Dec 20, 2009

Fluid Arrangements

I’m currently visiting family and friends over Christmas.

Never, never listen to hearsay that you can bring vacuum-packed bak-kwa into countries which are sticklers for agricultural purity! After dutifully swearing upon arrival that I had goods to declare, I was shown a list that did not name Singapore as a country from which meat could be imported. So the bak-kwa is currently in the hands of a foreign government, waiting for collection for my flight home…

That was a small hiccup, which is more than compensated for by catching up with loved ones and dining while overlooking rows of vines. Here are some pics from my lunch on Sat (pinot gris, with smoked fishcakes on mesclun salad with citrus dressing):

I also came across an interesting concept in wine tasting this trip at a major wine shop here. Instead of deploying manpower to open and pour tasting portions, wine bottles with automated dispensers are grouped by grape. You basically see clusters of bottles of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Merlot etc. Each customer is issued with a charge card. When you decide that you want to taste a particular wine, you insert your card into a slot in that cluster, place your glass under the tap of the relevant bottle and then press the button. This allows you to browse at leisure and have as much or as little as you choose. Your card will be coded with each purchase (like Marche restaurants) and the cumulative cost, which you then pay for when you are finished (no pun intended)!

Although I’m not a big video maker while on travels, I recorded something to share here. Below is just a sample of the breathtaking sights just outside the window of somewhere I stayed. It is also an illustration of how a video which started off promisingly can be ruined because of something which happened to come into frame at the very last minute. Some of you may know the feeling!

Merry Christmas.

Dec 2, 2009


Each year I look forward to December for some downtime. December is about family, and (forgotten) friends, and taking a bit of a break from hectic schedules to regroup and take stock of what's important...

Unexpectedly, the quiet of Dec was disturbed by an "incoming rogue" fired by the Prime Minister from the Caribbean. He was talking about downtime too, but of a different nature, one day before Polling Day -a 24 hour cooling off period where voters are supposed to reflect quietly before they cast that all-important ballot at the General Elections. We (WP) have already made known why we object to this and are deeply suspicious that it will work to the ruling party's advantage, so I shan't bore you here with a repetition. All said, I find disturbing signs of the government's power growing while some of our rights are more curtailed e.g. look at recent legislative changes like the Public Order Act, and now this. Are we being burnt at both ends?

Real downtime comes whenever one is indulging in something enjoyable, for its own sake. Since some of you asked, it's time for an update on the wing chun lessons I mentioned in my last post.

I have attended 2 lessons so far. Lesson 1 consisted of learning the very basics like how to open one’s stance, punching with the vertical fist and the ideas behind elbow energy.

(At this point, let me first ask forgiveness from those of you who know wing chun, in case I describe something inaccurately).

Here is a sketch done by me of what the open stance, or basic training position, looks like.

As you can see, the position ain’t exactly natural. The sifu joked with us that if some people at a bar were about to attack us, once we got into position they might find the stance so hilarious that they could not fight, which was useful as well! Suffice to say that during and after lesson 1, I felt pain in the asterisked areas and was a bit dejected, wondering how many lessons my injured ankles could take.

Lesson 2, however, was a lifesaver. I realized that my discomfort was due to my knees being over-bent – meaning that the imaginary goat’s head was lower than it should have been. More techniques were learned, with practice of the basics of warding off attacks by “taking the centre line” from the opponent. One of the key concepts in wing chun is that the body must be as relaxed as possible, which is really counter-intuitive especially when one is being attacked! However, at the end of the 2 hour lesson, I felt that the tension in me had miraculously melted away… perhaps I'm getting a little closer to understanding what this is all about.

If all goes well, I shall be writing again from a nice place later this month, barring IT problems.

Nov 15, 2009


Every Nov 13th is a significant milestone for me, as it marks the anniversary of my entry into the Workers’ Party. I just looked back at my diary in 2001 of the events surrounding this decision. The mood then was sombre, post Sep 11th, with Singaporeans somewhat afraid of the future. Faced with two-thirds of Parliamentary seats in the 2001 General Elections being walkovers, I was sure of my decision. It was a cathartic moment; but the future was unknown.
Eight years on, what have I learned?

Being involved in opposition politics has its ups and downs. I feel elated when WP grows, attracts good people, and makes an impact in Parliament. I feel otherwise when I think we could have done better. But the uncanny thing is this. Regularly on Sundays when we go out to sell our Party newspaper Hammer, or during our house visits, there will be people who thank us for our work, encourage us on, or take time to share with us their aspirations and concerns about life in Singapore. This is, to me, the true purpose of being involved in politics – to listen to every person, whose vision of a better life is ipso facto valid.
Eight years may sound like a long time to some, but I am dwarfed by the commitment of others. Each week, party veterans turn up for Party activities, as they had been doing for decades before. One example is Mr Lim Ee Ping, who joined the Party in 1959. Today, during our Hammer sales, I asked him whether he had been shouting: “Workers’ Party Hammer” in the streets for 50 years (based on simple arithmetic). He matter-of-factly said that it was “only for about 30 years” because “it was only after JB (Jeyaretnam) joined the Party (which was in 1971) that we started selling Hammer”.

