Monday, December 31, 2012

The Energy in New Ends

It’s been a relatively funny year and I've managed to end it feeling rather pleased with myself. Didn’t win the lottery and my financial prospects are not startling. However, I found a plan of sorts and stuck to it reasonably well enough to see results at the end of the year.

Events on the global front gave the blogger in me lots of talk about. The USA had an election and American voters, thankfully made the right choice. The world economy is in a mess and they voters decided not to hand it to someone from the group that was responsible for the mess in the first place.

Here, at home, in Singapore, the ‘gossip writer’ in me had lots of fun. This was the year of sex-scandals. It started off with the head of the Singapore Civil Defense and Central Narcotics Bureau stepping down because of a sex scandal. At the end of the year, the Speaker of Parliament has resigned over an extra-marital affair. In between you had a host of senior civil servants and prominent members of society being arrested for soliciting sex with underage prostitutes.  You could say that the proverbial worms are coming out of the can. For me, I’d like to think that these scandals are a sign of the powerful being held to account and Singapore deciding to be the country it pledges to be rather than the one with unspoken caveats – i.e. “regardless of race, language or religion (provided you have lots of money in your bank account)”

On the family front I had to say goodbye to my Dad’s oldest brother. Uncle Richard was in many ways the original maverick – the uneducated Chinatown Boy who made good. Unfortunately he forgot that it wasn’t just about making money – you had to keep the stuff and more worryingly he abused his body. His passing was a relief in as much as it was the end of his physical suffering. As much as I regard the passing of a sick old man as a blessing, I will also miss a much loved uncle.

However, there were some good beginnings too. Max, my younger brother has started his career in real-estate. He’s become more studious and both he and Caitlan look like they’re settling down into a very stable life together. My other siblings are also managing well. Tara has started her own photography studio in London and Christopher fully integrated into university life.

There was a big birthday party for me this year. Lee, my stepfather turned 80 and I made it to Washington State to spend time with him. He is thankfully healthy and his mind is still buzzing. However, it sometimes hard to be the decent stepson I’d like to be in as much as, I think it was hard for him to accept that it was now my turn to buy the good lunches.

It was also good to catch up with my stepsister, Carol and her family. I’m particularly happy that I got to attend the wedding of my step nephew, Brennon and his lovely wife, Chava, who is now pregnant. I think they’re going to make a very beautiful baby……

As for me, there was something of a transition of sorts. Joyce, the girl who had been such a central part of my life two-years ago left for China. In a way it was a relief. Although my relationship with her was exceedingly passionate, it was, as they say, a little too hot for most people to handle. She couldn't handle “us” and life in Singapore. I hope she’s finding some sense of balance in China. We still trade the odd email and thankfully she’s gracious enough to send me photos of Yooga once in a while. This little boy is a gem and I pray, that somehow, despite the adversities he faces, he’ll grow into a man that the world will admire, though I have to remember what he once told his mother at the age of four, “I’m NOT GOD, I DON’T know everything.”

Just as Joyce and Yooga left my life, Thuy, the little girl who showed me what it was like to live for something greater than myself, reentered it. The seven-year old girl I knew six-years ago is now a teenager of 13.

It’s taken a bit of getting used to each other again. I got to remember that she’s almost a grown woman and I have to respect that but at the same time she’s not quite a grown woman yet and the worries that one has for a small child remain. She’s also adjusting to me too and in between the usual teasing, she is acknowledging that I might be a force of good in her life.

You could say that this is God’s way of making me pay for all my past nonsense with the opposite sex. However, it’s a task that I take on with some amount of pride and someone remarked that having Thuy in my life has brought out the unknown “Responsible” Tang Li.

In terms of work, the highlight will undoubtedly be the PANIIT Conference, which took place in April, 2012. The conference brought together a host of some of the most prominent people in Indian industry and it allowed me to better understand the transformation of a giant country that was once known as backwater of contentious people.  While the vast majority of Indians live below the poverty line, there is a vast number who are educated and well to do. The group at IIT is on their way up and doing so in a hurry. This group is rich with ideas and some of them are now shifting their attention to giving back to where they came from, something which can only be good for India. For me, working with them was exhilarating and I’m grateful to continued friendship of Supriyo Sircar, CEO of Polaris Asia-Pacific and the new friendships with people like Amrit Barman from SAP, Dhruv Jain from Energizer and Mr KV Rao from Tata Power. I’m grateful for having had the chance to meet the likes of Mr R.Gopalakrishnan, Executive Director of Tata Sons and Arjun Mahlotra, one of the founders of Hindustan Computers (HCL) and Headstrong.

The other high point came from an industry that my family seems to be drawn to – the Singapore International Photography Festival (SIPF). I am grateful to Mr Glenn Lim, Director 20twenty PR for inviting me to work with him for the three months of launching a festival that brought renown photographers like Stuart Franklin (he who shot the famous photo of the man defying the tank at Tiananmen Square) to not just display their works but to mentor aspiring photographers. There is talent in Singapore and it’s good that we’re looking to and learning from the world.

I also seem to have found a knack with picking up litigation support jobs. This year, I found myself supporting Mr PN Balji in a job that involved a trade mark dispute between the founding members of Ku Te Da. As the trial is still ongoing (lawyers are currently working on submissions) I won’t say much other than the fact that Singapore’s court rooms are a source of stories that are worth telling.

While I remain a media relations consultant, I’m also putting a foot in what could be a career change or a pension plan. I've been spending my weekends helping at a restaurant called Bruno’s. It’s an Italian Restaurant that serves exceedingly good food. I’m currently working as service staff and while the pay is not great, I am enjoying meeting people. Being part of the blue collar work force also helps me to better understand issues that I care about.

On the flip side it’s also good for my health. I've never been one for the gym so a job that keeps me on my feet has been good form of exercise. My blood pressure has lowered and I've managed to shed a few kilos.

While I've called Singapore home for the last decade, this is a year that I've also started to look at the region as an alternative for me. After many day-trips to Johor, I have now set up a fixed-deposit and savings account there. Malaysia has issues but it’s the most obvious place for Singaporeans to expand to. Both Singapore and Malaysia complement each other.  I don’t know how things will be but Malaysia has a certain amount of space that Singapore doesn't have and JB is close enough to provide one with extra space.

Vietnam is also interesting. Although it is still a third world country, it is dynamic and filled with a certain type of energy. After one trip I’d like to go back again and with a plan of sorts.

I don’t know what 2013 will bring. I just hope that I can grow what little I've managed to gain in 2012. There will undoubtedly be challenges but as always, I've come to accept that these are things to be relished and I hope that I remain healthy and able to grab the chances that I get in 2013. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

The World’s Grubbiest Baby and the Joys of Grubbiness

The week I spent in rural Vietnam has given me a new best friend. He is the smart half’s grand-nephew. He is also the world’s grubbiest baby.

In the day I got to hang out with him, he managed to turn his white shirt black. He refused my help to blow his snotty nose (though my t-shirt turned out to be quite attractive for that purpose when he decided to do it himself) and he was quite happy to feast on something or other that was on the floor. He also enjoyed rolling in mud. What I’ve described takes a little getting used to. My friends who have become parents would be stunned and might be trying to call some authority or other.

I would urge everyone to stop and appreciate the Grubby Baby. He is a well-adjusted two-year old. He was not intimidated by dogs even though many of them were bigger than him and he had no problem meeting people, including strangers. He was also exceedingly robust. He slept throughout the night and went to day care without any hassle. In short he wasn't any worse off than kids who had a nanny to follow them all over the place preventing them from stepping a toe on sanitized floor.

