Thursday, May 26, 2016

"Excuse me, can you tell me if she's a horrible person or nice person who doesn't have the muscles in her face to smile."

Two of my least favourite customers decided to patronise the Bistrot tonight. As anyone can probably guess, these two ladies in question happen to be Singaporean Chinese graduate working professionals from well to do families - or should I say the unfortunate aspiration of what every in Singapore tries to be.

I don't know what it is, but when I see them, I end up blessing the fact that I've had an unconventional life, sheltered from the need to ever be part of this group. Both ladies think they're very beautiful and they strut around expecting normal people to agree. Unfortunately, the only people who might be inclined to agree are Caucasians (who are notoriously bad at looking at beauty in Asian women beyond the obvious private parts) and local Tamils who are so desperate to be part of the majority racial group. The ladies in question are the living embodiment of what an Irish school master called,"Beauty is skin deep but ugliness goes down to the bone."

What I dislike most about the two ladies in question is the fact that they literally spit on anyone who isn't deemed to be "in their class." One of them thought she was being generous when she invited the previous chef to drink with her and then proceed to empty out her friends empty wine glasses into a cup just for him. The ugliness of the character involved became so obvious at one stage that an Indian National customer asked loudly enough if they young lady was either a horrible person or a very person who lacked the facial muscles to smile. A former colleague from Italy got the shock of her life when one of the sisters of this young lady slammed a glass and demanded that it get filled with water.

In fairness to these two young ladies, Singapore is filled with uppity little things that think it's acceptable to treat those lower than themselves like shit. You'd imagine that after 50-years of miraculous economic growth and prosperity and exposure of everything that the world has to offer, that you'd get a population that had a better outlook on life.

It's probably my blessing in life that I ended up working in a restaurant. It opened my eyes to the realities on the ground. After a certain time, you'll realise that the problem in Singapore is not that we're letting too many foreigners, but we're not exposing the shit to the realities of life.

I have soft spot for Filipinos, and it has nothing to do with bar girls. Fact of the matter remains, our entire service sector would collapse without this community. They work hard, put up with lots of crap and still manage to smile and they do it for criminally low amounts of money. I think of Rafe, my back up guy at the Bistrot. He runs the show. He knows how to work the systems and he knows where is where and what it what. The same is true of Joey, his counterpart at the busier Pizzeria and Grill. Both these guys often double up as the dishwasher, kitchen help, cleaning boy and if they are truly unlucky, baby sitter of Mama Ka-Ni-Na.

I also have a high degree of enthusiasm for PRC Chinese. I think of the guy who used to come in an insist on ordering "Nieu Pai" (steak) and it always had to be the best (read - most expensive) and paid in cash.

I don't see why anyone should ever complain about PRC Chinese and the way they pay in cash. Give me the PRC Chinese who insist on buying the best and priciest in cash over the twat from the North of England with his silly Singaporean Chinese girlfriend who would always try and pull of the "I forgot my wallet" trick at the end of the evening.

While tipping isn't exactly great in Singapore, I appreciated Norwegians or at least my favourite couple, who would tip me exceedingly generously from time-to-time. My other group of regular tippers are Sikh (and I don't wear the Kara to work).

In the four years I've worked in a restaurant, I've come across enough of particular nationalities to be able to form fairly accurate stereotypes. Unfortunately, the least pleasent ends up being the well to do local people, who shouldn't be.

I guess you can say that paying customers, have a right to expect certain things from the people they pay. I think it's called a "Service Level Agreement," or SLA in professional jargon. In a restaurant, you expect your server to be fairly attentive and pleasent when the food is brought to you. In a professional service firm, you expect the guy on the other side to know what he's talking about and to be attentive to your needs.

However, I believe that there is a line between good service and abuse. In the case of the restaurant, the ladies cross that line. Come on, if you want to appreciate the man who put his heart and soul into preparing a tasty meal for you, do it from the heart and not in a way that shows the world that his you're pet dog.

If you want to be demanding, you should also reward well. One can argue that I'm being an ass for complaining about two ladies when I worked for the Saudi government, an organisation that's known for getting most value out of you. Difference here is that the Saudi's took care of basic needs (Shangri-La) and rewarded people for a job well done.

