27 December 2009

Bright Lights, Big City-State

The holiday season centers on pleasing the eye and touching the heart. It’s about continuing with tradition, keeping in touch with family and friends, and preventing mosquitoes from breeding. In Singapore, dengue fever is always in season! Most live Christmas trees sold come with a powder to mix in the treestand water to keep mosquitoes from breeding. Posted signs in garden centers where trees are sold warn: If They Breed You Will Bleed. Ho! Ho! Hum...

Christmas fever is hot in the city-state. Each year a corporation decorates Orchard Road, the main shopping drag. The sponsor adorns, garlands, and lights the sidewalks, trees and everything in between. The shopping malls and buildings along the stretch decorate and light their facades from top to bottom. As if it were not bright enough, there is the “Orchard Road Christmas Light-Up.” For one day only, on December 25th, a portion of the road closes and fills with even more brightly lit displays.

We woke on Christmas morning to a solid, steady rain. It lasted all day, but ended at dusk in time for us to “Light-Up.” The road was so bright that night the birds were chirping. Thousands of people were shuffling, pushing, spitting, and posing in the streets and on the sidewalks. Singapore’s Christmas mass.

26 November 2009

Baste Not, Want Not

Benjamin Franklin said, "I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country...The turkey is much more a respectable character and, withal, a true original native of America."

Preparing a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in Singapore had me running around like a chicken with its head cutoff. I went from grocery store to market place not in search of a farm fresh or free range turkey. Only Butterball and Norbest were available. My quest wasn’t for pumpkin puree – not a single can to be found. Bell’s seasoning? Nope, I didn’t even hope for that. The missing ingredient I was in hot pursuit of was a baster.

After nearly a week I finally found a baster at the Japanese department store, Takashimaya. What’s the retail cost of a basic plastic syringe with rubber suction cap found at Kroger’s, Fairway and every corner bodega? 40 Singapore dollars! When I asked the stockperson, an old Chinese woman who stood as tall as my waist, where I might find a cheaper brand, she replied with a laugh, “There is no Wal-Mart here.” What a turkey.

Pictured above are the turkeys on my property/road in Garrison, NY

18 November 2009

Raemarkable India

A few weeks ago I tagged along with James on a business trip to Mumbai. The city formally known as Bombay is home to the Gateway of India, a monument built as a triumphant arc to celebrate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary. When the Raj ended in 1947, the last British ships set sail from the Gateway. When the Taj Mahal hotel was under siege in 2008, the boats carrying the terrorists anchored at the Gateway.

Mark Twain wrote, "India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only." I’ll leave the prose and poetry to the masters and spare you my observations and reflections.
We have a better understanding of the essence of India by reading Rudyard Kipling’s stories, watching Sir Ben Kingsley play Gandhi, and surviving every Slumdog Millionaire metaphor. They’re non-violent people, yet have a nuclear bomb.

15 September 2009


Big cities of the world have big taxicab fleets. Some of the big cities also have signature taxis. London has the Black Cab (other colors exist), New York City has the yellow cab (a tribute to Checker Cab) and Mumbai has the black and yellow Fiat. The universal call for a cab is the outstretched-arm-wave, just as the lighted sign on a cab’s roof is the signal of availability. Singapore, too, has its fleet of taxis. The city-state does not have a signature style auto, but it does have a signature style for summoning. In Singapore you don’t hail a cab – you text it.

The city moves people. 4 million live on the island nation, so public transportation is a popular way to go. It has two major bus carriers with single deck and double deck vehicles. The service spans the entire island. The subway system, built in 1982, is not as extensive as the bus routes. It runs 99% on time and is squeaky clean. Being the fine city that it is, subway riders receive a S$500 ticket for eating and drinking on the platforms and in the cars - even for carrying durians! Both the bus system and the subway system operate on the pay-the-distance-traveled approach: the longer the ride the higher the cost, just like taxicabs. It is debatable whether taxis are considered mass transportation, but with 24,000+ steering the streets it’s fairly massive.

Over half a dozen taxicab companies compete for fares. Most models are Toyota Crowns or Hyundai Sonatas and the colors are specific for each major corporation. Comfort’s cars are blue, Citycab yellow, Transcab red, and SMRT white. Although it is not against the law to flag down a cab, the rules of the road make it difficult. In addition to no-pick-up zones in the busiest parts of the city, sidewalk barriers keep the drivers from pulling over and picking up passengers. To keep the trade moving on the street, people wait for a driver at a designated taxi stand, or taxi queue. Like waiting for a walking sign to cross the street (S$500 fine for jaywalking), people wait for cabbies to collect them in authorized locations.

Rather than stand in the scorching Singapore heat, people text for taxis. It’s cool. Simply text a booking number by writing “pick up” and the zip code/ location, then write “waiting in lobby” or the exact spot. In seconds the reply says the length of the wait and the last four numbers on the license plate. The other day I was at the end of a long taxi line. Because it is standard practice to text, no one got out of order when I jumped the queue as my ride pulled up! It is also easy to dial. Before I step out for the evening, I call for a cab. The automated booking agent remembers my location, so all I have to do is confirm and hang up. I leave my apartment without worry or wilt as I get to where it is I have to go. Of course there is an added surcharge for texting and calling. Fares and fees have peak and off peak pricing. Basic cost for a ride is about S$3 and S$0.20 roughly every quarter mile. The standard pre-booking fee is a little over S$2.

Singapore’s entire transit and traffic scheme would make NYC’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, green with envy. In addition to pedestrian loading and unloading zones, the city charges vehicles to pass through high-traffic areas during certain hours. Computer chips on car dashboards get zapped as they pass under toll bridges that look like scaffolding. As Mayor Bloomberg hacks his way through congestion pricing legislation maybe he should look to the metropolitan transportation authority: Singapore.