Grubby Baby reminds me of a conversation I had with one of the prominent ophthalmologist who had been to India. He listed all the things that the Indian hospital had done which would get the doctors barred had they been in anywhere else but India. However, at the end of the conversation he made a valuable point, namely, “The infection rates are not higher than they are here.”

 I have to ask – “Have we become so sanitized that we’re unable to handle the world as it really is?” Yes, I believe modern science and knowledge about hygiene have worked wonders. Things like rates of infant mortality have gone down and people are living longer and healthier lives thanks to modern science. Today there is no reason to die of diseases that were once considered fatal. We should be thankful for all these things and we should push our quest for knowledge even further.

However, the conversation with the good doctor and befriending Grubby Baby has given me the belief that there’s a need to expose our young to some of the rougher things that nature provides. There is enough science out there to show that the human body has a way of adjusting to its natural environment. There is evidence to show that people from the developing world develop antibodies that people in the developed world simply don’t have.

I guess the point is that the body develops resilience because it needs to. Someone from the third world develops antibodies that someone from the developed world doesn’t have because the person from the third world needs to. The saying that “necessity is the mother of innovation” also applies to nature and medical science.

As a society we pursue comfort and convenience. However, I think of the nutritionist, Dr Udo Erasmus who said, “Whenever someone tells you something is convenient you better run away from it – life isn’t meant to be convenient.”

His point was simple; you need to struggle for the best things in life. The human condition becomes stronger whenever it has to go through struggle. I look at the Grubby Baby and his happy robust smile. He’s gotten that way because he’s had to survive through the things nature throws at him. He’s happy to deal with dogs and people because they are part of his natural environment. The standard joke with a friend of mine is that if we placed the Grubby Baby (age two) in a boxing ring with the Young Pork Eating Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek (age 22), Grubby Baby would end up humiliating him. Grubby Baby can deal with nature and has struggled while the Young Pork Eating Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek has spent his life avoiding every possible struggle that life might throw at him.

Now I take the value of struggle even further. I look at Vietnam and the energy of the people. These are the people who threw of the yoke of French Colonial rule and then proceeded to see the back of the Americans despite having several tons of bombs dropped on them. If that was not enough, they then gave the Mainland Chinese a very bloody nose when their giant neighbor decided to invade. Now that the focus has moved from fighting wars to economic development, you find that the Vietnamese are doing good things. In the few days I didn’t see a single beggar on the streets of Hanoi. Instead of begging, people were finding all sorts of ways to make a living – for example, every corner of Hanoi is a food stall.

Like the Grubby Baby, these are people who have been exposed to nature, which is exceedingly beautiful and exceedingly brutal at the same time. These are people who understand that you have to survive on your own and somehow you have to get creative.

I think back to the strike by the SMRT’s Mainland Chinese and the government reaction of “Why Take Things into Your Own Hands when there are Proper Channels.” The Singapore Government and Singapore people have become too used to dealing with political and legal machinery that has made both parties conveniently oblivious to the realities of nature. The Mainland Chinese and other Asians are used to dealing with the realities of nature.

When I read comments by Singaporeans on how the PRC Chinese should have known better and accepted the conditions they were given, I shudder. We have become a people who have lost our human instincts to defend ourselves and become reliant on the system to get it right. Ask your average Singaporean about the struggle that people like Tibetans and Palestinians go through and you’ll find them grossly unsympathetic. There is no empathy for people who believe in struggle and they’re dismissed as people who are too stupid to understand they’re place in the system. This is unnatural.

Well, now we’re dealing with people who expect life to be a struggle. Yes they can take punishment that most of us can’t. However, they've reached the point where they cannot accept being abused and so they’re acting to stop it. This is unfortunately for Middle Class Singapore a reality and part of human nature.

The tough half is determined to move away from her roots. I’m conflicted because as much as I see her appreciation for safety and cleanliness, I also believe that she outclasses most people because she’s had to struggle. I think that if we get round to children, I’d like them to spend their early childhood as grubby babies rather than artificially sanitized ones.   

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Who Gives a Shit, they’re Just Human

It’s been a week since I've come back from Vietnam and as things would have it, I've been given plenty to write about. If you were superstitious, you could say that the dragon (it’s the Chinese Year of the Dragon) has decided to swipe its tail to reveal the ugly side of the place I've called home.

I’m generally quite happy in Singapore. Anyone who’s lived here can tell you that the place has gotten plenty of the important things right. I will never tire telling people that Singapore is what a city should be – clean, green and rich. In terms of our basic facilities and amenities, we’re as good; if not better off than most places on earth (I’m comparing Singapore with developed cities in the USA and Europe). I do value things like the safety.

What gets to me about living in Singapore is the attitude of my fellow countrymen towards the less fortunate, particularly if the less fortunate happen to be dark and come from other parts of Asia. I've been living here for over a decade now and I should be immune to these things by now, but I’m not. You might argue that it’s a character flaw of mine but I get very upset whenever I come across the attitudes of Singaporeans towards “other Asians.”

Like with most things in Singapore, the ‘omnipotent’ government needs to bear a chunk of the responsibility for the development of this attitude. The government calls it being pragmatic. I would call it being a racist bully. We are currently killing ourselves to welcome ‘Western Bankers’ into the island. I've got nothing against Westerners per se, some of my best friends and family are. I've also got nothing against financiers per se.

What I do object to is how the group that brought us the “sub-prime” crisis is being billed as ‘heroic’ and ‘necessary’ for ordinary people. When three of them assaulted ordinary people, the police decided it was best to let them go and a few decided to defend them on the internet. The actions of the powers-that-be have sent a clear message – certain people need to be venerated.

Just as official policy venerates one group, it denigrates another. Try being Indian, Bangladeshi, Vietnamese, Pilipino or Mainland Chinese.  These groups work in the so called ‘dirty’ jobs that the locals won’t do and instead of making it easier for this lot to either make a living, official policy does the opposite. Just as we kill ourselves to welcome Western Bankers, we proudly sent gun boats to turn away Vietnamese boat people fleeing a war in the 70s and nearly 40 years later, we’re doing exactly the same thing. The government proudly denied entry to Vietnamese vessel that had the misfortune to rescue 40 Rohingaya’s fleeing genocide in their native Burma.

Perhaps the politicians are seeing something that I don’t see here but who we show compassion to seem grossly wrong. When Westerners who have been screwed out of their homes decide to turn on the bankers who screwed them, we rush to show compassion to the bankers. When people flee being imminent slaughter, we decide that they’re not worthy of our compassion. Not sure where the logic in that comes from.

Anyway, we've always known that politicians are an interesting lot. What gets to me is the attitude that people show towards the less fortunate.

Thankfully someone else has expressed outrage in another blog ( and I’m not going to list out the attitudes that people have.

What I will say is that it necessary to make voices like the mentioned blogger more available and to turn youthful outrage into something more sustainable. It gets to me when you have a picture of people struggling to survive and the response, which is best summed up as, “Oh, they’re so dirty, they’ll affect my nice comfortable life.”  I think of Andrew Loh, publisher of,  who wrote a piece about the appalling living conditions on yahoo ( and had responses that were as immature as “Wah, you want to hire a maid for them ah”

What gets to me is that many of the commentators are not stupid or uneducated. Most are middle-class working professionals. So, I have to ask myself if being educated is really all that it’s cracked up to be. It’s like we've become so sanitized that we've forgotten what it is like to be human.

