National anthem is not Mari Kita

From ‘Understanding Majulah Singapura’, 4 July 2012, ST Forum

(Grace Zhang): MONDAY’S article (‘Sung with national pride’) about the significance of national anthems – or their irrelevance – spurred my thoughts about our National Anthem. In all honesty, I almost forgot its title when I tried to recall it; assuming it was Mari Kita (Let Us) because these are the first words, before I remembered that it is Majulah Singapura (Onward Singapore).

Sadly, beyond the title, I have no clue what the rest of the anthem means, despite having sung it every single day from primary school to junior college.

My second problem is that the anthem is in Malay. If the purpose of a national anthem is to forge national identity and rally citizens towards a common vision or goal, why choose a language that four-fifths of Singaporeans today neither speak nor understand?

Should our National Anthem be updated? The view that doing so would open a Pandora’s box of unwelcome controversy framed along sensitive racial lines misses the point. The problem is not that most Singaporeans do not understand Malay, but that we do not understand what our National Anthem means.

More effort must be made in schools to teach the anthem to students. I remember being cursorily taught its meaning in primary school, with its translation tucked away in an obscure page of a social studies text. If efforts are not made to impress the meaning and significance of the National Anthem, then generations of students will continue to sing Majulah Singapura every morning without understanding its importance or worth.

Our national anthem has been affectionately known as ‘Mari Kita’ since the eighties, and during my time no effort was made by music teachers to decipher the lyrics for us. Even if you were grilled into appreciating the gist of the song,  if you’re not a native Malay speaker you’re highly likely to mistake your bersatu’s for your berseru’s, and not knowing what either word means. Perhaps it’s not so much we don’t get the lyrics DESPITE singing it every day in school, but rather BECAUSE of it. Whether translated into English, Chinese of Tamil, if you make a chore out of singing Majulah Singapura, it loses its meaning and hence any sense of patriotic fervour whatsoever. When Majulah’s composer Zubir Said died in 1987, the ST headlines read ‘Mr Marikita: Shy, humble and well loved’ (17 November 1987), which translates into the nonsensical Mr ‘Let Us’.  It’s also unfortunate considering ‘Marikita’ has also been abused as a euphemism for an erection, by association with flag-RAISING ceremonies and standing at attention.

Maybe it’s not so much the content or language of the anthem that matters, but the emotions, history and familiarity that its melody and mood stir within every true blue Singaporean who has ever sung it loud and proud during assembly, NDP, or a medal ceremony at the Olympics. Language is irrelevant when you have a homegrown athlete beating others on the world stage, shedding a tear on the podium when the instrumental anthem is played. In fact, ‘Onward Singapore’ doesn’t do justice to the pride and glory that swells inside us when a fellow Singaporean, not some Chinese import, achieves the unthinkable. What matters is how much heart and soul you put into it, nevermind how bad your Malay is.

It’s also hard to come up with anything catchier than our national anthem; the opening drumroll, the empathic horns, the goosebump-raising crescendoes. No composer in the history of Singaporean music has produced a more immortal tune that ranks amongst greats like ‘Chan Mali Chan’, the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’ or ‘Yankie Doodle’. You don’t have to understand English to know that ‘Yesterday’ is a melancholy ballad about lost love, or that ‘Yankie Doodle’ is about musket-carrying soldiers marching and tooting in victory. Chan Mali Chan just sounds like a happy song. Some have lauded Majulah as short, simple and understandable. In fact, the late S Rajaratnam believed that ‘the Malay lyrics were so simple that anyone above the age of 5, unless MENTALLY RETARDED‘ should be able to sing it (Thanks for the link, ‘Matthew’), which makes those of us adults who commit the bersatu-berseru blooper complete idiots.  ‘Majulah’ is a timeless, chest-beating classic that transcends mere words, which, as with all anthems, are ultimately banal drivel without a rousing, effective tune making it come alive. According to Wikipedia’s English translation, two thirds of the anthem consist of the following refrain:

Come, let us unite
In a new spirit
Together we proclaim
Onward Singapore
Onward Singapore

Which doesn’t make me sing Majulah with any more gusto and ‘feeling’ than if I didn’t know what it meant. Anthem aside, not many Singaporeans I know could easily rattle off what the 5 stars of the National Flag symbolise either.  We can’t even remember 5 things in English, let alone an entire song in Malay.

Postscript: A silly rumour has been floating around in the Twitterverse that the suggestion to change the anthem to Chinese was raised by President Tony Tan. No official sources of such a remark have been cited.

About these ads

Singapore Day an expensive exercise in futility

From ‘Thanks, but spending $4m for S’pore Day is too much’, 14 April 2012, ST Forum

(Liang Kaicheng): I AM one of thousands of happy Singaporeans based in the United States who will be making their way by plane, car or bus to New York City today for Singapore Day. But I am also embarrassed to discover that the event will cost $4 million (‘New York to draw 4,000 on S’pore Day’; last Saturday).

Much as I am looking forward to stuffing my face with chicken rice at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, I find it bewildering that the Government is prepared to spend such a considerable sum to woo overseas Singaporeans home and boost the local talent pool.

There may be far better ways to spend $4 million of taxpayers’ money than on a bunch of Singaporeans living abroad, many of whom have their eye on lucrative, prestigious opportunities in their adopted countries and have no plans to return to Singapore in the foreseeable future.