01 September 2009

Angkors Away!

My first houseguest in Singapore arrived this summer. Stephanie, my sister, sent her kids to sleep away camp and decided to have a sleep away of her own. She soon discovered the best part about living in Singapore is leaving it, for Cambodia was just an hour's flight away!

Angkor, Cambodia was once a mysterious and far-away land. Some of the Khmer temples date back to the 9th century, but the earliest western accounts date only back to the 16th century. In the mid-1800s a French naturalist measured, surveyed and published his findings of Angkor Wat and the other ruins. Henri Mouhot’s journals set in motion expeditions and pilgrimages to the area, which led to the tourism and conservation we see today.

Books, magazines, travel guides and online journals made it easy to learn, plan and chart itineraries to Angkor’s temples. But nothing written prepared us for the mind-blowing sight of temples overgrown with time or the feel of cool, moss-covered stone structures built in the name of kings for gods. We visited the monuments with groups of others, yet we still felt a sense of discovery – a humbling feeling of knowing we are just a passing instant in a great, big, old world. Even though Angkor is known worldwide and relatively easy to get to, the mysterious power of the land still remains.

With the tropical forests surrounding the temples, we explored with our senses and our imaginations. We began at Angkor’s water source in the Kulen Hills. Kbal Spean is a holy site honoring fertility. Water runs over the symbolic carvings in the riverbed and on boulders. With our machetes we hacked our way through the thick of the Cambodia jungle. Our clothes drenched with sweat. Exposed to the dangers of poisonous snakes and blood-sucking mosquitoes on a mission to find the fabled River of a Thousand Lingas…O.K., so we didn’t exactly rough it on the jungle trail with our cameras, packs, bottled water and insect repellant, but we still faced hazards. When we strayed off the beaten path, we were greeted by a sign warning us of the dangers of landmines still in the area.

Our imaginations continued to flow when we visited Ta Prohm. Archeologists left the temple with the trees and roots growing in, on and under the ruined structure. We’ve been in the shit now for 2 days. The rain hasn’t stopped and the sponge like mud holds our boots to the ground. The jungle is a creature pulling us in to swallow us whole. We must find the temple soon or I might not live to see another sunny day…O.K., so it rained every day while we were tomb raiding, we never felt as if we were in the middle of a war-torn Vietnam battleground. When we visited Ta Prohm it was wet and steamy. The mud added to the atmosphere.

No matter where we visited, we always felt we were the first and only ones unearthing the architectural wonders. The people around us did not take away from the adventure. We awoke at 0-dark-30 to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat. The spectacular sight of the sun’s golden rays washing over the Khmer masterpiece is said to cure the blind. All was still except for the harmonious songs of the birds welcoming the dawn of a new day…O.K., so watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat will not cure the blind – it isn’t even a legend. Our sunrise was blocked by the clouds, but inspirational nonetheless. Dozens of people were there sharing the experience. All the languages spoken at once sounded like a song and the clicking of cameras sounded like applause.

Angkor’s centuries-old ruins are a world wonder. The temples unite all religions, races and nationalities as they “worship” the splendor of the ancient Khmer people and their art. Whether a visit is to sample a few monuments or 10 wats in 10 minutes, or if a trip is photojournalistic or historic, every traveler will pay for it the same way. Angkor may be the land of gods and rulers, but US cash is king! From entry and exit visas to tuk-tuk rides and bottles of water, the almighty dollar reigns supreme. Cambodia accepts all tourists, but they don’t take American Express.

Thanks for the pictures, Steph!

22 August 2009

Summer Hours

It turns out nearly every expat wife, mother and child vacates Singapore the day school's out for summer. This over-generalization is a result of my thoroughly unscientific poolside observations. If the pool in my apartment complex is empty after 3 pm on weekdays and all day Saturday and Sunday, then surely all the other expat residential buildings must also be empty.

Not wanting to be left behind, I joined the mass exodus from the city-state and headed to the United States. For three weeks, I visited friends and family in my hometown, Columbus, Ohio. Highlights included my Bexley High School class reunion, 4th of July Bexley parade, and a road trip with my sister and two nephews to Garrison, NY. The brief break in my permanent home allowed me to exterminate the pests in our little cottage and absorb the life of my mother-in-law. Back in C’bus I ate, drank, lunched, dined and Target-ed myself until my departure.

My July: No blogs. No e-mails. No postcards. No Skypes. Just home, sweet home.

P.S. Yes, Target is a verb. After all the time and money I spent there it adds up to one big action!

17 June 2009

Point Less

One of the greatest challenges I have faced while living in Singapore is breaking the habit of pointing. We all know that it is not nice to point, but in Southeast Asia, it is downright offensive and insulting. Even though I find it necessary at times, it never, ever is acceptable. Before I reach the point of no return, I am learning to keep my hands to myself.

I can be an expressive talker. Using my hands and face helps me to articulate a point, especially when I am taking aim at a political position or social situation. When listening to someone who says something interesting or funny, I tend to turn my hands into a couple of six-shooters and point them as a gesture of agreement. Not only must that action offend certain onlookers, but also a thumb pointing up offends others. In some countries, a thumbs-up sign is the same as giving the finger. I am not much for that hand signal, so keeping my thumbs down is not a challenge.

Using my index fingers while I am in conversation is just the tip of my pointing habit. Restaurant menus such as Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai list their traditional dishes by their customary names. No numbers printed next to foodstuffs for easy ordering and absolutely no pointing. It seems second nature to point to the dish on the menu while placing an order particularly when the words are difficult to say. Either I am doomed to eat what I can clearly pronounce (Pad Thai and General Tso’s Chicken) or I am doomed to eat intestines after butchering the name of a dish.