I think of my week in rural Vietnam with the other half’s family. People didn't have the facilities that we have. Yet they all had enough to eat and people helped each other. There was a sense of humanity there.
I’ll be honest here. I had internet withdrawal symptoms and I needed to get back to trying to work. I did miss modern amenities.

Yet, a day after settling back into modern amenities, I started missing rural Vietnam. The place energized me. I couldn’t place my finger on what it was that made me feel so energized after the place.  I've now figured it out. People over there have retained some sense of humanity. It’s something that we need to regain. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Aren't You Luck that We Shit on You?

Singapore has just seen its first major industrial action in 26-years. On Monday, 26 November, 2012, 100 bus drivers from the Singapore Mass Rapid Transport Corporation (SMRT) decided to stop work in protest over their pay and working conditions. As expected, bus services were affected and the SMRT was left scrambling to find a way of dealing with the situation.

The great and the good have weighed in on the issue. The Powers-That-Be have been stunned. Singapore has prided itself in being “strike-free.” The official stand is, “This is illegal criminal activity and we cannot condone it – there are proper channels to air your grievances and you cannot take things into your own hands.” There is of course the other shock in that this ‘strike’ is led by Mainland Chinese – a group the government has led into the country in the belief that they’d be so grateful to be let into Singapore that they’d be even more docile than the local population.

What’s particularly interesting is the fact that a great number of comments in the online and mainstream media have been echoing this sentiment. One lady has gone as far as to call them “thugs” and accusing them of trying to hold the nation hostage. It seems that the government has managed to find itself on the right side of the backlash against its very own policy to open the flood gates to foreign labour.

Unfortunately, everyone seems to be missing the point here. The question that should be asked is – “What is it that made 100 Mainland Chinese strike?” Let’s face it, the Chinese are known as sturdy migrants who are able to take an enormous amount of rubbish that most other groups won’t take. Today’s migrants from Mainland China don’t come from the thriving metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai. A very large portion of them come from rural areas are untouched by the economic growth driving China. What you give them should be better than what they’re used to.

It turns out that the group was protesting against the fact that they were getting a vastly inferior deal to their Malaysian counterparts. According to the statistics released by SMRT an average Chinese driver was getting a good $400 a month less than his Malaysian counterpart. When the SMRT Corporation increased the pay of Malaysian drivers, it didn’t for the ones from China. A few have argued that the pay differential is not as great as it seems since the company subsidized the accommodation of the Chinamen by $270 a month per person. Unfortunately what it didn’t factor into the equation was the fact that the Chinamen worked vastly longer hours in return for their miniscule pay rise. Furthermore, the Malaysian drivers were hired as permanent staff, thus enjoying job security and regular pay increments, which the guys from China did not get (the guys from China are hired on a two-year contract).

Let’s face it, there is no rational way of looking at the comparison and realizing that the Chinese guys were getting a raw deal – raw enough for them to do something about it. Who is at fault? Whatever way you look at it, the SMRT Corporation has failed in basic communications and labour relations. Let’s just look at some issues here.

Are Chinese Bus Drivers Inferior to Malaysian Ones?

Some Singapore Chinese Graduate lady wrote on the Today News paper’s online portal that Chinese should have asked why they were getting paid less instead of complaining about it. The lady in question went as far as to suggest that the lower pay was due to inferior language skills of the Chinese bus drivers

Let’s start with the obvious; this isn’t the only time that people have complained about the lack of English language skills by people from China. Most of the complaints have come from the service sector. So given that complaints about the language skills of PRC nationals is not exactly new, why did the SMRT hire PRC drivers whose language skills may not have been up to par? As a business, it is surely in the interest of the company to ensure that the people it hires can communicate with their customers.

The Second Point is that the key element of driving a bus is driving skills rather than language skills. Yes, you do need to communicate basic messages to passengers – ie you got to be able to advise people on certain routs but other than that your job as a bus driver is to drive well and safely. Nobody has shown any evidence what so ever that  PRC drivers were inferior in this crucial aspect of the job to their Malaysian and dare I say, Singaporean counterparts.

So, how exactly were the PRC chaps inferior to the other nationalities to the extent that it justified being paid less money than their counterparts for doing the same job?

China is a developing country; its citizens can afford to live on less – The Pittance they Earn here is a Fortune Where they Come From 

Yes, China is developing and its people have lived on less than most. However, this argument doesn’t exactly hold water. Contrary to what many Singaporeans might like to think, migrants do bring their families over and often have to support them.

Furthermore, while what one earns in one country might seem like a fortune in another, the fact remains that most of us have to live in the country that they work in. I remember that when I lived in England, it felt like earning a salary in England would make me a rich man – everything penny earned in England would be three times what it was in Singapore.  Unfortunately that changed when I had to pay bills in pounds.

So while one might comment about how people from China, India, and Bangladesh etc are earning a fortune when converted into their native currencies, they forget that our foreign labourers have to live in Singapore and pay their respective bills in Singapore dollars. What they do send back home has to be at a cost of denying themselves.

The closest anyone has to earning a strong currency and spending in a weaker one are the Malaysians who live in Johor Bahru. The distance between Singapore and Johor is reachable by train and bus. It is possible to live in Johor and work in Singapore – earning Singapore dollars and spending Ringitt is possible. It’s a different story for the chaps from Mainland China. They can’t take a bus back to China every night and spend their hard earned Singapore dollars in Chinese Yuan.

There are Official Channels they should not have taken things into their own hands.

Yes, there are official channels. Workers in Singapore can always go to their HR departments and if the HR departments don’t listen there is always the regulatory authority, which in this case is the Ministry of Manpower. If you are really desperate you can bring it to the courts.

While the system is wonderfully transparent on paper, there is a major flow – going through it requires time and money. Lawyers for one have never been known to be cheap and going through any government ministry requires time. 

While the Ministry of Manpower is considered effective in what it does, it still takes 11-weeks to investigate claims made by workers against employers. While it might not seem like much time to the bureaucratic machinery, this is a lot of time for a worker, particularly the ones at the bottom of the rung who have to feed themselves and are often forced to stay in accommodation provided by the very employer they are making a complaint against.

Do you expect the economically disadvantaged to rush through the system? Rightly or wrongly, the poor, particularly those from one-party systems, don’t expect to get a fair deal.

Unfortunately, the Singapore system hasn’t exactly made itself known to be particularly ‘labour-friendly.’ Let’s face it; abusing your foreign domestic worker is less of a crime than libel against politicians. Our system has allowed a contractor to keep his workers in conditions so harsh that one of them died from chicken pox. Despite repeated calls to the police, nobody did anything until someone died and when that happened, the courts slapped the contractor in question with a mere $10,000 fine.

Contrary to what Singaporeans might believe, such stories do get around the migrant communities. The system brags about how our courts work for settling commercial disputes. While other system’s might show that the small man can win in the courts once in a while, Singapore doesn’t bother to announce those victories.

So, while the powers –that-be might talk about going through official channels, we need to look at how ordinary people perceive the system. If desperate people do not believe they have a fair chance of dealing with the system, isn’t logical that they will look to get what they perceive to be justice outside the system?

