Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Folly or Glory

5 young Singapore men died in Cambodia this past week in their attempt to bring glory to their country and to themselves. It was war of a another sort - competitive dragon-boat racing, to be exact. Ironically, their boat capsized while trying to dock after their race. Of the 22 men on board, 5 did not resurface from the waters. They were found dead (apparently from drowning) some days later. My sympathies go out to their loved ones. They were such young men with so much promise ahead of them.

But frankly, I was disturbed that the team chose not to wear life vests. Their reason was that it would impede their movements, and thereby slow down their rowing. Well, I have only ever rowed competitively once in a dragon boat race, and as is Singapore's rules, wore a life vest. From that solitary dragon boat competition, I am in no position to judge whether a life vest would or would not impede one's performance. Some experienced boaters are adamant that it would not. My life vest didn't come in useful on that occasion, but it certainly was a load off my mind when and if the boat should capsize.

I was once in a sampan off the coast of Penang which capsized many years ago and a friend of mine in the same boat nearly died because (1) both of us didn't have life vest on and (2) he didn't know how to swim. I hauled him up from the water and got him to hold onto the overturned sampan as I tugged the boat back to shore with the help of another boat.

I think people must get their priorities right. Between Cup glory and life, which should you choose? I thought it would be a no-brainer, but competitive spirit, or folly, would rather risk life over a piece of metalic or plastic object which, when placed in the cabinet, serves only to remind of past glory. But without a life, what glory is there to reminisce? I would rather row my best and be safe. Should glory come to the team, at least I can live to enjoy the fruits of my labour. As it is, the dragon boaters' reach for glory has only brought extreme grief to loved ones. When we are young, we think we can live forever but death can snatch us in the prime of our lives without nary a warning.

Life and glory - choose life - all the time.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Foreigners in the midst

Lately, there has been some discussion about foreigners in our midsts. Some of these foreigners have expressed the need for the 'locals' to show them consideration and kindness. Apparently, some locals are treating the foreigners in our midst as the plague incarnate, especially people who are of a different colour, or a different social status (read: construction labourers and the kind).

I have noticed over the last year or so that more Indians, most likely foreign born, are sharing the subway train space with me to and from work. There are also many who, on first appearance, look Chinese, like me, but they give away their true identity when they speak - some tongue that sounded Korean or Japanese, or a tongue-twisting Mandarin that suggests that they are China immigrants. And then there are some darker skinned people (brownish-tanned) who would have looked like my father, who worked under the hot sun most of his life, but who, again, on speaking, revealed that they are probably Indo-Chinese. And then there are those foreigners who have been with us for ages - the Philippinos and the Hong Kongers, the Malaysians (especially Malaysian Chinese) and the AngMos (Caucasians). Each of these speak a distinct language or have distinct tones in their speech that sets them apart.

Truly, Singapore is now a metropolis, and some would say, a melting-pot of diverse races and dialects. It is not hard to wonder why there is increasing friction among the locals and the foreigners. Perhaps this is something new to most people, but for me, this is old hat, for I grew up in the Naval Base which had races and nationals of all types. There were those Indian bachelors who lived in one room hostels with a common bath and toilet, there were Malays and Indians with families living in our midst (I had an Indian family for a neighbour). There were Chinese from Shanghai, speaking the Shanghainese dialect, Babas (a mix of Chinese and Malays), the Sikhs and so on. We all lived quite peaceably. In fact, whenever a race celebrated its special day (Deepavali, Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, etc.), our parents would send some of their delicacies to each other for the occasion. This is just one of those bonuses that children, like myself, benefited immensely from, not to mention that we children often formed teams to play 'rounders' the whole day. And because most of us children went to neighbourhood schools, we'd meet up there again as a community, sitting beside each other in class, learning from the same teachers, playing together again in the fields during recess time. So 'foreigners in the midst' is quite common for me.

However, this level of communal living has become rare as Singaporeans took to high-rise apartment living, which picked up pace in the 1970s. There is probably no two generations of Singaporeans who are not used to living among people of a different race. This is a great pity, though this is mitigated by the fact that they continue to see each other in schools.

