Thursday, January 26, 2006

Conservative Singapore

Singapore is a highly conservative society. In this essay I'll not be wasting precious space to describe how conservative it is. Instead, what I wish to suggest is that Singapore's conservative culture is an extremely stable and deep-rooted one, to the extent that this country will still be as conservative as it currently is even in 60 years' time. In other words, I predict that there will be no social change in this particular aspect of society as long as I live. I'll be focusing especially on the way society thinks about 'expressions of sexuality', and sexuality itself.

Do not be deceived by the apparent signals of decreasing conservativeness in society. Things like Sexpo and Crazy Horse may make people feel as though Singapore is finally becoming less prudish. But do you really believe that there will be a day when Singapore allows magazines such as Playboy to be sold in Singapore? I do not think so. Censorship of the print media and online media will continue to be strict for the foreseeable future. So, to the extent that there are clear and unambiguous limits that cannot be crossed, the suggestion that society is somehow 'opening up' may cause people to think that this 'opening up' shall proceed in a teleological and linear fashion. Such guesses are overly optimistic and do not to take into account the ways in which powerful brakes exist in Singapore to halt the unbridled development of Singapore into a totally permissive society.

It is sometimes said that there is a silent majority in this country, which is an extremely moral bunch of people. While I do not know the exact size of this group of people, my wild guess is that they amount to at least 60% of Singapore. Naturally, the older generation will be conservative. The younger Singaporeans are split between the conservative, the not-so-conservative, and those who have never thought about this question or issue. Do a rough calculation based on some estimates and you might arrive at the same percentage as I have: the not-so-conservative group is a minority group in Singapore, amounting to probably only 10% of the total population!

Thus the Singapore in 20, 40, or even 60 years' time will still be the same old Singapore. Playboy magazine and that company's website will continue to be censored, and society at large will continue to support strict censorship. No doubts about that. There are two philosophies supporting this form of censorship by the State. The first is that pornography (both hard and soft porn) corrupts the mind absolutely, and will therefore convert most Singaporeans into lust-filled monsters who ought to be quarantined immediately. It is assumed that total chaos will follow and this pristine moral paradise will then be reduced to Fourth World status from the fighting, fires, rapes, molest cases, and a whole series of crimes due to the pornographic magazines and their close cousins. Why do you think the scene where Kate Winslet appeared nude in Titanic was cut? To those in charge of censorship, there is no such thing as 'forms of nudity' or 'nudity for artistic purposes'; there is only one monolithic category of 'nudity' which is equated to pornography and to the notion of 'evil'.

The second and more fundamental belief is that anything related to the enhancement of sexual attraction and desires or serves as a form of sexual expression is inherently bad. I'm not surprised because Singapore rests upon a system-wide perpetration of a 'wholesome' image for the sake of attracting tourists, foreign talent, and investors, and this overall country image can only be sustained when the circulating discourses, practices, and products (e.g. magazines, television programmes) are all equally wholesome. In fact, even married couples are not spared from the pressures that this subtle moral culture exerts. As an exaggeration, they might even hear some ghostly voices telling them that sex is at best a necessary evil (even for married couples!) It is a practice that is tolerated here only because it has the positive externality of churning out the next generation of workers. Once the goal of reproduction has been achieved, this evil practice shall promptly be discontinued, for there is no longer any reason why a person needs to touch his or her spouse. True or false?

Now, do I need to place a disclaimer to say that I am obviously writing rhetorically in the above paragraphs? Please don't take the sentences literally...What I want to say is really this: that Singapore will always be conservative. And the proxy that I have used in this short essay is the censorship of expressions of sexuality. Sex, lust, intimacy, and liberal attitudes, according to the invisible moral majority, must not be tolerated in our squeaky clean, no-nonsense island. One can only wonder whether local married couples are exempted from such moral injunctions, and whether it is a bad thing to be intimate with one's spouse after the national 'duty' of childbearing has been discharged.