The Law Says You Have to Give Two Weeks’ Notice to Strike

Yes, this is technically and legally true. However, anyone who expects people to follow this rule when they perceive the system to be against them is living in lalala land. Sun Tzu argued that surprise was one of the key elements of victory.

The Times Have Changed

Let’s face it, the bus drivers broke the letter of the law and they will have to face the music. However, sweeping this incident under the proverbial carpet would be a gross mistake. Whatever one might think of this "strike" the point is, the Chinese Bus Drivers have made people notice them and pay attention to their complaint. While one might bleat on about how they should have gone through the "proper channels," we have to ask ourselves if we'd even know about the pay discrepancy between Chinese and Malaysian Bus Drivers. Would we even know about dormitories? 

Strikes can harm an economy. Let's look at the militant unions who crippled the UK economy in the 70s as an example of what not to accept. 

However, no strikes are not necessarily an example of healthy industrial relations. Workers keep quiet because they need their jobs. Businesses do benefit with lower cost, including labour cost. However, there's a point when people will not except being treated unfairly or when you pay them at such levels where they are barely surviving. Just as people don't choose to be suicide bombers as a career choice, people don't go to work to strike for the sake of it. 

So, SMRT and Singapore Inc needs to treat this as a wake up call to do something about bringing the management of industrial relations into the current era. The days when workers are willing to accept minimal wages as being good for society are long gone. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Thankful on Thanksgiving

My American friends and family have just celebrated Thanksgiving, a festival that has its roots in the old European festival. Some of attributed the American festival to going as far back as 1621 when the first immigrants were arriving in the new world. There is a ‘legend’ of sorts that states that this was the one time the new arrivals and the indigenous Indians shared a meal together.

While I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving personally, I believe that there are things that the world should be thankful for. For a start, the world remains a fairly decent place because America remains the world’s superpower. Despite the economic crisis and the often bitter partisanship of her politicians, America on the whole has remained a force of good. Say what you like about America’s political system but it has held fairly steady and the current crop of politicians are being forced by voters to look at domestic issues instead of looking for foreign adventures to distract themselves.

For all the problems of the American economy, the country remains the hot bed of innovation. While the system may at times seem unfair and even destructive, it has constantly produced companies and people who have come up with the things that make our future. While America’s military strength may have been sapped by the lack of funding and overambitious overseas ventures, the power of ideas generated by American universities is shaping the world. The rise of tomorrow’s superpowers, China and India, can attribute to American Universities (As a friend of mine who was at University of Southern California pointed out – mechanical engineering courses at USC are filled with Mainland Chinese and software engineering courses are filled with Indians).

America has its problems and American policy, as anyone who’s dealt with the Middle East will tell you, has done plenty of harm. However, I remain with Douglas Hurd, Britain’s former Foreign Secretary, when he describes America as the “most benevolent superpower in history.” On the balance of things, America has been a force of good.

For me, my reasons to be thankful to the USA are more personal. Although I’ve career success with American companies like Citibank and GE, my reasons to be thankful to the USA are more personal – it’s family. The two Americans who come to mind are my stepfather, Lee (Mum’s second husband) and my step-grandmother, Joan (mother of my dad’s second wife).

Both Lee and Joan never thought of me as anything less than their own. To Lee, I was as good to him as his own flesh and blood sons. He’d always make it a point to ensure that I would never have anything less than my sister, Tara his natural daughter. There was a long stretch of my life where having Lee around was taken for granted as breathing and I know the same is true for him. When I do get a chance to speak to him, he tells me that I’ll always be the 13-year old boy he once knew and raised as his own.

Joan was the other reason why I am thankful to the USA. She took me as her own grandson and one of the last great memories I have of being in the US was visiting her in Chicago. She would quiz me about politics in Singapore and the UK as well as my views on the global economy. One of the most touching things she did was to keep every email that I sent to her when I was at university and to compile it into a small book. Not only did she take me as her grandson, she took my friend Joe on as well.  She was more than happy to be an interviewee for one of his early videos.

I’m probably very different from what either Joan or Lee expected of me. It was Joan who planted the seed of a dream I once had of getting an MBA at Northwestern. Lee feels that I have the potential for great spirituality.

However, both have left one major impression on me – the understanding that family is more than a question of flesh and blood. Family is more than a question of skin colour or ideology. Many of my friends wonder why I’ve put my heart into both Thuy and Yooga instead of focusing on having my own flesh and blood.  I think the answer is I’ve seen both these kids as mine regardless of the lack of a biological connection. With Yooga, I worry that his mother’s instability will affect him. With Thuy returning to my life as a young woman, I worry that every inappropriate adventure I had with the opposite sex will come back to haunt her.

Yet, I’m thankful for all the worries and responsibilities I’ve taken on. It’s like when people question me as to why I’m so passionate about wanting to do things for Yooga or Thuy because they’re not my flesh and blood, I wonder what my life would have been like if Lee had taken the same position with me. I believe my life would be the poorer for it.

I went to see Lee this summer. It was his 80th birthday and he made the point to the family that seeing me was the only wish he had. The process of going to see Lee in Washington State (Port Townsend) also meant I got to see my stepsister, Carol and her family.

The last time I saw them was 14-years ago. Her kids, my step nieces and nephews were children, just like me. The youngest of her kids, Brennon and Mikaela, were still small enough to jump into my arms and get hugged. Well, I returned to the USA to find Mikaela a mother of a two-year old boy and I arrived in time to see Brennon married off to my new found ex-step-niece Chava. Time has passed. We’ve made monumental life changes. There’s been an absence of over a decade. Yet the feeling of being welcomed by family remains the same.

I am also thankful that the USA has been good to my brother Max. Funny, when we were children (well, I’m quite a bit older, so I was a kid and he a baby), the expectation was that I would be the studious one and Max the rebel. Things have turned out quite differently. I have, as they say, become the bastard in the family, the type who gives his own parents nightmares. Max has turned out quite differently. A steady girlfriend in the shape of Caitlan has, I believe, brought out the best in him and he’s found a form of contentment that seems to elude most of us.

Say what you like about America and American politics. Say what you like about the mess of the American economy or the mess of its Middle Eastern policies. The country is the place that blessed me with a family beyond flesh and blood. It’s blessed my flesh and blood – it for this reason that I am thankful onThanksgiving day.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Can you blame them?

I spent my early Sunday morning attending a book launch by a prominent member of Singapore’s local community. The man in question was a former CID officer who, thanks to his attraction to gold had earned himself the name “Mr Gold Finger.”

Mr Gold Finger has been out of the police force and is now a sprightly 70-year old. Upon retirement, the man decided to devote his life to his community. He is an active member of both the Singapore Indian DevelopmentAssociation (SINDA) and the Little India Shop Keepers Association (LISHA). Mr Gold Finger is also the former father-in-law of Bijay, the Nepali Naan Maker or the Nice Guy who Finishes First.

Despite his devotion to his community, Mr Gold Finger taken a few knocks on the personal front. His eldest daughter died of cancer and his second daughter has since moved to Belfast taking along with her his much loved granddaughter. The worst thing to afflict Mr Gold Finger is the fact that his DNA runs through his eldest son – Macha Pundek (Bother-in-law Cunt). Macha at the age of 44 has found a wonderful career – he’s waiting for Mr Gold Finger to meet his maker in the hope that he inherits his wealth.

