Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Eats Shoots and Exits by the Left Door

This tale combines Singapore's famously high investments in public transport with the subtleties of language and the idiocy of crowds. The current MRT network has 3 lines feeding the central business district (CBD) from outlying areas. A new line under construction, the Circle Line, will go around the CDB at a decent distance and hence permit non-CDB routes. The Circle Line crosses the existing lines, in this case, the North-South line at Bishan.

The designers of the MRT system do a pretty good job of arranging the interchanges so a change from the North-South to the East-West line (at City Hall and Raffles) is just a matter of crossing the platform. Similarly, the new Circle Line interchange is arranged alongside so a North-South train will have platforms on both sides.

Bishan has been a construction site for months and the steady completion of the new platform has been visible from the train, providing a voyeuristic viewpoint akin to fish in a tank.

At the weekend, they flipped over; the train doors open on the new, Circle Line side while they refurbish the old platforms. It's temporary, so the train driver (probably called a Service Captain) does the announcement live:

Please exit the train through the left doors.

The Merlioness reports that on Sunday, while making this journey, the announcement caused everyone to get off the train, wait an awkward few seconds to realise the mistake, then got back on. To be fair, an Indian family stayed sat down and I think the fact they weren't kicked off (as is done when trains reach the terminus) confirmed their mistake to the crowded platform. It depends where you put the stress. If you said

Please EXIT the train through the left doors.

everybody gets off, whereas the meaning is

Please exit the train through the LEFT doors.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Singlish WOTD: Chiobu

Your Singlish Word of the Day is: Chiobu

Defn: Good-looking female, babe, hot chick

From Hokkien.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Expat Heaven

YachtI been saying it since before I arrived; Singapore is no hardship assignment and now some folks at Expat Explorer have done a survey which confirms it. Singapore is the best place in the world to live as an over-paid expatriate.

Singapore won first place for quality of accommodation and second place for luxury living. The latter category included access to private health care, access to more than one property, and ability to own a pool and to employ staff (such as cleaners). The UAE (United Arab Emirates) won on luxury but Singapore beat India into third place.

In comparison, the UK was ranked as least luxurious and most expensive for accommodation which makes the often-posed question as to why I am here inexplicable.

Today's weather has seen a daytime high of 30°C, slightly hazy with a gentle southernly (on-shore) breeze (13 km/h) and a relative humidity of 69%. We are not expected any late afternoon thunderstorms so alfresco dining or a long stroll are indicated.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Government takes on Grannies

SembCorpMy Singapore National Recycling Programme green bin bag was just delivered. I am invited to collect paper, cardboard, plastics, metals, glass, electrical appliances, soft toys, old clothing and shoes for doorstep collection after 8:30am on one of 3 dates written in marker pen on the bag. All in the same bag, but No Food Waste Please.

As you know, there is a big blue recycling wheelie bin at the void deck for these items, and you also know it is systematically raided by the local grannies and grandads. 60+ aluminium cans for a dollar. 1 meter high stack of newspapers might be 4 dollars. So what gives? Either the Government is trying to encourage more use of the big bin, or they are trying to cut out the local, fixed-income pensioners.

The copious, bilingual (not tri-lingual?) instructions on the bag include a stern warning:

"Unauthorised collection of recyclables is an offence and will be reported to the police".

Utter cobblers. This would be the same police that ignore cycling on the pavement, persistent littering out of flat windows, lighting fires on landings, unsafe storage of goods on landings and stairwells and parking motorbikes under the void deck. Everyone knows who the local recyclers are and where they sit of an evening collating the paper and bashing apart appliances for their metals (mainly electric motors for the copper).

So I'm confused again. Maybe it's just a top-down, national bright idea with no joining up to local communities and policing. Sounds the most likely scenario but the situation places householder's loyalties on the line; Government versus Grannies.

I'm with the grannies on this one as they are motivated to separate the materials properly for maximum financial worth and hence ecological benefit. SembCorp Environmental Management claims to retain ownership of the plastic bag they have just arranged to have thrown through my front door, implying an enforced duty of care without compensation. This faceless, lawyer-lined corporation does not need my charity. Oh sweet disobedience, tempt me not!