As I maneuver around Singapore, I am rarely without a map. When I am lost or confused in any city I whip out a map, stop a passerby, and point where I want to go. Language can be a barrier here so pointing on a map and asking directions seems logical, but it is unacceptable. Sometimes I am able to ask for assistance and a helpful person shows me the way by sweeping a flat hand in the general direction. However, that movement is not as specific as it is when using a finger and leaves me scratching my head in even deeper uncertainty.

Now I am at a turning point. In social situations, I make sure my hands are never empty by either holding a drink or my purse. When ordering in restaurants, I channel one of my mother’s screaming reprimands, "Sit on your hands!” I make my food selection by speaking slowly and clearly while keeping one hand on the menu and the other in my lap. Asking directions with a map is no longer an issue. Using my thumb in a Bill Clinton I-feel-your-pain style, I am able to pinpoint the exact location.

Beside the point, I am learning to live without a crook finger. That's a signal for postitutes.

15 May 2009

That's Half The Paddle

The World Table Tennis Championship just ended. From April 28 – May 5, the players paddled it out in Yokohama, Japan. Singapore sent their national team with all the love and support of their countrymen and leaders. The Beijing Olympic Games produced one of Singapore’s proudest sporting achievements: 1st Olympic medal in 48 years! Li Jiawei lead her team to win silver in women’s table tennis. Li Jiawei became a national hero. Prime Minister Lee announced programs to raise the ranks of the game’s importance almost to the point of naming Table Tennis the national sport. Weeks before the WTTC, TV commercials ran repeatedly featuring the players in a grand style second only to our Super Bowl promotions.

Table Tennis is a big deal in Singapore and all of Asia. Knowing that the sport was created in England, I wonder if President Nixon’s Ping Pong Diplomacy had anything to do with its Asian popularity. The most I knew about the history of Ping Pong/Table Tennis was how our family table served. It sat in our basement next to our bumper pool table and went from popular game to slumber party fort to storage table. The story of Table Tennis is far more interesting than the Acton’s Ping Pong table.

Born from lawn tennis in the 1880’s, Englishman David Foster patented an actual table set in 1890. Parlour Table Games not only included a table version of Lawn Tennis, but it also included a version of Cricket and Football (Soccer). London game maker Jean Jaques created another version, Gossima. Both versions of Table Tennis used game balls made from rubber and cork. The game was never popular because of the low-performing balls.

In 1909, the game bounced back! The celluloid ball was invented. John Jacques renamed his game Ping Pong after the sound of the ball as it hit the drum battledores (paddles). Ping Pong and Table Tennis games were both popular and, just like Federer and Nadal, they were rivals. Ping Pong and Table Tennis had separate rulebooks. Parker Brothers bought the American rights for the name Ping Pong and enforced all trademarks. Both sides knew all the back and forth between the game’s official name had to end. By 1926 Ping Pong and Table Tennis combined forces in order to bring the sport to the international table. Berlin established The International Table Tennis Federation. In 1977, Table Tennis became an official Olympic sport.

Like all professional sports, Table Tennis is not without a controversial performance enhancer. Forget steroids, these players use Speed Glue! It puts more Ping in their Pong. No, the players don’t sniff it they stick it. Professional players glue their own paddles. The paddles are blades of wood, foam, and rubber. Speed Glue is the stuff used to plug tires and when applied to the paddle layers, the foam expands and softens the tension of the rubber outer layer. The “corking” effect provides more spin and speed, but it lasts only a few hours. Officials are in the process of tabling the glue from use in the game.

With only a few exceptions since Table Tennis became an Olympic sport, the Chinese dominate. This year’s World Table Tennis Championship women’s singles final was between 2 Chinese players. The men’s singles final was between a Chinese and a Japanese. Fans and officials worry that the sport will drop in popularity because of China’s supremacy. No matter who is playing whom, the sport is fast and fun. Check out this highlight video of the men’s single final from this year’s WTTC. Turn up the volume! The play-by-play in Japanese adds more excitement to the match and the sport.
The day after the WTTC Prime Minister Lee made a special announcement. He awarded Singapore’s 2009 Sportswoman of the Year. And the winner is…. Jasmine Yeong-Nathan! She is a 20-year-old national bowler and AMF World Cup champion. Maybe Prime Minister Lee will spare Table Tennis as the unofficial national sport and strike the public with Bowling instead.

02 May 2009

Expats Have It Maid

In the Singapore expat community, it is almost expected to have part-time or live-in help. It is common to hear from agents, co-workers, and publications that “the availability and affordable household help is a definite perk.” My thoroughly unscientific research and observation found some families with more than one helper – one for the kids and another for the household duties. In my apartment complex I’ve seen two helpers for one little boy! After scouring several sources of information, the numbers are clear.

The government refers to foreign household help as Foreign Domestic Workers. Residents refer to them as amahs, maids, nannies, and helpers. They are grouped into 2 categories: new hires and transfers. New hires are 23 years or older and have never worked in Singapore. They must have at least 8 years of education. Transfers have been working in Singapore and are moving from one family to another. Like all foreign workers, the Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) must register with the Ministry of Manpower. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is a cross between the Department of Labor and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. James and I had to register with MOM when we arrived, but at least we didn’t have to undergo a medical checkup, pass a written test and purchase a security bond.

FDWs cannot come from just any country to live and work. MOM approves of the following 8 source countries: Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Most of the foreign workers sign up with an agency because most expats hire from an agency. Agencies run background checks, schedule medical examinations, and pay for the preparation of a green card. The agency's cost for preparing the foreign worker is a loan. Part of the preparation is passing a written test in English. Below is a copy of the MOM’s test an FDW must pass in order to obtain a worker's permit.

