Saturday, September 27, 2008

Fast Food, Fast Cars, Fast Women

Fast Food

Singapore and Malaysia are well known for a whole range of delicious ethnic foods - Chinese, Malay, Indian - as well as a variety of international fare. Sold at coffee shops, hawker centres, food courts, restaurants, there is never any lack of choice. Also many places are open right into the wee hours of the morning.

Fast food outlets are also very common. Way back in the 80's when the likes of Western fast food franchaises like McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Subway etc had yet to be established in these parts, I had my doubts if they would ever be successful. After all, who in their right mind would buy a burger, fries and drink for more than $3.50 (remember this was in the 80's) when they could get a more delicious bowl of noodles or plate of chicken rice with drink for considerably less? Maybe the only people to frequent these fast food joints would be foreigners who were not as adventurous in their food tastes, and wanted something familiar.

Well, fast forward to the 21st century and obviously I was totally wrong, as fast food joints can be seen everywhere, especially in city areas, co-existing with the local fare. Lesson: one shouldn't under-estimate the suggestive power of Western culture, amplified through persistent media advertising.

Fast Cars

Moving from food to automobiles ... Why are so many people fascinated with the Grand Prix or Formula One racing? Malaysia has had a racing circuit at Sepang (near KLIA) for some years, and I have foreign friends who attend races there almost every year. Singapore has just hosted the world's first Formula One (F1) night races on 28 September.

I've never been an F1 enthusiast myself. Previously I didn't know my Hamilton from my honey ham, and Alonso sounded like a blend of red wine to me ... but I was curious to see what the fuss was all about, and I watched the races that night. I must admit it was quite exciting, especially with the various thrills and spills along the way. I learnt that it was also most unpredictable - the driver Massa, who was in front at the beginning of the race, ended up near the last, and the chap Alonso, who due to a problem during the qualifier rounds started last, eventually won the race.

Of course I wasn't crazy enough to pay money for the exorbitantly priced tickets and go down to the trackside. Instead I watched from the VIP Grandstand of my own living room, in front of my 40" flatscreen TV set. Without sounding like "sour grapes", I still think one sees more of the race on TV, and I'm sure I won't miss the noise, heat and crowds that the trackside comes with.

Still I have gotten a much better appreciation of why F1 is so big worldwide, and why it brings the crowds - rich and poor, men and women, young and old. And having hosted the world's first night races has certainly put Singapore on the map for many who would otherwise never have visited this little island.

Fast Women

With hosting the F1 night races, Singapore has gotten a taste of what it's like to be a "city with buzz", welcoming the rich and famous from around the world. I was amused to read this recent article in the papers, which might give an inkling of what future Integrated Resorts (ie. Casino) visitors might be interested in ...

Escorts cash in on Grand Prix traffic
Fri Sep 26, 2008

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Big spenders in Singapore for the city state's first ever Formula One Grand Prix this weekend have boosted business for high-end social escort agencies by a fifth, a local paper reported Thursday.

"This is the best weekend this year," Prince Wong, owner of Singapore Escort Services, told The Straits Times newspaper. Wong said he has received five bookings for the weekend -- including one for a local starlet at a fee of S$40,000 ($28,110) for six hours of work.

Wong, who said his clients are foreign bosses in the gas and banking industries, declined to reveal the identity of both client and escort.

Singapore is hosting the Formula One race in the hopes of boosting its tourism sector, although the enthusiasm has been partly dampened by the ongoing global financial turmoil. The race will also be held at night for the first time.

The owner of The High Society Club agency expects business to be boosted by 75 per cent, while Singapore Model Escort is advertising on its website a 50 percent discounted "Singapore F1 GP Special offer," the Straits Times reported.

The newspaper said the escort's job is to smile, entertain the client and his friends by making small talk and sometimes show the client around Singapore.

The agencies said sexual services was not part of the deal but strictly between the escort and client to arrange, the Straits Times reported.

Prostitution is legal in Singapore but soliciting is not.

Agencies say their high-profile clients are picky about their escorts, asking for companions "from a good family background and at least a university degree," the Straits Times said.

