The morning newspapers’ headlines screamed what many people already knew last night: that the current smog, exported from our good neighbors who’re clearing land through fire and carnage across the sea, has finally hit hazardous levels here. Granted, our island here has all along been shielded from some of the usual natural calamities that plague the other parts of the world, e.g. tsunamis, earthquakes, typhoons and tornadoes, but to counter-balance that, we have dengue fever and our yearly haze.

Enough already is being said online and in social media about whether our government is doing enough by way of diplomacy. And if social media is anything to go by, many people seem to be coping by making jokes about the P-SI or pee-sai (for our ang mo friend, that means nose sh*t) and the haze.

We’ve been coping as well as possible too. I’m well-protected at work with the air-conditioning units working overtime now to filter out as much smog as they can, though I’ve taken to holding my breadth if I have to cross from one block to the other. Ling and Hannah have been hiding out at shopping malls during the daytime.

The tricky thing is the evening time, and that we’ve already done furniture re-arrangements to prepare for our baby boy’s arrival – basically Hannah has given up her room and moved into our room. Even with windows closed, there’s still the obvious smell of burnt wood lingering in the air at home, and our hung-dry laundry has not been spared too.

So yesterday evening, we decided to try a little experiment – relocate all our home activities to the master bedroom. Our room’s big enough for us to do a lot with it. Aside from our bed, Hannah’s bed is in it now too, alongside her children’s table that we’ve doubled up for dinner and work usage. It’s a fun arrangement, and reminds me of the very adept way families in very small apartments have to navigate among themselves when one needs to move around.

Our apartment downgraded into a one-room size now. Hannah doesn't seem to mind though, just so long as Minnie and Pluto are with her.

Our apartment downgraded into a one-room size now. Hannah doesn’t seem to mind though, just so long as Minnie and Pluto are with her.

And oh yes; Hannah has added asking for heavy rain to wash away the haze to her list of prayer items each night.=)

03. May 2011 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, Baby Blues, News & Letters · Tags:

It’s a once every five years event, and it’s exciting not only because (most) Singaporeans get to vote. It’s because it’s also a national thing where the very uniquely Singaporean trait of kayposing comes right to fore!

We had an interest to go to an opposition rally, not that it’s indicative of our political persuasions mind you, but largely because everyone talks about its electrifying atmosphere, the energetic speeches, and the tens of thousands of other Singaporeans who’ll attend just to participate in the rah-rah. Since the opportunity only comes by once every blue-moon, relatively speaking, we decided to give it a go this evening, with a Worker’s Party rally held literally just next door at the Sengkang East open field (Matt will know where it is LOL).

Only thing is that it’d rained for a good part of the afternoon. Open field + mud = lethal combination. We spent just 10 minutes at the rally, but within that time, our feet were caked with mud, both our shirts and bermudas had mud splashes. Only Hannah was unscathed, and only because she was carried throughout and well away from nature’s elements.

Just a couple of pictures of our little family outing.=)

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Hannah looking overwhelmed throughout. I think she was totally unused to being surrounded by so many people.

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Rain and mud certainly didn't stop what looked like tens of thousands of people attending the opposition rally.

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Stayed for just 10 minutes. And what impressed Ling most were the enterprising ice-cream sellers that lined the fringe of the rally field.=)

On FRI evening, I received an SMS from Ling:

Am watching the Royal Wedding on Channel 5 now. =)

parryUgh. And I was still in school for an event! I did catch the ceremony the next morning though, courtesy of Youtube HD broadcasts. Quite a spectacle, and it looked even better on a large screen Plasma.

What especially interested me though were the music items chosen for the ceremony. Most I recognized, but two I didn’t: the Bridal Processional – ‘I was Glad’ by the 19th century English composer Hubert Parry, and the Signing of Registers music, ‘Blest pair of Sirens’ by the same composer, written for Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. Absolutely marvelous music, and reminiscent of both Elgar and Brahms’ works! I scouted around at my usual online music stores and found these two pieces only as part of a larger album. Bought the album straight away.

