Monday, September 29, 2008

Bright Lights and Fast Cars

I have never been interested in cars, which probably explains why I like and drive the car that I drive. Therefore when Singapore announced that it would host a Formula One Singapore Grand Prix, it made no impact on me. All I knew about Formula One then was that Lewis Hamilton is a hot British driver, and Kimi Raikkonen has mesmerising eyes (so my colleague tells me).

Singapore was planning to hold Southeast Asia's first street race
à la Monaco - whose Formula One street race is dubbed "the crown jewel of Formula One". Everyone (even a non-enthusiast like myself) knows that Monaco's Formula One is famed for its celebrity-studded parties, glitz and glamour. So how could Singapore, known for its staid nightlife, efficiency and cleanliness, hope to compete against that?

For one, we decided to hold it at night and make Formula One history.

The well-oiled machinery that is Singapore, and the efficiency of the Singapore organisers were definitely a boon in this case. As the weeks drew increasingly closer to the dates of 26 - 28 September, Singapore began to prepare itself for this event on a scale that was unlike any other event ever hosted on our tiny island-state. Massive roadworks and upgrading projects were undertaken with an aggressive timeline. In the final days, the lighting systems were tested and it was exciting to think that the very same road my humble Honda was driving on would be the self-same race track of the souped-up Ferraris, Renaults and Mercedes.

Nearing the race dates, all anyone could talk about was this or that F1 party or event. Many lifestyle companies were gearing up for corporate events on a scale and budget never heard of before in Singapore. Various celebrity performers (Chicane and Emma Shapplin to name a few) were flying in for special appearances and performances. I saw Jackie Chan arrive at The Fullerton Hotel on the eve of the Formula One races. We were beginning to feel like a cool and fun place!

On the first evening of the races, I walked around the Financial District where part of the race would pass through. I could hardly believe my senses. The excitement in the air was palpable, and the atmosphere was simply buzzing. People milled about, and everyone seemed eager with anticipation for the practice sessions and a chance to hear the engine roaring as the race cars whizzed by in a lightning speed blur.

The three days passed quickly and every single day, there was a sense of festivity. Every evening, bars and clubs were filled with a boisterous crowd of locals, expatriates and international visitors. Every day, guests would go out and shop or visit the local sights in Singapore. Things were bustling in Singapore, recession looming or no.

Someone asked me, how does this benefit the heartlander*? Afterall, the heartlander is not going to shell out a few hundred dollars for an F1 walk-about ticket to enjoy the hubbub of Formula One. True as this may be, the coming of Formula One to the shores of Singapore has much wider repercussions than whether the average Singaporean suffers from a few days of traffic jam.

In the midst of international financial turmoil and economic crisis, we managed to pull off an event of international standing that felt both glitzy and prestigious. We attracted a record number of visitors who came to Singapore and spent money in Singapore. More importantly, they enjoyed themselves. The initial feedback in the news indicated a general sense of enthusiasm and anticipation from the drivers about the Singapore Grand Prix. Other commentators have dubbed Singapore as undoubtedly a strong competitor of the Monaco street race. That's quite an endorsement! I believe we have a ways to go to challenge Monaco, but Monaco does set the standard for us to aspire to.

To date, Singapore has played host to many high-profile events, including the 2006 IMF/World Bank annual meetings as well as the 117th International Olympic Committee Session. While these prestigious events gave Singapore some degree of visibility on the world map, all of these fade under the bright lights of the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix.

Although a heartlander may not be able to afford tickets to the Formula One, the race still changes our lives in subtle ways. Watching the race coverage on television, the helicopters showed Singapore from the air - a gorgeous, glittering city skyline as I've never seen before in my entire 23 years living in Singapore.

Apart from invoking a sense of patriotism and national pride that the orchid motif batik shirt "national dress" never quite achieved, the race has finally put Singapore on the international map of cool places. The trickle-down effect of the money spent on tourism and the lavish corporate events have also benefited the heartlanders directly. It also gives Singapore and Singaporeans the international exposure that could be the key to pushing us - as a society - to the next level. No other event in Singapore has come close to this.