"They want escorts who don't look, sound or dress like escorts. They want people to think, 'what a nice girlfriend he has'," it quoted an agency head as saying.

(Reporting by Daryl Loo; Editing by David Fox)
It certainly seems that high-end social escort services is a growth industry. Any new investors?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Life's Purpose

My blog entry today is a bit more serious, retrospective, perhaps even a tinge philosophical. As one might expect, there is usually a trigger for such a state of mind ...

Last week I learnt the sad news of the sudden passing of an ex-colleague and friend. He was relatively young - only in his early 40s - and apparently he died not from illness, but from a freak accident that injured his leg, and apparently caused some circulatory complications (a blood clot, I heard) leading to him suddenly collapsing one morning.

There was quite a large group of people at his wake which was held at the void deck of the HDB block where he presumably had lived. I met some old colleagues and friends that I had not bumped into for many years. He was obviously well-liked and active in his organisation and community. I remember him as a very pleasant chap, smart, professional at work, relatively quiet but always with a ready smile and an approachable demenour.

As I had not seen him for a number of years, I wonder what he had been doing during that time. Was he happy? What were his life goals, and did he attain most of them? Were there things he would have wanted to do before he passed on so unexpectedly? What did he see as his life purpose?

Life can be so frail. Such a sudden passing could happen to any of us. I wonder when it is our time to go, would we have regrets? Would we have attained what we set out to do? Would we consider ourselves as having led a purposeful and worthwhile life? And what is the purpose of our life anyway?

This reminds me of something a Filipino friend of mine, Larrem, once introduced to me. Apparently the French novelist & playwright Honore de Balzac proposed a three part recipe for a full life- a sort of three paths to immortality:
  • Write a book
  • Raise a child
  • Plant a tree.
I've been quite intrigued by the simplicity of these prescribed actions, and have thought about them at some length. Is leading a meaningful life really so simple? Eventually I concluded that Balzac intended them in a more metaphorical rather than literal sense. Each simple statement could be "expanded" into a spectrum of actions.

For instance, "write a book" might be about documenting one's knowledge and experiences so that future generations may benefit from what one learnt or went through. It could include writing a book, but is not limited to just that. It could also be diary-keeping, journaling, capturing scenes in art or photography .. yes, even blogging. The essence is to leave something that records what you have learnt or felt to benefit or bring joy to others that come after you.

The "raise a child" part is not necessarily just about bringing up one's own offspring, although again that is obviously included. It also refers to developing people, recognising and enhancing talents, and generally helping other succeed if one is in a position to do so. Here again there's an element of imparting knowledge and wisdom.

The third part "plant a tree" is not simply about gardening or even mere agriculture. To me it is a shorform for conservation and replenishment of the environment, and generally leaving the world in the same or preferably a better natural state than when we came into it.

As for looking at my own life through Balzac's lens, well ... I figure I've done some of the first two items, but I can't lay much claim to the third. Perhaps time to give it more consideration.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What I'm Reading - September 2008

I mentioned previously that this "What I'm reading" entry was going to be a periodic feature of my blog, if only for me to keep track of my reading journeys. So if you're not really into books, feel free to skip this entry.

Ever since mid-August, I've been switching between three non-fiction books (shown in the picture), while skimming through a beautiful "coffeetable" volume on old maps, but more about that later.

* "The City: A Global History" - by Joel Kotkin (Phoenix, 2006) - examines the evolution of urban life through the millennia and attempts to answer the age-old question: what makes a city great? Illustrating with examples from all over the world - from Baghdad to London, Chang'an to New York, Egypt to Rome, Knossos to Sydney - the reader is taken on a journey through space and time. Two central themes inform this history of cities. First is the universality of the urban experience, despite vast differences in race, climate and location. The second generalisation is that since the earliest times, urban areas have performed three functions - the creation of sacred space, the provision of basic security, and the host for a commercial market.

I'm interested in the concepts espoused in this book because in my role as government consultant, I sometimes engage with national or city leaders who need to manage the complexities of cities. Understanding the evolution of cities and urban living is useful in setting the context and reminding of the rationale for what infrastructure, services and rules we try to introduce in modern city environments. It is important to know where we came from before deciding where we want to go.

