Will the real Singapore please stand up

I’m an apathetic Singaporean. I don’t know when it happened exactly but I can point to a few factors that have contributed to my indifferent attitude:

  1. Growing up, TF was constantly condemning the PAP, telling me absolute power corrupts, and at one point planning to migrate.
  2. I spent some of my more impressionable years overseas which made me realise a) there’s more to life than the SG way of life. b) I love space and I dislike crowds.
  3. I don’t identify with the obvious Singaporean traits.
  4. I’m not enamoured with SG’s selling points. Don’t get me wrong. It’s nice to be in a country that is clean, safe, efficient, etc but that doesn’t evoke love.
  5. It’s easy to not bother when things hum along nicely in your life.

I’m fortunate that the last point describes my life in general. However I’ve always had the sense that another SG lurks beneath the gleaming, spotless, modern city. So a few weeks ago, I decided to look for real hard truths; not the ones perpetuated by PAP.

I swallowed the red pill and found myself surfing over waves upon waves on the Internet. At times, the effort almost crushed my will – the same old topics, the same old responses on blogs that reinforced my third point. But finally, I crashed onto a golden stretch of cyberland.

Son of a Dud by Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Temasek Review and The Online Citizen offer a more critical look and intelligent discourse on what’s happening around SG. I particularly enjoy Mr Jeyaretnam’s blog. I love his not-subtle-at-all blog name, and his fact based write-ups that are sprinkled with economic theories. I confess I don’t understand some of it but it’s great to be learning new things.

Anyhow, these sites have been an eye-opener. While I didn’t experience a Matrix awakening, it has come as a shock that the SG I see, the one covered in the local media and the one portrayed on TV in such glorious programmes as Discovery’s “Living Cities” is on polar opposites with the ground level.

Turns out that the real SG is struggling. Incomes haven’t risen for low wage earners; at the same time there’s a considerable increase in cost of living. Not everyone has enough in their CPF to retire, yet there’s no social safety net for those in need. Skilled and experienced Singaporeans have lost their jobs to foreigners and haven’t been able to find employment. Singaporeans are feeling lost in their own country and are deeply unhappy with foreigners.

It’s all very fascinating and interesting. SG almost has a dual identity – the astronomically rich, educated, beautiful, sophisticated side that PAP so desperately wants to showcase, and the less fortunate, troubled side that they hope will disappear quietly and quickly. Contented vs Discontented, Ardent supporters vs Growing anti-PAP sentiment, Million dollar salaried ministers vs state bankrupt opposition leaders, Posh condos vs urine stained HDB lifts, Kids who are so rich they are buying friends in school vs Kids who are so poor they can’t even take a bus to school.

I don’t know which SG will prevail and I’m struggling now with its split personality. I don’t know yet that I’ll care more for SG but I’ll try to figure ways to help Singaporeans ‘cos might as well contribute positively while I can.

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I feel bad then mad!

I’m struggling with my other blog piece about being an apathetic Singaporean. This should be a follow-on piece but the thoughts and words are on a constant tumble in my mind and I need to get it out quickly before my head explodes.

In an earlier article, I wrote that I don’t know what Singaporeans want. Reading back, some words may seem harsh given that clearly, there are some people struggling without a job, trying desperately to make ends meet on unacceptable wage levels while coping with high inflation and so forth. When I see the elderly, bent over, pushing trolleys of cardboard boxes or clearing messy tables, I wince.

I feel bad that lives have been wrecked by flawed policies and a greedy political party. But then, I feel mad after that. Hopping mad. ‘cos I don’t know why Singaporeans can’t take matters into their own hands and do something.

The education system may have made many into ‘worker ants’ but why stay that way? As an adult, one would be in charge of one’s own destiny and even attitude, personality and interest, isn’t it? Why wait till the elections in the hope of casting an opposition vote (assuming the PAP plays fair and gives you the opportunity to vote), then waiting for the various changes to happen? How much time would’ve been lost by then? And can you be sure those changes will indeed be favourable?