Click Here For Sample Test!

The expats pay fees to the agency and the government. The agency charges a general fee for their service, upward to $1,000. The expat is also responsible to pay the agency for the worker’s loan, $2000 on average. The MOM requires the expat, now an employer, to purchase a security bond for each worker, listed at $5,000 in one report and $10,000 in another. The security bond is in case the foreign worker runs away, gets pregnant or otherwise doesn’t return to her original country. The cost of the bond will be returned by the government once the contract expires and the employer purchases a return trip home for the employee. The government also requires the employer to purchase $10,000 personal accident insurance. If the agency pays for the bond and insurance, then the expat must pay the agency for the cost of each.

Once hired, the expat has standard payments to make. The helper receives a monthly salary of $300-$500. The salary depends on the age of the children and the duties required by the family. While there are no laws governing the hours of the workday or requiring employers to give an FDW a day off, most expats expect their helpers to work from morning to night with one day a week free. The government does require the employers to pay a monthly levy, or tax, of $345. The expat pays for meals, bedding, and toiletries. One website actually calculated the monthly cost to be $150 a month. The employer also pays for the government-required bi-annual medical check, $50.

Totaling the figures, a full-time live-in Foreign Domestic Worker in Singapore begins at $27,590. That’s a tidy sum.

20 April 2009

Hospital Orderly

Recently I visited the Singapore General Hospital and took part in socialized medicine. In 2007, I had a melanoma removed by a doctor in NYC. I noticed another mole changing its spot, so a doctor check up was in order.

Medicine in Singapore is modeled on the British system. Singapore General Hospital is 100% government-owned and not-for-profit institution. It is a vast complex of buildings for specific treatments, such as emergency, children, heart, and the like. It is the location of a postgraduate medical college and a medical museum. The Ministry of Health’s headquarters are also part of SGH. My introduction to Singapore’s healthcare system begins here with an appointment in the cancer block.

Each treatment center building, or block, has several clinics. Each clinic has individual examination rooms for each doctor and one general waiting room. My appointment was with a cancer consultant. By the looks of the crowded waiting room, I guessed my wait would be long, even though I made an appointment. I soon realized that the crowd represented the efficiently of the clinic, not the incompetency.

When I walked into the clinic’s waiting room an attendant called welcome and asked me to place my appointment confirmation number and I.D. in a wire basket on the check in desk. I walked the room looking for a good seat and noticed the typical waiting room setup: TV blasting bad daytime programs, magazines on all subjects tossed about the place and, of course, a couple of people bobbing to the tunes from their iPods. Before I could take a seat the attendant called me by name back to the check in desk where I answered general questions about my nationality and my stay in Singapore. She weighed and measured me, assigned me a patient number and instructed me to take a seat.

When I settled in my seat I noticed a huge “Now Serving” electric board on the wall. The giant lighted board in the waiting room listed 10 set room numbers. Next to each room number was a space for the patient number. I just had to wait until my patient number flashed to know the corresponding room number of my doctor. After a short while, my mobile phone vibrated with a text message. Just when I thought the wait couldn’t get more straightforward, I read the text letting me know that 3 patients were in front of me in the queue. So, I decided I had a bit of time to look for a cup of coffee or a vending machine. The attendant gave me directions to the cafeteria.

Knowing that I had some “free time” took the edge off the wait and eased my nervousness. I suddenly felt lucky to be exploring SGH and their medical system. The thrill of the experience tipped the scales after walking from building to building under a covered sidewalk and into the hospital’s cafeteria. This being Singapore the cafeteria was actually a hawker center! Stalls of different cuisine: Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Malaysian. One stall for drinks, another for desserts and a separate stand for fruit juices. What really blew my mind were the TV screens bolted from the ceiling like TV screens at an OTB branch. Rather than posting racing results, these screens were posting every clinic, room number, and patient number! Doctors, nurses, interns were merrily dining next to patients and visitors as if it were the Newton Food Center on a Saturday night. Once I bought my coffee I retraced my steps back to the clinic and patiently waited under the tote board for my patient number to appear.

I returned to SGH three times after that initial visit. Each followed the same routine of receiving a patient number, a text, and then a doctor. After the appointments, I returned to the check in desk to pay the bill. It was all surprisingly affordable, especially because the doctors were considered specialists. The drugs eventually prescribed cost only S$6. Because I also have my insurance from the US, I was required to fill out a 2-page form online and submit it with my receipts for total reimbursement.

When I first made an appointment to have a mole removed in 2007, I had to wait three weeks just to meet with a doctor and another 10 days to have the mole removed. For each appointment at SGH, I had to wait only 24 hours. I don’t remember how long my wait was in the US waiting room, but I know it didn’t compare with the ease of my wait at SGH. I had enough to worry about, but knowing that each doctor’s visit would be orderly, hospitable, and affordable reduced my anxiety.

24 March 2009

The Best of the Story

Living 12 hours ahead of my favorite US radio programs gives my life in Singapore a bit of a pause. I no longer listen to radio shows as they air; rather I listen to episodes after they are posted on the Internet. By the time I heard that Paul Harvey died, thanks to Le Show, weeks had passed.

Whenever I hear Paul Harvey’s name, his voice, or a parody of his signature lines, my early childhood vacations in the 70s instantly pop into mind. Our family car was a 1964 army green Chevrolet station wagon with 3-on-the-tree transmission. It did not have air-conditioning or power windows. The big rear window had to be cranked open and closed from the outside. For long trips, the back seat and the way-back seat folded flat to create one long flatbed where my brothers, sisters and I would stretch out in a row like a box of Ohio Blue Tip Matches. With suitcases stowed on top of the roof and a cooler stowed below my mom’s feet, off Dad would drive to our destination. Entertainment on the road consisted of singing songs, playing car bingo and listening to the radio. The Chevy wagon was the vehicle that drove my devotion to the radio.

