Tag Archives: Singapore

Campaigning for courtesy

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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.

In search of shade

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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.

How to make a baby courtesy of taxi driver #42

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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

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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!

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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

Grease is the time, the place, the motion

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Back in 1978 when Grease was the word, I was on a school tour bussing our way around Tasmania. Grease the movie had just come out and like everyone else in the day we were obsessed with it, in particular, the music, featuring our very own Olivia Newton-John as Sandy. The soundtrack went into the bus cassette player and stayed there on repeat for 10 days. Imagine how traumatised that poor bus driver would have been by the end of our tour, probably his last.

Earlier this month, we saw Grease the stage production at Marina Bay Sands here in Singapore, and it was sensational. I did not realise it at the time but Gretel Scarlett who plays Sandy is from our hometown of Rockhampton!

Grease is of course now officially iconic – 36 years on and grease is still the word with sold-out audiences the world-over. In the USA, Grease (the movie) is still the #1 highest-grossing musical of all time. Interestingly, the sequel with a different cast was a flop which probably surprised everyone given the immense success of the original but it is a lesson we see often whether it is movies or books. The temptation to repeat phenomenal success with a sequel is understandable and it is often only with hindsight that it becomes clear that the original cannot be duplicated because its unique elements combined ie actors, story, production, music equalled the magic formula that everyone hopes to find but most simply stumble upon it.

The other difficulty for sequels is that they are inherently burdened with the expectation that did not weigh down the first in a series. More often than not, they do not measure up and rarely do they exceed the first. The Matrix sequels, especially the third instalment, in my opinion, had a difficult mountain to climb after the first movie which was an original concept with a plot that left you wondering about reality.

The sequel to Bridget Jones’ Diary suffered a similar fate and is a perfect example of producers wishing to ‘bottle’ the magical formula they stumbled upon to feed it back to the audience for a similar outcome. However, the fine balance of success elements in the first Bridget Jones movie were over-delivered in the second turning the cleverness into silliness and the relatable into contrived according to critics. I still enjoyed it but not nearly as much as the first.

The magic that is success is after all a formula – that means each element has to be added in precise parts; the slightest bit too much of one and/or not enough of another creates an altogether different proposition which won’t necessarily appeal to the audience that loved the first. Many claim to know the secret formula to success yet no matter what industry you view, even the most successful stumble along the way proving it’s still very much a guessing game, some are just better guessers.

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Life in the Tropics

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We’re celebrating, again, still. Today marks 10 years since we left our home in Sydney, Australia to live overseas for what was meant to be a two-year assignment. We never left, and in 2011 we were granted Permanent Residency – not an easy task I assure you; rejection being more common than acceptance.

It is hard to comprehend that a decade has passed. This is the longest we have now spent in any one place including our hometown of Rockhampton post-marriage. We could not have imagined then that we would be living permanently and happily in Asia although it was clear for some time, to us at least, that we were not going to have children and settle forever in our hometown as our siblings had done.  We had been ready to go for sometime, keen to discover what else was out there and what kind of lifestyles and memories were creatable. When at last the opportunity presented (a move to Melbourne) nothing stood in our way – not even a home we had designed and constructed and lived in for a mere 13 days but who cares about a house when the world is waiting.

As you know, I love Singapore. I love everything about Singapore. I love what lies just outside our front door like Gardens by the BayMarina Bay Sands, restaurants galore, shops, museums. I love that Steve spends seven minutes walking to work saving hours of his life out of traffic and coming home for lunch. I love Saturday mornings in Orchard Road and even though we have been going there for ten years at least once a week, we never tire of it.

Other things I love about Singapore:

  • the weather – summer all year round!

  • I love rain – it rains here 286 days a year but it is warm. Cold weather plus rain is not so good.

  • there is lush greenery and gardens everywhere.

  • it’s neat and tidy.

  • it takes us a mere 15 mins to get to all the best shows, bands and acts the world has to offer then home again in the same time.

  • there’s peace and harmony amongst multiple races, religions and nationalities. We all celebrate the religious holidays of all other major religions (Christian, Hindu, Buddhism etc).

  • people are civilized and respectful.

  • it’s safe – you can go out any time night and day without fear. The worst thing that can happen to you is that you’ll end up buying something.

  • it’s easy, inexpensive and super-fast to get anywhere you want on a clean, safe and graffiti-free ever-expanding MRT system.

  • there’s a brilliant system for queuing, including queues for queues, and queue officials. Queue jumpers are dealt with appropriately.

  • shops are open from 10am until 10pm – midnight some nights – and also open Christmas Day so no more panic shopping Christmas Eve.

  • it’s a city that never sleeps – life is always ‘happening’. People have supper at our local hawker centres (Satays by the Bay and Lau Pa Sat) at 2am so you’re never hungry.

  • it has the fastest, most efficient airport arrival/departure processing in the world. I can disembark a flight and be in a taxi within 7 minutes, which is a blessing after a long flight.

  • it’s a foodies paradise – so many choices though it is sometimes hard to decide.

  • it’s constantly changing – nothing stays the same. There is always something new to see or do.

  • it’s stunningly beautiful.

I don’t know when this particular journey will end or what is next but I do know that when we’re 90+ and reflecting on life, we’ll remember this decade with gratitude and happiness.

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