Friday, January 20, 2006

The worsening of contemporary songs and cartoons

This short essay is about songs and cartoons, and how they reflect the increasing meaninglessness of society...

Songs these days are substandard compared to songs in 'my generation'. In 'my generation', both English and Mandarin songs are so much more melodious and the lyrics are often touching, educational, and/or much more meaningful. Personally, I do not like to listen to songs which are meaningless, even if they have catchy tunes.

The lyrics of a currently very popular song goes like this, "Mayee-yahee...Mayee-yahoo.....Mayee-yahoo....Mayee-ya-heh-heh...." My wife says it's quite cute, but I simply cannot stand it! Especially if she hums that song!

I told her that this song is really written for frogs to listen to, not human beings. And she challenged me to post this statement on my blog, saying that I will definitely become the number one public enemy in Singapore if I do so. Well, perhaps just let me say first of all that I do think the singer sings well and has a lovely voice. But still, with due apologies, I have to say that I really can't stand that song because it's just meaningless! So it's the song that I don't like, not the singer. Anyway, this is a free society and I can certainly express my personal views. So any attempt to make me follow the crowd and say that this 'frog-song' is good will simply show that this society is intolerant of dissenting views, that the nail which sticks out gets hammered down. This will then be an interesting discovery for me personally. So either way, I will gain something. In any case, does Heavenly Sword ever come across as one who is afraid of anything?

Well, I've digressed. Back to the songs. It is very unfortunate that in today's world, it is often songs without very deep meaning(s) that can strike a chord in people's heart, for society and life today are in general becoming more and more lacking in meaning and substance. So in a way, the kinds of songs that you get merely reflects the state of society. Another trend is that people do not like to think so much. So songs that make people think are simply not welcomed! This is a reflection of Gresham's law - it will always be the lousy things that dominate the world. Because the taste of the majority tends not to be the 'best' if you judge 'taste' in terms of strict professional standards! Interestingly, this is also why people who write garbage blogs have lots of readers - precisely because they write garbage!

Cartoons these days are horrible too. Just look at all those repulsive cartoons these days. In particular, look at the atrocious cartoons that you are 'forced' to watch on the buses thanks to the Mobile TV. I feel a strong urge to lodge an official complaint about those cartoons. The military themes are highly inappropriate for children, who are growing up and would surely benefit more from more 'innocent' and more easily understandable themes rather than such 'dark' and complex issues concerned with warfare and military technologies. Who cares about these technologies of death and violence anyway! Why bombard children with such garbage images when they are so young? Just look at the faces of the characters in these cartoons - totally unlovable, totally sinister, and totally stuck up. Are these the kinds of 'personalities' that we wish to expose our younger generation to? Just look at the things they say: they are full of hatred and desire to kill ("sha qi" in Mandarin). To me, cartoons should be cute, have lovable characters, and focus on more light-hearted settings.

To conclude, songs are getting meaningless and cartoons are becoming more 'adult-like'. Will there be a day when I can listen to more classical music or contemporary instrumental music rather than 'mayee-yahee, mayee-yahoo' FROGs' song everywhere I go? Will MDA please show some good cartoons such as the cute little Smurfs? I don't think my wishes will come true, for the world is undergoing a process that could be known as 'meaningless-ization'!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Cars, taxis, buses, and the MRT: Singapore's transport system

Singapore's transport system is truly world-class. Just look at our Mass Rapid Transit system, especially the new 'North-East line': the stations are so safe, posh and artistically designed, and the trains are so fast and comfortable. The buses are impressive too, especially the newer ones installed with MobileTV sets. Who can complain that the transport system is not world-class?

