Monday, 15 January 2007

Smouldering Credit Cards and Biking Follies

There is a certain solemnity about traffic accidents. It reminds one of the frailty of the human body and how one life experience can be so quickly changed to another. I mention this because as I was travelling home in a cab Thursday evening we came across a scene of personal tragedy involving a motor cyclist and a car that had hit him while trying to run an intersection. This event had happened only a few moments before we arrived on the scene and already several passers-by had rushed to the prone man's aid as he lay, clad in cycling leathers, near the middle of the road.

If ever I needed a reminder just how dangerous riding a motorbike can be, this was it. This is very much the case in the torrential downpours that are experienced here where the road can get very slippery in a thrice.

It is not uncommon to see huddles of cyclists under overbridges on the expressways as they don their wet weather gear, in the face of an advancing storm.

In a far more cheerful vein, we spent much of yesterday visiting our apartment, which is being renovated. The good news is that it will be ready for us by next Thursday.

On the strength of this information we swung into action and with credit cards flashing, descended upon 'Bests' which is the local chain of stores that sell electrical and households goods. Several thousands of dollars later we staggered out and then set about alerting removal men, the local Telco's and everyone else who needs to be notified of our impending shift.

One quick visit to the local Police station with our identity cards meant that our new address was recorded. They in turn will alert all government departments on our behalf.

If only Singtel could emulate the local constabulary's efficiency!

Friday, 12 January 2007

Poem - The Wind Before The Rains

The wind before the rains
cooly announcing
the passing of sun
anticipation that the still
will be broken
precipitation that thrills
the soul with its cleansing

Rain without the winds
that I remember still
from lives before
and passing time
for dreaming

Roger Smith
January 2007

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Blending In

I have taken an aversion to nonsensical marketing statements, even though I spent many years in marketing myself and can appreciate the value of a good slogan or tag line.

A quick walk or bus ride around Singapore reveals many examples where the English language has either been completely mangled, or abbreviated to such an extent that the original context of the sentence or statement becomes totally obscure.

This morning as I sat on the 111 bus I was invited to "Blend into the intersection of work and play" on a large billboard announcing yet another condominium development.

I would have thought that the concept of "blending into intersections" was promoting an activity that is fraught with danger.

At Christmas, a Japanese manufacturer implored me in tinseled tones to “Celebrate the Real". The real 'what' was never explained and the value of such open-ended statements has to be questioned. (I never did by my new vacuum cleaner from this company).

The concern for the 'mangling' of the English language has even moved to the local newspapers. There is a regular column in the Straits Times dedicated to the worst examples on view in public places.

In far more humorous vein is the The Coxford Singlish Dictionary , a part of the satirical site, TalkingCock. It contains some good writing and ribald commentary and is not for the faint hearted, but fun never the less.


The panoramic view from our new condominium's lounge window

Monday, 8 January 2007

Chiquitita and Chips

How could we ever forget such eloquent lyrics as: " Chiquitita, you and I know, How the heartaches come and they go and the scars they’re leaving" or "Ring, ring, why don’t you give me a call? Ring, ring, the happiest sound of them all" ? While not the greatest of verse, it creators, ABBA, were certainly one of Sweden's most successful exports. In Singapore there is another such export with Swedish connections- in a word, Ikea.

As I have always enjoyed Scandinavian design it has been a great relief to discover low cost furniture with good design principles and of a scale that is suitable to modern apartment living in Singapore.

Not only does the local populace flock to Ikea every weekend they also have taken a shine to the restaurant offerings such as Chicken Wings and Swedish Meatballs (see picture). The meatballs in question vary little in design from the traditional English Meatball but are noticeably smaller.

Lucky I was wearing my reading glasses at time of ordering or I might have missed them on the plate.

Ikea is no 'Johny Come Lately' on the Singaporean scene - it has been here for the past twenty eight years. At the end of 2006 it opened an even bigger megastore at Tampines and did do with a traditional wood cutting ceremony.

Knowing the efficiency of the Swedes, it is quite possible that the table we decided to purchase yesterday was recycled from the same ceremonial log.

Thursday, 4 January 2007

Driving Missed Divots

It's 2007!

And being the third day of the New Year it's back to work in Singapore, which is a bit of a wrench to the system as we Antipodeans are used to long and balmy summer vacations.

Mind you, I never took a long holiday in New Zealand at this time preferring instead to escape the coldness of winter mid year.