Being revolted by the site of Macha Pudek is as easy as being drawn to his father. Macha Pundek dresses like a rapper. He’s shaved his head clean and wears sunglasses indoors. He has the usual baggy trousers and somewhere in there I believe he really believes he’s a music producer of “Gangsta Rap.” While he may look the part, Macha Pundek has forgotten one of the key elements of being a music producer – you’re actually required to do some work.

At yesterday’s event, I saw the pride Mr Gold Finger had in his community. The man has written a book on the commonalities between Confucius and Thelluvar, a Tamil sage. His latest book told the story of his life. It was filled with family photos, photos of his travels and photos with the great and the good of Singapore, including our former President, Mr SR Nathan.

Then I had the misfortune of running into Macha Pundek. A greater misfortune followed – Macha Pundek actually recognized me and said hello. Yech……He was there strutting around like a peacock and this time he had company. He had a friend, who I think worked for a debt collection company. The giveaway was that he surrounded himself with nasty looking people (the type who have tattoos on their faces) swaggering around in black leather jackets.

I felt bad for Mr Gold Finger. Here you are trying to show the community that you’ve devoted your life to that you are a highly respectable man. Then, along comes your low-life scum of a son with his equally distasteful group of friends, swaggering around on your parade.

How else could you describe the situation other than to say – SHIT! Well, I guess you could say it’s ironic. Macha Pundek is walking around with people from a debt collection company while he has borrowed money he has no intention of returning (He currently owes his former brother-in-law and his late sister over $10,000).

Really, when you see Macha Pundek swaggering around, you have to worry about the state of the local Tamil Community. I mean this community has produced excellent people. Our current finance minister and deputy Prime Minister is actually brilliant enough to be recognized internationally. I’ve liked every journalist that I’ve had to deal with from the Tamil Media. I even had a very sweet former Tamil employee who made a point of doing special for me on my 37th birthday.

Unfortunately, the community has an infestation of the likes of Macha Pundek.  In what passes off as his mind, Macha like other members of his family (Annek and Thambi) believes he’s part of the social elite. Macha like Thambi (Younger Brother) cannot sit in the outdoor shade for more than three minutes before running into the air conditioning.

Macha Pundek is highly allergic to work. Despite being healthy and certified sane, Macha has does not have the ability to do simple jobs like driving a taxi driver (he’ll brag about how he once threw out a passenger who didn’t have 75 cents change). He even found the job of being a watchman in a school to be taxing (4-hours a day of which only 2 were required for him to move more than an inch).

As a result, Macha Pundek has an interesting dilemma. He can’t afford to hang out where he believes he’s entitled to.  So, he has a simple solution – he’s tries to mooch of everyone else. Don’t ask him to sit down by the void deck for a drink – apparently that’s low class or rather that’s what Indian workers from India do. You got to take him to no less than Harry’s Bar and when you do, you will not only be footing the bill for him, you’ll be footing the bill for his entire family.

Like all members of the Pundek clan, Macha has a curious relationship with the group from India. He hates Indian expatriates. He describes them as “Proud Cocksuckers who don’t know their place in life.” At the same time he despises Indian labourers and can’t shit on them fast enough.

Can you blame the highly educated Indian expats for not wanting to associate with him? I think of what a Senior VP at prominent IT firm said – “Other than a few religious rites – THEY are definitely Singaporean while WE are Indian.”  I suspect that the poor bastard must have run into one Macha Pundek clone too many.   

You’ll find that it’s the likes of Macha who has the most to complain about when it comes to foreigners. They’re living the life that he believes he is entitled to. Unfortunately for Macha and the rest of the PundekClan both the Indian Expatriates and the Indian Labourers do this thing called “work.” The labourer group in particular is prone to doing things like carrying heavy things in the hot sun and they’re still there while the rest of us are heading home to get our feet rubbed.

So, how can we make life in Singapore better for everyone? Perhaps the key here is to focus on key word “productivity.” We should make it a point to welcome people who are productive and want to earn a wage of sorts. We should also export the likes of Macha Pundek. I believe that North Korea might have a use for him – they could clone him and inflict him on the South. That would do more damage than a few nukes and the entire Korean War.

Or perhaps he and his ilk have a use in Somalia. You could carve Macha and the rest of the Pundek clan up and feed lots of people for quite some time.

Either way, the case for exporting local duds is overwhelming. Stopping labourers from entering upsets businesses even if the government thinks it makes people happy. It’s a short term solution. Exporting Macha Pundek and his ilk would be far more productive.

Saturday, November 10, 2012


I had the privilege of attending the “Third China-India-Singapore Dialogue on Higher Education” on the 8th of November, 2012. The event involved leading academics and administrators from China, India and Singapore discussing what they saw as the future of higher education in Singapore.

The star at the event was Mr Ngiam Tong Dow one of Singapore’s most prominent former civil servants. 

You could say that Mr Ngiam was in the thick of things during the creation of the Singapore Miracle. He was Permanent Secretary in the key ministries of Finance and Trade as well as in the Prime Minister’s Office. Mr Ngiam was also the Chairman of the Economic Development Board - thus making him the chief salesman for Singapore to multinationals.

What makes Mr Ngiam is a rare creature in Singapore – he’s an intelligent and credible critic. Mr Ngiam utilizes public forums to criticize many government policies without saying anything critical about particular members of the establishment. Unlike the ‘rabid dogs’ on blogosphere, Mr Ngiam does not make it a point to attack the government for the sake of it – you will, for example, never find Mr Ngiam kissing trees in public or hurling vulgarities at people.

So, when you take all these facts about Mr Ngiam into consideration, you have to take what he says rather seriously. One of Mr Ngiam’s pet peeves is the fact that he believes that our economic planners haven’t done enough to encourage Singaporeans to use their brains. In yesterday’s forum, Mr Ngiam declared that he did not like casinos because they only provided ‘second tier’ jobs and Singapore, he argued, was selling itself short.

I’m glad he said what he did at the forum. Singapore talks a lot about how we only have “human resources” and we brag about how much we’ve developed it. Yet, despite all the rhetoric, Singapore claims that it has very little talent to get things done – hence the need to import talent. Why is that so?

The main culprit here has to be government policy and the inability of the establishment to accept that the successful game plan of the 1960s may not necessarily work in the current century. Despite investing heavily in education, Singaporeans remain shockingly clueless about many things. My favourite example is the way many Singaporeans think Sikh’s come from Bengal as well as believing that Saudi Arabia is a part of Dubai. You might argue that this is a small matter but it’s not. These basic facts don’t require a college degree. One merely has to look at a map to realize that there’s a distance between Punjab and Bengal or that Saudi Arabia is many times larger than Dubai.

I think of former Bloomberg Columnist, Any Mukherjee, who once lectured a group of journalism students. His only remark about the students after the fact was that they were “Curiously uncurious.” Like Mr Mukherjee, the government should be curious as to how it could educate a population into not being bothered to glance at a map before dealing with people from elsewhere.

Instead, the government seems content to produce people like The Young Muslim Politician Who Drinks During a Ramadan Day from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek. This young clown is currently very upset because I’ve told him that he has to compete for good jobs with people like a client of mine, who happens to be an Indian National. He’s asking me what this client of mine can do that an NUS Graduate can’t do. Well, unfortunately if you take The Young Muslim Politician Who Drinks Alcohol during a Ramadan Day from Paris Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek as an example, the answer is simple. The Indian National can think.

