Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Who I am who you are

Racial Harmony - am I? So Jackie Chan's character in his movie of the same name asked after he forgot his identity through amnesia. But that's exactly what we should asked ourselves in this multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-national country of ours. Throw a stone into a crowd and you can bet it will hit a person who speaks a different 'mother' language, or who speaks English but has a different skin colour from yours, or who looks the 'same kind' as you but speaks in a language totally foreign to yours. The social makeup of Singapore has become so diverse that it dwarfs my experience growing up in the Naval Base, where you can find Malays, Indians, Chinese and Eurasians all living within a community called the Naval Base.

Why are all these important? Well, when you have different peoples living amongst you, some of whom look very different and, to others, not too 'pleasant', because of smell, colour and even diet, you will get conflicts and misunderstandings sooner rather than later. Take that unfortunate incident of a Chinese boy bashing up an Indian migrant worker accused of starring at him. There is no doubt that what that boy did was wrong. But part of the problem really, is the lack of understanding and, dare I say, appreciation for people who are different from us. Government policy in Singapore has gone out of the way to get different peoples to interact with each other, but whether people actually do so is not up to the government, but themselves. I would say that, from anecdotal and personal experience, this isn't working insofar as the policy to have a certain racial mix in public housing is concerned. Heck, I don't even know what my Chinese neighbour do for a living, not to speak of a family of a different race. With exceptions, we tend to mind our own business, which can be a virtue, but stifles the development of community and bonding among peoples and families. One problem is our children rarely get to play and talk to people of different races as often as it used to be for me 30 years ago. And I venture to say that that is a problem created by a majority of Singaporeans living out of pigeone-holed highrise apartments, which, ironically, is viewed as one of the most visible symbol of Singapore's success today.

Yes, there are community centres (or clubs as they are unfortunately now called. Club always has the connotation of exclusivity and special interest. Inter-racial interaction and bonding couldn't be further from such settings), public parks and swimming pools. But when was the last time you saw two people of different races mixing naturally with each other in any of these settings?

Without venturing into a long thesis regarding the subject of racial integration, tolerance and social cohesion, it is not hard to see that Singapore will face more problems melding the various races and peoples on this small island of ours in the years to come. Perhaps it is opportune for Singaporeans to travel more and, if nothing, learn to live and let live.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Back from Paradise

Surfers' Paradise - readers of this blog would notice that this is my first blog after more than a week's silence. That's because I was in Australia's Sunshine State last week on vacation. As vacation goes, the Notebook PC did not follow me, and I stayed away from newspapers entirely. I also avoided Internet Cafes although the thought to blog did cross my mind. In fact, the last time I was overseas in South Korea, I blogged using the PC at the lobby of the hotel I was in. There was a PC in the hotel lobby I was staying in Australia, but I just didn't find the time nor the interest to do any blogging. Part of the reason is that this vacation has been quite a busy one for me and my family. We were getting up early in the mornings every day so that we could get to our destinations to enjoy the full benefit of the tickets that we had paid for. In fact, for a couple of days after stepping onto Singapore soil again, I didn't feel like blogging till now. Blame it on Jet-lag.

I think I haven't missed much in terms of news although the Football World Cup is in full swing. I have never been a football fan, so that explains it. Timor Leste burnt and the politics hewed and hawed, but nothing significant happened, until I came back. That was when Xanana Gusmao threatened to resign. If Alkatiri has any sense of decency, he should resign, not wait to be thrown out of office and back into exile.

And, oh, I missed the debate on the desirability and implications of employing native English speakers for our schools. Anyway, this is water under the bridge, as far as I am concerned. In my school days some quarter of a century ago, this issue has been raised and debated before, although not with the vehemence this time around. I have had my share of being taught by native English speakers. I think I am the better for it today, not that non-natives weren't good at all. Some even think I talk like a non-native (i.e. native English) and I may have been accused of speaking 'slang' - a word which is much mis-used and misunderstood. There is no absolute regarding this issue, though I understand that our non-native English teachers may have felt slighted, and this issue raised not a few doubts and contentious thoughts in the minds of the perceptive. But if you are confident in what you do and know, it really shouldn't bother you. Policies change over time, though, if you have live long enough, you would notice that they tend to be cyclical and circular, just like the prices of property.

All in, I am glad to be back in Singapore, although still I hate the weather. Australian 'winter' is so much more cool, literally.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Politics of Bak Chor Mee

Bak Chor Mee Saga - now, almost every Singaporean is talking about the digital audio dialog called 'Bak Chor Mee" which began life as a podcast during the last General Elections. Produced by Tan Kin Mun (mr brown in cyberspace) and co., its an excellent spoof of the James Gomez affair. When the JG affair unfolded, many of us Singaporeans thought that the powers that be were being unfair in pursuing a man who had made a mistake and subsequently apologised for it. This sentiment was also reflected in this blog.