In waking hours, Paul Harvey was the only time the car went silent. Once his broadcast began, we instantly shushed. At first, I did not know what I was listening to until I heard him say, “Page two.” Then I knew I missed something. So, I learned to pay attention the minute he began his broadcast. I would build an image in my head as I listened to a story unfold about everyone from George Washington to Amelia Earhart.

The radio always seemed to be on no matter where I was or what I was doing. A transistor was on as we played outside or worked in the yard. At night, my sisters and I would listen to our radios under our pillows before falling asleep. We would listen to Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians baseball games. On Christmas Eve, we would listen to Santa’s sleigh report. WCOL always seemed to be playing a song by the Steve Miller Band and all the stations aired the test of the Emergency Broadcast System. The radio provided the soundtrack to my childhood.

Paul Harvey’s style of storytelling is gone, but storytelling on the radio is alive and still sparks imagination. He was the best of the story. Now we have Garrison Keeler and his weekly program A Prairie Home Companion. However, other programs are telling stories even if not promoted as such. Brian Lehrer tells the story of NYC and Leonard Lopate tells the story of entertainers and historians. Even NPR gives a narrative of the day. My favorite in radio storytelling is baseball. I prefer to listen to the Yankees on the radio than watch them on TV - so much that I schedule my yard work around their game times. John Sterling knows everything about the Yankees and the history of the game. He can describe Jeter at the plate while telling a tale of another baseball great and then tie it all together with the action in the stadium. Listening to a play-by-play on the radio is exciting storytelling.

Today, the radio continues to air the story of my life. But what’s to become of me this baseball season? I have no radio, no yard and I’m nowhere near the Yankees time zone. April 16th will tell the rest of the story. Good Day.

28 February 2009

End of 100 Days

Thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s hard times/drastic action during his 1st administration in 1933, the media and political pundits have since measured a president’s agenda during a 100-day period beginning on inauguration day and ending 30 April. I do not have a nation shaping agenda for the next three years while living in Singapore, but I do have a plan to learn and experience as much as I can about the city-state. In this spirit, I am celebrating the end of my first 100-day learning curve.

1. Where does Singapore get nearly 70% of its water?
a. Recycled rainwater
b. Imported Malaysian water
c. Treated Straits of Singapore water
d. Controlled reservoir water

2. Match the maximum strokes to the offence which caning is available.
a. Drug Trafficking
b. Murder and attempted murder
c. Vandalism (graffiti and defacing public property)

3. In Singapore prostitution is legal. How does the government regulate it?
a. Register all prostitutes and have them attend routine health screenings
b. Designate red-light areas
c. Record clubs and brothels
d. All the above

4. True or False. Last year the government created Speakers’ Corner, a designated area where people can gather and speak freely. All speakers must first register with the police and a group of 5 or more people is against the law.

5. Prime Minister Lee recently said, “Their leaders are picking up points here and there” about how to “run a tight ship, honest and effective.” Which one of the following explains the quote?
a. Countries such as USA, UK, and Iceland want to learn how Singapore has kept the economy of the tiny nation strong since the birth of the nation.
b. Countries such as Syria, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern States want to learn how to keep a country safe from terrorist activity.
c. Countries such as China, Russia, and the Gulf States want to learn how Singapore has kept its ruling party and people in place since the birth of the nation.

This is not my blue print on how I will spend my term here in Singapore. I have no desire to discover all these quiz facts first-hand. Although I hope to find out about the water recycling treatment, I hope to not discover the caning treatment!

answers: 1 b ; 2a-15 2b-24 2c-6 ; 3 d ; 4 true ; 5 c

19 February 2009

Oscar Night & Day

The mirror above the sink in the upstairs bathroom at 51 South Stanwood Road has seen a lot of action. With five Acton kids sharing the bathroom from pre-K-12 and a year or two after college, I'm sure I’m not the only one who pretended to be a spokesman in a commercial pitching products, rehearsed a school speech and answered “where will you be in five years?” My personal favorite bathroom performance was accepting an Academy Award. With one towel wrapped around my head as an up-do and another wrapped as a strapless gown, I’d accept my Oral-B Oscar by first thanking the Academy. I always thanked the Academy before thanking one-by-one my brothers, sisters, and pets. I’d thank others depending on the year, but I always ended my speech by thanking my fans.

This explains why I like watching the Academy Awards ceremony. I like to listen to the acceptance speeches. While the red carpet preshow has become a robotic luxury goods infomercial and Botox spanking machine and the actual program a dull and lifeless show of one-liners, the acceptance speeches have remained real human emotion. Once they announce the winner’s name, genuine shock or joy, surprise or arrogance is on display for the world to see. They might gather their composure on the way to the stage and give a memorable speech (Frances McDormand), or a self-important speech (Julia Roberts) or, they do not collect themselves at all and give a speech worthy of a Raspberry Award (Halle Berry).

While I settle down for a few hours of Hollywood speak, I eat and drink something special. The night only comes once a year, so I always throw a one-woman party. This year I will watch the Academy Awards as I always do, but instead of tuning into them live on Sunday night, I will watch them live Monday morning. Singapore is 13 hours ahead EST. The time difference changes everything. I’ll have to alter my usual drinks, food, and games. What will replace champagne, pâté, shrimp, and chocolates? Coffee, quiche, bacon, and a breadbasket? Taking a sip of champagne every time someone thanks the Academy or when the camera focuses on Jack Nicholson are fun games when facing sleep after the broadcast, but it is quite another when preparing to face a full day.

