Oysters and diamonds

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Income and wealth inequality has become an albatross around many governments’ necks  — Singapore’s included — provoking distrust and resistance to policies.

Meanwhile, readership of the Straits Times is falling. Media academics have pointed out that the Straits Times, in blindly following the direction set by the People’s Action Party government, does the government no favours. Sheepishly echoing government edicts alienates people. 

Such criticism may be largely focussed on the newspaper’s habit of casting government pronouncements as words of wisdom and government actions as self-evidently correct and optimal, and leaving little room for questioning, but the Sunday Times of 4 January 2015 showed one other way in which the newspaper is committing suicide for both itself and the government it so loyally serves. This example may be symptomatic of a more general problem: an absence of self-reflection and an inability to grasp what it is doing so counter-productively. Autopilot has taken over uncritical minds.

On page 10 of Sunday Life! is a shallow travel article bylined Lydia Vasko, telling of the experience of Dolores Tay, “global director of marketing of Catalunya Group”. The company is said to run a Spanish restaurant. In this half-page piece, which I read with a brutal mix of disgust and irresistible voyeurism, much like watching a python strangle a goat, Dolores Tay gushed about staying in Four Seasons Hotel in Prague, where rooms start at €280 (S$448) a night. Her “favourite restaurant” was one that serves oysters at about $10 a piece. (Why anyone would think it an intelligent idea to go to an inland city, 800km from the Atlantic coast, for “freshest” oysters escapes me.) A big part of the article was headlined “retail therapy” where she talks about her preferred antiques dealer among other pretentious-sounding things.

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“Just about nobody will be able to relate to an article like this,” my sister pronounced. “99 percent of readers may even be put off by it.”

Only the beaten path

There was another thing about the article that I thought reflected poorly of the newspaper’s editorial standards. The “sights” described for Prague were just a handful of standard tourist traps: the castle, Charles Bridge and the Old Town. Any cheap guidebook would list the same.

A good test of any travel article must include whether the piece tells us something interesting and novel.

It may however be argued that this piece does exactly that: it describes a luxurious hotel and where to get oysters and antiques — though somehow in my mind the novelty of python strangling goat doesn’t quite count.

Indeed, it is foolish for the Straits Times to run articles that only provide fodder for accusations of elitism flung daily at the government and all its lackeys. It’s an editorial policy that displays both political insensitivity and business obtuseness.

* * * * *

I am reminded of the middle-aged Indonesian woman who had the seat next to me on a leg of the flight back just the day before. She had a watch with a whole battalion of tiny diamonds around its circumference. Each of the twelve hours was marked by a bigger diamond.  As if a screamingly loud watch was not enough, on the same wrist was a bracelet — all diamonds again. On a finger was a ring — three more diamonds, the largest one as big as an orange seed.

Far from being dazzled or impressed, I thought she was a very stupid woman. Travelling to strange places wearing stuff like that is like walking around with a “rob me” sign. Many years ago, I heard from a work colleague a story of her friend being attacked for his gold Rolex. The attacker had a cleaver, and made a quick escape after hacking off the victim’s forearm.

Yet, with all those diamonds, not only was Madam Indonesia flying economy class, her marshmallow arms were regularly flopping into my seat. Will people like her ever realise that if you want to be attractive, forget the diamonds, just shed twenty kilos?

That lack of self-awareness was similar to what I observed in the the Sunday Times and its featured traveller.

* * * * *

Yesterday evening, I mentioned the Sunday Times article to a friend, and was a little disconcerted that he didn’t think anything was wrong. His point was that so long as the newspaper has decided to have a travel story a week, this is what will come out of it. All over the world, he said, travel articles are like this, where the subject person speaks about favourite hotels, restaurants and things to do.

Perhaps he’s right, but “Even if you’re right, it’s still a problem,” I replied. “All over the world economic inequality is a white-hot issue.”

He conceded that it needn’t be written in a way that was drenched with conspicuous consumption, but he argued — and I think validly — that holidays are always suffused with self-indulgence, reminding me of many in our own circle of friends we have long sworn never to travel with because they are insufferable shopping fiends.

He may have a point: self-indulgence means doing the things you want to do, things that make yourself happy. Fine, go ahead. It’s your own time and your money. But it bothers me that this view of what travelling should represent of may be as widespread as it is: a window for shallow consumerism and flaunting. Moreover, choosing what to publish must be take in other considerations, and the Sunday Times does itself a disservice to celebrate the kind of throw-money elitism that this article does.

