Saturday, June 28, 2008

Rocket food

Well, thank God that you can still get Chicken Rice for $2.50 a pop in at least 3 out of 5 stalls in Singapore. CASE did a survey and came up with this finding. Not surprisingly, these can only be found in non-air-conditioned food centers. Anecdotal evidence will also tell us that in air-conditioned food centers, the $2.50 chicken rice place is a rarity. If it exists, you'd probably get a lean serving with lots of fat, which suits some taste buds, but certainly not the health conscious.

Unfortunately, I eat out in an air-con food centre most of the time and that has seen my daily food expenses soar like an eagle. Going out of your way to get a $2.50 plate of chicken rice, or mixed rice, or any food or drinks for that matter at these places, which are way lower than what you would get at a Kopi Tiam operated food court, is not practical, time and traveling expenses-wise.

I live in Sengkang and there just aren't many food centres that isn't air-conditioned. Even the new neighbourhood food centre in the vicinity of Buangkok MRT station is air-conditioned (and run by Kopi Tiam). And even for those food centres that aren't air-conditioned in Sengkang, the prices are not that economical either. Perhaps it has got to do with how long you have been in business. The newer food centers seem to always charge newer economy prices - a la Kopi Tiam, which rarely is economic for heartlanders like me. The older ones tend to charge prices more reflective of 10, 20 years ago, notwithstanding the increases in raw material prices in recent times. There must be something to be said for people who have been operating their food businesses on their own for some time now compared to people who are managed by the organised F&B establishments such as Kopi Tiam.

So dare I say that inflation is not only a function of raw material prices, fuel and electricity, it is also a function of the "Kopi Tiam effect" - large organisations of food management companies bidding astronomical prices for many a food centre and then passing on the costs down the line finally to the consumer? Well, it may be unfair to blame Kopi Tiam. The Banquet chain, the Koufu chain, and even the NTUC Foodfare chain are all in on the same modus operandi. That's why you will never find a plate of chicken rice priced anything below $3 in places managed by them. I have witnessed the price of a piece of roti prata go from 60 cents to 80 cents and is now 90 cents. You want egg in it? That'll be $1.50 a piece. That means that an egg costs 60 cents! It must be premium egg they are using. Even in inflationary times like this, an egg in the supermarket can be priced as low as 20 cents - cheaper if you buy in bulk, which is what food operators do. They must be using a different, perhaps more sophisticated, calculator than any that I have ever owned in school. We need a 'Dell effect' like never before.

Unfortunately, these food centre management chains are becoming more the rule than the exception, at least in the newer Heartland Towns such as Sengkang, Buangkok and Punggol in the East. I suppose the story is the same in the North and the West of the island. But as long as they draw the crowds (and the eateries that are run by them do draw the crowds because they are conveniently located in places that Singaporeans practise their favourite pass-time - shopping), they can price their food anything they want. Heck, some are even collecting money for the takeaway meal boxes. Takeway diners do not take up the limited seats in their food courts. That counts as a savings as well as increased opportunity for more sit-in diners, doesn't it? That means more business and consequently more profit$. But they don't see things this way. The mentality is different compared to those that operate their own foodstalls in the heartlands.

I think what is missing, really, is effective competition. These organised food businesses haven't taken the 'C' in 'Competition' out of their vocabulary. They have replaced it with the 'C' in 'Corporate' objectives and 'Corporate' strategy of behaving as one entity, so when one operator raises his prices, all the rest are duty bound to raise theirs too. Its just like a Cartel. One would wish that they would practice more corporate social responsibility, but that does not seem to be high on their agenda.

Image source: Author: Ajay Kumar Singh

Friday, June 20, 2008

Like a kid

Don't know what's wrong these days. I feel like I am being herded around like a sheep, or scolded like a child. For heaven's sake, half my life is already over, and I still get people coming up to me to knock my knuckles for doing 'naughty' things. Take the Saturday before last, for instance. I had dinner at Punggol Marina. Very good food and good company - what company can compare to your wife and kids? Anyway, it was belated mother's day, and father's day was coming up, so one good meal for two occasions was a 'steal'. The Marina provides private bus transport in and out of the place. I don't drive, so while waiting for the bus outside the lobby, I took a photograph of the family. Lo and behold, the driver of the private bus, which had just arrived, came up to me and told me off. He said that photography was forbidden on the Marina grounds, and continued berating me for not 'obeying' the rules and that if I didn't believe him, he'd march me over to the sign that said so. I had kept silent all the while I was being 'reprimanded', but I can only take so much. I gave him a piece of my mind. Fortunately, no blows were exchanged - it was that bad and it spoilt the evening for us.