Did it occur to them that my Filipino guys would have enjoyed a tip, no matter how small, for putting their heart and soul into serving them? Nope, what they wanted  was simple, a cheap meal with a mandatory 10 percent discount and wine without corkage.

Needless to say, they get away with it because, some of the right people cannot see beyond a ladies private parts. My restaurant owner considers them "good customers" with spending power and encourage other so called "Good spenders." He's French Caucasian with a strange fetish for angry faces. Hence, he's willing to wave corkage charges for cheap people as opposed to other "regular" customers who actually spend money on good food and don't go out of their way to make people who happen to be a darker shade of pink to try and feel bad.

Here again, lies an important lesson. Why you indulge self-centred brats, you make bratism an accepted form of behaviour. Hence, we have an island filled with Pundeks and Ka-Ni-Na's who refuse to work but expect to be fed for free. I think of Singapore Chinese Graduates complaining about PRC Chinese women stealing men in the same way I think about Pundeks and Ka-Ni-Na's complaining about foreign workers - the foreign workers work while the Pundeks and Ka-Ni-Na's do not. Likewise, when you have to look at the persistent scowl on our well to do graduate working professional Singaporean Chinese ladies, you'll understand that paying the price for a PRC hooker is actually more pleasent, at least the PRC girl speaks one language well, dress appealingly and most importantly - smiles despite doing a crappy job.

Here in lies the lesson - developing facial muscles to smile is actually worth the effort. You can make people want to help you rather than avoid you.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Hungry and the Full

I just survived a dinner session with Daddy and the other half. This is the first time that Daddy (or any of my official and unofficial parents) had met Huong and sat down with her. Huong, to put it crudely isn't the girl respectable Singapore would expect me to have a one night stand with let alone be married to for 4-years.

Anyway, despite the language issues, my father ended up expressing an appreciation for the fact that Huong is from Vietnam and has hunger like people from Vietnam and other less developed countries. My Dad, who had once told me that sayings about the woman being true, seemed to think that I've found a woman who had the ability to kick me the correct proverbial kick up the bum whenever I needed it.

I'm glad that my Dad has seen the positive in my marriage to Huong. Most people who know me worry that the woman is using me for something or other and I'm more likely to get love, tenderness etc etc from someone with a more similar background.

Well, there's true to a certain extent. There was more cuddling with my previous wife and Joyce, the ex-girlfriend. Both were educated in the "respectable" institutions and with Joyce, she had the skills my family considered a sign of good breeding - namely the ability to play the piano and as my sister once said,"At least this one knows who Glenn Gould is."

However, neither of my respectable Singaporean Chinese girls had a sense of perspective or reality. Gina wanted me to rent a condo with her when I had no job and when I had a job, she expected me to call her and speak to her for at least two hours a day and whenever the phrase, "I am in a meeting," the reply was inevitably, "What is that supposed to mean?" Joyce was great when it came to sex but she had as much common sense as an ant stuck in a bag of M&M's. She actually thought being in debt to Citibank's credit card department was God protecting her. For some reason she had to find a way of turning everything good about our relationship we had into something that wasn't.

By contrast, Huong has ambition and like the migrants into Singapore and other developing countries, she has a way of trying to turn adversity into something good. To her credit, she's put some of my parasites to work (instead of complaining that I'm not kind enough to the parasites) and whenever I've been out of work, she's found opportunities to increase my income (although I'm working two jobs at the moment, she still encourages me to work  towards entrepreneurship.) To her mind, everyone needs to work and its also best to be independent from any particular source of income.

The lady has hunger and with hunger comes optimism. This isn't an uncommon trait in people from less developed countries who move elsewhere. Somehow, they're freed from whatever was holding them back and can't stop running. Adversity becomes a challenge.

Intelligent nations recognise this and try to be generous with migrants. America is the prime example. Waves of migrants, whether they were from Europe, Asia or Latin America have come in and revitalised areas that have been run down. It's the migrants who run small shops and make a fortune out of the things we throw away. I lived in the UK and witnessed how the "Paki" immigrants made communities function by setting up and running corner shops. An Indian banker from Citibank, who has his UK permanent residence status makes the point that England will not function without Polish migrants.