No amount of fried carrot cake, 1980s music or (local TV show character) Barbarella’s preening can pull people away from Wall Street, Silicon Valley, top university professorships, or the myriad other reasons why some Singaporeans choose to live abroad.

If the aim of the event is merely to remind overseas Singaporeans of their home, it may be even more overpriced. I am grateful that the Government has me in its thoughts, but I am also uncomfortable that Singapore Day may inevitably be an expensive exercise in futility.

A similar piece was written on Singapore Day being more of a showcase of local gluttony by Siew Kum Hong in 2007. According to the ex-NMP, National Day Songs were played at the inaugural event in New York, with a ‘singular emphasis on food’, although another Overseas Singaporean (OS) Colin Goh commented that the local fare flown over could already be sampled in New York except for ‘chwee kueh’. With more than a million PRCs living here, I’m surprised no one has thought of a ‘China Day’ in Singapore yet, though it would probably feel just like   ‘Any Other Day’ to most of us.

This year, Zouk’s ‘Mambo night’ is being marketed as something of a uniquely Singaporean past-time, though synchronised gesturing to cheesy 80′s retro music is not that far off from sending in a Great Singapore Workout contingent. It’s like reminding the Spanish about Macarena, though one must admit it’s at least better than launching a mobile National Day Parade at Singapore Day like we used to.

In 2011′s event, Kit Chan was flown to Shanghai to sing ‘Home’ (truly, where know I MUST be). It also featured kampong games like chapteh and five stones, which comes across as an propagandist exercise in inaccuracy rather than ‘futility’ since our kids are too busy swiping iPads or attending weekend enrichment classes to play pick up sticks anymore. In 2008, Melbourne, a NATIONAL SERVICE showcase was presented, featuring ‘various simulators and high-tech training equipment to display the prowess of the armed forces’. Reminding our boys of what they moved overseas to escape from, or what some may be forced to face if they ever return, is a terrible idea regardless of how advanced our laser weaponry is, painting the event with the sour, parasitic tone of a ‘recruitment drive’ rather than a nostalgic funfair. Covert enlistment aside, perhaps the festival is also an annual million-dollar, grovelling, elaborate apology for Goh Chok Tong’s  ‘quitter’ label some years back.

You don’t need to fly the Noose team or Phua Chu Kang to major cities to help Singaporeans ‘RE-CONNECT’ with the local scene. Thanks to the Internet and social media, if I want to see Kit Chan sing ‘Home’ I’ll just Youtube it. If I want to preserve my Singlish I’ll view Mrbrown podcasts or Dr Jia Jia. If I’m the sort who can’t wait to serve NS, I’ll Google Mindef. If I want to keep in touch with friends back home, I’ll Skype, Facebook or Tweet.    Still, the fact that tens of thousands of OS have flocked to Singapore Days suggests that there’ s more to it than just hawker food or multimedia history lessons plucked out of recycled NDP montage video clips. Maybe it’s simply hanging out with people who speak your lingo, with whom you’re guaranteed something common to talk about (lah punctuated no less), nevermind if you’ve never Mambo-Jamboed in your life, or haven’t the faintest inclination to pack your bags. If anything, this annual diaspora bonding may even deter OS from ever returning, given that Singapore Day always seems to oversell itself as a fun, vibrant, dare I say more ‘Singaporean’ , jamboree than the actual Singapore itself.

In my opinion, the OSU should keep it subtle and simple, ditch the NDP songs and ridiculous dancing, the vain attempts to make Singapore or its SAF attractive again, and just rename the awful sounding Singapore Day to ‘Shiok (Food) Festival’. Don’t even attempt to sell Merlion keychains.

Brother Cane’s tofu-whipping and pubes-snipping

From ‘Cane re-enactment draws debate’ 16 Dec 2012, article by Corrie Tan, Life! and ‘Why show Brother Cane again?’, 18 Feb 2012, Life! Mailbag,

…Artist and film-maker Loo Zihan, 28, is re-enacting Brother Cane, a 1993 performance by Josef Ng which protested the arrests of 12 men during an anti-gay operation in 1992. The performance involved Ng whipping pieces of tofu and packets of red liquid on tiles, burning himself with a cigarette and snipping his pubic hair with his back to the audience.

The original performance ignited a public debate over obscenity in performance art here, as well as a 10-year restriction of the licensing and funding of performance art in Singapore.

…Some questioned the purpose of the re-enactment and whether it was merely riding on the controversy sparked by the original work. There were also concerns about how a new audience might experience the work.

Singapore-based British artist James Holdsworth, 57, told Life!: ‘I think it’s a publicity stunt and I’m quite disturbed by it.’

…(Pek Li Sng): The Brother Cane re-enactment should not be allowed (Cane Re-enactment Draws Debate, Life!, Feb 16). Cutting pubic hair again? What is it trying to show?

There is absolutely no meaning in performing such an act. It is so silly, weird and crude. Performance should be something that one can enjoy and not cringe with embarrassment when watched.

Smashing Tofus

The original ‘Brother Cane’ in 1993 was showcased publicly at Parkway Parade and landed Josef Ng, an ex Navy sergeant, on an obscenity charge for exposing his buttocks. ‘Buttocks’ also happen to be a motif for Amanda Heng’s ‘SinGirl’ project which featured a montage of women’s bums back in 2010. You don’t even have to be a controversial artist to wiggle some flesh in public these days, what with a spate of unnecesary nudity hitting the country in the same year.  In the age of Youtube where anyone can film themselves making a booger salad for lunch or self-immolating and call it ‘protest-art’, snipping your pubic hair with or without clothes doesn’t seem very shocking anymore. And what a waste of perfectly edible tofu.