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Bonfire of the Niceties

Pileof BooksThe National Library Board (NLB) held their (annual?) book sale at the Singapore expo, last Friday thru Sunday. I wandered along with little purpose, although a couple of technical titles was in the back of my mind, and so I sauntered in around midday Friday past early birds already leaving with distinctive white carrier bags closed with cable ties and even stuffed shopping trolleys.

Inside the hall were 50 tables labeled above with simple descriptions such as Adult Fiction and Junior Fiction. Within these categories, the books were a complete jumble so you were left to just wander up and down looking for topics of interest. I grabbed a few, huge technical books, out of date for sure as most titles seemed to be published around 2000, but good enough for S$2 (70p) each.

Far more interesting was the behavior of the patrons. Keeners filled the provided shopping baskets, leaving them at the edge of the hall to return for more books. After amassing anything up to 200 books, they then sat down against the wall and slowly went through their hoard, tossing discards onto a rough pile at their feet, putting keepers in a fresh basket. At the tables, the neat rows of books quickly deteriorated into unkempt mass as selected books were tossed aside.

People behave this way when faced with free or cheap sales; first land-grabbing as much as possible, later to discard what, on reflection, they decide is not for them. I've organised a few jumble sales and there are definite types. The professionals (local gypsies in our case) looking for silver plates or valuable China going for 20p and leave within 10 minutes. Then there's the bag ladies, roughly sorting through clothes and just stuffing anything decent into the bag under their arm, sometimes leaving without payment. Then there's the charitable types, there to support the cause carefully thumbing a Foders guide to Portugal.

The organisation of the book fair was thought through; bags and baskets, helpers wandering around, a DJ at the back playing musak, the exit channels which divided buyers from visitors and guided the former down to packing tables staffed by schoolchildren who packed and counted the items. Then on to the ridiculously over-sized and dreaded Tensa-barrier maze ahead of the cashiers. I hate being in such processes and given the modest turnout, the formality was excessive.

The result was 7 books weighing 8kgs for S$14 (£5) and a disgust for the people who turned a generous opportunity into a greedy, selfish, ugly, rude stampede.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

It's Art Lah!

DavidSingapore tries pretty hard to create an international art scene and the latest is a series of evening events called The Night Festival. It kicked off last night at the National Museum, opposite the NUS campus at the end of Orchard Road, next to the YMCA.

Performed by an Italian troupe, Studio Festi, apparently famous for extravagant, outside public performances, they performed their Dancing Sky routine. Take two cranes and park stage left and right. String wire between with pulley to suspend performers and props. Then play music, shine some lights and pull ballet dancers in flowing robes across in a sequence of routines. It's billed as a "specially designed display of light and aerial acrobatic routines". I believe my description suffices.

The programme listed a 9pm start, with a repeat at 11pm. By 9:05pm there was already signs of trouble. The exceptionally happy announcer lady (speaking only in English) kept asking people to clear the traffic junction at the end of the closed road between the museum and the NUS grassed area. Some of the performance used the road and so had to be cleared. Problem one. People are stupid and distrust official communication channels, especially when they might lose their prized vantage point. Problem two: there was nowhere for them to go as the entrance to the grassed area was congested with more people unwilling to move.

The event security had black outfits with the word Security in yellow on the back (it's curious how little paraphernalia you need to create a sense of authority). The police were out on the road side. The PA lady's pleadings became tinged with desperation and at one point the restive crowd managed a half-hearted jeer. One of the large clutch of amateur photographers, a chirpy but world-weary philosopher summed up the debacle in one short observation;

"You see, no minister; crowd control like shit."

25mins late, the performance started well. Girl in white on a wire dancing with a bloke in black tux with her flying off and circling around. I was impressed enough to try and snap a picture. The next act was girl on a wire going left and right waving her arms, interacting with a model sailing ship, on a wire. The music started as Nessun Dorma, suddenly cut to a Maria Callas-like aria right after the Vincero! big hit ending of ND, then suddenly switched back to ND for another big hit finale. It sounded as jarring as my awkward description.

Next up was another girl on a wire, a piano (not real) on a wire, and some other stuff. I stopped watching. Let's just say this was no Cirque du Soleil. Just before I gave up and went home, they had big helium balloons tethered to strapping, bare-chested Italian stagehands, with ballet dancers suspended underneath on wires, being dragged through the crowds. The Merlioness registered some interest.

