Monday, August 25, 2008

Life After the Olympics

On August 24th, the Beijing Olympics drew to a grand close with another glorious display of choreography, fireworks, singing & dancing artistes, and a London double-decker bus. It brought an end to sixteen days of almost continuous live TV telecasts which had given us all much nail-biting excitement. Day after day we had cheered and groaned as our sporting heroes won or lost in events ranging from gymnastics to swimming, badminton to track & field, basketball to table tennis ...

At the conclusion, the top of the official medal tally table (taken from the official Olympic website) read as follows:

China: 51 gold, 21 silver, 28 bronze, total=100
USA: 36 G, 38 S, 36 B, total=110
Russia: 23 G, 21 S, 28 B, total=72
Britain: 19 G, 13 S , 15 B, total=47
Germany: 16 G, 10 S, 15 B, total=41

That ranking seems quite straightforward, doesn't it? That's what I thought too, until I heard about some alternative rankings that some other countries were putting out, which reflected a very different ranking sequence - often favouring the country where the creative ranking chart originated. I could grudgingly accept creative rankings by "Gold Medals per Capita" which has Jamaica on top, or "Gold Medals per GDP" which puts Zimbabwe on top (which may say more about its failed economy than anything else). But when you get US created rankings based on so-called Theories of Relativity, which effectively says that the US athletes brought home more gold medals than the China athletes because they won in more team events and therefore more individual American athletes received golds than their China competitors, I think that's just going a bit far ! Sounds like we have some sore losers in our midst.

Moving away from just the medal tally and looking at the significance of the Beijing Olympic Games as a whole, the media has frequently remarked that this Olympics is China's "coming of age" party. China's leadership has been keen to be the host, not simply because of the auspicious 08.08.08 starting date, but because it was an opportunity to prove that the Middle Kingdom had "arrived", and had the ability to welcome the world to this high-profile, infrastructure-heavy mega-event.

Prior to the Games beginning, there were many concerns voiced by world media and sporting teams - pollution in the air, algae in the water, quality of the venues, logistics, security etc etc. None of the concerns came to anything. And when it came to the Closing, there was really no need for all that ultra-careful political superlative that IOC president Jacques Rogge resorted to in describing the Games - "truly exceptional" he said. What does that even mean? To me, and most others I know, the Beijing Olympics 2008 was the best ever. Period.

Of course the China government invested a huge amount in preparing for the Games. Estimates have put it in excess of US$ 43 billion. There will be some who criticize the spending of such a vast amount on a mere sporting event. But I think that beyond the immense "China branding" benefits of the Games, if the infrastructure benefits Beijing society in years to come, it would have been money well spent. In any case it's considerably better than the trillions splurged on missiles and bombs and planes in senseless wars in other people's territories. But that's another debate for another day.

Still, with all the current euphoria it is easy to forget that China's biggest achievement is not so much in putting on these Olympic Games, impressive as they may be, but rather its greatest feat has been in lifting millions of people out of poverty over the past twenty years.

Finally how has the US reacted to the Beijing Olympics? Congratulations to them of course for the fantastic performance of their athletes. But taking a look at the significance of the whole event ... There have been references to the Beijing Olympics as the so-called "Sputnik moment" for the US? You know that time in 1957 when the Russians launched the first satellite, thus waking up the Americans and causing them to pursue space research with added vigour. How should the US respond to the phenomena of the Beijing Olympics 2008? I thought Tom Friedman's recent opinion piece in the New York Times was quite thoughtful.

As for me, the end of the Beijing Olympics has certainly brought a lull in my leisure (read TV watching) time. It has been an unforgettable sixteen days. What to do now? Well, last weekend we did go out and buy ourselves a table-tennis set, complete with the net, for a spot of ping pong smashing across the dining table. London 2012 here we come ;-) Beyond that, I guess it's back to work ... and, there's always my blog for entertainment ....

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Peek into the Extreme Future

This afternoon I attended the SIM Annual Management Lecture 2008 at the Raffles City Convention Centre, Singapore. The keynote speaker was Dr James Canton, reknown global futurist, social scientist, author and sought-after business advisor. He is also CEO and Chairman of the Institute for Global Futures. His books include "Technofutures" and "The Extreme Future". I had skimmed the latter title last month (see my blog entry of 23 July), and found its coverage quite wide-ranging and insightful, so was looking forward to hearing from the guru himself.

In an interesting two-hour talk, entitled "The Extreme Future: Top Trends That Will Shape the 21st Century Global Marketplace" (based on his latest book), Dr Canton described the "Extreme Future" as a highly multi-dimensional world of complex trends. The key challenge for business and government leaders is to anticipate, navigate and change the future. Also the convergence of two or more trends is where opportunities (or threats) are most likely to arise.

