Dec 11, 2010


As someone who follows a bit of local soccer, the Suzuki Cup elimination could have been a bit more dignified. Vietnam has 80+ million people, so they will definitely progress further. But what about us? Something also has to be done about the S-League, which seems to be serving largely the interest of gamblers.

We are in the thick of December, but for me, this is so unlike Decembers of the past, which typically allow for down-time and spending more time with family and friends. It’s not just due to the impending GE, but various writing projects and work exigencies too. But God bless my students, both full-time and part-time. They keep me sane in the madding crowd.

Last night my team and I visited a block in my favourite GRC. Due to the fascinating and varied conversations, we could only finish half the block. But among the 50 odd households was a microcosm of the diversity of Singapore and people’s expectations and aspirations.

There was a young undergraduate, who had literally just come home from his reservist ICT. He was sharing how his unit was deployed in field exercises, in his opinion to remind them of the basics of what a `1G SAF’ was like! He was articulate, and overall had every reason to be optimistic about the future.

For another tertiary student, the recent teen gang slashing at Downtown East affected him deeply, as he knew some of the suspects now in police custody. The events came as a shock, and he was still trying to cope psychologically with their enormity and implications.

There was an ex-offender who had been released from Prison. He was very cheerful and confident by disposition, which to me was rather unusual for an ex-offender. Nevertheless, he had found the job search daunting and unsuccessful, and reintegration difficult. He was embarking on a vocational training course, and believed it was one of the few viable options left.

A mother with young children had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Her husband worked nights as the sole-breadwinner. She shared with us how they had just sold their flat to downgrade to a smaller one which was more affordable. She had been training the children to assist their father in household administration e.g. bill payments, and detaching herself from them to make the final parting less painful. It was heart-wrenching.

A 60+ year old Chinese-educated man felt that Singapore was now a place for only the English-educated. In addition, he felt that at the rate costs were rising, it was incumbent upon parents to spend less on themselves so as to save/provide for their children, who would otherwise not be able to meet future costs of living.

A 50-ish resident, whose home was clearly his refuge, came to the conclusion that `something is wrong’. While the government had done some good things, why do older people (40 and above) have to worry so much about jobs and healthcare costs, he asked? “I’m not a big thinker in these things”, he said self-effacingly, “but something is wrong”.

And so in just 2 hours, a snapshot of our society emerges.

Aug 2, 2010

Live Our Dreams. Fly Our Flag.

Funny how slogans can mean different things to different people.

In a couple of days, the annual National Day Parade, the product of zillions of man-hours and resources, will culminate at the Padang. The NDP is a powerful rallying point at which to celebrate our country’s independence and achievements.

Beyond the pomp and fireworks, and towering skyscrapers, what lies beneath? What are the national values we hold dear as Singaporeans? How committed are we to the country’s success? Do we feel we belong? How much would you give up in order to benefit a fellow Singaporean? Are we - a nation?

To this end, the just-released Institute of Policy Studies National Orientations of Singaporeans Survey No. 4 is interesting in several respects. It seems that generally, Singaporeans are faring well relative to other countries in their sense of national pride. Around 30% of the approx 2,000 respondents wanted more government provision of social goods, even if it meant higher taxes. And, perhaps more significantly, 85% believed that `voting gave citizens the most meaningful way in which to tell the government how the country should be run’.

It is indeed right that the General Election remains a national level event – one which lets the people write a collective report card on the incumbent’s performance. It is wrong to re-cast a national election into a vote in favour of local estate upgrading plans, or worse, threats of withholding such plans.

As we approach our 45th National Day, we should really take stock of where our nation is going at this critical juncture. Yesterday, I met two residents of Aljunied GRC who lamented that while they had critical views on government policies, there was no point voicing them. “What can one voice do?” they asked. They could not be more wrong. If every person whom we venerate as a mover and shaker thought that way, would there ever have been human progress?

We owe it to ourselves and the next generation to do what we can, to secure a Singapore which endures. Live Our Dreams. Fly Our Flag!