Erotica and art have been intertwined ever since early man constructed grossly exaggerated female figurines out of rocks and clay. Today, you can pay $250 just to take  photo with ‘nude artist’ T Venkenna. Cashing in on one’s buttocks is small change in comparison.

Sitting nude as art

Loo isn’t the first artist to replicate ‘Brother Cane’. In 2007, a play about homegrown pornstar Annabel Chong titled ’251′ featured actress Cynthia Lee Macquarrie paying ‘homage’ to Josef’s tofu-bashing. ’251′ is also the number of men that Annabel claimed to have non-stop sex with, which some, including the porn starlet herself, may label as a gritty no-holds-barred ‘performance’. Mimicry and ‘cannibalising’ the works of others, whether in the form of DJ sampling, hoax paintings, remixes, mash-ups,  ‘shot-for-shot’ movie remakes like Gus Van Sant’s version of ‘Psycho’,  have existed for as long as humans started copying and inspiring each other. Once upon a time someone decided to destroy a guitar at the finale of a rock concert, and this defiant ‘performance’ was subsequently replicated by band frontmen the world over. When it comes to brash punk/rock musicians, no one ever needs to ask WHY they do crazy stuff. Ozzy Osbourne once bit the head off a live bat. Rammstein lights their keyboards on fire. Artists, on the other hand, have some explaining to do, and I get the impression that some take their work so seriously that they deem re-enactments OK but parodies unacceptable. Speaking of parodies, this tofu-caning business reminds me remotely of the clip below.

Tofu or not tofu

Along with Josef in 1993, an artist named Shannon Tham self-induced vomitting and then poured his puke all over himself, which appears to be the stuff of freak porn, not to mention dangerous and unsanitary. It was actually a protest against ‘The New Paper’ for unfair reporting, a copy of which Shannon burnt and drank the ashes before a nauseous finale. You could at least see the point of what Shannon did, even if it seemed a bit drastic. Most people who don’t like what they read in the papers merely throw it away, spit on it, or use it for the cat litter box. The line between ‘performance’ in the traditional sense of ‘entertaining’ and creative ‘protest’ has been blurred; I could set up an act in town biting off my own armpit hair in protest of discrimination against hairy people, but without the label of ‘performance art’, it would just be seen as a silly gimmick.  Or viral advertising for hair removal cream. Some viewers may be concerned enough to report that a patient from IMH had escaped.

In 1992, Vincent Leow drank his own urine as part of a performance piece. According to his website, ‘the art gesture was later elaborated upon through the packing and sale of bottles of urine – epitomizing Leow’s artful handling of ‘underground, subversive’ practices with a savvy understanding of the mechanics of market consumption and its desire for and absorption of infamy, scandal and controversy‘.  Blah-blah. If you take away the fancy conceptualisation behind consuming your own excrement, or the ‘artist’ away from the ‘act’, it becomes not so much a ‘gesture’ or ‘statement’; but a wacky Jackass stunt or a ragging forfeit played  out by drunk campus kids. Those who flock to watch gory movies just to squirm in their seats are probably the same lot who’d be fascinated by artists squeezing unmentionables out of their orifices.  If an audience has been moved in some way by the artist’s antics, be it tears,  nostalgia, goosebumps or a grimace with reflex crossing of legs, then the artist has succeeded. Still, it’s all been done before, and the torture-art circle needs something fresh and unflinching to wow fans already attuned to mind-numbing degradation. Today it could be pube-snipping, tomorrow someone may neuter himself with a razor blade.

Some forms of performance art, if not known for vulgar display of bodies and bodily functions, are also steeped in violence and masochism. In last year’s ‘Future of Imagination 7′, Loo Zihan reenacted another Josef Ng work called ‘Don’t Go Swimming, It’s Not Safe’, in which he asked a random audience member to hit him with a violin. Loo then proceeded to hurl himself at walls, which is exactly what the folks at JackAss do. It appears that in order to succeed as a ‘performance artist’, you need to score some brutality points to bring the meaning of ‘tortured artist’ to a whole new level. Like how Jackie Chan collects broken bones, battle scars and concussions throughout his career as an international action star.

Walling is the new planking

In 2007, vegetarian artist Simon Birch showcased a multimedia art show which featured a scene of himself, dressed as a SAMURAI, killing a pig with a sword. A gruesome act which was ‘conceptually necessary’ to depict the theme of death. I just hope someone made a good meal of the poor creature.  You can also poke needles on butterfly wings and revolve an entire exhibition around it. I’m not sure how ‘conceptually necessary’ snipping your pubic hair is. I ‘get’ the tofu analogy (white and soft i.e innocent), but giving your naughty bits a trim defies explanation. Or as the swanky art elite would tell me: ‘Why don’t you just go home to your Michael Bay DVD collection, you unsophisticated pilgrim?’

Whatever.  Performances which involve artists maiming themselves with household appliances or intentionally falling down should come with a ‘Don’t try this at home’ warning and a standby medical squad.  If your motivation as an art-goer is to watch people do crazy stunts professionally for an audience, you can get your torture-fix from the comfort of home in front of the computer without spending a single cent. You’d just have to settle with the lack of ‘participation’, ‘immersion’,  ‘interpretation’ or ‘meaning’ that comes with ‘performance art’.