To be fair to Singapore’s established universities they have NOT admitted the Young Muslim Politician who Drinks Alcohol during Ramadan aka Thambi Pundek (apparently he’s at some Singapore based Monash campus) and they’re recognizing the need to teach subjects that train the mind. One of the professors from the National University of Singapore (NUS) proudly told the audience that NUS is ramping up its teaching of liberal arts, humanities and social sciences. They’ve found that while employers haven’t specifically asked for liberal arts graduates, they’re asking for people with the skills that liberal arts training provides – critical thinking.

This is a rather belated but welcome move. Simply put, in the 1960s people were told to send their best and brightest to work for the government or a multinational. In these organisations things were simple. The civil service was led by a handful of bright thinkers (educated elsewhere) who controlled the drones (educated at home). In the multinationals, the head of would always be some barrow boy from elsewhere.

Well, this economic model is becoming less relevant. The multinationals now have a choice when operating in Asia. The hot markets these days are China and India and they have alternative gateways to Singapore. So, we need a new game plan and people trained in the old ways of doing things need to reinvent and readjust their thinking.

Unfortunately, the powers-that-be don’t always seem to get it. Singapore has been trying to reinvent itself as a Monaco of sorts – the rich of the world are invited to Singapore to have fun and the population is supposed to make do as service providers to the entertain the rich and famous.

This strategy has a slight flaw – the rich can always bugger off to elsewhere when they’re bored. Your indigenous population has a habit of getting uppity when house prices go up. How do you figure things out?
I’m with Ngiam when he argues that we need to look at developing brains. 

Singapore is small and it lacks the muscle of China, India or even neighbouring Malaysia. The only thing we have going for us is our brains.

There’s some hope here. We managed to produce Sim Wong Hoo of Creative Technology – the man who gave us the sound blaster and allowed Steve Jobs to plagerise his technology into the iTune. We've borrowed Olivia Lum from Malaysia and she’s reinvented water.

Unfortunately, both Mr Sim and Ms Lum seem to be the exception rather than the rule. What can be done? Well, it’s encouraging to hear people at NUS like Professor Lilly Kong, Vice President of University and Global Relations at NUS talk about encouraging creativity and critical thinking.

However, training alone is not enough. Having a brain has to be lucrative. Singapore has wonderful intellectual protection laws. However, there’s very little market for intellectual property. In the media industry there are only two established media houses that regard publishing anyone not on their payroll as a favour to that person. In the R&D sector, there are wonderful government funded research labs…..unfortunately the government holds owns you and therefore your intellectual property. Hence you have very little commercialization of R&D

This has to change. Civil Servants need to lose the fear of letting go. Entrepreneurs should be allowed to look for innovations that could produce things that can be commercialized. The economy should welcome invented in Singapore as much as professes to accept made Singapore.
Mr Ngiam is right and he needs to go further to encourage greater competition for products of innovation. It’s all very well teaching people how to think but they also need to get paid to think.   

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Reason Why You Shouldn't Send Your Kids to School

Race has raised its ugly head again in Singapore. In the last week, the assistant director of the only trade union in town decided to make awful remarks about the Malay community on her Facebook page. The remarks she made went viral and within minutes she was sacked from her job and her story continue to fill the newspapers.

This incident has sparked a national debate on the issue of race. The talking heads are asking if race relations in Singapore are as perfect as we’ve always thought it to be. There have also been discussions about the limits of free speech.

What strikes me most about this incident is the fact that they came from her. The woman in question is not an illiterate bumpkin who has been asked to deal with a culture from another part of the world. She is a graduate from a respectable university (University of Western Australia) and a working professional (prior to working for the union, it is believed that she once worked at the Marina Mandarin Hotel). She’s also at the age where being na├»ve is a defense.

So, the question is, why the hell did she write things that displayed her ignorance about a community that has been in Singapore that’s been there for as long as anyone can remember?

You could say that she had a stupid moment and wrote what she did at the spur of the moment. Well, yes, she could have been stupid. Most of us have done things on the spur of the moment and regretted. However, this wasn’t a case of having a bit too much to drink or going to bed with the wrong person. This was a case of writing something down. Having been a writer, I can tell you that it is impossible for the fingers to type things without instructions from the brain.

So, I ask the question – how does a well-educated person think thoughts that one often associates with uneducated clowns? To be fair to Ms Cheng, the lady in question, she’s realized that she’s in hot soup and has apologized for the offending remarks.

However, that should not detract from the fact that Ms Cheng is not the only highly educated person to reflect a general ignorance about the world. The most famous educated ignoramuses belong to the family Thio, where the mother and daughter, who are professors of law, have made it a lifelong mission to eradicate homosexuality in Singapore.

 However, there are plenty of others. Most of the time, this level of ignorance is amusing.  It’s a bit of a joke when high school graduates think that Sikh’s come from Bengal (erm, there’s quite a bit of distance between Punjab and Bengal). However, it’s a little worrying when an assistant director of the trade union thinks the Malay community would have a lower divorce rates if they spent more on weddings. It’s downright scary when law professors provide pseudo-intellectual arguments on why consenting adults cannot have sex with who they want to have sex with.

I agree with Ms Cheng’s dismissal. However, I don’t believe that hanging her out to be fed to the wolves is the answer. I don’t think she’s a single case – but part of a worrying group of uneducated-professionals who make it so necessary to import “foreign talent” to get things done.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Problem with Comebacks

Everyone loves a “comeback.”  If life is a play, the “comeback” is the dramatic moment that decides the greatness of the play. We simply love people who have the ability to make a “comeback.” Somehow, the “comeback” moment is always the one that’s talked about. It’s the moment where we’re supposed to see things like grit and determination. It’s where that “extra special” in a person is supposed to shine through.

One only has to think of the 1990s tennis rivalry between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Let’s face it, Sampras dominated that rivalry. He was the more consistent performer, winning most of their matches, particularly in the big tournaments. Sampras stood head and shoulders above his peers. When he played tennis, it was like watching a Mozart give music lessons to a deaf mute. You could marvel at Sampras’s genius with a racket.

However, while Sampras was all about being a beautiful player, the one that inspired people was Andre Agassi. While Sampras won tournaments and broke records, Agassi would often come back from injury or defeat.  We cheered his 1999 French Open win, not because he was the superior player on the day but because he found something special in himself to make the difference when it counted. We could marvel at Sampras’s superior skills but in our hearts we identified with Agassi. With Sampras winning was key….with Agassi it didn’t matter.

The love of the “comeback” isn’t limited to tennis or sports. Business is filled with “comeback” stories. One of the most famous business icons of the 1980s is Lee Iacocca, the former CEO of Chrysler. Mr Iacocca became a hero when he rescued Chrysler from the brink of bankruptcy in 1979.

You could say Mr Iacocca started the trend of “celebrity CEOs,” business leaders who would became brands in their own right. How did he do it? He made himself the hero in a dramatic story called “The Comeback from the Brink of Bankruptcy.” This was the key in the creation of his legend. Had he not taken over Chrysler the chances are, Mr Iacocca would probably have retired as yet another executive, unheard of beyond his industry.

I suspect that we all love the “comeback” moment because it creates an emotional connection between us and that moment. Real life is filled with ups and downs and we fight to survive. Since we fight to survive, we get a kick watching other people struggle and win.

I live a country that has been all about coming back from misfortune. If you were to look at the “key” moment in modern Singapore’s history, it would have to be the 1965 ejection from the Malaysian Federation. Had we not been ejected, chances are, we might have just become another Malaysian city. However, our founding Prime Minister had his dream snatched away from him and he was forced to change course – the rest as they say is history.