Jun 29, 2010

what really matters?

I just spent 2 weeks in Belgium and France this month on a European Union Study Tour, looking at EU institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg, and meeting with Members of the European Parliament and officials working for the European Commission, Parliament and Council of Ministers.

The discussions were very insightful as to current EU concerns, which included the Eurozone crisis and the increased role of the European Parliament post-Lisbon Treaty. I also had opportunity to speak with officials concerned with crime and security issues, particularly the EU approach towards transnational crime, terrorism, and judicial co-operation.

Despite the heavy business in Brussels and Strasbourg, it’s fair to say that most people’s minds this month are undoubtedly on the World Cup!

For instance, I was scheduled to meet a Portuguese Member of the European Parliament (MEP) one afternoon at 3 pm. I had already noted that this meeting clashed with the duration of the game between Portugal and North Korea. As expected, the Portuguese MEP turned up quite late after running back from some pub where he was watching the game in progress, up to 4-0, apologizing for being late without the need to. Fifteen minutes into our chat, his assistant popped his head into the room and made his day by saying only 2 words: “Seven-Zero”.

At Brussels Airport, scores of well-suited men were crowded around TV screens to endure Italy’s ouster from the group stages. Even on the flight back to Singapore on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, the crew made periodic announcements updating us of Netherlands’ match against Cameroon, drawing rapturous cheers from Dutch passengers. Nothing seemed to matter more than what was going on in South Africa!

Despite this terrible distraction, there was time to soak in the culinary and cultural jewels which Belgium and France (in particular, Strasbourg in Alsace - see above) had to offer.

Here are some pictures from Brugge, a medieval town in northern Belgium (Flanders) which I highly recommend you visit if you have the chance:

And from my dream destination for food and beverage – Alsace. Again, same recommendation as above (here with a fellow EU Visitor):

I'm now back, and back to reality. Life is indeed too short!

May 30, 2010

Smelling the flowers!

At the end of the last post, I was on the verge of watching `Ip Man 2’. I have to say that, contrary to the opinion of my students, it was a great disappointment compared to `Ip Man’! Action buffs might have loved seeing Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen balancing on half-tables and watching American boxing being thrashed by Chinese martial arts, but what about some depth?
Despite that, my wing chun journey continues. Yesterday’s training session required me to stand on one leg (`dan kiok’ in Cantonese) with the other knee raised to hip level, for 105 seconds, four times for each leg. As my face changed colour and my spirit flagged, my sifu came along and said, “Buns of steel”… as if that goal could take away the pain! I have a funny feeling that the next training session will require holding the stance for even longer…
There is no Parliamentary sitting in June, which is a nice break especially after the last two hectic sittings (April and May) where the debates were on changes to the electoral system (more NCMPs, cooling off period) and the revamp of the Criminal Procedure Code (an area of my professional interest). The long weekend was a welcome social extravaganza, catching up with friends from secondary school, university, church etc. Today was spent re-hashing some familiar culinary recipes, served to an undemanding audience of party members who were mobilized as kitchen hands too:

By this time next week, I’ll be heading towards the airport for a study trip to Belgium and France. Besides being briefed and updated on the European Union and European Parliament, I’ll be making a personal side trip to the Ardennes Forest – yes, to visit the World War 2 Battle of the Bulge sites. Such a pilgrimage is a small tribute to the young men sent to fight, under good leaders and bad, for a better world.

Apr 30, 2010

“OK lah - they may be smarter than us, but we are not idiots”.

Someone today summed up to me this week’s Parliamentary debates as such!

Those who followed the debates will know that landmark changes to our political and electoral processes have been passed by Parliament, which Workers’ Party opposed (full speeches at The Non-Constituency Member of Parliament scheme is expanded through (yet another) Constitutional amendment, and a 24 hour `cooling off day’ before Polling Day is introduced for Singaporeans to reflect on their vote (in case, according to the Law Minister, the people are muddled by Workers’ Party arguments!)