I think Bak Chor Mee (BCM) sums up the sentiments of the general populace over the whole affair. I heard (and this is just rumour) that some PAP members and Ministers had a good laugh over BCM - note: not AT but OVER. So the people or party being ridiculed have shown that they can take a joke. Hopefully, they can also learn from the incident not to treat its citizens like fools. Otherwise, they will end up looking like the real ones.

Fortunately, mr brown is still alive and kicking and writing his columns for Today, as well as serving the country in military gear. I doubt that that is some sort of punishment, as some conspiracy theorists might suggest. So the PAP can take heart that, in the main, even among those who did not vote for them, Singaporeans are pro-Singapore - and that's what really matters. Whichever party you belong to, so long as it is led by decent, sincere people who have the heart of Singaporeans in their minds, is alright. We may disagree, but we are not out to destroy the country, unlike some party which is not only reckless, but may have lent itself to being manipulated by forces outside the country in the guise of freedom and democracy.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

New newspaper in town

My Paper (Wo Bao) - time ago, SPH, the largest press publishers in Singapore, put out a cleverly name free daily tabloid called 'Streats'. Competition followed with the publication of the not-so-cleverly name, but also free tabloid, Today, by rival Mediacorp. Two elephants battled and the grounds on which they stomped became more fertile - with readers spoiled for choice. But as many suspected, this could not last. The SPH elephant blinked first and both decided to come together rather than continue the fight. And so was reborn the Today newspaper 'incorporating Streats'. Today (sorry, non pun intended), those words acknowledging Streats are not to be found any more on the masthead of the Today newspaper.

But SPH has done the smart thing recently. It has put out a free daily tabloid called My Paper. Like Today, it is distributed in the mornings and at noon at selected MRT stations and Bus Interchanges. Some of it are even delivered to selected homes, which was also the case with Streats. But one thing is different. It is a Chinese language daily. There is no competition in this space, except SPH's own Lianhe Wanbao and Zhaobao. Even so, I think both are sufficiently different, in terms of breadth and depth of coverage, language sophistication and format that each will find or maintain their readership. My Paper is obviously produced by a young generation who have no qualms mixing their sentences and sub-titles with English and colloquial phrases such as 'chiMology'. What I find so attractive about My Paper is the utter simplicity of the language use, so much so that I even encourage my young son to read it.

I am not used to reading any Chinese language paper because I use English more and find that I can get through the English paper much much faster than any Chinese paper. I think this is generally true of many Chinese on this island. But My Paper is different. I find that I can get through the gist of a news article very quickly. Although this comes at the cost of depth and detail, its a good way to get one, anyone, started on reading the Chinese papers. Who knows, one might progress to Zaobao and Wanbao eventually, which may be SPH's strategy of growing the Chinese paper-reading public. In this respect, SPH has done the Chinese community a favour.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Saved by the movies

Saved by the movies - Saturday, 3rd June 2006, I failed to do something that I had always been able to do all these years - attend the PC Show. You see, I was working last Saturday, I had to work, which I normally needn't - exigencies of service and all that. So when I got off, it was already 3.15pm. Still time to spare, right, given that the Show didn't end until 9pm. So I made my way down to Suntec City, and in the process, lined up to cross the Bridge which escalator was not working...grrrr..

Finally, when I did get into Suntec City, an electronic signboard advised that I should come back 1 hour later as the exhibition halls at levels 6 and 8 were at full capacity. Now, I thought that that happened to car parks only. Sheesh. Having experienced geeky crowds before, I headed straight for the Suntec City bus stop and took a bus home - without waiting for that 1 hour. What a waste of my time! But it was good exercise, though! My legs were aching so I thought I'd sleep early that night, given that I had had to work that day and I had made a round trip to Suntec City. But no, I slept well after midnight. I was up watching John Q on MediaCorp Channel 5, which turned out to be an absorbing drama of a father's effort to save his child who had a defective heart. Its that age-old plot about the poor battling a soul-less hospital that wanted to see the money before it would save a life. This father was played by a favourite actor of mine - Denzel Washington. He sure can carry a plot and pile in the drama. Great movie!

Well, in a day of work and disappointment, Denzel Washington saved my day.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

A celebration of parents

Mother and Father's Day - May and June, we celebrate Mothers and Fathers for their love and sacrifice for us, the children. Children get their turn only in September on Children's day. I think this is a recent development for I cannot remember such Mother/Father's day occasions when I was growing up a long time ago. So I wonder who decided the 2nd weeks of May and June for such occasions? Actually, the ones who benefit the most are retailers and restaurateurs because children often feel obliged to get something for their parents and/or take them out for an extra special meal. In May and June, you will see many advertisements from restaurants that helpfully suggests their special Mother/Father's Day menus. Flower and gift shops will also have their own promotions. The net outcome is that the children are some tens of dollars, some even hundreds of dollars the poorer from these 2 separate occasions (2 sets of gifts, 2 dinners, etc).