The fishy origins of Yusheng

From ‘Food fight over yusheng’, 5 Feb 2012, article in Lifestyle, Sunday Times

The auspicious yusheng or raw fish salad is meant to bring harmony and unite people during Chinese New Year. But the popular festive dish has instead triggered a food fight in the media in Malaysia and Singapore.

For the past week, a controversy has been cooking in the Malaysian media with newspapers saying that the dish originated in Malaysia, not Singapore.

…Food consultant Violet Oon, 62, likens the current debate over the origins of the dish to similar debates in countries with a mixed culinary heritage.

She says: ‘Spaghetti is from Italy, but spaghetti and meatballs is an American tradition. Likewise in the United Kingdom, chicken tikka is found everywhere in Britain, but can they claim it’s theirs? Immigrants have come and made something different and there’s nothing wrong with that.’

Member of Parliament Baey Yam Keng, who talked about yusheng in his recent column on Chinese New Year customs in the Chinese section of My Paper, says: ‘I don’t think Singapore needs to lay claim to yusheng. The dish has clearly evolved over the years, and even if it is made a local trademark, does it mean anything? What matters is that this custom is still practised and people love it.’

Can any one culture even ‘invent’ a dish and call it its own? What humans have been doing since the ‘invention’ of cooking is just mashing up variations of common raw ingredients which everyone else in the world uses in their cuisine. Nobody lumps some raw fish slices and shredded veggies together and announces to the world jubilantly that a discovery has been made as if a new subatomic particle had been created in a pan. Like the evolution of animal species, the history of food is peppered with incidences of ‘convergent evolution’, which explains why you can have similar foods across distinct cultures like satay and kebabs, spaghetti and noodles, pad thai and char kway teow, or yusheng and sashimi. One shouldn’t ignore the effect of INFLUENCE, which is the nicer alternative to ‘copying’, and because there are more people who prepare food for a living than Nobel-prize winning scientists, the chances of clashing recipes or methods of cooking are pretty high if you think about it.

In fact, one can’t even lay claim to salads containing raw fish and vegetables as a strictly Asian tradition. In Hawaii, a dish known as ‘poke’ consists of ‘a simple mixture of raw fish, Hawaiian salt, seaweed and chopped kukui nuts’. In Fiji, ‘Kokoda’ is ‘cubed fish steeped in lemon/lime juice then squeezed and garnished with onions, chillies, shallots, grated carrots, tomatoes and combined with thick coconut cream’. In Latin America, the birthplace of ‘ceviche’  has been disputed between Peru and Ecuador, when it’s likely that it was conceived by the ancient Incas who once ruled both lands, a similar situation faced by Singaporeans/Malaysians when it comes to yusheng, a dish agreed by both sides to have Canton origins, but diversified regionally into the several varieties  that we’ve come to ‘lo hei’ to death today.

Of course every place has its myths and legends on how its people have come to appreciate uncooked fish, which suggests that no single person or country discovered this independently. Who is to say our cavemen ancestors hadn’t thought of ‘prehistoric yusheng’ as well, when weather conditions weren’t conducive for a pit roast? Perhaps early man, without the benefit of fire, already feasted on a combination of raw fish slices, berries, herbs and roots out of expediency.  Who’s to say they didn’t involve their salad in rituals like we do today, praying for good harvests and weather instead of our rhythmic wishes for good fortune and success?

So let’s leave the petty quarrels behind and appreciate yusheng for what it means, and how it TASTES, to us today, as a fishy vessel for a messy, noisy ritual not just to mark ‘everybody’s birthday’, but a diplomatic icebreaker for foreigners and business partners over the New Year. Incidentally the pun surrounding yusheng is how ‘fish’ sounds similar to ‘excess’ in Chinese, and excessive is exactly what this fuss over ‘who invented yusheng first’ is.

PM Lee wants more Dragon babies

From PM Lee: Singapore’s fertility rate up last year, 22 Jan 2012, article by Judith Tan/Lydia Lim, Sunday Times

Singapore’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) picked up slightly last year to 1.20, up from a historic low of 1.15 in 2010. The Prime Minister announced the figure on Saturday in his Chinese New Year message, which focused on the central role of families as anchors for identity and sense of belonging, and sources of support in good times and bad.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong also said: ‘I fervently hope that this year will be a big Dragon year for babies.‘ Historically, Singapore enjoys a baby boom every Dragon year, which comes round every 12 years.

…Singapore’s TFR has been on a downward trend and is way below the replacement level of 2.1. It fell from 1.60 in 2000 to 1.20 last year, despite government measures to encourage couples to have more children. The TFR for Chinese Singaporeans is lower, falling from 1.43 to 1.08 over the same period.

Whether there’s a spike in Dragon babies born or not, the general trend is a fertility decline. 1988, two Dragon Years ago, saw a  high of 1.98, a figure that seems unattainable now unless someone flushes our reservoirs with  fertility drugs. Baby booms alone, of course, will not guarantee population growth over time, no matter how many baby-friendly packages are promised by the PM every CNY. It was recently revealed that an average 1000 Singaporeans pack their bags for greener pastures EVERY YEAR. Making Singapore family-friendly isn’t enough, you need to make baby-boomers happy enough to want to stay, or at least not kill themselves. Which means a total revamp of the educational, labour, political and leisure scene to keep citizens stimulated and proud to be Singaporean, not just expanding maternity wards or building more kindergartens.