Now, I live in Singapore and I notice the same thing that I noticed in the UK. It's PRC Chinese, Malaysian Chinese, Bangladeshis and Pinoys who get things done. I think of the Bistrot, where I've been the one that customers enjoy interacting with the most. Yet, despite all that, it's Rafe, the Fillipino guy who gets things moving. He knows how to work the various systems in the restaurant and he knows where things are kept. He works for longer hours and less money per hour. Simply put, the restaurant would cease to function without him.

Despite what middle class Singaporean Chinese might think, statistics have shown that migrants tend to be more law abiding than the natives. When you operate in the shadows, you tend to want to stay away from authorities. By contrast, the natives can't get enough attention from the authorities.

Migrants make things happen because they're hungry. Their hunger is a powerful revitalising force for any area. One only has to look at how the Filipino's in Singapore revitalised Lucky Plaza.

Unfortunately, the natives usually don't see it that way. Trust you me, being kind to people like injured Bangladeshi workers won't be looked on to kindly, especially if you have the misfortune of housing them in a respectable neighbourhood.

Look at it this way, the natives get more worried about the migrants than they do about the faults among themselves. Think of public drinking laws that were imposed after the December 13 riots in Little India, because the natives got frightened that the migrant darkies were not happy about having one of their own killed. Apparently darky migrants can't hold their liquor and that might upset social order. However, nobody seems bothered when the local Mamak decides that the only way to solve the issue of being unemployed is to drink beer and then drink even more.

We. the natives have forgotten that  life requires a certain sense of dynamism and instead of being frightened by migrants, we should embrace them so that we can see the beauty in the things we take for granted. 

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Staying Worthy While Jobless

The question of employability has become something of a hot button issue with Singapore’s formidable army of keyboard warriors, thanks to a member of the ruling party referring to Dr. Chee Soon Juan, one of the more prominent members of the political opposition as being “worthless” because he was “jobless.”

You could say I am either the best or worst person to write something about this because I’ve been jobless and worthless for a long time. I spent the better part of a decade being in and out of formal employment. I remember PN Balji, the founding editor of the Today newspaper, advising me to stop wasting time looking for a formal job as I had reached my early thirties and been able to sit in a job for anything more than a year.

A decade later, I’ve now managed to overcome that big gap in my CV by holding down not one but two jobs for more than two-years. Ironically, while I was unable to hold down a job in PR, the industry that I’m best qualified and even described as a little talented in, my two jobs are in fields where I am either overqualified for (waiter) and not qualified at all (insolvency). 

The steady career that everyone thought I’d have has been (based on the fact that I went to school in “England”) never quite materialized but somehow it has been put me in the unique position of being able to talk about all sorts of topics that everyone wants to talk about but no one actually wants to be.

Let’s go back to the comments about Dr Chee. I’m not a fan of the man but I do acknowledge that he has been unfairly treated and in this day and age of a more restless electorate, he may actually get into power one of these days.

I also look at the comment that “he is worthless because he is jobless.” The surface level, the meaning of the comments are obvious – Dr. Chee is officially a worthless shit because he’s not held a steady job for I don’t know how long. It’s implied that Dr. Chee is has just mooched off everyone else and now wants to mooch of the State aka you and me the tax payer.

I’m going to leave Dr. Chee’s situation to my fellow bloggers, but I will say that being jobless can make someone feel useless. For anyone who has been jobless for more than a year and known to be jobless, you find that people look at you differently and sooner or later you start to think of yourself in the same way that everyone sees you – useless and helpless.

A job, as they say, is more than just a means of making a living. As well as being the thing that brings in your monthly pay cheque, a job reflects you as a person and where you’re supposed to stand in society. This is especially true in status conscious Asia (not that Westerners are immune from status consciousness but the disease is especially strong amongst Asians). Universities and other educational institutions adore Asians because Asians as a rule will throw money at educational institutions and ensure their kids don’t cause problems all in the hope of the kid getting a “respectable” job and therefore becoming respectable people in society.