I am not trying to begrudge anybody anything, much less my mother (my father has already passed on). But wouldn't it make more sense on everyone's pocket, and my children's much smaller pockets, to combine these 2 days - Mother's Day and Father's Day - into one Parent's Day instead? After all, you don't exclude your Father at a Mother's day meal and vice versa, do you? I don't think you will love either one of them less by putting these occasions together, right? In the worst instance (mother and father are separated), you still have 3 meals in a day to split between the 2, right?

Well, call me a scrooge, but I think it makes more sense this way than having it on separate days. After all, it is not just the mother, but also the father, who gives the love and care that children deserve. That either one of them shows this in their different ways doesn't mean that one loves the child more than the other.

So I say, lets do away with Mother's Day and Father's Day and combine it into a Parents' Day. It brings out the important role of both parties in the well-being of the family.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Gone yesterday, disappear tomorrow

Memories of SeletarIt looks very likely that yet another historical area in Singapore that holds much memories for common folks like you and I will bite the dust, literally. Seletar Airbase and much of its surrounding pre-war British Black-and-White houses will become dust once the government starts to re-develop that area into a new integrated aerospace industry cluster. This is yet another development project that, hopefully, will spur the economy to ever greater heights, according to the Economic Development Board (EDB).

But not all Singaporeans are in favour of this latest development, especially those who live or have lived in the area. To these people, their homes, and more importantly, their deep memories of the place where they grew up, in time, will be become just that - memories. There will be nothing to return to to re-live those memories, and no place to take their children to to share with them the quaint environment they grew up in, to share the wonder of wandering over a large expanse of space that characterised growing up in that time and place. I can empathise with it because I once lived in the British Naval Base, which today does not exist anymore except for a small cluster of Black-and-Whites in the vicinity of Admiralty Road.

Unfortunately, our government planners have no such experiences and memories. They cannot leave well alone. There must, at some time or other, be some project that is grand and exciting. For not doing so will not only stunt Singapore's economic development, it will stunt their career developments more. The planners talk of preserving some of the character of the place, or the historical pre-war buildings that today still serve as living quarters. But the only memories made from careful planning are called Museums. The life and times in these places cannot be replaced with some carefully constructed or preserved buildings. You cannot re-construct the ambience that is today's residential environment around Seletar airbase. How can you when you have not lived a single day in the place?

In time to come, there will be nothing to remember about Sembawang, except through the obligatory Documentaries that Mediacorp will shoot about the place - before it is carved up. Our children cannot be rooted to personal histories. There will be no place worth defending. Yes, we have new spanking apartments, but those are often the object of our trading up or out of to ever newer places, but often places without soul. The memories that I have of the Naval Base is far far deeper than I have of Ang Mo Kio, the town that my family moved to from the Base.

There are some who would turn back the clock, if it were even possible. There are some who do not want economic development at such a great expense. Can anything be done at all? The realist and the sceptic among us are resigned to this latest project. The idealist will still hold out for a rescinding of this redevelopment plan. Whichever it is, an old part of Singapore will be buried by the sands of time.

Do we wonder why we do not want to commit our lives and memories totally to this piece of rock called Singapore?

Friday, June 02, 2006

Workfare welfare slippery slope

Slippery SlopeI find it laughable that money from government will lead people to work harder. Yet that is what the general-secretary of AUPDRW suggested about the largesse that the Singapore government doled out to its citizens in the last few months. I know of a person, who, upon receiving the money, went shopping and more shopping. Yes, this will help the local economy, the retailers especially, gain more business and employ more people and resources. But it is simplistic to suggest low-wage earners will work harder and go for more upgrading programmes as a result of the Progress Package.

One of the things that spurs people to better themselves, fortunately, is the realisation that they will go nowhere in their present careers (if any of it is left, that is) or that they want to make more money. People do not do so because somebody has given them more money. If nothing, free money will induce complacency and the delusion that somebody (the government and the Unions) will look after them. Why do more when, with little effort, you qualify for the Workfare bonus and the Progress Package? The Singapore government has argued long and hard against welfarism - handing out money for no effort at all. The Workfare bonus, while not exactly a handout, may slide down the proverbial slippery slope to one eventually, especially when elections need to be won. This may be 10, 20 years down the road, but every road is carved from the first step. Will this first step be the Workfare bonus?