I mentioned in my last entry that we had visited the Presidential residence, Istana. What I neglected to say (and what many Singaporeans are unaware of) is that the grounds of Istana have been very successfully converted into what appears to be a nine hole golf course. Undoubtedly this landscaping intervention happened in recent years as it's hard to image Queen Vic's representative putting a round in his plus fours!

An entry on the Istana web site indicates that the grounds became a public park in the 1960's but the provenance of the golf course itself is not stated.

The sloping nature of the fairways reminds me of an uphill New Guinean airstrip. Many of the latter had very steep inclines which made it necessary for planes to land uphill and take off downhill - to gather speed before a precipitous drop at the end of the runway.

Each Istana green was roped off and under the watchful eye of the local constabulary when we joined the Open Day multitudes. Given that Istana is only opened rarely to the public, one can only wonder who makes regular use of the links?

Most enthusaists would agree that golf is a game that should be given up at least twice a month!

Today we took possession of our new condominium. It's feels good to be a 'man of property' again although we won't move in until our rennovations have been completed. It looks as if we will be able occupy the apartment before Chinese New Year which is good news. The bad news may come tomorrow when we learn what the costs of the minor works is likely to be.

Sunday, 31 December 2006

Aunty 8 And Uncle 9

Wisma Atria is a shopping centre with a much vaunted food court on its fourth level. It is one of the many modern versions of the old hawker centres, with a combination of the various ethnic food styles that make up the cuisine of Singapore.

The place is always very crowded with locals and tourists alike, all fighting for eating space. Would be patrons hover like the ever-present mosquitos, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting when the opportunity for a seat presents itself.

This is not a space of quiet repose. It is a full-on eating house in the very distinctive "gobble and go" Singaporean style. No sitting post-meal for quite reflection here.

What is very obvious in such places are the numbers of elderly Uncle and Aunty retainers who are employed to undertake menial tasks such as cleaning and waiting tables.

The honorific of 'uncle' or 'aunty' is given to people older than oneself and is both a mark of respect and a statement of place in society. In the western world such a term would mean a family asscociation but not in Singapore. An entry in the Singlish dictionary describes them thus: "A Singaporean aunty or uncle can be anyone who is from the older generations, like an English old age pensioner and the term is used out of affection and respect"

Not that many years ago the retirement age in this country for women was fifty five and for men sixty. With a poor Singaporean birth rate this level has been raised, but increasingly one can see elderly folks supplementing them income by working well into their seventies.

In our own apartment complex we have Ah Kao (Photo above) who is well into his seventies and resonsible for maintenance and grounds. He is both vigorous and agile and clearly has not been following my sedentary lifestyle!

It is rare to see younger Chinese taking on such roles and as the elderly finally retire, their places are being taken by other races. As there is no social security system as such, senior citizens are expected to have made provision for their own retirement and be supported by their families if need be.

Late morning we visited the Presidential seat - Istana. It was the Governor's residence when Singapore was under British rule, although I note that the statue of Queen Vic has been relegated from the State Room to a leafy section of the gardens since that time.

This is the final blog entry for 2006. When I look back it has been a momentous year; changing jobs and countries, selling all of our chattels and adjusting to life here.

Friday, 29 December 2006

Bloggus Interruptus

Three days ago there was a massive undersea earthquake near the southern tip of Taiwan. Sadly this was the very date that most people were remembering the tidal wave destruction of Boxing Day 2004.

Apart from a hurried Tsunami alert no one here thought too much about the wider consequences of this natural event.

What has transpired is a major disruption to commerce and communications in South East Asia, thanks largely to damage undersea cables and our increasing reliance on the Internet as the vehicle for most of these transactions.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been lost through the inability of regional share markets and banks to conduct their business and similarly large sums have been lost by budget airlines whose business is showing a decline of 20%.

Even far more modest communications such as this blog have suffered as the result of very slow web speeds.

All this goes to prove two things:
  • it is very unwise strategically to rely on one fibre optic cable route and
  • just how reliant we are in modern society on conducting our daily lives through the medium of the Net.

As the Melbourne Age reports this morning, this is "a sign of the vulnerability the world's telecommunications network, which was frenetically built out at the height of the internet boom but has since attracted little investment"

Monday, 25 December 2006

Xmas Plus Plus

Today is Christmas Day and late morning we embarked upon the time honoured ritual of locating a good Christmas lunch.

