Sunday, June 15, 2008

Happy Father's Day

Happy Father’s Day – June 15, 2008

Another year has gone by and Father’s Day is upon us again. The restaurants in Singapore are fully booked for celebration dinners. This is the day for all fathers to sit back and allow themselves to be pampered.

Gary and Carrie from Portland Oregon USA sent me an ecard to wish me Happy Father’s Day. Greatly appreciated and happy that they remember. Denise called from London with Father’s Day greetings. That was very thoughtful and nice.

The rest of today is like any other day. As we do not have any of our children with us, I guess there will be no celebration dinner for us. We will probably stay home and have a quiet day.

To all fathers who are lucky enough to be remembered, enjoy yourselves and be thankful your children care.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Respect for Elders

In Chinese and most Eastern cultures, respect for elders must be one of the most fundamental lessons a child is taught from a very early age. Respect towards elders or any person, as a matter of fact is about honoring or holding in esteem an individual. It implies regarding an individual as a person of value and virtue. Throughout history, age has always been equated with wisdom, knowledge and experience. However, the world is changing and traditions and customs are changing with it. Today we live in a bubble of youth and celebrity worship, where "you can't be too young or too thin." Old is out. Like garbage to be disposed of, seniors are exiled to the edges of society where they won't be seen, smelled or heard from. Sad but this seems to be the direction things are moving towards. Respect for elders is becoming a rare commodity these days, especially from the current younger generation.

I attended a family gathering recently. A boy of twelve, son of our host entered the room full of his uncles and aunts. This boy sat down in the midst of his seniors next to his father but offered not a word of greeting to any of his uncles or aunts. Without a word of appreciation he promptly started on a packet of tit-bits one of his aunts has brought for him. He offered none present a share of his snacks but started devouring his food in front of his elders. Upon finishing his snacks he shouted at the top of his voice to the maid who was in the kitchen to fetch him a drink. One of his aunts softly whispered in his ear that he should go to the kitchen himself and get his own drink. The boys did not take too kindly to the advice given. Instead he glared at his aunt with a look that clearly said, “this is the way we behave in this house, if my parents do not mind, why should you? This is none of your business anyway”

Children often behave the way adults do. They learn by examples set by their parents. The way parents address the servants, is the way their children will address them too. While your servant is hired by you and you have every right to give them orders the way you want, realize that they are still elders for your children. When you ill-treat or talk with disrespect to your servant, your child will do the same thing.

One must always bear in mind, “whatever goes around comes around”. One thing I am extremely proud of, I cannot remember that throughout my childhood, until the days my parents left us, did I once talked back to them with disrespect. Things have certainly changed, for the better? I doubt it.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Life in Singapore

I am writing this to give a brief overview of life in Singapore. This might help those who are thinking about spending some time working in Singapore. The following is just my personal opinion and observation. The following is non-political and I have no affiliation with any political group.

“Uniquely Singaporean” is a commonly used description for the people of this tiny island state. Well, I have lived here on and off for the last 7 years and I can vouch for the truth in this phrase. Much can be said about the way this little tiny city state has progressed from a swampy little backwater town to a first world financial hub it is today. Credit must go to the one party government of Singapore, with its iron fist and a no-nonsense style of governance. Under the very strict guidance of the former prime minister Lee Kwan Yew, the country has prospered and within less than half a century Singapore has propelled itself into a rich and financially powerful country in the region. Much of the credit must go to Singapore government and to the resilient nature of the Singaporeans..

Singapore has been labeled by many as a nanny state. The PAP government is extremely efficient. Being an almost one party government with virtually no opposition, the government of Singapore implements policies in an near authoritarian manner, policies that the government considers good for the people and beneficial to the country as a whole. Some of these policies may not be popular with the Singaporeans but as long as the government considers them appropriate, laws will be passed and the people would be forced to accept like it or otherwise. That said, Singaporeans have benefited and advanced greatly over the last 50 years, all to the credit of this present government. Why then is Singapore called a nanny state? Everything in Singapore operates like clockwork. Everything works and works well. Rules are set and once implemented nobody steps out of line. Those who do are severely punished. The government takes care of everything, from savings for old age, medical savings, savings for housing and they even control to a large extent the cost of living and transportation cost. Schools, hospitals, transportation in Singapore rank higher in efficiency than many countries in the west. In short, Singaporeans are well looked after by the government, some have said, too well.

Because Singaporeans have been so well catered for in all aspects of their lives, they have developed a sort of clutch mentality. They have become too dependent on their government to solve all their woes in life. Singaporean are also noted to be kiasu ( afraid to lose ) and kiasi ( afraid to die ). They have become almost robotic and work only to a set of rules with markers that are never to be crossed. They are notoriously unbending and can never think out of the box. This strict regimental way of life has made Singaporeans lacking in motivation and very poor in the field of innovation.