As this is a bit of a David and Goliath battle, on a lighter note, I was thinking that fighting skills might come in handy. Yesterday I went along to observe a wing-chun (永春) class, taught by a friend of mine whom I never knew was a sifu (师父) until 2 weeks ago. Wing-chun is most prominently associated with Ip Man, teacher of Bruce Lee, which exploded in popularity after the release of the film “Ip Man” (2008) starring Donnie Yen. Wing-chun is eminently suited for use by a person against a stronger opponent. I have committed to start learning next weekend…I do have some concerns about my many injuries, which include fractured ankles, previously cracked ribs, and a broken index finger and toe. But my logic is this: if the factory workers in “Ip Man” could do it, I can too! Akan datang.

Nov 2, 2009

About Leading in the 21st century


I returned yesterday after spending the weekend in Jakarta attending the Generation 21 Asia-Pacific New Leaders’ Dialogue. This inaugural dialogue was a collaboration of 3 dynamic organizations - Modernisator, a not-for-profit organization started in 2008 by several young Indonesian leaders focused on bringing younger Indonesians together to work towards advancing the country’s development; Asialink (University of Melbourne), a centre for promoting public understanding of Asian countries and Australia’s role in the region; and McKinsey & Company, a well-established global partnership specializing in talent management and development.

There were 56 delegates invited from 16 countries, including Australia, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Myanmar and the Philippines. From Singapore, the 2 delegates were a private sector economist and myself. There were 4 Malaysians including Khairy Jamaluddin, MP and Chairman of UMNO Youth. The vast majority of delegates were not politicians but leaders in diverse areas such as climate change, entrepreneurship, finance, humanitarian efforts, the arts and education. The joint chairmen of the project – Presidential spokesman Dr Dino Patti Djalal (Modernisator) and Mr Sid Myer (Asialink), were with us throughout.

Our motley crew was cooped up all of Saturday in the SCTV studio in downtown Jakarta, being put through a punishing schedule of discussions in a variety of formats and being constantly recorded by TV cameras. Topics centred on the major changes and challenges expected in the 21st century and how Generation 21 leaders could work collaboratively to meet them. Recurrent themes included climate change, Asia as an engine of economic growth and raising education standards and access. The raw footage will apparently be distributed to many regional networks (including Channel News Asia) for their use.

It was largely a platform for knowledge sharing and establishing networks, but there were two particularly memorable encounters.

The first was to see and hear Air Asia’s CEO Tony Fernandes in person, sharing the Air Asia success story in a one-laugh-a-minute style. His concept of leadership which involved him regularly checking in as a passenger, doing bag handling etc to thoroughly understand his staff’s and passengers’ experiences.

The second highlight was a session with the Indonesian Vice-President Boediono. I managed to ask him whether the outcome of the recent Indonesian elections (which consolidated the position of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) in Parliament) meant that this Parliament was more likely to ratify the ASEAN Haze Agreement which the previous Parliament refused to do. He did not answer the question directly, and upon reflection I assume that he did not want to be seen to pre-empt Parliament’s deliberations on the subject. However, he assured all that reducing haze emissions was one of the top priorities of the government and that they were determined to produce tangible results within the next 5 years, ending with an unequivocal “You can count on us”.

A visit to Indonesia would not be complete without its cultural elements, including its vast array of different regional dances. One of the most fascinating is Saman, a dance from Aceh which requires several dancers to sit shoulder to shoulder and perform complicated hand and body movements which get faster and faster till it becomes what seems to be a co-ordination nightmare!

Throughout my visit, I was struck by how a new breed of Indonesian leaders appeared to be coming out of the woodwork, coming back from abroad or simply stepping up to the plate. Well-educated, articulate and progressive, they were dead serious about working with SBY to bring Indonesia to new heights, adopting best practices and improving the welfare of Indonesians. At the welcome dinner, Finance Minister Dr Sri Mulyani (a former Director at the International Monetary Fund) spoke of her challenges in changing the mindset of certain staff who felt that her expectations were too high, but that she had to push on. Her guiding principle was a “very simple” one – “just to make (her country) better and more respectable in the eyes of the world”.

Now, that "very simple" statement - is awesome.