Dr Canton shared seven trends that shape the future marketplace:-

(1) demographics

Global population has doubled over the past 45 years. Demographic changes directly gives rise to situations such as "aging boomers & "youth boomers" (creating opportunities for lifestyle products & services), global talent wars and explosive consumer purchasing demand. Rapid urbanization leads to mega-cities, most of which will be in developing countries by 2015. Worldwide by 2020, there will be some 50 mega-cities with more than 10 million people each.

(2) globalization

Most of the world's economies are inter-connected, forming a so-called "global village". Beyond economic integration, globalization can also be seen in greater political engagement, technological connectivity, personal contact and quality of life (see "The Extreme Future", Plume paperback edition, page 200). The rise of China and India is having huge repercussions on the world economy and society in general. With 1.3 billion people in China and 1.1 billion in India, these to nations represent the world's largest and second largest consumer market in the future, and together make up 1/3 of the global population. These developing countries also provide a willing, lower-cost workforce ready for the world (see next trend).

(3) workforce

The future of workforce will be defined by talent more than by geography. By 2015, the US workforce will have 14 million more jobs than workers and this will pose a restriction to US competitiveness. Hence the search for innovative talent will drive global outsourcing - not just the search for low costs.

The situation in many developing countries, for instance China and India, is quite the opposite. With a huge working population and relatively limited job opportunities, it is perhaps not surprising to hear statistics such as a million people a day walking into cities looking for jobs and other opportunities. And many of these talents would cross borders to find work, or else perform outsourced & offshored jobs from other countries like the US or Europe. Talent is mobile.

Organizations today are not preparing for and changing fast enough to compete for talent. The ability to attract and retain talent is the key to competitive advantage. Period. Ongoing future challenges include dealing with a culturally diverse, global and aging workforce.

Dr Canton even predicted that in the not too distant future, Singapore will be outsourcing to the USA.

(4) innovation

We are increasingly living in an Innovation Economy. Innovations will continue to come even faster, and likely even more radical than ever before. Today, more than 1/3 of the US GDP is innovation-driven, ie. based on innovation industries. The new building blocks of the Innovation Economy are bits, atoms, neutrons and genes. Building on this, the breakthrough innovations in the Four Power Tools (IT & networks, nanotech, biotech and cogno/neurotech) will create widespread global prosperity. Dr Canton emphasised that willingness to embrace innovation is key to competitive success. He also reminded the audience of the concept of Innovation Darwinism, ie. you need to innovate, adapt or you DIE.

(5) security

Sharing his "Securing the Future" Future Map, Dr Canton spoke about threats and opportunities related to Crime, Terror, Tyranny, Rogue Tech, Climate and Cognitive Liberty. Specifically he touched on an uptrend in cybersecurity, increased incidence of rogue players, and geopolitical risk analysis. Globally the security market is valued at around $80 billion.

(6) energy

A "Fueling the Future" Future Map was briefly shared, which touched on issues and options related to the "End of Oil" (or at least the era of cheap oil is over) , Nuclear, Geopolitics, Solar, Hydrogen, Biofuels, Wind, Nanotech, Security and Terrorism. The point emphasised here was that energy is a national security issue, and that we need to invest in new energy sources.

(7) climate

Climate change is real - there's no denying it. World temperatures are rising. Fixing the problem will be hard and long-term. Climate change will threaten national security, global prosperity and peace.

Future Readiness
Next Dr Canton touched on "future readiness", or the key skills one needs to have to be better prepared for this Extreme Future. For business and government leaders, he shared what he called his "21st Century Leaders' Playbook", which included his recommendations to:
  • Embrace radical innovation (you don't need to understand every radical innovation to monetise it)

  • Anticipate your customers' futures (by asking them questions such as: how is your business / industry changing? what do you think you will be selling in ... years?)

  • Understand desire, shape it and deliver to satisfy it

  • Understand the evaluation of value (business is in evolutionary change, and so is perceived value)

  • Understand that all business is going to be knowledge-engineered

  • Understand that collaboration wins

  • Not to wait until everything is perfect before taking action. Just go do it.

  • Develop a predictive awareness (ask what/who you are not listening to? ask what's missing?)

  • Pay attention to "edge culture" (defined as some groups, things you are probably a little uncomfortable with. Listen to "weak signals".)

