SINGAPORE SOJOURN PART FIVE January – May 2008 Roger Smith 1
Black Letter Days Monday, 7 January 2008 Today's a black letter day. Print journalism in Singapore has taken another step forward, albeit out of the same stable that controls most of the country's print media. On my morning run into work I have to run (and I use this term figuratively as no one in their right mind actually runs to work in Singapore's humidity) a gauntlet of curry puff salesmen, itinerant and discordant erhu players and newspaper distributors. As I have written before, speed of mobility is not much in evidence in a Singaporean morning and most of my fellow commuters look and act as if they are still half asleep ‐ which probably they are. This in turn translates to the bovine gait that effectively blocks anyone with the motivation to get to work quicker along the crowded pavements. Normally the few hardy souls who are in a rush walk around the pavement blockers, often taking to the road verge to do so. The problem is exacerbated when the person you are trying to pass takes a call on their mobile phone (often) or slows even further to pick up the free morning paper, My Paper. Not content with this collection they then slow still further to read the headlines. Up until now, My Paper has had little appeal to me mainly because it was written entirely in Chinese, a language in which I am woefully deficient. However today, the first bilingual edition of My Paper hit the streets. If one includes the advertising lift‐out there are sixty five English pages to digest en route. While not the highest quality of journalism and leaning toward the tabloid end of the spectrum, My Paper nevertheless fills a market niche. So today I weakened and did what thousands of Singaporeans do ‐ I slowed down and grabbed a copy. Now all I need is a curry puff.
Momentous Days In Many Ways Friday, 11 January 2008 It has been a momentous couple of days. Towards of the beginning of the week came the totally unexpected news of my appointment as an Associate Director at NUS. I felt very humbled to be acknowledged in this manner, especially as I have been at the university less than six months. Singaporeans live and work by the creed of meritocracy. In other words, should a person demonstrate ability then this will be noted and rewarded. Such recognition makes very pleasant change from hierarchical structures and political correctness that I left behind in New Zealand. In Singapore the reward is not confined to an elevation in the ranks, but can also be reflected in the pocket, through the annual bonus scheme. This applies within government and universities as much as it does in private industry. Performance bonuses are usually announced in January, so the canny Singaporeans do not leave their current employment for another company until they have the have banked their bonus cheques. The other excitement has been our two day 'advance' (a 'retreat' is deemed too negative) on the island of Sentosa which concluded today. A most enjoyable couple of days staying overnight at the Sentosa Resort, which is extremely well appointed. Yesterday we went to the nearby Spa Botannica for a choice of 'East West' or 'Swedish' massage. The 'East West' is purportedly more vigorous than the 'Swedish' so I opted for the latter. Given the vigour of my masseuse and the fact that I am finding it rather difficult to walk downhill post‐treatment, I would hate to think of the side effects of the 'East West' application. Presumably they try to align your body to all points of the compass, hence the title! Several of my colleagues also reveled in the spa's mud bath but having lived in Rotorua I felt no such inclination. We went to a beachside restaurant for a buffet evening meal and followed this up with a performance of Sentosa's Songs of the Sea (video below). While the screen play was somewhat corny the laser light, pyrotechnics and water display were spectacular. 3
Other events in Singapore this week included the rather embarrassing revelation that Singapore Airline's show piece A380 has been 'cast' on the grass verge of a runway and had been extricated after a day of effort. On matters aeronautical I should also mention that Changi's Terminal 3 has opened and it was outside this spanking new structure that the A380 came to rest. On a sadder note came the news today that the quintessential New Zealander and conqueror of Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary, had passed away. Non‐Kiwis may not even have heard of this laconic and unassuming man, but to most of my generation he epitomised everything that was best about being a New Zealander. Peter Calder of the New Zealand Herald wrote a fine tribute to him. His work for the Nepalese post‐Everest was also the stuff of legend. As Calder records "He was the New Zealander most admired by New Zealanders". It is sad to end the week on such news, but a joy to reflect on Sir Ed's contribution to mankind.
The World's Your Oyster Sunday, 13 January 2008 Well not quite... News today that oysters are off the menu for lovers of that Asian delicacy, the oyster omelette. As with many food stuffs from China this product has a bad press in Singapore. 80% of oyster imports from China into Singapore were rejected in 2007 and hawkers are resorting to the use of prawns as a substitute. Orh Luak (a name for the omelette) has a delicate taste but the oysters are very small. They bear no resemblance to the large rock or Bluff oysters that I used to eat in New Zealand. One of the more interesting food blogs in Singapore (and there are many!) is 'ieatishootipost'. Its author has three reviews of omelette eateries that are worth noting. One final word on the subject of this food blog; I note it has a section dedicated to the Margaret Drive Food Centre which is a short walk from where we live. One look at the fried You Char Kway, Chicken Rice and Popiah and it is easy to see why my waist line is increasing.