Taxi companies are also becoming more professional and IT-oriented. Bookings can be done over the phone and the taxi that you need will arrive in about 5-10 minutes. "Convenient!" At least that's what the rich 'tai-tai's' would say. Cars are said to be 'cheap' too, since the prices of the COE have fallen....My mother happily parted with $80,000 cash and bought a Honda Civic, and was telling me that 'it's so cheap!' In the area where I live, there are numerous Mercedes-Benz's (especially the 200 series), BMWs (especially the 300 series), Toyotas (esp. Altis), Hondas (esp. Civic), and so on. It just looks as though everybody is so rich nowadays! Gosh, I'm really under-achieving!

Anyway, it appears that there is really nothing for one to complain about, regardless of one's preferred mode of commuting. But still, my everyday experiences of commuting leave me frustrated and tired. Pardon me but I really cannot afford to maintain a car (even though I can probably afford to buy one with a loan). Anyway, for car owners, the highways are always packed with cars that move like turtles. And even if they were not, I cannot afford a car because all my money is spent paying off the numerous bills that come to me in scary white envelopes every month - the service and conservancy charges, the electrical bills, the handphone bills, Internet connection bills, and other miscellaneous bills.

Unfortunately, my alternative modes of transport disappoint me. The public buses take ages to come, especially the feeder buses. Taxis are always taken, and I usually have no choice but to book one over the phone. The booking fee for 'peak hours' is $4, which sounds fair enough since those are supposed to be 'peak hours'. But hey, 'peak hours' is defined to be the period from 6pm to 11pm! That's when I need to get home from work! So you can imagine 'getting home from work' to be a most excruciatingly painful experience for me. I can either pay $17 to get home by taxi, or spend 1 hour and 45 minutes commuting in packed buses....

So this is the world-class transport system that impresses everyone but makes a poor commuter like me suffer daily. The strength of a chain is determined by its weakest link. I consider the buses to be the weakest link of our otherwise excellent transport system. From 6pm-10pm, buses are always packed like sardines. Sometimes they remain packed even until 11pm or later. The reason is that the frequency of the buses is too low, resulting in overly packed buses and in people having to wait for 20mins or even more sometimes at the bus-stops. The bus companies can at least provide printed time-tables at the bus-stops, like what they do in UK, so that when I wait at the bus-stop, I can at least read a book rather than constantly look at the oncoming buses to see if my bus has arrived. Bear in mind that I'll have to rush in order to get onto the bus when it comes, thanks to all the equally kiasu commuters!

Actually, I could understand why they're rushing too - for nobody wants to wait for another 25 mins for another packed bus, since even when the next bus comes, you STILL have to 'compete' with people, especially the middle-aged aunties in order to board it! I'm not being biased here but in my experience, it is always the 'aunties' who are the rudest, the most 'pushy', and 'kiasu'! They simply have no respect for young professionals like myself and literally dash past us like elephants even if we're obediently queuing up in front of them! This is what I call uncivilized behaviour at its extreme (very common in Singapore)!

Anyway, I've digressed. Regarding the world-class transport system, feeder buses are the worst culprit that undermines the efficiency of the system. The feeder bus that serves my area takes at least 20 minutes or even half an hour to come. It has been like that since I was 12 years old, and it is STILL like that. Zero improvement over nearly two decades, which is absolutely pathetic. The bus companies have either underestimated the importance of feeder buses, or they simply don't care about the quality of the 'service' they're providing. It's bad, by international standards, to put it bluntly.

Having presented my personal experience of commuting in Singapore, I have to say that my views are not representative. They do not in anyway represent the views of all social groups in Singapore, especially those who have immense financial resources and do not mind paying the $4 taxi-booking fee when the buses take too long to arrive, or those who do not find it tedious to own a car in Singapore. I do find it tedious to own a car and to commute daily, but I guess that must be because I am a comparatively unsuccessful man by the standards of my beloved country.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Platypus ideology

This post is not about how to identify a platypus, and neither is it about how to catch an octopus. It's about how certain aspects of the country exert pressures to shape Singaporeans in the image of the platypus, resulting in us having to become quasi-octopuses.....

