Sunday, 11 May 2008

Tales of Beauty and Derision

A fortnight ago an invitation arrived on my work desk. As per usual it was addressed to my predecessor but I go it anyway.

Usually these receive a cursory glance and are tossed in to the waste paper basket. However on this occassion the invite in question turned out to be to a screening of Christies auction items.

Christies no longer use Singapore as a base but they do hold satellite exhibitions to promote their Hong Kong auctions and this event was one of these - the Spring Auction to be held at the end of the month.

Equally intriguing was the location for this exhibition, the recently opened St Regis Hotel in Orchard Road. This is currently the grandest dame on the block and has more stars to recommend it than the Milky Way.

Officially launched in April, the St Regis received a lot of media publicity as the owner's wife personally involved herself in the selection and development of an eclectic art collection containing amongst others; original works by of Joan Miro, Marc Chagall, Fernando Botero, Le Pho, Fernand Leger, Gu Gan, Chen Wen His and Georgette Chen.

We had a wander through the new hotel and took in the art works. There were some interesting sculptural works but personally I find Botero's creations just a little kitschy and plastic in execution. Give me the vigour of a good Rodin any day!

According to the St Regis web site one was meant to have a "Bespoke Experience" what ever that is? I suspect the shorts I was wearing was not the tailoring the staff had anticipated when they coined the phrase.

Then it was into the hotel's John Jacob Ballroom for the Christies viewing. The art was a fairly mixed bag as art auctions often are. Clearly some of the estimates were printed with a mind to attract the investment dollar. A contemporary Chinese painter, Yue Minjun, had a large work called Big Swans (pictured) with a $US1.2 - $US1.9 million price tag.

It was the small but exquisite collection of jewellery that was the most impressive. This included a 69 carat, yellow diamond and some flawless jade jewels in various settings.

After our auction viewing we re-boarded the bus following a quick dash to the opposite side of Orchard Road to do so. Having disembarked at Orchard Emerald we made our way to Robinsons department store who were in the midst of yet another of their sales.

On the return journey we passed the only drag queen I have yet seen in Singapore - a balding older man dressed in an ill-fitting frock and heels.

It probably would have helped if he could have afforded a wig, but alas this was not the case and he was given a wide berth by the more conservative Singaporean commuters.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

On The Road To Jaipur

Another Camel is Approaching - to quote Flanders & Swan

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

All Aboard

Wall Street jumps on Fannie Mae.

So said the morning news aboard the morning's 95 bus as I made my way to work. Poor old Fannie!

Fannie is in fact a US company that specialises in financial products. The constant stream of financial data reminded me that Singaporeans enjoy a good punt on the share market.

Not surprising when one considers the absurdly low interest rates for fixed term deposits in the banks here. In New Zealand we can get 8.95% percent on an investment over $100,000. The going rate in in Singapore is less than 1%.

A middle income family could not afford to live off bank interest and so shares and property are very popular options for investment.

Currency trading is another popular past time either using the money changers that can be found in most malls and shopping centres or the banks themselves.

At time of writing the Singapore dollar is rising against the US greenback and the NZ dollar which is good news. The latter currency though continues to maintain what I believe to be an artificially high level given the financial underpinning of the NZ economy.

Has the "credit crunch" come and gone? Nobody is sure if the worst is over and as a result the tills of Singapore are not ringing as loudly as they did a year ago.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

The Merry, Merry Month Of May

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 the 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. Enroute 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 icecream 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 foodies heaven.

In reference to Michelin I recall the caricatured 'Michelin Man' (pictured left) of robust girth. I couldn't earlier in life see the relevance between a gastronomic grading system and a chubby tyre.

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.

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Maid in Singapore

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.

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.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

The Big Smoke and Kebab Automata

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.

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. See the video below.

What will they think of next?

Friday, 25 April 2008

Mini Bar Blues & the Hostess With The Mostest

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 minibar 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.

What ever 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.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Mas Escape

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.

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 a lapses from 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.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Happy, Happy Talk & Terminal Velocity

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 enroute.

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.

At least the English can laugh at themselves and a song penned on this subject by two amateur musicians has made it to #5 in the local charts (see video below). And when you have watched the video you might also wish to try out the online game in which British Airway's CEO, Willie Walsh, attempts to move luggage on the Heathrow terminal belt.

Of more interest in today's rag is a story on the mercantile wonders of British engineering which suggests that had the Titianic 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.