Recently in Singapore Category

Shutting Down or Up

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There have been a number of petitions lately to shut down websites: namely to close down STOMP and another to shut down The Real Singapore.

Now I’m a fan of neither and I think the world is a better place if the type of content prevalent on these two sites were never produced. I have previously suggested that STOMP relook its function because it offers SPH a means of circumventing the need to adhere to intellectual property laws.

Asking for these sites to be shut down hardly addresses the key problems. They are merely platforms upon which content is created, and if they were removed, producers of these content would simply relocate. The counter to undesirable speech isn’t the suppression of speech, it is the proliferation of speech, particularly expressions against said undesirable values. There is a place for censorship, but it ought to be exercised very judiciously. Values considered undesirable to one may be ok to another, and force of suppression could very easily be misused.

We currently suffer a deficit of good content. We often speak of this “silent majority”, who in our minds is made up of sensible people who are able to tell right from wrong. I’m not so sure. I think we’re all a myriad of different emotions and viewpoints. We are sometimes sensible and other times irrational. What we do need very much in our society is to have some balance in our utterances. We need to be able to speak when motivated by things and thoughts that are noble and good as much as (or better yet more than) when we are angered.

We could look at this as teething problems associated with a maturing society. But it starts here. Our voices need to find a greater range of tones and colours. While it is necessary at times to tear down structures that shouldn’t be, it is even more essential to build better and more praiseworthy ones.

Speaking Out

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I work in the public service and I have a fairly awesome job.

I’ve been at it in some form or other for almost ten years now. Many days during these ten years were spent focused on a vision in my head of the person I’m making a difference to: whether the father of a newborn who’s thankful that he now has one week of paternity leave to spend with his family in this very crucial time; or the student who doesn’t quite fit into the traditional academic mould, and now has a number of options because different pathways such as sports and the arts have been set up for our young ones to pursue.

My role in all of these might be extremely minor, but the knowledge that the hours I put in contributed a little towards making lives better for someone else out there is what has kept me going all these years.

I’ll be honest — recently it has grown harder and harder to hang on.

It is difficult to ignore the unkind words that are hurled at my colleagues and me on a daily basis. You need not go very far into the online space to read what people say about us public servants. We are depicted as thieves who steal money from our fellow citizens in order to enrich ourselves; or as weaklings incapable of independent thought, waiting every moment to pander to the wishes of superiors in the hope of promotion and pay. In forums you will read about how the government is heartless and blatantly ignores the plight of the poor, despite the fact so many public servants work tirelessly to take care of the disadvantaged among us.

These negative words affect us profoundly, and I’m asking that we stop this. The only way public servants can continue to serve in an environment that exposes them to constant abuse is to care less. I have seen so many wonderful people who have a heart for service leave because they no longer saw the good their work produced in the lives of citizens. It had been drowned out by hurled insults and sarcastic snide remarks. It is true that public service is a calling and requires some level of sacrifice, but the costs to personal health and well-being have become unnecessarily insurmountable.

I am not saying things are perfect in our country and nothing needs to be changed. On the contrary, we live in a world that is experiencing a tremendous rate of change in so many facets, bringing challenges at many junctures. A close partnership between the public service and the citizens it serves is our best chance at navigating the future that lies ahead and creating the Singapore we want for our loved ones.

We need to find a way to talk to each other, and discover that we have much to learn from each others’ perspectives, however different from our own. Only then can we grow together as a nation — a people equipped to comprehend the complexity of our unique position in our collective history, making decisions together that will translate into better lives for every citizen.

Not On Our Watch

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72 years ago to the day, Singapore was ceded to the Japanese. The unconditional surrender came after a week of battle. It was the start of a horrific chapter in our nation’s history.

Our eyes are so affixed on the here and now these days, with our online newsfeeds on our mobile devices constantly buzzing with who’s done what right this moment, that we have become such self-absorbed individuals. So much of our online utterances are filled with outrage at how screwed up other people are, how governments are failing us or why we’re not getting the life we deserve.

As I stood at the Civilian War Memorial in the heart of the city waiting for the military parade to begin, I took some time to recall all the stories I heard about Singapore during World War 2: how my teacher’s dad was rounded up along with hundreds and hundreds of men who were brought to the beaches where they dug their own graves before being shot in the back, and bayonetted as they lay on the sand. Her father escaped by feigning death. 25,000 to 50,000 people were killed in Singapore and Malaya during the three years of the Japanese Occupation. Fathers, brothers, sons.

Can you imagine how many families were broken apart, and how many promising lives were cut short? My heart grows so heavy at the thought and rage slowly starts to fill it. I try to contain myself.

A minute’s silence was observed.

As the monument grounds fill with soldiers and their families, there is a sense of renewed, steely resolve not to ever let this happen to us again. A pair of grandparents I spoke to told me how proud they were of their grandson. Along with the rest of his fellow recruits, he would be receiving his rifle at the parade today. They smiled as they said that the little boy they knew had now grown up to take his place as a man.

It has been more than a decade since I was their age, and it felt surreal to watch these young men forcefully claim their rifles out of their commanders’ grasp; that defending our way of life would fall also on the strength of these youths. My mind instinctively thinks “they’re so young”, but the ache in my knees reminds me of how time has flown by. In the course of the next 2 years, these young men will be made ready.

We all hope that our children may know only days of peace, prosperity and happiness. But our hope is tempered with the reality that hard-nosed vigilance is our defence. We resolve not to let history repeat itself on our watch.

An Opening

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A new cafe
white laminate, glass and stainless steel
long clean lines held up by
legs of oak or timber.
So hipster her design sensibilities
laugh mockingly at any suggestions that she began
at Ikea
even though subconsciously her birthplace
might have smelt of Swedish meatballs.

Opulent cakes sit in large glass bells
frosting mixed with orange zest
tarts with maple and bacon
In the back a giant mechanical workhorse
drips life-giving caffeine into tiny cups
extracted from the jet-lag of beans flown
halfway round the world.

Amidst the polite chatter of the sitting crowd
the silent tapping of manicured fingernails on Kindles
the owner stands
tired but a good tired
proud of a dream realised
trying to ignore the nagging worry
of being prematurely awakened.

I mourn for the dream whose ashes
upon which this new cafe stands:
A bakery nondescript
with surfaces that despite best efforts
were slightly greasy
stained with having seen years
turn into decades
No fuss white bread by the loaf
baked fresh here and
the only nod to the realities
of an outside world
was the floss-covered bun in the corner.

As the years pass
will hipster become unintentionally retro too
and dreams of staying small, cozy and intimate
give way to fabricated franchised relationships,
killed by rent —
the relentless current that sinks all boats
to shore its own insatiable corporate greed.
And the only constant in our lives becomes
the invisible hand that milks our dreams.

Singapore Spectrum

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It’s been a doozy of a month taking care of newborn Joshi. Last night I took a short night ride out to get a little fresh air, and also reflect on what it has meant to be Singaporean.

My ride took me past the Dakota Crescent flats, through Tanjong Rhu, down the Gardens by the Bay East, across the Marina Barrage bridge, past the domes at the Gardens by the Bay South and on to the Marina Bay Sands boardwalk.

View from Gardens by the Bay East

As I walked my bike among the crowds at the upscale Marina Bay Sands, it felt like Las Vegas. Everyone looked like a tourist, all coming from different corners of the world. It was close to 11pm and the night seemed young as the impeccably dressed sat at fancy cafes crowd-watching, and throngs strolled down the boardwalk, lit by the light of a million signboards brandishing world-famous brand names.

I felt, just as photographer Darren Soh articulated, that this Singapore was alien to me. I’ve spent so many hours walking down Esplanade bridge taking photos of the sunrise, but these days the giant towers of Marina Bay Sands insist on being part of the shot. But I also know that the Esplanade bridge blocked somebody elses’ memories of what Singapore is to them. New memories are being placed on top of old memories.

There’s a nascent yearning for everything to stop in this period of extremely rapid change. I grew up in Rochor Centre, and in a short time it will be no more. I can photograph the heck out of it right now, but it won’t be the same. Even the multicoloured facade it now sports doesn’t sit well with me. It was an unassuming beige in my childhood days.

I guess we all concede that things change, but we concede it rather reluctantly because that’s all we have.

When I woke this morning, the view outside the window was familiar.

View from my house

I’ve been living here a decade, and I know that things here too will change.

We need to make more memories. We are too often stuck behind computer screens, hard at work for the life we never get to live. We need to spend more time with loved ones, have fellowship with the neighbours that live around us, entwine our lives with each other because the one thing that won’t change is this: on this island with no natural resources, and relies on itself being nimble to global change, we are all we have. You. Me. Here. Now.

The smiles of the people you love, amidst the bright glitzy lights of the city; or the kids in their pyjamas running around the void deck downstairs. Prata and milo dinosaur at night. Slightly more atas food with friends from time to time.

The changing cityscape becomes bokeh, and the memories of time spent with people reside in the foreground of a life well-spent.

Happy National Day.

Heart on Your Sleeve

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Today, in a sea of office attire along Shenton Way, I seemed to be the only one decked in Army green in celebration of SAF Day. The reservist unit I belonged to was - the only term I can think of - army proud, and there was even a small tribute video celebrating our time in service. When the unit is brought together for our yearly training cycles, there is a sense of camaraderie and a quest for military excellence.

Spending a normal office day wearing green - being different - was an interesting experience. People walked past my desk and stopped in their tracks to take a closer look. I had many colleagues who jumped in and wished me “Happy SAF Day!”, which was nice, because it felt like a birthday of sorts.

The night before, the choice to participate in this way wasn’t an easy one. In a world where hierarchies in status have the power of a silent caste system, wearing a military uniform brought everything hierarchical to the forefront. What rank you held, specialised courses you successfully completed, and even whether you performed exceptionally for your physical fitness test or possessed good marksmanship was placed visibly in the form of badges or patches sewn on to your uniform for the world to see.

I wasn’t decked out like one of these guys. I am not an officer of the SAF. I am not a paratrooper / guardsman / kungfu master. My plain, unadorned uniform expressed my basic level of service to this country: simple, humble service.

I eventually chose to wear the uniform to work because it honours the ones who had come before me and the many who walk this path still. It honours my brothers and sisters who serve; some daily and others like me, once a year.

Block 6, Dakota Crescent, Singapore

This week of the children’s vacation was meant to be one of adventure. We were meant to go camping. I even bought a tent. We practiced setting it up, taking it down, and even spent a night in the tent while it was pitched in our study room.

Then came the haze: smoke from Indonesia’s man-made forest fires.

Hazy in Singapore

The acrid smell of ash filled every corner of the country.

Our eyes smarted and throats burned. People started snapping up respiratory masks as the PSI levels climbed to hazardous levels never before seen in the history of Singapore. In less than a day, there were no masks to be found in any of the pharmacies.

Quite bluntly, there was a shortage of fresh air.

When I saw that some Singaporeans had set up the Facebook page “SG Haze Rescue” to coordinate ground-up efforts to ensure that the welfare of the more vulnerable among us were taken care of, I joined immediately. I live a stone’s throw away from Dakota Crescent, a community of poorer Singaporeans who occupied government-subsidised rental flats. Only a few weeks earlier, I spent a few mornings photographing its little nooks and crannies.

Playground at Dakota Crescent

Some blocks at Dakota Crescent

It worried me that some of these people would have no access to respiratory masks, certainly not with the way some unscrupulous merchants were jacking up the prices. I scoured a handful of nearby pharmacies hoping to pick up a few spare masks I could give away to the folks who lived here, but they were all out. Even the crappy surgical masks that offered no protection against air pollution.

So this afternoon, in a fit of helplessness, I posted on the SG Haze Rescue Facebook page,

I can help out with the rental flats at Old Airport Road, but can’t get any masks anywhere. Willing to pay for the masks (at normal prices).

It was only a few minutes later when I got a response from Lindsey:

How many masks do you need to give out?

I scrambled together a makeshift plan, and dropped Lindsey a message. She offered to donate two boxes of N95 masks as long as I provided the distribution. The feeling of gratitude that swelled within my heart was tremendous.

For almost all my adult life spent working in the public service, I have been looking for people to work together to create a Singapore that was a little more compassionate, and more filled with character and less obsessed with material things or social status. I swear to you, I had just about given up.

And here, a woman I did not know, stood up and offered two boxes of the most sought-after good in all of Singapore. I needed this more than I imagined: the validation of my belief that there was good in us as a nation.

I carried the two boxes of N95 masks on the train, half afraid that someone would mug me, and not afraid that people would mistake me for a hoarder. At this point, I couldn’t care less what people thought of me. I only wanted to make sure this gift made it to the people who needed it.

The good folks at SG Haze Rescue informed me that someone else had indicated interest in helping out in the Dakota area. Andrew met up with me as I exited the train station and we headed up Block 6, Dakota Crescent together. We went door to door.

Every door that opened held a different story, a different colour palette, different families and lives. The earnest Chinese man, in his 60s with his mother who made sure he got my name right; the elderly Malay woman who left her door open as a stream of beautiful cats went in and out; the Indian family with two bright-eyed little children.

They are ours. Precious. Beautiful.

I had my camera with me, but some things seem so sacred documenting them would be missing out on actually savouring the moment. This was definitely one of those moments in life.

I am so glad I did this, and I write because I wish it for you too. That we might all step out a little, in this climate of little-itty-bitty adversity (it’s not like we’re undergoing a war or huge famine), and find ourselves a society worth living in and contributing to.

Because Singapore is beautiful. And she is defined through our celebration of neighbourly ties; finding that which is universal between us and overcoming our differences in language, culture and origin.

It is fitting that when our eyes are obscured by haze - only then do we stop chasing after what glitters, and find something a lot more worthwhile.

Stand Up for Singapore

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People not suffering from acute pain or injustice probably have less reason to voice out and risk being caught in a fray of online flaming.

When the folks behind “Stand Up for Singapore” decided to organise a hanging out at Hong Lim Park on May Day, they received a fair amount of criticism. “It’s a depressing portrait of Gen-Y Singaporeans substituting political action with feel-good frivolity”, wrote one. His followers soon started pelting the effort with virtual vegetables.

Yet it is many of these same individuals who rail on about how Singapore is not enough: culturally, politically, or pretty much in any way possible. Living in an era where everything is accelerated, and speaking on a medium where 3 seconds is much too long for a website to load, we are severely crimping our ability to grow things. 3D printers and other state of the art prototyping tools have made creating things so much more instantaneous than ever before, but some things still need time.

It is a nice gesture that some Singaporeans have come together to organise a picnic at Hong Lim Park, and to tear them down because there’s no overt political direction or cause is needlessly mean-spirited. Bonds are formed through informal gatherings such as these, helped by the fact it concentrates on the people rather than the problems to be solved.

There are many things that need to be addressed and challenges to be surmounted. But on Labour Day - a day of rest for the weary - it is as good a time as any to remember why we labour.

Don't Stop Believing

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Google suggestions for Singaporeans are...

Singaporeans have been labelled a lot of things. Uninspiring. Unhappy. Rich. Poor. Oppressed. It is not that the world labels us as such - most of these labels we chose to stick on ourselves.