I turned to the media outlets for a possible party plan. Newspapers, magazines, blogs, and the like describe their ideas for a winning evening Oscar party, but never for morning ones. Therefore, special for this year’s celebration only, I present The BBC, Brunch for the British Contenders. Since I hope it will be a “Slumdog Millionaire” sweep and a Kate Winslet first my theme is British based.

Pimm's Cup: One slice of orange, lemon, apple, cucumber, sprig of mint 2 parts lemonade and 1 part Pimm's

Common English Breakfast: Sausage, bacon, fried eggs (in the bacon pan, of course), baked beans, cooked mushrooms and tomatoes, and fried bread

Game: Take an extra sip every time someone thanks the writers or when the camera focuses on Michael Sheen

Party Favor: Before or after a Brit victory, pop open a Christmas crackers as if it’s a swag bag

The Academy Awards acceptance speeches are the central reason why I celebrate. It is interesting for me to watch and listen to the winners because it gives a sense of who they are and what/who they value. I understand and expect all speeches to being with thanking The Academy no matter how cliché it sounds. It is also equally important to thank the writers straight away because that is where the motion picture begins. One can argue that the life of the movie begins at conception, but I believe that it begins with the birth of the script. Where would the industry be without the script to inspire the director, producer(s) and costume designer, musician, lighting engineer and, at the end of the evolution, the moviegoers!?

So, Kate Winslet and Danny Boyle, I’m counting on you both to give the speech I’d give today in front of my bathroom mirror in #02-02 Draycott 8. Don’t gush, Kate, you’re an actor, act composed! You’ve had plenty of practice this awards season to say something brilliant about The Academy and the writers of the scripts(s). As for you Danny Boy, don’t forget to thank the moviegoers around the world. True, they may not have a lot to do with making a movie, but they certainly have a lot to do with box office receipts! Please make your speeches my reward.

10 February 2009

Your Money or Your Lifestyle

The cures for the ailing global economy are as abundant as the number of economists in the world. While financial professionals think globally, we all have to live the crisis locally. In Singapore, the government’s recovery plan recommends citizens to save money. Those in charge believe that the 4 million populous (1 million of which are expats) cannot spend their way out of the economic slump. They think that the domestic buying power is not large enough to lift the economy and offset falling exports. Therefore, the nation is to be prudent and not live lavishly. Among other things the government suggests, each person should take shorter showers, eat more vegetables, and keep from buying high-end mobile phones.

As my sister Valerie says, “I ain’t no math whiz. I’m a cheese whiz.” I am in no position to make any predictions of what saving money rather than spending money will do to the country’s economy. Singapore’s trade and industry are things I know nothing, but after two months I do know one thing: shopping is the unofficial national pastime.

The pledge of the people is a promise to shop and spend. The average cost of a compact car is S$80,000, but fees, taxes, and a Certificate of Entitlement drive the costs well into S$100,000. In a country 3x the size of Washington D.C. there are anywhere from 185 -250 multilevel malls. I cannot find an official count, but on Orchard Road, a 3-mile district of premier retailers similar to NYC’s Fifth Avenue, I counted 28 malls. Each retail centre has several floors full of shops, spas, and restaurants. On the corner of the main intersection of Orchard Road and Scotts Road, a new shopping mall will open for business in 2010.

Off Orchard Road, a “lifestyle” residential tower is under construction. Developers, Hayden Properties, are creating the world’s largest apartment building with connected car porches. The Hamilton Scotts will have an elevator that lifts the car up to the unit. As part of the design, the parked cars next to each condominium form a column along the building. From the street people will be able to see a car column behind a panel of glass. The 54 units are roughly 2,700 sq ft each and cost over S$4,000 sq. ft. Move in date is 2011.

The spending continues. In 2005, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong lifted a decade’s old ban on gambling and gave approval to build two casinos. At that time he said, “We want Singapore to have that x-factor.” He felt the country was at risk of becoming a “backwater”. One casino, owned by a Malaysian company, will be part of the resort island, Sentosa where Universal Studios is building a theme park. Rides roll in 2012. Until then, you can place your bets at The Sands casino this July.

According to the Singapore Tourism Board, 2008 saw good returns. Even though Singapore welcomed only 10.1 million visitors, a small decline of 1.6% from 2007, it did post record-breaking receipts of S$14.8 billion (9.8 billion U.S.), an increase of 4.8%. Room revenue in hotels booked S$2.1 billion (1.4 billion U.S.), a 12.1% growth over last year.

Perhaps the government expects visitors and tourists to spend Singapore out of a slump. If The Singapore Flyer is any indication, then that plan might fall flat. Opened last year and billed as a world-class visitor attraction, the tallest Ferris wheel in the world has 28 cars with 360° views of the city. Each car holds 32 people. On 23 December 2008, 173 passengers on the Flyer were trapped for six hours as a result from an electrical fire - giving a new meaning to the phrase money trap. The owners are not only under government investigation, but they owe tens of thousands of dollars in back rent. It reopened last month on the 25th. Attendance is down even though they dropped the admission to S$30 per person.

Until the spending freeze ends, it looks as if it is up to the tourists to keep Singapore’s economy spinning. I can see the slogan now: Singapore: You Cane Bet on It!

28 January 2009

Year of the Ox(idential)

Gong Xi Fa Cai! Happy New Year! 2009 (or 4707 on the Chinese calendar) is the Year of the Ox. One characterization describes Ox as patient people who speak little and inspire confidence in others. However, an Ox can be bigoted, eccentric and anger easily. Ox people are mentally and physically alert. They are easy-going, yet remarkably stubborn. In essence, Ox people just want to spend the day in a sunny meadow minding their own business and if someone or something interrupts, then they’ll get the horns. I read somewhere that President Obama is an Ox. James is a rabbit. I am a horse.

