Sunday, 31 May 2009

Gadgets Galore

Massage Mania - Roger Smith. May 2009

Despite the economic downturn Singaporean remain enthusiastic adaptors of new technologies. One only has to look at the full page advertising for mobile phone each Friday to appreciate this constant desire to upgrade.

The same applies to credit cards which every bank and most large department stores attempt to hook people with. It is the local custom to question any annual charges and express a strong desire not to have to pay these.

If there is a negative response from the card purveyor then Singaporeans will simply cancel the card and apply for another from a different source. This equally applies to the range of benefits that a card can provide. Electronic gadgets come in all shapes and sizes. Most malls have at least two retailers selling massage chairs that clamp your calves, or vibrating neck collars. Irradiated ankle socks and other bizarre electrical gadgets complete the self-medication kit.

In a more positive vein, it is the tropical fruit season in Singapore and we are enjoying the Thai mangoes and lychees from China (which are much more juicy than the Thai variety). These fruit are more beneficial to health than a warehouse full of massage chairs.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Jakarta Dawn

View from my window at the Ritz Carlton Kuningan. Note the yellow/brown pollution haze.

Ah..no free wireless in the Jakarta International airport unlike its counterpart in Singapore.

I like to arrive at an airport early, giving me plenty of time and allowing for the vagaries of traffic. Today it took about an hour getting from my hotel in the relatively secure diplomatic enclave of East Jakarta to the international airport. This is quite a commendable amount of time as this same journey can take up to three hours or more.

There is a certain seediness (should that be tiredness?) about the terminal. It matches the laidback lethargy of the small shop owners in the concourse.

The contents of these shops are an eclectic mix of large dried shark fins, mango confectionery and hand dyed fabrics all of which are quoted in $US.

I of course am left with a handful of Indonesian Rupiah – 28,000 to be exact. To the uninitiated this may seem like a princely sum but it in fact only four Singapore dollars. Not that I am planning to pack a large shark’s fin into my carry-on luggage

Monday, 25 May 2009

Tethered Monkeys and Shanty Towns

This is written from the luxury of my corner room at the Ritz Carlton Kuninga in Jakarta.

I say luxury, because it is with a feeling of guilt that I recall the shanties with their rusty red corrigated iron roofs that we passed on the way in from the airport.

The disparity between rich and poor is very evident in Indonesia. Jakarta alone has more than 10 million people, or to put it into context, two and a half times the entire popuation of New Zealand.

Every day for many is a story of subsistence and surival. My limousine passed a boy with his pet monky tethered to its owner's wrist, performing acrobatics in the hope of attracting alms from passing motorists.

Further on, a piece of hose snaked from behind a clump of bamboo to the roadside and a motorcyclist was filling up from what I took to be an illicit petrol supply.

The goreng(fried food)hand carts were setting off for late afternoon as my driver took a short cut through the local neighbourhood in East Jakarta. It is a sight that one used to see in old Singapore, but no more, as the hawkers there are largely confined to stalls and the itinerant variety disappeared several years ago.

The pollution haze that I remember from my last visit to the capital over a decade ago remains.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Italian Week

Friday, 22 May 2009

Not Worshipping Idols

Some television shows can be mildly addictive.  My wife watches American Idol and from time to time I will catch up with this parade of 'wannabes'. 

The frustrating thing about the show is that the supremely talented rarely win. So it was yesterday, when a pleasant enough contestant of moderate talent, named Kris, defeated the extremely gifted Adam Lambert. 

It is a contest about block voting and money rather than selecting a deserved winner.  

A noticeable trend in recent years is that it has become strategically important to declare oneself as a 'church leader' and/or a devout member of the Christian faith, thereby securing a large voting block of the US Moral Majority and congregations across the USA.   

Poor old Adam never really had a chance and I suspect a good 'ole dose of homophobia also reared its ugly head. 

If there is any consolation for the talented runner up, history shows us that the winners often sink back into obscurity from whence they came, whereas those who don't achieve the show's ultimate accolade go on to impressive show business careers. 

