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.

Last Minute Christmas Gift Ideas #2: A Great Singapore Novel

Marina Bay Sins – If you know Neil Humphreys’ writing, you’d know that one or two of the things in the book probably happened for real.

OK, this one’s too easy – you just point your friends to the link on iTunes to download the latest from Singapore’s best-selling novelist.

Really good if you’re looking to send someone living overseas something for Christmas, and especially when you’re looking for something really Singaporean.

Download it here.
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Last Minute Christmas Gift Ideas #1: Ang Ku Kueh

The colors make you want to sing Christmas songs, only you can’t if you stuff one of these in your mouth. They are by far the best roasted peanut filled Ang Ku Kuehs ever. Buy a dozen and put them in a nice box for the Christmas parties you’ve been invited to at the last minute.

Price: $0.80 each

Other flavours available (but not in Christmassy colors)

Poh Cheu Handmade Soon Kueh & Ang Ku Kueh

127 Bukit Merah Lane 1 #01-230 Singapore 150127

Thank You Paul La Grua, And See You Next Time

In 2003, a strange situation arose and led to my business partner and I helping to salvage a business that cultivated a love for children that I previously never possessed.

The two people I met while fixing up this business became fast friends, and they taught me the joys of teaching gymnastics to kids, and for the next few years, we had an adventure that I will forever remember fondly.

Paul La Grua, his wife Cassi and their two young daughters became a part of my daily life. Always incredibly resourceful, he somehow helped my business partner and I become the first two NCAP (National Coaching Accreditation Programme) qualified gymnastics coaches in Singapore.

I taught classes in primary and international schools, community centres and country clubs, always encouraged by the boundless energy Cassi and Paul brought to their lessons.

We finally made enough money one day to be able to afford a beer after a class at an international school on Orchard Road. And that was when Paul said he wanted to give back to the community by organising free gymnastics classes for special needs children.

We rented Bishan Sports Hall (one of very few gymnastics halls in Singapore) for a weekly Saturday session, and advertised by word of mouth, and the help of an ST journalist, free (after deciding to foot the costs ourselves) gymnastics for special needs children.

The response after the first lesson was tremendous. The line outside Bishan Sports Hall snaked around the complex. It was difficult to organise, and we were on our toes every single second – and to this day I remember how we had to have Spider-Man’s reflexes to handle two autistic children who ran up to commandeer a trampoline.

The programme ranks as one of the most rewarding things I have ever done, I remember mrbrown bringing Faith for a session too. The joys of the kids and their parents at these sessions were so palpable and simply freaking great that it made all the extreme exhaustion that followed later worth every ache and pain.

Paul La Grua was a champion youth gymnast in his day – he almost made the Olympic team in the 70s. But more importantly, he shared with me the same satisfaction of bringing the joy of movement to children who yearn the same, but have difficulty doing and enjoying so.

Paul passed away in the U.S. this week. He is survived by Cassi and their two children.

I hope to be able to remember him by reviving the gymnastics session for special needs children. I challenge Sports Singapore to give me Bishan Hall rent-free for this purpose. I will find the coaches who will be able to help. Parents of special needs children who are in support of my idea, please contact me here and let me know how you can help.

See you next time, Paul. I’ll get coaches who can catch two autistic kids on a trampoline when we organise classes for them again. And I’ll remember that the coaches need to have long arms.

To Every Teacher That Taught Me

To every teacher who taught me, including:

The one who said the school’s chemistry lab was so old, the pipette was donated by Sir Stamford Raffles;

The principal who asked if the Head Prefect enjoyed his trip after the latter tripped and fell while walking to the microphone during morning assembly;

The economics teacher who insisted on pronouncing it KEE-NEE-SIEN theory, the history teacher who believed that “the more civilised we are, the donkey-er we become”, and the geography teacher who started every semester by drawing a perfect circle on the board and saying “The world is round, is it not?”;

The frustrated Chinese As A Second Language teachers, including the one who became less frustrated when we stood up in class and replaced our “Lao Shi Zao An” greeting with, “Lao Shi Ham Sum”, and giggled to himself for two Chinese composition periods;

The Math teacher who was so short-sighted that the class thought they pranked him good by replacing chalk with chicken bones, only to be pranked back when he insisted he could see what he wrote on the board;

The Additional Mathematics teacher who knew that the students nicknamed him – based on his initials F.S. Leong – “Fuck Spider Leong”, and didn’t care.

The teacher who made us recite, “I refuse to take out the refuse”, and “The police car could not patrol because it ran out of petrol”, so we would know the importance of emphasising the right syllable.

The teacher who told me I couldn’t use words such as “bitch” when describing Jane Austen’s characters;

The teacher who instead of assigning essay topics during two-period General Paper lessons, screened pirated VHS copies of Woody Allen’s movies, Monty Python episodes and the occasional rugby test match between Wales and everyone else.

HAPPY TEACHERS’ DAY, wherever you are.

One Shy Of Fifty: 49th National Day

It’s National Day, not quite the big one, which is next year (good luck Dick Lee).

But knowing us, this year’s NDP will be a spoil market spectacle. If there’s a lesser known Singaporean trait, it is this: We are good at shooting ourselves in the foot.

