
  4. Group Therapy. Assign teams and leverage their desire for collaboration.
  5. Work-Like Balance. They have lots of outside interests; get to know what they are and leave time for them.
  6. Generation Why. Explain the big picture and what part they play in it.
  7. No Bullying. Command-&-control leadership fails, use Emotional Intelligence.
  8. Office Party. Make work fun and employee-centered.

Why make a big story about young people labeled with an ill-defined and disputed moniker? There's little Singaporean spin on the story and much of it could be a straight AP piece off the wire. It does play to young people as reassuring recognition from nasty authority types. Mainly it confirms what we already know, that young people are selfish hedonists who are a pain to integrate into post-industrial, commercial enterprises. It's called Generation-Next and ever will it be so.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Don't Use the F-word

Singapore FlyerIt's the natural state of humans to compete and whenever a country or city announces a new skyscraper, airport, theme park or other attraction, journalists reach for the record books. Singapore has now finished its latest attraction, the Singapore Flyer, a large wheel with observation pods that turns; yes, it looks like the London Eye and it claims to be the "world's largest observation wheel".

Of course, it has to be the biggest, otherwise what would be the point, and it's a lot bigger, at 165m tall (~42 stories) it's fully 30m taller than the Eye. It doesn't cantilever out over water, rather its hub is held conventionally on both sides like a bicycle wheel, but the rest of the details are similar; air conditioned pods that rotate to offer a smooth, 360deg turn offering views over Singapore.

The flyer is built downtown-ish, across from the planned Marina Bay Sands casino complex, near where the F1 race pits will be. It's not opposite the Parliament buildings or anything like that which is where the London Eye comparison starts to break down a bit.

When building attractions, it's all about location. Malaysia is rightly proud of the Petronas Twin Towers, at the time of construction, technically the world's highest building (452m). Mind you, they have just 88 floors and the Skybridge (170m) between the towers is way, way lower than Toronto's CN Tower Sky Pod (446m). But they are pretty buildings, visible right across KL and that's the point; they are the only high buildings in KL. Contrast with Manhattan and the Empire State, Chrysler, World Trade, etc. The World Trade towers had 110 stories and that's a 2-for-1 deal. Makes the Taipei-101 (509m, 101 floors) look pretty, but lonely. The big daddy is the Burj Dubai, which when finished will take all records; currently (April 2008) it has 162 floors and is over 600m high, and might be over 900m when done (they haven't decided yet). Very impressive, but even lonelier.

What sometimes gets lost in the hubris of world records is relative scale. If the London Eye was bigger, you would have to put it somewhere else to avoid a visual clash. A spike, nearly a kilometer high, rising from the vast Dubai desert can never look too big. The Singapore Flyer is tucked out of the way and doesn't clash with a relatively low-rise downtown Singapore.

I've been on the London Eye and it's a nice view. The river location, opposite the Palace of Westminster is immediately familiar and you can easily see as far as the Dome and beyond. No, I haven't been on the Flyer yet. Standard fare is $29.50 (£11) which isn't bad (the London Eye is £13.95) so I'll check it out at some point, but it's a toss up between daytime for visibility and nighttime for effect.

The Great Wheel Corporation spent $340 million (£128m) building the Flyer (you're not allowed to called it a Ferris Wheel, the F-word is banned). Mind you, they re-couped some of that quickly as the first "flight" (another London Eye reference) was charged to corporate clients at S$8,888 (£3,340), for luck. Less lucky for Singapore is that the Great Wheel Corp is already planning bigger wheels in Beijing and Berlin over the next 2 years. Which brings us to the moral of the story; people only remember the first and the best.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Set Chair to Stun

Massage HutI've had a couple of massages in my life and I've pretty much hated every one. I've never needed a massage for medical purposes and I don't enjoy them enough to do them recreationally. In Singapore, I appear to be in my very small minority of my own.

At the low end, there's retired guys doing a spot of home business, handing out flyers offering a "Good Facial massage" for $10 (£3.40). Massage around Asia takes different styles but it's pretty common all over and he was covering all bases with 3 languages; English ("Facial"), Chinese and Malay ("Cu Ci Muka", or "wash face").

