Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Set Pieces And Set Lunches

Two days ago we had the Prime Minister's National Day Rally message broadcast on all local channels. The video has been archived on the Web.

The first thing that impressed me was Lee Hsien Loong's linguistic abilities and stamina - he delivered the entire address in Malay before switching to the English presentation.

When I asked a Singaporean colleague the next day what she thought of the speech she said that the PM has "broken the record". I was somewhat taken aback as I was not sure what she was referring to.

"Well", she said "When the Old Man (meaning the Minister Mentor and father of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew) was the PM he was known for lengthy presentations. His son's effort was even longer".

Then she went on to add, "We liked Goh Chok Tong (PM from 1990 until the current incumbent took over) as his National speeches were short and to the point"

This was not the sort of analysis I had expected.

From my own perspective I found Lee Hsien Loong's address interesting as he set out the path the country needed to follow over the next decade or two. The information was clear and succinct and punctuated with well chosen multimedia presentations and the odd dash of humour thrown in.

Certainly it is a carefully orchestrated 'set piece' for public consumption but I found it a profound contrast from the political doggerel we used to be fed in MMP- dominated New Zealand. At least with the Singaporean Government, when they say they are going to do something they do it!

There is to be a lot of emphasis on addressing the realities of an aging population, including re employment opportunities for those who reach the official retirement age, which is currently 62.

The HDB estates are to receive heavy investment and in our own area of Queenstown, the Dawson subdivision will become a fully fledged estate with all of the park and community facilities. This includes the ability to house an additional 10,000 people which will be a huge boost to our neighbourhood. No doubt land and property values rise still further.

Education was the other piece of the jigsaw that received considerable prominence. A fourth university is to be built to cater for pent up local demand. In my opinion this makes far better sense than continuing to pursue often fraught partnerships with external providers, as typified by the ill fated UNSW Asia project.

As I work in the tertiary sector this news has been well received. Colleagues bent on career progression no doubt foresee opportunities arising as a result.

Today is the second day of my second week at NUS. You will note from the above that 'food' has not been mentioned once - it is about to be now.

Across the road from our offices is the student canteen and a good lunch of rice with two vegetables and a two meat option costs less than $3. Adjacent to this canteen is a Japanese 'fusion' restaurant and having decided to treat myself, I partook of their Chicken Cutlet Curry set. The "CCC" cost me just over $7 and included miso, a free lemon tea and a dessert.

I hasten to add that this is my main meal of the day and we have a very light evening meal. Such dining preferences are a source of wonderment amongst my Singaporean acquaintances who can not contemplate going without a substantial evening meal. We have however got used to this routine and make up for it with a hearty breakfast the next morning, something that many Singaporeans go without.

Friday, 17 August 2007

The Wet Fish Slap

It's the end of week one of my new job so why do I feel why do I feel like I have been slapped between the eyes with a wet fish?!

A new transport system to negotiate coupled with the need to adjust to a new work environment is always tiring.

My routine sees me leaving the house just after 7am and taking the MRT (two stops) to Buena Vista. This leg of the journey is air-conditioned comfort and takes 15 minutes at most. Then it's a brisk stroll across the overhead bridge to catch the 95 bus. It is here where the quality of the journey deteriorates markedly.

The aforementioned '95' is invariably a clapped out vehicle with shabby livery and a malfunctioning air-conditioning system. Cleanliness may be next to godliness but it is certainly not next to my clothing.

Maybe the powers that be have figured that a large proportion of those onboard are university students on reduced fares, so they provide a reduced service to match?

Either way, there is a definite need to get on board before the "breakfast crowd" arrives. This description identifies staff and students who breakfast at the university canteens before lectures or work. If I am running late and caught up in this group, it is standing room only on the 95.

Usually it takes me half and hour from our condominium to our office door. I discount the additional quarter of an hour, post arrival, to freshen up after the sapping humidity that literally dampens the day.

The NUS food outlets are very good and the pricing reasonable. As befits its stature as the pre eminent Singaporean university, NUS is well endowed with facilities. In April of next year our Alumni staff will be moving in to the new Shaw Alumni House. This complex has some exciting architectural features and should be a pleasure to work in.

