Archive for the 'society and culture' Category

Of China and India: wandering thoughts from streets, boats and trains

Boats in Chongqing (L) and Kochi (R)

[2,900 words]. Ever since China began to be a major part of the global economy in the early 1990s, one of the most enduring themes in American media is the country’s rise and its future challenge to US dominance. A subsidiary theme is whether India may be on the same path to parity, with this subtheme often coming across as prayer and hope: that India, as a fellow democracy, could help the US contain superpower China.

Much Indian discourse about China in recent years has adopted this lens too. Discussion about China in Indian media (at least the English-language media that is accessible to me) tends to take on a comparative and competitive tone. A good example is this online discussion at Which country will be next superpower: India or China?  It is rare to see discussion about China as itself. Continue reading ‘Of China and India: wandering thoughts from streets, boats and trains’

The general case: why Singapore’s security obsession is incompatible with meritocracy

For several years a decade or two ago, tiny Singapore was reckoned by defence analysts such as at Jane’s, to have one of Southeast Asia’s most powerful militaries. I don’t know if this is still true, but given this chart below which I took from this site, I won’t be surprised if it is. The bar graph shows that Singapore topped all our Asean neighbours save Laos, which isn’t included in the graph, in military expenditure in 2014. Continue reading ‘The general case: why Singapore’s security obsession is incompatible with meritocracy’

Patches, grit, and the sorry state of things

There used to be benches on both sides. They were recently removed — most likely as part of SMRT’s “service improvement”, which is Orwellian-speak for “squeeze more people in”. The parts under the erstwhile benches are darker grey, but the outline of the benches isn’t of straight lines. Instead the wavy boundary between the darker and lighter grey is almost surely caused by abrasion from feet over the years.

Yet, there are some dark spots too near the doors where abrasion must be greatest, suggesting that the floor covering has worn through one more layer, revealing a third, dark layer beneath, or that abrasion is so deep that dirt is trapped there.

An alternative explanation could be that the spotty abrasion near the doors came not from feet, but from scrubbing with an incompatible chemical in an attempt to clean the dirtiest parts.

The questions that come to mind are:

1. Was this degree of wear and tear expected?

2. If it was, what is SMRT’s replacement policy for flooring?

3. If it wasn’t, was it because of substandard materials used? If so, did the manufacturer cut corners, or was the vendor specification too lax?

Regardless of the answers to the questions above, the fact is that when the seats were removed, the stark discolouration of the floor must have become noticeable. Why didn’t SMRT promptly lay a new flooring? Did the maintenance and branding people think it acceptable to leave this awful sight in place?

Or was replacement proposed but rejected by management?

Some readers may also have experienced SMRT carriages with an unpleasant odour. I’ve never been able to identify it, but it is a chemical kind of smell, not from other humans. My guess is that it was either from the cleaning chemicals, or from a nasty reaction between the chemicals used and the interior of the carriages — perhaps the flooring.

That something nasty is going on became quite apparent two weeks later, when I was in a different train and took this photograph:


I took it because, as I stepped into the train, I felt the floor to be gritty underfoot.

Why is it so? I asked myself, and stooped down for a closer look. And took this next picture.

What is evident is that what used to be a smooth floor covering — the speckled floor is really composed of grit embedded in polymer — has now been so badly abraded that the softer polymer has worn off by a millimetre or two and grit stands exposed. It won’t be long before the grit loosens out altogether, perhaps to be shuffled by walking feet, with some pieces eventually ending up in the door channels. We’ll know it has happened when the doors jam and refuse to open or close.

I can’t say for sure why the polymer flooring in this train has worn down so badly. No other train that I have been in had this problem. Either the flooring was particularly substandard in this train, or a new cleaning chemical was tried on this one, with disastrous results.

Regardless of the reason, why wasn’t the floor covering replaced immediately?

It says much of an organisation whether problems are promptly attended to. We can read a lot about management attitudes from the little things. Not just the attitudes of top management, but all the way down line management.

Look at this next photo, taken at an MRT station toilet. Three faucets have broken down. What are the odds that they broke down the same day? Very unlikely, I would think. In all probability, they broke down sequentially over a period of time. Yet the first wasn’t repaired before the second broke down, nor even before the third!

It’s like nobody cared.