A lesser observed practice is fire cupping which leaves distinctive, round bruises on the skin but we are getting off into traditional Chinese medicine now, which has a distinct and robust status alongside Western medicine, not euphemistically like Complementary Medicine. Chinese will happily use both, simultaneously without any sense of conflict.

Local shopping areas usually have a reflexology shop that is often full to bursting on weekends. My local offers a 40min foot massage for $22 (£8.20) or a 20min upper body massage for $18 (£6.70), both available on a buy 10 and get 2 free basis. Discounting bulk appointments is very common to gain repeat business in a notoriously fickle customer base. I've heard good things about reflexology, but again, I've never felt ill enough to give it a try, though now I'm curious why it's half the cost of an upper body massage; in a surface area / mass basis, it sounds like the wrong way around.

Serious body wobblers have machinery at home, usually made by Osim who do massage chairs, foot massagers, back massagers, eye massagers, and more. We are talking major hardware here. The range of chairs includes a model with mood lighting, synchronised music plus massage and costs £3,000. This thing isn't a chair, it's an escape pod. I amazes me where they find the space to put such huge pieces of furniture but it's really just one end of a market for self-health products in a country without an NHS.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Keeping in Touch

Lonely Speakers CornerWe get regular yellow A5 flyers from the local political organisation. The ruling party (PAP) has an extensive grassroots presence as a bi-directional link to understand and influence opinion. I'm not against it in any way and I'm pretty sure Singaporeans have greater access to their MP and their local party organisation than I would in England.

Singaporean society is a pyramid with a lot of lowly-paid, working class people at the bottom and ensuring their needs are met is a constant political priority. Tax breaks, freebies, allowances, HDB upgrades, more buses; there are lots of options.

Here's a flyer from a few months back:

Nee Soon South Citizen's Consultative Committee

Free distribution

Vegetables every Friday at Block 718

Bread every Wednesday at Block 783, 804 & 832

Dried food every month at Block 783, 804 & 832

This project will be especially helpful to our needy residents, especially in the run-up to Chinese New Year.

We have drawn up a list of residents who qualify for this free food scheme. Please let me know of anyone else who should also be added to this list so that we can reach out to them.

MP Er Lee Bee Wah

It's a level of direct political touchy-feely that not even local councils achieve in England where instead, perhaps, non-political charities would be taking such roles. Singapore is smaller, sure, but a 49year continuity of ruling party must be a significant factor in such a pervasive, grass-root organisation.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Internet killed the Radio Star

Radio6am, I awake to the BBC World Service radio broadcast (88.9MHz FM). I get 5 minutes of world news, then Newshour (lasting 55mins if you are counting). It's what you would expect from the BBC and is old-school world news: disasters, the UN, plane crashes. Intended for a global audience, you do have to suffer such explanations as "the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown" but occasionally you get gems like a piece on road tolls where they decided to survey "black cab drivers". Sunday morning you get 30min of From Our Own Correspondent which tends to be more insightful and off-beat.

Technology though is creating some amazing opportunities. Years ago, I used to listen to Virgin Radio (pop music) and BBC R4 (for intelligent conversation). Then I dropped Virgin in favour of iTunes where I have about 50 days worth of music on random access without adverts. Now I'm dropping R4 in favour of podcasts and Internet streaming radio. I briefly dallied with the Listen Again feature for things like I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue but I tend to forget and kept missing episodes.

The Today podcasts keep me in touch with the core UK political scene and I like Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time. Then I have all the technology, business and language podcasts which I can put on the iPod if I want, or just listen to in batches as the mood takes me. I've no idea what Singapore radio sounds like but I think they are all commercial stations and I no longer suffer adverts.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Think of the Children

In-line SkaterGenerally I disfavour banning things and prefer to encourage restraint and tolerance. So it's curious that Singapore manages to do both, a kind of moral third way; they have a mass of restrictive regulations and but also rely on public self-censorship to keep everything harmonious.