Labels, much like their stationery counterparts, have a particularly sticky side to them. What we believe we are is more than just a self-fulfilling prophecy, it is the course we chart for ourselves. It is the course we chart for other Singaporeans, and inevitably, our children.

We have been traditionally hard on our own. For some odd reason, it has always been harder for Singaporeans to gain the approval and respect of fellow Singaporeans, even if the rest of the world readily acknowledges some measure of success. Even brands like Razer, founded by a Singaporean and attained global recognition, markets itself as American to sell to the local market. I confess to being part of the fanboy mob who years ago shook our heads at Sim Wong Hoo when Apple’s iPod took over Creative’s mp3 marketshare. Shook our heads, as if we knew better.

Now with social media accelerating highly-emotive sentiments, we have grown even more eager to criticise and paint the worst possible picture of people around us. “Businesses are out to exploit poor, impoverished workers”, “mainstream media reporters suck at their job”, “public servants just want to line their own pockets and do not care about citizens”, “the vocal minority is all emotion and no logic”…the list goes on.

Even now, I paint a picture of those painting pictures. This passive-aggressive internal war needs to stop if we are ever going to get anywhere or do anything worthwhile.

I want to believe that Singaporeans can be self-starters who are able to find innovative solutions to today’s problems; compassionate people willing to sacrifice a little of their own for those who need it more; able to overcome obstacles and ride the winds of change fearlessly; are a formidable force for good for others in the region and beyond.

Because we can. Because we are. We are.

I head off for my reservist duties next week. It pains me to be missing the birthdays of both Anne and Caleb, but I understand that putting country before self means actually sacrificing small bits every now and then. But what is really amazing about my reservist unit is that my fellow soldiers blow my mind when it comes to committing to the country.

Just last night I sent out a quick message to get some tedious paperwork done prior to my in-camp training next week. These brothers responded almost immediately and set themselves to work. Late at night. On a workday. No questions asked. No ignoring the call for help and pretending someone else will do it. Heck, some others who work overseas actually fly back on their own time and dime to serve in two-week long military exercises. To every young Singaporean male out there who wonders if National Service will be a waste of your time, I tell you this: it is what you want it to be. It restores my faith that there are other Singaporeans out there willing to go that extra mile. It makes me run harder, hold on longer, and march farther.

It is time we held each other to nobler standards and believed in each other a little bit more. I want to believe that I can serve without worrying that a dagger might be plunged into my back. Or that when I make mistakes we can recover from them together, growing from strength to strength. It is time we started building and stopped tearing down.

It’s 7 in the morning and the sky glows pink. It’s a new morning, Singapore. Stand tall. Stand proud. Be strong.

Stomped

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On Saturday, the Straits Times published a photo I took without my permission, and without attribution. I understand the difficulties of being an established paper with its institutional shackles and public expectation, while having to be as nimble as blogs written by folks in their pajamas. I’ll admit that I was initially angry, but that I’ve gotten over it, and would like to provide the Straits Times some feedback so they can put together some standard operating procedures to guard against the abuse of online content.

I urge you not to take to arms, but set your minds to work collaboratively so that we all come out on top — there’s too much online bashing going on as it is. Let’s make this conversation different.

An exchange with Picture Editor Stephanie Yeow over at the Straits Times. I have informed her that I would put this online as a matter of public record.

March 9th, 5:49pm

Dear Stephanie,

When I saw my photo used in today’s print edition of the Straits Times today, it confirmed my belief that there is a systemic problem within SPH. I have had many friends who have had their online content used by ST without their consent, and today I got to see first-hand how it happens.

I took this photo while on the way to work on Friday and posted it on my Instagram and Facebook account.

When Priscilla called to find out more about the accident, there was no mention that my photo would be used, and no permission was sought. She has apologised to me, and I take her word that she is new and might not be familiar with the process, and that your unit might have mistakenly put up my photo in place of another submitted on STOMP.

So I hope you’ll understand my resentment when I found that my photo had been posted on STOMP, contributed by “the STOMP team”.

All I can say is that this is a straightforward case of intelllectual property theft from an organisation that ought to know better. I believe in the openness of the Internet and have contributed a significant amount of content via Creative Commons licenses. SPH is a for-profit company that cannot beat on the intellectual property drum with one hand, and use online content without attribution or proper compensation whenever it feels like it.

This is gone on for far too long, and I am appalled at the lack of ethics. You had my name, my number, and I entertained more than a handful of calls to provide information for the story.

We need a higher standard of journalism in this country.

I will be putting this online as a matter of record, and will include any subsequent replies (if any) to provide your side of the story as well.

Lucian

March 10th, 4:06pm

Dear Lucian,

Thank you for your email. My apologies to have caused you distress over this. It is never the intention of The Straits Times/SPH to use any story or photo without consent. We try to maintain a high level of credibility and we definitely try to protect the interests of our fellow photographers.

We picked up your photo from STOMP, our citizen journalism website. Contributors to STOMP know that once they contribute material to us, that material is subject to usage in print and in any other SPH product without further permission from the contributor nor compensation. However, I realise from your email that you did not contribute your photo to STOMP.

So let me investigate further how this happened and get back to you. In the meantime, we do sometimes pay for photos that readers contribute to us and would like to offer you a fee for using your photo, if you wish to be paid.

I will get back to you on a more detailed explanation on how this happened. In the meantime, your patience and understanding is appreciated. Do let me know about the payment.

Thank you and regards, Stephanie

March 10th, 10:45pm

Dear Stephanie,

Thank you for your reply.

It is not my intention to extort any form of payment from ST, but my main priority is to point out that something is wrong with your policies. It is not uncommon to see ST attributing photos to “Facebook” or “Twitter”, which is extremely slip-shod journalism and unbecoming of a flagship paper.

The STOMP post that had the photo I took was attributed to “the STOMP team”, which I assumed was from ST. I know that STOMP takes in reader contributions, and its terms and conditions allow for content to be reused across SPH properties, but STOMP should under no circumstance function as a clearinghouse to launder intellectual property of their copyright.

It is important to get your processes in place so that ST can evolve to utilise the power of new media without losing the ethics of established journalism.

I look forward to hearing the results of your investigation. Please go easy on the personnel involved. Like I said, it is a systemic problem, and not the fault of errant individuals. I hope that my feedback helps you guys set some SOPs in place.

Lucian

12th March. Just to update: Ignatius Low, an editor with the Straits Times, called me up this afternoon and apologised for using the photo. The explanation, as expected, was that they used the photo which was submitted on STOMP. I told him that their processes needed work, and allowing anonymous contributions on STOMP wasn’t really cutting it. To put it bluntly, I can’t rule out staff from the Straits Times pushing content through STOMP just so they can use it. Ignatius assured that they would do more to seek out original owners of content they intend to use.

I’m not ecstatic at the response, and it would have been nice to see an effort to overhaul STOMP’s submission process; by closing the loophole of anonymous contributions and adding in some checks and balances. (Would have been great if they shut down STOMP entirely, but that’d be way too optimistic).

So to Ignatius, and other Straits Times staff, I know you guys want to do good, honest work, and I want to believe that we can yet have a great newspaper. But every time I see a photo attributed to “Twitter” or “Facebook”, I lose that feeling. I’m hanging on to the belief, but only by a thread.

When I was asked if I wanted to participate in Our SG Conversation’s first public citizen dialogue, I jumped at the chance to spend a few hours with fellow Singaporeans who were passionate about helping shape Singapore for future generations.

It did not take long for our small group conversations to gain momentum as individuals shared their struggles, and then their hopes.

  • A patient and caring husband who had spent the last few decades taking care of his wife who suffered from schizophrenia wanted more to be done for the mentally-ill and the caretakers who devoted their lives;
  • a cancer survivor who wished that better criteria for means testing for healthcare subsidies would not deny people who really needed financial assistance;
  • mothers and fathers who wished, from the bottom of their hearts, that their children did not have to be subject to the enormous stresses of an overly ambitious, yet possibly misguided education system;
  • many who reminisced simpler days and longed for a resurgence of the kampung spirit where people cared for each other, regardless of race, religion or creed.

These were but a few of the very heartfelt conversations shared.

To be frank, the beginning of my small group conversation began with complaints that the government was utterly incompetent and wasn’t solving the problems citizens faced. But that quickly fell away as we came to the realisation that the building of the country required the ingenuity and will of all Singaporeans, wherever life has placed us.

What really got to me was that despite the very diverse group of citizens assembled, there was so much consensus on where the country ought to be headed. One of the main themes that emerged was the need to (re)establish values in a society that most agreed had become overly materialistic and competitive. Singapore needed to be more compassionate and caring, more creative and daring to innovate.

And being pragmatic Singaporeans, we immediately set to work out how the education system needed to be changed, how policies needed to be rewritten and how government agencies and political leaders needed to espouse these values we all felt had been eroded in our hasty climb up the ladder of global meritocracy.

But it is impossible to speak of Singapore without asking the same hard questions of ourselves as Singaporeans: a compassionate Singapore is made up of compassionate Singaporeans. And thankfully, these are changes not entirely subject to the bureaucracy of government policy.

We need only choose to exhibit the traits which we think the country currently lacks, and if enough of us do, a significant change would begin, and the country’s countenance, once cold and hard, would melt. Yes it is a naive thought, an overly optimistic hope perhaps, that our whole society could change simply because it chose to. But for that one brief moment, when 60 of us — most of whom knew nothing of each other — gathered into a room and shared our hearts out, there was a common foundation and strength that makes me believe that this is change we can enact from the ground up.

“You came alone?”

Everyone seemed to ask as I headed into Changi General Hospital for my hernia operation. I didn’t understand why it seemed so odd to them. Maybe it’s the way I was brought up. We tried our darndest not to be more trouble. I did the necessary of course: arranged for a family member to pick me up after the op and all. But a hernia op, I was told, was pretty straight-forward stuff. I’d be in and out in a day.

The nurses showed me my bed where I’d wait to be wheeled in for the op. It was in a ward with five other patients who were all waiting for their minor surgeries. While watching movies loaded on the iPad, I made sure I smiled at them. There was a certain camaraderie; this was a shared moment in our individual journeys.

It was oddly Singaporean. I was beside a Eurasian man, who was beside a Malay man, both in their sixties. Across there were two Chinese men, one looked like he was in his eighties, and couldn’t speak English; the other was a fifty-something. Like me, he had his iPad. I noticed that I was the youngest by quite a bit.

I smiled at them as they were wheeled to the operating theatre one by one. They smiled back; like we were all headed for a tour or something. We wished each other well. When the nurses told me that my procedure would be postponed a little because they had shifted me to accommodate the more difficult cases earlier in the morning, I silently prayed for whoever it was that went ahead. It sounded serious. “You’re young and fit, you’ll recover faster than most,” I thought to myself, echoing what the surgeon told me in an earlier appointment.

It was a few hours before their wheeled me in. It felt like I was on a amusement park ride. Or more accurately, like the transit system in the old video game Half Life.

There were hospital personnel in many different coloured outfits, and I was always looking out for the “rarer” ones, like they were rare pokemon you could collect while being pushed on a bed through this maze. And then the operating theatre, where I was transferred on to this very narrow operating table. It had heated blankets underneath. I really appreciated the warmth. 80s retro music was piped in. When they asked if I had any questions, I asked, “who gets to choose the music?” “One of the nurses, probably. Sometimes we get Chinese pop songs.”

Then they did the whole just breathe this in deep, it’s just oxyge…

I woke up back in the ward, my right thigh totally numb and immobile. I look up at the clock and realise that three hours had passed. Although unable to move my leg, I felt normal and alert. I had sandwiches and hot chocolate; my first meal in 18 hours. I was ready to go home.

Until the fever hit.

Trembling uncontrollably while wearing nothing but the bareback robe from the operating theatre, they layered blankets on me as I lay in fetal position and tried hard to sleep, hoping it’d all go away. It was startling how quickly I went from a state of self-sufficiency to utter want. The minutes were hours and as the anesthesia wore off, the real pain began.

They checked me into the normal ward. My day surgery had become a sleepover.

It felt like someone had yanked hard on my internal organs, and a huge streak of pain ran down my right side. You know the pain that comes with holding your pee for way too long? That was perpetually there, and I began to worry that something went wrong.

In the middle of the night they woke me up for an x-ray. I was drenched in sweat, and took a while to push myself up to a sitting position, and even longer to slump myself into the wheelchair. The x-ray technician asked if I could stand to have the x-ray taken. I mustered what I had, and realised my body did not move an inch. I smiled weakly and told him I probably couldn’t. They took my x-ray with me sitting down. I was so grateful.

When they wheeled me back I asked to go to the bathroom. Lifting my legs out of the wheelchair was hard; walking, bent over in pain to the nearest cubicle was rather challenging. Everything that was easy became infinitely more difficult. How much difference 24 hours makes!

The fever would eventually subside. The internal pain would persist, until I realised the nurses had placed a dose of painkillers on the side table, and I had failed to notice it. I wasn’t upset - they were probably doing me a great favour by not waking me up. Sleep was the only refuge, and very hard earned. Painkillers would have been nice though. :)

As I recovered my strength, I took time to talk to the nurses; find out where they were from, and how they felt working so far away from home and family. In my time of need they were the ones I had to rely on, and they shone brilliantly.

It is truly humbling how quickly my perspective changed as I moved from perceived strength to complete brokenness. When things are going well in our lives we look upon the less fortunate in a certain way, but until we are in a position of need, it is hard to truly understand how much the small things matter. A helping hand, a smile, a warm blanket.

Even as I recover from the stitches and walk about still slightly bent over, I will slowly forget what it was like to place my well-being entirely in another person’s hands. But I hope I’ll keep some of the perspective, and more of the humility. If anything, a better grasp of how quickly the tides can change.

If anything, a stronger devotion to serving those for whom the tides have not been as kind.

It’s been a week since the government officially opened its doors for public feedback on population issues via population.sg, and I can’t even begin to describe how encouraging it has been to see how so many Singaporeans put in considerable effort and contributed many creative ideas and suggestions.

Many things could be made better: public transport, the availability of housing, flexibility in the workplace for better work-life balance, education…the list goes on. But I cannot help but sense a deeper need that we find hard to define, because we seem to have lost the vocabulary for these things when we pursued math and science at the cost of the arts and humanities so many years ago.

Truth be told, most Singaporeans would agree that we’re doing better than most other countries in the world. We enjoy a relatively reliable infrastructure, and I’m personally comforted by the recent push towards more green spaces.

I guess the question, when asked bluntly: why aren’t we happy?

If Maslow’s pyramid applies, it would appear we’ve maxed out on the eating, drinking, shelter layers, and are looking to fulfill the higher-order needs. There’s been a lot of talk about the Singapore identity, finding what it is, or preserving what we had. We’ve made huge sculptured chunks of the pledge and placed them in various parts of town, where people can hit a huge “Like” button to show their appreciation for the phrase. I often ride my skate-scooter to work, passing by a few of these and hitting the button whenever I can.

But it feels empty.

I’m looking for something greater, something more important than economics. I’m looking for something I can believe in - a Singapore I can believe in. It is more than her resilience to overcome financial recessions, or her shiny new coat of paint as she wows the world by hosting the F1. I’m looking for an articulated set of beliefs and values that would transcend the basic need for survival.