Then last Friday, I visited the PC Show in Suntec City. I had reached the floor via escalator that overlooks the third level exhibits. I made sure I stepped aside so as not to block people who might be coming up the escalator as I looked down at the exhibits. Along came a security guard who told me to move off as I was blocking people coming up the escalator. Annoyed, I asked him if anyone was coming up the escalator (there were non, not even a mouse) and therefore who I was being accused of blocking? The crowds on Friday wasn't as bad as that on Saturday - I was there both days. I was annoyed because I thought I had been considerate enough to check that I wasn't an obstruction but someone else imagined that I was an obstruction. That was rubbing me the wrong way and I couldn't let it pass. I gave the guard a piece of my mind. I challenged him to show me the non-existent crowd. I don't like to question authority, especially when someone has been tasked to keep the path free. But for heaven's sake don't tell people that they are an obstruction when they clearly are not. I can understand the rationale behind this man's instructions, just that I cannot tolerate being told to do something when that specific rationale doesn't exist, at least at that moment. A case of reading off a prepared script? Come on, the public deserves better.

All of which goes to show that our service people still have a long way to go, service-wise. Tact is certainly not in their vocabulary, bulldoze is probably more familiar to them. And they wouldn't think twice about offending people who are obviously out contributing to the economy (and, indirectly, their existence as drivers or security guards). If I come across as arrogant, then pardon me. But I do not deserve to be treated like a 10-year old kid.

Image source: Author: Bianca Meyer geb. Bollmeier

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Based on justice and equality

Something struck me as not quite right on Sunday when I watch the evening news on Channel 5. Both were national servicemen. Both were Singapore born and bred. Both died while serving their national service. That's where the similarities end.

One gets what appears to be a send-off with full military honours - gun carriage, and senior Air Force officers in attendance. The only thing they left out was the plane. The other's send-off hardly merited a whisper in the press. It was probably a quiet and private affair.

Now, I am not grudging the attention given to a promising young man who died in his prime while serving his country. But then, that describes the other Army recruit too, no matter that he wasn't in as prestigious a unit, and he was described as slightly plumb. Both died serving their country. One got, I suppose, an all expense-paid (by Singapore tax-payers no less) burial, but the other got nothing, as far as burials go.

Are national serviceman bound for officer cadet school more equal than a humble recruit of a few days? How did he get into the air force when his eyesight was less than perfect? Now, before you go off and berate me for sour-grapes, let me say that I do not personally know these men nor their families. Its just that I have been brought up in the Singapore system that swears by justice and equality. And what I witnessed on Sunday on the Telly was anything but.

I may be wrong. There may be a perfectly legitimate reason for one boy getting a full military send-off and the other hardly a mention. If there is, pray enlighten me.

Image source: Author: Tony Roberts

Monday, June 16, 2008

Ego Hero

I think Today writer, Leong Wee Keat, hit the nail on the head when he wrote that our SAF National Serviceman can get into trouble, healthwise, because they are not willing to come clean on the state of their health. And really, as someone else has written, the doctor will only know you are not well when he examines you upon a complaint by you. Otherwise the only other way a doctor can know if you are not well is when you collapse. The first requires one to volunteer the information. After all, doctors are not Gods and Platoon Commanders upwards in a military chain of command are even less so. The second is when information is forced out of you. Unfortunately, it might be too late for anyone to help then.

In the recent death of two young men in the course of their national service exercises, questions have again been raised as to what caused their deaths. It certainly wasn't a war, nor a bullet. Less sympathetic observers might say that it is the recruits - they are so 'lembeh' (Malay for weak) nowadays, conditioned by years of comfortable (if not luxurious) home living, that a little more exertion can literally kill them. In other cases, it is pushing yourself so hard to achieve your objectives that you throw the warning signs that your body is likely sending out out the window. When you do fall dead, nobody is the wiser why an otherwise healthy young man can die so easily. All things being equal, when 19 others go through the obstacle course unharmed, whereas one falls dead, the reason does not lie in the obstacle course, but with the person. Unless you say that something in the course (e.g. jungle) poisoned him - but that can be determined by an autopsy, I suppose.