  • Accept hyper-change (eg. from non-traditional competitors, potentially disruptive)

  • Invest in your future
Overall it was a good lecture - well delivered, good content (useful framework, relevant examples and solid research) and thought-provoking. SIM should be congratulated and thanked for bringing in yet another thought leader to jog strategic thinking and inject new ideas among the public and private sector community.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Adventures of an Armchair Athlete

Ever since 08.08.08, I'm pretty sure the overall productivity of the world has dropped slightly, as millions take time out to watch the various events of the Beijing Olympics progressing day by day. I know I've been glued to the TV whenever I have spare time, following the fortunes of a number of athletes in a variety of sports. Nail-biting stuff.

Did you watch that opening ceremony at the Birds Nest stadium in Beijing? Wow, wasn't that just awesome in scale, grandeur and artistry? So much planning must have gone into choreographing the various sequences depicting the great inventions the Middle Kingdom contributed to mankind: paper, printing, the compass and gunpowder. Also for me, the "crouching tiger, hidden dragon" style lighting of the Olympic cauldron was comparable to my previous favourite which was that archer who shot the flaming arrow to light the cauldron at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

As a Malaysian residing and working in Singapore, I was particularly interested in the two sports of badminton and table tennis, which the two countries had the best chances for an Olympic medal. As it turned out, both Singapore's women's table tennis team, comprising Feng Tianwei, Wang Yue Gu and Li Jia Wei, and Malaysia's badminton champion Lee Chong Wei made it to the finals, in both cases against China. Alas, they didn't manage to overcome their Chinese competitors, and both Singapore and Malaysia had to settle for the Silver medal. Still, it was a tremendous achievement for both countries. It was Singapore's first Olympic medal after 48 years (the only other time was for weightlifting in Rome, 1960), and 12 years for Malaysia (the previous silver & bronze medals also for badminton at Atlanta, 1996).

I was also very keen on the swimming events. Geez, that Michael Phelps (USA) must be super-human. Attaining a single gold medal is a lifelong dream for most athletes, but EIGHT ??? And most of the wins are also in world record times. Really must find out what this chap eats for breakfast.

Language-wise, through these games, the entire world would have learnt at least one Chinese phrase. That phrase obviously is jia you (literally meaning "add oil" and loosely translated to "Come on!" or "Give your best!"), almost a constant chant by the Chinese crowds in the various stadiums, as they egg their national heroes on.

Ahh, the Olympic spirit is alive and well. What a wonderful forum for the the best athletes from around the globe to pit their talents against each other in friendly competition - striving to attain excellence, as exemplified in the Olympic motto citius altius fortius, which means "faster, higher, stronger"

There's been a lot of discussion about keeping politics and the Olympics separate. All that protesting about Tibet and alleged human rights abuses and boycotting of the Beijing Olympics ... I think you can't really separate politics from anything, much less a high-visibility event like the Olympics. Humans are by nature political animals, so why bother? In fact, why not combine politics with the games in a more productive way? The idealist in me frequently questions why can't all international disputes be resolved in a game rather than with armed conflict? You know, through basketball or badminton rather than bombs and bullets.

There's about a week left in the Beijing Olympics, and I'm thoroughly enjoying myself. For the rest of the games and especially the closing ceremony, let's hope everything proceeds as perfectly as it has so far. I kinda pity those on the London Olympics 2012 organizing committee. What do you do to top a performance like that in Beijing? Hmm, possible thoughts for a future blog ...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Thailand - Land of Smiles, Shrines & Stalemate

I found myself in Bangkok for two days this week for some planning meetings. I've always enjoyed coming to Thailand, and I've found most Thais I've met friendly and hospitable. The tagline "Thailand - Land of Smiles" holds true ... for me anyway.

Stayed at the Grand Hyatt Erawan, as I normally try to do. I like the Grand Hyatt, which is on Ratchadamri Road in central Bangkok. Very comfortable and conveniently located, near the shopping areas (not that I had much spare time to visit them) as well as our Thailand office.

There's a prominent Hindu shrine at the road crossing, next to the hotel. The Erawan Shrine, dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma and Erawan, his (three-headed) elephant, is extremely popular, drawing a constant stream of devout worshippers every day. They come to burn incense, offer up coloured garlands and pray. Sometimes there are traditional dance performances to honour the deity.

There are a couple of interesting stories about the Erawan area. The Erawan Shrine was actually built, at the advice of an astrologer, after several workers lost their lives in mysterious accidents during the construction of the Erawan Hotel in the mid 50's. It seemed the hotel project had plenty of problems.Besides the worker casualties, it was also beset by cost over-runs as well as loss of building materials. Once the shrine was constructed, no further accidents occurred.