Lee Kuan Yew kickstarted the CNY baby wish-list in the 80′s after the Dragon boom in 1988.  While encouraging couples to ignore the Zodiac, he also refuted the long-held belief that the Dragon year was auspicious for China’s Chinese at all, citing the great Tangshan earthquake in the last dragon year in 1976.

We should not decide the birth of our children by animal years. Have your babies in any year, including the Snake Year.

And if that year has less babies than Dragon Year, there will be the advantage of more places in good schools and at universities.

The latter statement was a catch that his son refused to elaborate on 24 years later, just as I suspected. But that was 1988, and even though we were just below the 2.1 replacement mark then, we could afford to temper the Dragon craze with a healthy  dose of reality.

Here’s a sample of PM’s baby urgings during CNY speeches over the years, and whether what he wished for actually came true.

2011 (Rabbit), Lee Hsien Loong, TFR increased by 0.05 to 1.20 :

I hope more couples will start or add to their families in the Year of the Rabbit. Chinese New Year is the time for families to come together in celebration, and more babies can mean only more joy in the years to come.

2010 (Tiger), Lee Hsien Loong, TFR dropped from 1.23 to 1.15:

It is one thing to encourage ourselves with the traditional attributes of the zodiac animals…But it is another to cling on to superstitions against children born in the Year of the Tiger, who are really no different from children born under other animal signs.

2009 (Ox), Lee Hsien Loong, TFR dropped from 1.28 to 1.23 (Official stats cite the latter TFR as 1.22)

Even in hard times, we should not neglect the need to bring up a new generation. If you remember, every time there was a recession, birth rates went down. But I hope this time we can buck the trend and keep the birth rate steady. We have implemented many measures to encourage marriage and help you in supporting and bringing up your children. There is also a lag time in procreation, so with luck your babies will arrive in time to enjoy the upswing.

2008(Rat), Lee Hsien Loong, TFR dropped from 1.29 to 1.28.

The government is studying the practical arrangements carefully, to see how we can create an even friendlier environment for having and raising children. We want Singapore to be a great place to bring up families and children.

Looking at his track record since 2008, it’s either PM Lee’s mild exhortations are falling on deaf ears, or the family initiatives are simply not working. To sum up, here’s the TFR trend since 2004:

1.24 (2004), 1.25 (2005), 1.26 (2006),  1.29 (2007), 1.28 (2008), 1.22 (2009), 1.15 (2010), 1.20 (2011)

Which suggests a slow positive creep of TFR up to the point of 2007-2008, when the recession hit, followed by a Tiger year double-whammy barely 2 years later. Meanwhile, the media continues to bombard us with fascinating who’s-who trivia of Dragon personalities, from Li Ka-Shing to Keanu Reeves, when they should have done the same for the Tiger year instead of perpetuating the bossy Tiger female stereotype. But is it truly a race effect? Let’s break it down.

In the 2010 Tiger year, the Chinese TFR hit 1.02, the Malays dipped rather dramatically to  1.65, while the Indians held steady at 1.13. Which means there was nothing special about the drop among the Chinese in 2009-2010 compared to the previous year ( a rate of -0.06); something else was amiss. In the last Dragon year in 2000, the reverse happened, but surprisingly not just for the Chinese. The other races seemed to respond to the Dragon’s roar as well, according to a ‘crude rate report’ charting birth rates from 1997 to 2006. But then it wasn’t just a Dragon year, it was the start of a new MILLENNIUM, and it would be interesting to see if any birth spike occurred 9 months post-Y2K.

Dragon spike for all 3 races

Only time will tell if 2012 breathes fire into the wombs of our women, whether Chinese, Malay or Indian. Meanwhile, the government should focus not just on generating babies or allowing the media to suggest that Dragon babies can grow up to become just like Professor X (Patrick Stewart), but retaining them when they grow older.

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Overnight queueing for Lim Chee Guan Bak Kwa

From ‘S’poreans queueing overnight for bak kwa’, 15 Jan 2012, article in, translated from SM Daily

…Singaporeans are even queuing up through the night to get their bak kwa this time round. Well known bak kwa store Lim Chee Guan saw its stock sold out within 75 minutes of its opening at 9am this morning.

…The prices of bak kwa has also risen from $48 per kg yesterday to $50 per kg today.Each person was limited to buying 30kg yesterday, and the limit lowered to 20kg per person today.

Bak kwa prices are expected to rise further as Chinese New Year, the biggest day of the year for the Chinese, inches closer. One of those in the queue, Ms Chen, told reporters that she had taken a taxi from Hougang to New Bridge Road at about 6am to get the bak kwa. Together with five others, the group queued for four hours before they managed to buy their bak kwa.

The group planned to spend $6,000 to buy 120kg of bak kwa for their relatives and friends, and to give out to company employees. They had even arranged for vehicles to help carry the bak kwa back.

Many in the queue also appeared prepared for the long wait as some came with portable chairs while others were seen leisurely reading the papers. Reporters spoke to some folks in the queue, asking why they would spend so much time queuing for bak kwa. They explained that this is because the bak kwa here is delicious, and they get to feel the festive vibe by joining the queue.