I don’t think we really have that yet.

When I was much younger, Singapore took an almost militant stand against gambling. I remember jumping on the bandwagon a little when people said Singapore was boring, and would be more vibrant if it opened up a little on this; and that the old man was just being an anal-retentive puritan who was out of touch with the times. But deep down I was proud that we stood up for something, and that LKY defended these beliefs in the face of criticism and the lure of monetary opportunity. I miss that feeling so much.

Just today, it was announced that Asia Pacific Breweries, the makers of Singapore’s own Tiger beer, would be sold to Dutch brewery Heineken. The reason given was that the economic incentive was too good to pass, and they were doing what was right by their shareholders.

I can empathise, especially when we live in an era where cashing out seems to be the end game plan for new corporations these days. Yahoo! should have sold while they were up, Facebook cashed out at the right time, and my beloved Digg is now touted as the cautionary tale of not selling out at the right time.

So I can understand the pressure on Hsien Yang to roll the company over for a good profit, and his explanation that they had their shareholders in mind. But I can’t help the general feeling of despair, that the shadow of Mammon — sheer, the unadulterated love of money — looms over everything we have. Tiger Beer was a brand we grew up with, and one of the few global brands that belonged to us; and it no longer belongs to Singapore. We have lost another part of ourselves.

Every now and then we are asked the question: what will you die for? The model answer, as everyone knows, is “family”. Without being as dramatic, I’d post the question, what would we fight for? More compassion for the poor, the handicapped, the underprivileged. An end to senseless discrimination, in its many shapes, forms and guises. For home.

Because home is more than a place family gathers. Home embodies a set of beliefs, protected from the harsh Darwinian forces of nature. I imagine my children running down sunny halls filled with Singaporean poetry and song. Dare we dream these things, or do we continue the push and pull of train timings and square footage of HDB flats?

As Gilbert wrote,

These are things I know I may never learn
to say. So we speak of smaller daily things,
and soon this brief connection will
unmake itself, and expire.

Disclosure: I work at the National Population and Talent Division, but the views I share here are my own…you know the drill.

Update: There have been quite a number of citizen-initiated efforts, especially since National Day is round the corner. Thought I’d try to capture the ones that I come across. If you found any notable ones not here, drop me an email at lucian@tribolum.com.

Stand Up For Our Singapore:

By the folks at RedSports:

A pretty awesome music video, composed by Galvin Sng, and performed by a great bunch of fellow Singaporeans:

FTW.sg, an aggregation of video clips of Singapore by Nick Pan

Love is Home, by mrbrown:

We are Singapore, by SteadiProductions:

I tore my right calf muscle more than a week ago playing basketball. I suppose I need to take more heed of advice from people who love me; that I am no longer young and in my prime, and that I need to take better care of my body. It is an awkward phase for me, where my body has aged but my mind refuses to believe it.

Many of us bloggers comment on life and society from the perspective of individuals concerned that more ought to be done for those in need. Hobbling around in crutches the past week has been an interesting flip: I was now the needy, at the mercy of the morning commuting crowd, hoping a seat be offered because the knee on my good leg is struggling to bear my weight in a moving train. On top of that I have to juggle two crutches, and a laptop bag. Sometimes two, when I need to work on my Mac.

It’s humbling.

My first train ride out was on a frenetic Monday morning. I squeezed into the train, and received a mixed variety of looks from the sardined crowd. Some looked upset that my crutches meant I took up more space, others look helplessly concerned, given it was impossible to move. After a few stations I stood right in front of a middle-aged woman seated in the “Reserved” seat, my crutches clanging softly against the steel railing. Sweat tricked down my leg as I struggled to maintain my balance.

The seat was never offered. Eye contact was never made. I didn’t have the humility to ask. I made a mental note to record the emotions that ran straight down the centre of my being.

Anger. Couldn’t she see that I was in need? The icons above the seat indicate that it was reserved for the elderly, pregnant and those with little children. It did not indicate crutches, but surely this woman couldn’t have been that dense! She wasn’t even asleep!

I calmed myself down. Once the anger subsided there was a very strong sense of pity. That we have become such uncaring people. It was no longer anger at the woman or at my suffering, but pity, that we were all victims of circumstance. We have been bred to compete, to fight for what is ours. To work hard for economic success, laying aside so many other things, that whatever little we have — even that seat on the train — became too precious to give up. We were a soulless band of zombies, grasping on to whatever little we could call ours. Our right. No one could take away what is rightfully ours, and we were surely not going to give it away.

The world we live in is fair that way.

On a separate trip on the train, this time on the way home, the crowd cleared a path for me, and an Indian man seated on the seat beside the “Reserved” seat stood up and offered it to me. I sat down, so very thankful that he had restored some of my faith in humanity. I smiled profusely and thanked him. It was not a feeling I was used to, but it was humbling (you’ll see this emotion comes up a lot) and comforting to feel part of a larger whole, where people cared about other people; rather than singular individuals watching out for themselves, governed by the rule of law.

An elderly man and his wife, slightly more sprightly than him, came aboard. The man in the reserved seat next to me offered it to the old man, and I instinctively stood up so his wife could sit beside him. The elderly man grabbed me by the wrist, and said, “no, you sit down. You hurt your leg.” A woman a few seats away stood up and offered her seat to the elderly wife.

The old man leaned over and whispered, “It was very gracious of you, what you did.” We chatted for a bit, and I wished him well before I alighted at my stop.

It was love that filled my heart. A revelation that love meant giving as well as being open to receiving. A willingness to help the vulnerable as well as allowing oneself to be vulnerable. It is only then we are truly intertwined; a real society, not just strangers who happen to be standing close together.

For all of us

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Singapore, renowned worldwide for the quality and variety of its hawker food, has been facing the problem of its decline for quite some time now. It’s not an easy job being a hawker: long hours, rising stall rentals, and the society’s nouveau mentality to menial labour has made the profession undesirable to the younger generation, who have bought into the dream of the high life. They would much rather be bankers, selling baloney and bubbles, than follow the footsteps of their forebears, earning their keep a few dollars at a time providing stressed masses with God’s gift to weary people: a steaming hot plate of char kuay teow.

The death of the hawking industry would be a huge loss for Singapore. The thought of an overworked population not having access to good cheap food is a scary one, but the loss of hawker food would be a death blow to the already tenuous shroud that is our Singaporean identity.

So when the government announced, after months of gathering industry and public feedback, that it wanted to make the hawking profession “attractive and honourable”, it was expected, but I baulked a little at the choice of words. We’ve always been relatively good at making things “attractive”, but “honourable”, to be frank, is out of the government’s league.

I do not mean it derisively, but honour is not easily bestowed by measures or means. You can fake it, much like the ornate robes worn by university professors at graduation ceremonies to instill a sense of pomp for the day, but real honour is bestowed by the people.

I’ll be blunt and honest here. We are really, really stingy when it comes to according honour. Whether we got to this point because of massive doses of competition, the effects of globalisation, or remnants of a survivor mentality that is still embedded in us, I’ll leave that discussion for keener minds. I think we can all agree that we aren’t a very generous people, particularly when it comes to our own. I’m guilty as charged.

Economically it makes sense to “move up the value chain”, but it is naive to look at value in purely economic terms. People do not climb the next rung of the economy ladder for a myriad of reasons, some by choice and others by circumstance. Dignity and honour should be found at all levels, and in all jobs. Professor Lim Chong Yah’s proposal to address income inequality and Ho Kwon Ping’s call to complete the wage reform in neglected sectors, based on my very, very rudimentary grasp of economics and through the lens of the state media, may come across as radical or extreme, but the spirit of their message is one we need in our stage of societal evolution. I think citizens need to understand that there are associated costs that come with caring. We can expect the cost of consumables to go up as we make livelihoods for lower-income jobs more equitable and sustainable. We need to decide, as a society, if we are willing to pay the cost to realise our ideals. There is no magic bullet, no grandfather who’ll pay for our moral high ground. Eventually we’ll need to pay for it, because we believe we cannot go on exploiting the downtrodden just so we can reap the benefits of a good life at a low price.

But I digress. The wage structure is but part of honour, and has been debated vigourously as of late.

How do we accord honour? How do we bring dignity to jobs that at the lower rungs of this man-made ladder to which we all seem enslaved?

Be nice. That’s a helluva good start.

Smile, and say your thank-you’s. To the cleaners, to the hawkers, to the construction workers. To all the ones whom we pass by; the ones we’ve taken for granted; the ones we’ve derided by telling our children they’ll end up there if they don’t study hard, be nice. Recognise their contributions to our lives, and express a little gratitude.

It’ll go farther than any government programme to instill honour and dignity.

Daniel Goh, this post is for you. I don’t drink alcohol, but for inspirational stories like yours, I just might have to pop by Good Beer and raise a glass. Erm. Mug. Yes I’m new at this.

Differences

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At one of our primary schools, a class of primary school students, most of whom were Chinese, sang Munnaeru Vaalibaa during their music lesson. The music teacher glanced out the classroom and saw an elderly Indian woman listening in. Half-afraid that she had massacred the song, the teacher asked, “did we do that correctly?” “Ok!” replied the woman, smiling.

My wife was the music teacher, and as she relates her account to me, we realise it is in these small moments where we can grasp the precious essence that is the multiculturalism we have here in Singapore.

Many years ago, while I was serving as a vehicle technician during my National Service in the army, we had a Chinese New Year celebratory dinner for all the trainee technicians. There was a sizeable number of Muslims among the trainees, so the organisers handed out forms to record our dietary preferences. A group of us decided we would opt for the halal menu, just so we could hang out with the Muslim trainees through the dinner.

That night, about 20 tables were spread out on the workshop floor, all covered in pink disposable plastic tablecloths. We sat with at one of the tables designated for those who had opted for the halal menu. There was a pregnant pause in the air. The Malay trainees were probably wondering if we had sat at the wrong table, and we felt a little uncomfortable; unsure if we had crossed some imaginary territorial lines by being there.

When they began to serve the food, one of the Malay trainees asked me why we weren’t with the other Chinese trainees. I told them that the few of us thought the celebrations would have been more meaningful if we could all be together. I remember the next moment very profoundly: he looked right into me and said, “You are very good guys to have done this.”

I remember this very moment so vividly because it was just a few minutes before that when the caterers brought out suckling pigs for the Chinese tables, and the Muslim food hadn’t arrived at our table. The juxtaposition of my Malay friend’s approval and my very base thought of “OMG did we just miss out on SUCKLING PIG?!?!” elicited a very strong emotional response from within me. I was instantly ashamed to have allowed my appetite to dictate my immediate thoughts. We had a really great time that night, and something significant emerged from our small decision to sign up for the halal menu. There was a brotherhood that looked beyond our differences in culture and united us because we had chosen to let it be so. We had chosen not to let our differences get in the way of our similarities, and to be intrigued and in awe of our diversity, rather than be afraid of it.

It has been many years since that night, but today we still face these same decisions. Singapore stands for a great many things: some noble, others maybe less so. But few things are as precious as our openness to people of different races and backgrounds.

We need to work hard to defend that, especially at the torrid pace globalisation is descending upon all of Asia. This openness to cultural diversity is a part of Singapore we should preserve, a most beautiful part we can proudly hand down to our children.

It's All There

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It was either Oscar Wilde or Mclandburgh Wilson who wrote,

“Between optimist and pessimist, the difference is droll. The optimist sees the doughnut, the pessimist the hole!”

There’s that, and the old cliché of half-filled or half-emptied glasses. The whole idea revolves around the power of changing one’s perspective.

Friends who’ve been following the photos of my commute to and from work have always commented that I live a pretty amazing life. In typical Singaporean fashion I’m quick to discount how wonderful it is, but I realise my mistake: rather than showing them how similarly empty my glass is when compared to theirs, I ought to be pointing out to the jug of water on the table, and how we have the power to fill those darn glasses.

Leaving home for work an hour earlier means I get the chance to put in a little bit of a detour from the daily commute. Sometimes I’d get off the train a couple of stations early and walk the rest of the way; other days I’d hop on my bike and ride in to work. And to be really frank, these moments see me through some of the tougher days.

Discovering an entire field of morning glory really helped me during a low patch.

Morning Glory

And making up my mind to leave work on time, and riding home the long way round after a downpour:

Reflection

Cloud City

I guess I’ve never really been consciously thankful for the many folks who’ve worked hard on providing such beautiful surroundings, slogging away at the Ministry of National Development, Urban Redevelopment Authority, or National Parks. It’s taken many years of planning and execution to get to this point.

I’ve placed all the photos I’ve taken while going to and from work under a Creative Commons license, which essentially means anyone can use it for non-commercial purposes so long they leave proper attribution. That’s my small contribution to helping all of you out there realise what we have here. It’s the very least I could do.

Fortress of Solitude

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Living on an small island that deems itself a megalopolis, it is not easy to find places to pull back from the city’s pace, observe things from a distance and recharge. It is probably wiser to never blog about these places and hide them away from mainstream attention, but some things are so beautiful they are worth sharing.

Everyone think that the Gardens by the Bay project only opens next year, so not many know that part of the Gardens has been open to the public for some time now. Faith and I serendipitously stumbled on the Gardens by the Bay East, across the water from the main Gardens, during one of our bike rides around our home.

Imagine our excitement when we rode beneath the Benjamin Sheares bridge and found a green oasis with an amazing view.

20111013-0004.jpg

Front and Centre

We rode all the way to the end and were thrilled to discover that the Gardens were linked to the Marina Barrage. We’ve always wanted to go to the Barrage, but it used to be terribly inaccessible without the use of a car. Now that we could ride there on our bikes, I planned to make it one of my routes to work.

The night view at the Gardens East is arguably even more astounding. When you walk into the Gardens at night, the footpath is lit up with tiny twinkling lights so you feel like you’re walking on a belt of stars.

Footpath into Gardens by the Bay East

My photos don’t do it justice. You really need to be standing there to experience the wonder.

Watching the nightlife of the city from the quiet and breezy corner of the Gardens by the Bay is invigorating.

View of City from Gardens by the Bast East

The contrast between the exciting city and the quieter gardens is probably best visually represented by the juxtaposition of Gardens by the Bay South and the Marina Bay Sands.

Gardens by the Bay South and Marina Bay Sans

It probably isn’t the wisest thing telling everyone about my nice quiet corner. But as always, when the crowds start swarming, I’ll be looking for my next fortress of solitude.

I stepped into the auditorium of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and felt a little out of place. Mum had sent me an email two days earlier about Claire Chiang’s new autobiography “张齐娥登陆记”. I thought then that it would be interesting to turn up at the book launch to hear what one of Singapore’s most active civil activists had to say. Standing in a sea of people whom I could only instinctively describe as “decidedly Chinese”, I felt a little out of my comfort zone.

Like many others of my generation, we were brought up by English-speaking parents. Learning the Chinese language was a daily travail that plagued our educational journey. Looking back at how I struggled to pass the language year after year in school, it would only be logical to assume that I’d grow to hate my mother-tongue. It was only after spending many years in a bilingual church that I’ve come to fear the Chinese language less.

But this night would give me pause. As I stood alone in the crowd, conversations streamed about me in extremely fluent Mandarin. I found a seat in a corner, sat myself down and pretended to have an engaging conversation with my mobile phone.