Minister Mentor appears from time to time on our television screens. His observations are profound especially when one considers his advancing years. I particularly related to his latest comments that retirement means 'death'. He was speaking at the Silver Industry Conference and Exhibition and was widely reported. The Christmas decorations have been taken down only to be replaced immediately by those celebrating the forthcoming Chinese New Year. New Year goodies are 30‐40% more expensive in 2008 as the price of flour has gone up, due to the worldwide shortage of wheat. As we will be travelling in the USA over Chinese New Year it will be interesting to see how San Francisco's Chinatown celebrates the festival?
Year Of The Rat Thursday, 24 January 2008 It's also the cold and flu season. I sense this because there is a cacophony of coughing and rowdy throat clearing throughout the MRT cabin. I have also managed to catch the head cold virus that is going around and for the past couple of days it has laid me low. At least it happened now and not next week when we will be getting ready to board a long haul aircraft to the States. Preparations are in full swing for the forthcoming New Year. This Chinese New Year is the Year of the Rat, my sign. Equally importantly & according to Chinese mythology it is more precisely known as the year of the Earth Rat. Talking of Rattus Rattus, there is a nest of them just outside the entry of my place of work. Sometimes in the early morning I will spot one disappearing under the large concrete slab that protects their nest. Also at this time of year the price of Bak Kwa rises dramatically. I note that this traditional barbequed meat has joined the age of the internet and one can actually purchase it online. In older times it was only available around New Year but now one can buy it at any time. The
current online price is $43 but this will no doubt rise further, which is more than can be said for world share markets at the moment. Buying shares is a passion for many Singaporeans and I fear many of them got burnt in the spate of panic selling that has traversed the globe in recent days. It is hard to know if the worst is over as today there has been a 4% rise in value across the Singaporean board.
Let's Hear it for the Beeb Friday, 25 January 2008 Sometimes I am reminded that this blog is not just a self indulgent stream of consciousness. There are actually people who break, or add to, the daily tedium of their lives by reading it! So it was when I received some feedback recently from an expat recently relocated to Singapore and who had followed my ramblings, as an information source prior to her shift. Having lived in Singapore since September 2006 it is easy to forget the little things one needs to know when moving to a new country. With such readers in minds I thought I would recap on my early comments and suggestions The efficiency of local public transport has been mentioned in this blog before and there is news in today that the MRT system is to be further extended with two additional lines. The buses are in the main very efficiently run although the quality & cleanliness of some vehicles leaves a lot to be desired. Taxis are comparatively cheap when compared to other countries and private cars are expensive to own and operate. I have no desire to own a car here for the above reasons and with the possible exception of supermarket shopping, there is no reason to do so. One big suggestion I would make is to bring with you, or purchase upon arrival, a radio capable of tuning into overseas stations. While I listen to a lot of radio via the Internet nowadays if you
are a person who likes to hear what is happening in the big wide world, don't rely on the local Singaporean media to inform you. In the main the programming of both radio and free to air television is parochial in its vision and content is very patchy. There are a few exceptions and Channel News Asia is one, although as its title suggests its focus is largely Asia. Not that I personally have any problem with the control of media here, it is simply a case of variety in one's listening diet. BBC Radio has been a godsend in keeping us informed. Fortunately the 'Beeb' has a station base (relay?) in Singapore which has a powerful signal. I also use the web to subscribe to various podcasts from around the world and to scan online newspapers. That way I can create my own media channel and view it and as when I like. A word about the local Mediacorp artistes (and I used this term advisedly). As Mediacorp owns and operates the free‐to‐air channels and there is a very small talent pool, the same faces can be found in situation comedies, game shows, introducing documentary features and traipsing around the food courts, sighing orgasmically at every mouthful of local hawker fare. This is not to suggest that there aren't a couple of talented people amongst the performers, it is just that they are totally over exposed.
A San Francisco Chronicle Friday, 15 February 2008 Its 4:30 a.m. in the morning as I start this piece and you may well ask, why such an early start? The reason of course is that my body's time clock has failed to adjust back to Singapore time after 15 hours of flying time across the International Date Line. This despite following my usual in‐flight routine of ensuring at least five to six hours sleep. I learnt this trick from a frequent flyer to Europe. He always took a sleeping mask, earplugs, an inflatable neck pillow and a sleeping tablet ‐ in that order. While I am not a great fan of sleeping drugs, it does seem to work along with drinking lots of water and not devouring the entire content of the plastic food trays that come my way.
