Sunday, 16 September 2007

With A Pinch Of Snuff

This weekend we visited the Chinese snuff bottle exhibition at the Asian Civilisation Museum.

From the Sanctum of Enlightened Respect III is the third part of the exhibition installment from the collection of Singaporean collector, Denis Low.

There were 355 snuff bottles on display and the artistic interpretations in miniature were quite outstanding.

Unlike many of the exhibitions on view, this was in a free section of the museum and open to all. Denis Low's collection is regarded as one of the worlds finest.

It takes us next to no time to get to the museum as we take the MRT from our station direct to Raffles Place and exit at the Battery Road entrance. A quick stroll across the Cavenagh Bridge and we are there.

All in all a most pleasant afternoon topped off with another splendid duck curry at the Museum's Indochine restaurant.

This entry has taken place over a couple of days and yesterday, Monday September 17th, marked the anniversary of our arrival in Singapore exactly one year ago. It is therefore appropriate to pause and reflect on what has happened these past twelve months.

Firstly, apart from good friends left behind, I have no regrets about leaving New Zealand and coming to Singapore. I rarely even look at the NZ Herald online but when I do so it seems to be a litany of violent assaults in South Auckland, police on trial for various offences, news of an increasingly moribund Labour Government and politically correct nonsense such as allowing illegal Algerian overstayers a right of passage into the country. Not forgetting of course the continuing failure to address the severe traffic problems in the major cities. Lots of talk and no action!

In direct comparison, I can walk the streets of Singapore at most hours of the day and night in relative security, there is no major 'P' drug problem that threatens the fabric of society, the economy is booming and the air of optimism in the Republic is invigorating.

Not everything should be viewed through rose coloured spectacles of course. The heat at times can be oppressive, even for the locals. The positive side of this is no more winters! It does mean that a lot of time is spent in an airconditioned environment.

Singapore is not a big country and it has a lot of buildings and (increasingly) people. This means that one needs to escape from time to time to places such as the Botannical Gardens for some quite reflection but generally speaking I enjoy the hustle and bustle that accompanies the day.

I remain employed by a university even though it was not the same one that I left new Zealand to be part of. The UNSW Asia debacle still rankles, not because I wish to retain any association at all with UNSW, but because of the pain and suffering inflicted on everyone left high and dry by the Vice Chancellor's actions. Working at NUS is far more productive and the university far better endowed than most.

All in all, a stimulating 12 months.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

The Day the Earth Moved

Last night the earth moved for me - and for most of Singapore.

Just after 7 pm as I was sitting at the keyboard our condo building started to sway gently. At first I thought that my chair was not level but then the sensation started again.

There was one immediate explanation - an earthquake.

Coming as I do from "the shaky isles" as New Zealand is sometimes known, I was no stranger to this type of disquieting event. But is is a rare phenomonon in Singapore which is well over 700 kilometres away from any seismic plates.

It was clear that for us to feel it there must have been a massive rupture of the earth near Indonesia and this proved to be so. An earthquake of 8.5 on the richter scale was recorded in Sumatra. This morning there was another of similar magnitude.

So far there have been no reports of any damage in Singapore and the government has reassured residents that buildings here are designed for such events.

However I am glad our own condo is not built on reclaimed land as much of Singapore is. Liquefaction can be a serious problem even when the epicentre of a 'quake is far away.

Today I joined my colleagues for a staff event. We bussed to the recently refurbished National Museum and spent a very pleasant coupe of hours enjoys the spaces and exhibits.

I was reminded by one feature that has been retained - a wrought iron spiral staircase - of the ghostly apparitions that are said by some to frequent the building.

When my wife was a school girl they were told by their teachers that if they ever dared to climb the stair unspeakable horrors would befall them.

Later when I told this story to a former director the museum (who is a personal friend) he shared another version of this story, that a taxidermist lived at the top of the stair, lying in wait for recalcitrant children. No doubt an excellent control measure for school groups!

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Pearls Before Tourists

I'm not an oyster shucker
but an oyster shucker's son
and I'll keep on shucking oysters
'till the oyster shucker comes

This ditty paraphrases a bawdy student drinking ditty, but is rather apt never the less. The reason being, that we hosted some friends from New Zealand this afternoon and together experienced the great OG Store Bonus Offer.

Here is how the Bonus Offer works.
You buy an item and are given a voucher to redeem, on the third floor of the store.

The free offer is a genuine pearl. The novelty being that a store attendant (who clearly drew the 'short straw' and is up to his or her armpits in 'airflown' Suzhou oysters) shucks a fresh oyster in your presence and extracts your pearl.

So far, so good with no additional money changes hands. However when you come to claim the pearl the hard sell begins.

"Surely madam would be more interested in having your personal pearl mounted in a customised silver setting?"

"Your ear would be unbalanced with just one pearl mounted, so how about a second one at a discount price?"

" See how we have the latest equipment to provide a secure mounting for your pearl - it's a very good colour and deserves the best."

$50 dollars later and clutching two small black jewellery boxes that house your marine treasures, you leave the store.

You know in your heart that if you hadn't weakened, the raw pearls in their small, zip lock plastic bags would have been more than adequate in their natural state.

But.... and it is a very big but....... you have to be made of steel to weather a persuasive Singapore sales pitch. Few succeed.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Things Happen In Threes

Things always happen in threes and yesterday was no exception.

First there was the death of Luciano Pavarotti. While not being a great fan of opera I would have to concede that his was a 'mountain' of a voice and his decibels were matched by his imposing stature.