For example, sexual content in the media; I'm not fussed but it's like a boiling pan than spits steam out from the lid unpredictably such as the following, recent cases where the MDA (Media Development Authority) acted on illegal publications:

  • Jan08; MediaCorp TV Channel 5 ran an episode of “Find and Design,” a home and d├ęcor series, featuring a gay couple transforming their game room into a nursery for their adopted baby. The MDA: “The episode contained several scenes of the gay couple with their baby as well as the presenter’s congratulations and acknowledgment of them as a family unit in a way which normalizes their gay lifestyle and unconventional family setup.” The episode violated the “Free-to-Air TV Program Code,” which forbids shows that “promote, justify or glamorize gay lifestyles.” Fine: $15,000.
  • Apr08; Cable operator StarHub fined $10,000 for airing a music video showing two women kissing for about nine seconds.
  • Nov07: Xbox 360 video game Mass Effect banned because it contains a lesbian love scene between a human(oid) and an alien. (Judge for yourself: YouTube, "Mass Effect"). To be fair, the MDA reversed this decision with an interim game classification system pending the new video game ratings scheme.

It's not the MDA's fault, they are just applying the law but all media censorship starts to look silly eventually. Producers openly attack the margins by pushing the acceptable guidelines then negotiating with the censor to retain borderline material. Age ratings on video games is sensible but useless; if you can't keep drugs and mobile phones out of prisons, you won't stop 16yo kids buying an M18 rated video game.

It's hard to say whether such prudishness has broad support. Singapore has a significant and active Christian community that consistently lobbies against gay rights and Chinese culture is morally conservative. On the other hand, mostly people follow a live-and-let-live philosophy.

The Government's goal is self-censorship; keep Singapore tidy, don't cause a fuss or offence. The official line is of "liberalising", while retaining "a very strong conservative core", which if you can stop giggling over the inherent absurdity, is a good description of the duality of approach. The OxBridge political elite are open minded but must keep in step with the public in matters of conscience.

I reflected on these official attitudes while waiting to cross the road at Orchard on Sunday. On the other side was a tall, white foreigner, wearing shorts, an iPod, Oakley shades, inline skates and several tattoos. He looked like he'd dropped through a worm hole from Venice beach, California. The sideways glances and nervous titters from fellow pedestrians confirms just how outlandish this is in Singapore. I consider myself reasonably in-touch with the local vibe and I did briefly wonder what laws he must be breaking. Talk about going native!

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Whatever Flavour

Can of WhateverI admit I missed the subtlety of the idea first time around. It was middle of last year and two new soft-drinks were launched onto the market called Whatever and Anything. They spent some serious marketing dollars and for a few weeks the adverts were hard to miss.

In the supermarket, I checked out the ingredients:

Water, Sugar, Colouring, Flavouring, Preservative

I decided it was junk food; a bunch of E numbers and an expensive marketing campaign and moved on. The cute part is if you actually drink the stuff (obviously I never got that far). Each brand comes in 6 flavours, but you don't know which flavour is in which can, hence:

Person A: "What would you like to drink?"
Person B: "Oh Anything"

Anything is fizzy and comes in six flavours (Cola with Lemon, Apple, Fizz Up, Cloudy Lemon and Root Beer). Whatever is non-carbonated (Ice Lemon Tea, Peach Tea, Jasmine Green Tea, White Grape Tea, Apple Tea, Chrysanthemum Tea).

It's sugary muck and I still haven't tried it but at least the idea made me smile.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Strap-On Respectability

I am not qualified to write about bras, being only a passive observer, but the particular sartorial preferences of the local ladies demand some comment. As I understand from the mass media, the purpose of a bra is primarily to provide comfortable support and secondly for visual elegance combining a desire to keep the garment invisible when fully dressed, and attractive when not.

Now you are probably way ahead of me by now as we both know, the Asian body shape is notably petite. You might even flirt with the idea that bras are not always technically necessary but you would be making a huge mistake. Bras are more than necessary, they are mandatory, irrespective of body shape. No Chinese woman can go out (of their bedroom) without a bra of respectability. It would be indecent and shameful otherwise.

