Dec 21, 2012

Gilbert Koh - Poems Here And There

Didn't write much at all in 2012. But the world around me recycled some of my old poems and they got a new breath of life. Recording my poetic momentos for 2012 here:


This month, I was mentioned on the Straits Times' front page. Not only on the front page, but in the headline article. Nice publicity for the literary arts:

Click on the image to see a bigger version.

This was about the National Art Council's Project Lava. The idea was to pair up a visual artist with a poem, and have the artist create something based on his interpretation of the poem.

In my case, the artist was Sonny Liew (who has previously illustrated Iron Man for Marvel Comics - how cool!) who created a very large mural (16 x 4 metres) at Punggol Waterway. The mural incorporates an old poem of mine Accident. More details in the follow-up article in the ST's Life! section.

Click on the image to see a bigger version
Accident is a short little poem about a chance encounter blossoming into love. I wrote it around 1997 for my girlfriend (now my wife). Although the poem is only a few lines long, it seems to have made an impression on many readers. In fact, Oxford University Press has previously asked for my permission to reprint this same poem as an introduction to one of their books, Gazing at Stars (2011).


Jeremy Boo made an excellent documentary in 2011 about dementia (Before We Forget). He followed up in 2012 with a book on the same topic. The book is a collection of stories, photos and essays, from Singaporeans who have had a loved one suffer from this disease. 

Jeremy not only included one of my old poems, Grandmother's Garden in this book, but also entitled the book after my poem. So there you have it - Grandmother's Garden and Other Stories

Inside the book, there is also an evocative, abstract, black-&-white, vaguely disturbing, artistic interpretation of my poem. (Hmmm, I wonder if there's something about my poetry which attracts artists who want to create pictures about poems). The illustration shows the contours of an old woman's face rendered as a garden, with a huge tree growing out of her eye, blocking out the old woman's view of reality. Well, dementia is like that. 

The book launch for Grandmother's Garden was quite an interesting event, that one. Partly because of the historical legacy of the venue. I was allocated an honorary seat and got to sit in the chair of former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee. MP Denise Phua was the Guest-of-Honour and spoke sincerely and movingly about her own mother, who is suffering from advanced dementia. Book sales at the event were very brisk, I autographed many people's copies, and all sale proceeds went to charity.


I was invited to write a poem for the kids' section of the Sunday Times. I've never really written anything for kids before, so I decided to give it a shot. Besides, they promised to pay me a few hundred bucks (hmmm, I just realised that I still haven't received payment).

The result was My Bedtime Monsters. I really enjoyed myself writing this poem, and my kids enjoyed the poem a lot too. I think that in the hands of a skilful teacher, this poem could make a very fun and enjoyable lesson for young children around the kindergarten age. With a group of kids, you can recite this, sing it aloud, dance to it or act it out: 

My Bedtime Monsters 
Look at the monsters beneath my bed!
One is purple and the others are red.
Their eyes are bright and their claws are long
They play all night, as they sing their song:
"RoOo-ah woO-ah RooOo!" 
They hide in the day from dear old Mum
When Dad's around, they're rather glum.
When I'm alone, they giggle so loud
From under the bed, they come tumbling out
"RoOo-ah woO-ah RooOo!" 
They hop on my pillows and dance on the floor,
But first they will always close the door.
They don't really want my parents to know
How loud they are, when their voices go:
"RoOo-ah woO-ah RooOo!" 
There's Starky the Stink, and Polly the Plump
Fannie the Fink, and Grolly the Grump.
They're fun and friendly, like friends should be
And I'm so glad that they're friends with me
"RoOo-ah woO-ah RooOo!"


My poem Garden City was first published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore about eleven(!) years ago. It's nice to know that there are people still interested in it today. This year the National Institute of Education featured the poem in Enl*ght, its publication for secondary English Literature teachers.