To be honest, my main memories of the event are the geeky banter between the amateur photographers comparing their hand-held Japanese supercomputers and the exhibit in the museum. We were sat directly in front of the door and inside was a 25' copy of Michelangelo's David rendered in deep red chintz. Sitting on the grass in front, he was only visible waist down through the arched doorway creating an interesting visual effect with the security staff in back silhouetted against this enormous red example of maleness. It was a hit with the ladies with head-scarfed Muslim ladies snapping pics with a delighted titter. You see? art can be exciting.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

No nostalgia please, we're Singaporean

PI was going to take a picture of the lay by, or at least the sign next to it, as it was a quirky reminder of times past. A few yards down the road from the local supermarket, it was barely long enough for 2 cars and I half imagine the sign was for explanation, rather than making a rule:

"Lay by for map reading. No parking."

In an age with GPS satnavs in most cars, it's a nostalgic reminder of well-thumbed city guides on passenger seats; the fingerprints providing a greasy vote on each location's popularity.

But this is one motoring respite that is no more. Indian (Punjabis I'd guess) have already ripped the tarmac and are setting the new kerb stones in line with the road. By the weekend, it will be fresh cow grass and the odd mark from the digger's tracks.

There just isn't any concept of If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix it. The lay by only protruded into the grass margin, not the pavement so apart from looking straighter on Google Earth, there is no utility from spending money to remove the feature.

Singapore is unremittingly modern and progressive; there is a simmering debate over the older buildings and their fate in an ever developing cityscape. Pretty much without exception, after much hand-wringing and consultation, the old stuff is pulled down. Sometimes it's for technical reasons like the foundations (no piles) into clay are not secure enough for the underground tunnel they want to build. Usually it's because modern office requirements don't match older interiors and there is serious money to be made with redevelopment in prime property areas.

I'm pretty sure you can be too protective of old things. Europeans tend to over value age whereas Chinese traditionally don't and shun hand-me-downs, not least because of potential spiritual entanglements with their previous owner. I shall say farewell to the lay by; I'll be the only one to do so.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Singlish WOTD: Makan

Your Singlish Word of the Day is: Makan

Defn: eat

From Malay. For example, "Let's go Makan."

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Unbearable Tightness of Being

MRT Lift Sign. Credit:'s Today paper carried a letter from a commuter who witnesses a minor altercation at an MRT station. All but one of the stations have lifts to access the platform level for accessibility of wheelchair users, those with luggage, push chairs, the infirm, and so on. In this case, it seems many were jostling for the lift:

"On my way to work on Friday, I got off the train at Tanjong Pagar MRT station to the sound of a man in a wheelchair shouting on the platform.

I realised that he was addressing the people in and outside the lift who were not making way for him to enter, and gesticulating at the able-bodied commuters around him to use the stairs and escalators."

I use the MRT lifts occasionally; all, or certainly most, stations have escalators in the UP direction but platforms are long and if you come out of the train next to the lift, why walk along to use the stairs?

This chap decided to have a go:

When I approached a train security attendant and told her what was going on, her reply was: "He should wait, there are many customers, you know."

I'm not surprised, and have written about the non-gracious Singapore. But I spy 2 elements to this incident.

First is the unwillingness of the MRT staff to help out. I put this down to simple fear of one person with little authority trying to chide a small crowd; you're as likely to get shouted at yourself as Singaporeans are feisty and quick to fight back.

Second is a widespread lack of compassion for the weak. From the top down, the policy is resilient self-sufficiency. Getting old and need money for medical care? Keep working. Singaporeans are not all heartless sods but it's a busy city and most people are in a self-absorbing rat race.

The poor chap in the wheelchair would be better off fitting spiked bumpers to the front and powering forward into the crowd. He'd be more respected for his fighting spirit than to sit there and plead for consideration due to infirmity.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

No Cinderella Story

Ugly Sisters. Credit: admit some initial attraction to the idea of hiring domestic help when I first learned of the (practically legendary) cheapness of domestic labourers in Singapore. The Government calls them Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW) but everyone else calls them maids. And they are everywhere. If you want English-speaking, then Filipinos are recommended, otherwise Indonesians.