A more recent incident happened in 2006 when a Thai man, later said to be mentally unstable, used a hammer to smash the hollow statue of Brahma into bits. The crowd of worshippers, once having gotten over the initial shock, descended on him and basically battered him to death. I'm not sure how many people (if any) were eventually charged. A new Brahma statue was completed and installed two months later.

Thailand is still going through much political uncertainty. It has been almost two years since the bloodless military coup which led to the ousting of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006. Soon afterwards, his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party was dissolved, and 111 executive members from the party were banned from holding political office for five years. At the national elections in December 2007, the newly formed People's Power Party (PPP) won with a comfortable majority, and its leader Samak Sundaravej became Prime Minister. Critics cried foul saying that the PPP was just TRT under a new name and that PPP supporters were merely Thaksin supporters. Nonetheless the PPP together with a few minor parties formed the ruling coalition. Things have not been easy. The PPP continued to be pressured by the opposition Democrat Party. Some PPP politicians were charged for corruption. The abilities of the leadership have been called into question, with derogatory references to a "second tier" Cabinet. There's even a border dispute with neighbouring Cambodia over an ancient temple.

All throughout this period, Thaksin and his family have been constantly in the limelight. After more than a year of self-imposed exile in London, where he seemed to have a good time - he even bought football club Manchester City (which obviously got him a lot of media coverage by the football-crazy Thais) - he and his wife voluntarily returned to Bangkok. Charges of corruption and abuse of power were brought against him and his wife, Pojaman. Soon after the latter was sentenced to a jail term (although it is under appeal), Thaksin and wife apparently decided to slip away (after attending the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing) back to London. The headlines in yesterday's "The Nation" newspaper said it all: "Thaksin Must Face Justice: Democrat". Moves have been initiated to seize his considerable assets and to try to get him extradited back to Thailand.

Yes indeed, Thailand is facing much political uncertainty. There's no clear light at the end of this murky political tunnel. So many things seem to be going wrong. And this political stalemate seems to have all stumped for breakthrough solutions. Perhaps a new shrine is called for. It worked for the Erawan Hotel. Perhaps it will work again for the Kingdom of Thailand.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Singapore A to Z

On the occasion of Singapore's 43rd birthday, here's my salute to this island-nation that I've called home for more than two decades. This is my own - sometimes serious, sometimes quirky, sometimes tongue-in-cheek - "A to Z" style review of the Lion City. Hope you find it interesting ...

A is for Air-Conditioning. The air-conditioner has been used as a metaphor for the workings of Singapore (for more, read Cherian George's "Singapore: The Air-conditioned Nation"). Former Prime Minister & current Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, when asked what was the most important invention of the 20th century also cited the air-con, because that's what enabled developing countries like Singapore to progress economically. The hot humid conditions were impediments to work, and by controlling the environment, we were able to work much more efficiently and comfortably. I believe one day, Singapore will go further and control its environment even more completely by building a "dome" that covers the entire island, and is able to tweak even the weather conditions its inhabitants' experience!

A is for Ah Meng, a Sumatran orang utan and for many years the most-loved icon of the Singapore Zoo. "Breakfast with Ah Meng" was a major tourist draw, with many dignitaries and celebrities dropping by - some notable ones include Prince Philip and Michael Jackson. Ah Meng passed away of old age in early 2008 aged about 48. Some 4,000 people attended the memorial service. Perhaps one could say that Ah Meng was one of the early foreign talents in Singapore!

B is for the Botanical Garden, one of the world’s finest in terms of landscaping and quality of its botanical collection. The garden has more than 3,000 species of tropical and subtropical plants and a herbarium of about 500,000 specimens. Much of the 31-hectare Garden, which was started by the British in the mid-19th century, was carved directly out of virgin forests. In its early years the garden served as an experimental station for plants with potential commercial value. Under the direction of Henry Ridley, superintendent in 1888, the garden became a centre for research on Hevea brasiliensis, the Brazilian rubber tree. Ridley even developed an improved method of rubber-tapping trees that resulted in a better yield of latex.

C is for the five C's that many Singaporeans aspire to acquire, namely Car, Condo, Cash, Credit card and Country club membership. In some ways, this reflects the unstated Singaporean cultural ethos of materialistic obsession and aspiration to achieve these things. Might this be the Singapore Dream?

C is for Caning. We're not talking about parents or teachers using the rod on naughty little kids, but caning as a judicial corporal punishment. Remember the international fuss that was made when that American kid, Michael Fay received four strokes for theft and vandalism? It's quite ironical how the West often criticises Singapore's practice of caning, deeming it inhumane treatment of prisoners, when history tells us that judicial caning was introduced to Singapore by the British during colonial days.