Garden City was analysed and compared to the poem The City Planners by Margaret Atwood. Since Margaret is an internationally acclaimed writer who has won awards such as the Booker Prize, I feel somewhat honoured. An excerpt:
In this article, we will look at Gilbert Koh’s “Garden City” and Margaret Atwood’s “The City Planner”, both written by two people from very different contexts and cultures, and examine how despite such differences, the two poems indisputably share distinct similarities as they comment on the role of nation-building and to a larger extent, modernisation and urbanisation via social engineering. This article takes apart the two poems to provide a guided comparative analysis and suggested questions which may be used as a resource in the classroom.  
This poetry pairing activity is targeted at the Upper Secondary level, and may potentially yield interesting and rewarding results should teachers design relevant activities to help their students relate to and engage personally with the themes and issues present in the poems. 
... Both poems are similar in the sense that they are critical of modernisation, urbanisation, and its dehumanising effects on the individual. While “Garden City” evokes biblical allusions to satirise the nation’s ‘fall from grace’ – Paradise, the true Garden of Eden – in her “steel and concrete” quest to “expand” and “develop” into a city, “The City  Planners” juxtaposes vivid imagery  with an oppressive silence and lifelessness to effectively  explore the binary oppositions of rationality  vs. insanity, and order vs. chaos in order to comment on the unnatural dehumanising effects of city planning on both inhabitants and planners.
It was a little disappointing to me, though, that the article steadfastly refused to comment on the political aspects of my poem. I am sure that the commentator knew that the poem is actually about Lee Kuan Yew and the control he exerted over the creation of modern Singapore. But this, after all, was the National Institute of Education, and so the article carefully refrained from making any overtly political comments. Lee's name was mentioned nowhere.


Then there was Old Folks Home. For several years now, the Ministry of Education has featured the poem in the print version of its Literature in English Lower Secondary Resource Kit. So a fair number of young Singaporeans today have had to study my poem in class. If I recall correctly, one year Cedar Girls School (or was it Saint Nicks?) even used it as an exam question. 

In 2012, the new development was that the Ministry wrote to me again and asked for permission to include the poem in their upcoming online Guide to the Literature in English Teaching Syllabus 2013. This guide is for Upper Secondary students. I said yes. I think that these are official online resources for Literature teachers only, so I will probably never see how the poem is presented or discussed. But it's nice to know that the poem lives on somewhere.

It's a gently ironic poem, about the unbridgeable distance between the young and innocent, and the old and dying.

Old Folks Home 
All day long they lie on the
straight rows of white beds or sit
in the heavy-duty wheelchairs
pushed out into the breezy sunshine
of the gardens. 
Resigned to the prisons
of their own failing bodies,
they drift in and out of the haze
of senility, half-forgetting
themselves in the patient wait
for death. 
Still the bright-eyed teenagers come,
on Saturday mornings, by the busloads,
sent by their schools
on compulsory excursions
to learn the meaning
of compassion
as outlined in the CCA syllabus. 
They bring gifts of Khong Guan biscuits,
they help to mow the lawns,
they clap their hands performing happy songs
and valiantly they attempt the old dialects
trying to communicate. 
Later they will clamber noisily
back up the departing school buses,
and next week in class
they will write startlingly
similar essays
on what a meaningful,
memorable experience they had
at the old folks' home
last week

Oct 30, 2012

The National Cost of Growing Old .... Is Perhaps Not That Large

Greying population could 'cost Govt S$13b more by 2025'
by Teo Xuanwei 
SINGAPORE - By 2025, public services for what will be a greyer Singapore could cost the Government S$79 billion, or S$13 billion more than what it spends today, according to a new report released by global management consultancy Accenture. 
Even as the Government has highlighted the effects of the dramatic demographic shift in the coming years, including higher social spending, this is the first time an estimate of the cost has been worked out. 
According to Accenture's report, which covers 10 countries, the increased spending in public services - defence and public safety, education, housing and healthcare - will come up to the same percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2025 as it stood last year at 12 per cent. 

The less-informed reader might feel scared. "Oh my goodness," he will say, "How can Singapore afford all these costs?"

There are many possible ways. For example, as senior citizens form an increasing proportion of the population, younger people form a decreasing proportion. In other words, there will be fewer young people for the government to look after. Increased expenditure on the old can be offset by decreased expenditure on the young. For example, if Singapore has fewer young people, government expenditure on education must logically decrease.

Also, fiscal spending isn't necessarily a bad thing (although the PAP will never be heard to tell you that). Government spending on areas such as geriatric healthcare must surely create jobs and stimulate economic growth to some extent. For example, there will be more jobs for nurses, doctors and other people who run and manage hospitals and old folks homes.

Sep 15, 2012

A Singaporean in Shanghai

I remember a HR article about how men and women look for joba. On average, a man will apply for the job, if he feels able to at least 30% of the job specifications. However, a woman will apply, only if she feels able to meet at least 70% of the job specs.

I am more like the average woman. When I look back on my career, I realise that there have been more than a few occasions when I "self-disqualified" myself from a new career role, because I had felt that I lacked some necessary skill or ability.

One of those skills/abilities has been my Chinese language proficiency. I speak Chinese well enough, for everyday purposes. However, I am in the legal profession. My work involves analysing laws and drafting legal contracts. This kind of work calls for higher language standards. You don't merely have to read the small print - you need to be able to write it too. I have that kind of proficiency in the English language, but I've not felt that my command of Chinese was sufficiently strong.