* "Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy & Everyday Life"
- by Robert Reich (Vintage, 2008) - analyses the triumph of capitalism and the corresponding decline of democracy. Reich, who was former labor secretary in Clinton's administration, urges us to rebalance the roles of business and government. He observes that power has shifted away from us in our capacities as citizens and toward us as consumers and investors. While praising the spread of global capitalism, he laments that supercapitalism has brought with it alienation from politics and community. The solution: to separate capitalism from democracy, and guard the border between them. The book urges new and strengthened laws and regulations to restore authority to the citizens in us. Some intriguing proposals include the abolishment of corporate income tax, and defocus on the corporate social responsibility movement, which he describes as distracting and even counterproductive. Provocatively argued, this book could help begin a necessary national conversation.

* "On Democracy" - by Robert A. Dahl (Yale Nota Bene, 2000) - presents a complex topic in a thorough, concise and easy-to-read manner, which makes it an excellent introduction for novices, as well as a trusty handbook for the more expert. The author addresses such questions as: What is really meant by the term "democracy"? How did democracy come about? What is the relationship between capitalism and democracy? What are some challenges facing democracies in the 21st century?

Yale professor Dahl discusses the tension between citizen participation and system effectiveness, the relative strengths and weaknesses of presidential versus parliamentary systems. Some of the best sections address the tension that exists in societies (e.g., the US) where a democratic system based on political equality coexists with market capitalism, which yields economic inequality. The work is peppered with historical references to such advocates and critics of democracy as Plato, John Stuart Mill and James Madison.

Finally the coffeetable book I mentioned is entitled "Early Mapping of Southeast Asia" by Thomas Suarez. I've had a long time fascination with cartography, especially of Asian geographies. I think it might have started from those history lessons I had in my early school years. I remember daydreaming about those intrepid Western adventurers who braved storms and pirates to sail across various oceans and seas to reach the "Spice Islands" (actually the Moluccan and Banda Islands), or explorers who went overland (eg. Marco Polo), others who circumnavigated the globe (eg. Magellan), or naval officers who "discovered" new lands (eg. Columbus, Zheng He) ...

Of course, Southeast Asia is of special interest to me as this is the part of the world I live. An excerpt from the inside book cover adds to the mystique, "From the time of Herodotus and Alexander the Great to the medieval cosmologies of the Christian Fathers, Southeast Asia was as much a place of myth and legend in Western thought as it was a geographical reality."

If antique maps weren't so expensive, I might actually start collecting some and framing them up in my home ... but they can cost quite a bit, so I'll just have to be content admiring them from books such as these.

I also see these ancient maps as metaphors for man's limits of knowledge. It is fascinating to compare the earlier maps, with their grossly inaccurate depictions, with the increasingly detailed renditions that more closely reflect "the reality". This is akin to the world of science where in trying to explain various natural phenomena, scientists put forward hypotheses and then rigorously test them, thereby validating or invalidating the hypotheses. Hypotheses that are supported by data from experiments generally become theories. Those that are not are discarded or amended.

Monday, September 8, 2008

On Education, Wizards, Failure & Imagination

I was reading my good friend Francis' blog (Life's SOS) today, and his entry entitled "What do you do with a BA in English?" reflected on how certain university degrees may not be as effective in preparing young people for the real world. While there may be some validity in that, the idealist in me wants to believe it is not necessarily so. Fundamentally I think that a good university degree should bestow on an undergraduate two key things: thinking skills and deeper understanding of self. The actual content of the degree, although important and useful, is only number 3 on the list.

This reminds me of a Commencement Address recently delivered by bestselling author J. K. Rowling to new Harvard graduates. I was quite taken by this address, which was entitled "The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination". You can read or view Rowling's complete address here, but for now I'd like to highlight one small part of it where she talks about her university days:

"(My parents) had hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom."