Why San Francisco? Well post‐trip I am asking myself that very question especially as we had the choice of a leisurely cruise in the China Sea or another trip to the USA. The reason was deceptively simple. Neither my wife had ever been to San Francisco and we are both of an age where we can remember the flower power generation and Scott McKenzie's catchy melody. So this Chinese New Year we left Asia and headed to the States aboard United Airlines flights. A word about this airline; the 777 flight from Singapore to Narita (yes there was a short stop over) was pleasant and comfortable as the plane had plenty of leg room. The Boeing 747 flight from Narita to San Francisco and the return flight were nowhere near as pleasant as the seat configuration in 'cattle class' meant that we felt crammed in. Being winter in the States we packed a lot of woolen garments that hadn't seen the light of day since our New Zealand life, two years ago. These proved a lifesaver although the purchase of two good winter coats was high on the list of our priorities. When we arrived in San Francisco we booked into the Westin St Francis in Union Square. This has an ideal central city location and the building itself had survived the 1905 earthquake so it resonated with the charm of yesteryear. The service was excellent but a word to the wise, do not open the mini‐bar refrigerator and shift any of the contents. The system is built around computer sensors so each bottle move is recorded as a 'purchase' in the central system, even if you are only putting your own carton of milk into the fridge. Fortunately we had an understanding reservations clerk when it came to check out and the matter was speedily resolved. Having checked in to our hotel we made a bee line to the Burlington Coat factory which is on 5th street and within easy walking distance of our hotel. There are some great bargains to be had here and we bought stylish, woolen, winter coats for around $US 140‐160, a fraction of the price in the department stores of Singapore. The abiding memory I have of San Francisco is not a pleasant one. The number of homeless begging on the streets was quite shocking to behold and many of them were suffering from mental illness (top image). One visit to the tourist trap of Fisherman's Wharf we were appalled to see a man putting his hand into the rubbish bin and stuffing food scraps into his mouth. The Mayor doesn't seem to have this problem high on his agenda and during our stay, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article on his hiring of highly paid staff at the expense of the city's social needs.
A note about Fisherman's Wharf: Take the cable car which is great fun even in winter. Buy a three day pass for $US18 which is value for money when one considers that a one way fare is $5. We went on the Powell Hyde line to the Wharf and returned on the Powell Mason Line. Our arrival at the end of the Hyde line was fortuitously near the Ghirardelli chocolate factory so sampling was undertaken. We made most of our Ghirardelli purchases though at the local supermarket, Walgreens. It was the Dungeness Crab season so Fisherman's Wharf was featuring this local delicacy. I have always found crab a bit bland in taste and the Dungeness variety was no different even when served with the local sourdough bread. Worth a taste but give me Singaporean Chili Crab any day! A word about the other much vaunted tourist trap that features in every Bay Guidebook ‐ Chinatown. What a disappointment this place is. Tawdry trinket emporiums and tacky decorations featured largely and this at the height of the celebratory season, Chinese New Year. It maybe the "largest Chinatown outside Asia" but my strong advice is to give the place a miss. I readily admit that I could be biased in my judgment of the San Francisco version, as we have a bustling and true Chinatown here in Singapore. Truth was that both of us were expecting more of the place. My only abiding memory was a dispute between a local city ordinance officer of majestic proportions and a Chinese green grocer which took place in our earshot. It seems that she, the green grocer, had failed to remove her produce from the roadside despite repeated previous violations. The result, a fine of $700 which was surely not the luck she was hoping for at New Year. Our visit coincided with the Super Tuesday primary elections so the media was full of Obama versus Clinton and forecasts of their future campaign results. The best day of our San Francisco experience was the Saturday Farmers' Market at the Ferry building (image with hat). Succulent fresh dates, nuts, cheeses and other produce were to be had and at a reasonable price although the prefix 'organic' as usual meant a hike in prices.
On the subject of victuals: We breakfasted at Lori's Diner on Powell street most mornings. The cooked meal was ample in proportion and shared between us. The experience is one of dining in a 1950's time warp museum with suspended monoplanes, coke signs and Chevrolets sliced in half and wall mounted. Great fun and reasonably priced. Charlie the doorman (pictured) was there to greet us each morning, even if his garb was a little grubby and in need of a clean. So was after five days in San Francisco did I leave my heart there? Well frankly no. I think one visit was enough in a lifetime to this city that spawned the flower power generation. It reminded me so much of Wellington, New Zealand (but with better weather!) From San Francisco we went for a couple of days to Las Vegas and this will be the subject of my next entry.