And instead of relying on the government to make those sweeping changes to suit you, why not rise to the occasion of life in a fast-paced globally competitive city? No matter who runs the country next, the one thing I’m certain of is that the kampong life has long pulled out of the station. Perhaps it left too quickly, catching Singaporeans off guard. But it’s time to wake up and realise that SG won’t be going backwards.

I’m not unsympathetic to those who really need help, but my frustrations come from reading blog comments / listening to mainstream conversations, and I think it’s time the national psyche of Singaporeans gets a make-over.

Below are two key areas that affected Singaporeans should be working on:

1. Blaming foreigners

Yes there may be too many. But are you ensuring you can beat them out in every single way? OK, perhaps you’re unable to compete on low wages, but I assume you don’t want those jobs anyway. I know of companies desperately trying to hire Singaporeans but hiring managers say they can’t find good people. One is even closing down now due to staff shortage! It’s shocking!

So ask yourself if you’re doing your best at interviews, if you’re doing your best everyday at work, if you have a winning attitude every single freaking day at work. Or perhaps you’re in the wrong job / industry – one in which you feel unmotivated, dispassionate about. Can you switch? It’s difficult but not impossible. Do you have dogged determination and a great capacity to learn?

Understand too that the job/career landscape has changed. Here’s what Brian Tracy, author of Focal Point, says:

“According to experts, a person starting work today will have, on average, 14 full-time jobs lasting two years or more and five careers in completely different fields or industries…

Millions of people move up, down, or sideways in their jobs, companies or careers. The rate of growth and expanding opportunity has never been greater, and if anything, is getting better every year.

Here are three predictions for you: First, there will be more changes in your field, whatever it is, in the year ahead than ever before. Second, there will be more competition in your field than ever before. And third, there will be more opportunities in your field than ever before, but they will be different from those of today and in different areas than you expect or anticipate.

As many as 72% of people working today will be in a different job within the next two years as a result of incredible speed of change, increase in competition and explosion of opportunity…

Andrew Grove, chairman of Intel Corporation, wrote recently that one of the most profound changes of the last decade is that each person today is now the architect of his or her own career. You can no longer rely on a corporation to take care of you…You must think and act for yourself.”

Knowing this now, how will you prepare yourself?

2. Endlessly talking about HDBs, COEs, ERPs and other mundane stuff

Stop being led by the local media into the path of property, shopping sales, overcrowded places, best food places and the like. Recognise that when you’re constantly being bombarded with the same few messages, it becomes larger than life and is all consuming. Problems exist – everyone knows that – so there is little need to harp on it all the time. It doesn’t add value to anyone’s life to hear another story about another record price whathaveyou.

Besides, life is way more interesting than that. If you free up brain space from the mundane, you’ll find there are tons of other things to learn and talk about – history, philosophy, art, science, design and other so-called ‘cannot-make-money’ subjects. The funny thing is that these subjects broaden your horizon. Your perspective widens, you’ll think about problems and therefore solutions differently, you may find an undiscovered passion, and before you know it, achieving a whole lot more including that dream job / partner / life.

None of the issues that Singaporeans love to whinge about are uniquely Singapore. These are problems faced by city dwellers around the world. The difference perhaps is that Singaporeans haven’t learnt how to beat the system nor adapt, and they’ve made these issues the key focus in their life. Surely this is the time now for change, with unprecedented access to knowledge and networks. I dare you to take up the challenge to grow beyond these narrow shores.

The meal costs what???

Yesterday was TF’s big birthday. He didn’t want to make a fuss of it but agreed in the end to dinner at a venue of his choosing (Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant at Quality Inn Hotel) and invitation for a few friends (five so that we’d fit nicely on one table).

Lotus Vegetarian isn’t new to us. We’ve been there several times and always enjoyed the buffet. The spread was wide, the food: good, the price: reasonable. When I called to make a reservation, they told me the buffet wouldn’t be available; we’d have to order from the menu. Never done that before but what’s the big deal?