The social nature of having a job is such that my jobless friends have invented themselves as “life coaches.” In return for buying them dinner or a pack of smokes, they will gladly advise you on how to handle your career but selling stories from the careers that they had or in some cases, thought they had. It’s what they call the great social trade off. If the rest of us are trying to sell time for money, the jobless, especially the long term jobless sell stories for food, drink and top ups for all of life’s other basic necessities.

When they can’t sell you stories about their past, the long term jobless will then hide and disappear from the scene. – Why does anyone want to be seen in places where one is not particularly well thought off?

So how does one get out of this feeling of worthlessness? I guess the key here is to define who exactly are you worthless to? I know a friend who has taken his time out to be with his wife and kids. Another one takes time out to be with his elderly parents. In that sense these two have found people they can be worth something to.

Then, the next step is being able to find an income of sorts. While nobody expects you to be a millionaire, it’s generally expected that you have the ability to pick up a round of drinks once in a while. If you’re jobless and not making money, you avoid situations where you have to pull out your wallet. Having an income, even if it’s a miniscule one, helps you to stay in circulation by putting you in a position where you actually can afford to pick up a round or two.

For me, I kept myself in circulation by inventing myself as a freelancer. I tried to pick up a bit of work here and a bit of work there. Didn’t make much money at first but I could afford to travel around by MRT and I could afford to have a beer or two.

Later on, I was lucky enough to find a way of attracting some high profile clients like the Saudi Embassy and GE Commercial Finance. GE refused to write a cheque to an individual and so I had to set up a business with the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) and therefore could claim that I was a consultant (Dad calls it’s the fancy way of saying no one will offer you a job) with my own consultancy.

The only downside with freelancing is that it is next to impossible to save money because when you make money, it tends to go quickly because you got to tide over for the periods when you don’t have any jobs coming in. I only really got to keep money when I started working the night job at the restaurant and had a small income that paid my running expenses while I fished for bigger income from PR projects.

The key here is staying in circulation. Having a job gives one self-worth and an income. However, in this day and age where job security doesn’t really exists, you got to find ways of staying relevant, especially during the periods when you are likely to be out of a job.

Never go into hibernation for example. Hibernation only works if you are a bear and if you have the reputation of a superstar.  Most of us need to stay in circulation. The late Lee Kuan Yew described man as being a social animal that needs to be surrounded by his fellow man. Staying in circulation creates circumstances where we get find our next meal.

Being jobless can make you worthless but it’s not the end of the world unless you want it to be. There are ways of staying alive and one merely has to open ones’ imagination.  I was jobless when I tried to get into the area that everyone thought I could be a star. I stopped being jobless when I crossed industries, taking the skills I learnt from the industry I thought I was meant for and doing elsewhere.

It’s not that I’m special; I merely refused to believe I was worthless because the alternative was worse. Just because you don’t have a steady job, you don’t have to be worthless unless you chose to be. 

Sunday, May 01, 2016

How Racist Can We Get?

The topic of race relations has come up again in Singapore's landscape. A few days ago, PrimaDeli had to appologise when one of its top hiring managers openly refused to hire someone to decorate cakes because that the lady in question happened to be Malay and had to good sense to place the reason her not getting hired onto social media. Much later on, Ms. Grace Fu, our Minister for Culture, Community and Youth had to make some comments in parliament about how we need to keep the racial balance secure in order to keep society secure.

The internet is filled with comments on the topic and I guess one has to ask, how racist is Singapore? For me, the question is both an optimistic "not really" and a depressing "Yes." 

Let's start with the optimistic scenario. On a certain level, Singaporeans have shown that they are incredibly open to people of all sorts of colours. I often find myself going down to Waterloo Street to say prayers because I find one of the most Godly places in Singapore over there - the Hindu Temple. While the decor is obviously Indian, you'll find that the devotees for the most part are ethnic Chinese who found something with them to cross the cultural barriers and worship with ethnic Indian Priest. As one friend of mine on Facebook says, "This is as it should be." 

