Author Archives: Leigh K. Cunningham

About Leigh K. Cunningham

Leigh K Cunningham is a multi-award winning author of four titles including Being Anti-Social and Rain.

I’m using y’umor


The most I’ve laughed was when Steve and I were learning to rollerblade in Melbourne back in the 90s. It was that painful laughter when you can’t breathe, you can’t stand up (and not because you hit the concrete hard), you just want it to end but it goes on and on and you think you might actually die from laughing.

Everyone knows I love Seinfeld but other obsessions are the Office (UK version only) and Kath & Kim – the Australian version only (some humour does not adapt to other cultures). And Kath & Kim was the source of another of those moments when I thought I might die from laughter. We were in Alice Springs for my company’s annual conference – it had been a difficult week to put it subtly and a few of us went to dinner to recover. Colin, who was president of the company at the time, relayed the latest episode, The Moon, which had Kath and Kel stuck at Melbourne airport for their honeymoon when traffic controllers went on strike over a GST-related dispute. It was the “perfect honeymoon” as Kath and Kel bought matching Coogee jumpers (possibly the worst ‘fashion’ trend in history), hung out in the Internet café, Australis and Sanity records and attempted to gain access to the Qantas Club lounge using a Video Easy card. Perhaps it was the hard week we’d had, the wine, Colin’s telling of it or all of the above but we were almost evicted from the restaurant for laughing too hard for too long and causing a public disturbance.

[As a side note, Colin’s wife Tracy who was with us that night is running for mayor of the Southern Downs Region and I wish her all the best – she would be exceptional in the role.]

Kath & Kim, like many archetypal shows, united its audience beyond the season finale partly because of its unique vernacular which is understood and appreciated by devotees to the exclusion of others, much like Seinfeld. Ultimately, Kath & Kim was successful as the humour or “y’umor” as Kath called it, was dedicated to the essential characteristic of Australian, and British humour and that is self-deprecation.

Australian humour tends to be dry, full of extremes, anti-authoritarian, self-mocking and ironic. There’s no need to pretend people are perfect; we’re not and making fun of foibles, quirks and idiosyncacies is our way of showing we care, we like you. It’s not for everyone but it is why we love Kath & Kim which relentlessly ridicules the worst aspects of Australian society and ‘culture’.

Operation of the machine


One of my favourite bands is Linkin Park. And one of my favourite Linkin Park songs is Wretches & Kings which begins with one of my favourite speeches of all time known commonly as the ‘operation of the machine’ or ‘bodies upon the gears’ by Mario Savio.

Savio was an American activist and spokesman for the free speech movement at Berkeley University in the 1960s. At the time students across the USA were taking a stand against racial injustice and Savio played a major part in changing university rules to permit political speech which then allowed students to speak out in support of the civil rights movement. The ‘operation of the machine’ speech in 1964 was preceded the year before with one of Martin Luther King’s most memorable ‘I have a dream’ speeches and the two men and the two speeches to me are inextricably linked.

Mario Savio’s ‘operation of the machine’ speech (1964)

There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.

Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech (1963)

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

Savio went on to become a teacher of mathematics, physics and philosophy. He later spoke out in support of immigrant rights and affirmative action devoting his life to causes in support of minority groups never standing by passively. And although the ‘operation of the machine’ speech was written within the context of the free speech movement, it is now used more broadly as a call to action against pervading persecution, prejudice and injustice.

Campaigning for courtesy


I love living in Singapore – everyone who knows me knows that much. You would also know that I have little or nothing in life to complain about other than pedestrian etiquette or rather the complete absence of it. And since I/we walk everywhere this is a regular irritation.

Pedestrian etiquette requires people who are walking two or more abreast to assume a single file during a passing manoeuver ie when a pedestrian is on approach from the opposite direction. It’s common practice in Australia and a fundamental courtesy in my view.

