A Comrade of The Workers

"On behalf of the Labour Movement, farewell comrade, farewell" – S.R. Nathan #RememberingLKY

A photo posted by Benjamin "Mr Miyagi" Lee (@miyagisan) on

Lee Kuan Yew began his political career representing trade unions while as a young lawyer with the firm Laycock & Ong. Mr Lee started winning over the rank and file who saw someone who was able to fight for their rights, whether it was for higher wages or a change in the design of the postal workers’ uniforms that would make them look less like ‘circus attendants’. I’ve mentioned previously how my father met a thuggish ‘elder Mr Lee’ in that incarnation as a union lawyer here.

While the marriage between political parties and trade unions was not unique to Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew set in motion an evolution in labour relations that has not been emulated in any other jurisdiction. With workers’ basic rights secured over the years, a pragmatic instead of adversarial approach to the labour movement began in earnest.

The world saw a stable economic environment attractive enough for direct investment even if some naysayers saw the emasculation of labour unions. Illegal strikes were stamped out decisively.

In 1980, The Singapore Airlines Pilot’s Association (SIAPA) bore the brunt of a particularly combative Prime Minister who was never going to stand for any industrial action that would have damaged the country’s — and therefore the rank and file’s — fortunes. SIAPA was disbanded and the expatriate pilots who instigated the action were convicted.

For me, that puts paid to any notion that employers favour expats to the detriment of locals. The video clip of Lee Kuan Yew recounting his confrontation of SIAPA is one of my favourite.

But that was not when the politics-labour marriage diverged from the western model, where rank and file was and still is used to foment dissent against government. Lee had realised this right from the start – and in a speech to the employees of the Singapore Traction Company in 1959, he said, “A new phase has opened in the history of Singapore and with it comes a new phase in the trade union movement in which trade union leaders of stature must response to the needs not only of their own union members but of the community and people as a whole”.

And in a 1962 NTUC rally, he established that, “The task of the trade union movement is not just to get more wages and better conditions of service, however important this may be to recruitment and membership. Unless the movement also accepts it wider responsibilities to increase productivity and efficiency, no solid progress is possible.”

The trade unions here, under the NTUC is a completely different animal from the model that purely fights the employer for workers’ rights. It may be one that keeps getting brickbats about being ‘toothless’ from disgruntled workers because of the lack of confrontation, but it is a model that has seen unparalleled progress for this small island nation state we call home.

But importantly, in our context, it is one cog in the wheel that includes the government, the employer and the worker. It is a wheel that needs constant oiling and tweaking to keep in motion, and one which was put in motion by that giant of a union advocate.



Vale, Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew

Today we begin to bid farewell to a giant of history. Tributes will flow and flood, and many of us will think about how much of us is due to him.

I think his wish would have been that we keep looking forward with what we have been given, and forge ahead with what we have been made capable of. Good job, and goodbye Mr Lee Kuan Yew. And now, Onward Singapore, Majulah Singapura.



How Cheap Is This Dashcam?

Does the job
Does the job

I’ve become that discount-seeking uncle by making my first Groupon purchase: an in-car dashboard camera by this brand called “Chronovski”.

It shoots and records 720p video onto a micro SD card, but I suppose the best feature is that I paid only $29.90 for it.

Here’s a clip from it:



Anglo Minus Chinese School

Special Founder's Day ACS Chinese Compo T-Shirt
Special Founder’s Day ACS Chinese Compo T-Shirt

To commemorate ACS Founder’s Day, the good people at Temasek Clothings have made a special t-shirt celebrate the school’s historically renowned standard of Chinese As A Second Language (or “Your Mother’s Tongue”).

ACS Boys (and Girls) get a special discount with the code “ACS10″ when you order on their website.



#CardboardConstable Origins

In case you didn’t know, #CardboardConstable was commissioned in November 2013, and  mrbrown and myself started Instagramming his deployment locations last year.

If you, like us, find the recent crime prevention video with the mass dance damn jialat, here’s a list of #CardboardConstable sightings on Instagram for you to enjoy instead.

This picture’s my favourite so far:

My heart is filled with so much love for this gorgeous…….. piece of cardboard………. ????????

A photo posted by KBL (@sundaykbl) on



Adding To Our Melting Pot

It is part of Singapore life to have foreigners in our midst, and that there are people grumbling about how there are too many of them. There are also terms first used by the Government – such as “Foreign Talent”, that have taken a derisory and derogatory tone when used by the same grumblers.

You would have been hiding under a rock if you didn’t encounter someone daily who wasn’t born in Singapore. And that’s the thing I love about living here: you don’t have to travel far to get a dose of somewhere else.