There is, however, one major flaw with our love of the “comeback” – namely the fact that great moments tend to centre around individuals, who have the potential to become so much part of the narrative that the institutions they lead and live with end up suffering from their passing. Like or not, human beings are frail and end up falling to bits.

Let’s return to sports – boxing. Who is the greatest boxing heavy weight? The answer most would give is Mohammed Ali. The man dazzled us with his wit and good looks. He had artistry in the ring, allowing him to take on and beat bigger and stronger men. His fights were not ninety second demolitions. They were hard fought slug fest, won by the man with the bigger heart on the day – think of the “Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier or the “Rumble in the Jungle” against a very young, fit and hard hitting George Foreman.  Ali won the world heavy weight title a record breaking three times.

Much as we loved watching Mohammad Ali displays his pride and courage in the ring, his body reached its limits and he failed to recognize this. This became prominently evident in his 1980 attempt to win the heavy weight title from his former employee Larry Holmes. The contest was so one sided that it became a farce.  He only managed to throw ten effective punches in ten rounds and the anguish on Holmes’s face was clearly evident as he inflicted a savage beating on a man he admired.  

Two decades latter people are asking why the fight was ever allowed to take place. Ali by that time was showing signs of Parkinsons Disease. As things would have it, Don King summed it up best, “How do you tell God he can’t create thunder and lightning anymore?”

 Mohammed Ali had created a legend where he was God. Unfortunately his body didn't function like that. His humiliation at Holmes’s hands damaged him physically, damaged Holmes's reign as heavy weight champion and boxing at large.

The man is only a visible sad example of a man who failed to realize that he was not God the hard way. I think of politics in Singapore where Lee Kuan Yew continues to grab a few moments of the spotlight. If you look at his appearance at the 2012 National Day Parade, you’ll see that he’s barely able to walk. Why does he need to drag his failing body out for one last political battle?

I’m not against old people working. However, there is a need for great people to understand when it’s time for them to step back and leave the stage and recognize the fact that they need to let the new generations grow into their jobs. It took the humiliating loss of a GRC in the 2011 election for him to step down from cabinet. Why did it take an electoral defeat (well, not quite but in Singapore the ruling party is expected to win everything so a loss of more than two seats is considered a major disaster) to get him out of an official position?

This is the very same question that people asked about the 1980 Holmes-vs-Ali fight. A great champion had become a sick old man and was humiliated and damaged.

I am for celebrating the “comeback.” I am for people struggling to achieve something. I’m a big believer in the necessity of struggle in order to achieve greatness. However, I also believe that its vital for the great characters of the world to be reminded of their limits.

In Ancient Rome, a slave would always be present at the side of a triumphant general to whisper, “Remember General, you are mortal.” This was a reality check for the hero in the moment of triumph. There has to be a way for the modern world to offer this to its heroes.  

Monday, October 01, 2012

Nothing Wrong With Importing Talent: Now, Export the Duds!

Cyberspace is becoming wonderfully predictable these days. If you go onto any web site that claims to talk about Singapore politics, the inevitable topic of “foreigners” will glare at you like a boil on some one’s nose?

As far as Singapore’s keyboard warriors are concerned, every social issue in Singapore boils down to one fact – the fact that we’ve let in too many foreigners. The keyboard warriors are particularly upset that we’ve let in lots of people from Asia. Apparently, this group is stealing jobs from Singaporeans and if they’re not stealing jobs from Singaporeans, they’re driving wages so low that it’s impossible for decent Singaporeans to make a living.

It’s easy to blame foreigners for everything. I also agree that Singapore has issues. However, our solutions or rather the solution is the wrong one. Instead of trying to halt the inflow of foreigners into Singapore, we should be looking at exporting our duds to savory places like North Korea and Sudan.

Let’s face it; the foreigners in Singapore are not the worst of the worst. Much as we may not like to admit it, they do bring in capital and skills. My “Singaporean” Indian friends might object violently but I believe that one of the best examples of “necessary” talents is the Indian Nationals who have come to Singapore. I think of the chaps at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Alumni Association. It’s not just big shots from Indian Companies like Supriyo Sircar, CEO of Polaris Asia-Pacific. You have chaps like Dhruv Jain, a young engineer from Energizer and you have entrepreneurs like Balwant Jain who set up Optimum Solutions and Harish Nim who set up Emerio – successful companies in the high value industry that Singapore so desperately needs.

Even the chaps at the low end of the market are fairly decent. Look, they’re all “working” in the rough jobs that Singaporeans won’t do. They are NOT stealing from Singaporeans nor are they screwing the Singapore tax payer out of welfare benefits – I have yet to meet a “foreign worker” beggar. They work hard to provide Singaporeans with many of the amenities they enjoy. This lot is also fairly law abiding. I’ve yet to hear of a Singaporean being beaten up by a “Bangla” worker – by contrast, you do hear of Westerners beating up people after a few too many.

So, let’s be honest here – how can you argue that people who come here to contribute their labour are social problem? It’s downright ingenious for people to assume that Singaporeans will rush to join construction sites or food and beverage outlets once you kick out the “foreign labourers.” The proposals to replace foreign labour with the local variety are laughable. The premise works on “kick out the able bodied foreign worker and replace them with the elderly and crippled.” I say, as long as foreigners are willing to work, we should let them.

What we really need to do is to export duds and believe you me, Singapore is filled with them. You’re talking about people who believe that they are “entitled” to this and that and won’t lift a finger to do anything productive. Everything it seems is way beneath them.

In the Chinese community, this group can be found in the Ka Ni Na (Hokkien Chinese for mother f***) Family. Jie-Jie (Older Sister) Ka Ni Na is a typical Singapore Chinese graduate. She claims to have found herself a highly paid job and she’s proud of the fact that she’s too educated to know what to do around the house, unlike her half educated mother.

Jie-Jie Ka Ni Na’s actual job was to find herself a nice “Ang Moh” (Caucasian) husband. This husband happens to own a highly successful restaurant that has a monthly turn-over that is the equivalent of buying a small car. Once in a while she pretends to be a cashier at his restaurant. After half an hour, the work usually gets too strenuous for her and so she sits in a corner trying to get the staff to pay attention to her, just as the staff is trying their best to deal with twelve different things at once.

To be fair to Jie-Jie Ka Ni Na, she’s a very filial daughter. She’s tried to get Di-Di (Younger Brother) Ka Ni Na a job in her husband’s restaurant as a ….cashier. Unfortunately Di-Di didn’t want to do the job. In his words, “I cannot slack….ah.”  So Jie-Jie went and got her Mummy a job and every so often she drops by the restaurant to make sure Mummy helps her sow buttons on her blouse because her “idiot” maid couldn’t do it the way she wanted it done.

The Indian Community has the “Pundek (Tamil for c****) Family.”  While the Ka Ni Na Family is manipulative, whinny and materialistic, the Pundeks are lazy and prone to trying to sponge off everything that walks.

Pundek’s are highly allergic to work, that is if you don’t consider trying to get freebies off your relatives and your friends to be work. Apparently, the Pundek Family, particularly the men are particularly prone to this thing called “dignity.” It is apparently shameful to wash dishes, drive taxis and so on. It is perfectly ok to get your family and friends to pay for every small need that you have.