It might have been the fengshui of that particular corner in the auditorium - a group of English-speaking folks sat around me. Paul Rozario from the Arts House introduced himself and sat beside me.

The event began. Speaker after speaker went on stage, delivering their speeches in Mandarin. They recounted their relationships with Claire, the person she was, and the amazing life she led.

What was fascinating was that I found myself translating the speeches to Paul. It just came so naturally. I wasn’t about to let someone sit through an entire event without enjoying these testimonies of Claire’s younger days, or the accounts of Claire’s children. As I translated I found myself enthralled by the beauty of the Chinese language when wielded fluently. Trying to retain that beauty while translating, while no mean feat, was a challenge I intellectually relished.

Paul’s appreciation of the intricate Chinese expressions (however callously mutilated by my substandard translating) touched my heart — this is the Singapore I want my children to inherit. A place where we can be proud of our ethnic identities, express them openly and share them freely with others. A place where we can have access to the richness of other cultures and be made better through the appreciation of the unique and the realisation of the common.

As I walked home after the event, it dawned on me that while I was translating cross-culturally, Claire’s speech and her book was an effort to communicate the values of her generation to mine; showing us that attributes like truth, virtue and beauty are timeless, and that more of us ought to be protecting these treasures against an increasingly mercenary and selfish mindset.

Universal

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Despite being a father of two and spending most of my nights parenting them, I sometimes find myself guilty of the trait that irks parents all over the world:

Petulance.

Some weeks ago I headed down to the basketball courts for a decent evening’s workout, but found the community centre transformed beyond recognition. Though these two basketball courts were well frequented by teenagers who lived in the east, I wasn’t prepared to see a whole carnival of around 50 Filipino men playing full-court basketball on both courts.

A wave of heated emotion ran over me, and I let my temper simmer within me.

“Our community centre got overrun”, I thought to myself. Many other ugly thoughts clouded my mind, most of them revolving around having a country which I paid for in time (national service) and taxes forcibly taken away from me by a swarm of locusts who were using my home as a stepping stone to a better life…yadda yadda yadda.

I felt like gatecrashing - just standing at the rim and shooting my basketball without caring about whether these Filipinos were in the middle of their game. Heck, I’m a true-blooded Singaporean; surely I deserved that right.

I sulked for quite a while, before a few of the Filipino men called out to me and asked me to play with them on the next team. I accepted the invitation, bitter taste still lingering in my mouth.

It only took a few minutes before we were passing the ball around, engaged in the pretty universal dance that basketball is. We were laughing at each other’s misses and high-fiving when a good play was executed well. And I began to remember how different we are, compared to them.

It’s an odd thing, because you’d assume that when I was done sulking, I’d have this whole revelation about how we’re all one, kumbayah sorta thing. But when you’re really in the zone, you realise that harmony is not achieved through enforcing uniformity, but through the celebration of diversity. Through the course of our game, I learned how warm the Filipinos are as a people; how seriously they take their basketball, but also how they prize the playing of the game over its outcome.

I learned that I have much to learn from them.

It would be a mistake to expect the different cultures within Singapore to assimilate into one singular identity and erase the diversity that has made us strong. We ought to forge a home where we can accept others for who they are, and expect the same kindness and freedom to be reciprocated unto us.

Made in Singapore

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“Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honour.”

I first heard of Inch Chua a little more than a year ago. Inch. If anything, her name was intriguing. Her music, like herself, was easy to like. I was proud that she was Singapore’s first solo musician to perform at SXSW.

So when I read her Facebook note that she was leaving Singapore, my heart broke a little. Many things she wrote in that note were true.

It is true that for some obscure reason, Singaporeans look down on other Singaporeans. “Made in America” comes with the notion that the product is heavy-duty; “made in Japan”, quality; “made in the UK”, quaint. But when you talk about something that is “made in Singapore”, it is always the Singaporeans who’ll be first in line to pull it down. You’ll often hear things like “trying too hard to be [insert name of western country]” or “cannot make it”. Best of all, these criticisms are uttered by the ones who’ve never had the guts to even try.

I know, because I’m guilty of it.

When the iPod debuted, Singapore’s own Creative Labs stood at the forefront of the mp3 player market. I owned the Creative Nomad at that time, having bought it after enduring a very long line at one of Creative’s sales. When the second generation iPod made its way to the market, it became clear that Apple had become a very worthy contender to Creative’s dominance. Apple’s marketing muscle easily pushed Creative out of the way. The Mac fanboy in me chewed up the Singaporean in me, and I joined the throng mocking Sim Wong Hoo’s attempts to reenter the fray with product after product.

Now a little older, and having failed at making my own business a success, I have newfound respect for Sim Wong Hoo. It is easy in retrospect to say what could have been done better, but it would be foolish not to see what Creative Labs did for Singapore: it showed us that we, small island notwithstanding, could have an impact on the globe.

Sadly, that lesson has not been refreshed in our minds often enough. It is not that we have a dearth of successes, but rather, there is the ongoing perception that there is a “pathetic need of validation from elsewhere”. Singapore-made Tiger beer has a very strong advertising slant depicting more westernised origins. Even Razer, maker of the world’s best gaming peripherals, has a Singaporean founder, but continually brands itself as a Californian company.

Though my experience abroad is rather limited, I’ve not encountered people of other nationalities belittling Singapore’s successes. We are our own worst enemy.

We have become the embodiment of the quintessential Singaporean parent - never satisfied with his child’s performance, and always comparing his child to the neighbour’s / relative’s / friend’s perfect progeny. Many of us have grown up with this baggage and seem hell-bent on perpetuating this destructive practice. The harder it is to gain our approval and acceptance, the more self-important we feel.

But if we ever want to succeed, we must first give ourselves that chance. If we deny ourselves and our children even the possibility of success, nobody in the world can ever give it to us.

It’s time we grew up, Singapore. It’s time we stopped blaming somebody else, anybody else. It’s time we stopped blaming.

Look around and you’ll see that we have been given every manner of happiness by the sweat of our forebears. Maybe I’m naive to tell you we can now afford to go beyond basic survival, and that we ought to look closer and work harder on who we are, rather than what we have. It might be naive to take our eye off the ball - there probably is a very real danger that we lose the economic progress we’ve spent a generation building up; but I’d like to point out that there’s also a very real cost that comes with only keeping our eye on our treasure trove while failing to define our character.

As Inch alluded to, we need to broaden our definition of success. We hold on to the old belief that if our children should grow up to be anything other than doctors or lawyers, they have not obtained success. In recent years we might have added “banker” to the list, but it does little to change our society’s view that one is weighed by his or her income.

We have lost a lot of amazing people because we’ve held on to such a narrow definition of success. People who have fought for higher ideals, people who’ve wanted to devote more time to raising better children, people who’ve added to other people’s lives through art, poetry and yes, music. The best, and most important things in life cannot be quantified by something so base as money.

Because of our narrow perspective on what success is, we have lost so many chances to celebrate Singaporean lives.

There is a shift these days, and change is in the air, and the cynics among and within us might sneer at its ephemeral nature. But it is to this fleeting thought that we need to add resolve, so that we may hold our heads high to have shared our lives with each other, however long or brief a time it might be.

Onward, Singapore

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My fellow Singaporeans,

Every generation is responsible for the time they are given, and they are held responsible by their children and their children’s children. The same questions will be asked of us: did we make things better for people around us? Did we conduct ourselves with honour, integrity and compassion? Did we leave behind a legacy future generations are proud and passionate to follow?

While the questions are the same, every generation is beset with unique challenges. I am heartened that in this short span of political campaigning, some of these challenges are brought to the forefront of our minds, and subject to open debate. It is easy to be caught up emotionally as politicians do what they have to: garner popularity, but I urge you to see beyond the euphoria, the anger and the goosebumps because the challenges that face us require our attention for the long haul.

Questions like how do we provide quality housing that is affordable to all; how do we imbibe skills, ideas and passion found in individuals located all around the globe and merge it with who we are as a people while maintaining the core of our identity; how do we cultivate authentic compassion and empathy for the less fortunate in a self-confessed meritocratic society?

These aren’t easy questions and only the most naive would believe that anyone is able to solve them upfront. The solutions to many of these require a bold first step and subsequent adjustments. It saddens me to equal degrees: to see opinionated people insisting that their solutions are perfect; and other opinionated people trying to string the decision-makers up to dry because the first stroke wasn’t perfect by their estimation.

The challenges before us require all our collective innovation and creativity. Voting for whom and what you believe in is a great beginning, but I hope polling day doesn’t spell the end of passionate discourse and decisive action. It is easier to watch candidates go at it, but much more effective if we all get in on making Singapore a definitively amazing place to live.

Volunteer with organisations for causes you believe in, show a little compassion the next time someone in need tries to sell you a packet of tissue paper (you don’t have to buy, but examine yourself for traces of scorn and eliminate that for a start), head to the nearest sports complex and teach the bunch of youngsters how to strike a football the right way.

There is so much we can and need to do.

One of the most memorable moments in television I’ve ever watched has got to be the episode in ER where Mark Greene dies. He speaks these last words to his daughter Rachel:

Mark: I was trying to figure out what I should have already told you, but I never have. Something important, something every father should impart to his daughter. I finally got it.

He pauses.

Mark: Generosity. Be generous. With your time. With your love. With your life.

Rachel: Okay.

Mark: I’m sorry, Rachel. I’m so tired.

Rachel: It’s okay.

Mark: Don’t cry for me.

Rachel: I won’t.

Mark: Be generous. Always.

From the “On the Beach” episode of ER

Be the change we need.

Viva La Revolucion!

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It is probably a common affliction borne by the no-longer-youthful: we are often left wondering where time has gone.

When a friend pointed out that Les Mis put together a 25th anniversary concert, I was a little dumbstruck. It didn’t seem that long ago when I first watched Les Mis, became so absolutely smitten with Eponine and subsequently developed an unhealthy obsession with Broadway, and particulary Frank Wildhorn’s musicals Jekyll and Hyde as well as the amazing, amazing Scarlet Pimpernel.

To think it was the NBA All-Star halftime show at Madison Square Garden that started it all. Oh my, it was the 1998 NBA All-Star Game.

I consider myself a lifelong Les Mis fan, having purchased the original cast recording, the complete symphonic recording, the 10th year anniversary concert CD, and 2 copies of the concert DVD. As such, I am heavily invested in the Les Mis story, and like any fan worth their salt, we guard the telling of the story very jealously, scrutinising the new cast members chosen for the 25th anniversary milestone concert.

Let’s put it this way: we start off with the premise that there is no one who can ever replace the original cast. No one is going to come close to Colm Wilkinson as JVJ and to suggest Lea Salonga’s Eponine as substitutable is borderline heresy. You’ll often hear us old fogeys bemoaning the fact that there’ll never be another _, but it is important not to mistake our nostalgia for disrespect.

We accept that time truly waits for no man, and it is essential that the new generation of actors take over the esteemed mantle of perpetuating the story for their peers. The story should outlive one generation’s interpretation of it; the younger generation, having come of age, ought to own its telling, embracing it and improving upon it.

But that said, please send your very best - voices and talent worthy of the high bar laid down by an illustrious cast such as Michael Ball, Ruthie Henshall (oh I swoon), Anthony Warlow and Philip Quast. Apart from Lea, whom even time has touched, I do not know any of the cast of the 25th anniversary concert. I only hope they understand their role in all this and uphold the tradition proudly, not viewing it as just another show or a feather in their cap. To be the bearer of the story is not something anyone should take on frivolously or carelessly, for truly, as Yeats so succinctly put it, “[we] have spread my dreams under your feet, Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”.

While there is only one original cast, the Les Mis faithful often spend time considering over the what-could-have-beens: Warlow would have made a different Valjean. We could argue over who is the greater, but frankly, the story of Les Mis is greater than her actors.

The story of Les Mis is our story. It resonates within us because at some point in our lives, in some fashion, we are Les Miserablés, and we are searching for inspiration to rise above our circumstance and achieve something greater than ourselves.

Eye on the ball

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The wisdom of the crowd is also the madness of the mob.

The power of publishing now made available to everyone who has access to the web, we have been privileged to have shared stories and moments which have uplifted us, such as the community-spirit of the Japanese in the face of natural disaster; and at the exact same moment we are bombarded with inane user-submitted lyrics set to Rebecca Black’s Friday.

When you throw in the emotional volatility of the Singapore elections things get a little testy. It was extremely disheartening to see how quickly we delved into the pits of tabloid sensationalism right after the PAP announced 27-year-old Ms Tin Pei Ling as one of their new candidates. I can understand the concerns about her being too young to connect with older voters, but why dig up her Facebook photo of her posing with a Kate Spade box? Or insinuate that she got to where she is solely because she is married to a high-flying civil servant?

We vote because we want the best among us to represent us, and to bring out the best in us in order to move us onward as a nation. How we conduct ourselves as voters reveals volumes of who we are as a people, and it is likely that unless we keep our eye on the real social issues before us, we will have wasted our vote and turned the democratic process into nothing more than vain pageantry.

M'ved

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Looking back at the last decade, God has been wondrously kind. Work-wise it has never been about choosing jobs so much as it was subscribing to causes which resonated.

It’s been a little more than 2 months at the new gig at the National Population and Talent Division and it’s been an eye-opener to say the least. Moving out of education was a difficult choice to make - I will always have a very special place for education in my heart. There are few things more important than making sure our children are equipped to deal with the pragmatic, ideological and ethical challenges of the extremely fast-changing landscape before them. My time at the Ministry of Education was an absolute blast, and subsequently my stint at Temasek Polytechnic gave me the ground-level view of how national education policy met with the sheer vigour and force of youth.

Moving on to the slightly more macro topic of national policy struck a chord deeply because it felt like a necessary step to answer the questions of my generation; we who were born into a Singapore that already existed. The ones responsible for chapter two, so to speak. The questions and challenges that hit home for me, regardless of the day job are the most basic, but I believe I’m not alone.

Who are we, and who do we want to be?

It sounds like an extension of the teenage quest for self-identity, but isn’t that where Singapore is as a country? Isn’t that the second chapter? Whether we turn out to be cynical xenophobes, global nomads, helpful neighbours or a force for good in the world depends on what we choose to do with our inherited citizenship. It’s time we took ownership and worked collaboratively to create an environment worth protecting; one that we can hand over to our children, and proud to have been faithful stewards of.

I’m blessed that this is the day job.

Lines

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…pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion…

So goes the Singapore Pledge which many of us have recited in school for years. And it seems that at almost every National Day, we are reminded of how we stand at the knife’s edge, and the racial riots of our parents’ generation would immediately come back if we weren’t careful. We’d all roll our eyeballs; here he goes with the scare-monger tactics again. We think of all the friends we have who are not of the same race and conclude that it isn’t an issue; we are past that.

While playing basketball last Thursday I got a rude shock as to how racial lines are always in play.

The court where I play is home to ballers of many nationalities. The older Singaporean uncles play on Tuesday nights, the young mainland Chinese men, the Filipina professionals, Malaysians and even a Russian center. That night, and it happens quite frequently, they all show up to ball.

