SG Buzz: Boston, Chicago, And Pittsburgh

I was honoured to be invited to speak last week to Singaporeans working and studying in three American cities. Organized by the US Liaison of the Overseas Singaporean Unit – the same people who bring Singapore Day to known Singaporean hubs around the world – the talks were held at cozy venues which also featured some Singaporean-ish food…

I was honoured to be invited to speak last week to Singaporeans working and studying in three American cities. Organized by the US Liaison of the Overseas Singaporean Unit – the same people who bring Singapore Day to known Singaporean hubs around the world – the talks were held at cozy venues which also featured some Singaporean-ish food.

Contrary to what some thought, there was no “official messaging” that I had been instructed to deliver, things along the lines of, “don’t forget Singapore, it’s your home, please come back”. Instead, I was asked very broadly to talk about the media landscape in Singapore. That was an easy brief because I could spend hours making fun of Mediacorp. But people were hungry, and the buffet spreads were waiting, so I let everyone off with a presentation that lasted maybe half an hour.

But there are some points I made that I’d like to reiterate:

1. Stop calling ourselves a “little red dot” (HT Calvin Soh). Be confident, be brash;

2. Don’t be in a hurry to come home. It’ll always be here. You’re already abroad, so take on the world while you’re there if it’s more convenient;

3. The OSU is a great networking facilitator. Register yourselves, keep in touch, and don’t be silly – the Gahmen is not trying to track and limit your movement. It’s merely trying to see how it can help you succeed. Honest!

But thank you for hosting me in the limited time I was there. To my old friends in Boston who contacted me, it was great getting in touch again IRL. Didn’t occur to me we hadn’t seen each other in two decades. Thank you Facebook.

To the Singaporeans in Chicago who stayed on and chatted over a couple of rounds of drinks – thank you, that was fun!

And to Pittsburgh. Goodness, what a pretty town. I’m sorry I had preconceived notions of it being a bleak steel town because that’s how ignorant I am. For the kids and the not so young studying at Carnegie Mellon – you guys rock, and thanks to you, we now know that the last Batman movie had an over-representation of Singaporeans.

I hear this series saw a record turnout in each city, so thank you for coming out (including the fella who flew in from Florida) on the most tumultuous weekend in recent US history. And thank you Overseas Singaporean Unit for organising this whirlwind tour.

My Father And The Melbourne Olympics

One of the many little things in my father's remarkable life
One of the many little things in my father’s remarkable life

I’ve told this story many times before, but as the Olympic Games get under way in Rio, I remember again my father’s stint sixty years ago at the Melbourne Olympics:

In another age altogether, my father scored a temp job at the Melbourne Olympics as a general clerk/intern assisting the accounts department. The Games then were a small affair, unlike the massive logistical behemoth it is now. It would’ve been remarkable enough to be able to tell your kids and grandkids that you once worked at the XVIth Olympiad, but Pa being Pa, had to inadvertently go one further.

There was this boxer from the Japanese team. There was no translator. So they picked the nearest Japanese-looking person to help. No matter that Pa’s knowledge of Japanese was confined to mostly pidgin from the Occupation a little over a decade earlier.

The boxer mentioned something about ‘cutting’ something, and kept gesticulating with his hands, pointing at his waist. He sounded desperate too. Pa put the bits of Japanese words he understood and two and two together and informed Games officials that the boxer had an abdominal problem that needed to be fixed.

They sent the boxer, this time screaming and yelling, to the hospital for immediate medical attention, fearing appendicitis.

A few hours later, the angry Japanese boxer came back to the arena, with real translators, and it seems, all he wanted to tell officials was that he needed to get a skipping rope to cut his excess weight down to that stipulated by his weight division in his event. Pa was sent to the back rooms to be buried under accounting sheets.

(Originally told on this blog in June 2004)

The Public Service Paperweight Award

Some time in the early 90’s my father was given a public service award for his contributions to education. It came as a surprise to all of us, since he never mentioned anything about it, and the only times we saw him getting close to education was when he signed our school report cards.

He explained that over the years, he had been donating money to a Chinese school affiliated with one of the Hainanese clans in Singapore. He also said it wasn’t a big deal, but I’m sure it was – because no ordinary donor would have been shortlisted for a public service award.

When he received the invitation to the ceremony, he showed it to me and asked me if he should attend. I said, “Why not? You deserve it”.

He went, came home, and I asked him how it was. He said, “Nothing lah. So long the whole thing”.