And So To Vegas Thursday, 21 February 2008 This will be a brief follow up on our recent US odyssey as Las Vegas was a quick three nights add on. I had visited Vegas four years ago and this time instead of staying in Circus Circus we opted for Harrahs. The reason being that is was more centrally located on the Strip and (according to my wife) the slot payouts were better! Alas this proved not to be the case. It reminds me that prior to our first trip, I did some research into slot machines to ascertain if there was such a thing as a "hot machine" just waiting to jettison its jackpot winnings into our containers. There are those who believe that if you let others load their money into the machine it will be primed ready to pay out when you follow them. This is a fallacy as the random number generator within the machine keeps running regardless of whether someone is feeding in coins or not. 10
In other words each machine is pre‐programmed to achieve a certain percentage pay out and it is pure luck if your pull of the handle results in a payout. The rooms at Harrahs were good but the casino itself was so smoky as to be totally unpleasant. I guess the casino owners have worked out that compulsive personalities are likely to be both gamblers and smokers. By comparison, the new Wynn's casino and shopping arcade was very pleasant to visit and we had two wonderful buffet brunches there. As it has high ceilings and good air conditioning the smoking was a lot less obtrusive. There were many Asian features in the complex such as the waterfall featured in the image above. One thing about this trip was that being winter, the oppressive desert heat that greeted us in July of 2004 was not in evidence.
Heroism & Hazy Recollections Sunday, 24 February 2008 My 'day job' is at the National University of Singapore, more specifically working in their Alumni Office. All of us are looking forward to the May move into our new premises ‐ a purpose built home for returning alumni. Regrettably though, two days ago on the afternoon of February 22nd, a large 60 metre crane working on the site suffered what was apparently structural failure and crashed to the ground killing three workers. Media reports today have identified the crane driver, a Mr. Mohamad Homsen Kassan, as a hero. He apparently stayed in his cab after shouting a warning and attempted to steer the boom of his crane away from the nearby student bus stop and Business building. By remaining in his cabin he was crushed and was killed in the accident. A brave man! Visitors and locals alike will be very aware of the hundreds of cranes dotting the Singaporean skyline at the moment as there are a plethora of major projects underway. It is perhaps therefore not surprising that from time to time a crane should malfunction. Apparently though, nobody in recent memory can recall such a catastrophic collapse of a large crane.
Today is Sunday and the haze from the burn‐offs in Sumatra are back, although not yet at the lung‐clutching levels of late 2006 which we experienced shortly after we arrived in Singapore. It remains to be seen if the prevalent monsoon winds will blow this debris away or towards the country. Either way, Indonesia has once again demonstrated a complete disregard for it its neighbours despite previous assurance that they would crack down on errant plantation owners and small holders. When you burn off land that amounts to the size of 2,000 football fields no wonder there is a problem.
Beefy Smells Wednesday, 27 February 2008 Body odour is a personal thing. I recall when I first married into an Asian family one of first things I learnt was that to many Asians, Europeans reek of beef. A simple factor being that meat forms a significant part of the western diet and this is not so in the largely rice diet of Eastern countries. Dairy products are another point of difference. A visit to a New Zealand small cheese producer once elicited a bout of dry retching from one of my sisters‐in‐law. It is therefore not surprising to learn through a recent British TV science programme that certain diets result in stronger body odours than others. A scientific test proved that a curry diet was most prominent amongst the odours that lingered, through the pores of the skin. Having sat on Singaporean public transport these past two years I can vouch that this is so! There have been a number of complaints in the newspaper in recent times about the quality or lack of air‐conditioning on the MRT in peak hours. With the increase in taxi fares more and more people are resorting to public transport. The government's response has been to increase the frequency of buses and trains which is good news for those of us who queue in the mornings. 12
You Can Run But You Can't 'Ide Friday, 29 February 2008 Beware the Ides of March! So said the soothsayer to Julius Caesar and by my reckoning the 'Ides' remain around the 15th of this month. Today being March 1st therefore promises a good 14 days of normality before the prophecy of doom is made manifest. The omens are not good however as today's duck curry (whose virtue I have extolled in the past) at the Asian Civilisation Museum's Indochine restaurant was one tough old bird! Quite disappointing having mingled with the MRT madding crowds as far as Raffles Place just to get to the table overlooking the Singapore River. While mentioning Indochine, it must be recorded that the service (for that read interest in the customers) was not attentive. To cap the meal off and as we were exiting, I noticed one of the cooks sitting atop a stainless steel food preparation bench. This in full public view as the restaurant has an open kitchen. Just can't get good staff nowadays! On the subject of "H'iding" there is severe embarrassment all around with the escape of the militant leader of the Singapore Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terror network, one Mas Selamat Kastari. (pictured) Heads will surely roll (no pun intended) as the gentleman in question was a major threat and had evaded capture on these shores before, eventually being rounded up by Indonesian police and deported to Singapore several years ago. To have a man with a pronounced limp, and who was meant to be in a high security environment, break out of a toilet and completely disappear is quite staggering (again no pun intended). While Interpol have issues a world‐wide security alert it would seem that he has successfully flown the coop, no doubt to reappear somewhere in Sumatra in the future. Such security breaches are very rare in Singapore and the Republic prides itself on the security of its citizens. The confidence of these same citizens, if one believes the Straits Times Forum on this subject, has been severely dented and it doesn't help matters having outsiders making snide remarks about the escape. 13
Poetry 'n Motion Monday, 3 March 2008 I went Ten Pin bowling at a recent staff outing at the Singapore Recreation Club. As readers will note from the poise demonstrated in the photograph, this was definitely my first attempt at the sport. In the past I have turned my hand to the more gentile Gallic version of "Boules" (or "Petanque" if you prefer). I bought a set of boules back from New Caledonia in the early 1980's and used to play in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens during lunch break, with colleagues from the then Robert McDougall Art Gallery. A pre‐requisite of boules is a glass or two of red wine and a baguette loaf of bread. No such cultural enhancements with the US version of bowling. All that is required for bowling is a nifty pair of bowling shoes which one can hire and the ability to heft a large composite plastic ball. I was not alone in discovering that the selection of too small a bowling ball can mean that one's thumb remains semi‐permanently jammed in the finger hole. Despite all such tricks for beginners I have to say that the outing was a lot of fun. I even managed a respectable score in the second game having 'got my eye in'. Even more pleasing was that the following day I suffered no aches or pains from muscles not used to such exertion. It was somewhat gratifying to learn that a number of my much younger Singapore colleagues were still suffering from sore limbs three days later!