I made up my mind there and then. My next article will be a travel article, to demonstrate another way of writing these. My self-indulgence when I travel has a twist: I enjoy observing other peoples and cultures, and I take back these observations for self-reflection. What we notice in others often reveals a lot about ourselves. To me, travelling is a learning experience — which partly explains why I generally travel alone. I find chatter with a companion distracting.

Coincidentally,  midway through this recent trip, well before I was mashed up against Madam Indonesia, I had also decided I needed a new watch. The one that I was wearing was too good. It cost over $300! I’m not travelling with it again. I need a cheap plastic one, one that a thief would be too embarrassed to steal.

28 Responses to “Oysters and diamonds”


  1. 1 Anon G2jb 6 January 2015 at 09:56

    I missed that article completely as I have not been particularly impressed with Sunday times travel writing

    But , what disgusted me about the kind of consumerism is this:

    http://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/more-lifestyle-stories/story/influencers-hold-court-how-credible-are-they-20150104

    An 18 year old thinks she impacts lives with her sponsored handbags

  2. 2 Richard Lee 6 January 2015 at 10:42

    The filthy rich have always been a great attraction for media & entertainment. Just look at American TV programmes from the 60’s to present day. Those set in ‘modern’ times are ALL about rich people (except for cowboys & indians of course). Their sitcoms are classic.

    The POMs (Brits) seem to have a more balanced tradition of depicting ‘ordinary’ folk going back at least as far as Charles Dickens.

    One can argue this is just in line with opium for the unwashed masses but it also deeply ingrained in PAP bigwigs..

    Just look at PM Lee’s posts on Facebook. Of course in his case, he has little or no knowledge of the poor .. that’s assuming he even deigns to acknowledge their existence.

    We have Chan Chun Sing who considers a 0.1% rise in income for the lower 20th percentile from 2002 – 2912 .. “Incomes at bottom rise”. No wonder he considers poverty in Singapore abolished.

  3. 3 MaxChew 6 January 2015 at 12:03

    1 How you know her diamonds are genuine and not fakes?
    2 I wear an $8 watch although I can afford more expensive ones. It looks trendy, is user-friendly and convenient to wear. It lasts only abt a year and I have bought 5 of them with different colors to last me for 5 years. Get them at the antique shop next to the food court on 4th floor of city mall, Kitchener rd.
    3 Looking fwd to your travel stories in the future.

    • 4 The 8 January 2015 at 16:56

      Would be even more ironic and ask-for-it if she got her arm chopped off because she was wearing fake diamonds.

      • 5 MaxChew 9 January 2015 at 17:20

        Marshmallow arms are quite impossible to be chopped off. Will take too long as the gooey fat inside her arms will splash out to blind the robber and prevent him from continuing his dastardly task!
        Anyway, good quality fake diamonds nowsaday are quite expensive and fetch good prices in the resale market.

  4. 6 Kokleong Choy 6 January 2015 at 13:54

    the phenomenon of the straits times carrying articles that plebeian singaporeans can’t relate to isn’t something new. it was one of the reasons why i stopped reading the newspapers many years ago.

    take cars and real estate for instance. i don’t own a car and don’t plan to because of the astronomical expense, and the fact that i am single, below 35 and not rich means that property news, despite being a national obsession, is irrelevant to me. motoring, home and decor, gardening…all these sections are wasted ink to me, particularly when they tout the virtues of ferraris and philippe starck glassware.

    yet, i recognize that a newspaper has to carry articles that reflect its readership. if singapore society has bifurcated along the lines of wealth and income, then like it or not, there are large sections of the population that may actually find it interesting to read about ever more ostentatious ways to spend money.

    it’s an urban phenomenon that i have observed for some time now and that finds parallels in many other aspects of singapore urban life today.

    just as we can have the finest imported wines, chocolates and hams available in shops in singapore now where 10 years ago, no one had ever heard of jamon iberico from spain, it’s possible to actually make a very good living catering exclusively to the lifestyles of the rich in singapore. not long ago, i remember hearing about an RJC student who after graduation, decided to become a professional personal trainer rather than head to university, which is something unheard of in my generation.

    the sad thing about the straits times isn’t the poor taste of the articles it carries. the sad thing is that it’s trying too hard and still failing. in a city with worst income inequality, the new york times manages to cater to the monied classes while still retaining some respect and relevance among the intelligentsia and non-monied classes. in singapore, the hoi polloi like me have decided the straits times is irrelevant, while the rich consider it declasse. monocle and singapore tatler probably have greater cachet than the straits times among the rich here.