We do this because on the eve of our first Xmas together, some twenty years ago, it transpired that my wife had no plans to enjoy the traditional feast the next day and we ended up dining on sandwiches.

This was the first and last time that we did this. We have an unwritten agreement that this is the one day where we will have a slap-up buffet, even though neither of us actually follow the religious observances of the festival.

For the past decade in New Zealand we did our utmost to escape the deathly sloth of the season as most of the shops and services came to a grinding halt. We usually flew "Across the Ditch" (as the trans-Tasman flight is affectionately known) and alternated our destinations between Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and on one solitary occasion, Adelaide.

This being our first Xmas in Singapore we opted to explore the buffet options in the local hotels and happened upon a splendid spread at Le Meridien, reasonably priced at $35 plus, plus.

"Plus, Plus" is used to describe the two taxes that are added to your bill. The first being GST and the second, a tourism tax.

Today's menu included a combination of East and West with such delicacies as Goose with Chinese pears, turkey with all the trimmings and other 'weight watchers delights'. All beautifully prepared and we shall return next year for more of the same.

Post-lunch we went for a jaunt down Orchard Road as there was meant to be entertainment. Lots of Filipino maids enjoying their day off and not much else to see except a brace of "Chinese Josephs" and one oversized "Herod". I should add that to be photographed with one of the aforementioned 'Josephs' cost one a donation of $5 - for charity of course.

Other events of interest today: Arnold Schwarzenegger broke his leg and a childhood comic hero of mine, Charlie Drake, died.

Friday, 22 December 2006

Away With The Fairies & A Lot Of Old Blogs

The mainstream media are running scared. The proliferation of Blogs and the personalisation of communication is presenting some very real challenges to journalists.

To present the alternative view of blogging might I suggest The Blog Mob - Written by fools to be read by imbeciles presented by the authorative Wall Street Journal . Mr. Rago makes some good points and takes a swipe at the immediacy of blogging and responses to items by the readership.

To quote: "The blogs are not as significant as their self-endeared curators would like to think. Journalism requires journalists, who are at least fitfully confronting the digital age. The bloggers, for their part, produce minimal reportage. Instead, they ride along with the MSM like remora fish on the bellies of sharks, picking at the scraps".

Well Mr Rago hasn't put me off writing and I make no apologies for the lack of investigative journalism in this blog. A Blog to me is stream of consciousness albeit it a somewhat muddy stream at times!

Blogging is also about freedom to acquire and disseminate knowledge and opinion. I'm a Child of the Sixties and don't want my media "sliced & diced" by professional commentators all of the time. Like any good diet there should be balance.

The media figures and commentators I most admire - Clive James, Dave Barry (and those of similar ilk) - are first and foremost, fluent communicators. They are keen observers of the human condition and write with wit and wisdom.

Here in Singapore blogging has reached a frenzied crescendo. Everyone either has a blog or is regularly reading one. There is even Blog Tv on Channel News Asia, which to my eyes is one of the most banal television programmes I have ever encountered, but then again the show is not aimed at me. Programmes entitled "Does Your Momma Know You Blog?" are hardly in the same class as Clive Jame's Talking In The Library series.

This then is the beauty of Blogs and Blogging - it's a bit like the Woolworth's Pix & Mix chocolate counter, there's something for everyone.

Enough of esoteric!

Today being the Saturday before Xmas we are off to do what most Singaporeans do best - shop. (see picture below of the Xmas Shopping Melee) Not for Xmas presents in our case but for more mundane items for our new apartment.

Errata: I am eating humble pie and a bird pie at that. In a previous blog entry I identified a melodius bird as a Singapore Fairy Bluebird . A colleague has since lent me a CD of Singapore bird song and the bird is question is most definitely a Purple Throated Sunbird.

Once a remora always a remora - may the Blog be with you.

Sunday, 17 December 2006

Under The Shade Of The Pong Pong Tree

There are two large trees beside our apartment block in Oxley Road which have smallish white flowers and large green fruit, not dissimilar in size and shape to a mango.

My interest in them is that once the fruit falls and rots away (which it does very quickly in the tropics) the fibrous pith has a most attractive texture.

When my university colleagues and I had lunch at the St Margaret's Drive Hawker Centre the other day I noticed two more of these trees which the local black crows were perching upon. They used this platform to eye the left-overs on the the dinner plates and made opportunist forays to retrieve the scraps.