No one can dispute the different styles of play: Filipinas have quick hands and have a tendency to reach in for the steal. The Chinese adopt a physical, bruising style of play under the rim. The game, while global, is different in different parts of the world.

So on Thursday all these various styles are smashed together within the confines of a basketball court, and things get testy as the physical nature of the game takes its toll on the players. And immediately, the first accusation that is lobbed divides us along racial lines.

“You Singaporeans don’t know the rules of basketball”, when a foul is disputed.

“You Philippine people always slap wrists”.

“Chinese players always play so rough”.

The game turns into a battle as stereotypes fuel an inexplicable festering that dispenses with any semblance of sportsmanship. You could see it in their eyes - literally filled with hate, and basketball becomes a game of finding an excuse to injure the other party. A few of us intervene before things get out of hand, and cooler heads prevail.

I do not know if we will ever reach a stage where race is a transparent attribute that no longer factors in our judgement. Martin Luther King’s ideal of judging a man by the content of his character rather than the colour of his skin might be something that requires a steadfast, constant striving towards, rather than a state we attain and after which we can rest.

Sometimes while looking for what you want, you find what you need.

2 days ago I turned to my little slice of the Twitterverse to help out a colleague who needed contacts in public relations or marketing agencies who were able to do some user research. I tweeted:

Hey Singapore PR folks, I might like to get some user demographic research done, who would I contact? Can DM me pls? Thanks!

I added “Singapore” because quite a number of my followers live abroad, and I didn’t want them to respond because my friend wouldn’t be able to use them anyway.

I started getting messages from quite a number of people, most of them going along the lines of “I’m PR, sure, count me in”.

Now I was confused. The folks who responded weren’t from the same sphere I was expecting replies from. And they didn’t leave me an email or phone number of a relevant contact.

Then it hit me.

They were all permanent residents. I had, after all, hollered “hey Singapore PR folks” and they were Singapore PRs. I looked at the ones who responded. Then I skimmed through the list of local people I follow on Twitter, making mental notes of places they called home.

Malaysia, Indonesia, England, the US, India, China, the list goes on and on. People who lived in Singapore but weren’t from Singapore. They were friends whom I’ve come to know through tech meetups like WebSG - people whose work I really admired. People like Jussi, Andy, Arun, Herry, Singeo, Shah; newcomers like Navjot and people we were privileged to have had reside in Singapore, even for a while, like Divya and Deepak. And the list goes on and on.

They have added so much to Singapore simply by living here, and there is no doubt that we are better off having worked with them, known them and shared our lives with them. Looking at the few I’ve listed above, there are people who have, in their own spare time: redesigned our bus stops, created Google maps that help us track dengue hotspots, online applications that help us borrow books from our libraries, contributed code to our projects and so much more. They have augmented our knowledge. But more importantly, they have enriched our lives, often providing new perspectives to old problems.

A month ago I took up the job at the National Population and Talent Division in the Prime Minister’s Office. Among the issues we handle, probably the most contentious of which is the integration of immigrants into Singapore society. I’ll be totally honest and say that I wasn’t totally comfortable with the government’s stance that we needed to “import foreign talent”. It smacked with the implicit flipside that we local-born were lacking in talent, and that bruised many of our egos. Maybe the wording could have been made more neutral, but the epiphany that accompanied my misread tweet taught me that it matters less where we are born than the type of people we are.

I want so much for Singapore to be remembered in history as a people who strive tenaciously to make their surroundings better while possessing a generous and compassionate heart, sharing what we have to lift others in need; a brotherhood forged from a common destination, not a common origin.

Main Course, No Sides

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When I joined the government 5 years ago it was a step taken in hope. A small step perhaps, but hope is a seed always destined to grow into a strong tree. My professional goals were to help the government build websites it could be proud of from a technical standpoint. Web standards compliant.

Though labeled as a geekhead the goal has always been larger than purely technical. The web standards movement has within it a certain set of values; values of inclusiveness and compassion, collaboration, transparency and openness, and simplicity, to name a few. There was the hope that the government that I knew from the murmurings of cab drivers and vocal internet underdog heroes as heavily bureaucratic, self-serving and ineffective could be reformed through some form of internal revolution. Or if I should fail in the revolution at least I would have at least been able to say I’ve tried.

Over this time I’ve met with bureaucracy, selfishness and ineffectiveness. I’ve pulled at my hair more than I would have liked. But I have also seen many examples of self-sacrifice, honest speech and street smarts. I’ve been privileged to have known these people, and by some extension to call them brothers and sisters. Some sit behind desks, others run ahead with guns. Many of these who have chosen the service of their fellows as their lifework continue to bear silently the brunt of online dissent. Even now as year end bonuses are announced, they are not lauded for their work, but scorned for it.

Having once been on the side hurling rocks and now on the inside getting hit, the biggest wish I have for our country is that this not be our end, but only a phase towards greater maturity as a society. I am glad that the advent of the web means more voices can be heard, but there is a need to embrace the diversity of opinions. They that mock the censor should not censor they that support him, for it would be irony indeed.

Inclusiveness. Compassion. Authenticity.

In two weeks I take a pretty drastic career shift and join the National Population Secretariat in the Prime Minister’s Office which deals with some difficult questions for our generation. There is a fear that I step too close into the heart of the issue to be an objective observer of it, but also a fear that I spend a lifetime only observing and criticising those who would dare step in while enjoying the security of standing at a distance. A job in the public service is an opportunity to make a difference, and Singapore needs people who have a heart for service.

I leave you with this movie-line mashup:

People should not fear their governments; neither should governments fear their people, for fear is the path to the dark side.

Constant Change

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Old Supreme Court, New Supreme Court, Singapore

I leave my job in a few weeks for another, and joining the dots of my career I see a personal evolution. It wasn’t too long ago when the ideal was holding on to jobs for life. These days, the same philosophy is seen as extremely outdated and held steadfastly only by those who fear to tread new ground.

It was deemed as loyalty back in the day.

We live in the era of “me”, and the shift in our value-systems happen so quickly we need to consciously question fair-weather assumptions.

Why is change necessary or good? Why do we expect ourselves to continually be moving, accepting new challenges and always morphing and shifting, sometime responding to changes in the external environment (the demands of the job market for example) and sometimes out of sheer boredom. Why do we expect change to be a good thing, but complain when the food stall we’ve frequented for years disappears, nowhere to be found?

Rojak Man

As designers we often talk about iterative design, agile methodologies, continual improvement, but we forget the importance of familiarity. We forget the importance of anchors, markers, grids - the co-ordinates from which we gain reference. The 0, 0, 0s in our lives.

In a world where constant change is touted as universal truth, it is around these anchors we cluster our most treasured possessions. We build memories around places and buildings we interact with over time. The saying goes “make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver, the other is gold”. The most important things in life have a constancy, even at a personal level: character, integrity, punctuality, faithfulness, loyalty. One wonders if we have traded those character traits for adaptability and resourcefulness. We can’t help but wonder if we’ve thrown trust out the window.

When people ask me for career advice, I always go back to “find your passion”. In my own rather limited experience, it is fool’s gold to chase after economic trends because the winds are too fickle and change too quickly. It is ok to switch jobs if circumstances aren’t ideal, but one’s career, nay, one’s life, should reflect an honest, faithful stewardship of a passion God has placed within him. Though change be inevitable, change occurs on the micro level; we should keep our eye on the macro. The waves that slap against the side of the boat may distract us, but we ought to point the nose of the boat at the specified point in the horizon.

We need to keep steadfast for a great many reasons. Because a lifetime is already too short a time to create real, lasting social good, much less an internship stint of 3 months. Because while it takes a short time to learn something, it takes a much longer time to master it. Because when opportunity seeks after the prepared, not the ones who are merely dabbling, and your mother has always told you to stay in one spot if you ever get lost so it’s easier to find you.

But ultimately, because these days, more than ever, people need things they can depend on, even if for a little bit. They need that food stall to be there, for their own sanity’s sake.

What are you defending?

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A whole lot has been said and written about National Serviceman Lim Zi Rui’s comment that he didn’t know what he was defending anymore. He was referring to how to huge influx of foreigners into Singapore has led him to a state of being lost; that he couldn’t identify with the Singapore he was fighting for and defending.

First things first: it is perfectly normal to ask this question. The question “What am I defending?” is applicable to all citizens of Singapore, not just National Servicemen, and it comes in a myriad of different forms.

“Why am I staying in Singapore? Why haven’t I migrated?” At the root of it, it is a question of investment. We are putting something in - our time, our toil, our lives - and we want to know what it is we’re doing all of this for. It’s probably the most fundamental question of life if we expand it to a more macro, existentialist level.

In the information age we live in, the notion of a country, like many other age-old paradigms, is undergoing change. Countries used to be about geographical boundaries and physical territory. While a geography teacher came up to me the other day reminding me that these things do matter because humans are intrinsically tied to where they are physically located, I think citizenship has evolved to become more intangible, and it would be disastrous if we continued to define it as a one dimensional concept.

Ivan Lalic’s poem Places we love came over me with such clarity, that the places we love are more than physical spaces. “Space is only time visible in a different way”, goes the poem. I love Arizona because of my time as an undergraduate there, and I’ve made it a point to revisit her, but it’s not the same Arizona I remember. The people I know have moved to different cities, we’re all older and at different points in our lives. The mountains and sunset remain, but little else. I love her still, for what she was to me in that stage in my life.

In the same way I love Singapore. For what she means to me. For the memories I’ve made here, and for the memories I hope to create for my children in the relative safety of this place. She is a half-written story we all find ourselves thrown into, and are responsible for how she will be remembered in the annals of time.

I would that she be remembered for her multi-cultural beauty, a collection of dreams by various peoples who have come from all over the world. I would that she be remembered for her compassion for the less fortunate, for her coming-of-age as she realises that not all that glitters is gold, and the celebration of life is more valuable than the pursuit of money.

More than just defending Singapore, we need to actively take part in the writing of her next chapter.

May it be one for the ages, and Singapore - us - a force for good in the world.

In the Moment

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These 2 Indian ladies occupy the same bench every evening, their 2 white dogs on leashes as they observe the day-to-day routine of the neighbourhood repeat itself with little variations in each iteration. The contrast of fluffy white fur against their dark skin, their presence has become part of the coming home experience for the many families who walk this path daily.

Anne and Caleb often run up to say hi, if only to gaze curiously at the dogs for a bit, before bolting off towards the lift lobby, jumping over imaginary lava floes made up of lines of different coloured tiles on the uniform concrete floor.

The passage of time becomes apparent: when we first began walking this path, there was only Anne, and we carried her. There is now two, chatty as ever, and we beam with pride whenever they show the appropriate level of respect and cheerfulness when greeting the 2 seated aunties; it is this race-agnostic unity that I love about Singapore and want desperately to protect. The 2 little tykes also used to need help leaping over their imaginary obstacles. These days they jump over them without nary a thought. It won’t entertain them for much longer, I think to myself.

I put my arms around Faith. Life is good, I tell her. We breathe it in deep, so utterly satisfied, yet half-afraid at the inevitable: that all this too shall pass.

We have today’s blessings to be thankful for.

Sabbath

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You seem embarrassed by loneliness…by being alone. It’s only a place to start.

From the movie Sabrina

I sometimes wonder why I do this. Sitting here, thousands of miles away from family that loves me, spending my own savings on these trips - these conferences - in the pursuit of learning how I can make things better for the people around me: my employer, my country, maybe the world in which I am but a part of.

My life is more blessed than most. I have a wonderful family who loves me, and I them. I’ve always found jobs that allow me the latitude, to varying degrees, to redefine my role there so I can be more effective. We don’t have much, but we have enough. And then there is a part of me that is in love with melancholy. It is not sadness, but the bittersweet feeling that comes with pensiveness; a state of awareness that only comes about by stepping back and becoming an observer, even if only for a little while. Time to think, to write, to discuss - but quietly and reservedly, not the blaring noise of social media campaigns, but in soft, measured tones by people genuinely concerned that we sit on the cusp of making something better than it is, and worried that we pass this opportunity by because of a multitude of weak reasons.

So join me. Let’s see where this road leads.

The Point of the YOG

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While hanging out between basketball games this afternoon, talk of Singapore hosting the Youth Olympic Games led to the favourite Singaporean pastime of government bashing. Car owners were upset that despite having paid their road tax, they still had to give way to official YOG vehicles or risk a fine. Others were shocked at the incredulous amount of money that went into this (“3x over the budget!”).

And then the important question was asked: “What’s the whole f—-ing point?”

I must admit, I wasn’t a whole lot enthusiastic about us bidding to host the Youth Olympic Games two years back. It felt like the consolation prize; like eating at the kiddie table. It wasn’t until I saw Selwyn’s photo that the possibility that we might be on the cusp of something special crossed my mind.

_Y1B3845.jpg

When I saw how the staff and students in my school came together for the the arrival of the YOG torch at our campus, I became pretty sure that the games would play a part in the building of the nation, especially in the hearts of the younger generation. This was most evident when we watched the Singapore Flag raised to a stunning rendition of the Majulah Singapura.

I’m actually glad that we’ve chosen to host the YOG instead of the actual Olympic Games. There is so much innocence in youth, and when it comes to children, we are better able to put aside the primal urge to place competition as the sole driving force for the games. Instead, education, cultural exchange and friendship lie at its heart. There is no medal tally for the YOG, though I’m sure enterprising newsmakers will quickly remedy that. The message to the youth athletes so far has been that they should “have fun”.

Maybe we won’t see an acceptable ROI on the games. Maybe it’s inconvenienced us. But there are many intangible goods - unquantifiable - that have come out of Singapore hosting the YOG. A sense of national pride on the international stage, a worldwide unity in the nurturing of the next generation, a temporary reprieve from the strict pragmatism that binds our island state. Yes, it’s probably an illusion, but a reprieve nonetheless.

I’m not saying that the organising committee shouldn’t be transparent about the over-expenditure. I’m saying that if we had once bemoaned the fact that the government clings on to GDP as its key indicator of how well citizens are being taken care of, maybe we shouldn’t be holding on to ROI so tightly either.

I’ve spent a large part of my adult life trying to understand Singapore and Singaporeans. It is ultimately a search for self-identity in the context of the country in which I was born and raised.

Why do we do the things we do? Where most countries would be proud of being showcased on an international stage, why do some vocal Singaporeans seemingly want the Youth Olympic Games to be seen as a failure? Why do we sit back and complain, waiting for someone else to solve problems we see rather than take an entrepreneurial approach to problem-solving?

I’ve come to an understanding (not conclusive, by any means) that the rhetoric used on us has a large part to play in the way we perceive ourselves. While we look back at history with pride at being able to break away from British colonialism, I fear we still live under the same yoke.

We are often told that Singapore has no natural resource except her people. We are called “workers” and the mainstream media constantly bombards us with coverage of political speeches seeking to “increase our productivity”. We are told that the sacrifice of personal freedoms such as public demonstrations are necessary to create a stable environment for foreign investment.

All well and good, but why does it always seem like we’re working for someone else? Why are we a resource for others to mine? Why are we always working “faster, cheaper and better” to compete as a source of skilled labour for foreign parties to exploit?