More than a week to go to CNY and the price of Lim Chee Guan bak kwa has already escalated to $50/kg. Last year, according to KeropokMan’s blog, it hit $52/kg on Jan 30 at LCG Chinatown, and an anecdotal forum complaint in 2011 cited $54/kg at the LCG in Ion Orchard, both prices surpassing the ‘Big Five-O’ which bak kwa lovers  feared in 2008.  There’s even a Bak Kwa Index to monitor ‘sizzling’ prices over the days leading up to CNY. According to a 2007 report, LCG raised its price to $44 from $38 a month earlier, more than 2 weeks before CNY on Feb 18 that year. The 2007 $2 increase per week seems conservative in light of how the same rise occurred A DAY this CNY.

A writer to the ST called the bak kwa companies ‘oligopolistic’, and swore to avoid the fatty snack altogether. Such profiteering was apparent in the early 2000′s, when $48/kg bak kwa was already in existence. But what’s curious about the CNY-bak kwa phenomenon is despite the hike, or BECAUSE of it, the queues have taken on similar characteristics to the HnM line last year; overnight camping and bak kwa lovers treating what appears to me is a sheer waste of time as some kind of ‘occasion’. 6 to 8 hour queues were unheard of when people first began jacking up the prices, and counter-intuitively, the higher the price per kg, the longer the wait. I’d rather spend the time spring cleaning my kitchen fridge, cabinets and all windows in my house.

Even more puzzling is how bak kwa can be taken for granted when it’s readily available throughout the year, when other seasonal goodies like pineapple tarts and love letters fail to take on the allure of scarcity to justify a price increase. A common argument is that prices of pork and oil have increased, but hasn’t everything else? Like flour, eggs, pineapples? The economics of bak kwa price hikes aside, there could be other human factors behind the absurd success of bak kwa, that people are willing to wait for ages and fork out such money for a few slices of dried BBQ meat, which in the Western context, is something you can prepare at home by simply plonking pork jerky over a weekend grill.

Surprisingly, it’s not so much the actual TASTE of Lim Chee Guan’s meat that draws the crowds. In a 2009 blind taste test, Lim Chee Guan was rated similarly to Bee Cheng Hiang, though both were chosen as top picks. BCH, of course, is the Sakae Sushi of bak kwa. I might as well buy a lot of bak kwa from the nearest mall, remove the packaging, trick my guests with a miserable tale of how I queued in the rain for 6 hours in Chinatown, and they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. In fact, even if they COULD tell the difference (which would rank them above the experts), they wouldn’t dispute and embarrass their host in the spirit of CNY. Perhaps the brand name helps too, since naming a bak kwa company after an actual person has a ring of authenticity to it, bringing to mind images of its founder (who happens to be NOT called Lim Chee Guan) sweating over the flames, stoking his moist, sweet hand-cut meats to crispy perfection.

What about  auspiciousness then? According to food guru K.F Seetoh, bak kwa is ‘long yoke’ in Cantonese, which means a ‘robust fortune ahead’, though true only for bak kwa sellers rather than those eating it  (more like robust ‘myocardial infarction risk’ ahead). Steeped in tradition and a ‘die-die-must-have’ staple aside, I’m hazarding a theory that it’s not the taste, or the ‘meaning’ behind bak kwa that drives people to camp overnight for what’s possibly the unhealthiest, most carcingogenic containing CNY goodie of all. Buying bak kwa is a gesture to show how much you’re willing to splurge and sacrifice for your guests, and the more expensive it gets, the longer the wait, the more generous and altruistic it makes you look, no matter how it ends up tasting like marinated cardboard.  Nothing scores more points than a gift of expensive bak kwa to your boss, or a prospective parent-in-law. It also helps that queuing happens to be a Singaporean pasttime, which pretty much explains everything.

Halloween Horrors axed for not being family friendly

From ‘Night Safari axes Halloween Horrors event after feedback’, 16 Sept 2011 and ‘Staff split over decision to cancel event, 19 Sept 2011, articles by Amanda Tan, ST

The Night Safari has canned a Halloween event – even though 1,000 tickets have been sold – because of feedback that it has no relevance to conservation. Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) has pulled the plug just two weeks before Halloween Horrors was to be held on weekends between Sept 30 and Oct 30.

On Thursday, WRS, which manages the Night Safari, said the decision was made ‘because of the negative feedback received from corporations, friends of the zoo, the public and the media about the event, especially over the relevance in relation to conservation’.

Ms Isabella Loh, director and newly-installed chief executive of the group, added that it agrees with comments made by President Tony Tan Keng Yam and that ‘WRS parks should have more family- bonding and wholesome activities’. On Sunday, Dr Tan was at the Singapore Zoo celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival when he said: ‘Such family bonding, I believe, is very important for Singapore because we need to create informal occasions where families, children can bond with their parents and grandparents. It is the best way of building a sense of unity and comfort within the family.’

….She said she had visited the event’s Haunted House on Monday and ‘got upset’ after that as she was ‘uncomfortable with the idea because it was too scary’. ‘I explained in an e-mail that that is a lot of money spent on an infrastructure (Haunted House) of devil worship,’ she said.

According to sources, Ms Loh said she had heard that ‘zebra heads were chopped off as a scare tactic’ as part of Halloween Horrors. Employees told her this was definitely not the case.

…On social media platform Facebook, netizens posted stinging comments on WRS’ page, while others had doubts over the reason given for the cancellation. One user, known as Jolyn Chia Yiling, wrote: ‘Maybe you guys would consider giving us a better excuse than we want to concentrate on Deepavali. Halloween in and of itself is also a great bonding activity for the whole family.’