  5. 7 AT 6 January 2015 at 16:19

    Spot on! I feel exactly the same. Whenever I happened to read the Sunday Life section, I get disgusted at times about the kinds of features they have. About the high end restaurants people go to, the 5-star hotels they stay in etc. There’s indeed a huge disconnect about what the ground feels and what people up there thinks. Won’t be surprised such articles evoke enviousness among the lower-middle class. I also don’t see how a wonderful holiday is described as one where you visit 3-star Michelin restaurants, shopping in luxury boutiques and staying in high class hotels. Heck, you can even do that here in Singapore. I would rather have a holiday where I stroll around mountains and lakes, enjoying the cool weather, listen nature’s sounds, which I will never experience here. That’s what I call a holiday….

    • 8 Qiao Zhi 6 January 2015 at 22:03

      That last part I totally endorse. That’s what my family does. Really smelling the roses and the pristine mountain air at Mount Cook, for example!

  6. 9 Siew Kay Sum 6 January 2015 at 16:31

    Sorry, I think you are making too much ado over nothing. What’s the big deal in telling us about places that are “accessible” by 90% of the populace? I don’t see the point in exclusively writing travelogues to Penang, Malacca and Bangkok. Why do you think Marco Polo’s contemporaries enjoyed his writings? Because he talked about the places where his readers have all been to? No! But because he sparked his readers’ imaginations about places where they in their lifetime can never go.

    There are times to write about down-to-earth destinations (note the use of the word “exclusively” above), but there are also times for dream destinations.

  7. 12 Sin Pariah 6 January 2015 at 18:16

    ST travel article targeted at ministers and top civil servants …. like those who take the whole family for Le Cordon Bleu culinary class as a very ordinary holiday outing.

  8. 13 pak 6 January 2015 at 21:18

    There are a lot of points that you touched on that I agree with, both on travel and the growing income gap world wide. Watches to me, they are just a tool to tell time, my ten dollar Timex does just a good a job as a thousand dollar Rolex. Lost, broken or stolen not a big deal. Expensive food and restaurants I have found are over hyped most of the time. Like in S’pore, some of best tasting food is at the hawker centers, and a great way to people watch, and talk to the locals. When was the last you had a waiter stop and have the time to talk. It’s get the people in get the people out ,make more money for the owner.
    Next time you come to the states to visit your sister, think about a taking along train trip across the country, nice relaxed way to travel and meet a mix of people, and the food is not bad.

  9. 14 Nicholas 6 January 2015 at 23:28

    We’re all sick of the coverage of vacuous “influencers” which appears from time to time, but to be fair to ST, they run travel articles that aren’t in this mould on Tuesdays.

    “My self-indulgence when I travel has a twist: I enjoy observing other peoples and cultures, and I take back these observations for self-reflection. What we notice in others often reveals a lot about ourselves. To me, travelling is a learning experience — which partly explains why I generally travel alone.”

    You won’t be the first person or Singaporean to blog about travelling like this.🙂

  10. 15 yuen 7 January 2015 at 00:51

    buying another watch? we all look at the mobile phone for time these days; the last time I wore a watch was 10 years ago, when I had to go to a series of meetings, and did not wish to keep taking out the phone from the pocket; with watch on wrist, I could glance at it unobtrusively

    • 16 yawningbread 8 January 2015 at 00:26

      And that’s exactly why a watch is still preferred🙂

      • 17 yuen 8 January 2015 at 01:57

        I think only by old people like you and me; young people dont follow such courtesy

      • 18 Anon r0Y0 9 January 2015 at 11:23

        Not making generalizations is also a courtesy.

        Hands up those who see “old people” watching videos on mobile devices without earphones with volume turned up, put their legs on seats in public buses? Courtesy indeed.

        Remember, social progress actually comes from old people dying. Beliefs that oppress marginalized groups die with them.

        Foot binding, girls being educated, attitudes towards gay people,….

      • 19 yuen 10 January 2015 at 03:32

        > watching videos on mobile devices without earphones with volume turned up, put their legs on seats in public buses

        you mean young people dont do this?