One of the biggest frustrations that the Pundek’s have is the fact that the “welfare” system in Singapore is called “Workfare.” To get money out of the Singapore government, you need to be in a job of sorts for two out of every three month period.

It’s not actually complicated to get “workfare.” All you need to do is to find someone willing to contribute a bit of money to your CPF (Singapore’s version of social security – it’s like a compulsory savings). Unfortunately, employers have a nasty habit of expecting you to do something for them in return, even if it’s just to wipe a few tables one day a week. Wiping tables is apparently “undignified” and therefore too much work for a few lousy bucks.

I suppose the Pundek’s allergy to work wouldn’t be so noticeable, if they were not so status conscious. If you were kind enough to offer to buy a Pundek a coffee in a coffee shop, they’ll kick a fuss and suggest that you take them out to somewhere a bit more upmarket or at least has air-conditioning. The Younger Generation of this family always likes to put on a show of generosity. They’ll offer to buy you a meal at somewhere fairly pricy, then order everything under the sun and then, when it comes to time to pick up the tab…..ooopppppsss, they’ll suggest that you pay first and they’ll pay you back sometime in the not too distant future …what they don’t tell you is that key word here is distant.

Now, I put it this way to you – who is a bigger social problem – the foreign worker cleaning the streets and working on the construction site or members of the Ka Ni Na and Pundek families?

I’m off the view that what we need to do to solve our social problems is to “export” Ka Ni Na’s and Pundeks rather than block the importing of foreigners. This would have plenty of practical benefits. Once you export members of these respective families, you would increase productivity and allow the people who supported members of this family to keep more of the money they work for. This in turn will ensure that money will go to where it’s needed most.

Think about it, exporting duds is a far more effective solution than blocking the importation of foreigners to do work.


Friday, September 21, 2012

It’s Just a Job

You have to hand it to cab drivers throughout the world for providing some of the most interesting bits of wisdom at the least expected of moments. Yesterday (19 September, 2012), I met a cab driver with a story to tell.

Cab drivers in Singapore are usually older men who ended up driving taxis as a last resort. Speak to enough of them and you’ll find that they’ve been retrenched from elsewhere and had no other way of making a living. This is probably the only job in Singapore that is restricted for the natives.

My driver was different. He was four years younger than me. He was educated (diploma in mechanical engineering from Singapore Polytechnic), and  he chose to go into taxi driving – this was a chap who had a job in a German engineering company and then quit once they offered him a supervisors role.

Unlike the majority of cab drivers, this chap liked his job except for the fact that it killed he chances with the chicks. He pointed out that he would meet girls, get chatting and the moment he revealed he was a cab driver they’d refuse to speak to him. His point was, “I don’t see what’s wrong with being a taxi driver. It’s an honest living.”

This point struck home. In the last decade that I’ve lived in Singapore, I’ve often found that you are what you do for a living. It’s not enough to make an honest living. You’re supposed to do something that is ‘worthy’ of what everyone else expects you to do.

I remember returning to Singapore after university and selling antiques at five bucks an hour. It wasn’t great but it was cash in hand every day and money that I earned and didn’t take from Dad.

After a while Dad had to say, “Much as I respect you wanting to work, I’d rather you focus on building your career.”  It didn’t take long for me to realize what he meant. The market place is brutal. Within six-months of graduation, one should have ones foot in an industry – which means either working for the government or a respectable company.

I had to learn some harsh truths about job hunting. To be it was a numbers game until Gerard Lim; former General Manager of Leo Burnett’s Singapore explained things. He pointed out that I would “Never” be considered for jobs in things like “tele-marketing” (though I did have a stint in a call centre). I thought it was because I had “no experience.” He told me it was because I was “too good.” As a graduate, particularly one from a prestigious college, nobody would stay in such a job for long and so there was no point hiring me.

As far as the world was concerned, I was something because I had a degree and I was therefore expected to do only a certain type of job. This in turn meant that I would only mix with a certain social circle and builds my life from there.

My peers in the agency game or even from the army and university have lived the lives that their jobs and education expected them to live. Every PR agency professional I’ve worked with moved from a smaller agency to a bigger one and a few have gone into the client side. They have lots of friends from the profession and even married within the profession.

In many ways, the Western world is more relaxed about what you do for a living and social mobility is more fluid. This is especially true of the “artistic” world. Every waiter in Los Angeles is an aspiring screen writer or actor who is merely doing a job to pay bills until the big break arrives. Harrison Ford (he of Han Solo and Indiana Jones fame) was a carpenter before he got his big break (Han Solo).

When I was going through long spells of unemployment, my mother would lament that I lived in Singapore and not in the West, where I could do a simple job while looking for a “career.” My sister, who lives in London, was perhaps luckier than me in this respect. She’s worked in a shop as a shop assistant for several years to help pay her bills while she did her art work.

However, even the Western world isn’t exempt from imposing expectations. My sister tells me that “Middle Class” mothers loath her. The reason is simple – she speaks with a “posh” accent which gives away the fact that she’s got a ‘public’ (to non Brits, that’s private and exclusive) school and a decent university background. To the Middle Class, someone who speaks like her should not be working in a shop.

So, where does this leave us? Well, the only thing one can do is to accept that certain things will always be a certain way. It will take time for people to change their views on certain issues. In Singapore it’s particularly tough; thanks to a culture that demands everyone’s devotion to material success.

 However, things will have to change – the population is getting greyer and jobs (particularly the nice cushy ones) are getting scarcer.  So just as people can expect to change careers within a lifetime, they also have to be prepared to take ‘ordinary’ jobs from time-to-time, just to pay the bills.  

Both employers and employees need to see this and adjust their thinking and actions towards this fact. People like me with ‘unusual’ job histories might have a future. I remember telling Frank Young co-founder of the Weekender that I didn’t think I was employable. He argued that I was VERY employable; I merely had to focus on the things I did (G2G, litigation, GE, UL, 3M and Alcon) and not where I had been (one-man-show and SME).

People like me should be encouraged by the advertising industry, where you had legends like David Ogilvy, founder of Ogilvy & Mather, who worked as a chef and farmer before he entered the profession at the ‘old’ age of 38. Unfortunately, the industry has become ‘standardised’ and people with job histories like Ogilvy usually lose out to fresh ‘communications graduates.’ This needs to change. Employers need to become creative at milking the value of people with ‘unusual’ job histories instead of chucking them aside in favour of people they think they can mold.

Employees or perspective job seekers need to accept that ‘any’ job has value provided one takes it positively and understands that one can pick up skills in menial jobs that will prove useful in later life.
I remember Gucharandan Das arguing that too employers expected new employees to have skills. His argument was, “You hire based on attitude and train for skills.” A person who has done menial work can be a person with the right attitude.

There’s also a case for developing and accepting that people will need to be independent. I think of my Uncle Nick (Mum’s cousin-in-law) who once had a high flying job in the City. He believes that having worked in all sorts of jobs gave him confidence that he’ll always be able to make a living and so was not beholden to employers and was therefore able to be more professional for his employers.

It’s such a shame that many of us have this mental block when it comes to appreciating the value of work. A person is not defined by his job. A job can make a person and it can say a lot about a person. Some people are more ambitious than others. However, the worth of a person and job shouldn’t be defined by a monetary value. I think of the cab driver who can’t get a date.

To me, he’s found the secret to happiness. I suspect he’s under divine protection – someone out there is weeding away the type of girls that are too shallow for him.