I don't know about anyone else, but I am definitely looking forward to Singapore Grand Prix 2009, when I'm sure the organisers will do an even bigger, better race!

*Heartlander: Defined as a Singaporean who is generally poorer, less educated, either working class or lower-middle-income, speaks Singlish, lives in government housing estates, and has a local (rather than global) perspective on political, economic and cultural issues.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Malaysia Boleh!

I recently went up to Kuala Lumpur - otherwise known as KL - for work, and decided to extend my stay over the weekend to visit my aunt & uncle - who have lived and worked in Malaysia for more than 20 years.

My visits with them are always fun, with my uncle and aunt plying me with more food than humanly possible. They enjoy spoiling me, and invariably take me to one of my favourite Chinese restaurants for "
sang ha min" (ie, freshwater prawn noodles - GIANT prawns wok-fried in a fragrant soya sauce stock then poured over crispy egg noodles - heaven in your mouth with some nice chilli padi). Needless to say, I always leave KL several kilograms heavier - belly full of food, bags filled with new clothing & shoes.

During my many visits, my cousin always tries to convince me that I should find a job in KL and move there. He is Singaporean, mind you - did his 2.5 years of National Service duty to the nation, albeit as a Malaysian Permanent Resident. So what is it about Malaysia that has so greatly appealed to my aunt and uncle's family, all born and raised in Singapore, yet who have mostly (save one cousin) decided to make Malaysia their permanent place of residence?

I have visited Malaysia many times in my life but my trips are never longer than 3 days and typically focused on food and shopping (or is it shopping and food?). My experience of Malaysia is superficial and limited, to say the least, and I never once questioned the idea that Singapore is a far superior place to live in.

On this trip, it suddenly struck me what the tourism board tagline meant:
Malaysia, Truly Asia. In some ways, it is truly Southeast Asia. With its multi-ethnic society not unlike Singapore's, each race seemed to be more actively vocal than in Singapore. Going around KL, one can hear a polyglot of languages and Chinese dialects - suppressed by the Singapore government in favour of standardised Mandarin Chinese. With its dirty streets, over-stocked and spicy-smelling grocery store shelves of everything under the sun, unhealthily delicious food, kampung-esque city planning - Malaysia is a great way to experience Southeast Asia in all its unkempt glory.

On the Malaysia vs Singapore issue, I could sum up the differences in three areas: food, cost of living, and politics.

I shall start with my favourite topic - indeed the favourite topic of the Chinese! -
food. In terms of variety, flavour and authenticity of street food and Chinese "zi cha" (home-cooked) food - Singapore gravely loses out to Malaysia. Where the modern denizens of Singapore have become health-consciousness and eliminated many traditional ingredients in Chinese cooking, the Malaysian Chinese still retain the old ways - pork lard, extra salt, dash of ajinomoto (aka monosodium glutamate), deep-fried this and that in animal fat. This leads to an extraodinarily rich menu - probably the sort that brings on gout if one is not careful.

My cousin took me out for after-hours, post-drinking street food from a mobile steamboat stall. This type of street fare, called "
lokeloke" (ie, dipping in Cantonese), is a real favourite among the club-goers. Selecting from choice delicacies like skewered cockles, baby octopus, cuttlefish tentacles and pigs' umbilical chord (apparently a treat that is hard-to-find) - one dips the whole lot in boiling water then douses it with salty, spicy chilli sauce to eat while still steaming.