The last week hasn’t been an easy one for those of us who follow the daily news. There was the triple whammy of nuclear disaster, tsunami and earthquake in Japan. I watched the numerous Youtube videos of the oncoming monster waves sweeping all in its path – houses, boats and vehicles alike – and felt horror (I really hope those houses I saw on those videos had already been evacuated) at the awesome destructive power of nature at its fury. While Japan is more than 5,000 kilometres away from Singapore and that we’re still reasonably safe from any sort of radioactive emissions coming this way, like many others, I felt great sympathy and sorrow for those who have had their lives or livelihoods wiped out by the destructive forces.

As these things go, there’s been an outpouring of like sympathy from everywhere around the world, and that news media has been widely reporting a group known as Fukushima 50 has contextualized a good portion of that to the supposed indomitable Japanese spirit and propensity to self-sacrifice for the common good. There’s also been that thing about looting apparently being non-existent in Japan despite the calamities, though that’s already been debunked because there’s already been crime, albeit very low.

What has also piqued my interest though is that those sentiments have also resulted in comparisons between the Japanese and the rest of Asia. Some people here, especially those in discussion rooms, have started wondering would Singaporeans react with the same discipline. One of our friends certainly wrote one such post about Japanese discipline in contrast to others, a strongly worded piece that Ling disagreed in parts with, or so she told me over Sunday brunch.

And I agree with the wife. Though the memories of Japanese brutality 65 years ago still linger in many Asian minds and the relative lack of public remorse since that fact has only exemplified that for some, it’s unimaginable that people would dance with glee like how news media reported some Middle-Easterners doing so at 9/11, or like some Chinese netizens making contemptuous remarks of Japanese suffering last week as them receiving just-deserves. I sincerely think the Japanese stoicity is admirable. I am, however, uncomfortable when some of us start putting a race facing adversity up on pedestal and simultaneously run down the rest, especially when our admiration and liking for Japanese culture might be blinding us to the difficulties they face in their own society.

Some of what Japanese society faces is social and well-reported, like schoolyard aggression and bullying and truancy, suicide, gender inquality (Aware really has an easier time here), high divorce rates, or moral depravity (e.g. school girl obsession, hentai). Others are still social but not as widely known, like classroom disintegration from discipline. Then you have those problems that occur at the highest levels; like a government that experiences so much infighting between its major constituent parties, or the recently media reported incidents of cover-ups at Tokyo Electric before it finally exploded in their faces last week. Then we have the behavioral ones that elicit different reactions from different persons experiencing it; like how we were easily able to find really crappy food in Japan despite all that stuff about them exercising great care in cuisine, or that I witnessed a lot of sneezing into open goodness by passer-bys in Kyoto and without apology despite the purported hygiene standards, or that I still personally find loud slurping offensive.

To be fair, a couple of incidents like what we encountered in our December trip to Japan don’t make for general rules. And I don’t for a moment think Singaporeans are saints, what with all those letters written to The Straits Times about dangerous driving, ‘choping’ of seats, bad taxi driver behavior, food wastage at buffets, not always giving up MRT seats to pregnant women or the elderly etc.

But my point, and like what Ling was sharing over brunch then, is that fundamentally, there is no perfect or even near-perfect species of human beings. We’re all cut from the same cloth, more or less. Admiration for specific cultural traits is one thing. Adoration and forgetting the other side of the same coin is something else. And a lot of these social traits might only be obvious when you actually have to work and live with the race and not merely visit them as a tourist.

That said, we in Singapore have never faced a disaster the scale of what happened in the Sendai region last week – and may we never have to – but I for one am hopeful that we’ll be able to rise to the occasion like the Japanese have been able to.

16. January 2011 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, News & Letters

I was reading a news article on The Straits Times the other day about a so-called ‘elite’ secondary school in Singapore acquiring a few hundred iPads and using it in their learning.

Now, what got my attention wasn’t so much the acquisition and use of those tablets, though in my line of work, interactive digital media-based learning is an area that I pay close attention to. Rather, it was the fact that a teacher of that school was interviewed, and her title as the newspaper reported was ‘Dean of Admissions’. For a secondary school where students are admitted at 12 years old!