Frustrating though incompetent management and sluggish corporate culture may be, the bigger danger is that Singapore society will slowly come to accept all this as normal. It is bad enough that we are reticent about speaking up, and that reticence simply means we fail to apply the needed pressure on public service organisations. But when such a sorry state of things becomes normalised, then the rare person who does speak up will be the nail that sticks out and is seen negatively for it: as the guy who makes trouble, the guy who expects too much, the guy who is unreasonable.

It is never unreasonable to demand better. If we don’t strive, we’ll never progress.

Avoiding vengeance: Why teaching religion is the wrong thing to do

“Not if but when” says the poster. Indeed, an attack of some sort will happen in Singapore. But let’s not be ahistorical about it. Throughout history, highly aggrieved individuals have lashed out at society or authority with violence. Sometimes they act as loners, other times as part of an organised network. We’ve had bombs going off in Singapore within living memory — for example on 10 March 1965 at MacDonald House in which three persons died. We’ve had the Sepoy mutiny in 1915 in which over 100 people lost their lives, including 56 mutineers.  Continue reading ‘Avoiding vengeance: Why teaching religion is the wrong thing to do’

Clean hands to eat poisonous vegetables

The toilet at this coffee shop is quite serviceable

I wonder how many people are as surprised as I was to read that a coffee shop had its licence suspended for a day over the absence of soap in its washroom. Gee, if that’s the case, I said to myself, hundreds of food establishements should be shut down. Dirty, broken and ill-provisioned toilets are everywhere in Singapore. Continue reading ‘Clean hands to eat poisonous vegetables’

From the wreckage of a presidential ‘election’, racism rises like a disturbed ghost

Now that the People’s Action Party government has installed Halimah Yacob as the so-called president of Singapore, racism has gained a legitimacy we once thought was forever barred. That said, this presidential charade was not the first time the PAP dispensed with its founding principles. Racism was introduced into our electoral system in 1988 through the ugly invention called “Group Representation Constituencies”. In 2017 as in 1988, the PAP demonstrated that principles can be disposed like tissue paper when they need to fend off limits to their power. Continue reading ‘From the wreckage of a presidential ‘election’, racism rises like a disturbed ghost’

There was once a buffalo here


Making small provisions to enable people to upskill through bite-sized training courses will not be enough to cope with a world in which lifelong continuous learning and career switching has become necessary — I argued this in my previous post Spreading a bit of money to “position Singapore for the future”. But in the interest of length, I left untouched an even bigger question: What if, for all the retraining, adjustments and preparations we make, there simply isn’t enough work to be had? It’s a question that’s not only for Singapore.

Continue reading ‘There was once a buffalo here’

Auxiliary thoughts about auxiliary police

A Certis Cisco auxiliary policeman and two neighbourhood vigilantes shooing away foreign workers

A Certis Cisco auxiliary policeman and two neighbourhood vigilantes shooing away foreign workers

The news this week is that Certis Cisco — a fully-owned subsidiary of sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings — is hiring Taiwanese for its auxiliary police force. Here are four thoughts that I had, leading on from this key news point. They are: (1) What are the implications of hiring Taiwanese? (2) Why must they be graduates? (3) What are the powers of auxiliary police? (4) Another example of rentier economy?  Continue reading ‘Auxiliary thoughts about auxiliary police’

Rebuilding from the rubble of 2016 voter-quakes

Pic from BoredPanda/EFE

Pic from BoredPanda/EFE

2016 will be remembered as one of those break-point years when an old order started falling apart. The worrying thing is that there is no sign that any better new order will be born.

Still, 2016 had its uses. The series of victories by what had been unlikely personalities and movements — Rodrigo Duterte winning the Filipino presidency, Brexit, and of course, the Donald Trump victory, have been cathartic. Some good commentary in various media have followed as a result, full of soul-searching and self-criticism. Continue reading ‘Rebuilding from the rubble of 2016 voter-quakes’

Zika erupts in Singapore: how we made it worse than it might otherwise have been


‘Cover up!’ screamed the immediate reaction I noticed on social media. The Health ministry had just announced that they have found 41 cases of Zika infection, barely 24 hours after they said that there was one confirmed case (on Saturday 27 August 2016). How can the number jump so fast without them knowing about these other cases earlier — was the implication behind the shouting headlines. They must be hiding facts from the public! Continue reading ‘Zika erupts in Singapore: how we made it worse than it might otherwise have been’