I've just returned from a business trip to Shanghai. This was my first time there. The business and financial district of Shanghai looks extremely modern and developed. The place reeks of consumerism and wealth. You can tell from the number of luxury cars whizzing by on the roads, and also the types of shops that line the streets. Gucci, Cartier, Apple, Louis Vuitton, the Ritz Carlton and the like.

To prepare for this trip, I had brushed up on my Chinese language. This trip was an important one from a work perspective. So I took the trouble to learn various technical terms in Chinese that are relevant to my type of work. For example, credit risk management (信用风险管理), interest rate swaps (利率互换), clearing house (清算所), events of default (违约事件), regulatory requirements (监管要求) and risk exposure limits (风险敞口险额).

In the two weeks before my business trip, I had set the target of learning 5 to 10 technical phrases per day. By the time I stepped foot on the plane to Shanghai, I had mastered about 80 such terms and phrases. At my meetings in Shanghai, I was pleased to find that this newly-expanded Chinese vocabulary of mine comfortably got me through.

Now, looking back on my school days, I wonder why Chinese had seemed so difficult back then, whereas the learning seemed relatively quick and painless this time round. Then the answer struck me. But of course. Here I was learning for a specific purpose - I knew why I wanted to learn, and what I had to use the learning for. I needed to know how to say the things that I needed to say.

Whereas in school, Chinese had been difficult because it didn't seem to have any purpose, beyond exams and tests. 默写,in particular, had seemed quite pointless - you basically had to memorise long sentences and regurgitate them for the sake of scoring marks.

Sep 6, 2012

Homosexuality & Nature - A Tale of Two Rabbits

My daughter had long wanted to have a pet. Cat, dog, hamster, whatever - she wasn't fussy, as long as she got a pet. Back in March, during the school holidays, I finally relented. We went to several pet shops, looked at many different animals and after a lot of hemming and hawing, decided to get two rabbits.

I gave clear instructions to the shop assistant that we wanted two rabbits of the same gender. Both could be male, or both could be female. The main thing was that I didn't want the pair to be able to make new baby bunnies.

The pet shop assistant helped us to pick two rabbits. She assured me that they were male. This wasn't obvious to me, as both rabbits were still young and sexually immature and their private parts were small (and furthermore, all covered up in fur). But I trusted the shop assistant.

Back home, we put both rabbits in the same cage. Soft, cuddly and cute, both were also very happy to be carried around in our arms like a newborn baby. Everyone in the family loved the two new pets. We named them Blackie and Chocolate.

Then one day, Blackie bit my maid Neslie.

It was quite a bad bite. Small but deep. I saw the drops of blood, falling one by one, from Neslie's finger, onto the floor. I was shocked. Up to then, both rabbits had always been very docile and gentle.

I asked Neslie what had happened. She said that she had seen the rabbits having sex. Neslie knew that I didn't want any rabbit pregnancies, so she tried to catch Blackie and carry him off Chocolate. Evidently, Blackie got angry and proceeded to bite. Or so Neslie claimed.

"But that can't be right, Neslie," I said. "They couldn't have been having sex. Both are male. The woman at the pet shop said so."

But the next day, I saw it with my own eyes. Blackie had clambered on top of Chocolate again, and was excitedly wiggling his rear end in an unmistakeable manner. I got scared. Two pet rabbits is fine with me, add another six or seven babies and that's just too many for me.

I quickly got another cage. I separated Blackie and Chocolate. I was thinking that the pet shop assistant must have made a mistake, and that Chocolate was actually female. In fact, I felt rather annoyed with the shop assistant for causing us all this extra trouble.

** ** ** ** ** ** **

Months have passed. I now know that the pet shop assistant had not made a mistake.

Both Blackie and Chocolate have reached adulthood. Their reproductive organs have become quite  conspicuous. In particular, it's become clear that Chocolate definitely has testicles, just like Blackie.

We still keep the rabbits in separate cages. They have grown bigger, so they do need the extra space. But sometimes we put the two rabbits together to play. During many of those times, Blackie still goes after Chocolate. It is definitely a sexual thing, not just  playing or fighting. For we can see that Blackie gets an erection.

Chocolate never shows any sexual interest in Blackie. Chocolate just looks puzzled when Blackie tries to hump him. Sometimes Chocolate will run away and sometimes Chocolate will just get annoyed and manoeuvre around to get Blackie off his back. At other times, Chocolate just sits still and contemplates the universe and chews on a bit of hay while Blackie carries on enthusiastically.