Yet this remarkable lady survived various life challenges and created one of the most successful book and movie series ever, about the adventures of boy wizard Harry Potter. Who (apart from perhaps herself) could have predicted that her Classics undergraduate study would have provided such a fertile foundation for her future career? But it was quite a struggle before she attained success. Indeed her "rags to riches" story - going from living on welfare to multi-millionaire status within five years - was almost as famous as her fictional works.

I urge you to read or listen to her inspiring speech as she gives very good advice on failure and imagination.

A few excerpts ... first on the benefits of failure ...
"... failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me ... rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."

... and on the power of imagination ...
"If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better."

I think most parents tend to nudge their offspring towards traditionally safe, professional disciplines. When I was young (and I think to a large extent even today), the common response of Asian parents when asked by their offspring what course they should pursue at university went like "Ah boy/Ah girl, you can do anything you like as long as it's medicine, law, engineering or accountancy!" Parents invariably have their children's best interests at heart and believe this to be the path to stability, security and ultimately happiness. Yet I cannot help but feel that their children's futures might be better served if they were given the flexibility and support needed to pursue what they are really, really interested in and seem to have an inclination for. When one pursues one's passion, the results can be astounding ...

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Chinese Classics at the Singapore Botanic Gardens

One weekend earlier this month, I attended a free outdoor concert of Chinese Classic songs, held at the Shaw Foundation symphony stage at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The event was part of the 85th anniversary celebrations of the Lianhe Zaobao newspaper.

When we got there around 5:45pm, just a couple of minutes after it had started, there were probably a few thousand people lounging on mats or simply sitting on the grassy slopes around the stage, enjoying the entertainment.

There were three key lady performers - erhu expert Ma Xiaohui from Shanghai, vocalist Christine Hsu from Taiwan, and singer Jizhe from China. Let me quote from the official SPH programme to give these ladies a more complete introduction.

Ma Xiaohui (马晓晖)
"Fresh from her successful concert in June at the renowned Carnegie Hall in New York this year, erhu maestro Ma Xiaohui from Shanghai will impress with her virtuosity. Hailed as the “Queen of Erhu” and a “national treasure” of China, Ma Xiaohui has twice been awarded first prize at the National Guangdong Music Competition. She also claimed the first prize at the Shanghai Spring International Music Festival.

She has performed with some of the most accomplished orchestras in the world including the National Symphony Orchestra of China, the Hong Kong Philharmonic and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Her duet with cellist Yo-Yo Ma on the Oscar-winning soundtrack for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon also put her in the international limelight."

Christine Hsu (许景淳)
"... from Taiwan is a multi-award winning vocalist whose versatility sees her performing a wide repertoire across different musical genres from pop, jazz to ethnic folk tunes. Often regarded as “Taiwan’s most beautiful voice” by music critics, Christine Hsu has performed at major music festivals."

Jizhe (吉 喆)
"Joining Ma Xiaohui and Christine Hsu will be the talented Jizhe from China. The performer with a Masters degree in vocals from the Zhengzhou Song & Dance troupe has a popular fan base in China, and is famous for her lead roles in Chinese musicals."

The audience was treated to familiar Chinese classics such as "Wei Liang Dai Piao Wo De Sin", Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Butterfly Lovers and Jasmine Flower.

It is nice to see that some aspects of Chinese culture is still preserved in modern Singapore.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Wild Ideas for Singapore

Singapore is a nation that tries to continuously improve, sometimes to the extent of reinventing itself once every decade or so. From a sleepy fishing village that Raffles "discovered" in 1819 to the modern metropolis that it is today, the transformation has been awesome. It has been widely acknowledged that the "secrets" of Singapore's success lie in: visionary leadership, competent and clean government, good public sector-private sector-people sector collaboration, and adaptability to the dynamic global environment. Singapore has generally been very receptive to good ideas - whether original or borrowed, it doesn't matter. Someone once said that "the only way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas". Anyway here's a couple of wild ideas from me. Even if only one is deemed useful, and gets developed into something of value, I reckon I'd have achieved my goal.