I shall not be making this show a viewing priority next year and by all accounts, as its slides down the ratings, many others are tuning out as well.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Cheap Cheap

All Together Now - Bangkok


Singaporeans enjoy travelling to Thailand. It is not simply the close proximity of this country that attracts them. Mainly it is the shopping, ease of travel and cheap accommodation.

On this business visit I once again stayed at the Pathumwan Princess hotel. In terms of overall value, cleanliness and service this hotel has few peers and I thoroughly recommend it.

It has another big advantage in that it is attached to the MBK Shopping Centre which has several floors and more than 2,000 shops.

Not that I was looking to buy anything but I did note that men's shoes were about 50% cheaper and even supermarket basics were 20%+ cheaper than Singapore. Many products are produced in Thailand so this is to be expected.

When I first visit Bangkok the trip from the airport to the central district used to up to two hours through traffic snarl ups and choking pollution. On the Sunday I arrived we breezed down the expressway at 150 kilometres per hour and arrived at the hotel in under half an hour.

What impressed me most when I first visited Thailand in the early 1980's and what impresses me still is the courtesy of the people.

Unfortunately the Thai hotel and tourism industry has been badly hit by the triple whammy of the economic recession, H1N1 flu and the political unrest in the country. The local press was reporting that many of the top flight hotels have been put up for sale by their owners.

My business trip did not start well with a traffic accident blocking access to Changi airport as I sped towards departure.

Then there was the ignominy of having one's carry-on case emptied and personal shaving gel and mouthwash removed - even though I has carried these same items on two previous trips with no problems. The presence of a large Pakistani tour group returning to their home country could possibly explain this heightened vigilance.

The next little drama was a mildly poisoned finger which I managed to deal with - such are the joys of business travel that no plastic airline food can placate.

Next week I am spending several days in Jakarta so it will be interesting to note the comparison with Bangkok.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Storm Over Bangkok

Yesterday afternoon there was a tremendous thunder storm over the city. I am staying on the 28th floor of the Pathumwan Princess Hotel and used my mobile phone camera and photoshop to capture the the mood of the scene.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Old Friends At The Point Of Departure

I have just caught up with an old friend in the departure lounge of Changi airport. This was not a planned arrangement but both of us naturally gravitated towards the free internet access and we met again.

It reminded me just how pleasurable catching up with friends can be. In this case we had shared and survived the meltdown of UNSW Asia in Singapore.

He has now been reincarnated as a Regional Director for DELL, based in China and I am working for the British Council, also with regional responsibilities in Asia.

A shared coffee and a 'catch up', albeit for half an hour, has been most enjoyable. Mutual acquaintances were discussed and the prospects looking ahead in the economic gloom of 2009 also dominated our thoughts.

He has since departed for Shanghai and I am about to board a flight to Bangkok. It feels like only yesterday when we worked together and I was delighted to see how successful his life has become.

Like many Singaporeans he has had to leave his family behind in Singapore while he plies his trade. While this is far from ideal for the family unit he makes a point of having quality time when the family reunites.

Old friends are to be treasured. Even the heavy deluge of a tropical rainstorm outside cannot dampen my spirits.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Homily Heaven

Willow - Roger Smith


There's nothing like a good slogan to motivate the troops. In Singapore this is adopted with an almost Confucian fervour.

Most buses are equipped with television and when Channel News Asia is not the active channel, there is a subtext of sayings and pearls of wisdom that play across the bottom of the screen. I think these are contributed by viewers but I cannot be sure?

There are similar motivational moments enshrined in public campaigns to fight off complacency and I noted during my tenure at NUS that they were also quite prevalent in the university world.

It is something that simply would not work as well in the West I would suggest. There is a residual cynicism that has crept into the minds of the electorate in these countries that would rebel against the practice.

Personally I do not have a problem with these homespun homilies but I wonder just how effective these rallying calls really are?

When Singaporeans really get motivated as has happened in recent weeks with the AWARE saga, they are a force to be reckoned with. I was hugely heartened to see the womenfolk of this country rise up and eject a small religious clique who had engineered themselves into the upper echelons of the organisation.

Secularism is one of the mainstays of this country and long may it remain so.