In Singapore, people walk two, three or four abreast and never make way for someone coming in the opposite direction. They will drive you into the terrain either side of the sidewalk or if you do decide to maintain your rightful position, striding on your fair share of the concrete, someone will walk into you rather than surrender. It is surprising given that this is otherwise a non-aggressive society but it might be explained by kiasu – the fear to lose out to others and always wanting the upper hand.

This lack of consideration though is evident in other areas of life eg charging onto the MRT and into lifts and a lack of courtesy on the roads.

The government, which is always proactive in dealing with *every* *little* *thing* introduced the National Courtesy Campaign in 1979 to encourage Singaporeans to be more kind and considerate. Singapore is a densely populated country with 5.5 million people living on what we affectionately call ‘the little red dot’ – just 718 square kilometres (276 square miles) so you can understand the imperative.

Every marketing tool known to mankind was employed to advance this campaign. There was a mascot – Singa, the Courtesy Lion – advertisements on radio, TV and in newspapers, courtesy songs, posters, leaflets, stickers, badges, t-shirts, coffee mugs, vases, contests, essay competitions and even a musical coin that played a courtesy jingle. Everything issued by the government came with a courtesy slogan.

However, in May 2013, Singa resigned. In an open letter, the courtesy lion said he was “just too tired to continue facing an increasingly angry and disagreeable society.” Having been in the job for over 30 years, Singa noted that kindness should not be a campaign but a part of inherent values – he has a point. His letter also went on to say that, “it’s not that we aren’t a gracious society or that kindness is not innate in all of us, but some days it feels like not very many of us believe in or care about expressing kindness.”

The irony is that Singapore is by world standards one of the safest, if not *the* safest country where your children will not encounter violence or any other socially unacceptable behaviour while out walking with friends late at night (which is completely normal and acceptable). All we have to complain about is people rushing to get on the MRT before those vice-like doors chop your arms off and not having fair room to move on the footpath.

However, not one to give up a fight and despite Singa’s scathing letter of resignation, we now have a new campaign to remind us to be decent human beings – the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) which offers some excellent tips for those of us still not sure on how to go about it. Like it or not, you will be kind.

Sleep is for wimps


Apparently I need a ‘sleep coach’ which is a disturbing concept in itself. I’m hoping this person would not be in my bedroom with a whistle watching me not sleep apart from which, I don’t understand why my erratic sleeping habits need coaching into ‘normal’ anyway.

36% of our lives are spent sleeping. If you live to 90, that’s a whopping 32 years of sleeping. Imagine what you could achieve if you cut that back to just 16 years of sleep. If Thomas Edison had slept like a ‘normal’ person, we might not have the electric light bulb, which ironically creates the environment for us to stay awake and as a result, Edison is accused of having forever disrupted our internal clocks. Edison argued that sleep is a “criminal waste of time, inherited from our cave days.” And since we’ve abandoned every other aspect of life as a troglodyte (bar the resurrection of the Paleo diet – and one can only hope it ends there), why shouldn’t we abandon preconceived notions about how much or little we should sleep? Do we really need a standard eight hours sleep for repair, restoration and memory consolidation?

Margaret Thatcher famously said, “Sleep is for wimps,” and slept for a mere four hours a night while managing the empire with the other twenty hours. It was a tough gig for John Major who succeeded Thatcher and needed his eight hours sleep. Pulling an all-nighter is more common for lawyers and bankers and creative industries like advertising. And once that adrenalin-induced all-nighter is in your system, it’s hard to displace it.

In a Seinfeld episode, The Friars Club, Kramer is influenced by Leonardo Da Vinci who only slept twenty minutes every three hours. By replicating Da Vinci’s sleep pattern, Kramer figures he can live the equivalent of 105 years. He soon gets bored being awake all night while everyone else is asleep and it doesn’t take long for the effects of no-sleep to mess with Kramer’s already distinctive thoughts and ideas. He falls asleep while with his girlfriend, and unable to wake him, she assumes he is dead. Since she’s having an affair, she arranges for her mobster-type friends to throw Kramer into the Hudson River where he wakes up in a burlap bag.