So there we were trying to figure out what to order. If you’ve never been to a Chinese vegetarian restaurant, ordering from a menu can be interestingly confounding, mainly because the dishes sound different, but sometimes, it’s all the same food. TB and I settled on the set menu eventually ‘cos it just made things easier. We also added a small plate of noodles for birthday symbolism.

Needless to say, there was an obscene amount of food. We couldn’t finish every single dish despite there being 11 of us feeding on a menu for ten. The dishes were pretty good although at some point, the sauces were similar. TF likes to eat gravy dishes with mustard ‘cos he finds it adds a good punch. I added it just to make it taste different.

At the end of the meal, everyone was well and truly fed groaning about the amount of food consumed, and we left the restaurant carrying four doggie bags. While driving home, the Godmother (TGm) asked how much the dinner was. When TH mentioned it was about $500+, TGm was shocked.

I hadn’t thought about it till then, actually. I received the bill, checked the items and TH signed for it. Didn’t give it a second thought. But TGm’s reaction caused us to mull it over and the more we talked about it, the more outrageous it seemed. After all, we really only ate vegetables.

TGm then related her lunch experience at Thai Express, which was equally outrageous – $14 for a plate of extremely oily glass noodles with a teeny, tiny piece of crayfish. I’ve had that before – it’s a miserable, miserable dish.

The truth about dining in Singapore, the land of great food, is that numerous restaurants in the casual to mid-tier dining category are abysmal. They tend to be over priced, serving sub standard food. Yet, there’s a proliferation of them and some even do well. I don’t understand why. Then there are those like Lotus Vegetarian that may be taking advantage of the festive season to raise prices beyond what is acceptable. OK, we did accept the price but is it really acceptable? I suppose as long as there are fools like us, these places will survive. What really capped the night was TH muttering at midnight that he was hungry.

Time for a dining pledge in our household.

Why PAP is superior

For the past few days, two articles and their related discussions have occupied some brain space. One is the now infamous excerpt from Amy Chua’s latest book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” on the Wall Street Journal, and the other – a critical look at the welfare state in Singapore – was published by The Economist a year ago titled “The Stingy Nanny”.

As I sat back pondering both articles, it struck me how similar the subject matter was – they both portray successful ‘products’ as a result of stringent and harsh practices that are counter to the west. In fact, it became very clear that the PAP is a Chinese parent and Singapore its child. It explains perfectly their ruling of Singapore, and therefore Singaporeans.

According to Chua, there are mainly three reasons why and how Chinese parents are able to control, demand and push their children beyond what is considered acceptable and why this breeds success.

1. Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. A child with poor grades is simply a lazy child and fixing that is only a matter of punishment, shaming and disapproval.

All Singaporeans can identify with this. The early streaming in school to separate the weak from the strong, hence also ensuring competition, the labelling – ‘heartlanders’, ‘quitters’, ‘normal stream’, ‘express stream’, the sparse support to those who have fallen on hard times.

It’s little wonder that Singaporeans are constantly upgrading and the national psyche is one of kiasu-ism and kiasi-ism.

2. Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences

The Singapore government have always strongly impressed upon Singaporeans what they can or should do, what they can or can’t have access to. From the late 1960s to 1970s, they drove home the family planning message “Stop at two”; subsequently changing tact to “Three or more if you can afford it”. The sale and import of chewing gum was banned in 1992* as Singaporeans couldn’t be trusted to bin their used gums. Every decade they champion a different industry, thereby affecting the economic growth of Singapore and subtly steering the course of choice of young Singaporeans.

And because they have put all the right things in place, because they have set the path to glory and success:

3. Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything…Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.

Let’s not forget who works for whom. Without the PAP, Singapore wouldn’t be where it is. They dictated the rules and regulations that catapulted Singapore to first world status. For that, Singaporeans have constantly paid and will continue to pay.

PAP’s approach has softened over the years. Not greatly so, but slightly; just as Chua has relaxed some rules due to her daughter’s rebellion. However, a major change in style isn’t going to happen any time soon. Not when there are always potential adoptive children nipping at the heels of Singaporeans, willing to take their place in the arms of a wealthy and stable parent.