I have been made to feel most welcome by my colleagues and they also signed a greeting card and presented it to me. Today we all shared a Malay lunch brought in from outside caterers. I don't think that I shall be losing much weight here either.

With several major projects ahead of us I suspect that time will pass quickly.

There are others who are feeling the "wet fish slap" and I refer to investors with major share portfolios. At time of writing, the sharemarket is similar to a rollercoaster and large sums have been lost in the process. Investing in shares is a popular Singaporean past time which no doubt explains why there are some fairly glum faces visible on the streets - and not a wet fish in site!

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Prickly Delights

It's the 'prickly season' in more than one sense of the term.

Prickly because the weather is hot and for that we have Prickly Heat powder. Prickly also because it is durian season - a fruit resembling the head of a medieval mace. Given the weight of each fruit and the hard spiky exterior I would not want to be walking under a tree when one fell.

About a 150 people a year are killed by falling coconuts but reports of fatalities from durians are rare. Some suggest this is because the fruit mainly fall at night? There are however accidents such as the 5kg durian falling on a granny's head.

Much is made a bout the stench of the durian. Public transport in Singapore will not allow its carriage but the odd 'whiff' is still discernible on the buses. Personally the smell has never worried me. Having travelled in Asia over the years I find that the smell of the durian bears little resemblance to the open sewers that many Westerners claim.

The fruit of the durian is delicious, with a capital "D" but is also very rich in taste and I find I can only eat two pieces at any one time - and never with wine!

The taste resembles as smooth Irish Cream liqueur without the alcohol. We bought our fruit for just $S1 on Friday. These were Thai durian, available at Redhill Market and of reasonably quality - the best usually come from Malaysia and Penang in particular. It was in Penang that I first tasted durian many years ago.

Tomorrow I start work at NUS and am looking forward to my new challenge. This afternoon will therefore be spent in rounding up all of the items I need to take on my first day.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Not Travelling In The Lap Of 'Luxury'

We made an early start this morning to ensure that we were on time to catch the bus to Johor Bahru for the Shopping and Makan (food!) one day tour.

Having booked last week with Luxury Tours who are based at the Meridien Shopping Centre in Orchard Road we were looking forward to having a day out.

Be at the bus stop behind the hotel at 10am they said and we duly were. Unfortunately the bus was not.

A rather reticent and perspiring man was seen pacing to our left and we mistakenly took him to be a fellow passenger. It turned out he was a Luxury Tour company director and he ushered us back into the hotel office.

It was at this time that he enlightened us to the fact that they had cancelled the tour and yes..... it was their fault for not having rung us to tell us well in advance.

I am not a violent man - in most circumstances I can take things in my stride but on this occasion the complete lack of thought (in not advising us the night before) made my blood boil! Two hours in the morning heat of Singapore while waiting for the 'omnibus mirage' no doubt also contributed to my mood.

Having reclaimed our money I made a vow never to avail myself of the services of Luxury Tours & Travel Pte Ltd. Not even the offer of a free trip could tempt me.

My advice to readers in Singapore is to stay well clear of Le Meridien's Luxury Tours & Travel (100 Orchard Road #02-44/45). We will make any future bookings to Malaysia with someone else.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Patriotic Fervour

Today is Singapore's National Day - August 9th - and the Republic is forty two years old.

The event known as the National Day Parade, or NDP for short, has been signalled well in advance, with media coverage of the 'world's largest floating stage' be plugged at every opportunity. Every possible angle has been covered by such pre-announcements.

There have been close ups of local citizens enraptured by the knowledge that they have won free tickets and a 'goodie bag' of snacks and bottle water.

A live web cast of the event will cater for those who are no longer domiciled in Singapore.

Nostalgic footage of past parades at the old national stadium have also featured. Nostalgia though should not be misinterpreted as maudling sentiment and the stadium in question is soon to be demolished. This is the Singaporean way - growth and redevelopment are essential drivers of the economy.

Far more interesting has been some of the documentary footage showing the role of the former Presidents in the fostering of arts and heritage activities. I recall when I first visited Singapore in the early '80's, the arts did not figure prominently on the radar of most Singaporeans. This is no longer the case. With active encouragement from the government the Republic is now blessed with world-class cultural facilities.

The populace is celebrating the day as a public holiday. In many cases this does not include the canny merchants who remain open in the hope of catching sales from the extra foot traffic through the malls.