The cancellation at the Night Safari has also come as disappointing news for 17 Singapore Polytechnic students. The third-year integrated events and project management students had conceptualised the theme, developed characters and designed costumes as part of their final-year project. They held their first full-dress rehearsal on Monday.

‘We’re disappointed. The students have done 90 per cent of the work and everyone was hyped up,’ said lecturer Jacqueline Ho, although she added that their grades would not be affected by the cancellation.

WRS chief isn't a FAN of Halloween

For an organisation that prides itself in conservation of endangered species, WRS is BLOODY cruel to Homo sapiens in the form of SP students . Isabella Loh’s knee-jerk reaction to Tony Tan’s comment during the Mooncake Festival among other anti-Halloween public complaints about Qing dynasty zombies in 201o  demonstrates how easily organisations crumble under mounting pressure at the expense of wasted resources, logistics and broken hearts all round. Pulling the plug on some ghoulish fun is like a parent spanking a child for making funny faces, and as much as WRS has good intentions of keeping the Safari wholesome, it just goes to show that WRS is to a sense of humour and fun as a silver bullet is to a werewolf. The WRS chief also appears to be hiding behind the clout of Tony Tan as justification for the ban, when TT DID NOT STATE for the record that he disapproved of the spookfest in the first place. Not only does one flush the SP efforts down the toilet, but gives the impression that it was the President who gave the orders to do so.

Caving in to terrified parents who want to protect their children from being cursed with demonic possession is ignoring the simple fact that people have a choice of participating in Horrors or not, and surely there would have been precautions in place to ensure that the faint-hearted or scaredy-cats were warned well in advance before accidentally landing themselves on the Tram Ride to Eternal Hell. Organisers could have also toned down the event to just a few days over the weekend or raised the age limit, thereby arriving at a compromise between customers and dissenters. Banning this altogether is like driving a wooden stake through a someone’s chest just because he has a pale complexion and speaks with a Transylvanian accent, but more importantly it leaves a bad taste of dried blood in the mouths of 1000 customers who signed up for the event.

Halloween here has been a gleeful excuse for ladies to dress like Catwoman and men to put on make-up once a year, and is more a modified Cosplay event than traditional Jack O Lanterns or trick or treating, meaning it doesn’t necessarily have to be all freaky ghouls, goblins or ‘devil worship’. People can come dressed as Hitler, Batman and Joker, or members of ZZ Top if they want to. Unlike the ethnicity-specific Mooncake festival or the proposed  ‘Horrors’ replacement Deepavali (Festival of FRIGHTS? hur hur), Halloween is a more ‘informal’ event which brings all ages together, not to mention it’s more FUN.  It’s also one of the few ‘festivals’ we have that’s racially and religiously neutral (The others are New Year’s Day, May Day, National Day and of course April Fools’ Day), though it needs some time before Halloween becomes universally accepted as a legitimate family-fun activity rather than a weekend of  drunken pranking and cheesy  fake blood.

Chen Show Mao disinvited to dinner

From ‘Chen Show Mao ‘uninvited’ from communal event”, 21 Aug 2011, article by Benson Ang in and Chen Show Mao’s Facebook page.

CONTROVERSY has broken afresh online after Members of Parliament (MPs) from the opposition ward of Aljunied were “disinvited” to at least one ghost month dinner events.

Workers’ Party (WP) MP for Aljunied GRC Chen Show Mao explained on his Facebook page yesterday that he had been scheduled to attend such a dinner last week, but the organisers had called to let him know that they could not have him show up as originally hoped.

Grassroots leaders are often invited to such dinners, held as part of the Chinese Hungry Ghost Month celebrations.

In this case, organisers had – according to Mr Chen’s post – been told by the Paya Lebar CCC (Citizens’ Consultative Committee under the People’s Association) that, as a condition for receiving CCC approval to use a planned venue in the HDB estate, they “may no longer” invite the Aljunied opposition MPs.

(Chen Show Mao): …It pains me that they felt so embarrassed to pass me the news.  Regrettably, this is not the first time it has happened since I was elected….Many residents talk to me about the events they are organizing in the neighborhood: some of them wish to invite me to join them, others don’t see the need to.  That is all fine by me … there is really no call to force our residents into a quandary over whom they may invite as guests to their own events.

According to the PA website, under the PA Act (Yes there are actually legal frameworks governing PA’s activities):

4 (1) The Association shall consist of -
(a) the Prime Minister as Chairman;
(b) a Minister to be appointed by the Chairman as Deputy
(c) 8 members to be appointed by the Chairman; and
(d) one member to be appointed by the Chairman in consultation
with each of the organisations mentioned in the First Schedule.

Other than our PM as Chairman, the current board of management also includes fellow PAP ministers like  Lim Swee Say as Deputy Chairman, MG Chan Chun Sing and Grace Fu. It’s obvious that the PA is really a Recreation Club spin-off of the PAP, and should really be called PAPPA instead. If this ‘PAP who’s who’ line-up is not reason enough to see why Chen Show Mao of the WP was forced into a ‘No-Show’, a similar snub befell Chiam See Tong back in 1988. Chiam, then SDP leader, was not invited to the Potong Pasir National Day dinner, also organised by the Citizen’s Consultative Commitee of the constituency (I wasn’t invited to Potong Pasir dinner: Chiam, 17 Aug 1988, ST), which pretty much confirms that this PA party-pooper business is exclusive to Opposition MPs.