Most of the shaping occurs during the teenage years. Look around you and you'll notice how many people actually overload themselves with extra-curricular activities (ECAs). (Or are they called CCAs now?). The idea of having these ECAs is to make students more 'well-rounded'. But everything soon turns into a competition: within specific student societies/clubs/sports teams, people strive for positions of power, because these will enhance their resume. Being good at one thing is not considered to be a big deal in Singapore. This is a country where people will only be impressed if you are excellent in everything. Like a platypus, you should be able to lay eggs, walk on land, swim in water, and look like a duck, an otter and a fish - all at once. It's good if you are the sports captain, students' council leader, and graduate with a good honours degree, but it's still not good enough, for you can still be defeated by the person who have a slightly more impressive 'ECA record'.

I have a feeling that this 'ECA record' mentality is doing more harm than good in our country. How many fine young men and women have been exhausted to their limits because of ECAs? How many student societies and clubs have turned 'political' due to people vying for key positions within the 'committee'? How many potential budding scholars (as opposed to scholarship holders) have missed their first class honours because of excessive commitments to other non-academic activities? How many people truly like the activities they've chosen to join, and how many ended up hating those very activities that they had loved before everything became overly formalized?

Why do capable young people spread themselves so thin? The answer is that their capabilities have given them the feeling that they can take on the world. At the same time, 'society' at large and their immediate social environment send all kinds of signals to tell them that it's good to BE a platypus. If you want a good job after you graduate, you'd better be a platypus and have all kinds of activities listed on your resume - and make sure you hold at least one or two leadership positions. Nobody cares if you had been the worst 'President of Students Council' or 'President of Singapore Society', or the worst Rugby captain throughout the history of your school or university. Nobody will know anyway, and so the game transforms into a power struggle. ECAs are no longer for cultivating a deeper interest in the activity. They are instead platforms for the acquisition of titles which may impress your potential employers....

I'm not sure about the current situation but in my time, we're not allowed to change ECAs 'halfway through' or we'll lose all our 'ECA points'. So it doesn't matter that I've been an excellent player and contributor in the sports team and won several medals in the initial years of my secondary education. If I quit the team in my final year, I shall lose all my merit points. This is an unfair and silly practice, don't you think so? Why can't people have a change of interest? Why can I try out different things during my teenage years? Wouldn't it be nice if I could learn abit of Astronomy from the Astronomers' Club, a bit of horticulture from the Horticultural Society, and a bit of chicken-slaying skills from the Chicken-Slayers' Council? Why must I stick with a single uniformed group and a single sports team for 4 years of my life? I'm quite sure that I'll be very much more well-rounded if I had the chance to try out 5 to 15 different ECAs without any regard for the ECA points!

One might argue that I'm just going to exhaust myself if I try out so many things. But why should merely trying out things exhaust a person? The system is stupid, to begin with. For example, if I'm interested in Air-Rifle, why should I go for Air-Rifle sessions twice a week? And there shouldn't be a system that constrains peoples' movement across societies by imposing penalties or having disincentives. There shouldn't even be an expectation (on the part of employers) that people should have a string of titles associated with their 'official' positions in their ECA groups.

I would rather see people trying out different things in their youth. I would rather see a great young pianist who only has ONE ECA and no official position of responsibility, but could play the piano really well and lets his love for the piano show in his general excitement for life. And I would rather see a young scholar who had been yearning to become a famous professor one day and studied wholeheartedly and as a result had ZERO ECAs. All of these scenarios, in my opinion, are much better than the scenario of many exhausted, half-hearted, and over-stretched platypuses approaching their lives with an overly pragmatic attitude to everything. The process of transforming into a pragmatic platypus will slowly but surely limit one's achievement to mere technical perfection, and extinguish all chances of attaining a much higher, much more magical form of spiritual ecstasy and passionate performance through a hedonistic indulgence in things which he loves.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The screwed up year...