But what I find a bit troubling is the term “integration” and how we must “integrate” foreigners into “our society” and “our culture”. There is this idea that we need to live in harmony, without any social friction, and that is all well and good. But it would pay to remember that we are a city-state of diverse cultures and backgrounds. There is no “our culture” and “our society” as if it were homogenous. All you need to do is look at our Miss Singapore Universe’s “national” costume. To put it in our vernacular, “simisai is a five-star-and-moon national costume?”

We don’t have one national identity, and I think once we accept that, we’re on the way to living together peacefully, no matter where we come from.

My late mother’s papers identified her as a “subject of Negeri Sembilan”, while my father, born some time in the 1920s in Hainan, then part of Guangdong Province, arrived in Port Dickson, Negri Sembilan, in 1935 and in 1946 decided to identify himself as a citizen of Chang Kai Shek’s Republic of China, rendering himself stateless after 1949, because, you know, PRC?

Both my parents took advantage of Colombo Plan-subsidized tertiary education and worked and schooled themselves in Australia, eventually settling in Singapore as occasional Aussie-slang speaking educated professionals.

My wife Naomi bears an even more varied family history – my mother-in-law is a Taiwanese lady (who makes the best Taiwanese Beef Noodles you can get in Singapore) who married a Japanese businessman from Tokyo. They both decided to settle in Singapore in the 1970s.

Style Weddings March 2007 Feature: Mixed marriages mean more fun with costumes!
Style Weddings March 2007 Feature: Mixed marriages mean more fun with costumes!

I proudly identify myself as Singaporean, but even I am not sure what that means definitively. I would count NS, Singlish and food as part of our collective culture, but beyond that, we’re really a mishmash of different things.

Maybe that is why both my wife and I find it easy to speak to the new “sin-keh”, as they used to call fresh migrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Our next door neighbours arrived from Germany last year, and we’ve hit it off nicely, inviting each other into our homes for tea and handing down our son’s old stroller and toys for their daughter. It’s not so much about them “assimilating” into our culture, but whether they feel welcome and looked out for.

It’s a simple matter of saying “hi” or asking if they need help with carrying their groceries when we do see them. Like we tell our son, Kai – we treat people from abroad extra nice because they’re here in a different country, away most of their family and friends, and we’d like to be treated the same way if we were in a different country, away from our family and friends.

One of my business associates is an American citizen who only had an idea that he wanted to set up a company in Singapore for business, but realised that it was a great opportunity for him to resettle his family here because I took him around and showed him what a varied spectrum of cultures this place actually is. More so than our pigeonholing into four “races” and “languages” makes it out to be.

The key is not just about getting newcomers to fit in. It’s very much about the ones who are already here being considerate and welcoming.

Shashlik: Only in Singapore: The classic example of one migrant group (Hainanese) adapting and appropriating an itinerant group’s (Russian merchant sailors) cuisine/culture
Shashlik Restaurant: Only in Singapore: The classic example of one migrant group (Hainanese) adapting and appropriating an itinerant group’s (Russian merchant sailors) cuisine/culture



Far Cough

Yesterday Kai asked me if I knew what a fart and cough at the same time was called. I said, “No, do you?”

He said yes and then took out the last consonant of “fart” and joined it with “cough” to make one word.

I told him never to say it again.



So When’s The General Election?

PM Lee already hints that “the next General Election may not be when everybody’s expecting it to be”.

So when do you think it’s going to be? Cast your vote below:



For Cartophiles – Map Mania at the NLB

I love maps, and I was pleasantly surprised when I made my way up to rehearsals at the Drama Centre Theatre yesterday, because there was this display in the lobby of the National Library (Central) featuring the first topographical map of Singapore.

That is part of an exhibition on maps called “Geo|Graphic: Celebrating Maps and their Stories“. I plan to check it out when we get a break from preparing for the show. It (both the show and the exhibition) promises to be fascinating.

For instance, did you know that Tampines, Toa Payoh and Gelang were named more than a hundred years ago? Or that the terminal building of Kallang Airport still stands?

Bukit Timah 1947
Painstakingly preserved map of Singapore City from 1947 (from National Archives of Singapore)




The Boy From Oz, Sung By The Singapore Boy

It’s Australia Day, and what better way to celebrate it than to help Hossan rehearse for his show – a song from which is written by our favourite Australian songwriter, Peter Allen.

Hossan and I watched the original The Boy From Oz musical staged in Sydney in 1998, before it was tweaked for Broadway with Allen played by Hugh Jackman. It was through this musical that I realised so many songs I love were written by this immensely talented man who lived an incredibly remarkable life.

I’m very glad a Peter Allen song made the cut for Hossan-Ah: Safe & Secure In His Leong Arms, which opens this Wednesday night. Let me know if you need tickets – I got lobang for discount.