The strict and no-nonsense way of life starts from a very young age of 2. Owing to very keen competition and the kiasu mentality of most Singaporeans, children are made to attend classes from as young as 2 years of age. Most school children attend tuition classes after school hours and also at weekends. Tuition classes are a norm in Singapore. Special tuition schools flourish in Singapore capitalizing on the kiasu-ness of parents not willing to see their children fall behind their school peers. By the time they enter school at 6 they are all able to read, write and most of them are proficient in arithmetic. Singaporean schools have been noted for their high achievement. Pupils are trained to memorize word for word all they are taught. Examinations are conducted to weed out all those who are just average and those who are less academically gifted.. Many have criticized the Singaporean style of education as parrot-fashion. Pupils are not allowed to be creative or original. Regurgitation of text and scoring straight-As seem to be the objective of all students here in Singapore. As these students advance to the universities for their tertiary education they follow the same pattern that has served them well over the years at school. Trained to be always spoon fed, never spontaneous, never question authority, always obeying rules and regulations, never to think of alternatives have led Singapore to be highly dependent on imported foreigners, locally known as foreign talents to lead the way in most fields. The local true blue Singaporeans are beginning to feel threatened by the influx of these foreigners. The government actively encourages these foreign talents to settle here to make up the citizen number in order that Singapore remains economically stable. The need for boosting the citizen number stemmed from a government “maximum 2 child family” policy 45 years ago. However, the introduction of foreign workers/talents into Singapore has resulted in social friction between the locals and the new arrivers. The Singapore government has been actively encouraging social blending of these two groups, in my opinion without much success.

Living is Singapore is not much different from participating in a never ending race. Everyone wants to win and slow ones are considered failures. Work ethics here are unique and like nowhere else. You have to compete in the workplace and are obliged to put in long hours or you will be branded as lazy. A 10 hour working day is considered normal. No one wants to be the first to head for the door at the end of a working day. Meetings often commence at 6 pm after normal working hours and one is “forced” to attend. Keen competition within any work environment usually result in back stabbing and jealousy. Kiasu-ness and the constant fear of losing ones position can be a potent cocktail for much unhappiness in ones work life. Unfortunately, this is also another one of Singaporean trademark.

Singaporeans seem always in a hurry. They appear to be very serious and always rush around like they are on a time constrained mission. Because they are always in a mad rush they appear discourteous, ill-mannered and extremely impatient especially behind the wheel of their vehicles. They never give way and honk often to show their displeasure. You seldom find a Singaporean who would smile or greet a stranger. If you wish a good morning to a stranger you pass, he/she would probably suspect you want something in return. It is just not normal to show common friendly courtesy.

However, Singaporeans are noted for their efficiency once they know the procedures or are guided by a set of rules. They never deviate from the set rules and procedures and above all they never ask “why?” They obey the rules to the letter and are always law abiding to a point of being labeled as unthinking and robotic. Thanks to the efficient Singaporean government, the people of Singapore live in a relatively safe and orderly environment. By and large the majority of Singaporeans are reasonably happy with the current state of affair.

Life in Singapore can be very good for those who are rich and can afford the finer things that money can buy. For the ordinary folks life can be a constant struggle. Inflation has been creeping up lately and daily necessities are getting dearer. Transportation is a great drain on income and the purchase of private cars are prohibitively expensive. On top of all the daily costs for food and transportation, education for children can also be a source of financial worry. Saving for old age is another one of the Singapore government projects. People are living longer and the state pension after retirement has been deemed insufficient. People are encouraged to delay retirement and private pension schemes have been introduced. Knowing that the lowest 10% of the population are finding it difficult, the Singaporean government is also setting aside a large sum of money to help during this difficult time.

Summary: Living in Singapore is safe. Schools are reasonably good. The government is fair, efficient, transparent and free of corruption. Everything works if one follows the rules and procedures. Transportation is world class and efficient. Entertainment and eating out is relatively inexpensive compared to the west. In short, one can have a good life in Singapore, how happy you are will depend on how quickly you can adapt to the Singaporean culture.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Hot and humid Singapore

Back in Singapore for nearly a week and the heat is getting me down. From the near zero temperature of London to the steaming heat of 32 deg C in Singapore has been a little tough for me. Actually the heat is not my main problem. It is the high humidity that is so oppressive. Constant showers through the day is the only way to relieve the discomfort from the heat and humidity. Guess I will have to acclimatize soon. It looks like it is going to be a 3 month stay.