Could it be, that having lived under this label all of her 45 years, Singapore has become less human and more commodity to be sold or traded? Where once we stood for incorruptibility (a facade to some, perhaps), we have traded it for the glamour and cold hard cash of mega-casinos. It is all business, and everything is for sale.

And the perception is that the politicians are the ones doing the peddling.

Shouldn’t we be inspired with loftier dreams? Shouldn’t we talk of entrepreneurship, hiring rather than being hired? Shouldn’t we take the bull by its horns and seize our own destinies? True, the reality is that most will end up as “workers”, but hope is the fuel upon which entrepreneurship feeds. And a spirit of entrepreneurship (I mean for it to be more than just the running of a business) is essential in creating a national identity we can be proud of.

Singapore should be a force for good in the world, directed by the strength of our character, and driven by our innovation and hard work.

We are much more than lambs to the slaughter, and brains for plunder.

Fundamentals

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Happy National Day, Singapore, wherever in the world you may reside.

You know how they say you eventually become your mother / father / Darth Vader? It’s probably a rite of passage we all take: initially repulsed by the actions of those in the older generation, then eventually learning and understanding why they did it, and probably in our own time having the reconcile with doing exactly the same thing that once repulsed us, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes because it is the wise thing to do.

It is the evolution (or degeneration, you could argue) of youthful idealism into pragmatism, and hopefully we retain some of the former, and temper it with some of the latter, forging some sort of practical, implementable steps to see the initial ideal fulfilled, even if it often realises itself at a compromise.

So it is with the whole business of warfare, weapons and the military. I remember the first time firing a rifle and hating the fact I was shooting at a target shaped like a human being. Violence should never be an ideal, but doing away with the ability to defend ourselves isn’t an option in the near future, or possibly ever, us humans being what we are.

The Navy's Stealth Frigate

My experience at this year’s Navy Open House was one of beaming pride. The seafaring culture of the Navy differs from the mud, dirt and grime of the Army quite a bit. It probably also stems from the fact being the crew of a particular vessel creates a very tight-knit community because of the confined space and everyone physically moving in a single unified direction. The ships are run like clockwork and there’s a touch of OCD in the details, especially the placement and storage of the great number of ropes on deck. Rope neatly placed in a spiral This is all necessary, the sailors tell me, to prevent people from tripping and falling overboard. There are enough small ledges and fittings on the ship to make unsuspecting tourists trip already. Space being a premium, steps up and down the various decks were also extremely steep. Slinging the tripod and carrying the camera while traversing these steps was quite a challenge.

As we rode the RSS Valour out to sea for a short spin, I could see the familiar skyline of my neighbourhood in the distance. It became clear that we needed to defend these shores, and I was glad for the many capable seahands who were watching over our borders.

Navy Sailors by their guns

The Navy Open House is open to the public this weekend at Changi Naval Base. You’ll see, amongst many other things, how the Navy coordinates a hostage-rescue and how naval divers are deployed from Chinooks, but most importantly, I hope you’ll be there to appreciate what these guys are doing for us on a daily basis.

I took the train on the circle line yesterday night. The opening of the new line has opened up new worlds for me and my family, especially because our house sits no more than 30 metres from one of its train stations. We have endured 6 years of piling and drilling and cement trucks, but all that is in the past. We can now head to Suntec City, and buy dinner home, all in the same time it takes to walk to the nearby hawker centre.

What surprised me on the moderately filled train was that one of the seats reserved for the elderly or physically disabled was left empty despite quite a number of people standing around it. It was nice to see the restraint. As I moved into the train, a young man sitting down offered me his seat, seeing that I had 3 bags of groceries. I smiled but declined; I only had one stop to go.

I stood there wondering if the rare display of courtesy and class was because Singaporeans have adopted a more gracious outlook on communal living or because I was looking at life through the rose-tinted glasses of someone who was just given a brand new train set with which I could traverse new parts of Singapore.

Probably both.

With talk of the elections looming, our main citizen-run political websites The Online Citizen and The Temasek Review have both degenerated into a toxic mess of bile and lost all sense of objectivity. The Temasek Review even recently published a post “The PAP’s Greatest Fear: An Aware, Active and Adversarial Citizenry”.

An adversarial citizenry? What are we, 3 years old? An adversarial citizenry is my greatest fear. If we allow ourselves to be tangled in this web of unresolved pre-pubescent angst, we will miss the forest for the trees.

Our elected representatives (yes, yes some are there via walkovers…) by virtue of the post, represent us. But if we do not know what we stand for, we cannot blame an overly draconian hand. We cannot enjoy the comforts we have, head to the homes we have, use a computer we can afford, broadband that is available, to complain unreasonably about the government that was chiefly instrumental in putting all these things in play.

There are many of us out there who enjoy the greenery of our parks, drink freely from our taps and are thankful for friends and family we have here by our side. We cannot afford to be a silent majority while a very vocal, very bitter, technologically savvy minority dominates this side of the discourse. It’s absurd that the state-controlled mainstream media publishes prozac-induced fairy-tales far too often, but to knee-jerk to the other extreme isn’t balancing it out, it’s creating an environment of schizophrenia.

A blogger expressed this frustration best in his Rocksonesque blog post “oi cheebye, be moderate can?

Yes, the elections are coming. Yes we need to hold our politicians accountable for the promises they make. But there is a greater pressing need for Singaporeans to be able to answer this simple question:

Define Singapore.

We could complain about a whole lot of stuff. Most of which are valid. But surely there’s more we can do. I’m not talking about protests or demonstrations. I’m talking about leaving the reserved seat empty for whomever needs it, or offering to give up your seat for the perfectly healthy guy carrying groceries.

The answer to “Define Singapore” should be, “Yes we will”, and not some theoretical debate on some obscure blog.

A Place in Our Hearts

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In recent years I have come to think of Singapore more of a city and less of a country. It has freed me from paradigms that do not exist, most chiefly that I am bonded to this place simply because I was born here.

It is probably as absurd these days to claim an affinity based on geographical location of origin as it is to judge a person by their skin colour. It happens, but it is scarcely ideal.

Singapore needs to become more than a place where our friends and families reside. Many of our friends have since migrated to other countries, and frankly, if we had the means, many of us would have moved our entire families elsewhere. It is not because we’re all ungrateful bastards, but there are some things we cannot find on this city-state.

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Where once relevant, I find our 2 main alternative political websites The Online Citizen and Temasek Review becoming increasingly disconnected and bitter, and neither traits aid the maturation of the citizenry. Sometimes the best news doesn’t gain attention; not everything stands on its own as a headline.

Xenophobia has been gaining ground here in Singapore, and will continue to do so unless we actively combat it. It is far easier to pick on people who are different, than realising and accepting that it is in this diversity from which we derive our greatest strength.

Singapore needs to evolve away from the very bare definition that a country is defined by geographical boundaries.

Singapore needs to be a well-articulated idea.

She cannot be everything to everyone. We can expect prices here to escalate; surely we are not exempt from these basic economic principles. What the government can do is mitigate the rate in which these things change.

I’m sitting here watching primary school students visit the Merlion. I notice that many of them have digital cameras. The teachers are doing their best to create an enriching excursion despite the slight drizzle. I’ve spent the past few weeks riding up and down Singapore’s park connectors, checking the National Environment Agency’s 3-hourly weather forecast to see if my next ride will be affected.

Say what you will, but I think the government has done a fine job in many areas. Yes, the website for the park connectors takes forever to load, and we can complain about that on our twitterfeeds or blogs and rant incessantly on how we paid our taxes but the websites don’t work. Or we could map out the connectors ourselves.

Thing is, we have a lot more power than we realise. We who have some to spare can give to people who are in need. Now more than ever, we are able to rally together to support great causes or change the status quo.

I’ll repeat it: Singapore needs to be a clearly articulated idea. I do not doubt that debate is healthy for the country, but when it descends to a never-ending stream of negativity, surely we need to search within ourselves if we have the means to change things.

The idea that is Singapore is shaped not only by the work of her government, but by the actions of her people. We need to make this place something we, and our children, can subscribe to.

This whole cycling everywhere business has gotten me excited, especially to find out what other park connectors NParks provides.

The NParks website is extremely slow, despite the fact folks have given them feedback more than a year ago.

So rather than wait for them to fix it, I’ve traced all the park connectors into a single Google Map.

Enjoy.


View NParks Park Connectors, Singapore in a larger map

Returns on Investment

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I’ve always been enamoured by professions imbued with a “higher calling”. Nurses, doctors, activists, and the last time I checked, journalists. After all, isn’t a major point in the whole “journalists vs bloggers” debate? The claim that journalists are held to a higher standard in terms of reporting, and more importantly, ethics?

To be fair, the title “journalist” has expanded a lot in recent times. In this age of self-publishing anyone with a novel idea and internet access is able to address an audience. One could argue that the folks at celebrity gossip website TMZ are journalists to some degree. Or the tabloids for that matter. After all, they do bring news to an audience that craves for the genre.

My argument here is not whether Ris Low is news. My own rudimentary understanding of the word’s definition is that “news” is the opposite of “old’s”. Anything that is current is news. Any instant thought on an old subject is a new thought, any content created is fresh content, any pointer leading to old content is a new pointer. As such, it is all news, and it is all relevant if you find the appropriate audience.

My argument is that the Straits Times has failed to live up to journalism’s higher calling. I will constrain this discourse only to Ris Low - there’s no knowing how long we could go on if we were to address the allegations of biased and incomplete reporting.

The role of the press has traditionally been the middleman between authorities and their people. She walks the line between being the government’s mouthpiece and the people’s defender. Above all, the role of the press is to elevate the level of discourse.

The whole Ris Low saga is a scathing revelation of ST’s priorities. In her latest online posting ST’s Online Editor Joanne Lee defends the stance that Ris Low is still news. She is defending ST’s extensive coverage of Ris Low even after Ris has stepped down as Miss Singapore-World. She is defending articles about Ris having to retake her exams (implicit allegation that Ris was caught cheating on her exams would be the news angle here) and Ris not allowed to shop alone.

Is it news? The two articles are the top read stories on the Straits Times Online, so yes. Does it sell papers, attract readers and eyeballs? Yes. If journalism were solely a business of dollars and cents, there probably would be no question. But we hold journalism to a higher standard than just the making of money. The question with producing this sort of news, I would pose to the journalists at the Straits Times, is this: At what cost?

Ris is a 19 year old for crying out loud. You’re really going to do this? Is it worth the short-term bump in online views, the pittance of ad revenue? Is there any empathy left in you? When you first picked up your pen, you did it with empathy. It wasn’t business, you were young then and money wasn’t the motivation. You wrote because you wanted to show the world a reflection of themselves from a myriad of perspectives. The stories of personal triumph, the informative investigative pieces you had spent so much time putting together, the call for action to help those who are suffering?

Do you not see, in your dogged pursuit of Ris Low, that you have caused suffering?

As Asians we are probably used to the Spockian justification, “logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” (or the one, yes yes). But the public does not need updates on Ris Low. We do need a press who will have the courage to accept the long-term view that the shareholders are best served when the people are well-served. The short-term gratification of getting the public’s fleeting attention at the expense of what the Straits Times could and should be is a bloody waste.

In the past few weeks we’ve seen the unfolding of the story that is Ris Low. For the uninitiated, it involves a 19-year old winning the title of Miss Singapore-World, her inpromptu interview and the revelation that she does not possess the eloquence expected of someone about to represent the nation on a global stage.

The public reaction was expected. You had those who made fun of her, those who created a Facebook group and those who were just dying to cast the first large boulder.

It didn’t help her cause that she was later found out to have previously committed credit card fraud, and then admitted to having suffered from a bipolar disorder.

But she’s stated that she’s still not throwing in the towel and returning the crown; how it’s been a dream of hers and she’s pursuing it, despite the overwhelming cacophony of voices maliciously denigrating her.

We Singaporeans love to play judge. Somewhere in our “you must grow up to be a lawyer” childhood we have been imprinted with the idea that power lies in the hands of those who do the judging. So we’ve acquired this over-developed ability to judge others. We are quick to deliver scathing remarks, complain if the train is a few minutes late and rant as if the universe owed us a living.

But real power doesn’t lie in judgement. It is easy to play armchair judge on Singapore idol and belittle someone elses’ lack of talent or skill. The contestants will probably tell you that going under the bright lights is a very sobering experience, and you come out of it more humbled and less likely to criticise.

So yes, Ris Low is flawed, and she probably isn’t the first choice we’d pick if we wanted to win the international competition. But I know of so many who have similar problems with diction, and my own past is as chequered as hers. The only difference is that I haven’t had the guts to subject myself to the possibility of failure in pursuit of a dream, however ludicrous others may claim.

I admire Ris for her bravery and I believe that everyone should be given chances to undo the mistakes of their youth and access to support in overcoming their personal adversity. I want my children to be brought up in an environment that believes and embodies these beliefs.

The question before us is not so much whether we will win the Miss World title, but whether we can take this chance to mature as a society and recognise that the fragmentation in society caused by being overly critical and competitive is destroying us from within. And whether we have the guts to bravely look in the mirror and accept the fact that we are all fraught with imperfections, but we are all united in the unfolding story that is Singapore.

I am thankful for the journey that Singapore has taken the past 44 years and will admit —as many would be quick to point out — that there are imperfections that lie therein. I am not saying that we ought to bury past transgressions, but we need to be conscious that the pursuit is not out of a sense of spite, and that it does not cost us our present or our future.

It is the future, that of our children’s, that I look forward expectantly, nurturing a small flame of hope in the winds of growing cynicism. The words of the anthem should resonate, that we move onward as a united people and forge our collective destinies with our own hands.

I believe that Singapore should be more than a place that holds the memories of our childhood — that could have easily been Montana or Nairobi. Singapore should be more than brick and mortar, and her pulse should be more than the rise and ebb of the stock market. She should be the manifestation of our ideals, the stuff of dreams.

A community that does not judge one by colour, language, religion or rank in society. A place that affords a measure of success to whomever has the talent, determination and will to pursue it, yet shows compassion to those upon whom misfortune has befallen. A country that stands up for what is right over what is convenient. A people of more action, and less words; more joy and less murmuring; more sharing and less hoarding.

That is my hope for you. I will do my best to work towards this future.

Onward, Singapore.

Respect

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The headlines on Straits Times read “Jackie slams Singaporeans, where the Hong Kong movie star is quoted,

A lot of people are not like those in USA and Japan who voluntarily have self-respect. When you don’t have self-respect, the government will have to control you….[Singaporeans] have no self-respect at all.

His comments are likely to stir up emotions. Many Singaporean conversations would probably start to label him a second-rate movie star, and question his right to judge us. But in his bluntness Jackie might have hit the uncomfortable truth.

Singapore, in her search for a national identity, has put on so many masks, driven by an unexplainable shame towards being herself. We aim to be like Switzerland, or some amalgamation of rich and developed countries. Even the language we converse in is driven not by who we are, but what is economically pragmatic at that juncture in time.

There is a divide between our overly-involved (IMO, anyway) government and the people. Singlish - the language organically evolved by the people, is labelled as detrimental to our progress, something to be avoided, unclean, almost. The government-run stuff - almost everything else - wins international awards, but is derided by the Singapore people as symbols of our government’s obsession with obtaining the approval of her colonial masters.