** ** ** ** ** ** **

It is well-known that homosexuality exists widely in nature. Scientists have observed homosexuality in many different species. According to Wikipedia, these species include sheep, swans, penguins, vultures, dolphins, giraffes, bison, bed bugs, elephants, lizards, dragonflies, fruit flies, monkeys, chimpanzees etc.

So I guess that Blackie's sexual orientation should not be that surprising and is perhaps not that uncommon.

Nevertheless, I still feel that Blackie is pretty special. A gay rabbit! Fancy that. It makes my children laugh, just to talk about it.

I just wonder what a fundamentalist Christian would say about this whole matter.

Jul 11, 2012

Monsters and Dementia

Oh my poor, neglected blog. I had nearly forgotten that you exist.

Anyway, a quick one for this virtual scrapbook. The National Arts Council contacted me some time back ago and asked if I would write a poem for young children. This was for a project between the NAC and Singapore Press Holdings. I haven't ever written a poem for kids before, so I thought I would give it a shot. I came up an idea, let it brew in my brain for a couple of days and then wrote it all out.

The result was My Bedtime Monsters, which takes a young child's fear of the dark (and its imaginary monsters) and turns into a humorous, light-hearted poem instead. The poem is very enjoyable if read aloud, and can easily be used for a fun-filled speech-&-drama session for young kids. It was published in the Sunday Times two Sundays ago.

Shortly after that, someone by the name of Dr Elizabeth Pang contacted me. She works at the Ministry of Education and her area of speciality is literacy development for preschool children. Elizabeth had seen my poem in the Sunday Times and she asked if I would allow the MOE to republish it, as a book for very young children.

Yes, an entire book. It's going to be a book for kindergarten students, the kind of kiddie book that has big, colourful illustrations and just a few lines per page. I said yes.

* * * * * * *
What else?

One year ago, two young people, Jeremy Boo and Lee Xian Jie, ran a series of activities to raise public awareness about dementia. Among other things, they made a documentary (Before We Forget) which premiered at the Southeast Asian Film Festival 2012 and was screened at the Singapore Art Museum.

They also organised public exhibitions which featured poems, photos and real-life stories, from family members of dementia patients. Xian Jie also featured one of my blog posts, where I had written about my (now deceased) grandmother, who had also suffered dementia.

This year, Xian Jie and Jeremy have been working on a new book, which will be launched in conjunction for World Alzehimer's Day in September. The book compiles a variety of writings from family members of dementia victims. It will include an old poem of mine, Grandmother's Garden, and the book itself will be entitled Grandmother's Garden and other Stories.

I must admit that I never watched the documentary Before We Forget, even though I was invited to the screening. I only saw a trailer. It looked very good. However, it also looked terribly sad. That is why I decided not to go.

Apr 15, 2012

Two Duds on a Friday Morning

Where was I, at that time?

Up on a hilly park called Nam-San, somewhere in Seoul. My Korean colleagues had assured me that this was the peak of cherry blossom seasons, and that here at Nam-San, I should be able to see some really pretty sights like this:

So, two colleagues and I had gotten up extra early, left our respective hotels and taken a cab to Nam-San that morning. We saw plenty of cherry blossom trees, but unfortunately no blossoms. Except for one single cherry blossom tree in full bloom (this tree must have been either clueless or rebellious by nature), all the trees were leafless and flowerless. The winter had been too cold, and the blossom season was delayed.

What a dud.

So we took a little walk around the park anyway, although now it wasn't that much fun. And then suddenly, my colleague got a news alert on her Blackberry, stating that North Korea had just launched its rocket. It was just a one-liner news alert. She got a little nervous and said that maybe we ought to head back now.

I was thinking to myself that this wasn't much of a game plan. If a rocket were to hit Seoul (I know that isn't supposed to be North Korea's game plan at this time, but then you have some crazy people up there), it probably wouldn't make much difference whether you were in a park, or back in the hotel or office. It would be a bloody mess anyway.

Later we learned that the North Korea launch that Friday morning was just like the Nam-San cherry blossoms. The missile did take off, but it didn't quite work. A short time after take-off, it proceeded to break up and crash harmlessly. So that was another dud, and a clear indication that North Korea's missile technology is still a long way off from posing any real long-range nuclear threat. At the least, in the words of one expert observer here - "It certainly degrades that threat considerably."

Internationally, North Korea's rocket-related behaviour had caused (and is still causing) a lot of international consternation and worry, receiving plenty of attention at the U.N level and also from the U.S. and China. But how do the South Koreans themselves feel about the matter? One might imagine that the South Koreans should be the most worried people of all. After all, North and South are enemies, and if the North actually had missiles that worked, the South would be their most obvious target.

