Sometimes, on an ordinary day, minding one’s own business, we cannot help but notice things that make us think beyond our private thoughts and about the wider world. And so it was one evening last month when I visited my father in hospital. I found him bored out of his wits.
“Why don’t you at least turn on the telly?” I asked.
“There’s nothing there.”
I wasn’t going to believe him so easily. So I fiddled with the remote to surf the channels. There were our handful of free-to-air channels (in other words, nothing worth watching), and another 6 or 7 cable channels. With the exception of the Cartoon Network, all the cable channels were Arabic. Three of them are imaged on this page – channels 15, 18 and 14. There were news, drama and even Arabic cartoons.
We weren’t in a private hospital, but a public one. What does the menu of channels tell us about our public hospitals’ priorities when it comes to their target market? Should our public hospitals chase Middle-Eastern patients? When reports surface of bed shortage or ambulances turned away, has the revenue-driven cultivation of the Arab market got anything to do with that?
It should be said though that in my many visits to hospitals – with my father getting on in age, the frequency of my visits has been increasing – I have only rarely noticed visitors who were identifiably Middle-Eastern – the men with Arabic facial features and the women in full-flowing robes and face veils.
I don’t think there are many such patients, but I wondered nonetheless.
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The same month, I happened to make a trip to Pulau Ubin (Ubin Island), and discovered that it is not connected to our power grid nor to our mains water supply. On this island, the residents draw water from wells and run generators for electricity.
This is absurd, I said to myself. The island is separated from mainland Singapore by little more than one kilometre of water. What does it take to lay an underwater pipe and cable? If we can invest so much to lay fibre-optic cables for internet connections to the rest of the world, why can’t we supply water and electricity to Ubin?
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I was reminded of Ubin a few weeks later when I found myself travelling past the Old Supreme Court and City Hall which are now being converted into the National Art Gallery. The building works alone will cost S$320 million, according to a webpage belonging to CPG Corporation.
But that would hardly be the end of it. How much more are we going to spend buying art to fill the enormous spaces?
If we can throw money around like this, why can’t we supply water and electricity to Ubin?
And yet, S$320 million is only five percent of another project – the North-South Expressway. According to a news report from last year, it will cost $7 – $8 billion. (Channel NewsAsia, 15 Nov 2011, New expressway sparks big land acquisition, Link)
Could we have spent it on more rail lines rather than roads? Do we really want to encourage more cars?
This project is particularly controversial because it entails the demolition of several blocks of public housing. 567 households have to move out. It must be particularly galling for them because these residents have already endured years of noise and dust with the building of the Downtown metro line almost at their doorstep.
They would have consoled themselves with the thought that eventually they would enjoy the convenience of being virtually on top of a metro station, but just as this section of the Downtown Line nears completion, they are now told their homes will be demolished to make way for a road tunnel.
Lexus owners rank higher than public housing occupants.
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Little things like television channels in hospital wards and where to wash one’s hands on Ubin can lead to much bigger questions about our priorities in Singapore. The sorry thing is that they tend to point to answers that can be quite disgraceful.