The psyche of voters as they head up to the polls is a fascinating topic.

Just witness the furore surrounding UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s gaffe a few days ago. He had made a scheduled `heartland’ stop at Rochdale, in northern England, to chat with `ordinary people’. After responding briefly to a lady’s concerns about the high presence of Eastern Europeans in the UK, the Prime Minister entered his car and called her a `bigot’ with his microphone still on. He has since had to make a public apology, and visited her to personally apologise.

The British public’s reactions to this incident reflect the pluralism of voter logic. Many feel that the Labour Party’s electoral prospects have been dealt a serious blow. Some voters say they now have doubts about the British PM’s sincerity, since he could say one thing to you and another thing behind your back. On the other hand, others are more forgiving, recognising that everyone has their unguarded moments and private thoughts. Some have even changed their minds to decide to vote FOR Mr Brown, because they agree that the lady is a bigot!

Whatever the thinking, everyone has the right to his own logic for casting his vote, whether it is based on policy, personality or even protest. Nobody has the right to tell you otherwise!

Finally, a wing chun update. Last week, I completed learning the rudiments of the siu lim tao (小念头) basic form of wing chun….a moment of immense pride! In about 24 hours, I will be in a cinema with friends watching `Ip Man 2’ (叶问2) which will continue the narration of the life of Bruce Lee’s kungfu master from the time he arrives in Hong Kong. In case this all seems quite childish for a 45 year old, my 57 year old cousin in Malaysia has already kept aside a huge poster of the `Ip Man 2’ movie for me. According to him, who has watched it already, it’s a great movie….and I don’t think the next 24 hours will assist me to anticipate the movie any more rationally!

Mar 31, 2010

Fragility and Plasticity

I turned 45 three days ago, and have accepted the fact that reading glasses are now a part of daily life. I was in denial for a few years, until a few months ago when some tourists on Orchard Road asked me for directions to Chinatown, and I could not read the names of the MRT stations on their map! Being quite short-sighted as well (775 degrees on each eye), I now have numerous pairs of glasses, each for different occasions, such as - whether I’m only reading and not going anywhere; whether I’m wearing contact lenses as well; whether I need to drive and read street maps etc.

Though it is said that one reaches career peaks in their 40s and 50s, this period also reminds one of life’s fragilities. Two of my Varsity classmates revealed in an email loop that they had just had heart bypasses. Someone I know of my age just had a stroke. As for our parents, they would be in their 70s and facing tougher health challenges.

What is truly amazing is the indomitable spirit which makes human beings fight to recover.

On a short getaway recently, I finally managed to read a book (I read a book every 5 years or so). It described the friendship between Ike Eisenhower and Winston Churchill, which developed from the 1940s through to 1965 when Churchill passed away. In it was mentioned how Churchill had suffered several strokes, but, as doctors will tell you, the human brain has plasticity and can find new pathways to compensate for blocked ones. Churchill recovered sufficiently to carry on in the onerous office of Prime Minister of Great Britain. As he once said: “Politics is like riding a horse. If you are knocked off, you must brush yourself off and remount”.

In Aug 2006, I attended the National Day Dinner organised at Potong Pasir Constituency by veteran MP Mr Chiam See Tong. Someone there bought me a pot of orchids. Not being a person with a green thumb, I did not care for the orchids consistently over the years, leaving them sometimes overgrown with weeds and dehydrated. However, each time I remembered and started watering them, they would start to bloom again, just as they are now.

There is always so much to do, and often too little time. We should remember to take care of ourselves, so that we can do more for others.

Feb 13, 2010

Battling, or savouring, the bulge at CNY

World War II buffs will know that the Battle of the Bulge refers to the Ardennes offensive carried out by Hitler’s army in the winter of 1944/45. For Band of Brothers junkies, you would know that this is covered in discs 3 (Bastogne) and 4 (The Breaking Point) :). The Allies were reportedly starved of supplies, ammunition and warm clothing in the unrelenting Belgian winter, while under heavy artillery fire. (The battle apparently got its name from the fact that the German army managed to create a bulge in the Allied lines during the initial incursion.) After long and hard fighting, the Allied forces emerged victorious, though it is disputed whether the American paratroopers encamped in Bastogne could have prevailed without the intervention of General Patton’s Third Army.