If you talk to the South Koreans though, you'd see that they don't care that much. They have lived with their crazy neighbour up north for so many decades that by now, they have grown somewhat numb to the whole situation. Life has to go on, and it does, for the South Koreans, who have no intention of postponing their usual lives and activities to get all worried and upset, every time North Korea says or does something about missiles and rockets.

Over lunch that same day, a Korean lawyer remarked to me that the blase-ness with which most South Korean citizens view the North Korean threat is perhaps not that healthy. She said, "Perhaps we have grown too complacent,. We have become used to the threat, but now perhaps we might be forgetting that the threat is actually real."

But a short time later, as we were still talking about the failed missile launch, she laughed loudly over her kimchi and said, "I knew that was going to happen. I already told all my friends - that rocket is going to crash or stall or  explode right after take-off, or something. The North Koreans - they can't get anything right."

In other words, a dud.

Apr 10, 2012

Show and Tell in Korea

Flying off to Seoul tomorrow, on a working trip. Hopefully, it is cherry blossom season. It's also the time for North Korea's rocket testing - sigh, occupational hazard. Keeping my fingers crossed.

I'm headed to Korea to conduct training. I have half a day  to talk to my colleagues there about some new laws in the U.S., the EU and Korea itself - laws which will greatly change the way they do business and run their operations.

My daughter asked me why I am going to Korea. I told her that I am going there to do a "show & tell". That is perhaps the easiest way to explain to her the purpose of my trip. "Show and tell" is something that she herself has had to do several times in school.

In primary school, "show and tell" means that the student picks a topic, brings the relevant object to class and gives a speech in class. She might, for instance, bring a photo, a toy, a favourite book, or a holiday souvenir and tell the class about it - what it is; where she got it from; what's unusual or special about it etc. In a more advanced version of "show and tell" (like the one my son - an older child - had to do recently), the student might be asked to use Powerpoint slides.

If you look carefully at "show & tell", you'll see that it calls for several different skills. Among other things, it requires voice projection; linguistic ability and the confidence to speak before an audience. But the child also needs to find ways to make her speech engaging to her audience. She has to think of interesting things to say; she may have to do some research about her topic, and find a logical way to present her points. She may want to try little ways to polish up her speech, for example, say, by posing a question or telling a little joke or using an appropriate hand gesture at certain times.

"Show & tell" is an important thing to learn. In adult life, "show & tell" has practical applications when you have to interview for a job; pitch for a sale; conduct training; present a business proposal; or explain a product, policy or procedure to your colleagues. In fact, every teacher who needs to stand before a class and teach a topic - whether it is science, math, geography or biology - is also doing a "show & tell".

One problem for adult Singaporeans today is that they never did "show & tell" when they were kids (well, my generation didn't, at any rate). It just wasn't part of the school programme back then. "Show & tell", I think, is a relatively new phenomenon in Singapore schools. Traditionally, we have emphasised rote learning and memory work and easily gradeable forms of assessments (such as MCQs), over less-structured and more "free-form" types of schooling, such as show-&-tell.

What's the consequence? Well, I can only make some anecdotal observations. In a country where there are ever-increasing numbers of foreigners, it seems to me that nowadays, it's common for Singaporeans' contributions to be undervalued in the workplace. I see situations like this quite often - the Singaporean does most of the hard work, he has a strong sense of responsibility and his work is technically sound and reliable. But somehow he doesn't get the credit. Instead some FT waltzes in and takes the limelight. And the FT is usually someone who is more articulate and outspoken (basically, a better show-&-teller).

Hence locally, we often hear the observation that ang mo's are NATO ("no action, talk only"). I don't think that this is entirely fair - because I certainly know a few ang mo FT's who are very good at getting things done. However, I do also think that:

(1) the average Singaporean works harder than the average ang mo; and

(2) the average angmo is generally much more articulate than the average Singaporean (especially when it comes to talking about one's own work accomplishments).

It's because of the communication factor that the angmo leaves a much stronger impression than the Singaporean at the workplace. The angmo came from a different background - one where he was, from an early age, much more encouraged to speak up, state an opinion, communicate clearly and express himself. In contrast, the Singaporean was expected to just shut up and get his homework done.

The consequence today? The quiet, hardworking Singaporean may end up getting few marks for the plenty of work that he has done (because in the workplace, there are no exams, and if there are no exams, you will not be assessed on your grades, but only on what people know you have done - and not what you have actually done).