You see them on the street and in shops and restaurants in their uniform of T-shirt and oversize shorts, both washed to the point of grayness. It's defensive you see; better to avoid attracting attention of _any_ kind. It's the same tactic hostages are taught; Andy McNab talks about becoming the grey man in Bravo Two Zero. Any suggestion of sexuality risks comparison with the female employer or attracting unwanted attentions of the male employer.

I'm going to call it a plight, even though I know most welcome the opportunity to earn foreign currency to send back home. Many are married (or thereabouts), often they have their own kids. Standard contracts are for 2 years with no home leave, but some stay for decades; it really varies.

There are few absolute regulations involving where they sleep. They should have a space to themselves but it can be the windowless bomb-shelter (I'm not kidding) built into many condos.

Where possible, your FDW should be given a separate room of her own. In the event that one is unavailable in your home, you should respect your FDW's need for privacy and ensure that sufficient private space for sleep is provided.

They don't need a TV or radio as they will be up to cook breakfast for the kids are 5:30am and might still be washing up or ironing at 9pm.

The duties of a maid are to assist the household which means cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, childcare, nannying and care of pets and the elderly. It excludes duties outside the home like cleaning the car (much flauted), caring for a non-household member (say, a neighbour) or supporting a business (baking cakes for a shop). You are not allowed to loan out or share a maid.

Which brings us to a contemporary issue of whether to give your maid any time off. Actually, more a long-standing issue as this BBC story from March 2006 shows. When I was in China/Hong Kong, the Filipino maids used to gather every Sunday at Causeway Bay on the island for a packed rice lunch and a chat with fellow natives. In Singapore, accredited agencies are supposed to create contracts with paid rest days included but you try enforcing it; a maid can go for 2 years without a day off. There is even a website to highlight the issue and a recent Government review concluded the status quo was reasonable:

most maids are happy working in Singapore and the reported cases of abuse have remained low. 'There is therefore no need at this point for MOM to legislate a mandatory rest day'

Officially, the Ministry encourages rest days:

A well-rested Foreign Domestic Worker (FDW) is more productive and better adjusted. Hence, you should ensure that your FDW has sufficient rest, especially during the night.

Sufficient rest days should also be catered for, as mutually agreed upon between yourself and your FDW. Such rest days should be in addition to any family trips and outings which you may take your FDW on.

That's all well and good but the word from taxi drivers is that Singaporeans are getting a bad reputation for maltreating maids and many are now learning Cantonese to seek work in Hong Kong where conditions are better. Singapore is therefore having to consider other sources of cheap and pliant female economic migrants such as Nepal to fill the strategic maid gap.

A steady supply of maids is important since the tax benefits for a working couple are considerable and the FDW policy underpins the Government's desire for the Dual-Income-Lots-of-Kids Singaporean family unit. The new worry is of a generation of kids brought up by untrained nannys, but the English aristocracy mostly survived this issue so I imagine Singapore will also.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Singlish WOTD: Gostan

Your Singlish Word of the Day is: Gostan

Defn: Go backwards, reverse, back up

From Pidgin English originally from the nautical phrase "go astern".

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Gone in 6 days

Missing BikeSpot quiz: what is the most populous European city? Singapore is about 4.5m people in 270sq miles. London is ~7.5m people in about 600sq miles so this city state has the higher population density by 30%. The next biggest European city, by the way, is Berlin with 3.5m making London the most populous by a clear factor of two.

What about cars? In 2006, Singapore had 800k vehicles on the roads, of which, about 500k were cars and 140k were motorcycles. That's about 9 cars per 100 people in Singapore, versus about 35 per 100 in London.

Spot quiz: how many cars were reported stolen in Singapore in 2006? You'll never guess. It was 63; one car stolen every 6 days. Motorcycles faired a little worse with 647 but then they are more easily taken and hidden.

They say in Singapore "Low crime Doesn't mean No Crime" but it seems it's all relative. Compared to my experience of vehicle crime, one stolen car every 6 days is not even statistically significant.

Apparently, this doesn't mean low insurance premiums and many bikers only have 3rd party cover, not even TPFT, but then every aspect of vehicle ownership is expensive in Singapore. The adaptive Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) is being steadily expanded in scope. It's simple capitalism, using money to determine who drives and who takes the bus.