This weekend, however, if anyone were to talk about the Battle of the Bulge, it would more likely refer to our own war against the effects of over-eating and the annual excesses of Chinese New Year. Custom, celebration and courtesy require us to enjoy the feasts laid before us, often painstakingly prepared by loved ones, like the one I just enjoyed:

CNY is an annual reminder to re-connect with family whom we sometimes hardly see otherwise, even in tiny Singapore. To this end, I remember a conversation I had with a tow truck driver, Mr C, who came to my rescue after a traffic accident 3 years ago.

As someone who is basically helpless when anything goes wrong with my car (ok, I’m typical), 60-something Mr C arrived at the highway like a long-awaited saviour. He took charge of the situation single-handedly, hooked up the car to the tow truck, negotiated tight bends with the slimmest of margins, and was totally oblivious to the hoards of angry motorists around us who were being held up.

During the journey to the workshop, he told me that he earned about $1,800 per month. I remember thinking that, considering the tasks involved, the money was really hard-earned. He had children with their own families, whom he used to see very regularly when they came over for meals cooked by his wife. However, since her death several years earlier, he had been living alone, and only saw his children once a year when they invited him over for Reunion Dinner. There was an unmistakeable sadness and resignation in his voice as he narrated the new realities he faced.
Today, I’m reminded of Mr C. It’s his big day with his family.
CNY meals are convivial moments, undoubtedly to be savoured. Hopefully, the ties that bind endure - beyond the banquet.

Jan 30, 2010

why the vote is not `daft'

Last Nov, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak addressed APEC delegates in Singapore. When asked if he was confident that his economic reforms and stimulus packages would work for Malaysia, he quipped: “Well, it better work. Otherwise, you won’t see me around for long”.

While his quip drew laughter from the audience, there was obviously a serious side to this. Politically, the ruling Barisan Nasional’s pole position had been significantly eroded in the General Elections, and the balance of power could tilt in favour of an opposition bloc if the people became more dissatisfied with the ruling coalition. The threat of being voted out of office is a real driver to perform, and to be seen to perform.

Over in the USA, the stunning loss this month of just one Senate seat - Ted Kennedy’s seat in a blue state like Massachusetts – was a slap in the face for President Obama and the Democratic Party. It sent a clear message that there were serious public misgivings about the President’s priorities. Moreover, the Democratic Party’s majority in the Senate became one seat short of the “supermajority” of 60, which meant it could no longer prevent the Republican Party from using (filibuster) procedures to block the Democrats’ agenda.

Thus this week, when Minister Mentor warned Singaporeans not to cast protest votes against runaway HDB prices, at the risk of being `daft’, he was telling Singaporeans that they should not use the vote the way the rest of the world did.

The last few years in Singapore have not been rosy for everyone. Just in the last few days, I came across many people who did not seem to be getting much out of the Singapore Dream: divorcees with genuine housing needs; elderly who could not touch their own Medisave for their outpatient medical needs; chronic sick saddled with huge medical bills; Singaporean workers suffering from being displaced by cheap foreign labour.

Of course, inequalities will exist in any society. Rich and powerful people generally have more control over their lives than the poor and marginalized. But the one, and perhaps only, time when the voices of ordinary citizens speak as loudly as the voices of the elite, is during the General Election. Rich or poor, each person has one vote and an equal say. This truth is so self-evident, and yet often overlooked. Just think about it.

It would therefore be a sheer waste of the vote to support the ruling party when one has grave dissatisfactions with policies or life in Singapore. It is entirely predictable what the incumbents would do with a strong mandate – which they have always done – say that Singaporeans have shown that they trust the ruling party, a recipe for them to decide on any policy, however harsh.

That is not what democracy should be about.