I am on a strict diet to reduce my weight. My current BMI is a few points above the healthy mark. I need to get my weight down to 66 kg. Five weeks ago I weighed in at 75 kg. Now I weigh 68 kg. Another couple of weeks and hopefully I will reach my target. When I get there I intend to stay at 66 kg and not put on any more weight by over-indulgence. While in Singapore that is easier said than done. I tend to consume more food when in Singapore. Eating out is a norm to the Singaporeans. Many do not cook at home, opting for meals at foodcourts for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Weekends are great “eating out days” for most Singaporeans. Restaurants and fast food joints are usually teeming with families indulging in the favourite pastime ie eating. Singaporeans love food and they spend a greater part of their lives consuming vast quantity of it.

So, it will be difficult for me to stick to my diet when in Singapore. However, I am going to consider this a challenge. Whether I will be successful will only be evident at the end of this 3 month stay.

As we have been doing in the UK, we have decided to continue with our daily 7 km walk while we are in Singapore. Since our return to this country we have been having our morning walks at a park about a kilometer from our home. Although very warm even at 6 am in the morning, we have managed to put in at least 7 km each day. Hope we have the stamina to continue with this routine.

It has been a week since our return to Singapore and we have not visited any foodcourt for any meals. This is pretty unusual as we do eat out at least 4 times a week in the past. I am also on a strict lo-salt diet. Lately my BP has been rising steadily. I hope this Lo-salt diet will help control my BP. We shall have to wait and see whether I succeed by the end of my stay here in Singapore.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Back in Singapore - March 2008

Now we are in Singapore. Journey by BA was comfortable as we got first class travel. I must say the service provided by the BA crew was better than most other airlines, but unfortunately the aircraft was old and dated. Even the in-flight entertainment system did not work properly. However, this minor failure was more than compensated for by the fantastic and hospitable attitude of the crew.

When we left UK it was snowing together with very high wind. It was colder than normal for end of March. We had a white Easter this year in the London because Easter was unusually early. The north and the north-east of UK were under a thick blanket of snow. Traveling during this holiday period must have been chaotic. They say that Easter will not be as early for the next 152 years.

Completely at the other end of the temperature scale, Singapore is hot and humid. It must be around 34 deg C today with high humidity. The only way to stay cool would be to have numerous showers and stay in air-con room during the hottest part of the day. I should acclimatize quickly as I will be here for the next 2 to 3 months.

Singapore is still the same. People are still uptight and “kiasu”, even more so recently I reckon because of the uncertain world economic climate and the sharp increase in the cost of living. I am getting used to the Singaporeans. I have develop the ability to switch to my Singapore mode with I touch down at Changi Airport. When I drive I adopt the rude Singaporean mentality and when I meet neighbours I do not smile or greet as I normally would do in UK. When I leave UK I also leave my civility behind. This is the Singapore way and as they say, “when in Rome……..”

Next week we plan to visit JB. Something to look forward to. A trip to Segamat is on the card. Returning to my roots would be the best part of this trip to Singapore.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Segamat - My Hometown

Segamat my beloved hometown lies in the northern part of Johor state in Malaysia. In the 50s and early 60s when I was growing up Segamat was a very small and quiet town. We had no more than fifteen streets in town with a few more in the surrounding areas. We had no traffic lights, not that we needed any as there were very few vehicles in town. In the middle of all the town streets we had trees, flame-of-the-forest, I recall. Our town was so small that one could walk from one side of town to the opposite side in no more than 10 minutes and one can tour the whole town in an hour. On both sides of the street we had two-storey shop houses, the ground floors used as shops and the upper floor as residences. I was born in one of these shop houses and it was here I spent the first seventeen years of my life.

To an outsider Segamat would appear to be just another typical sleepy Malaysian town. Years ago Segamat was a very prominent town in Johor, the centre of activity for all the villages around the region. Being on the trunk road and midway between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, Segamat enjoyed a booming economy brought about by the through traffic between the two cities. Travelers by road had to pass through Segamat bringing business to hotels and restaurants. When the North-South Highway was built it was decided that it would not pass anywhere near Segamat but nearer to the west coast. I guess it must be the hilly terrain in and around Segamat that sealed the fate of Segamat. The construction of the North-South Highway was beginning of the end for Segamat. While towns along the North-South Highway flourish and prosper, Segamat stood still and suffered growth stagnation. As far as I am concerned, selfishly I must admit, this has been a blessing in disguise. I would have been very disappointed if my beloved little hometown had flourished into a big town or even into a city. I rather like Segamat to remain a small sleepy town with a laid back atmosphere.