With this in mind, we can now see that bra wearers have quite different priorities in Singapore. First: respectability. Second: support (as required). It is therefore quite desirable to explicitly prove that you are indeed wearing one which leads to the common sight of bras in strong colours (red, purple) whose shoulder straps are not only visible, but explicitly so.

So whereas a European lady would choose a blouse or top then select a bra of compatible colour and strap design to be hidden under the blouse, Singaporeans do the exact opposite. White sports top with X-style back design? That would be the black bra with straight straps then.

It's the equivalent of wearing a strapless dress with a strapped bra, on purpose, everyday. It is a most curious intersection of fashion and traditional, conservative Chinese values.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Gone with the Wind

I've mentioned the sudden loss from custody of Mas Selamat a couple of times so for the sake of closure for regular readers, you may be interested in the Government report on the escape.

In a nutshell, he prepared by wearing outside clothes underneath ths detention attire, popped into a closed toilet, changed, jumped out of the (un-barred) window and then bypassed 2 security fences by running along the roof of a covered walkway. The guards didn't and the CCTV was turned off. No-one is going to be disciplined for these lapses and it's up in the air where this falls on the complacent <-> incompetent continuum but the PM has said there shouldn't be a witchhunt.

As is often the case, the side stories catch my interest and the latest twist is that the resulting manhunt has also nabbed 66 illegal immigrants, some of whom were caught

"by a network of 'trip wires' set up by the authorities to snag the fugitive terrorist in case he takes cover in places like forests where the search forces have already combed.

Police operations director Wong Hong Kuan said the 'trip wires' included surveillance equipment and 'human eyes and ears' to ferret out the 47-year-old fugitive."

I thought that was a neat revelation of the search techniques used. They still haven't found him and the public line is that he hasn't left Singapore, though it's a mystery to me quite how they know where he isn't when they have no clue where he is. Mind you, in such games, perhaps it is in Singapore's interest to maintain a state of heightened alertness and in Selamat's interest to keep everybody guessing.

Monday, 5 May 2008

China Graduates

My recent posts on Hong Kong and China were really only pond-skipping a few impressions of changes in the last 10 years. In more reflective mode, I am struck by how little Hong Kong has changed since reunification in 1997. It's still pig ugly above the ground floor glitz and is a tiring, heaving mass of people, tourists, delivery guys, self-appointed recyclers, copy-watch vendors, tailors and potholes. Cellular antennas crudely bolted to building tops point their signals directly down into the tight, old streets or, when mounted at street level, point up at 45deg into the glass skyscrapers. The new airport is a vast improvement over the old Kai Tak "strip of fear" and the AsiaWorld Expo next door is even better than the visually awkward, downtown Convention Centre. They still do a mean Double Skin Milk desert, almost as good as the Guangdong shops. HK is more exciting than Singapore, but also more tiring, ruder, dirtier and the weather (i.e. pollution) is astonishing.

China, on the other hand, feels like it has come of age. So many things have improved and developed it's hard to relate. If you want, you can talk about the quaint anachronisms that persist such as the office worker eating lunch from the obligatory oval lunch box (rice, green veg & a couple of strips of pork) while sat on the Ronald bench outside McDonalds; there are kids in punky hairdos jaywalking across roads openly ignoring the traffic cop and his hi-viz flag. People still fly kites over the river but now they're plastic sports models, not traditional square bamboo & rice paper. Poor people scratch out a living, collecting cardboard and scrap metal at the base of Executive Condos.

But these are old images with new twists and the juxtaposition of traditional and Western is no longer even news. When I first visited in 1991, China was badly under capitalised and with a vast labour pool, really would employ 6 women with scissors to cut a lawn (I have the picture). There were spittoons everywhere, public buses needed to be pushed up hills and all cars were Government vehicles. But there was a collective hunger for better times which has blossomed into the current national pride, so much pride in fact that the sense of hurt over the disrupted Olympic Torch tour is in danger of escalating out of Beijing's comfort zone.

As a footnote, much as I enjoyed the retrospective tour (despite 3 days of wicked gastroenteritis) I am glad to be back in Singapore. It's home, it's safe and the sun is shining but modern China left a deep impression on me. China has embraced capitalism and nationalism to become a self-sufficient and bold world player. Learn Mandarin, go East.