I’m inspired by the sleeping patterns of Edison, Thatcher and Da Vinci and the concept of having more time; more life. But as you would know, my life is influenced by Seinfeld (and Oscar Wilde). The moral of Kramer’s story is that you need a proper amount of sleep or one way or another you’ll end up in a burlap bag so maybe it is time to call in the coach.

In search of shade


There are a few signs that you’ve lived in Singapore way too long: (1) the 32 degrees (celsius) in ‘winter’ feels significantly cooler than the 32 degrees in summer and you find yourself reaching for a cardigan (or ‘jumper’ as we say in Australia).  (2) You pronounce the number ‘three’ as ‘tree’ and pluralize words that are already plural eg underwears, and (3) you have a profound fear of the sun.

This fear of the sun will have you wearing long sleeves during the day, using umbrellas when it is not raining, and pavement-stepping like Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets in search of bits of shade to protect every other exposed part of you from those rays.  You are prepared to fight people for that shade.

In Asia, and historically, a tanned skin indicates you are of a lower social standing, the assumption being that wealthy educated people work indoors while poor people have no choice but to work outdoors in more menial roles. Asians love white skin, envy it, and cannot understand that we Caucasians would intentionally tan it. The majority of skin products available here include whitening agents whether you want it or not, and skin whitening spa treatments are a lucrative business. And to advance the process, you can take Crystal Tomato© and other pills to whiten yourself from the inside out.

I grew up in Australia where my misspent youth was devoted to sun worshiping doused in coconut oil or baby oil. That was how we spent the most part of our holidays at the beach or the pool. A tan was a sign of good health and fitness. Historically, in western societies it was also associated with prosperity ie you have the time and income to be laying around in the sun, while white skin was associated with being sick or elderly.

So when we first arrived here 10+ years ago, we were amazed to have our condo pools to share with just a few other Australians and Europeans. The locals and Japanese expats only came out after 4pm if the sun had passed and even then they were still covered head to toe. This seemed like a perfect arrangement.

It took a couple of years for me to realize there was a direct correlation between sun and aging after attending a joint birthday party for a 40-year-old Singaporean woman and 40-year-old Australian. They did not look the same age; more like a decade separated them.

And so today, I am as Singaporean as you can get and I will walk the extra distance if it means I am out of reach of that demon sun.

Dude, where’s my phone?


The first step for any addiction is to admit you have a problem. I don’t have a problem but in our household of two, someone seems to think I do so I’m about to dispel that belief.

Nomophobia is the fear of being without your mobile phone. The number of sufferers is on the rise which is not surprising as it no doubt correlates with smartphone uptake rather than a growing inability for otherwise ‘normal’ people to cope without it. And it does seem to be a completely rational fear, in my view, along with the fear of snakes and heights.

If you’ve ever lost your iPhone or left it behind when you’ve gone out, you will know that it is almost impossible to focus while you’re wondering how you’ll survive the next few hours alone. You probably don’t even know what you’re supposed to be doing or where you’re supposed to be without access to your calendar, voice memos, reminders, notes, alerts and notifications. And of course, you’re no longer up-to-date to the minute with everything that is going on in the microcosm world you now exist within thanks to your smartphone.

I recently went out without my iPhone and I stayed out unlike a nomophobe who would return home to retrieve their phone even if it meant being late for a meeting. And while it was an anxious time, it was more frightening (some might say ‘enlightening’) that in that four hour period not a single person – including husband, mother, sole sibling, nephews, life-long friends, colleagues or extended family – was looking for me. How could this be?

The warning signs for nomophobia for those of you who do have a problem include:

  • An inability to turn your phone off [Note: why do you even need to turn it off? It has a mute switch.]

  • Obsessively checking for emails, messages and notifications from social networks [Note: this is a fast-paced world; things can change in a second – you need to know when that happens.]

  • Constantly recharging your battery dreading that red low battery alert. [Note: no one wants to see that low battery alert – there’s a reason it is red (signifies danger).]

I hope this helps those of you with an addiction to your smartphone which you may need to address before it completely controls (ruins) your life.