Neighbourly Developments Saturday, 8 March 2008 Matters close to home. Last evening we watched the outcome of the elections in neighbouring Malaysia and this morning's radio news confirmed a major upset for the ruling party. For the first time in more than 50 years the ruling coalition has lost their absolute, two‐thirds majority. 14
The reason there is such extensive coverage and analysis in Singaporean media is the impact this dominant player has upon the day‐to‐day lives of Singaporeans. From labour to basic commodities like food and water, much is transshipped from Malaysia. A stable Malaysia makes Singaporeans sleep a little easier at night and of course the economic inter reliance has a major impact upon both countries. The economic development zones of the former Malaysian government may now not happen, as the government's smaller majority will not allow them to push through their legislation unimpeded. With the loss of the outright majority of the Barisan Nasional party it will be interesting to observe what this does for foreign investment in Malaysia and for social order. In 1969 following the polls there were riots and a state of emergency declared. One hopes this will not happen this time around.
Taking the Pisang Wednesday, 12 March 2008 Hot on the heels of reported cardboard in Chinese steam buns comes the news of hawkers in the neighbouring state of Johor Bahru, Malaysia adding plastic straws and bottles into their cooking oil. Supposedly this enhances the crispiness and longevity of their fried bananas ‐ goreng pisang. "Would madam like some PVC with her order?" This potentially carcinogenic concoction and others like it are being noted in Malaysian blogs and have been reported in Singapore's New Paper this morning. It would be wrong to blame the Japanese for starting this trend. Their plastic food presentations are designed solely for presentation purposes with the aim of to luring customers. The practice of plastic food in the restaurant window has since been widely adopted throughout Asia. Perhaps the Malaysian hawkers in question took the trend of plastic food a little too literally? I think not. But it does explain, why on a 2007 journey to Genting, we tasted some of the worst ‘Chinese food’ I have ever experienced. I think in future I will be doing what other Singaporeans do ‐ stock up on food rations for the journey in Singapore. So much for the 'plastic fantastic'.
Flyers & Fish Nibbles Monday, 24 March 2008 This afternoon saw our staff visit to a new Singapore attraction ‐ the Singapore Flyer. 'Frequent fliers' on such attractions tell me that it compares very favourably with the London Eye. Not that I will be in a position to judge, as my taste for heights is not what it once was. I now work on the principle of terra firma ‐ the more firma the less terra. While the others took their thirty minute spin I had a look around the recently opened complex. It's been a huge investment and the engineering is very impressive. Once my colleagues were safely grounded we spent a pleasant half an hour having our feet nibbled in a rather fishy pedicure. The fish in question being Doctor Fish , or Garra rufa to its friends. This is one of the latest spa crazes to hit Singapore. At least when someone asks me "What did you do last Monday?" I will be able to reply "I had my feet in a bucket of flesh‐eating minnows". What does it feel like? Well the sensation is not unpleasant, much like small electrical discharges on the soles of the feet. Thank goodness they are not attempting this treatment with Piranha. Postscript: And if you should wonder why I did not go on the Singapore Flyer then please note that within the week of writing the above came the news of hundreds of visitors being stranded in the air on the London Eye! Within a year the Singapore Flyer itself had malfunctioned stranding passengers who had to abseil down to safety. 16
Of Atuomania and Arabs Saturday, 5 April 2008 Stay long enough in Singapore and one succumbs to atuomania. The 'atuo' stands for 'another totally useless object' and the manic variation manifests itself as an irrational desire to purchase objects, solely on the basis of a 50 to 70% sale price and irrespective of whether one actually needs the object or not. Today's 'atuo' purchase was an OSIM eye massager for the princely sum of $S148 (we passed on the $4,500 massage leather chair after one pummeled us into submission in Plaza Singapura). Once I got the massager home and discovered how to switch the heat function off, the sensation was quite pleasant. The device is designed to relieve eye strain and stress and as I spend a lot of time in front of a PC screen, it seemed like a good idea to get one. At least that's what the salesman intimated. After tightly adjusting the Velcro strap around one's head, it is simply a matter of selecting the programme variations of choice ‐ heat or no heat, gentle tapping or Thor style hammering and finally, the amount of air pressure. The last setting is somewhat critical and the first time I tried the unit out on too high a level, the sensation was akin to having one's eyes gouged out by a drunken masseuse. There is one inherent design problem with this gadget and no doubt you have spotted it? If one has followed the printed instructions and tightly bound the eye pad to one's head, it is impossible to read the instructions further. This results in a feverish fumbling as you struggle with the keypad and its very slightly raised control buttons. Now which was heat? No not that one ‐ that's tapping. No, not that one either..... as the pad rather painfully vibrates on the bridge of the Caucasian nose. So what will this item be good for after the novelty has worn off? No doubt after staring at the credit card statements that record such follies I will be in need of its use.