I was sad when a bunch of Singapore Chinese students told me that they are averse to going to India, compared to, say China or Korea. When probed, the 'black' word came out. Colour is a fact, and nobody needs to be ashamed of or be self-conscious about it. Many hold prejudices precisely because they haven't been living around other peoples as a community. One may live next door but never know what the neighbour's surname is after 10 years! Foreigners need to understand this about Singaporeans. It isn't that they are hostile or rude, its just the way they grew up, in insular pigeon-hole-like apartments.

As for me, I welcome foreigners in our midst, if only because it lends vibrancy to the community, and hearing the different tongues brings back a lot of childhood memories.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Language as it is written

I am not a linguist, but I did study linguistics in University. I am not a native English, but I believe I have attained some degree of proficiency in this foreigner's language, though at the expense of my native Chinese language. I hardly write Chinese anymore, except only on occasions when I do need to write my Chinese name for identification purposes (well that's strictly not true. While I do not write the Chinese script, I do 'write' it using my computer).

For some time now, I have been rather uncomfortable with how English is written, especially those that appear in public media (e.g. newspapers and advertisements) and trade flyers. I can understand when trade flyers contain grammatical mistakes because anybody in the office is 'qualified' to put out a flyer, including designing and printing it. But in a mainstream newspaper, ads and formal (official) reports /communications? Copywriters are not what they used to be. For example, many ads routinely misuse the verb 'spend' in the following manner:

"...free gifts for a minimum spend of $50..."

The correct construct should be ''...free gifts for a minimum of $50 spent...", or better yet, why not add that personal touch by phrasing it this way: "...free gifts when you spend $50 or more...". You still use 8 words in these two examples, no more nor less than the erroneous expression.

Then there are cases of 'pluralizing' uncountable nouns such as 'effort' and 'experience'. Granted, there may be certain contexts in which the 's' in these words may be valid. But you shouldn't write:

"...the good results where due to the efforts put in by the team...", or "...the students' experiences from the trip helped them to understand others better...".

Both words are uncountable abstract nouns (not that anything abstract can be counted anyway). As such, an 's' is not necessary, nor meaningful. This is the same with uncountable discrete nouns such as rice and flour. One does not write "rices" nor "flours" to express the plural. Whether it is a grain of rice, or an 'atom' of flour (if there is such a thing), these things are considered as single entities where the 's' is superfluous. Therefore, the right way to write these sentences is:

"...the good performance was due to the effort put in by the team...", and

"...the students' experience from the trip helped them to understand others better...".

I just felt I had to get this off my chest because with the prevalence of this erroneous expressions in mainstream media (heck, even people in the education business routinely commit these mistakes nowadays), I was beginning to question my grammar. Fortunately, I am not too old to remember the English grammar that I learnt in Primary school oh so many years ago, and which I imbibed through my voracious reading appetite ever since.

p.s. I can hear my professors telling me again that there are no rights or wrongs in language...;-)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

With great freedom

'With great powers come great responsibilities', so Spiderman's uncle advised Peter Parker when he discovered his special spidery abilities. For the last few weeks, we have also heard from people citing 'freedom' and 'rights' as important reasons for supporting the repeal of Section 377A of Singapore's Penal Code - the 'anti-homosexual' statute that has stood since the British, Singapore's former colonial masters, first penned it.

But events of past the week or so again shows the truth of the words 'with great freedoms come great responsibilities'. Apparently some in the 'anti-377A' camp know only of freedom but not responsibility.

First, poet Alfian Saat found it civil and right to hurl abuse at Prof Thio Li-ann for her anti-gay speech in Parliament. This 'poet' found it proper to use such words as 'f**k' and 'piss in your grave' in chastising the Prof for her speech. I have never read Alfian Saad's works. After this, I probably won't be bothered to.

Yesterday, Today (pun unintended) reported that the same Prof has reported to the Police a threat she had received in the mail. To quote Today:

"...the contents of this letter was hateful enough...the words 'hate', 'hatred' and 'hurt' were repeated no less than 10 times..."

