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

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)

 

Don’t Eat Cheese And Don’t Drive

That’s the message I got out of the response to the EIU’s ranking of Singapore as the most expensive city in the world for expats.

I’m a local, and so I shouldn’t be eating cheese (we’re mostly lactose intolerant anyway), watching movies from Gold Class cinema seats, buying Cat A theatre tickets, taking a taxi, driving any car or motorcycle and having a four course dinner at a restaurant.

And who wears a Burberry raincoat anyway? So fargly! Please lah, raining just put a newspaper on your head lor. Only $1. Some days even got news worth reading.

So don’t complain lah, please. Life is good as long as you don’t aspire or wish for anything else other than your lot.

Are We Outsourcing Our Social Responsibility?

A couple of weeks back I was invited to speak on a panel discussing a Clean & Green Singapore. I said agreed because I had always wanted to meet Sivasothi, one of Singapore’s leading environmentalists. We’ve known of each other since the term “blog” was invented, but for reasons uninvestigated, we had never actually met.

The discussion panel took its predicted path down governmental measures lane and civic mindedness alley and it was only when Siva spoke about what he did to the students he taught at NUS that I really began listening (sorry NEA, rest of panel – it was one of those days I was triple-booked).

Siva, who later shared my regret that we weren’t as entertaining and fiery as we should have been, has this fabulous requirement of his students. They are required to put their chairs back in place after a lecture has concluded. And – this will blow your socks off if you weren’t wearing slippers like the sloppy Singaporean you are – he makes his students find out the name of the cleaner who cleans the areas in and around the lecture theatres!

Then I started thinking about what had been spoken earlier in the discussion: that Singapore is not a clean city – it is a cleaned city. We don’t see, and neglect to care about the dusk to dawn army of cleaning workers who pick up our garbage in the streets and parks at night.

I’ve mentioned how we delegate our personal responsibilities to so many people that we’ve forgotten we have these responsibilities. Not only do we not know who takes away our trash, we don’t even take out our own trash.

Earlier in the week, I left for work at the same time the guy from the cleaning company was mopping the floor at our lift lobby. I said good morning and he jumped out of his skin. I decided not to startle him further, and will ask for his name next time we meet.

At a meeting a fortnight ago, a bunch of young entrepreneurs was telling us about the disparity between the cleaning company’s contract fee and the actual salary of the person actually doing the job. Yes, there are cleaners who are getting paid $800 a month or less.

It’s a lot more complicated than just saying ‘yes, we need to pay the cleaners more’,  and the tyranny of modern economic conveniences will mean that business owners will still want to engage a cleaning company than to employ a cleaner directly.

It follows that something needs to be done about the people who are directly employing the cleaners. And apparently, something that will pay them more than a mandatory minimum wage, like the progressive wage model I wrote about earlier will come into being next year. Here’s hoping it works out well.

But as I was saying on that panel that evening, if you want a more caring, compassionate society, you have to start thinking of the consequences of every action. There are things within your means you can do to help low wage workers like cleaners.

You want to care about the cleaners who are paid little? Make their job easier. Pick up after yourselves, return your tray, push your chair back after you get up.

I sit on the management council of the condo we live in, and I went on a little power trip at a meeting last week. The security guard company we hire had requested for a fee increase. I voted ok as long as we know that the two guards, who look after our premises and make sure no idiots anyhowly park in our car park, have a commensurate pay increase as well. We even voted on a little thing – making sure there’s enough mosquito repellent in the guard house so they don’t kenah dengue.

I’ve just found out that what we were doing was this thing called “best-sourcing”, which is gahmen-speak for outsourcing in a conscious, conscientious and socially responsible way. And like many things about this fine country, there’s even a monetary incentive to do so.

But as we become increasingly out-sourcery, we must not let ourselves or our corporations outsource our social responsibilities.

I think it’s time I called another council meeting.

The Future Looks Straight And Narrow

Good job on tweaking Medisave/Medishield; PSLE; Changi Airport.

But we cannot keep treating GLBT, singles, unwed and divorced parents as second class citizens. Being GLBT single, unwed or divorced does not diminish their potential to fulfil their so-called roles in society. But pegging housing affordability to officially heterosexually married status states the opposite.