The spirit of intercultural worship has even hit home. When I first started out with Huong, I noticed that she was very clear where she saw the divine - with Kuan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) in the nearby Taoist Temple. She once got upset with me because the string I wear across my neck, which was given by a Tibetan Rimpoche was not quite in line with the Chinese/ Vietnamese divine system. Huong ensures that our home has a shrine to Kuan Yin but these days, she also ensures that she pays the necessary respects at the Hindu temple whenever we go down to see Kuan Yin on Waterloo Street.

Food and language is another example of how Singapore has merged cultures beautifully. Singlish, our local version of English has borrowed shamelessly from Hokkien, Malay and Tamil. You find members of the Tamil minority here, who speak fluent Chinese dialects without thinking anything of it. My course commander when I was on my basic gunner course back in the late 90s, spoke Hokkien as if it was his natural language. This is even true of Chinese dialects. In Cantonese in Singapore, we call the cops "Mata," after the Malay word for eyes - in Hong Kong they are "Jeng Chak" (closer to the Mandarin word for "Jing Cha")

You also find Indians munching always at Hainanese Chicken rice and Bak Kut Teh (Herbal Pork Rib soup) and Chinese guzzling on roti prata as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

When you look at the basics of life in Singapore, you see the beauty of letting people live and let live. Somehow people find ways of cooperating together and various aspects of culture get exchanged and enjoyed. I look at people of my father's generation. Somehow everyone managed to pick up everyone else's mother tongue and somehow everyone got along. On the personal front, my  daughter, Jenny, has made a Malay girl her best friend. 

I believe that if you let people find the opportunity to know each other, you create the opportunity to create diversity and unity at the same time. I am a living example of that - ethnically Chinese and culturally British. On a normal given day, I don't feel particularly close to ether culture. I am merely both. There are aspects of British and Chinese culture that I like and dislike to adapt accordingly.

What depresses me about the race issue, is that in many ways, we have institutionalized it. Let's go back to the case of PrimaDeli. I agree with the company for sacking the employee. You should never NOT hire someone based on their race or your previous dealings with them and if you are stupid enough to tell someone that you are not hiring them based on that, you deserved to be sacked. No business should ever want its customer base to know that it discriminates against a certain portion of the community.

Having said that, I sometimes wonder if the manager in question was fired for stupidly expressing an opinion rather than because this is what the Company believed in. I've tried to recommend people for jobs and was told,"Ai ya, Malay....don't want ah." One of my favourite Englishmen tells me about the time his son applied for a job at the annual FI event. Anyone who happened to be White or Chinese got jobs in catering and guest relations. Anyone who happened to be black or darker than pale became a cleaner. I'd love to hear how anyone with a rational mind would argue that this is merely a coincidence.

You can find plenty of examples of how racism in Singapore is accepted by the general population and you can either love it or leave it. Once again, it was a European customer of mine, who told me that he's noticed how customers who are exceedingly sweet to me, treat Rafe (my Pinoy colleague) and Yvonne (my Malaysian Chinese colleague) like crap. Admittedly, I am more outgoing than Rafe - hence he does the general work, while I front the customers. While he's a permanent staff at the restaurant and I am a part-timer, everyone assumes he works for me.

While there are personality differences, I believe there's something deeper in the way he gets treated and I get treated and I don't think this is right. I may be the more popular showman, but he's the man who does the real work. The main difference here is that I happen to be the right colour and speak the right way. It doesn't speak well of people who treat my colleagues badly and never dream of saying a cross word to me. 

Politicians adore being seen as defenders of multiculturalism. Government had good fun arrest a few bloggers who posted nasty things about the Malay Community. However, I also believe that politicians need to keep racial divisions simmering. How else can anyone be seen as a defender of a race if that race does not feel that I might be persecuted?

Policies like quotas on public housing had a good purpose in that it prevented ethnic ghettos from forming. However, I question the language policies, where the government went on an all out war against Chinese dialects and tried to define race on its own terms - which only became problematic when you had an influx of non-Tamils coming to Singapore - suddenly your average Singaporean needed to understand that Tamil was only part of the term "Indian" rather than the only part.

Rather than trying to keep the "racial" balance to what it was in the 60s, surely we should be making it even more diverse. I don't have an issue if I was ethnically no longer in the ethnic majority as long as I could still make a decent enough living.