News yesterday of the fall of another colonial icon to Arab merchants. This time it is Robinson's department store in Orchard Road and the new owners are from Dubai. Having recently signed up for the OCBC Bank's Robinsons Card which entitles us to lots of discounts on 'atuo' items such as the one above, we read in this morning's paper that the bank has sold its shares in the store. No doubt this will eventually mean that our card will become redundant in the scheme of things? This however might be a blessing in disguise.
Happy, Happy Talk & Terminal Velocity Thursday, 17 April 2008 The day started poorly. At 4am an electrical symphony outside the window of our condominium jolted me awake, the claps of thunder doing justice to the 1812 overture. With the ever increasing frequency of lightening permeating between the gaps in our blinds it was virtually impossible to get back to sleep. Those of you who have lived or travelled in the tropics will know that when there is an electrical storm it is usually an impressive and forceful display. Having breakfasted a couple of hours later it was time to catch the MRT which, because of the weather, was slightly delayed in its schedule. The result being that there were more than the usual passengers queuing for a place at every station en route. I had the singular misfortune to be wedged between a door partition and a Chinese national worker who stank of stale whiskey from the previous night's socialising. When one disembarks at Buena Vista station it is a short walk across an over bridge to the bus stop to catch the 95. Singaporean pedestrians move at a variety of paces in the morning and I have noted this in a previous commentary. Today I got stuck behind the "Road Block", a woman of ample girth whose bovine turpitude meant that those behind such as I, had to slow to her pace. She did not of course choose to move to the side to let others past but hogged the centre line with the precision of a Malaysian taxi driver.
Needless to say, when we finally crossed the street nobody was in a jovial mood. At the point of exit stands a young man who thrusts out copies of the New Paper to those who wish to take a copy. This paper has its uses but good journalism is not one of them. Most use it as an improvised fan to get air moving around their faces as they stand in the fetid shelter of the bus stop. Today as I waited for the 95 bus I did something unusual ‐ I opened the paper. The feature story: Another expose on the inadequacies of Heathrow Terminal 5. This story has been playing in the press since the terminal's grand launch and I suspect the inference one it meant to get is how much better Changi's new terminal is to the prize botch up of the Brit's new transport terminus? However one such story on this subject would suffice. Of more interest in today's rag is a story on the mercantile wonders of British engineering which suggests that had the Titanic used good quality rivets it may not have sunk so quickly. The other main feature in the New Paper is the identification of Singapore's happiest man ‐ a gentleman who won a competition to find such a stalwart. Lord Bittleston of Newnham was reportedly one of the judges, although with respect to the gentleman concerned, his name means absolutely nothing to me. No doubt a minor aristocrat from the British Isles? Mr. Goh, who is now officially Singapore's happiest man, can remove the smiley face stickers that have been adorning his fingers in every publicity shot and look forward to his prize ‐ three days in the resort town of Phuket. No wonder he's smiling.