C is also for Chicken Rice, which many will agree is the unofficial national dish of Singapore, whether you go for the $25 version atop the Meritus Mandarin hotel or the much lower priced (but often equally good) hawker fare. Chicken rice is just one of a huge variety of sumptious, multi-ethnic food that Singapore is known for.

D is for Democracy. The government system in Singapore is a democracy with a Westminster system of unicameral parliamentary government representing different constituencies. Most of the executive powers rests with the Cabinet, headed by the Prime Minister. The office of the President, historically a ceremonial one, was granted some veto powers as of 1991 for a few key decisions such as the use of the national reserves and the appointment of judiciary positions.

E is for ERP or Electronic Road Pricing, which Singapore successfully pioneered as one of the ways to curb traffic congestion. Gantries have been erected around various roads of Singapore, and electronic cashcard bearing units are installed in all vehicles. This enables automatic deduction of the relevant amount from the cashcard whenever the vehicle passes under an ERP gantry which is in operation. Some cynics say that at the rate the number of gantries are going up, ERP may soon mean "Every Road Pay".

E is for the "Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay", an impressive performing arts venue for both local and international performances, which opened in 2002. The Esplanade is located on prime waterfront land on the Marina Bay and has a 1,600 seat concert hall and a 2,000 seat theatre. The complex also includes retail space, food outlets and an arts library. I predict that in 20 years time, people will refer to 3 global centres for performing arts - Broadway in New York, the West End in London and the Esplanade in Singapore.

E is for Education, highly valued by Singapore society and also getting much attention from the Singapore government. By global standards, Singapore's education system is deemed highly effective, with Singapore students consistently scoring among the world's highest in mathematics and science. Psst, wanna know the secrets behind this success? Five main factors seem to have contributed: (i) the dedication and work of Singapore's education ministry- especially in developing the education framework and syllabi, (ii) the environment in Singapore where most parents strive to give their children the best in their education, including buying lots of assessment books and getting them private tuition, (iii) the competitive environment in most schools, and (iv) regular assessments of students' performances via homework, projects, tests and exams.

F is for Fines. The cynics like to say that "Singapore is a Fine City"- you can even buy souvenir T-shirts saying the same! There are fines imposed for quite a number of transgressions, such as littering, spitting, speeding, drink-driving, illegal parking, jaywalking, not flushing public toilets, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera ...

F is for Formula One races, part of the Singapore Grand Prix event which will have its inaugural night races on 28 September 2008. The races will be staged in the Marina Bay area. Vroom, vroom ... I wonder if these racing cars will have to pay ERP charges too?

G is for Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded Lee Kuan Yew as the second Prime Minister of Singapore from 1990 to 2004. Although his style seemed more gentle and accommodating than his predecessor, he was equally firm when situations warranted. He was responsible for seeing through much national progress, including weathering through the Asian financial crisis. He currently serves as Senior Minister.

G is for Girl, the Singapore Girl that is. No one who has flown on Singapore Airlines can forget the elegant, demure, sarong kebaya clad air stewardesses who are the unmistakable global face of SQ. The original concept was created by Ian Batey, while Pierre Balmain, a French haute couture designer, was engaged to construct and update the Malay sarong kebaya costume. Ahhh ... what can I say - sex sells!

H is for Hub, a word one reads about a lot in the local newspapers. Singapore has aspirations to be a hub in many areas - healthcare, communications, logistics, technology, education, biomedical, sports, entertainment, even luxury watches !

H is for HDB or Housing Development Board. Public housing in Singapore is managed by the HDB. These HDB flats are made affordable for the masses, who can also draw on their CPF to help pay for it. About 85% of Singaporeans live in HDB flats.

I is for Integrated Resort (IR), one is being developed on Marina Bay and the other on Sentosa island. (The photo shows the Marina IR currently under construction). As everybod knows, IR is just a euphemism for "Casino". According to the government's master schedule, both IR's are planned to be operating by 2011. I'm sure many are willing to bet on that.

J is for the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a militant Islamic organisation bent on setting up an Islamic State in South-East Asia. JI is known to have been responsible for the Bali bombing of 2002. JI also had a plot to set off bombs in Singapore, but this was foiled by the local authorities. Although security on this island-nation is very good on the whole, there was one incident in early 2008, when one of the JI operatives, Mas Selamat, escaped from a Singapore detention centre in early 2008 and is still at large.

