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.

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.