I asked him to show me the award or certificate he must have received, and he said, “Don’t have lah. They only give me this block of wood”.

He showed me the “block of wood”, and said, “Useless. Can put on your desk”, probably thinking it was a paperweight.

I took the block of wood, removed the ribbon around it, and opened it to show him a medal. We spent the next hour laughing at his silliness.

My Father The King Of Kuachee

His wish for me when I was in my twenties was for me to “get a professional qualification”, like accountancy, and then “do whatever you want and don’t work for other people”.

IMG_7088My father vacillated between a stable career and adventures in enterprise. He had the former in establishing his own chartered accounting practice – which he later sold, and which still bears his name  – and the latter in a series of remarkable and unconventional business deals which made our family pretty well off.

His wish for me when I was in my twenties was for me to “get a professional qualification”, like accountancy, and then “do whatever you want and don’t work for other people”.

He tried coaxing me to become a “businessman” in the true, vague definition of it, trading in whatever opportunities fell into our laps. In his capacity as the Honorary Consul-General for the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, he gave me a box of raw PNG Highlands Arabica beans, and asked me to see if I could find any buyers. Unfortunately, I wasn’t motivated enough to make that work.

Then he gave me a box of Agar wood, and sent me researching on the subject, and urging me to see if there were any interested buyers. Again, this didn’t stick, and I’m sure he was disappointed in my lack of interest.

There were other exotic mystery boxes –  sea cucumbers, logging concessions, selling second hand computers to New Guinea – they never stuck.

Instead I did something my friends thought even more unconventional – I started a business teaching gymnastics to primary school children. It tanked after five years – and that’s a long, drawn-out business failure. It didn’t frazzle my father a bit. He just said, “do something else lah” – which I understood to be “keep doing what you want to do, and what you’re good at”.

My father never seemed to be discouraged by setbacks. There seemed always to be silver linings in the darkest clouds. Or rather, he painted those linings himself. If a business deal failed, he would pick up the pieces and make something out of them.

I remember most about the time he invested heavily in a factory that produced roasted melon seeds and pumpkin seeds – the type you eat at Chinese New Year and at funerals – and for some reason or another, the other partners in the factory made off with the money and the factory closed. Creditors claimed the factory’s equipment, and my father was left with an inventory of perhaps several hundred kilograms of melon and pumpkin seeds in tins, bags, and jars.

What did he do with them? He had them brought home of course. And to my mother’s lasting dismay, every nook and cranny of our house – including the shoe cabinet – was stacked with tins, bags, and jars of melon and pumpkin seeds. I think we only threw them out when we sold and moved out of the house ten years ago.

In the years between the kuachee factory fiasco and when we moved out, my father could be seen spending his days on his sofa, cracking open melon seeds and eating them. He’d laugh and say, “Not bad, what – Chinese New Year no need to buy kuachee ever again”.

Ceremonies Are For Eating

We send my father off this afternoon with a church service and cremation. The ritual and ceremony of the event would have made him feel a little awkward. Most gatherings did.

We send my father off this afternoon with a church service and cremation. The ritual and ceremony of the event would have made him feel a little awkward. Most gatherings did. He would mumble through hymns, anthems and carols and once was even caught holding a hymnal upside down. He liked nothing better than to sit in a quiet corner and stuff his face with his favourite foods – and there were many – and then chuckle when he was found doing so.

When his mother passed away in 1999, my father, being one of two offspring, was tasked with marching and chanting around her coffin with the Taoist priest-mediums every few hours. They made perhaps about 8 rounds each session. At one of these sessions, my father dragged his feet mournfully around his mother’s coffin, lips pursed as if in protest at having to repeat whatever Taoist mantra that was being sung/shouted.

I remember watching him do two laps and then losing sight of him among the robes, ribbons, and incense. I thought at first the he might have stumbled and fallen, but the others in the procession would’ve helped him up. I thought he might’ve been overcome by grief and excused himself, so I got up from where I was seated and looked around the family’s Hose Road Seremban house for him.

I found him at a corner table, feeding himself a plate of funeral caterer’s beehoon and curry. When I asked him if he was alright, he said, “two rounds enough lah, no need to do so many times”, and carried on stuffing his face.

So, while I may not excuse myself and sneak out this afternoon when we hold the Catholic service that was arranged by my brother, I might sneak a handful of groundnuts, kwa chee or M&Ms in my pocket and stuff my face a bit. Don’t mind the crunching ok? Papa wouldn’t have.