Meanwhile the louder, more articulate angmo gets full marks for the relatively little work that he has done. Because whatever he has actually done, he is much more able, due to his communication skills, to make it known to his bosses or supervisors, and to present it in the best possible light.

So the angmo gets ahead; and the Singaporean gets overlooked. That's one reason why Singaporeans are losing out in their own country.

Jan 6, 2012

Grace Fu Should Consider Resignation

Singapore has the world's most highly-paid ministers. If I recall correctly, they have held this world record for about the past 20 years. It is a record that has caused a huge amount of public unhappiness. Especially in the past decade, during which the government didn't ever seem to be particularly impressive or outstanding.

Now, finally, ministerial salaries are going to be cut. Mind you, after these cuts (which are quite substantial in percentage terms - about 36%), the ministers will STILL hold their world record. Which must surely suggest to any half-intelligent person how grossly overpaid the ministers have been all along.

But then you get the likes of Grace Fu (who is our Minister of State for something or the other). Writing on her own Facebook wall, Fu says:
“When I made the decision to join politics in 2006, pay was not a key factor. Loss of privacy, public scrutiny on myself and my family and loss of personal time were. The disruption to my career was also an important consideration. I had some ground to believe that my family would not suffer a drastic change in the standard of living even though I experienced a drop in my income. So it is with this recent pay cut. If the balance is tilted further in the future, it will make it harder for any one [sic] considering political office.” Grace Fu.
Now, lots of Singaporeans are angry with Grace Fu. The comments have come thick, fast and furious. As of right now, her Facebook post has drawn about 1,300 comments (that's about 650 times the average number of comments on her other Facebook postings). And of course, there is plenty of negative media attention, online and in the newspapers too.

Putting aside the other issues for now, I'm startled at Grace Fu's lack of political sensitivity. It was really, really stupid and unnecessary of her to write such a thing. Fu wasn't even under pressure. It wasn't as if she was at a press conference, and a belligerent journalist had just thrown an unexpected and difficult question at her, and she couldn't think fast enough about what best to say.

Instead - we can imagine it - there she was, relaxing in her living room, playing with her iPad, sipping a nice cup of tea, logging in to check her messages. And then suddenly, Fu decided to write what she wrote. On Facebook. Not in a private journal, not in a personal memo, but on Facebook.

She must have totally failed to foresee what would happen next.

What poor judgment! What a severe lack of foresight. And she's a minister, for goodness sakes. Who knows what other horrible errors she might have spoken or written, on other past occasions.

Now, of course Fu is backpedalling and she has made a statement that she had been "misunderstood". This is damage control .... for completely self-inflicted damage. LOL, that is funny.

Imagine this - you are a minister, and you say something, the public is shocked and angry. And then you say, "Oh, all of you tens of thousands of people, you've misunderstood me. I am the poor, unfortunate, misunderstood one."  Sing me another song, birdie.

"Me talk cock. Also can sing song.
How much you pay me?"

If Grace Fu can be so badly misunderstood, then that surely says something about Grace Fu's  communication skills. It is extremely difficult to get thousands of people to misunderstand you. I am sure that I could not possibly succeed in pulling off such a feat. (But then I am not a PAP minister, I lack such talent).

However - and this will surprise many of my own readers - I am not actually angry about the content, the actual substance, of Grace Fu's statement.

Why am I not angry?

Look - this woman is merely a product of the system. And what is the system that I speak of? It is the PAP recruitment system that Lee Kuan Yew decided to create, 20 years ago. A system that deliberately entices job applicants with world-record-setting amounts of money.

The inevitable result - the PAP attracts many talented political wannabes whose main interest is in the money. (Meanwhile, talented political wannabes who just hope to serve the nation can join the Workers' Party - like Chen Show Mao did).

And when the money gets cut, well, you can naturally expect the PAP ministers (at least, the more money-minded ones) to get upset. Isn't that logical? If you had come for the money, then you WOULD be upset by a pay cut, surely.

My blog post is entitled "Grace Fu Should Consider Resignation". Sounds sensationalist, doesn't it? But it isn't really. (I'm not that kind of blogger, lah). Let me just explain my thinking.

It goes like this - if any minister is really very unhappy with his or her pay, then he or she can always quit. It's not like they are being forced to be ministers.

Unhappy employees don't perform well - we know that from our own experiences in working life. It is better for the company if they quit. It is better for themselves too, for they can go elsewhere and find another job that is more satisfying for them.