The pervasive hand of the government somehow prevents true ownership of victories which ought to belong to the Singapore people. We have become the lesser brother and the Singapore government - the elite - have become the greater. This divide grows everytime a government official believes, consciously or subconsciously, that they know better than the Singapore people. They forget: they are the Singapore people.

So it is, as with every teenager beaten down by their over-achieving sibling, Singaporeans have an underdeveloped sense of esteem. Like an alcoholic, prodigal brother, we rant and tear away at our own, refusing to believe that anything that comes out of Singapore is world-class. Even home-grown Tiger beer advertises herself as more London and New York than Singaporean. We were so very quick to tear down Sim Wong Hoo the moment the Apple iPod took over Creative’s mp3 player market share. I know I was.

There is a need to merge the two Singapores. We could sit in our armchairs and go on at length about how the government ought to be more in touch with the people, or we could realise that we too are at fault. There is an image of Singapore in the international consciousness: an image of clockwork efficiency and world-class execution which is the envy of many nations. There is also the image of cold hard Cylon steel, a Singapore more machine than human.

We need to own who we are. We need to stop letting others define who we are and pour our humanity, stretching, nay, breaking the government-orchestrated exercise of nation-building. We need to speak up and stand up for that which is Singapore. We need to own our victories:

  • being thankful for racial harmony and actively protecting that from a knee-jerk reaction to immigrants
  • understanding that the measure of a people lies not in what she has, but what she gives
  • and making up your own list of what it means to be a Singaporean. Don’t let the government, the media, or even this blog entry define that feeling in your gut

Unlike the respect of others, self-respect isn’t earned. It is found. Find it, Singapore.

Win-Win

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The Sail @ Marina BayIn my opinion, the main impediment stopping Singaporeans of this generation from making a similar breakthrough to that of our forebears (LKY’s generation) is our obsession with competition. Singapore’s particular idiosyncrasy is that if you look closely enough, we care less about winning than about making the other party lose. Point is, the obsession with making the other person lose is driving us apeshit crazy.

A Singaporean will go to an expensive buffet. Rather than enjoying the good food and ambience, his first inclination is to “attack” the high-ticket items in order to justify the money he’s paying for the buffet. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t like oysters, or prefers cod to crab. He does it so that the establishment doesn’t win, without for a second realising that his arrangement renders both parties losers.

What I’m trying to define here is an extension of the popular Singaporean adjective “kiasu”, which denotes a fear of losing. We’ve actually gone one-up, I feel. Not only must we not lose, the other person / organisation / government / country must be made to lose.

But in the words of the ephemerally-famous Jon Stewart, “this is not a [expletive] game”. Working on a win-lose model restricts us immensely. While it served to move us from third-world status to first-world, it is incompatible with any possible evolution towards a higher form of society. There is no noble cause in obsessive competition, no moral lessons or goodwill. There is only the raw animal instinct for survival, and we will stay at this base level if we continue the way we are - content to snap at everybody else and at each other, always bemoaning the fact that someone has it better than us. More money. More happiness. More.

We have missed the forest for the trees. We are failing to see that we have plenty, and with it a responsibility to help those who do not have as much. In this time of need, let us redefine ourselves as a people of action, willing to do what is right at our own expense, rather than waiting for the phantom hand of government to right all wrongs while we snipe from our armchairs.

I think we’ve come along far enough, at least economically, to realise that no one needs to lose. It would be an utter shame for people to be in desperate need while collectively we have so much.

Soul Searching

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Some things transcend national boundaries.

When Jennifer Hudson took the stage at this year’s Superbowl with her rendition of the Star-spangled Banner, it was an amazing testimony to the enduring resilience of hope. If anybody had a right to be cynical about American rhetoric like freedom and bravery in the face of oppression, Hudson would have been most deserving. The loss of her mother, brother and nephew to a senseless act of violence last October should have shredded any semblance of ideals.

But it didn’t. Her rendition of the American anthem was amazing, not only because of the flawless vocals, but also her moving personal story behind it.

The often-quoted line from the movie “V for Vendetta” goes,

Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.

I believe, that in order for Singapore to endure, the country has got to stand for something more than efficient processes and non-corrupt governing. Because there will come day when processes will fail and people in power found corrupt. Realistically speaking, a “dose of bad government” is an inescapable probability as evidenced by all manners of civilisation since man’s infancy. Will Singaporeans have anything to hold on to when that happens? Are we staying only because Singapore affords us shelter, and will we leave when the winds change?

As a designer, I am driven to seek the core of any design: a story. A story gives words and sentences purpose.

Such is my desperation to know my country better that I tweeted, “What country are you from, and what does it represent?”

Most Singaporeans tell me is that Singapore’s core value is meritocracy.

So let us unite as a nation, where every man for himself?

Lines

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There’s a lot of name-calling going on in Singapore.

“Lesser mortals”. “Scholar”. “Foreign talent”. “Civil servant”. “Bacteria”.

Like Ian said, get a perspective. We need to stop dividing ourselves.

The Empress' New Clothes

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Our story begins, as many stories do, with the fury of a woman scorned. It was Ping.sg’s first anniversary, and they held a blog awards ceremony. An up-and-coming blogger, Jayne had secured 4 of the 11 awards, a remarkable feat by any standards. However, as the ambitious are wont to do, Jayne threw a hissy fit when she didn’t win the largest award of them all.

Depending on whose account you heard, you either came away with the conclusion that people ought to learn how to lose graciously, or that the people in “power” were abusing their godlike status.

Fast-forward to present day. Jayne announces the registration of the Association of Bloggers (Singapore):

“Association of Bloggers (Singapore) is a non-profit association. It is dedicated to promoting, protecting and educating its members; supporting the development of blogging as new media. I hope eventually it can help to provide legal assistance to bloggers too. It is a professional body for bloggers in Singapore.”

This association was created, if anything, to coalesce power.

“[Singaporean bloggers were] easily manipulated and even banned for standing up against the foreign tyrant from self-proclaimed ‘community meta weblog for Singapore bloggers’.”

And if Jayne’s own blog posts are anything to go by, the association has a maniacal leader at its helm.

Personal disclaimer: I am a civil servant, a fact made publicly known numerous times in all my online discussions. I find Jayne’s broad sweeping attacks on public servants extremely hurtful and uncalled for.

I believe that a person who judges another by the place he is born (Chua Uzyn … is a ‘foreign talent’, educated in Singapore, enjoying our subsidies) should not be in a position to educate anyone.

It is my hope that the Singapore blogosphere would evolve to be an environment that fosters creativity and intellectual discourse. Starting behind a web of hypocrisy and an insatiable thirst for power is a bad place to start.

First Impressions Count

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Faith, Seth, Anne and I decided to be tourists for a day and booked ourselves on the 10am Duck Tour out of Suntec City. We were the only Singaporeans on the amphibious tour. Halfway through the tour, Faith and I soon realised how important tour guides are in communicating Singapore to our visitors.

Duck Tours isn’t your stuffy bureaucratic tour company. It is evident that they set themselves out to be spontaneous and casual - sort of like Virgin America which I mentioned earlier. On their tickets, instead of the normal “Adult” and “Child” tickets, it says “Big Duck” and “Little Duck”. A nice touch, although I sometimes have trouble disassociating the word “duck” from a certain commonplace vulgarity. Yes, yes. Mind in the gutter, I know.

Anyway, back to our tour guide. She was, as expected, full of enthusiasm and like are tour guides are wont to do, filled every silent moment with conversation. Her gig isn’t rehearsed as some are, so it comes across as less mechanical. But here’s the thing: there’s a fine line between natural and awkward, as there is between mechanical and polished.

Her first major gaffe which really hit me upside the head was when she asked all of the visitors where they were from.

“Australia,” said the couple sitting 2 rows in front of us.

“Which part?” she asked.

“Adelaide!” they answered.

“Wow. Everytime I hear the word ‘Adelaide’, I hate it.”

My jaw dropped. It was a real life OMG moment. I couldn’t believe my ears. The silence seemed to last forever.

She then explained how her dad got a job in Adelaide last year, but ended up not signing the contract, so she was “stuck in Singapore”. Though less awkward than her first whammy, slapping the country you’re promoting isn’t exactly the way to go either.

As the tour went on, our guide displayed her tremendous mathematical acuity by boiling everything down into dollars and cents. Everything.

“Here’s the formula-one circuit. The lights cost Singapore 10.1 million dollars.”

“This is the Singapore flyer. For last year’s Valentine’s Day it cost couples a few thousand dollars to book the entire capsule to themselves. Some people may call it romantic, but I call it stupidity (emphasis hers, tonal). You may as well give me the money.”

“This is the grand old dame, Raffles Hotel. There are no normal rooms there, only Presidential suites. They run from $800 to $8000 per night. During the F1 race, it will be 3 times the amount. $27,000 per night. If you have money you can book the room. Give me a call and we can have tea together.”

“This will be Singapore’s first casino. It initially cost $2 billion to build, but now it costs $6 billion…”

Everything in dollars and cents. Faith and I, sitting on opposite sides of the Duck, had given up rolling our eyeballs at each other by then.

The obsession with cost is a distinctly Singaporean problem. Everytime we visit someone’s home, the question will be asked, “How much did it cost?” It is an extremely unbecoming question to most civilised human beings, but in Singapore, money is an identifier.

To the common man, the cost of the house, the car is a badge of our shared suffering. It’s not uncouth to us because the middle and lower class Singaporeans do not use it to distinguish themselves from the pack. After all, public housing in Singapore are all exactly 90m2 in area, are painted in whatever butt-ugly colour is cheapest at that point in time, and have a bomb shelter in the most inconvenient part of the house.

“How much did your house cost?”

“$400,000? Dammit man, life is hard, isn’t it?”

And such goes the Singapore refrain. Our glasses are always half-empty.

Internally, I think it’s time we stopped thinking of ourselves as victims. But externally, I think this is a tune we need not play for foreign ears.

Point of No Return

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Many of you who have been reading Tribolum for some time have probably read how I’ve railed against the government for this thing and that. It has been an interesting journey towards the realisation that I’ve been a civil servant for what, 3 years now.

I do not think I’ve compromised on some of the things I believe in, like guarding against our nation’s tendency towards an elitist-everyone-else class structure, or that the government should be held under greater independent scrutiny. But I will admit that working here has changed me somewhat, and I hope that those of you who know me, I mean really know me, will keep me in check. Help me continue to fight to better things for everyone, especially in my specialised scope of online services.

In the grander perspective of things, I’ve changed as well. Where once I’d snigger about how Singapore’s Olympic Silver medalists are all foreign imports, I now realise that they have every right to be as Singaporean as I am. Being born in a country doesn’t make me more worthy of her; it is the willingness to identify with her shared destiny, to partake in her victories and her failures. To actively participate in making her the best she can be. It is far too easy to ask others to step up and then blame the government if no one does.

I’ve met many in the government who truly want to change things for the better and deserve more than armchair criticism. They, like our fellow Singaporean paddlers, need support.

Not all paths are smooth, some are rough but well worth the travel.

In the inaugural issue of Stories.sg, we reflect on the following question:

“What would you write to Singapore if she were a person?”

A 20 year old, identified only as “Zing”, wrote what I think is amazingly insightful.

But I’m not trying to make you something you’re not, I’m really not. I’m just trying to make you see that you’re more than dollar signs. You’re more than people just scraping by, dreaming of money and five-star hotels. You’re a hell of a lot more than just a good air-conditioning system. You’re everybody, not just the dream citizen; you’re the Malay kids skipping school, hanging out at Peninsula Plaza in black jeans and trucker caps. You’re the unemployed kopitiam uncle with his songbirds. You’re the schoolgirl holding hands with her classmate, hoping the teacher doesn’t see. You’re every one of them, but for some reason you just won’t acknowledge this. You like to hold on to this idea of you being this clean, perfectly efficiently city, when really it’s the dirt that makes you who you are.

Read her whole letter and many others at Stories.sg. Better yet, write and submit your own.

Gothere.sg Gets It

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Streetdirectory.com was a kind of guilty necessity. We’d rail about how they made us pay for maps, and cheered when Singapore Land Authority hammered them for us, but SLA’s provision of Singapore maps was lacking. It’s pretty good for a gahmen site, but in these parts it’s like an able-bodied man coming in first at the paralympics. I should know, I run one of these gahmen puppies.

But I digress. We still crawled back to Streetdirectory in the dead of night, because that was the only way to get bus information. SBS’s journey planner does a terrible job at helping us get from point A to point B. We needed Streetdirectory like we needed pocket money from an abusive parent.

Needed. Until now.

Gothere.sg rocks. And I don’t mean conceptually - it rocks right now. You can change your destination by dragging markers on the map, and the bus route is changed dynamically. How cool is that!

Sure, the trains could be brought in to make a better journey planner, but that’s a small gripe. My main suggestion to Dominic who runs gothere.sg is this: Pair with Singeo. We don’t need 2 kickass Singaporean web guys cannibalising each other. A partnership would really bring the house down.

An example of how clued in Dominic is: I twittered how much I liked gothere.sg yesterday, and Dominic emailed me out of the blue to thank me for the tweet and also cited my work at MOE. That’s savvy customer relationship building for you.

Core

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In all seriousness, what are Singapore’s core values?

Home

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For it’s in dying that we are born… - Prayer of St. Francis

I spent the afternoon visiting the Singapore Cheshire Home, a non-profit that cares for the disabled.

It never fails. Everytime I visit the less fortunate, whether it is someone who is hospitalised, or a halfway-house for ex-junkies, I come out with more than I brought in. And so far it has been without fail, that before going to one of these places I’d muse over what I could do to cheer them up or make them feel better. And everytime I’m ashamed to find myself the one receiving cheer, despite having all my limbs and not facing the inevitable consequence of terminal illness.

The disabled residents of the Singapore Cheshire Home are an extremely happy bunch. Their smiles were so authentic and effusive that there was no need for me to put on a false smile. They would wave their hands - some of them stumps - in acknowledgment of our presence. One of them was surfing Youtube with her one normal arm while behind her sat a man clicking on links in Yahoo using a stick attached to his forehead.

They did not ask for our sympathy, nor did they need it. It became clear to me that it was us able-bodied people who needed sympathy, for we were blind. Blind to the amazing power these people possessed despite not having bodies that conformed to our standards of physical normalcy. We, able-bodied ones are blind for not creating adaptive environments to harness the ingenuity - the sheer force of life - in these unique individuals. It is our blindness that has created unnecessary obstacles in the way of them having a fulfilling life. We have stopped them from enriching ours simply because they are unlike us, and we do not take well to the idea of physical diversity.

I would like to enable my children to see beyond the prejudices of my generation. I’ve spoken to Joanne, the person in charge of volunteers, if we could help out as a family. Enough complaining that Singapore doesn’t have enough for us to do. There’s plenty for everyone.

I attended a dialogue session last Thursday organised by Reach, the Singapore Government’s feedback arm, on “Creating a Pro-family Environment”. It was basically a bunch of parents talking to members of the government, giving feedback on the pro-family measures introduced over the past few years.