Maybe it’s just me, because I thought the word ‘Dean’ is used only for very senior education leaders in institutions of higher learning.

It’s been something that I’ve been observing for a while now, and it’s this: a Singapore penchant for fancy, bombastic sounding titles for everything and sundry, and apparently sometimes with little consideration of how inappropriate it might sound.

Like how our Lentor family home belongs to a housing project called ‘President Gardens’ (shudder). Or how a certain JC here in Singapore once as I recall it had the audacity to call its students taking ‘A’ level Biology ‘Medicine’ students. Or even the new condominium just further down the road calling itself ‘Austville Residences’. Even our apartment project, ‘The Rivervale‘ sounds a little too pompous and would had really sounded ridiculous were it not for the fact that our entire area is known as Rivervale something (e.g. Rivervale Link, Rivervale Crescent, Rivervale Drive).

I’m assuming that in most cases, these names are intended to catch people’s attention, and possibly impress them.

Not that the grandstanding titles personally affects me. Though I wonder whether in our part of the world, we’ve become so caught up with physical appearances that these days that’s the only way it’ll catch our attention or – more worryingly – get us to think the thing the fancy sounding name represents has any stock or value.

As soon as I left for Boston and started posting all those pictures of places I was visiting, Ling began dropping big hints about our upcoming opportunity at the end of this year for a holiday to makeup for the three overseas trips in the last 15 months I’ve gone on without her. While most of my planning so far has been for a 10 day stay in Japan, I’ve continued to keep an eye on other locations, including New Zealand, Arizona (a third trip to the US in 2 years!), and Central/Eastern Europe.

Japan’s an interesting choice, especially since Ling wants so much to visit the place. I’m alright with it but not as enthused and I’ll explain why later. But December is also when the country is in winter. A very different experience from visiting the Kansai region in August to September for instance.

In any case, I’ve been wanting to write about my somewhat conflicted feelings about Japan since the middle of last year but been putting it off as I try to keep our blog light-hearted.

Basically, as fascinating as Japanese culture and the country might be to many persons and that some of us go all gah-gah over things that are Japanese, my perspective of the island country and its people is greatly influenced by its history and its actions in the last century. The 1.3 billion Chinese up north certainly have not forgotten, and while I feel little kinship to my parents’ relations still living on Hainan island, I share some of the ambivalence the Chinese have about the Japanese. And specifically, it’s their psyche that I’m thinking about here.

My earliest recollections of Japanese history in the last century comes from more than 30 years ago. My dad had a number of pictorial books from our old place in Sembawang Hills Estate, several of which I think are at least half a century old now. I remembered curiously taking out those books to look at as a young boy. One of the books had numerous pictures of the Japanese Imperial Army’s activities in China in the last world war.

Those pictures were not censored. And the photographs of rape, execution, disemboweled body parts and heads held up for display left an indelible impression on my young 7 year old mind back then.

book In the subsequent decades, my impression of Japanese brutality got more evolved as I became an avid reader of world history. It wasn’t the graphic pictures anymore, but the text in the historical re-accounts – which admittedly might be biased – and the numerical and statistical representations – which is harder to argue against – of various incidents demonstrating that brutality. That impression got permanently burnt into my consciousness when I read Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking years back – and it’s a book that is best digested in short, separate reading sessions given its seriously depressing and haunting account.

And it’s not just the Nanking incident. When James Doolittle led his small force of American B25s and hit Tokyo in a retaliatory strike after the devastation of Pearl Harbor – and Doolittle did very little actual damage – the Japanese took it out on the Chinese villagers by killing another 250,000 of them. Germ warfare was used.

Or of the Hiroshima sympathizers. The nuclear bomb that Enola Gay dropped on the city caused a huge amount of death and destruction. The Japanese there today continue to emphasize to visitors the extent of suffering they endured, but gloss over the fact that Hiroshima was where their regional army headquarters and a huge depot of military supplies were situated. In comparison, the city of Nagasaki, similarly bombed, seemed to have moved on in sentiment.