The Chinese Lunar New Year began on Monday, 26 January. I spent the week leading up to the big night researching and preparing. It was my first and I wanted to celebrate, as was the norm. I researched traditions, symbols, and customs that stretched back for centuries. One week wasn’t enough time to learn the details let alone prepare for the Reunion Feast on the 25th. That is the big night when families celebrate togetherness by eating a big dinner and exchanging Hung-Bao or red packets. I decided to stick with the basic decorations and food stuffs.

To guarantee a good year, according to tradition, I had to clean house, get a haircut, buy new clothes, and payback any money owed. I also had to buy decorations and food. James’ co-workers warned me that the city shuts down for days after the 25th, so food we was on the top of my list. It took a full day to scrub, sweep, and clean the apartment and patio. The haircut would have to wait until I found a salon or stylist specializing in westerner’s hair, but I planned to do it up for the Reunion Feast. I bought a new top. The only money I "owed" was a Verizon bill in dispute, but it had to wait until after the Lunar New Year. I finished the week by focusing on decking my halls with fu.

With checklist in hand, I set out to buy decorations and fruits. All around the city, I noticed business centers, hotel lobbies, and public spaces decorated in observance. The city was colorful and bright. When I entered Chinatown, I was completely blown away! Every square inch of every block in the district was festooned with banners, baubles, blinking lights and, of course, ornamental oxen. The streets were closed to vehicle traffic, but open for business. Red-tented stalls lined the sidewalks and people were busy moving from one booth to another gathering the necessary things to ensure wealth, abundance, and prosperity in the New Year.

Pagoda Street was a sea of red and gold, with a sprinkling of other colors. It was a dizzying display of candies, fruits, tschokies, souvenirs, costumes, and fireworks. The works! Music plinked over speakers tied to light posts and, just like the Ohio State Fair’s Lausche Building, there were booths featuring wonder products being sold by salesmen speaking into microphone headsets while giving live demonstrations. The more I walked the more I heard other hawkers selling their goods while talking into microphones - talking above the people in the streets and the music in the air. It all sounded like Dr. Seuss language: yekko, nizzards, sneedle for sale.

Chinatown was Tschoka Nirvana. However, it didn’t feel like heaven with the heat, humidity and hustle. Trying to fulfill the list would have been easy with all the choices, but I was too stunned by the action to hunt and peck for my New Year decorations and treats. I was pushed, elbowed, and even screamed at in one booth! I managed to purchase a fu and a paper pineapple, as well as a gold ox ornament with red tassel and a small rubber Mickey Mouse ornament with red tassel. The vendor chuckled when I asked him the symbolism of Mickey Mouse in the ancient Chinese New Year tradition. Feeling completely overwhelmed, I went home before I completed the list.

Sunday, 25 January, was the night of the Reunion Feast. We’d been looking forward to this night all week. James made reservation at our favorite restaurant, Scarlett, where the rooftop dining room overlooks Chinatown. It was the ideal place to ring in our first Lunar New Year and to celebrate James’ two-day break. We should have known something was wrong when the wait for the taxi after texting took nearly 20 minutes (it usually takes 3), but we just guessed that the city must be busy, like NYC on 31 January. We were wrong! The taxi driver laughed at us when we told him our destination. The town was dark and empty, like downtown Columbus on any given night. When we reached the restaurant it was closed – Chinatown and the surrounding area was closed. Ooops! James checked his Blackberry and remembered that the hostess said they were closed on Sunday. He made reservations for Monday instead. We shared a laugh with our driver and toured the city looking for an open restaurant. The driver made clear that the Reunion Fest is a night to be with family. That explained why all businesses, buildings, and bars were closed. He suggested we return to Chinatown around midnight when people enter the streets cheering and lighting firecrackers.

After about 15 minutes, we found a neon shamrock burning bright at the Dubliner pub. An Irish pub doesn’t look anything like a Chinese restaurant. Fish-and-chips don’t taste like dumplings and a pint beer doesn’t sip like a glass of champagne. Yet, that didn’t stop us from celebrating with Chinese spirit. We toasted our good fortune of finding an open restaurant, the wealth of laughter, and our blossoming life in Singapore.

19 January 2009

TV Censorship: Eat What's On Your Plate

James is the guest writer for this week's post.

Sunday night at home. Madeline and I were watching a bit of TV on Starhub, Singapore’s cable network. Halfway through Snatch, Guy Ritchie’s tribute to profanity, tongue-in-cheek violence, and the lighter side of England’s ethnic stereotypes, I began to wonder whether I had suddenly become oblivious to “strong” language in film. Our first time watching Snatch was in NY around the time of the movie’s release. Regardless of which character was speaking, the word “Fuck” was, as per memory, prominently featured in any dialogue. The adjective was so prevalent that it was almost a character unto itself. But this time, here in Singapore, “Fuck” had been written out of the script. And with the Fuck character dead on the censor’s floor so too had died other large portions of dialogue. I began to wonder who has such power to cut and omit? Who can so dramatically alter a film and make it decisively less dramatic? Was it an “it”, a “they”, a “he”, or a “she”?

Doing a small bit of simple investigation I came across several articles on the subject. I was hoping that the censorship was a self-imposed effort by Starhub, or some other commercial vehicle, concerned about public perception of its own product. At least this would allow for some wiggle room - for free market artistic interests to emerge. But the reality is that the effort is managed by a central committee, the MDA, or Media Development Authority, which is located in the brightly colored Old Hill Street Police Station. Having been created in 2004, ironically their mandate makes what we consume less colorful. And equally ironic is the fact that they produced a rap song to help clarify their mission and which is available on youtube. Appropriately, it’s a bit bland and short of the mark, but it's a must-see just the same:

While unsurprising, the fact that all media is controlled by a central committee is a bit numbing. Yet in reality the appearance of predictable guidelines on artistic expression was a welcomed change by local artists. Until that point the capricious nature and “heavy handedness” of the government in maintaining a lock on media outlets made it a constant struggle to determine just how far was “too far”. And with a process in place local theaters and film producers now had an outlet for appeals.