Mas Escape Monday, 21 April 2008 The long awaited report into the breakout of JI member Mas Selamat was released in the Singaporean parliament yesterday and the Minister's statement make interesting reading. There was clearly a major breakdown in security vigilance at the detention centre and the officers responsible have been "removed" which, in the case of the two Gurkhas involved, probably means a one‐way ticket back to Nepal on the first available flight. 19
The detainee was able to lull his captors into a false sense of security and when he visited the toilet, put his trousers over the cubicle door and left via an unsecured and un‐barred side window. Presumably he had another pair of trousers under his top ones and if he hadn't, then I guess he would not have died of exposure in the Singapore climate. It took 11 minutes for the guards to realise that something was wrong and raise the alarm giving Mas Selamat ample time to scale (?) a nearby perimeter fence and hot foot it. The reports all state that it was unlikely he had any outside assistance in the planning and execution of this escape. Singaporeans I have spoken to find this difficult to accept and it may or may not be an accurate assumption. Either way his luck was in and he has vanished into the ether. It also begs the question, where is he now? Opinion is evenly divided between his rapid transit to the nearby Indonesian archipelago or that he is laying low in someone's HDB flat and waiting for the public and security personnel's focus to wane. To undertake either of these options he must be getting, or have got, outside help. I guess only time will reveal the real story but in the meantime Singapore's security credibility has received a severe jolt. To the government's credit they have been as candid as they can in this matter and clearly security is going to be a lot tougher for detainees from this point on. One other interesting point from a westerner's perspective is that the Minister responsible for Homeland security, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng, is not being pressured to stand down. In New Zealand there would be an immediate baying for blood from the opposition benches. Not so in Singapore. In fact the Prime Minister responded to such suggestions today by stating that he believed that public officials and ministers should not automatically be removed as a result of lapses by their subordinates. I have to say that this appears a more balanced approach to me. After all a Minister's overall performance should be judged across his or her whole portfolio, over time. Any lapses in matter of integrity are treated entirely differently and dismissal on these grounds will and do happen, no matter what the status of the individual is. 20
Mini Bar Blues & the Hostess With The Mostest Thursday, 24 April 2008 In today's Straits Times there is an article on the hotel of the future. One of the reasons for the feature is the Food & Hotel Asia trade show that is currently on in the Expo Centre at Changi. In the paper the article details some of the innovative features that one might expect to find, one of which I have recently experienced in the USA. When I say "experienced" I should qualify this by stating that the experience was not that positive. I am of course referring to the computerised mini‐bar which in theory automatically logs every drink removed from it and directly charges it to your bill. In practice, it charges you if you so much as shift a single item of its contents to make way for your own items (which you may wish to cool down). The computerised mini‐bar is a classic example of an IT technology that no one really needs and which actually alienates its users. No doubt the rationale behind its introduction is that the concierge can quickly replace items that have been used. Whatever happened to walking into the room, opening the fridge door and looking? Hostess‐slapping also recently featured permanently in the local media. No, this is not a new form of the Survivor game. It records a recent incident on a Singapore Airlines plane, where the wife of a local tycoon, one Madame Tan, apparently took exception to the attention that a hostess was lavishing on her husband (although the detail of what provoked this incident has never been fully explained in public). Md. Tan has settled a civil suit out of court and in the past 24 hours the police prosecutor has dropped the case against her for 'voluntarily causing hurt', an assault‐related charge. This decision has not gone well with some Singaporeans who have seen employers being imprisoned for slapping their maids. A also questioned the dropping of charges on local television last night. But there's a happy outcome for the hostess. She has received a payout from a very wealthy Singapore family and is soon to be married to her fiancée. 21
The Big Smoke and Kebab Automata Saturday, 26 April 2008 It is fairly well known now that in 2010 Singapore will open not one, but two casinos. It had been my hope that they would follow the enlightened lead of New Zealand and ban smoking from their gaming floors but alas, in today's paper we learn that they have given into the tobacco lobby and smoking will be permitted. No doubt the government were lobbied hard and told of 'dire consequences' of failing to attract gamblers if smoking was banned, as it is elsewhere in Singapore. This supposition is a fallacy but it is one that casino management and the tobacco lobby trot out whenever possible. The biggest casino in New Zealand (Sky City) started out as a smoking establishment and the environment was foul. A few years later NZ's smoke‐free legislation saw smoking banned in pubs, clubs and casinos. Did the casino business plummet as a result? No it did not. There was an initial dip but the profits soon rebounded. So Singapore had a golden opportunity to promote public health and set up the 'integrated resorts' as completely smoke‐free attractions right from the outset. It is a great pity that they passed on this opportunity and they will rue the day when it starts to impact on their health budget. To use Genting's so‐called 'segregated smoking' and non‐smoking zones as an example to be followed is quite frankly a joke! The same can be said for the Australian casinos which were also held up as good examples in the press, of how smoking and non‐smoking could be segregated. I can say from personal experience in Australia and in Genting that such a policy simply doesn't work. Passive smoking in these places makes life hell for non‐smokers as they involuntary ingest second hand smoke. There is still time for the Singapore government to revoke this smoking policy and I truly hope they do for the long term good of visitors and their citizenry. I am an ex‐smoker who gave up in the early 1980's so I know how addictive, selfish and pervasive the smoking habit is. It is quite literally a dying habit. 22
In a totally different vein we had a very good Yum Cha (dim sum) lunch at Xin Fu Yum Cha which is on the second floor of the International Building at 360 Orchard Road. They had several old favourites such as Phoenix Claws (chicken's feet to the uninitiated) and glutinous rice which comes wrapped in a large leaf. What made their fare standout was the quality of the cooking, the generosity of their fillings and piquancy of their sauces. There were some new offerings to try such as the 'Goldfish Dumplings' (pictured). These were not actually filled with minced goldfish ‐ they had a prawn filling. Another small dumpling that was excellent was their vegetarian variety which was filled with roughly chopped vegetables. Another new favourite is their chicken and abalone bao (steamed bun). I spent a few minutes in Basement 2 of the Takashemaya department store this afternoon being bemused by a clever (Japanese?) invention ‐ the automated kebab machine.