I’m not a prude, and I think men are capable of great evil whichever race and nationality. However, there is one theme that all the authors I’ve read agreed on, and it was a theme that struck me first as a young adult: that the Japanese have never properly reconciled themselves to their own actions in the last 70 years of our world’s history. History continues to get whitewashed in their textbooks. Figures that show the extent of their violent actions are disputed by their scholars when they are corroborated everywhere else. Lone individuals – some of whom are formerly serving military officers – who possibly in an exercise of epiphany on their deathbeds try to revisit their country’s actions and seek recounting, but are invariably shouted down by their countrymen in nationalistic fervor.

While there’s the argument that the Japanese actions in South-East Asia were primarily driven by the need for precious natural resources, their actions in North Asia were largely territorial. And in both theaters, they saw themselves racially superior. Everybody else was inferior and less deserving.

To be honest; it’s the latter that lingered at the back of my mind when I interacted with the Japanese last December, or when someone around me today gushes about how great their culture and people are.

To be fair, I do find the Japanese very polite, their civilian infrastructures of transportation and communication both efficient and effective (I wouldn’t say the same about their national governance though), and many aspects of their living environment admirable, including care for personal hygiene, respect for authority and the elderly, the naturally beautiful country they live in, and the exquisiteness of their cuisine and dress. I certainly enjoyed my teaching trip to Kumamoto last year and the hospitality of their staff.

But my admiration of Japanese hospitality is also simultaneously tempered by an unsureness that whether beneath that façade lies the potential for yet another explosion where underlining traits that they demonstrated 70 years ago will resurface again, and violently. There has never been the same kind of self-reckoning or actualization that the Germans experienced in post-war Europe.

That said, my bet is that come year end, of the several shortlisted vacation spots, it’ll be Japan that we’ll visit. I have to think of the wife!

There was an article in news pages of The Straits Times today about a secondary school student having an accident while climbing Mt. Kinabalu – yep, that mountain that Ling has scaled 2-3 times now. The 13 year old boy fell and injured his head, but is in stable condition now.

Now, what I found especially interesting, and also heartening, was this part of the news article, which quoted the boy’s father:

Mr Chan, who has two other sons, said he will not discourage his son from other school trips after this.

‘It was purely an accident. These things happen, so I won’t deter him from other trips, but he has to show me he can take care of himself before I let him go on another one.’

This is exactly the kind of parents I think we should aspire to be. No knee-jerk reactions, blaming the establishment and hunting around for someone to blame and absolving your precious tots of any responsibility.

29. April 2010 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, News & Letters

Many of the news regarding home helpers in Singapore these days aren’t flattering. On too many occasions, they’ve been on misdemeanors either on the part of the home helpers, or of their employers abusing their helpers. So, when the below showed up on The Straits Times earlier this week, while on the one hand it’s terrifically sad, it also reminds us that there are real gems in a workforce level that many Singaporeans are starting to take for granted. Formatted to save space, and source here.

Apr 26, 2010
Maid dies saving baby girl

SHE loved them so much that she was even willing to lay her life down for the girls. On Saturday night, Indonesian maid Puji Astutik died proving her love – and saved her boss’ one-year-old.

Ms Puji, 28, was crossing the road with her employer, Mrs Lam’s younger daughter, when an SMRT bus ran into her at the junction of Choa Chu Kang Street 52 and Choa Chu Kang North 6. She flung the baby girl forward but was pinned under the wheels, The New Paper and Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao reported.

She was rushed to the National University Hospital, but died later that night from her injuries. The Lams’ daughter suffered minor scratches on her left arm and kept shivering that night. Neighbours remember Ms Puji as a ‘very friendly’ person who would say hi. Mrs Lam said she intended to renew the maid’s contract when it expired in September.

There’s no indication yet of whether the lights at that traffic junction were in the deceased’s favor or not. Not withstanding that, it was still absolutely stunning bravery shown on the part of Ms. Puji, though it also cost her her life.