* The ban on chewing gum has since been revised. Those with therapeutic value can now be purchased at pharmacies and clinics on condition of registration by the purchaser.

What do Singaporeans want?

Last night at TB’s place, politics became a pre-dinner topic. It started with the park connector that would be built and how PAP is throwing money at it, to winning (or more like losing) votes at the upcoming elections, then to the ills of the incumbent party.

TB’s main gripe was the $1.5million paycheck ministers receive and the broken promise of “justice and equality” for all. TH’s point of view was (is, really) that perhaps the amount is needed in a country with such a small tappable population. This sparked off the major debate and I won’t go into the details, but needless to say, it got me thinking about life in Singapore.

In clarifying his position to me this morning, TH said that the minister’s salary is really the wrong thing to focus on, yet he couldn’t understand what the real issues are with Singapore and Singaporeans. I know where he’s coming from and I often wonder what it is people have to complain about.

Truth be told, we’re probably living in a glass tower. I don’t know what life is like for the poor. How many Singaporeans are truly struggling? How many kids are falling out of the system and ‘disappearing’? How many Singaporeans need help but are not receiving any or enough?

Most of the time, I see spoilt Singaporeans. Why do they need a car when public transport is pretty good? OK, it’s not perfect but they’re trying. What’s wrong with public housing? If it’s too expensive for newly-weds, how about living with parents for a while? Why the need to upgrade? Take shorter holidays in countries that are closer, shop local, buy local. What’s wrong with that? Families have maids that are treated like slaves yet still complain about how difficult life is. Seriously??!! Was there a memo that we would all be living stress-free, able to take exotic holidays, buy a car, wear branded clothes, eat in fancy restaurants, live in private property and be served hand and foot that I missed?

In providing everything for Singaporeans and shielding them from the real world, Singaporeans are now a materialistic, wussy, shallow bunch. That’s something I hang on the PAP. There are many things they haven’t done right – they need to be more accountable to the less fortunate, embrace human rights, open up the media channels – but I can’t fault them for providing an environment that is conducive for learning and self development in a safe, easy and comfortable way. The rest is up to the individual. Is that so bad?

I’m of course simplifying many things here. However, it doesn’t change the fact that I can’t get a grip on what Singaporeans want. Cheap and good excess to everything with high pay and low taxes? We’re not on fantasy island. Let’s talk about real issues, people. Anyone?

 

Master and servant

I’ve had my dog for nine months now. I call her the best dog ever (BDE). We adopted BDE when she was 2.5 years old. It was love at first sight when we saw her; anyone would have fallen immediately. She’s BDE.

When we were planning our first vacation after adopting her, we had no idea how we were going to manage BDE. Fortunately, a friend came to our rescue. She has two dogs and looking after BDE wouldn’t be a problem, she said. We packed BDE off with a few favourite toys, her food, her batcave and a lot of nerves. Thankfully, everything turned out well. She’s BDE! And she remembered us when we returned to pick her up. The crazy joy on her face was priceless.

In planning our next trip, I completely messed up on the dates – it didn’t work well for our friend – and so I felt BDE should go to a boarder. Trouble is, it’s late.

I spent the last three days Googling and Yahooing. There is a lot of information out there but no single site that is truly comprehensive. It has been a tedious three days of search, call and sorry-we’re-full.

I finally found two places. One’s a pet shop, the other is a couple with an online pet shop working from home in an apartment that is smaller than ours with three other dogs; two of which yelp almost non-stop and to the point that BDE avoided them and sat under the table. Right now, I can’t decide which would be better. Well, I do know actually. It’s just that I’m hoping there’s another option. What – I’m not sure since I’ve exhausted the web and I’m emotionally exhausted.

BDE deserves the best, and I feel terrible that I didn’t think this through thoroughly. TH’s consolation is that we’ll only have to run this course once. Moving forward, it’d be a matter of making early reservations for BDE’s home away from home.