Faith was pregnant with Anne when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced:

  • the 5 day workweek, down from the original 5.5
  • the extension of maternity leave for working mothers, from 8 weeks to 12 weeks, with the government paying corporations the extra 4 weeks
  • a reduction in the levy when hiring a foreign domestic help
  • the baby bonus, where the government pays parents a lump sum of $3,000 at the birth of their first child and second child, $6,000 for the birth of their third and fourth
  • tax rebates for working mothers, pegged to the number of children they have
  • the government’s plan to match parents’ savings for their children’s education up to a certain ceiling, $6,000 for the second child, $12,000 for the third and fourth (none for the first)

This was extremely good news for us back then, and we really felt like the government was doing its part to support couples who were transitioning to become parents.

Most Singaporean families are dual-income, with both parents working, while the children are left under the care of an employed foreign domestic worker, sometimes supervised by the couple’s parents.

With the birth of Caleb, Faith and I are thinking of becoming a single-income family, where Faith either takes long-term no pay leave or quits her job to look after the children. This isn’t the typical Singaporean family arrangement, and I went to the dialogue to have a feel of what other people were doing.

At the dialogue it was clear that we agreed on one thing: Parents are the best caregivers for their children.

But it also became clear that the Singapore government was bent on having us outsource the parenting function.

The above incentives - tax rebates, cash incentives, the reduction in the levy for domestic helpers - only apply if the mother is working (exception of the one time baby bonus). If the mother decides to stay home to look after her children, the family is ineligible for these incentives. These incentives cannot be claimed by the working father.

Troy, a father at the dialogue, summed it up as “stay-home mothers are at best forgotten, or at worst penalised for their choice”.

Dr Amy Khor who was on the panel that night tried to clarify that it wasn’t meant to penalise stay-home mothers, but to incentivise mothers to go back to work. While her statement is logical, it’s potaytoes-potahtoes to the rest of us.

Not only do you suffer the loss of a significant part of your household income, you lose the government’s support. I know that the government wants all the marbles - productivity in the workplace, high GDP, a healthy birthrate - but Singapore needs to make some hard choices here.

Another parent who stood up said that the government’s constantly pushing back the retirement age means that she would be unable to take care of her grandchildren, and her son would considering having less or no children at all.

The conference room overlooked a hundred cranes working on the upcoming casino in Marina Bay, a sore reminder that our government’s choices skewed heavily towards the dollars and cents.

Taking

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Waking up to the sound of jackhammering at 6:57 on a Saturday morning.

I know it’s perfectly legal to do this at 7am to 7pm, but when the construction companies and the Land Transport Authority ask for our understanding whenever they need to work through the night, don’t they ever think to give some consideration back?

I Do, Therefore I Am

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While walking down Orchard Road yesterday morning with Faith and Anne in tow, we encountered wave upon wave of Secondary school kids carrying tins, asking for donations to St. John’s Ambulance in return for some stickers.

They come in all shapes and sizes, but a few stereotypes stand out:

  • The can’t-be-bothereds. Often in groups, these schoolkids are the ones you’d immediately describe as “recalcitrant”. They walk about with their headphones on, and the stark emptiness of their tins don’t bother them - they’re just passing time.
  • The frazzled. Walking around like a bee on steroids, they wear the frown of a stockbroker after a market collapse. They buzz around, inspecting everyone to see if they’ve pasted the stickers. When faced with a potential “victim” who doesn’t sport the sticker, the frown intensifies, they step towards their target, then chicken out at the last minute.
  • The shy. They’ll be seen at the corner, considerately staying out of your way but constantly hoping you’ll come over and do your good deed for the month. They occasionally gang up to take out people at the fringe of the crowd.
  • The enthused. I’ve never seen this type until yesterday. This girl popped up from behind us and chirped, “please donate”, and flashed a big smile. When we told her we already had donated, she smiled, thanked us and went to the next person. Her cheerfulness was very contagious.

I’ve come to realise that I care for these kids a great deal - all of them. It could be the day job at the Ministry of Education. It’s getting to me.

Choices, Not Last Resorts

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There’s been quite a bit of buzz regarding a school Principal telling some 27 students to go to ITE, instead of taking their ‘O’ Levels.

Standard disclaimers. I work at the Ministry of Education as resident codemonkey, but am writing this out of a personal capacity because it reflects my personal journey.

I’m not in a position to say what the Principal did was right or wrong - I’ve read enough of our newspapers to know that their writing is sometimes meant to evoke emotion. We do not know what “detailed N-Level grades” the Principal showed. The more tempestuous among us would like to imagine the Principal flashed individual names and grades, which I too feel might be over the top. The alternative is that the Principal gave a breakdown of the collective grades of the 27 by subject. That would be offering “detailed N-Level grades”, but I doubt many would insist that it would have been as hurting as the former.

I think I’m the only executive in my division who didn’t go to a junior college. Much as I’d like to change history, it wasn’t because I chose to go to a polytechnic. It was a last resort.

Dim-witted Stereotype

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At the iX Conference 2007 this morning, Mr Chan Yeng Kit, the CEO of IDA reassured us that the “buzz” was back in the IT industry by showing us increasing student enrollment in computer-related courses.

Slides from IDA with Bright Students as a category

What on earth is a “bright student”? And even if you did have some criteria for it, what makes you think the others aren’t bright? I take offense at the stupid generalisation.

Now please, get out of my elitist, uncaring face.

Jurong Bird Park

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Ralph, Ai, Faith, Seth and Anne at Jurong Bird ParkIt’s the school holidays, and that means that Faith finally gets a break from teaching. We went to Jurong Bird Park last week. Ralph, Ai and Seth came along too. It was my first time there in more than a decade - or two - I can’t remember my last time there.

We’ve brought Anne to the zoo more than half a dozen times already, so the Bird Park was a change for all of us. On the way to the Bird Park, I began to understand why the Bird Park saw considerably less visitors than the Zoo.

Oftentimes the packaging is an important lead-in to the actual product. PCs come in drab brown cardboard boxes while Macs come in beautifully designed glossy pieces of art that’d’ say “Designed in California” as you opened them. There is a tingle of excitement as you marvel at how they included little pockets for the tiniest items like the remote control or the USB cable.

This is no fault of the Bird Park, of course. But as we travelled through Jurong we passed by heavy factories, and we were constantly surrounded by huge trucks and tankers, very unlike the Zoo which was located in the middle of greenery and beside a beautiful reservoir of water.

Re-union

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There’s an unbelievable amount of stress Chinese families go through this time of the year. The Lunar New Year is without a doubt the most institutionalised Chinese festival in Singapore, observed by almost all Chinese, whether Christian, Buddhist, Taoist or Atheist. Shopping malls, hawker centres, coffee shops and even 7-11s close on Lunar New Year’s eve, the night of the reunion dinner.

While the purpose of the reunion dinner is to bring families together for a meal, the contradiction is that its special significance often creates very divisive forces within families. For the normal nuclear family, husband and wife often have to contend with the yearly dilemma of whose family takes precedence; who’ll be the filial child and who’ll be in danger of being disowned. Snide remarks are passed by parents who feel snubbed that their sons chose the in-laws instead of their own sashimi buffet reunion dinner. Words like “ingrate” hang in the air, and daughters break down in tears, finding themselves unable to be in two places at the same time.

We end up doing one of the following:

  1. Attend both dinners. Make an early exit from the first one then rush to the in-laws’. Hope no one notices.
  2. Alternate reunion dinners. This year at the in-laws’, next year at the parents’.
  3. Go overseas for a short holiday on your own. At least we treat each side with equal disdain.

What did you do this year?

Mine is the Sunlight

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Ah. The warm glow of morning lighting up the living room. The clanging of bamboo sticks on aluminium as our upstairs neighbour reminds us that there is no subtlety to be found in the hands of people who hang clothes 5 times a day.

7am.

It has been raining 4 straight days, and I remember why I chose college in Arizona. Rain is bleak and miserable. It didn’t help that I was made hand puppet to some nation-wide virus that had me paying top and bottom tributes to the porcelain throne multiple times a day. I know I say this much too often for my own good, but I felt like I was going to die.

I lost about 5kg over the few days. I gained new evidence of things I already knew: that tough times draw you closer to God; and that I have the best wife in the world.

Ear to the Ground

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I’m sure you’ve heard the well-meaning phrase “if you want to know what the people think, you need only talk to the taxi driver”. I had a cab ride two nights ago that illustrated perfectly how wrong the adage could be.

Like most cab drivers, he drove a little more aggressively than the usual Joe. Needing to cut past 4 lanes he slowed down and allowed a motorcyclist his right of way. The motorcyclist honked twice before zipping by.

“These motorbikes…if you give way to them, they’ll act all proud as if they don’t need your kindness”, said the cabby.

At the next junction we stopped at a red light, beside a medium-sized car. There was a Malay family in the car, and both women wore the tudung, the traditional Muslim head covering for women.

“These Malays always try to copy what other people do. The women never had any of these head covering in the past.” I thought about it for a while and realised that I really didn’t remember such a prevalence of tudung-clad women in my childhood. I told the cabby that perhaps Singaporean Muslims were returning to more conservative roots.

“No lah. Last time the only ones who wore head dresses were the Catholic nuns. The Malays just copy them.” He went at length on Southeast-Asian history and the Dutch colonisation of Indonesia, and that the indigenous Muslim women started wearing head covering so that they could trade with the Catholic Dutch. He stopped a hair’s breadth short of a racist tirade.

Probably interpreting my stunned silence as agreement, he warned me that many Malays could now speak many Chinese dialects, and that I had to be careful not to be within earshot of them when talking bad about them.

I got out of the cab convinced that the world, like the blogosphere, has many conversations, but that we need not waste our time listening to all of them. And that a little skepticism is good when there is so much being said out there.

I don’t remember how old I was when Ms Teo Ser Lee represented Singapore in the Ms World pageant, but I was old enough to know she was hot, and naive enough to believe in the Disneyseque hope that we could win the whole thing.

I came one step closer to the awkward, blushful (I’m inventing the word) and adolescently thrilling experience of meeting a real life beauty queen: I had dinner with her brother Teo Ser Luck, along with quite a few of the other gahmen bloggers.

Maybe I haven’t been in the civil service long enough to appreciate how “surreal” (as Walter continually reiterated) the experience was. What I do see is the changing of the guard from the older generation of government officials whom our parents placed on a pedestal, to the younger generation of leaders who are more elder-sibling than silver-haired statesman.

Ser Luck proved that he could hold his liquor with the best of them while still talking sanely about serious matters such as BlinkyMummy’s boyfriends.

He told us of the launch of the p65 blog, a collaborative blog by Members of Parliament born post-1965. While I look forward to posts that help humanise them, I am more interested in their motivations for joining politics and the different views they have on national policies. Though I know it is important for the government to put on a united front, I would like to know the people behind the policy making - their ideologies and beliefs. I think I speak for many of us when I say that I feel a lot more comfortable putting the future of my home in the hands of principled but fallible people than a cold, efficient machine.

The site isn’t up yet, but a great idea would be to have Sylvia Lim as an author. She is… young enough, right?

Vanessa and Damien have pictures of the event.

New Media Anne-alogy

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Anne at BreakfastFaith, Anne and I were having breakfast downstairs this morning. After a few mouthfuls of toast and a few spoonfuls of soft-boiled egg Anne decides to grab a spoon and help herself to the egg. She’s not really making great progress, but manages to smear her face with egg. Things get a little messy and we end up using half a pack of tissue paper to clean up the mess.

A train of thought ensued:

  1. Maybe we should buy toy utensils so Anne could play with them and practice feeding herself without the mess of splattered food.
  2. What if she associates all utensils with play? That’d make a heck of a scene in a restaurant.
  3. Should we stop her from playing with utensils altogether?
  4. But it’s a necessary skill that comes with growing up.
  5. Maybe she already is old enough to feed herself real food, and there’s no need for the plastic toys.

This was, in my own opinion, a perfect analogy of the decisions the Singapore government have before them with regards to online publishing. Are they going to take a sandbox approach? They would have to realise that online publishing has and will continue to step into mainstream media. Will they clamp down on it with an iron fist? This would definitely stifle the maturity of Singaporeans and cause a mass exodus of the slightly more intellectually adventurous.

But the big question is, are we mature enough we feed ourselves?

Anne, with a face full of egg, thinks she is.

Relative Democracy

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We need only look a little northward to be thankful for what we have.

Consider Lina Joy, whose conversion to Christianity means that she has to go to court to fight for her right to marry because Malaysia’s constitution defines Malays to be Muslims. Malays are therefore stripped of the right to choose their own religion.

And here I was complaining about a DVD being banned.

That’s not to say I’m ok with not being able to buy a copy of “V for Vendetta” though.

Like many of you out there who made V for Vendetta the number one box office hit when it opened in Singapore, I was all hyped about getting the DVD upon release. So I headed down to my favourite DVD store, and was subsequently told that it was banned in Singapore for language that was anti-Christian.

I’m not the Pope or anything, but when I watched it in March, I didn’t detect any overtly anti-Christian sentiments. Anti-government ones, on the other hand, were what struck a resonant chord with all V fans.

Now if the Da Vinci Code DVD goes through without hitting the censors…

Island home

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Boy at National Day ParadeOn the way home from work the eve of National Day Raizan and I were talking about the housing options available to Singaporeans. It led to talk about en bloc - situations where private land developers buy out the residents living in an area in order to build something more upmarket there, usually condominiums. I casually mentioned that if such a situation came about and I was forced to sell my home, I’d probably migrate. I said that it made sense pragmatically, the money I’d receive from an en bloc sale would probably not get me anything similar in Singapore, but could afford a rather nice place almost anywhere else in the world. If I continued in my line of work I’d probably move to California, I said.

While I might have made sense from a pragmatic standpoint, the juxtaposition felt ideologically jarring.

There I stood, wearing red in observance of National Day, all set to attend the National Day parade the next day, seemingly ready to migrate at the drop of a hat. If I moved to another country, would that make me a quitter because I didn’t stay?

Grrrr

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After a tough day at work - getting my perfectly validated code torn to shreds after emailing it to a vendor to put it up - getting on a crowded train really doesn’t lighten my mood. I don’t mind standing the whole way. I’m sure there are a lot of people who need the seats more than I do. It’s the idiots you meet on the train that you feel like killing, but haven’t the energy to do so. Yes I’m talking to you, the muscleman in the World Gym tank top sitting in front of the very pregnant lady.

Then at the entrance of the train there’s the Secondary school kid who insists on sitting on the floor, blocking a third of the entrance. He refuses to get off his butt and looks around when people have problems getting in and out of the train.

Oh, and there’s the pole dance. Here’s a photo to utterly kill your appetite and help you lose weight.

Not so skinny woman hogging a pole on the MRT

I was minding my own business, holding on to the pole so I wouldn’t accidentally fall on the stupid boy sitting at the entrance, when this woman decided to align her butt crack with the part of the pole I was holding. I was this close to chewing her head off.

I probably need to up my thyroid meds. Or migrate.

About

The weblog of Lucian Teo who resides in Singapore. He is husband to the most beautiful wife, father to the most amazing kids. Photographer, storyteller, all-round nice guy [citation needed].

He also blogs about Gov2.0, Storytelling, User Experience Design and Social Media at blog.lucianteo.com.

He can be contacted at lucian@tribolum.com.

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