My uncle also brought me to one of his favourite family-run hawker centres where he and his family eat on a regular basis. For dinner, he ordered:

- whole pumpkin with seafood delicacies like fish maw, scallops, sea cucumber, and tender shrimp cooked in a light, sticky broth
- pan-fried chicken then stewed in a claypot with dark and sweet soya sauce
- pork ribs marinated in Guinness Stout and stewed till tender
- a whole steamed garoupa
- fried
kangkong (water spinach) with sambal belacan (pounded chilli mixed with pungent shrimp paste)
- large, deep-fried tofu squares (still white and soft on the inside) topped with a delicious blend of minced pork and finely chopped preserved radish (
chai por)
- giant shrimp covered with mashed salted egg yolk and deep fried to a crisp

All this was served with a few bowls of rice, a wok-fried rice noodle dish and "
gat zai xi muoi" (lime juice with preserved sour plum) to wash it all down. This feast fit for a king fed eight adults and cost Malaysian Ringgit 280 or S$120+. This is completely unheard of in Singapore, especially for the quality and size of dishes that were ordered. This meal would have easily cost S$400 in Singapore, and the taste would probably have been toned down considerably. As my aunt puts it, Singaporeans become birds when they arrive in Malaysia. All you hear them say is "cheep! cheep!" (translation: cheap, as in highly affordable). It must get quite tiresome for the Malaysians after a while......

cost of living is another factor to consider. My cousin always tells me how much more affordable it is to buy a car, a house, and other material possessions in Malaysia. Granted that wages are considerably lower in Malaysia than in Singapore, but the cost of living is still less than in Singapore.

The only worry I would have about ostentatiously gathering too many material goods is that crime in KL is rapidly rising and one can easily become a middle-income target for petty thieves and organised burglars. Such behaviour also serves to perpetuate the myth that all ethnic Chinese in Malaysia don't require any governmental support because they can "take care of themselves". The truth is, the gap between the haves and the have-nots still remain quite wide, though the ethnicity at the bottom of the economic rung in Malaysia is undoubtedly the Indians.

Finally, one of the most interesting observations to arise from my recent visit to KL is
politics. Singaporeans are probably one of the most depoliticised societies in the world. With no real viable government opposition movement and generally little popular interest in local politics - Singaporeans probably know more about the on-going American election campaigns than what goes on inside Singapore.

For the Malaysians, the recent success of Anwar Ibrahim's re-election to the Parliament in the August has been on everyone's lips. He has since publicly announced his bid to oust the current government by winning over 30 more seats from the ruling coalition - the Barisan Nasional - by Tuesday, 16 September. As of Monday (15 September), Mr Ibrahim already told rally supporters that he had the numbers to defeat the government.

In anticipation of this date, my aunt has rushed off to the supermarket to stock up on some food in case Prime Minister Badawi takes drastic action. Well, he did already - by shipping off 50 of Malaysia's lawmakers to Taiwan on a "study trip" - taking them as far away as possible from Anwar Ibrahim's reach. Then the infamous Internal Security Act (ISA) was put to use over the weekend, on a Chinese newspaper journalist (freed shortly after) as well as an opposition lawmaker and anti-government blogger (yet to be released). This then prompted the resignation of the Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim. Little wonder that KL folks can only talk about politics at the moment.

Singaporeans are very fortunate because we have a stable government that has, thus far, looked after our needs if in a paternalistic fashion. On the negative side, we don't have the standard checks and balances to prevent the government from abuse of power. On the positive side, we haven't had any real need to, to date. The struggle for change and a perceived greater good has been replaced by a more self-centred struggle for economic advancement and wealth accumulation. It's the norm for developed nations, but sometimes seems to leave us a little soul-less.

Arriving back into Singapore at dusk - I can't help but observe the clean tidy streets, the gleaming condominiums, and wide sidewalks where Singaporeans are safely going about their business on a Sunday evening. I like not worrying about parking my car outside my gated compound. I like not wondering if I'll be mugged, or fined for "speeding" by a corrupt policeman who'll then take a bribe to release me. Singaporeans have paid the price for this social contract with the government.

I wonder how Malaysians feel when they visit Singapore. Do they think we are a bunch of spoilt, well-to-do neighbours? Do they feel that we are lucky yet ungrateful? Are they star-struck and taken in by the apparent wealth and comfortable standard of living?