These days I try to visit Segamat as often as I possibly can. The old parts of town have remained virtually the same as I remember it from my childhood days. The shop houses are still there each with the same worn steps that I have trodden on so many years ago. The trees in the middle of the roads have all disappeared. There are some shops that have maintained the same businesses all through the years, most likely under third generation management from the same family. The streets, the hawker stalls, the coffee shops, the wet market are still the same. Walking through town never fails to bring back fond memories of days when we were young and carefree.

Segamat will always have a special place in my heart. It is the place where I was born, where I went to school and where all my childhood memories are. I have over the years visited many beautiful and vibrant cities in many countries. There are many more exotic and glamorous places in the world that I have yet to see, but there is no place like my hometown Segamat. You can take me out of Segamat, but you can never take Segamat out of me.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

City of Toronto - Canada

Now what can I say about Toronto? Three days in this wonderful city is definitely insufficient to fully explore all it can offer. There is uniqueness in Toronto that is unlike any North American city. Although English is the most spoken language here, French is also widely used. Public announcements are always made in both these languages. French influences can be found in almost all walks of life in the city most prominently at most restaurants and also in the markets selling local produce.As we had only 2 full days in Toronto with another day at the Niagara Falls, we had to prioritize the places we thought would best capture the spirit of the city.On the day of arrival it was too late for any sightseeing. Checked in at the hotel and after a quick dinner it was time for bed. The next day turned out to be a fine day with blue sky and a bright sun. However it was bitterly cold, -9 deg C was the air temperature but with the wind chill factor it was more like -14 deg C. We were OK as we went prepared for the Canadian cold.
Our first destination was St. Lawrence Market. It was Saturday, the best day to visit this market we were told. The market was approximately 2 miles from the hotel. As it was such a fine morning we decided to walk. Toronto, like most North American cities have easy to follow roads. Unlike European cities the roads here are in the form of a grid. With the aid of a decent map, it was easy to get from A to point B. St Lawrence Market was not a disappointment. It was crowded with Saturday shoppers. There was a happy atmosphere at the place with shoppers, market stall keepers, children and tourists like us all having a jolly time. There were places where shoppers stopped to eat and drink. We sampled the pea meal ham sandwich which turned out to be delicious. French influence in Toronto also comes in the form of the large variety of bread and cheeses they have. At St. Lawrence Market there are numerous cheese stalls selling cheeses of all makes and flavors. At the bakery stalls one would find all types of bread and pastries. Meat, fruits and vegetables are also sold in abundance here. It is safe to say that at St. Lawrence Market one would find everything needed for the kitchen.We enjoyed our morning at St. Lawrence Market. We could have stay longer but by noon it was time for us to leave for the CN Tower. This is currently the tallest tower in the world with a height of 553m. We were lucky to have chosen a good and clear day for the visit to the CN Tower. From the viewing deck we could see the whole of Toronto and far beyond. A section of the floor on the viewing deck is made of glass. This section of the floor is strong enough to withstand the weight of 9 hippos. However, standing on the glass and looking straight down onto the ground below was still quite a nervous experience.
The next day we made our way to the Toronto Chinatown. I was amazed by the size of the area covered by Chinatown. The whole area is approximately 10 times the size of the one in London. Similar to the London Chinatown majority of the Chinese in Toronto are from Hong Kong. The restaurants serve only Hong Kong cuisine. We sampled some Hong Kong dumpling noodles and had a meal of Dim Sum, both meals were delicious.Our next destination was the famous Eaton Centre. We did not know what it was until we got there. It turned out to be a very large shopping mall on 6 levels. It was a Sunday and the place was extremely crowded. I guess shopping malls all over the world are basically the same. The afternoon of our second day was spent wondering around this mall and through the 2 very large food courts within the premise. The day ended with a meal at one of the food courts.
On our third and final day we booked ourselves on a conducted tour to Niagara Falls. Niagara Falls is approximately 125 Km for the city of Toronto. The journey to the Falls took 2 hours with a stop at a vineyard to taste the local wine. We sampled for the first time the Canadian Ice Wine, which was a very sweet wine made from dried up grapes.Niagara Falls is made up of the American Falls and the horse shoe shaped falls on the Canadian side. We could only view the American falls from a distant. The Canadian Niagara Falls is spectacular and one must be at the site to fully appreciate the sheer power of this God’s wonderful creation. There was a blizzard blowing when we were at the Falls which gave the place a certain added harshness and beauty. At 4.30 pm it was just getting dark and we started our journey back to Toronto.
We checked out of our hotel the next day and made our way to Toronto Pearson International Airport. As we were provided with First Class travel we made full use of BA lounge where we had our dinner.