K is for Kiasuism. "Kiasu" is a Hokkien word meaning "afraid to lose" Some people say that the term entered Singapore's popular lexicon via the Mr Kiasu cartoon character, whose philosophies include: Always must win; Everything also must grab; Jump queue; Keep coming back for more; Look for discounts; Never mind what they think; Rushing and pushing wins the race; and Winner takes it all! all! all! Are Singaporeans kiasu? At the risk of generalising, it's true that they are competitive and a true Singaporean will never pass by a bargain. Retailers know this very well and are constantly offering FOC (free of charge) gifts, "limited edition" goods or good discounts to attract shoppers. In fact, it is easy to spot where bargains are being offered. Just watch out for queues at retail outlets (learn more about this under Q)

L is for Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding father. As Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990, he is credited for shepherding the underdeveloped port into one of Asia's wealthiest nations within one generation. He currently holds the position of Minister Mentor.

L is also for Lee Hsien Loong, the current Prime Minister of Singapore, who took over the job from Goh Chok Tong in 2004. A graduate of Cambridge and Harvard, prior to entering politics, he was in the Singapore Armed Forces and quickly rose through the ranks to become the youngest Brigadier-General in Singapore's history. He is the son of Lee Kuan Yew.

L is for Lion. According to the legend of how Singapura was "founded", a Sumatran prince named Sang Nila Utama wanted to find a suitable place for a new city. He decided to visit the islands off the coast of Sumatra. From there, he spotted a distant island, and had to brave a great storm before reaching it. When he went inland to hunt, he suddenly saw a strange animal with a red body, black head and a white breast . It moved very quickly and disappeared into the jungle. His chief minister informed him that it probably was a lion. However, recent studies of Singapore indicate that lions have never lived there, and the beast seen by Sang Nila Utama was most likely a Malayan tiger. Anyway, Sang Nila Utama believed the sighting to be a good omen and so he decided to build his new city in Temasek, which he named "Singapura" - "singa" means lion and "pura" means city. According to the Malay Annals, Sang Nila Utama ruled the island from 1299 to 1347.

M is for the Merlion, the "creature" thought up by the Singapore Tourism Board as an emblem for Singapore. It has a lion head and fish body, resting on a crest of waves. I'm sure there's some clever symbolism for each feature, but I haven't found the STB write-up yet.

M is for "Majulah Singapura", the national anthem. It means "Forward Singapore" and was composed by Zubir Said in 1958, originally as a theme song for Singapore City Council functions, but when Singapore gained independence in 1965, it was officially adopted as the national anthem. Alas after 43 years, many school kids when asked to name their national anthem still respond with "Mari kita" ...

M is for Mustafa, the ever-popular department store located at Serangoon Plaza, on Serangoon Road in the area called "Little India". A couple of floors selling everything from foodstuff to jewellery to electronic goods. Prices at Mustafa are supposedly lower than in other department stores on Orchard Road. Mustafa also stays open 24x7.

N is for Newton Hawker Centre, a popular eating spot for locals and tourists alike. Here one can find many food stalls selling everything from chicken rice to laksa, hokkien noodles to chilli stingray, kangkong belacan to laksa (with cockles, of course) .... yummy!

N is for "NEWater" the name given to potable, recycled water produced by Singapore's Public Utilities Board. The purification method uses dual-membrane (via microfiltration and reverse osmosis) and ultraviolet technologies, in addition to conventional water treatment processes.

O is for the Opposition politicians. Not much to write here, as there are not many in the Opposition. Currently there are three in Parliament - MP Chiam See Tong (of the Singapore Deomocratic Party) , MP Low Thia Khiang and NMP Sylvia Lim (both from Workers' Party).

O is for Orchard Road, the main retail and entertainment area in Singapore. Lots of hotels, lots of malls, lots of shoppers ... 'nuff said.

P is for PAP (People's Action Party) , Singapore's ruling political ruling party since 1959. From the 1963 general elections, the PAP has dominated Singapore's parliamentary democracy and has been central to the city-state's political, social, and economic development.

is for Population. Singapore has a population of about 4.2 million, a multi-racial (Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians) and multi-religious (Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindu, etc) mix, which has managed to live harmoniously together for the past four decades. Unfortunately Singapore also has a fast aging populations. It has been projected that by 2020, more than a quarter of the population will be above 65 years of age. Various measures are being implemented to stop or slow down this trend.

Q is for Queues. Everywhere in Singapore, you find queues. From queues at hawker stalls to bus stops to ticketing booths to ATM machines (especially on pay day) to ..... you name it! But above all, queues form most quickly in retail areas when there are discounted items or better still freebies to be gotten ...