How to make a baby courtesy of taxi driver #42


I’ve mentioned before that I do not like taxis – I’d rather walk, catch the MRT or an ambulance. Taxi drivers in Singapore tend to assume when picking up an Ang Mo (foreigner) that you would like the island excursion as opposed to the direct route. And since I am not a tourist, know where I am going AND am process-obsessed, nothing irritates me more than a well-crafted best-practice plan of getting from A to B thwarted by a cunning taxi driver. I’m sure Steve would love to add a commentary on how this plays out when it happens (not so often these days), however …

The key when catching a taxi in Singapore is to not immediately pick up your iPhone (which is automatic and they know it) – unless you’re on the Maps App monitoring your imminent joyride. As soon as you’re into that phone, there will be a quick glance from the driver in the rear view mirror then he is turning left when you’re meant to go right. Stay alert until the joyride risk ie a key intersection(s) has passed.

My gripe today is the conversation I just endured with a taxi driver and I really should know better than to fall into these traps. I was asked if I have children. I said no; I should have gone with the average (2.3) – first mistake. The driver then asked if there were ‘problems’ – only how long the ride was taking – and despite telling him I was childless by choice, he went on to tell me that he and his wife had taken fourteen years to conceive a child and that there are particular ‘techniques’ for success, which he explained in great detail with hand movements (I’m lucky to be alive). I can only be grateful he was not inclined for a more interactive teaching method.

A school friend recently felt compelled to point out on Facebook that I was the only girl ever in the history of our school – the Rockhampton Girls’ Grammar School – to fail Mothercraft which was a compulsory subject in Year 9 (in 1976). Mothercraft was supposedly the easiest subject to pass since it involved the mere cutting and pasting of motherhood-related images into a scrap book (well I think that’s all). I did complete the first of many sections but decided when it came to bathing a baby that there was nothing in it for me, so I did nothing further. Fortunately, it was not a career-limiting decision. I did not mention this to the taxi driver otherwise I would not be home yet.

Opening the Gates of Hell


It is that time of year again for the Gates of Hell to open so the souls of the dead can once again roam the earth. If you are in Singapore at this time of the year you will come across food and other offerings in the street for example mandarins, roasted pig, bowls of rice and especially made Chinese cake.  It is considered very bad luck (and disrespectful) if you happen to be on your way home from a nightclub, cannot find a McDonalds and decide to stop by thinking it is a good place for a free snack.

You will also come across Getai in the streets which are live stage performances aimed at entertaining the ghosts. Everyone is welcome to watch the show but do not sit in the front row seats which are reserved for guest ‘spirits’.

There are a few other taboos for the Hungry Ghost Festival including:

  • Avoid swimming as those who previously drowned during their life might cause you to drown so they can be reborn.

  • Children and young adults should be home early and not wander around alone at night as wandering ghosts can easily possess children.

  • Avoid moving into new homes, any home renovation or opening a new businesses as it is considered inauspicious and bad luck.

  • Do not pick up anything including the money offered in the joss bins if found on the street and never bring it home.

  • Do not be sad, weak or emotional as this invites ghosts to possess and harm you.

  • If you wish to address the ghosts, do not call them ‘ghost’ – call them ‘good brother’ or ‘uncle’.

  • Do not whistle after sunset as this will attract the attention of ghosts who will bring you bad luck … I guess that’s if they don’t particularly like the tune.

  • And do not make negative comments or jokes about the offerings, Getai or beliefs of the Hungry Ghost Festival which I only learned a little too late but no harm has come to me … yet.

hungry ghosts

Sayang ah!


Watching TV and movies in Singapore, in particular the kind of shows we like is an art form thanks to the rigours of Singaporean censorship laws. Swear words, even words the average person might no longer consider a swear word like bloody or Hell are edited as are scenes involving sex, drugs or violence. Quite often we’re left staring blankly and confused as a scene jumps inexplicably over the good parts to something more acceptable, thankfully or we would be senselessly corrupted and no good could come of that. We have however learnt to read lips, anticipate dialogue and fill in the blanks before the next edit, skills that obviously have many applications in real life but none I can think of at the moment other than as a party trick. There are times when we are left to make up our own dialogue as the audio is muted for lengthy periods, especially while watching shows like Ray Donovan, Californication etc.