(1) ERP Lottery
There've been a lot of public complaints about the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system that's widely implemented in Singapore. Many feel that the increasing number of gantries located all round the island have made it too expensive and create an unnecessary burden for Singapore residents. The government has repeatedly explained why the ERP system is necessary to control traffic in this island-state, while enabling more to own cars if they can afford it. Let's face it. ERP is here to stay. But is it necessary for ERP to always have this negative association for the public? I have a wild idea to position ERP gantries slightly more positively among vehicle drivers - implement an ERP Lottery! Let me explain. Since there is already an integrated computer system behind the ERP network, it shouldn't take a lot of programming to randomly pick say one or two cars a month to "hit the jackpot" and instead of having money deducted as they pass under the gantry, let the lucky car owners win some money. Imagine the gantry sign suddenly flashing "Congratulations, owner of vehicle SGPxxxx - you have won $1,000", after which the money will be credited to their bank account (I'm not sure if it's technically possible to credit the cashcard on the spot). Compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars deducted from cashcards each month, a couple of thousand is a very small amount to create goodwill and generate a more positive view on the ERP, while at the same time injecting a sense of fun into the system! Furthermore, I rather think this is in line with the nation's move towards allowing IR ...

(2) Call it "Global Talent" not "Foreign Talent"
I'm sure some would say I'm just playing with words, that this is just semantics ... but I think the term "foreign talent" is a pretty sensitive one in Singapore. It is emotive and potentially divisive - it implicitly categorises the working population into "local" and "foreign" talent, with the underlying concern or fear in some quarters that the "foreign" talent will take away jobs from the "local" talent. Well, I say we move away from such thinking, and a good way to begin is to change the words we use. My suggestion is to drop the term "foreign talent" altogether, and replace it with "global talent". Few would disagree that Singapore needs global talent in order to be a global city. Also Singaporeans are considered part of global talent. So the challenge to Singapore is to make itself attractive to "global talent" (from outside) at the same time continuing to develop Singaporeans to be more "global" in skillsets and outlook themselves. Eventually there will be a healthy flow of global talents into and out of this island, working for organizations in Singapore as well as Singaporean companies located in other geographies. Make sense?

(3) Teach "Entrepreneurship" to the children
Today, in the primary schools following MOE's curricula, the students study Maths, Language (English + their mother-tongue) & Science. These are important foundational subjects and should be continued. I would however suggest that a new subject called "Entrepreneurship" be introduced from say Primary 4 onwards. This would teach the young ones the value of money, and get them to think of how they can develop their skills to earn an honest income. It has been observed that in general Singaporeans today lack a strong entrepreneural spirit. Many (especially graduates) prefer to work for established corporations rather than go into business for themselves. Perhaps planting the entrepreneural seed from an earlier age, as I've suggested, is one way to remedy the situation for the next generation.

(4) Singapore as location for a hit movie/TV series
Singapore needs more visitors. A whole lot more. One way is to showcase the island-state through a Hollywood-style movie - better still a hit TV series (since it runs longer and is potentially viewed by more people) filmed on location. Think along the lines of CSI New York, CSI Maimi, CSI Las Vegas ... CSI Singapore? The idea obviously is to expose more people to Singapore, and create a desire to come and visit. This is essentially a tourism attraction vehicle. It will also be a means to send out appropriate city branding messages. The trick is to make a hit show - to achieve this, perhaps it is necessary to get the best expertise from Hollywood or other movie-making centres ...

(5) "Dome" up an area and control the weather within
Singapore is such a green place. There has been careful planning that ensures that lots of plants, trees and other foliage dot the the local landscape. There are also many parks and nature reserves. However, I've always thought that it's a shame that our hot and humid tropical weather prevents these parks and nature reserves to be used as fully as they could be. In contrast, in temperate countries like UK or parts of US, there are stretches of the year, especially during Spring, parts of Summer or Autumn where it is a real joy taking leisurely walks or having picnics in the parks. My suggestion - and this one is probably the wildest idea of the list - is to use appropriate technology to build a large "dome" around a certain designated area like a park, such that the weather within the dome can be controlled. A nice 15-20 degrees C would provide conducive environment for a variety of recreational activities. Or maybe at certain times, we could simulate a winter scene ... the possibilities are endless.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed these somewhat wild ideas. Perhaps (and I hope) some of them may not be so wild ...