Just look at our Singapore Airlines – ever since they launched their “biggest business class seats the world has ever seen”, first class passengers who are not on the A380 Suites have been wondering why they’re paying double for essentially the same sized chair. (OK, nicer champagne and all that, but you get my point).

So, after today’s parade is done and dusted, we should get down to planning what we want to see for next year’s SG50 NDP, to make sure it’s better than this year’s.

MILITARY ITEMS

The Commandos (whose motto must surely be changed from “Who Dares Wins” to “Every Year Also Best Unit”) and Armour units get all the glory every year, marching and rolling down the tracks in their fierce machinery. Enough ok? It’s time we got the General Supply & Maintenance Base PES C,D & E mechanics and other non-combat NSmen to march in the parade. They deserve their day in the setting sun. Any unit that once had the motto “Strive To Maintain” does.

CIVILIAN ITEMS

There should be a Hello Kitty Queue contingent, sponsored by McDonalds, because it’s their fault for starting the craze. The contingent marches in single file, and the highlights include sporadic fighting between contingent members.

Parking Aunty Contingent – because now with LTA and Cisco outsourced officers who don’t “pung chan” as much as the Aunties do, they’re soon to go the way of the Samsui Women. We salute you.

Tissue Aunty / Uncle Contingent with their fanny packs will wave three packets of tissue paper in your direction as they march past.

School kids will be represented by a TAF Club Contingent. Because fat kids should be shamed nationally just as they are at school level – running and exercising while their fitter peers enjoy their recess / public holiday.

STAT BOARDS

Parades and other spectacles should include things to jeer at – so there should be a tax collectors’ contingent from IRAS.

And given the increased chatter about and awareness of our Central Provident Fund, the CPF Board should also have a contingent. Imagine the commentary:

“And right at the end of the parade’s march past, because you have to wait long long before you can take out your money, is our very own CPF contingent, led by Madam Minnie Sum, who has been with the Board since its inception. She doesn’t look like she’s retiring any time soon”…

Happy National Day!

Robo-cutter To Change Landscaping Landscape

All your grass are belong to Robo-cutter
All your grass are belong to Robo-cutter

I was invited to check out a demonstration of this machine called the “Robo-Cutter” and I got really excited because, WTF, it’s a robot that cuts grass, right?

No it wasn’t what I expected – there wasn’t any artificial intelligence about it, and it couldn’t deploy itself automatically where it sensed the grass was tall. It was really just a remote controlled grass-cutting tractor.

I put my disappointment aside, and spoke to the person who was heading the demonstration, Mr Neo Say Hwee of Ho Eng Huat Construction Pte Ltd.

He had purchased the Robo-Cutter for something close to $100,000. Close to half of it was subsidised by the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i), which has a grant called the Inclusive Growth Programme (IGP).

In one fell swoop, Mr Neo cut down on his reliance for cheap foreign labour, which was utilised in landscape maintenance tasks for the old grass cutters. The Robo-Cutter can now do the equivalent job of half a dozen masked men (grass-cutting ninjas), while using only one trained operator.

While I don’t have the exact numbers to crunch, I think that while the government continues to tighten the supply of cheap foreign labour, companies like Mr Neo’s will still stride forward when grants like IGP are applied judiciously to help innovative additions, like the Robo-Cutter.

More importantly, the employees trained to operate these smart machineries will be able to be paid more. The job is also made easier and safer as they are able to operate the machine from a distance under the shade, lowering the possibilities of heat and other injuries.

This, I think is the best way to go about the increasing required wage. A mandatory minimum wage level with nothing else is just going to see companies like Mr Neo’s being forced to pay more for grass-cutting ninjas, and the costs inevitably will be passed on to their clients.

Unfortunately, many maintenance contracts in this particular sector are still mired in old terms and requirements. They restrict companies’ ability to take the leap and innovate, like how Mr Neo has done with his company.

Contracts still stipulate how many persons are required to do the job, and buyers tend to want a discount when you tell them you are going to use fewer men. Worse, some may be shocked and not want to award you the contract when you tell them you are going to use a robot and one man.

Terms need to be changed. Buyers need to know that the essence of the contract is in whether a job can be done well and quickly, regardless of how many people are used. With the labour supply crunch several industries are facing, it will make the most sense to do this, and make the best use of every worker by giving them the best work opportunities and do the best to reward them once the job is done in a safer and more efficient way.

As you can see, it takes an effort in concert – the buyer, the contractor and the worker have to change the way things are done in order to move this along, in order for all three parties to benefit.

When I’ve worn my other hat as a small business and start up consultant, I’ve heard excuses like “I dowan to take Gahmen money sekali got strings attached”, or “Customer don’t want to change contract”, even when presented with really, really attractive grants and cash incentives which have no strings attached (unless you think that “strings” include paying taxes).

It is exasperating. If these companies don’t revisit the opportunities available now to benefit everyone, they’re going to be in for a rough ride when they’re left behind, while the early adopters reap the benefits of a transformed economy.

It is timely this National Day (the one before the Big 50) that we pay heed to these steps and not just wish for it to happen. We need to work towards this transformation. The buck stops with everyone.

Proposed Structure
Proposed Structure