So the lesson we must take away from the recent deaths of 2 NS men is to put common sense above bravado. It isn't very much use if you cannot reap the benefits of bravado because you ignored Mr Common Sense. And it is no shame to tell someone, or get someone to help early when your body says something is not quite right. After all, war is about survival. If you can't take care of yourself, how can you take care of the nation?

Postscript: The SAF resumed training activities after a 3-day suspension "following the deaths of Officer Cadet Clifton Lam Jia Hao and Recruit Andrew Cheah Wei Siong". Further, "MINDEF is satisfied that proper procedures are in place for all physical and endurance training activities carried out by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), and that these are being followed". - Channel NewsAsia, 17 June 2008.

Conclusion: The SAF is not at fault.

Question: So who is?

Image source: Author: Clara Natoli

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Oil oil I need less

Oil, petrol, gasoline, fuel, you name it. Its on the mouth of everyone these days. As the price of oil soars into the US$135 range, the world is getting to be a much more expensive place to live in. Some in the US are even practising a 4-day work-week in order to save on the power needed to drive the office air-cons, lighting, and other electrical appliances. These, together with the saving in gasoline otherwise needed to travel to and from work, can add towards quite a bit of savings. But not all companies and not all countries can afford to do this. For some, it is not in the culture to do it. Work-weeks are still 5 1/2-day affairs. Even for Singapore, the civil service only went 5-day a couple of years ago.

But I think the Americans have a point. Not about working less in a week. It's about 'firing' up the office and burning tar one day less in a week. And this is where telecommuting really comes into its own. Its nothing new. Some businesses already practice it, but it hasn't become as pervasive as, say, the Internet, which has become part and parcel of doing business in the office today - at least in countries or cities that has the requisite infrastructure to support it. But it is usually such cities that burn up the most fuel in the offices and on the roads. Why not have a 4 in-office days and 1 out-office day? You still work on the out-office day, but you do it from home.

A lot can be done at home nowadays that is otherwise done in the office today. E-mailing, hold meetings using teleconferencing tools, collaborate on a document or a plan the budget using the collaboration features built into Lotus Notes, or MS Office, Zoho Office, or even Google Docs and Spreadsheets. What's that? There are some things that you need to do face to face? Yeah, so do it during the 4 in-office days, or if not possible, meet at the cafe so that the whole office or building doesn't have to be lighted just for 5 people. Today, even education and training can be done the e-way. E-learning is an established pedagogy, one which will be increasingly used because of its sheer efficiency and convenience.

Some would argue against these, stating that it merely shifts the cost of doing business from the employer to the employee. The employee has to pay for the electricity that powers the home computer, the broadband connection to the Internet, and even the extra expenses incurred using the home toilet more often. But I would counter this with pointing to the savings in travelling time, travelling expenses, being stuck in the jam and risking accidents on the roads. Its not all that bad a deal, actually. What's more, it will bring greater work-life balance back to one's life, and possibly increase the birthrate (don't ask me what the connection is). So there is a lot to be said for a 4+1 work-week.

Image source: Author: Clara Natoli

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Bar none

Truth be told, I have never stepped into a pub, well, at least not those in Singapore. Occasionally when I am overseas and I get brought to one, I'd oblige. But some people are not happy with our local watering hole, St James Power Station's discriminatory practice of allowing foreigners into its premises without collecting the $20 cover while locals have to ante up the amount. This is tantamount to subsidizing foreigners' hours of happiness. And the reason for this freebie? St James says that this will add to the cosmopolitan nature of the crowd, which will make it a more interesting place for everyone. Granted, St James is well within its right to have this discriminatory policy in order to achieve a business objective and be different from other watering holes, but still, in egalitarian Singapore, this stands out as a sore thumb.

One can go as far as to say that these foreigners are prostituting themselves, without their knowing it. They are used to attract other people who pay for the privilege of being in the pub's premises, people who perhaps appreciate the cosmopolitan nature of the place and are willing to pay, a place where there are ready Ang Mo's to whet their appetite for a conversation and perhaps something beyond. Well, some locals are not too happy on learning this (it is surprising that they only realise this now as St James has been in business for some time now) but the foreigners insist that they don't really get a freebie as they HAVE to buy the drinks (no, you can't bring your own). There is thus no difference - you get a free drink for paying for entry, but somehow, it is natural to feel a difference, a feeling that some people are treated 'more fairly' than others.

Whatever, I leave it to the pub to set their policies and run their business. Nobody can say that it is wrong until people start to stop coming. And locals can choose to continue to give St James their patronage if they see value in it. And foreigners can choose to continue to be made used of to attract the crowd, or not. Ultimately, its all a business, not an egalitarian society.