It is clear that someone is very serious about the 'freedom' part that all 377A repealers cited for their cause, which without prejudice, includes the freedom to hurl abuse and threaten bodily harm. I shudder to think what Singapore society will become if they had succeeded in their cause of repealing the act. Yes, gay supporters such as NMP Siew Kum Hong and Dr Stuart Koe are condemning this attack. I only hope they now realise the worms, that will surely metamorphose into something more terrifying, they almost released had they succeeded in their cause. You really have no control over extreme elements, if one considers Mr Alfian Saat as one, unless you curb their freedoms in order to maintain civil behaviour.

There is no true freedom without responsibility.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Another raving luna

Three days ago, I was seated on the North-East MRT subway train, going to work in the morning. As usual, I was doing some reading, though unusually, I was reading a book I always brought in case I couldn't pick up a copy of Today papers.

In came a bunch of noisy people. I didn't look at them as I was engrossed with my book. But a person among them was talking particularly loudly. It just wasn't possible to ignore him. When you take public transport, you'd get these once in a while. There are always people like that, particularly those who talk into their handphones, as if they cannot wait for the whole world to know their every little deals and secrets.

Suddenly I heard the same voice starting to scold the government, in particular Mr Lee Kuan Yew, about his CPF money. I cannot recall word-for-word what he said, but he said something to the effect that MM Lee had better not 'play' around with his CPF monies and that he would withdraw all his CPF when he reaches 55, and that Mr Lee had better not do anything to stop it. Otherwise he would walk up to Mr Lee to demand the money, that he wasn't afraid of him. Another raving lunatic, I thought. I looked up across from where I was seated and saw some commuters rather uncomfortable in their seats. One was rolling his eyes heaven-ward, as if to say, "Not another...".

Well, I don't know how much direct influence MM Lee has over the running of government nowadays, and about the setting of policies, but some people still do associate him with the government. So when something doesn't go their way, they'd think of MM Lee first to release their invective. I don't personally approve of this as I feel that the sitting PM and his Ministers should be first in line to answer to any unhappiness that the country's citizens might have.

I don't know the circumstances behind the man who uttered those words so loudly and clearly in the enclosed MRT subway train car, and I don't think the opinions uttered reflect any sense of reality. On the other hand, I don't think the man belongs in a mental ward either. The incident does indicate that whoever in government is now plotting to get people to make use of their money in a certain way (no matter if it is to the people's benefit or not) had better think twice, or more, before announcing it publicly (again).

Otherwise, MM Lee, probably through no fault of his, will have to bear the brunt of some disgruntled people's invective (again).

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A raving luna

I sympathise with Mdm Amutha Valli, if all that happened in Court the past week or so is real. Mdm Valli's reportedly disturbing behaviour in Court - alternately 'forgetting' what she had provided the police in her affidavit in her suit against Novena Church, with demonstration of selective memory recall is both disturbing and, well, disturbing.

For the benefit of those not in the know, Mdm Valli is suing Novena Church's two priests and other workers for destroying her life due to an alleged exorcism two years ago. She alleged that she has not been able to live a normal life since - and she demonstrated what she meant every time she stood on the dock to give evidence or was cross-examined by the defendants' lawyers.

I don't know Mdm Valli and I am not a Catholic, but from what I have read thus far, I am inclined to believe that Mdm Valli is a very very good actress. I don't know who framed the charges in the first place against the defendants in this case, but it was certainly not the work of a lunatic. It is really serious business. When time came to back up these charges, what better way than to demonstrate in open court her (alleged) problem so as to gain everybody's (including the judge's) sympathy. That is far better and more effective than a day of learned arguments. Because of her startling behaviour, the Court has had to re-schedule hearings, I suppose, to give her the space to compose herself so that she can provide clear testimony. But with all due respect to the Court's learned officers, giving her additional time won't change her brilliant strategy of acting like a lunatic. She'll just go on playing to the public gallery and the wider media till she gets what she (and/or her accomplice(s)) wants. A person in her condition, if it is genuine, should be seeking live-in full time psychiatric treatment at the Institute of Mental Health, not going to Court to give testimony. What would her testimony amount to anyway, except to gain the sympathy?

If there weren't a hint of fraud in the whole thing, this would have been a tragic situation for Mdm Valli, who had won international sporting honours for Singapore in her younger days.

Now, don't sue me. This is just my opinion. Perhaps the ridiculous and farcical nature of the whole thing is driving me mad to write these lunatic lines, just as Mdm Valli is raving madly in Court.