Pavarotti's version of Nessun Dorma sent emotional shivers down one's spine. (see this You Tube clip)



As with all great artists, his life and times were almost as interesting as his music. I recall seeing a documentary entitled "Pavarotti in China", which although panned by the critics, clearly showed the reverence accorded him by the Chinese.

The second thing that caught my eye was the sacrifice of two goats by Nepal Airlines. Faced with mounting technical problems they resorted to the Hindu god of sky protection to rectify the situation.

I don't know about you, but I see this as a worrying precedent and not one that encourages me to contemplate long air journeys.

Perhaps we shall see Air New Zealand addressing its falling international capacity by sacrificing an All Black forward or two?

Mind you; if the national team does not do well in the Rugby World Cup which starts today, it could well be that the entire New Zealand population would be willing to observe this ritual.

This leads me to the third event, the Cup itself. In Singapore the emphasis is on Soccer not rugby. There have been some belated feature stories this week in the Straits Times but rugby as a sport is very much second fiddle to association football.

I went to our local cable provider - Starhub - to see if they would be screening any of the games. The sales staff member thought they would be but could not tell me what channel or programme it might be, except to say that it would be a 'special package' which would cost me extra.

"But don't worry" he enthused "When the time comes we will release the details".

"It is tomorrow" I informed him. Not surprisingly, he was unable to continue the conversation.

I have therefore resorted to the Internet and having paid the princely sum of $US49.99 will have access to all of the games, albeit 24 hours after they have taken place!

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

A short and curly observation:

It's one of the inescapable facts of life - hair thinning is the barometer of age.

Men have concocted a variety of ways to sweep their hair across a balding pate. Inevitably the result is Hitlarian.

In Singapore however I have noticed a strange phenomenon. Both hair and nails grow with greater alacrity than they do in the Antipodes. This is good news for men of advancing age, chiropodists and hairdressers.

I am not sure of the science behind this observation but is clearly not just wishful thinking on my part. Perhaps it is the change of diet or climate?

There is some scientific evidence that hair grows slightly faster in the hot months according to at least one study.

A 1991 article in the British Journal Of Dermatology explored "androgen-dependent" hair growth in bald men living in temperate climate. Androgen-dependent hair includes some scalp hair and other hair whose growth is influenced by a kind of hormone called androgens. By contrast, androgens do not affect the growth in other types of hair such as eyelashes and eyebrows.

According to Tobin, the 1991 study suggested that androgen-dependent hair growth is faster during the spring and summer months and slower during the winter months in temperate regions such the US. Althought this study was conducted in men, the results may also apply to women

Thursday, 30 August 2007

East Meets West


Saturday, 25 August 2007

Beggars Can Be Choosers

There are two things that have stuck in my mind about today and both relate to the disadvantaged. We have just returned from Redhill, an estate not far away from our own.

There is an old Indian man who can be found most days, strategically positioned at the corner of the building and adjacent to the Redhill MRT station exit. In this location he can hustle pedestrians as they make their way to the road crossing.

He is begging. As people approach his hand will extend, palm upwards, seeking money. This is common place in cities such as Calcutta but was never publicly on view in Singapore when the current Minister Mentor was PM.

Perhaps even more disturbing was a second old man in his late seventies, doing his rounds of the recently vacated tables in the Redhill Food Centre.

When he thought no one was looking he would cast a furtive look around, sit down and finish the dregs of a soupy noodle bowl or munch on a cast aside chicken bone.

He must have spent a good hour going up and down the tables in this fashion. Whether he was suffering from dementia or genuinely hungry I do not know. The old man's actions made me feel profoundly sad.

In the first case, the law against begging should be strictly enforced. There is no need for it in modern Singapore as there are safety nets ranging from community charity to government assistance for the most needy. You cannot walk down a main thoroughfare without being propositioned by tissue sellers and that too is an activity akin to begging.

No one needs to beg. The government is aware of the dire financial straits of some of the elderly and recent budgets have identified funding to support his group. What appears to be missing is sufficient policing of these regulations.

I cannot help but wonder what the begging on the street situation will be when the two casinos come into action in 2010. There will need to be a crack down on this activity well before then and I am sure the authorities will do so.

In the second case, I would hope that some of the Redhill hawkers will quietly refer the old man's plight to community workers.

It's been a sobering afternoon all round.

Power Napping Par Excellence

The opossum is a canny creature and coming from New Zealand I know that there are millions of the critters destroying the indigenous forest.

When accosted, our furry friend feigns slumber and adopts a deathly pose. In so doing it often escapes a confrontation and when danger passes, goes about its business in a self contented manner.

I have observed that Singaporeans on the public transport have also developed this capability. No sooner have they found a plastic MRT seat than they descend into a trance-like state.

Any effort at engaging in a morning conversation with one of them is utterly futile. No matter that a canned voice intones "Please mind the platform gap" and "Please report any suspicious parcels under your seat". All such entreaties fall on deaf ears. The ears in question being strategically blocked by an array of iPOD cables.

I have also noted that often if a young person is seated and an elderly person is about to board the public transport, the seated party's descent into sleep is all the more rapid - no doubt to avoid having to give up their seat to someone more deserving.

From conversations with Singaporean friends and colleagues it would appear that many of them travel long distances to and from work so frequently arrive back home late in the evening. After their evening meal they do not get to bed until 11 pm or later. With an early start the next morning, sleep deprivation is clearly a factor influences their transport behaviour patterns.

So in the main, my morning ride into work on the MRT and bus are accompanied by a deathly hush - 'vigour mortis' if you will excuse the pun.

I've grown to enjoy this period of quiet contemplation where the observation of one's fellow passengers can surreptitiously take place through lowered lashes.

After all they do say that power napping is good for you.

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.