        > Foot binding, girls being educated, attitudes towards gay people

        unfortunately, suicide bombers, ISIS fighters all look quite young; maybe you should be less optimistic about “social progress actually comes from old people dying”

  11. 20 The foreigner strikes again 7 January 2015 at 08:34

    WOW Mr. Au,

    I was quite shocked reading this from you, so I can’t help commenting:
    What makes you think that everyone abroad is trying to mug you or steal from you, so you can’t wear a 300$ watch? Sorry, but this is so Singaporean. And it is bordering on the offencive to any foreigner. I’ve read similar concerns many times by Singaporeans. What are you people so afraid of? I’ve travelled and lived in various places all around Europe all my life and not once have I felt unsave, not even in Ukraine, actually I felt super comfortable there. Lviv and Kyiv are great places, go there if you can!
    There is one danger for Asians, I admit that: Local business people have set up various shops with all kinds of crap all over Europe which they are trying to sell especially to Asian people. Dolores Tay looks like the typical prey for them. Just stay away from these places – you can recognize them easily through signs like “we speak Japanese/Chinese”. Don’t even get close to any shop with Japanese/Chinese characters, unless it is a restaurant and you are in the mood for usually quite bad European Asian food. If you do this, you won’t get robbed!

    • 21 yawningbread 8 January 2015 at 00:25

      Actually there is a very good reason to be much more careful and less flashy (not that my watch is any more than average and ordinary, or flashy at all) when in an unfamiliar place. Unlike the city wherein you live where you know the character of different districts, in a foreign place, especially one which you have not been to before, you simply don’t have the same ‘local” knowledge as to which are safe neighbourhoods and which are not.

      I was in Kingston Jamaica once, and was mostly in the middle-class areas, but our hired car made a wrong turn accidentally and within a few hundred metres, we found ourselves lost in a very rough neighbourhood. Another time, in Paris, I accidentally alighted from the metro one station too early… and found myself in an area with drug-users.

      So, without casting any aspersions on foreign countries, it is just commonsensical to take greater precautions, simply to compensate for the fact that the visitor is at an information disadvantage compared to the local resident.

  12. 22 Richa 7 January 2015 at 09:48

    Overall an interesting article and I would agree with it. But why is it necessary to insert a comment about marshmallow arms and enhancing attractiveness of a woman by shedding 20 kgs? Even when read in the context of the entire article , this comment was avoidable.

  13. 23 T Lim 7 January 2015 at 16:22

    That bit about the Sunday Times. I totally agree with you. It’s filled with crappy “investment” advice, and columns written by atas journalists. Ah, and there’re plenty of adverts by banks/fundhouses to boot. It’s a paper that panders to the rich. Too bad my not so rich dad wastes his retirement $ reading this piece of junk.

  14. 24 Chanel 7 January 2015 at 16:41

    I reckon one of the key reasons for the dropping Straits Times readership is the massive influx of immigrants. These new PRs/foreigners/citizens are from various countries and they are not interested in the predominantly “domestic news” (if one considers it “news” to begin with) that ST writes about. I believe they are far more interested in the happenings of their country of origin and they do this via online news from the respective countries.

    Another reason for the declining ST readership is that the newspaper has become even more biased and partisan since Warren Fernandez took over as editor in February 2012. This decline is not surprising given that Warren was almost fielded by PAP as an election candidate several years ago. Today, ST reads like a PAP newsletter !

  15. 25 KH 7 January 2015 at 21:46

    What I find even more revolting is the Invest section on Sunday Times, viz. the answers to the questions “Where do you stay?” and “What do you drive?”. Perhaps it is a way to show the investment strategies work?

  16. 26 Jafri Basron 9 January 2015 at 07:41

    Straits Times is portraying that everyone in the country is living well and happy.
    For those poor and sick; they’re well taken care of.

  17. 27 jpatokal 9 January 2015 at 08:55

    While I agree with the point of the article, please don’t encourage the tired old urban legend of people’s arms being cut off by gold watch thieves wielding cleavers. Arm bones are pretty darn solid, and you’d need something along the lines of a chainsaw to do it quickly.

    Threatening the victim with a knife and asking them to hand over the watch would be faster, quieter, lot less messy and enable an easier getaway that doesn’t involve the stump of hand bleeding all over the place.

    • 28 MaxChew 13 January 2015 at 22:30

      Yes for arm bones esp when surrounded by marshmallow arms but not wrist/hand bones which are thinner and quite easy to chop clean through with one swing of a sharp cleaver or even parang. Has happened before in other countries like up north and China (news reports) but thankfully not here (I think). I remember a case where the robber could not pull out a diamond ring from his terrified female victim how hard he tried and so just chopped off her hand and scampered off with the bloodied hand with the precious ring intact! Gruesome but evil does exist as proven by the recent events on 7 Jan in France.


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