As I’m typing this, I’m nervous all over again thinking about the new environment that BDE has to adjust to for two weeks. Will she be happy with three other dogs? Will her temperament change after being in a noisy hyper home? Will she become more anxious upon coming home?

A friend commented that it’s clear now who owns whom. Sure is! I’m fretting away here while BDE’s sleeping peacefully, like she always does. Bless!

To Singlish or not to Singlish

Another perennial hot topic for debate in Singapore reared its head again recently. An article by a foreign journalist, based in Singapore, suggests an open-mindedness amongst foreigners to learn Singlish.

I’m always weary why they would want to. I don’t know if it’s mostly a piss-take, as foreign Singlish sometimes has a slight mocking or sarky tone accompanied by the even slighter eye-roll or almost undetectable condescending stance. This is not the same as the stereotypical mimic of the Italian accent – Maanday, Twosday, Tersday… It’s more a “oh-isn’t-this-patois-fucking-peculiar-and-soooooo-Far-East”.

Patois is something I just learnt; seconds ago as I Googled for the right definition of “pidgin”. I was going to use that, but found it was too prestigious to describe Singlish. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, patois is “a dialect other than the standard or literary dialect” or “uneducated or provincial speech”.

Now that certainly sounds like Singlish with it’s poorly constructed sentences and the mix use of Chinese and Malay words. I don’t think Singlish is necessarily bad. I do think it’s special to Singapore. However, I believe it isn’t time yet to promote such a dialect to a young nation.

It takes generations for a language that is not native to various groups of people to truly set it; one in which speakers would use it comfortably and properly. Singaporeans have not reached that level of proficiency with English.

One could argue that perhaps they don’t need to, as long as they have a mother tongue. That may be so. But think on these things:

  • English is the working language in Singapore
  • English is the international business language
  • Singapore doesn’t have a strong base of local companies that are world dominating MNCs
  • Singapore has truly become a global city
  • The world is now flat and Singapore is attracting a huge amount of international interest – from MNCs looking to set-up their regional HQ to foreigners looking for work opportunities

Competition is needless to say, stiff, and English, very important. Every Singaporean should therefore have a vested interest in speaking and writing good English. It’s not easy to learn a language well – it takes a lot of practise and hard work. How is that going to happen if Singaporeans are constantly using Singlish?

Singlish advocates argue that Singaporeans are able to discern when to use English and when to use Singlish. I have my doubts. I’ve read too many poorly written presentations and documents. Each time, I’ve had to spend extra time deciphering what the owner had intended. Once, I came across a commenter to a blog post who was ranting about how difficult it was to get a job. She was university educated and had written in Singlish. Right there, she lost any potential to be recommended or hired for a job.

To believe that Singlish deserves wider recognition now will be a disservice to Singaporeans and Singapore. Promoting a provincial speech would set this country back by a few good years. Let’s not kid ourselves about the importance of Singlish. If it disappeared tomorrow, Singapore would still flourish. But if Singaporeans only spoke Singlish, Singapore would falter.

And on that note, ask yourself honestly if your English is up to standard. If it’s not, what are you going to do about it?

Update:

The Dec 10/Jan 11 issue of Monocle has a feature on EF, a Swedish language school. Here are excerpts from interviews with Chinese students in Shanghai.

  • “It’s so competitive in China that if you want to find a better job, it’s important to have skills. Oral English is one of the best to have.”
  • “I work for a Fortune 500 company and need English to communicate and make presentations. I want to show I’m well educated.”

And here are a few more fun facts:

  • It is estimated that 300 million people in China are learning English. That’s slightly less than the population of the US.
  • In the US, 200,000 students are learning Chinese.

We’ve also all heard about Chinese foreign students coming to Singapore barely able to speak English. But within a year, they’re acing it and top of the class.

So do yourself a favour if your English isn’t good – Stop speaking Singlish. If you do, understand that it’s at your peril. Don’t blame the foreigners for taking your job, denying you a promotion or behaving badly towards you. Frankly, you asked for it.