R is for Raffles. Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) is honoured as being the founder of modern Singapore in 1819. In December 1818, Raffles left Calcutta in search of a new British settlement to replace Malacca. Malacca was one of the many British territories given back to the Dutch as part of a war treaty. Raffles had foreseen that without a strategic British trading post located within the Straits Settlement, the Dutch could gain control of the Straits Settlement trade. He found this in Singapore. Raffles arrived in Singapore in January 1819 and together with William Farquhar, he met the Temenggong Abdul Rahman to negotiate for a British factory to be established on the island. On 6 February 1819, he signed an official treaty with the Sultan and Temenggong, and subsequently the Union Jack Flag was raised officially.

R is for "Red Dot". This came from a disparaging reference to Singapore by former Indonesian President Habibie in 1998. The Indonesian leader had remarked that he did not have the feeling that Singapore was a friend, and had pointed to a map saying "All the green [area] is Indonesia. And that red dot is Singapore." The term has come to be used by both Singapore leaders and citizens with pride and a sense of the nation's success despite its physical limitations.

S is for Sentosa island, a small island located just off the southern edge of Singapore. A bridge links it to the mainland. One can also get to Sentosa by cablecar. The name "Sentosa" means "peace and tranquility" in Malay, which is so much better than its previous name, which was an ominous-sounding "Pulau Belakang Mati", which literally means "Island of Death from Behind". Sentosa is one of the popular tourist spots in Singapore, with sites such as Fort Siloso, Underwater World, Dolphin Lagoon, Butterfly Park, "Song of the Sea" Show, etc. There are also a number of hotels there. By 2010, it will also be the site of one of Singapore's two Integrated Resorts.

S is also for the Singapore Flyer, a huge "ferris wheel" like structure and one of Singapore's latest tourist attractions. You can read about my experience on the Singapore Flyer in one of my previous blog entries.

T is for Temasek, the old name for Singapore. According to legend, it was the Sumatran prince Sang Nila Utama (see under L for Lion) who gave the name Temasek to the island, where he spotted an animal which he thought was a lion, and therefore called the place Singapura.

U is for "Uniquely Singapore", the tagline that the Tourism Board is pushing in a whole series of media campaigns.

V is for Vivocity, one of the recently opened shopping malls on Pasir Panjang. Warning to husbands and boyfriends: if you go there with your other half, be prepared for lots & lots of walking !

W is for world-class companies - such as Singapore Airlines, Changi International Airport, Port of Singapore, and many more.

X is for eXcellence. This tiny nation-state continues to strive for excellence in so many different areas.

Y is for Yusof bin Ishak, who first served as the Yang Di-Pertuan Negara (Head of State) from 1959 to 1965, and then Singapore's first President from 1965 until his death in 1970. He was loved and respected by all communities. Today his picture appears on certain Singapore currency notes introduced in 1999.

Z is for Zoo. The Singapore Zoo at Mandai is one of the best zoological parks in the world. They also have an attraction called the "Night Safari", which was a world's first. The Singapore Zoo was also home to Ah Meng, the orang utan.

Well, to all my Singaporean friends and colleagues, have a great National Day!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Ghost Month - Part 1

The thirteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is called Ghost Day and the seventh month as a whole is the Ghost Month. It is believed that on this thirteenth day, the realms of Heaven, Hell (some say Purgotory) and the Living all become open for 30 days - allowing the spirits of the dead to roam the earth. Some even think that the ghosts will seek revenge on those who had wronged them during their lives.This tradition is practiced by Buddhists and Taoists, and can be observed in China (as well as other lands hosting the Chinese diaspora - such as Singapore and Malaysia), Taiwan, Vietnam as well as in Japan. The month culminates with the Festival of the Hungry Ghost.

During this festival, families pay respect to their deceased relatives and visit their graves, often accompanied by much feasting as if their dead relations were still with them. In order to appease the roaming spirits, people burn incense and forms of paper offerings - this includes hell money, paper houses, paper servants, paper vehicles, paper TV sets ... I've even seen paper recreations of credit cards (Visa, Mastercard, Amex ... you name it. And of course, at least Gold if not Platinum) ! These offerings are symbolic of the materialistic comforts the living hope to pass on to their deceased loved ones so the spirit may have an easier existence in the afterworld. Someone has probably come up with a "package deal" which includes the Singaporean 5Cs (car, condo, credit card, country club & cash). Such ancestor worship, which is a form of expression of filial piety, is further practiced through praying rituals performed by hired Buddhist monks.