Why would we expect things to be any different for our ministers? If they are not happy with their pay, they won't perform well. They should just quit and get a more lucrative job elsewhere (if they can, of course). After they resign as ministers, Singapore can replace them with new ministers who care less about the money, and care more about serving the nation.

So I say this to all the ministers - if you're not happy with your pay, please quit. Now, rather than five years later. Do yourself a favour, and do the country a favour. Just get out.

Jan 5, 2012

How to Get $100 Worth of Free Vouchers

This might have happened to you before. It happened to me several days ago (and it wasn't the first time either).

A person calls up on my handphone. I have no idea how she got my number. She says, "Congratulations! You are very lucky to have won $100 of NTUC Income vouchers!".

Of course, there is a catch to it. The catch is that in order to collect the vouchers, I have to go to a certain place and listen to a 75-minute presentation. I get to collect the vouchers only if I stay to the end of the presentation. Also, I need to bring my wife. If she doesn't come along, I get only $50.

So at the appointed date and time, Mrs Wang and I go to this place. We fill up some form which asks some questions about where we live, how much we earn and so on. We are asked to show a credit card - no details are taken, they just want to see that we actually have credit cards.

Then we are whisked away to a small meeting room. There a salesperson goes through a detailed questionaire with us. There are questions about how often we travel; what kind of hotels we like to stay in; which countries we have visited in the past few years; how much we spend on our airfare, and so on.

Then the salesperson starts talking about his product. Some kind of holiday club. Pay an upfront fee (which is quite hefty), get a 15-year membership, and for the next 15 years, you will be able to enjoy big discounts on hotel accommodation, airfares and land tours all over the world. At the end of 15 years, get your entire membership fee back.

I won't bore you with the details, because the specific details are not that important. Many different kinds of companies use such a marketing strategy nowadays. They sell different things - land banking; timeshares in holiday houses; spa services; golf club holidays; travel services, and so on.

The point is - they REALLY give you the $100 vouchers at the end of the presentation. Some even give you a choice of vouchers (Carrefour or Takashimaya?). Or they give you a free massage for two, if they are pitching a spa membership. You have no obligation to actually sign up as a member or to buy the product. What they want is a fair chance to thoroughly pitch their product to you, for 75 minutes.

I think that these are very good deals. All you have to do is listen. If the product/service meets your needs, then you could sign up. If it doesn't, then just firmly say "No" at the end of the 75 minutes, and ask for your vouchers. The main thing is that you must keep a clear mind and not allow yourself to be persuaded into  buying something that you later regret.

Mrs Wang and I firmly said "No", at the end of the presentation. For us, it was a rather interesting presentation and we asked many questions (Mrs Wang and I often like to study how different types of business models and figure out how they try to make money).

But in the end, we simply said, "No". We collected our vouchers. We left. The salesman was courteous and friendly throughout the time. And now I have $100 of NTUC vouchers to buy groceries, yay.

Jan 4, 2012

Onwards with the Plan

Three working days have passed since I began my project. And on all three working days, I was able to leave at 6 pm sharp. So that is a success.

Of course it is early days yet. The new year has just begun and the pace of work is still slow as some people are still away on leave. The challenge will be to increase my productivity so much that even when business is in full swing, I am still able to leave at 6 pm.

I have already implemented all the seven productivity ideas mentioned in my earlier post. Here are three additional ideas that I will be implementing.
  • Using the Blackberry while commuting. On most days, I use public transport to go to work and to return home. So I will use this time on the MRT or bus to read my emails and draft replies. For example, if I leave office at 6 pm and the bus or train ride takes 40 minutes, I can use those 40 minutes to check my emails.
  •  Having lunch early or late. I can beat the lunchtime crowd either by going for lunch early, or very late. This means saving the time that would otherwise be spent queueing to buy for food and waiting for a place to sit. I can then use the regular lunch (12:30 to 1:30 pm) to do more work in the office.
  • Using a to-do list. I have often used some sort of to-do list, but now I am trying to be more consistent about it - in other words, to use it every day. Using a to-do list helps to track my work and also prioritise the different matters. There is an art and skill to using to-do lists effectively. This merits a separate blog post for the future.  
Anyway as I am typing this, it is 10:45 pm. I am at home and I am waiting for the clock to show 11:00 pm. The reason is that at 11 pm, I need to dial in for a conference call with some colleagues in New York and Frankfurt.

These are the perils of working in an extremely international organisation. I estimate that in a year, I might do about 16 conference calls at night (after 8 pm Singapore time). I don't think that it is really possible or desirable to avoid these calls - in fact, they tend to be quite important - even though they are not in line with the spirit of my 6 pm project.

On the plus side, I am usually able to take these calls from my home. So they do not technically interfere with the 6 pm target.