But these changes do not restrain the MDA in its oversight of foreign films coming into Singapore. Until then, we must make peace with the possibility, and the probability, that any film presented by a media outlet, especially TV, has been significantly altered by the government authority. While I’m thankful Singaporeans are not told what to watch, it makes it a bit more difficult to watch what they watch.

13 January 2009

A War Welcome

For Christmas, James and I gave ourselves a New Year Eve’s weekend celebration in Hanoi, Vietnam . Hanoi is an attention-grabbing, delicious city full of action, architecture, coffee, and cha ca.

The city is almost in conflict with itself. Architectural forces clash – stately French colonial buildings next to narrow Vietnamese tube houses next to austere Soviet structures next to ancient pagodas. Motorbikes rule the roads, easily outnumbering automobiles 50 to 1. They battle each other, cars, and trucks for riding space. Vendors, makeshift cafes, and parked motorbikes on the sidewalks force pedestrians into the right-of-way fray in the streets. The traffic is honking and beeping and moving through directionless, unmarked avenues and through it all, tourists, pedestrians four wheels and two wheels, walk these Vietnamese women wearing pointed, cone-shaped hats and carrying baskets on a long pole balanced over their shoulders. Whether on the sidewalk or in the streets, all movement seems to pause for these women carrying on with tradition.

We rang in the New Year at the grand Metropole Hotel where Charlie Chaplin honeymooned with Paulette Goddard. It is also where Jane Fonda gave her protest speech during the Vietnam War - only blocks from the infamous Maison Centrale prison, a.k.a. Hanoi Hilton where John McCain spent his years as a POW.

I think it would be difficult for any American to visit Hanoi without thinking of war. Even though the city has historic treasures, including the Opera House, Quan Su Pagoda, and the Temple of Literature, the War Museum fascinated us the most.

Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors,” so we wanted to know American’s place in Vietnam’s history. At the War Museum, it came to no surprise that America was Goliath to Vietnam’s David, but it was provocative nonetheless. Tanks, aircraft, and bombs were on display along side American servicemen’s uniforms and kit like trophies in a high school hall of honor. James felt it was an interactive museum, which not only allowed visitors to see and read about the war, but to participate in its victory. A group of young Vietnamese boys in military uniform did just that. They jumped on top the American tanks and planes smiling, shouting, and posing while taking each other’s pictures. It was jaw dropping to witness these boys celebrating their nation’s pride and freedom while I was mourning our nation’s death and destruction.

More important than being on the winning side of history is the lessons learned from war. And what lessons do we learn from war? Statistics. Both sides die in war. Both sides keep score. While you read some counts of the Vietnam War, click on the link below and listen to a number by Paul Hardcastle, “19”


9, 087,000 military personnel served on active duty during the war (5 August 1964 – 28 March 1973)
2, 594, personnel served within the boarders of South Vietnam (1 January 1965 – 28 March 1973)
Of the 2 .6 million, between 1 to 1.6 million either fought in combat, provided combat support or were at least fairly regularly exposed to enemy attack.
Peak troop strength in VN was 543, 482 on 30 Apr. 69
Hostile Deaths: 47,359
Non-hostile deaths: 10, 797
Wounded in action: 303,704
Severely disabled: 75,000
Missing in Action: 2,338
Prisoner Of War: 766, 114 died in captivity

From 1965 – 1972, America released 5,382,000 tons of bombs, inflicting 200,000 casualties (80,000 deaths) and 70,000 orphans.
From 1965 – 1970, America spread 76 million liters of dioxin into 607,500 hectares of forest and 89, 500 hectares of cultivated land of South Vietnam.
Serious consequences have resulted from the war in Vietnam: about 2,000,000 disabled, 2,000, 000 dioxin-affected, 500,000 children deformed, and more than 300,000 missing.

In America, we view war differently. We have official statistics, but we don’t have an official War Museum. We honor soldiers of a particular war, rather than pay tribute to war. Like other nations, though, we have not learned to keep from entering war and it doesn’t look like war will end anytime soon. South Korea exported $1 billion worth of arms in 2008 and hopes to sell $3 billion worth by 2012. South Korea’s main customers are Middle Eastern states and the US. The US has a free trade pact with S. Korea pending legislation. China & Russia just installed a military hotline so the two armies can chat freely.

04 January 2009

The Name Game

Organ Pies. Aping Sore. Aegis Porn.
Hmmm. What do I name my blog? Using my Scrabble tiles I thought I could create the perfect name by creating an anagram for Singapore, the city I’m living in for the next few years.

When no matches were found, I swapped tiles to create an anagram for my name, Madeline Rae.
I Neared Lame. Alien Read Me. Deem Anal Ire.

Naming a blog using a sentence is a good idea, but again, no anagram reflected what it is I plan to write. So, the thought process continued. Instead of a board game I switched to a parlor game.

Porn name?
Putsey Stanwood

Soap opera name?
Babe Spencer

DJ/Rap Name?
Maddy Mad

Drag Queen Name?
Rae Markable

And then it hit me!

And like that I not only created a blog name, but I created its basis. With my blog I plan to remark on my life in Singapore and my travels through out Southeast Asia. I intend to write about history, events and newsmakers in the region. After all, a personal blog, in its most basic form, is a collection of observations about people, places and things…and the opinions that follow.