As I have been holidaying these past two weeks before starting my employment this coming Monday, this day is much like any other. I have however been noting the large number of national flags that festoon the HDB estates. Even our condominium is appropriately clad in similar livery.

The level of patriotism is actively encouraged and promoted by the government. It is something that rarely surfaces now in my previous home of New Zealand, with the exception of a win by the All Blacks. The nearest would have been in 1953 when the Queen visited 'the colony' and each school child was given a flag to wave and a medallion to mark the event.

Small flags are still distributed to pre-school children here in Singapore and their delight at receiving the bunting is quite endearing.

Also in the media this week is a report on a group of disgruntled passengers who were meant to board the Pacific Star cruise ship for a Pacific adventure, only to find that the ships certificate had apparently expired!

P&O has a reputation for such fiascos with its Antipodean operations. Another former vessel, the Pacific Sky was forever breaking down at the most inopportune times. We travelled on the Pacific Sun through Melanesia a couple of years ago and the experience was 'basic' to say the least. There have subsequently been reports of deaths and drugs aboard this ship.

Compared to the Star Cruises that sail from Singapore, the P&O operation simply doesn't rate. Other cruise lines are now also beginning to make Singapore their Sth East Asian base which is good news for those of us who like cruising.

In Singapore you feel that you are part of a dynamic entity surging forward. I am reminded of the Singaporean Prime Minister's National Day speech last evening when he concluded by saying " "The global backdrop is favourable. The winds and tides are with us. Our spirit is high, and our ship is ready"

P&O could clearly learn a lesson from this.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

See Perth And Die

There is a much hackneyed phrase that refers to seeing a place before one dies.

Unfortunately in the case of Perth it had died before I got there. I have just returned from what can be termed a bleak experience in all senses of the word. Heading to Western Australia in winter was probably not a good idea in the first place. But the holiday package was reasonable and so we went.

My wife had visited Perth thirty years ago and dryly recorded that little had changed in the intervening time.

Not that it didn't start promisingly enough. We made the main supermarket in the city our first port of call on the evening of our arrival. It was packed with people, all jostling their way to the check out. We soon found out why - the supermarket in question closed at 5:30 in the evening. Having been spoilt with Singaporean shopping times and options it was quite flashback in terms of customer focus.

The weather throughout our stay was drizzly and cold which did not improve my mood.

On the second day of our holiday we joined Out and About Tours for a tour of the Swan Valley wine trail. This was enjoyable and a few good vintages were sampled. With the new anti-terrorist regulations in place it is no longer possible to carry wine into aircraft cabins as we once did. This meant that we bought just two bottles and took the risk of breakage by packing them into our suitcases.

The Bursewood casino had just three varieties of pokie machines, in several graphic manifestations. According to one of our fellow wine trail participants it should be bulldozed and a new one built. Having visited the resort I can but agree and maybe Mr Packer Junior will do just that when he completes his Macau fantasy.

Winter Winetrail Photo - Roger Smith

I have made my first and last visit to Perth and can state that I much prefer the eastern seaboard of Australia, especially the tropical climes.

A brief shopping trip in Johor Bahru, Malaysia this weekend seems the perfect antidote to what we have just experienced this past week.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Flying South for The Winter

In two days time we are heading south to Perth. I am currently a 'gentleman of leisure' as I take a couple of weeks off before starting my new job at the National University of Singapore, mid-August.

Heading back into a winter climate was not our first choice. After all, one of the reasons for coming to Singapore was to escape the winter chills.

Our selection options were a bit limited at this time of year and somewhat like Goldilocks's predilection for porridge: Taipei was too hot at this time of year, a cruise out of Shanghai too expensive and Perth was just about right for our budget.

It's a short five hour flight and within the same time zone so the travel should not be too onerous. I have never lost the joy of flying and being a people-watcher at heart, don't even mind the bustle of airports. Changi remains one of the best airports in the world so we are spoilt.

Another plus about owning a condominium is that you can simply close your door and leave - no one knows if you are in or not. Not like house ownership in New Zealand where you worry about the garden, cancelling the newspaper, informing the neighbours...the list goes on.