On the 15th day of the month, elaborate settings of delicious food items are cooked and offered to the deceased. This is to feed the spirits, and to ward off bad luck. Commonly found food items include roasted pig, fruits and cakes are also displayed on alters or in front of pictures of deceased individuals.

In addition, there is a belief that the roaming spirits too need to be entertained. In Singapore (and I'm sure many other countries too) this often extends into communal festivities, with crowds of residents thronging to catch shows on make-shift stages erected all over the city. This practice is called "Getai" - the term originating from the Chinese characters "ge" meaning "song" and "tai" for "stage". "Getai" shows typically include singing, dancing and even acrobatics .

Last year, there was a Singapore-made movie called "881" (directed by Royston Tan) which was about two ill-fated girls who performed together on the "Getai" scene in Singapore, and had to face various rivalries from competing singers. The movie was quite a hit among the local audience.

Fifteen days after the feast, the festival will end, as the Chinese believe that the ghosts return to where they come from.

Over the next few weeks, we will be taking our cameras out to capture some of the very colourful and vibrant scenes of Ghost Month, so stay tuned for more on this festival.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Remembering Borobodur

Pop Quiz: What is the connection between Borobodur and Singapore? (Read on for answer)

I have a little souvenir "stupa" on my desk at home. It's a pretty heavy bell-shaped object made from some form of rock, so it does well as a paper weight. I got it during my visit to the ancient Borobodur temple on the island of Java, in Indonesia about two years ago. A "stupa" is a symbol of enlightenment and an ancient icon of Buddhist art. Stupas are also very prevalent forms of Buddhist architecture, and are designed with deep symbolism and geometry. They are often filled with Buddhist relics and other sacred objects.

Borobodur is located 40km north-west of Yogyakarta and is a popular tourist destination. The Borobodur Temple complex, recognised as one of the largest Buddhist monuments in the world, is believed to have been built between the end of the 7th and beginning of the 8th century A.D. For about a century and half, it was the spiritual centre of Buddhism in Java, and then suddenly it was lost, overgrown by the jungle until its rediscovery in the 19th century.

The structure comprises about 60,000 square metres of lava rock, the whole complex sited on a hill. It is shaped like a stepped-pyramid with six rectangular levels, three circular terraces and a huge central stupa at the top. There are many stupas located all around, with a statue of the Buddha within each, except for the main stupa itself which is empty, which as I was told, symbolizes complete perfection of enlightenment. There are thousands of bas relief carvings of scenes derived from Buddhist text depicting the life of the Buddha, including portrayals of hellish torture mixed with sweet pleasures.

Back to my pop quiz question. What links Singapore and Borobodur is Stamford Raffles. Most people know that Raffles is credited with the founding of the city of Singapore. But less known is the fact that during his time as Governor of Java, Raffles was also responsible for the rediscovery of the ancient Borobodur site. While Raffles was on an inspection expedition to the north coast of Java in 1814, he learnt of a large monument deep in a jungle near the village of Bumisegoro. As he was not able to the site himself, he instructed a Dutch engineer named H.C. Cornelius to go and investigate. In two months, Cornelius and his men felled trees, burnt vegetation and excavated the earth to reveal the monument. Due to the danger of collapse, he could not unearth all galleries. He reported his findings to Raffles including various drawings. Thus Raffles has been credited with the monument's recovery, as one who had brought it to the world's attention.

Over the years, the Borobodur complex suffered much damage - both natural and man-made (including looting of various artefacts). From 1968-1973, UNESCO led a "Save Borobodur" restoration campaign. Today Borobudur is once again used as a place of worship and pilgrimage.

As I get older, I find myself being increasingly interested in history. Perhaps it's because I see myself gradually becoming a historical relic too ;-) In reading about events in the past, I notice an unsettling pattern of repeated mistakes that mankind seems to have made. We certainly don't seem to learn our lessons well. Empires rise and fall in very similar ways. Wars are fought for equally dubious reasons (eg. the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq wars are uncanny).

I'm especially drawn to "lost world" scenarios. How could once prosperous cities and societies over time have declined so significantly to the point of near disappearing? I'm intrigued by the writing of such scholars like Jared Diamond, whose book "Collapse" covers this topic, on the disappearance of the Mayans, Greenland's Norse, inhabitants of Easter Island, etc. Why and how did it happen? Will there one day be a "Lost City of Singapore"? Or an "Ancient Ruins of Kuala Lumpur"? Or "Buried Bangkok"? A preposterous notion? Maybe. Then again, if we recall that Borobodur thrived for 150 years, maybe not ...