I was told by my fellow diners that these trees are called 'Pong Pong'. (Maybe the fruits are too large and of the non -bouncing variety to be called 'Ping Pong'). It transpires that the seed of the Pon Pong is toxic and the fruit inedible. So toxic is it that it is used as the base ingredient of rat poison.

This news was received with more than a little concern, as two weeks previously I handled several of these fruit with my bare hands while setting them up on a nearby wall to photograph. Don't think I will be doing that again in a hurry!

Another fact about the Pong Pong tree is that until recently, no bird nor animal had been recorded actually eating any part of the tree. How sensible I hear you say.

More recently however it has been observed that an introduced parrot, the Tanimbar corella, munches away on the flesh with great gusto. It is either a very stupid bird and a dying species or it's digestive system has evolved to make it impervious to the toxic pulp. I suspect it is the latter as I haven't found any mounds of dead parrots recently.

The title of this posting suggests the need for shade. Usually this is a must for Singapore especially at midday, when it is my habit to wander down to the local Tai Hong Canteen on Alexandra Road for a bite to eat.

Several umbrellas in the last three months have succumbed to the rigours of the tropical climate. Skeletal umbrellas are of very little use and I have yet to find one that fits in my brief case and is robust enough to literally weather the storms.

It is not sun however that we have been escaping from this past week. The rainy season has hit us with a vengeance and the rain has been both constant and torrential. It has 'bucketed down' to such a degree that pilots have aborted landings at Changi and trees have been uprooted.

This morning's paper reports that the rainfall is the third biggest in the past 75 years with a month's rain descending in just 20 hours.

I actually don't mind the rain as it is at least warm unlike the Christmas rains one used to invariably experience in Auckland which are often wind-driven and cool.

Even the rats are attempting to escape the wet weather by seeking higher ground away from the drains and into the trees - I think I have just found a use for the Pong Pong tree after all!

Rain Limited Edition Print Roger Smith 12/2006

Viva Las Vivo

Vivo City is the latest in a long line of Singaporean shopping complexes. It was officially opened shortly after we arrived in Singapore and well before it was actually completed.

Biding our time we waited until today to visit the complex to see what all of the fuss was about.

The MRT goes straight to Harbourside and a subterranean maze guides the unwary to the shopping mecca.

Am I alone in thinking that there is something very sterile about shopping malls? What ever layer of glitz is applied they still are built to the same formula and visiting one brings on a rapid feeling of deja vu. Vivo City is designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito and the design claims to focus on nature and open spaces. Being Saturday, I cannot in all honesty say that I saw any open spaces - there were droves of Singaporeans in all directions.

By comparison, I slipped down to my local bau shop on Killiney Road this evening . The pungent mix of balachan (or belacan if you prefer) and other spices were in the air; the sound of a youngster practising the cello in the upper reaches of a shop house and there was a steady, but not oppressive bustle along the footpath. All in all a pleasant and relaxing encounter and the food is not the sanitised variety that one finds in the malls. Give me the genuine smell of 'smoking woks at dawn' any day!

Vivo City has one thing going for it and that is its strategic location. Being situated directly opposite Sentosa Island it stands to benefit greatly from the new 'Integrated Resort' that is about to be built there and opens in three years.

The term 'Integrated Resort' is PR spin for 'casino'. The selection of the consortium to build both casinos has been the subject of much speculation in the local media. I was hoping that the Gehry design might win through as visitors would have come from around the world just to view the iconic architecture but this was not to be.

If you ask Singaporeans about the building of casinos in their country you will get a very mixed response. Many are really worried about the social problems that will inevitably follow the opening of such venues. Others are more pragmatic and appreciate that the country needs to provide more attractions to make Singapore the tourism destination of choice that it once was.

The reality is that Singapores status as an electronics hub is under serious threat from China. Another factor is that modern aircraft can go further without stop-overs or refuelling and combined with the rapidly increasing competition of countries such as China and Dubai, Singapore has to reinvent itself for destination and convention / incentive tourism. An example of this is the cessation of services to this country by Air New Zealand, an airline that had been travelling here for forty years and now has moved its hub further North to Hong Kong.

Dubai is religiously copying Singapore's style as a hub and using copious amounts of oil money in the process so clearly Singapore faces many challenges in the immediate future.

The country will however overcome these as it has a very procative and pragmatic government, one that is thankfully not prone to the endless vacilation and political corection of many western democracies.