Image source: Author: Kristine Kisky

Monday, June 02, 2008

A rowing we won't go

Rank amateurs. Incredible. 5 young man died and it is nobody's fault. In the case of Mat Selamat's escape from detention, 8 people were found to be culpable and disciplinary action instituted, even on a person who had been absolved of blame in the escape. In the case of the death of 5 dragon-boaters, part of the ill-fated dragon-boat race team that took part in the race in Cambodia last year, 'no one was to blame', said the inquiry panel set up to investigate the circumstances and reasons for this tragedy. Granted it is very important that the lessons learnt in this tragedy should go towards preventing similar tragedies from happening in the future, it still begs the question: who is/are to blame? To some of the families who lost a son, there must be a feeling that somebody or some people are shirking their responsibilities.

To its credit, the Board of Inquiry (BOI) does not seem to have hidden anything. It even pointed out that "the team manager and captain...responsible for making crucial decisions on safety instead...(left it) to a vote". Clearly, in matters of safety, a democracy just will not do. Imagine a teacher leading 40 students out on a field trip making decisions by taking a vote - that's what really happened here. It's an abdication of leadership and responsibility. How can nobody be blamed? Granted we do not want to promote a blame culture, but people must be held accountable, beginning from the very top.

What is disingenuous in the finding is the hint that the Cambodian organisers, their paddles and their boats are to blame. If you want to participate in competitions overseas, you cannot insist that the paddles must measure a certain dimension and that all of them should be uniform. In the same way, you cannot insist that the Tonlap River be as calm as the Kallang River, or that the boat must be as wide and flat as those used in Singapore. Every team, including the 8 other teams from Asean, use the same equipment and row in the same river and encounter the same currents. If the Singapore dragon-boat team can only row in calm 'placid' waters, then they should be nowhere near international competitions.

It is symptomatic of Singaporeans, when they travel overseas, that they insist on the kind of efficiency and cleanliness that they are used to and expect in Singapore. No, you have to adapt to different conditions and be prepared for the unexpected, even the worst, when you are in countries that have less developed infrastructure and systems. Ban Singaporeans from joining competitions that do no conform to the guidelines set by the International governing bodies? Well, that proves one thing, doesn't it? That Singaporeans can't hack it. They can't manage, and they don't know how to prepare for the most challenging races. It just goes to perpetuate the perception that Singapore dragon-boaters are soft, easy pushovers - kiddy rowers, actually.

Why don't we just forget the sport and channel our energies elsewhere? That will really help to prevent similar incidents from happening ever again.

Image source: Author: Ray Forester

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Lost cause

Really, I don't understand what Mr Chee Soon Juan is doing. If he wants to be an opposition politician, that's his prerogative. If he wants to speak out against the Singapore government, that is his right. If he wants to criticize unjust policies, that would be a good thing, provided it is constructive. But why is he on a crusade to nail MM Lee and PM Lee? What is he trying to prove? But of course some would say the Lee's sued first, so Chee is just defending. But his way of defending is very offending. Unfortunately, whatever he is accusing the Lees of is really old hat. We have heard all that before, oh, since 20 years ago. Why is he trotting out the same old tired accusations? What is he trying to prove? Who is he trying to convince?

The foreign press will likely pick up this story and parrot the same old tired line of the Lee dictatorship, the Lee dynasty, the lack of transparency, and all that. But you know, Singaporeans are not stupid. They may have a lot of complaints and write that a lot can be improved on this island and in this Singapore society. I often ventilate through this blog. But I do not, for one moment, think that the Singapore government is as puppety as people like Chee Soon Juan & Co, have make them out to be.

Singapore is not heaven on earth, although I have heard someone say that some Africans call Singapore God's gift to humanity, whatever that means. Mr Chee has hardly earned my respect and I am still not persuaded that he deserves my vote the next time the elections come around and he stands in the constituency I live in. Nor has he convinced me of his cause, whatever that is.  I think the first thing that a politician should do is to win people's hearts and not engage in tired old accusations about the Lees and the government that has no bearing on their livelihood and well-being. Chee Soon Juan should take a leaf out of MM Lee's approach to politics in the years leading up to the formation of self-government in the 1950s - win the hearts and minds of people and not seek pity because a 100 pound gorilla is bearing down on him.

If a politician and pretender to the government needs pity, who will pity the people?

Image source: Author: Paul Anderson