Whatever it is, I know that this trip has only served to whet my appetite to learn more about my neighbouring country - a wilder, more liberal (due to lax & corrupt officials rather than lack of legislation) version of Singapore. A version Singapore could have ostensibly evolved into given a different political and economic trajectory.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Moving Pictures

I have always been a big fan of movies ever since I was old enough to watch them.

My earliest memories of movies are linked up closely with my father. I remember Sunday afternoons, spent pleasurably watching old classics and spaghetti westerns like "The Thief of Baghdad" and "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" on TV. Sometimes on weekends, my parents (initiated by my father) would also take me out to watch a late night movie. We watched "The Ten Commandments" - the Cecil B. DeMille classic with one my favourite actors Yul Brynner (then AND now), "The Dawn of the Dead" - which left me crawling into my parents' bed for a week much to their regret, and many other movies.

Back in the day, cinemas still advertised with hand-painted canvases stretched out on the billboards. The cinematic experience was not what it is today - freezing cold air-conditioning, plush velvet seats with headrests, with convenient pockets for holding drinks. Instead, it involved an intermission - during which one had a chance to stretch one's legs after sitting for an hour in a stiff little seat, do a quick trip to the toilet, or visit the kacang putih man for a refill of sugar-coated peanuts.

I'm not sure if our frequent movie-watching stemmed from the fact that the Singapore of my youth was a tiny island with little recreational opportunities. It certainly wasn't for the comfort of the cinema. Whatever it was, the love of the cinema was instilled in me at a young age.

The year I turned 18 was a particularly memorable year for filmgoers in Singapore. That was the year the Singapore government introduced a tiered film rating system, namely the R(estricted) classification - which permitted movies into Singapore that were previously banned due to sexual or violent content. Being "of age" (you had to be 18 or older), I was now old enough to enjoy the "grown-up" movies. Imagine the elation as a sheltered teenager.

The first movie I rushed out to see with my friends was "The Doors", a heady mix of music, drugs and warped love. We then waited with bated breath for the next change - Stanley Kubrik's "Full Metal Jacket" - only to be greatly let down by the government's change in legislation. Introducing the R(A)rtistic classification, you had to be 21 years of age!

Ironically, the R(A) classification allowed a much seamier variant of movies than previously permitted in Singapore. I continued to religiously monitor the movie pages in the newspaper with disgruntlement as I noted the dramatic increase in dubiously titled films with sex thinly disguised as art. Fortunately, Singaporean cinemas were starting to bring in more critically acclaimed movies that I still had access to (albeit no sex, no violence).

The Cathay Organisation led the pack by opening The Picture House - focused on bringing in international films and not necessarily just the big American blockbusters. I was the biggest fan of The Picture House. In the first year of its opening, I must have attempted to watch every single movie that they screened.

Once I went overseas, I revelled in the liberation of watching any and all movies. I developed a better sense of what was on offer in the cinemas. I went through a phase of being a movie snob (art house or nothing baby!), then I slowly gained confidence in my taste until I watched what I truly liked - be it blockbuster chick flick or critical and controversial docu-dramas.

Even now, I need my movie fix at least twice a month, once a week if I can help it. Movies are an outlet. It helps one to dream of distant places, walk in someone else's shoes, even enjoy a more perfect life if just for two hours. For once, the wishy-washy love interest of the female protagonist actually turns to her and says, "I cannot live without you!" when she's had enough of his commitment phobia. The maid from Lower Mahattan catches the eye of a debonair millionaire, who sees beyond her lowly status and instead falls in love with her charming personality. Quarreling couples magically reunite, evildoers get their just desserts, and all's well that ends well.

Many years ago, a statistic I read named Singapore as the country with the highest annual per capita cinema admissions in the world. I'm not sure where we stand now, but Singapore has one of the highest number of 2K resolution digital cinema screens per capita in the world (according to the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore). Clearly the interest in movie-going has not waned, despite many more recreational choices in Singapore now.

As for me, I'll be going to catch Wall.E over the weekend. Dorky little male robot meets sexy, sleek female superbot and falls head over wheels in love.