The screwed up year of the Chicken is going to be over soon. The year of the Chicken is especially bad for people born in my year. Although such things do not have any scientific basis, the predictions all came true for me, so how could I not believe in the Chinese horoscope? A year of hell indeed. I have had enough. One bad thing after another. Enough. And even as the year of the Chicken approaches its end, the spiteful Chicken still will not let me off. Its curse continues to work its black magic on me.

Believe in the Chinese horoscope, for its predictions are always accurate. If it says you are going to go through hell in a particular year, you will go through hell. And at least for me, no matter how hard you try, things will still turn out badly, leaving you thoroughly wounded in all bloody ways.

So this leads me to a thought: perhaps I should end this blog too. What's the point of blogging, when it does not make my life any better? What purpose would that serve? Would money fall down from the sky to solve real problems in life? Would frustrating things stop happening? Anyway, 'business' hasn't been good (for this blog), so why continue to incur the 'operating costs'? If blogging is a way of capturing a snapshot of life similar to using a camera to take photographs of things, then I can only say that I am not in a happy enough state of mind to capture anything right now. I want things to get significantly better for me. And I want the year of the Chicken to end soon. Too many hateful things have happened this year. One wave after another. Just when I'm cheering up after one wave of mud has flushed through me, another wave starts rolling in....I'm already tired. Even people close to me feels that my life is quite 'cursed' this year in a very strange way. Did I step on anything supernatural unknowingly? Did I offend any deities? Did I harm anyone? No to all, so leave me alone, hateful Chicken. I'll see you in 12 years' time. By then, I will not let you defeat me again.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Singapore - the food paradise!

Happy New Year to everyone who reads this blog!
To start off a great new year, Jeff Yen has an awesome essay on nutrition. It's interesting to note that the Health Promotion Board is cooperating with McDonalds to teach people about nutrition! Hahaha

Indeed, it is about time that Singaporeans learn more about nutrition. The older generation of Singaporeans care very much about the kinds of food that their families eat. It's very common to hear the elders say to the younger ones, "Don't eat too much of 'outside food'; it's not so good for you..." And they would probably say that fast food in general is not really healthy.

The younger generation, however, is an 'eating out' generation. By that, I mean a generation that generally eats outside :) or buy takeaways...This is related to what I have earlier called the 'outsourcing of cooking' in my essay on Singaporean women who can't cook. The ready availability and affordability of takeaway food is one of the causal factors. The other is the increasing number of bosses and managers who are 'slave drivers', resulting in Singaporeans having to work very long hours and suffer immense stress associated with work. This leaves most Singaporeans with no time or inclination to prepare home-cooked meals. So buying takeaways and eating outside become attractive options that would help people to save time.

Because of the prioritization of 'convenience' as a factor affecting how we eat, 'nutrition' has become downplayed and is generally not an important consideration for Singaporeans. In other words, there is a shift of attention away from what we eat due to the lop-sided focus on how we eat. Long queues waiting for oily dishes such as char kway teow or chai tow kway (fried carrot cake) are commonly seen. Singaporeans are willing to wait for 45 minutes for a plate of Hokkien prawn mee (noodles) or BBQ sting ray or satays. Ask anyone in the queue why they love these dishes so much and they'll tell you right away, "Because they're nice!" Thus, 'nice' is a generic word that most commonly used in Singapore to justify all kinds of choices: the choice of a partner ('she's nice or 'he's nice'), unhealthy food ('it's so nice....yum yum'), well-designed clothings ('this top is really nice', 'that shirt is nice'), expensive apartments ('they are nice'). Because 'nice' sounds so disarming and innocent, the use of this word to explain one's consumption choices immediately makes all other considerations disappear. Yet, these considerations that have been made to disappear are those that could and should be regarded as equally or even more relevant and salient.
The tyranny of the word 'nice' operates together with marketing slogans and widespread myths circulating in society. Singaporeans and organizations operating in the tourism/hospitality/food-and-beverages industries here happily rehearse the phrase 'Singapore is a food paradise!' over and over again. Locals and foreigners accept this phrase too and joyfully agree and repeat, 'Yeah! Singapore is indeed a food paradise!'