Just as Malaysia’s pro-Bumiputra policies as regards education and public service has effected a terrible talent drain in the past decade, so will continuing to uphold such unfairness in our country. And our people are our only resources.

#$*%&! Who Say We Not Happy?

A fortnight ago, mrbrown and myself visited Tekka Market. It is a happy place though you’d normally think otherwise. It’s hot, noisy, smelly and gets really crowded at peak shopping hours.

So what makes people at Tekka happy? Is it because that venerable wet market has resisted the tide of change and retained its Hokkien name? (It was for a short time known as Zhujiao, much to everyone’s dismay). Is it because it’s a happy confluence of China and India and everything in between?

It would likely be the array of food laid out at market, together with the shopper’s delight at having bargained twenty, thirty cents off a bunch of vegetables, and the thought of bringing all that fresh produce home to make a meal for the family.

There are fresh vegetables from wherever we import vegetables, and herbs that you’d think only Cold Storage or some other atas grocer would stock. And in a darker corner in the market, there is a Tamil lady who sells only banana leaves. In two sizes – One for “praying” and one for eating off.

This, well, happy combination would warm the cockles of anyone’s heart, I think. Speaking of which, cockles can be bought at several seafood stalls in the slippery middle aisle of the market.

There was also a kinda-sorta-if-you-ignored-the-signage-next-to-them impromptu concert in the market itself, though not in the slippery aisle, ‘cos you’d cause all sorts of calamity if someone got electrocuted, ‘cos wet market floors and sound equipment don’t get along, y’know?

The singer, Belvyn Khoo, and her accompanist guitarist serenaded all and sundry with their renditions of Teresa Teng classics such as Sweet Like Honey and The Moon Represent, Yo.

It brought smiles and curious looks to everyone within earshot.

Then all hell broke loose.

Some woman – I have no idea if she’s a stallholder or customer – barged her way to the stage and commandeered the microphone and asked Belvyn’s guitarist to follow her lead. I think she sang “My Way”, though I couldn’t really tell from the off-key rendition.

Now that got everyone’s attention, and it got the biggest cheer of the morning.

Anyone that says Singaporeans are unhappy can go and lick the floor of the slippery middle aisle.

I urge everyone to be like that bold and slightly tone deaf woman and spread joy and happiness everywhere you go. Then share your happy moments on the Happy Everywhere Facebook App, and yes, stand a chance to win stuff.

Slightly off-key lady brings it!
Slightly off-key lady brings it!

How I Majulah Singapura

My reflections on this year’s National Day, first published on YouSayISayWhoConfirm.SG as a joint post with mrbrown’s National Day Song.

I used to think that I was Singaporean because of the way I spoke and how I could code-switch from standard English to Singlish even within a sentence. I used to think it was because I could understand why people would use packets of tissue, newspapers and umbrellas to “chope” seats at hawker centres when all it takes is a rule where you’re not allowed to sit at a table if you don’t have a tray of food with you.

But the fabric of society is changing. Close to 40% of the country’s population is non-Singaporean, and I think a sizeable chunk of Singapore citizens are made up of new migrants. You know those “emerging fault lines” the PM keeps talking about? They’re here, and they’re pretty disruptive.

Suddenly we have many Singaporeans we don’t feel the bond of kinship with. More than once I read on Twitter and Facebook that people or their parents didn’t feel proud that a “China-born” table-tennis player won another medal for Singapore. I’ve seen young people tweet things like “Argh! This bus is full of Pinoys!” without stopping to think for once whether what they were saying was racist.

Read more at YouSayISayWhoConfirm.SG

Three More Interesting Facts About Singapore

1. Singapore is home to 3,971 species of vascular plants, 364 species of birds, 295 species of butterflies, 98 species of reptiles, 52 species of mammals, 28 species of amphibians, and 255 species of hard corals.

2. A two-part episode of Hawaii Five-O was filmed in Singapore, featuring a thrilling scene on the Sentosa Cable Car.

3. Including Tan Howe Liang, every Singaporean Olympic medal winner was born in China.

If you haven’t already, do read the other 44 facts about Singapore I wrote three years ago.