29. April 2010 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, News & Letters, Wedding

There are two really bizarre incidents covered in the newspapers these days. One of them is the still unfolding Apple vs Gizmodo drama over a misplaced iPhone prototype, and the other is a more localized issue. Thanks to messed-up competitive bidding between the major television companies, those of us here in Singapore might not be able to watch the coming FIFA World Cup 2010.

The latter especially strikes a chord in me. Because just 4 years ago, I’d just returned from Perth after concluding my Ph.D work and was back in Singapore seeking employment, doing marriage preparations and planning for our new home – and for several evenings a week in that month of June in 2006, the two of us would spend our time at McDonalds watching the World Cup.

Oh, we could have watched the matches from home, but there’s just incredible thrill watching the events with other Singaporeans. It’s also one of those few occasion types where I don’t mind noise – there’s a lot of fun cheering, howling, yelling with everyone else in the small restaurant. I think McDonalds themselves welcomed the patrons:  they even sent staff during matches to take orders from the crowd, then return with trays of food.:)

Things are a little different 4 years later now of course, even if by some rare chance Singapore does get coverage of the World Cup. There’s Hannah to think about, but it’d be in the June holiday break, so if the matches in South Africa match our hours here, Singapore still might be able to watch the live coverage.

But hey – during that crucial month I won’t be in Singapore anyway! There should be TVs in the accommodation I’m at – I hope. :)

Update: We’ll be getting to watch the competition – hooray!

“SINGAPORE: After more than six months of nail-biting suspense, sources have confirmed that football fans will be able to watch all 64 matches of the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa ‘live’ on television in Singapore.”

[Source here]

While reading up on some legal precedents in defamation suits, I came across a story that’s in equal parts both hilarious and also just plain bizarre.

A family of South-Korean immigrants, the Chungs, were running a Pop-Mom laundry shop ‘Custom Cleaners’ in Washington DC in 2005. From all counts, they were an honest, low-key establishment well-regarded by their group of customers who frequented their services. Like many other service-centric operations there and also around the world, their shop carried advertisements claiming “Same Day Service” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed”.

In May 2005 though, they were served notice for a suit by an administrative law judge in the district – a Roy Pearson. The judge had sent in his pants for cleaning, but the apparel was mistakenly directed to another dry cleaners. The mistake was rectified with the return of the pants delayed by a couple of days. When Pearson got the pants back, he insisted it wasn’t his – despite corroboration of the pants with Custom Cleaners’ records, tags, and Pearson’s own receipt.

The two parties couldn’t come to agreement, so Pearson filed suit. And here’s the wickedest part of it – he wanted $67,000,000 in damages. And that’s in USD. In Singapore dollars, that’d be one hundred million moola… for a pair of pants. His case? He said that the Chungs had not delivered their promises of “Same Day Service”, and “Satisfaction Guaranteed” to him.

Maybe the pair of pants he lost was diamond-studded with 24 carats, or the pants was sent to laundry with two million cans of premium Abalone stuffed somewhere inside it. But the suit was no joke to the Chungs, who were completely bewildered by the awesomeness and audacity of the claim. The public came to their rescue though with donations for them to seek legal aid and for lost business. The Chungs had already offered settlement offers of $3,000, $4,600, and $12,000… all of which were rejected by Pearson. I’m not sure what the good judge was smoking, but $12,000 for a pair of pants sounds like a very good deal to me.

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In any case, the suit reached trial and after a bit of ding-doinging was concluded in 2007 – with the D.C. judge ruling in favor of the Chungs, awarding legal costs to them and sanctioning Pearson $12,000 for “creating unnecessary litigation”.

The story doesn’t end there: for the next two years, Pearson filed motions of appeal and reconsideration but was overturned and rejected each time. Along the process, he lost his job as judge on the basis that Pearson lacked the necessary “judicial temperament” for that position.

The case became fodder for bloggers, news commentaries and even international attention, with most persons – not surprisingly – unsympathetic to Pearson. Even Fortune magazine listed this incident as #37 of that year’s dumbest moments in business. Pearson himself ended up being referred to by bloggers as “Judge Fancy Pants”.

[Sources: here, here and here]