Two great takeaway ideas from the trip: the electric scooters in NingBo and the stencil of a house fly on the urinals at Singapore's Changi airport; it just invites you to take aim and thus ensures as splash free a visit as possible. Both are winning ideas.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

(Ch)internet

I had pretty high expectations on this trip for being able to remain connected and continue the e-mail, blogs and such like. Now back in Singapore, I can report it's been a very mixed bag. The Hong Kong hotel had wired Internet for £2.66 / hour, or £8 / day, but that was per computer, so 2 travelers would need to pay separately. I'm 60% confident that my Apple Airport Express wireless router would allow 2 computers to share a connection so mental note for future trips, but don't tell anyone heh?

The Guangzhou hotel was similar to HK: £2.66 / hour, £4 / day but now behind the Great Firewall of China, blogger.com was inaccessible and my GMail went AWOL as well, staying in "Maintenance Mode" until well after I left China. I haven't figured out who to blame for the GMail blackout; it might be a defensive posture when Google suddenly sees a login from an IP address within China, or just a technical burp, but the timing suggests a Chinese connection. Whatever, I'm now far less keen to recommend GMail for business use unless you have a backup as I was locked out for over 3 days.

If you are wondering, the selective Internet blocking in mainland China won't affect Olympic visitors as they plan to derestrict the IP addresses for the buildings and hotels reserved for foreign visitors for the duration of the games.

Despite the room rate being fully one third that of HK, the NingBo hotel Internet was wired and free, as in, without charge. But with all the services I needed (blogger, GMail, encrypted tunnels) not working, it was the most frustrating of times. It seems free Internet and Internet freedom are mutually exclusive.

Back in Hong Kong, working feverishly in a daily 1 hour window, everything came back online. Hong Kong advertises a free (no cost) GovWiFi network, whose phase-1 works from libraries and some of the larger Government buildings. I never found the signal and couldn't connect.

A local HK telco, PCCW, has WiFi-enabled phone booths that provide access to their subscription and Pre-Pay services, but as a visitor, I might as well use the hotel rather than sit on a kerb.

I held out some hope for 3G cellular data and popped into a 3 shop, the retail front of the local 3G telco. They had the same Huawei 3G data modem that I have in Singapore, and their hardware is not networked locked like mine, but they don't do the 3G data tariff on a PAYG basis.

Throughout all of this, Google defaulted to a Chinese language interface. Everything is in the same place on the page and the search results are still English but it slows you down a tad. Geographic language selection is a sound technical choice, but I should learn how to force revert to .com or at least English at the .com.hk domain.

After 10 days of this, it was looking pretty grim leaving me in the mood to be pleasantly surprised when the Hong Kong airport offered free WiFi Internet with nothing blocked so I blogged and e-mailed and talked to my machine at home until the gate boarding queue for the plane was down the last 3 people. Finally.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Chinese Electric Dreams

Touchdown in NingBo, Zhejiang province and straight off I liked the place because the of blue skies; Hong Kong and Guangzhou were under a permanent grey-on-grey sky, polluted pall quite different from 10 years ago. It's literally dismal [from the Latin dies = day, and mali = bad, hence "bad day"]. Guangdong is called the Factory of the World but you don't even need to see a factory to appreciate the industrial activity.

NingBo, twinned with Nottingham, is an ancient Chinese port city, south of Shanghai and is now an economic zone with sprawling factories (chemical, plastics) over the river delta. Hence the visit. It's also the site of the world's longest road bridge that just opened this week.

Our hotel had a decidedly local character; the lobby, lobby cafe and lobby bar were all smoking areas, a stark contrast to Hong Kong where smokers have to do the outside-the-door huddle. The bar, actually a Cigar Bar, offered a happy hour (between 5pm and 8pm?) and a live 5-piece guitar band with 2 gals on vocals, one with a flute. And it really was a cigar bar; I got dizzy just poking my head through the door but by compensation, the Japanese restaurant was really good and the expat business community seems well served; there's even river-side condos.