I trust we will not be too jaded by our travels south as we intend spending the day after our arrival on the Margaret River wine trail. I've not been to Perth before so am looking forward to exploring the city and environs.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

The Swinging Sixties

A good friend of mine, a former museum marketer, lives in Liverpool. Although retired she still keeps her hand in by taking on projects, one of which is The Beatles Story.

I am reminded just what an influence the group had on my adolescence and subsequently on my broader interest in music.

Like many youngsters I was brought up on the knuckle-rapping schedule of convent piano lessons (even though I was not of the Catholic faith). The Nuns were strict, some more so than others. There were competitions to demonstrate one's skill and each year, examinations to prepare for. If I recall correctly I rose to the lofty heights of Grade 5, theory and practical, but I was never going to be a concert pianist.

The value of a musical education is that it grounds one in musical theory and provides an ability to read music.

Come the Sixties and the advent of bands such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Merseybeats, Searchers ...the list is endless, my musical tastes broadened considerably. The teens are naturally rebellious years and the music of the time matched those inclinations.

When I got to boarding school I teamed up with a fellow boarder whose father owned a wood working business and therefore had some affinity with the manual arts. I by comparison, clearly did not.

My previous attempts at producing kidney shaped coffee tables in the high school woodworking class drove my tutor to distraction. One of the three legs was always shorter than the rest and discretely cutting it down to size seemed to extentuate the problem.

Motivation is a great thing and having heard the Merseybeat for the first time I determined that I wanted to build and play bass guitar.

The body of said instrument was cut out on the maintenance man's bandsaw. The guitar neck was a piece of straight grained oregon hewn from an old rugby goal post. Most guitar necks have steel reinforcing rod down their centre. Mine did not. This was to cause problems later as the neck had a habit of bending alarmingly once the four guitar strings were tightened (a good friend of mine from those days, Max Hayton, is pictured posing with the instrument in question).

Quite by chance I discovered I was a good drummer. Using knives at the school dinner table enabled me to learn the rhythmic rudiments and the school music master Trevor Nalder noted that I had some talent in that direction. I was invited to audition for the role of drummer in the newly formed school dance band - the rest is history as they say.

The photograph of my first group clearly demonstrates the influence of The Beatles, right down to the haircut. One could buy a plastic Beatle wig if truly desperate but fortunately I blessed with hair that naturally resembled Ringo's and I had the nose to suit.

Last year I finally got to hear one the Sixties groups I had idolised, The Searchers, perform live.
The music was just as good as it ever was. A toe-tapping beat and simple lyrics that epitomised that carefree decade.

..... and was it really 40 years ago today that we first listened to Sgt Pepper?

Today's Print

Evening Storm - Singapore

Monday, 23 July 2007

Join The Queue

If you want to find the best food in a food court look for the longest queue. Singaporeans are very discerning when it comes to such matters and joining the back of a long queue is seldom a wrong move.

Mind you, there are some aberrations - the extraordinary lemming-like activity at the Doughnut Factory in Raffles City being one. Apparently the owner had originally wanted to buy the franchise of a well known brand, couldn't afford to, so developed his own.

The secret to his success? Innovation. Local flavours such as Durian, Chocolate and Durian or (presumably for the most jaded taste buds) Durian, Milo and Mango.

Our queue experience today was at the Redhill Food Centre which is adjacent to the market. We were running late so didn't reach the Bak Kee Teochew Satay Bee Hoon stall until about 2 pm.

Satay Bee Hoon is a yummy dish and the father and sons who run this stall are Bee Hoon artistes. Unbeknown to us another blogger had nominated this food outlet as the best for this local delicacy. I would happily second his opinion.

Satay Bee Hoon is a concoction of satay sauce poured over sliced cuttle fish, liver, chicken etc. on a bed of rice vermicelli. 'Bee Hoon' is the name for rice vermicelli.

I mention liver as it is something that seems to have disappeared off most western dinner plates in recent times. When I was a child my English-born mother would often make use of sweetbreads, stuffed sheep's hearts, tripe and liver - not forgetting kidneys on toast for breakfast. And quite delicious they were to.

Perhaps contemporary western cuisine panders too much to the squeamish? The Chinese have no such qualms and their food offerings are the better for it.

It could be also that having been born into a country where the sheep population was five times the human one, I was endeavouring to redress the balance but eating every part of the sheep possible!