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street set a Guinness world record for the most swearing in one film with the f-word used 506 times ie on average 2.81 times per minute. Despite our experience with muting, we still have no idea what this movie is about other than the official description. Another five minutes was deleted for “gratuitous, exploitative or offensive depictions of sex.”

Another target of censorship laws is the use of Singlish, the local adaptation of English. It is only permitted in interviews when the interviewee only speaks Singlish. However, Singlish is widely spoken and for a foreigner, this might sound like any language other than English. When my brother visited recently from Australia, he was convinced everyone around him was speaking Mandarin when they were actually speaking Singlish. A few tips for speaking Singlish:

  • Always answer a question starting with ‘Actually…’.
  • Always ask a question with ‘is it’ at the end, for example, “Going on a holiday, is it?” or “Like spicy food, is it?”
  • Exclamation points are pronounced by adding lah or lor at the end of every sentence, for example, “So expensive, lah(!)”
  • Yes is ‘can’ and no is ‘cannot’.
  • Address any person older than you as Uncle or Aunty.
  • Kopi is coffee; Kopi tiam is coffee shop. Note: local traditional coffee is served in a plastic bag.
  • Exasperation, frustration or contempt is “Aiyah!”
Despite the ban on Singlish, our favourite local program, The Noose (a fake news program) uses extensive Singlish and somehow gets away with what no other program does – making fun of the government (with the Minister at Large and Minister Without Portfolio), Singaporean laws, rules and idiosyncrasies. For anyone who lives here, The Noose is essential viewing and it’s mute-free.
coffee in a bag

What are we working for here at our lessons…


I’ve just returned from a trip to my hometown of Rockhampton (Queensland, Australia) to celebrate 35 years since we, my girls and I, finished our senior year at the Rockhampton Girls’ Grammar School. But it was a celebration of much more than that. What we know now but didn’t appreciate then – we were in a hurry to be done and out of there – is that we had just spent five years of our lives in a confined and restrictive environment that would foster lifelong friendships and allegiances that can never be broken. No matter what has happened to us along the way, nothing can diminish those five years. And time has only served to bathe them in a golden light much the same colour as our old school berets.

We have a strange and enduring connection. It is difficult to explain. Most people I know do not even have reunions let alone actually look forward to seeing their school friends again. Perhaps it is because we knew each other before we were someone’s spouse or mother, doctor or lawyer. We knew each other before our life’s choices were known. And we did spend the five most tumultuous years of any girl’s life together. There was plenty of drama and trauma along the way and ‘incidents’ which now give us plenty to laugh about. I expect we will never tire of bringing out the old school yarns; soon enough we won’t even remember them as repeats.

On the Sunday morning of our reunion weekend, we were invited back to the school in Agnes Street for a tour around the old stomping grounds. We met a few of our teachers – Mrs Black (maths), Mrs Mulder (history) and Ms Phillips (Japanese). Unfortunately they remember way too much. J I also had a Homer Simpson d’oh moment when I arrived for the morning tea a little late (was watching the World Cup with my nephew) and felt compelled to apologize to Mrs Black on my way past her – it’s not like I had missed anything other than coffee and scones!

The school seemed so huge back then (1975-1979). That walk down the hill to what was the music room and primary school seemed steep and long; it’s not. The library seemed huge and lined with millions of books. It’s now an arts room and considerably smaller in stature to what we remember – in fact it is difficult to imagine we could ever hide in there. The new library is probably even smaller, even relatively so, since the school now utilizes ebooks.

In five more years we will reunite to wax lyrical once more and to fill in the recent part of our stories. Time will pass even more quickly than the last five years such is the nature of growing older. So glad though that I get to spend time with these amazing women while we can still remember our names and our recollections are still sort of consistent.

Races_14 June 2014