Downtown remains non-industrial with some historic sights, pagodas and the like. Our hotel was next to the TianFeng Tower (pagoda) but I didn't have the 5 yuan (30p) entrance fee. There's a confluence of 2 rivers, forming a third so there's a 3-rivers theme, and a bull fighting theme, captured in a large bronze ox sculpture outside the No. 2 NingBo dept. store.

The most remarkable sight was not bovine but the omnipresent 50W electric scooters. The city has banned all motorbikes from the downtown apparently to cut down on dangerous driving but these scooters can do 25mph, perhaps 30 downhill. They are nearly silent, apart from the crappy bicycle-style caliper brakes and I would question the effectiveness of the policy's aims as these things weave around the roads, cycle lanes and pavements.

They certainly are a hit here and I'm amazed this is the first place to mandate their use. One problem, they are nearly silent so you won't be bothered by any tinny 2-stroke clatter just before they run into you on the pavement. Caveat pedes.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Above all, the Roof

Planes: check. Over-priced cafes: check. Big swoopy roof: check. The BaiYun GuangZhou airport (built 4 years ago replacing the old BaiYun airport) ticks all the right boxes with a modern spec and obligatory flowing roof over a vast space. China has plans to build 800 new or upgraded airports in the next few years, a figure that is hard to understand even when you know how big the country is.

The draconian, post-911, post-shoe-bomber, post-liquid-plot security regime is in force here causing a micro drama at an overloaded and anxious security checkpoint. It's hard enough trying to explain the complex rules about carry-on items to educated business travelers but when it's applied to elderly, working-class Chinese with their vast armfuls of bags, it can degenerate into farce. In this case, an old chap ended up clutching his possessions to his chest, pressing himself defensively against the X-ray machine as all 6 security staff tried to explain what he needed to do while trying to avoid a stampede from an audibly restless and growing queue.

At least they didn't insist you take your shoes off; leaving Heathrow recently I ended up standing in bare feet, wearing a shirt, boxers and trousers, walking through the metal induction loop (which didn't go off) but the security chappie didn't like the look of the passport and boarding pass in my hand and gave them a suspicious, rough bend just to be sure. I felt like checking with lost & found to see if someone had handed in my dignity.

Back in Guangzhou, it's no liquids and everything, coats & all bags, goes through the machine but you have to be quick to retrieve it before somebody else grabs it. Total confusion, not enough space for all the dressing and undressing, capricious rules. Game one to the terrorists.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Heroic Litter Collection

China's road manners haven't changed much; the roads here in Guangdong are much improved with the previously isolated stretches of highway now linked up. The animals, bicycles and farm tractors are elsewhere and this alone accounts for most of the improvement but they can still clog a 4 lane highway with 3 vehicles with their lane discipline. In England, the outer lane is lane-#1, then lane-#2 towards the centre. The Chinese highways, driving on the right but same principle, are signed as:

Lane-#1: Slow (Max 80kmph, Min 60kmph)
Lane-#2: Fast (Max 100/110, Min 80)
Lane-#3: Car lane (100/110, 80)

So you get cars in lane-#3 doing 80, trucks in lane-#2 doing 100, and cars undertaking both of these in lane-#1 doing 120. And that's without such wild cards as people who can't drive, Public Safety (police) cars doing whatever they want, people on the phone, undertaking on the hard shoulder and trucks on the hard shoulder reversing to get back to a missed exit.

England has a single speed limit (not even a weather dependent one which I think is an excellent idea) and a Keep Left rule. It does't work as people still hog lanes but at least it's simple. Hong Kong has inherited the English rules but this Chinese system is over-engineered and even less effective.

On a plus point, while paying road tolls are little fun, the toll booth ladies return change and ticket then wave the vehicle away with a firm hand/arm gesture, almost Japanese like. It's an uncommon courtesy, having little practical benefit, but further evidence of China's high aspirations filtering down to everyday work and behavior.

Incredibly, while all this freestyle driving is going on, there are guys picking up litter on the hard shoulder using a hi-vis jacket as protection; such selfless heroism is rare and in time of conflict one could form these men into a fearless fighting force, the only rival to disgruntled US postal workers.