Jan 1, 2012

Flooding in Singapore - We Need Solutions, Not Excuses

It rained heavily on 23 December and there was flooding in several parts of Singapore. However, the PUB claimed that there was no flooding at Orchard Road. I quote the exact words from their press release: "There was no flooding at Orchard Road."

I don't understand how government authorities in Singapore can tell such blatant lies. It is shocking and it makes me worry about what this country is coming to. It is normal for a country to have problems, and I think it is ok to say, "We have a problem, and we will be taking action to solve it." But to tell an outright lie, such as "There was no flooding at Orchard Road" ... What does that tell you about our government?

It indicates dishonesty. That's bad enough. But it also shows stupidity. This is also very worrying, for we are in serious trouble if we have a stupid government. Why do I say that the Orchard Road incident reflects the government's stupidity?

I say so, because the lie was so stupid. This is the Internet era. Anyone in Orchard Road at that time could easily have pulled out his or her handphone, and taken a photo of the floods and posted it on blogs, forums, Facebook, Stomp etc.

And the lie would be completely exposed. If you were dishonest and you also actually had some brains, you should be telling your lies with a little more skill, surely.

Indeed, at Orchard Road, buildings such as Liat Towers and Lucky Plaza were flooded, and people did take photos and post them on the Internet.

Not a flood ... Then what is this?
A new water catchment area in Orchard Road?

Lucky Plaza's new design for a water fountain.
Works only on rainy days.
It took a full week, but later the PUB decided that it had better admit that there were floods at Orchard Road. Their new press release on 30 December stated: "The sustained heavy downpour resulted in the flooding of several roads including the Thomson/Cambridge areas as well as the basements of Liat Towers and Lucky Plaza."

Oooh, the magic word has suddenly appeared in their statement. There was "flooding", after all, and at Liat Towers and Lucky Plaza, which are in the heart of the Orchard Road area.

But you can still smell the stubborn PUB attempt at obfuscation - they won't say the words "Orchard Road" and they insist on inserting the word "basements".

Well, of course, it is the BASEMENTS that are flooded. Basements are the lowest floors of any building. Isn't it bad enough that the basements are flooded? What does the PUB want - does it expect the 2nd floor or 4th floor to be flooded? Bah.

In the aftermath of the event, it's also distressing to see how the Straits Times reported the event. To me, it felt like the top ST priority was to defend the reputation of the PUB and the government. Look at the way the Straits Times chose to entitle its article - "Half a Typical December's Rain Fell in Three Hours". The first two paragraphs of the article read as follows:

"In three hours last Friday, the rain that pelted down on Orchard Road was half of what December typically gets in the entire month.

Between 2.20pm and 5.20pm, 152.8mm of rain fell in the area. The long-term average for December - the wettest month in the entire year - is 287.4mm."
Okay, let me deconstruct that for you. In the context of all the flooding events that occurred in the past year, the underlying message from the Straits Times is:

1. The rain on 23 December was really, really extraordinary.
2. Don't blame the government for the floods at Orchard.

But was the rain on 23 December really that extraordinary? Was the flood at Orchard all that different from all those many floods that we have seen in the past few years, in different parts of Singapore? Including Orchard Road itself?

To understand what a "typical" December rainfall is really like, we can investigate the source of the ST's claim. It comes from the PUB press release on 30 December. The PUB states:
"On the afternoon of 23 Dec 2011, a total of 152.8mm of rain fell from 2.20pm to 5.20pm at the Orchard Road area. This is equivalent to about half the average monthly total (287.4mm) of rain recorded for the entire month of December over the last 142 years (1869 to 2010)."
So their idea of typical December rainfall is based on the average December rainfall over the past 142 years. Dating back to the time when Lee Kuan Yew's father's father's father had just emigrated to Singapore.

Rainfall levels over the past 142 years may be of some meteorological interest to the meterologists. To the general public, it can't be. Singapore has been suffering from floods for the past few years now, and even prime shopping areas and tourist attractions like Orchard Road are getting hit. This is NOT the first time in recent memory that Orchard Road is getting hit.

To the PUB:

We don't care what happened 142 years ago. We don't even care what happened 50 or 30 years ago. Singapore has a flood problem TODAY. And it is your responsibility to fix it. Even if global warming is causing climate change and heavier rains nowadays, it is STILL your responsibility to fix the flood problem.

You should spend less time worrying about how to protect your public image. And more time actually working to solve the flood problem. You'll probably make more progress that way. And the people of Singapore will appreciate it. So please stop being stupid, and go and do the right thing.