In a way, Singapore is truly a food paradise. Our food courts, food centres, and hawker centres are unbeatable in the world. The food they sell are so tasty that Singaporean men would gladly give up their partners for them (and same for Singaporean women too). But this is precisely the key problem as I see it: the prioritization of taste over nutrition. People say that Singaporeans are 'practical' rather than 'emotional' or driven by instincts. But when it comes to food, this general observation does not apply; Singaporeans are driven by instincts rather than rationality when it comes to food! Who cares about the nutritional value of the food? What matters is that the food is nice! :) (ooh, the pigs' trotters, the kway chap with all the tantalizing pigs' intestines! the greasely grilled chicken wings!) Who says Singaporeans do not know how to enjoy and are too serious? They are not - they are hedonistic and are not serious about eating well when it comes to food and nutrition!

The only four stalls that sell healthy food in food courts or food centres are (a) the porridge stall, (b) the soup-based noodles stall, (c) the yong-tau-fu stall, and (d) the 'mixed dishes'/economical rice stall. The food sold at these stalls are the only ones that are (a) not oily, (b) have acceptable levels of cholesterol, and (c) contain a few shreds of vegetables in them. The Health Promotion Board needs to tell people to eat more fibre. In fact, I propose two draconian but potentially highly effective measures: the first is to force all Singaporeans to become temporary 'herbivores' (I like this word) :) and eat lots of fibre for at least one week every month and fine anybody who dares to go against this order (say, $1000, which is peanuts anyway), and the second is to have a national campaign to make Singapore a 'fibre eating' hub. I feel that the Health Promotion Board's strategy is too generic to be effective. Achieving 'good health' by eating healthily is too vague as a message for Singaporeans. The crux of the problem lies in the insufficiency of fibre in the typical Singaporean's diet, which is tied to two other phenomena I've discussed earlier, namely, the 'eating out' culture and the composition of stalls in the food courts/centres.

Another problem relates to hot drinks in Singapore: they are simply too hot for human consumption! I have a friend who is able to finish a cup of boiling hot 'teh si' (milk tea) in 2 minutes. Unfortunately, most Singaporeans can't do that. In fact, they shouldn't even try to do that because it's extremely bad for one's throat. The World Book encyclopaedia said that Singapore has one of the highest rates of throat cancer, precisely because of this rather brainless practice of preparing boiling-hot beverages for customers to drink. Do these drink stall operators (and even some fast food restaurants) really expect customers to sit down for half an hour just to wait for the drinks to cool down to an acceptable temperature? I once had an amazing experience too: this drink stall operator asked me, "You want your tea to be 'not-so-hot'? Do you mean I should add ice?" I was so appalled that I asked back in exasperation, "Do you mean you don't know how to make tea that is not so hot? Just add some cold water!"

Finally, Singaporeans who care about nutrition should learn to decode nutritional information. This does not mean simply reading and accepting all those information at face value. For example, instead of simply accepting that food product X has Y amount of carbohydrates/protein/fat etc, think about how it is cooked and prepared. Everybody knows that the way food is cooked will affect its nutritional value. So the key question that a reader of nutritional labels must ask is: does the nutritional information presented pertain to the food/ingredients that are 'pre-cooked' or 'after-being-cooked'? And does it pertain to the amount of nutrition one would potentially get (ideally speaking) if you cook the food well, or to the amount of nutrition that one would definitely get based on the way that the restaurant/packaged-food company in question has prepared the food for consumption. What I think is missing in Singapore is a nutritional literacy. And the Health Promotion Board isn't exactly addressing this issue with its rather elementary 'nutrition awareness' campaign, unfortunately.