Maid in Singapore Tuesday, 29 April 2008 The mainstay of marital bliss, the domestic who undertakes all of the mundane duties around the house, is in strong demand. Ever since I have been coming to Singapore and especially since I now live here, it has been noticeable just how reliant many families are on their maids. Now it would appear that the competition from other countries such as Hong Kong and Taiwan is creating problems for Singapore. In HK and Taiwan the wages for maids are higher and the promise of a guaranteed day off is very appealing to potential recruits. Filipinas are the most expensive to employ followed by those from Indonesia and Sri Lanka. A Filipina is paid the princely sum of $300 to $350 per month but only after the agency that introduced her has claimed its $1,000 to $2,000 fee. Not forgetting the fact that one needs to house and feed the maid in question. 23
The other side of the coin is that Singapore has a strict policy against maid abuse and is swift to punish employers who abuse their servants. Not so in other Asian countries. Still it would appear that the allure of higher pay and a day off are enticing maids to leave Singapore after one tour of duty and seek employment elsewhere. Even though Singapore does officially have a 'day off' clause, families can choose to pay out for the day rather than let the maid actually take the day off. I suspect this clause might be revoked if the problem of recruiting maids grows any further. And no..... we don't have maid.
The Merry, Merry Month Of May Thursday, 1 May 2008 It is May 1st and being a day that celebrates worker's rights, it is also a public holiday in Singapore. This translates into being able to sleep in an extra hour and not having to catch a packed MRT train in the early morning rush. The weather over the past two weeks has got very hot again and I note in the press that Singapore's temperature has risen almost two degrees in the past twenty or so years. Even the locals are complaining about the heat at the moment so it must be hot! The monsoon rains seem to have finally passed although we still get the occasional thunderstorm which lowers the humidity somewhat. The overall temperature though creates a sense of lethargy and makes it difficult to sleep at night. One could turn on the air‐conditioning 24X7, as several of our neighbouring condo tenants do. This is an increasingly expensive option and we prefer to use fans. This May first we visited the very recently opened Peranakan Museum in Armenian Street. It is an old Chinese school which was completed in 1912 and during the War was used as an HQ by the Japanese army. Post war it reverted to its former use and my wife can recall a friend taking her there for Chinese language lessons. In 1982 it ceased to be a school and for a few years from 1994 to
2005 it was the Asian Civilisation Museum before the latter relocated to its current site ‐ the old Empress Place. I digress. The new Peranakan Museum is a delight and should be on every local and visitor's itinerary. The curatorial narrative documents the origins and lives of the Straits‐born Chinese and Indian communities in an instructive and engaging manner. A great collection and elegant displays make this a must‐see. As there are not too many cheaper eating options in Armenian Street we back tracked to the SMU bus stop and disembarked opposite Park Mall. From there it was a short hop to Plaza Singapura but planning to eat there proved to be a big mistake. We had forgotten that being a holiday the nearby Istana would be opened to the public. Half of Singapore seemed to have descended upon the Government House and then moved on for lunch at our chosen mall. As a result, we decided to go to Cuppage Plaza in Koek Road and try our luck at somewhere less crowded. En route to our favourite mee siam eatery, Isle Cafe, we passed the TexMex Bar and Grill. As a result we thought we would give this place a try and have their set lunch. For less than $14++ I had soup, a pork chop main course, an ice‐cream dessert and a complimentary iced tea. The reference to "pork chop" usually implies wrestling to separate meat from bone but with this menu I was pleasantly surprised. It was presented as boned‐out medallions and was delicious. My wife had a seafood pasta dish for her main and her set lunch was $3 cheaper than mine. This is one of the great things about Singapore. The food varieties in any city block are many and varied. From high end restaurants with Michelin star quality to hawker's stalls serving great local dishes ‐ it's a foodie’s heaven. In reference to Michelin I recall the caricatured 'Michelin Man' of robust girth. I couldn't earlier in life see the relevance between a gastronomic grading system and a chubby tire. After all this good Singaporean food, I can now personally vouch for the linkages between the two. Which reminds me, I think I should go and visit my tailor.
The Durian – Singapore Roger Smith
Koi Carp ‐ Queenstown Roger Smith 27