Is the reluctance of the PA to have Opposition MPs at such functions  a form of preferential treatment, a wily tactic to prevent any sort of  ‘recruitment’ of grassroot leaders into the Opposition camp, or for ‘security’ reasons? DPM Wong Kan Seng was quick to denounce any political link between PA and the PAP in 2006, though any outstanding grassroots work under the PA is a surefire way to get noticed by its predominantly PAP board members. In a heated debate with LKY in 1983,  Anson MP JBJ described being ‘treated like a leper’ by RC members, and cited, in contrast, the entourage of 25 HDB and PA associates accompanying a PAP MP on his walkabout. In the same article, LKY had this to say about the birth of the PA in 1960, of which he was the Chairman (naturally)

…Therefore we came out with this association (the PA) which enabled people not to identify with  a political party but with the government of the day. There is a clear distinction.

In today’s PA, the ‘government of the day’ resides in its Board of Management, which explains the behaviour of its staff, even if they’re under no obligation to support the PAP in any way.  But dig deeper into the history of the PA and you’ll uncover a darker, deep-seated reason behind this aversion to the Opposition. In 1961, 17 PA members were dismissed for allegedly supporting former PAP members (who left to join Barisan Socialis) by distributing anti-government propaganda in CCs, resulting in a strike involving 200 PA members. One of the  PAP ‘defectors’ was none other than Dr Lim Hock Siew, later detained for almost 20 years under the ISA. So you can probably understand why PA members aren’t exactly touchy-feely with Opposition MPs, because you never know when inviting one to dinner would be misinterpreted as an act of aiding ‘subversion’.

Of course if today’s PA members, supposedly a non-political body (despite its PAP bosses) decide to hold demonstrations at CCs to kick out WP MPs from their GRCs, they would probably be let off with nothing more than a warning. On the other hand, if they bootlick PAP MPs by helping put up campaign posters or ferry people to rallies FOC during the general elections, that  would be judged as actions of their own free will. Therein lies the contradiction of a statutory board disclaiming any political links, and unless there is complete severance of PA from the PAP, or when MPs start wearing the same attire to NDP, this organisation will continue to  fail in living up to its motto: Bringing People Together, because from what I understand about the word ‘People’, it means all Singaporeans, whichever political camp you belong to.

Postscript:  Former PAP MP Cynthia Chua responded by criticising Chen Show Mao for ‘politicising’ the case.  According to the rules in using open spaces,  those managed by the PA are leased for its grassroots organisations, but their activities must not be ‘political in nature’. This means MPs are not allowed to attend, but PAP losing candidates in opposition-held wards get to attend such events as government-appointed ‘grassroots advisers’ e.g Cynthia Chua. Which means ousted PAP members, by retaining their ‘adviser’ status, get to mingle more with constituency residents while their very own MPs, the ones who can actually get things done,  are banned. Surely, at the back of the minds of such ‘runner-up’ politicians would be getting re-elected, so how is having these ‘advisors’  grooming grassroots leaders at these events and making their presence felt as if to say ‘I’m still here in the running!’ NOT considered a political activity?  If PA is serious about its non-party-political affiliations, it should not have any PAP backing at all, and ban all past, present or future MPs from all its grassroots events.

McDonald’s playing Muslim prayers over dinner

From ‘Man complains about Muslim prayers at McDonald’s outlet‘, 19 Aug 2011, article by Faris Mokhtar, sg yahoo news.

A man has generated heated debate online after he posted comments questioning why McDonald’s allowed the Muslim prayers to be played at one of its restaurants. The debate first started after a man known as Alex Chang posted his comments on McDonald’s Facebook wall on Thursday.

He had asked why the fast food giant’s outlets played the Muslim prayers during dinner time at its restaurants. “Can I request to play Buddhism chant on Vesak Day? Please advice,” he asked sarcastically.

…His remarks on the issue drew a few comments explaining that the reason could be Muslims are breaking their fast. In response, Chang said, “Not trying to be disrespectful. But a bit irritating during dinner time. Not respecting other religion(s) at all.”

“By the way, can you tolerate if they play Buddhist chime in the restaurant?” he added.

…Chang issued an apology for his comments, saying that it was not meant to be “racist”. “I would like to apologise for the comment that was posted on the McDonald’s website. It was not meant to be a racist remark which has offended so many people including our Malay friends. Sorry for my ignorance,” he said

‘Alex Chang’ was unwittingly voicing the concerns of non-Muslim diners encountering this oddity but were too afraid to ask, and suffering for it because of a momentary lack of tact. Macs is a certified halal fast food joint and icon of the consumerist Western world. An international conglomerate of its stature broadcasting religious prayers while patrons are tucking into Big Macs just strikes me as rather out of place, nevermind if you’re Buddhist, Muslim or Hindu. It’s like going to a French restaurant and having Waltzing Matilda blasting in your ear, or eating sushi to the mopey sounds of Gregorian monks chanting. Not liking what you hear doesn’t automatically make you a right-wing extremist, and Alex’s careless public rant has become instant, explosive troll-fodder, making LKY’s comment on Muslims’ strict communal eating habits seem as tame as a Grilled Chicken Foldover  in comparison.

It’s  not so much about religious tolerance or racism here, but whether the act of putting such audio on air is compatible with Macs’ behemoth corporate image.  According to Macs, some outlets have chosen to tune in to radio stations other than the ‘standard playlist’. Perhaps it’s only fair that hungry Muslims get to hear the soothing sounds of ‘dinner-time’ prayer during this period of voluntary penance, just as Christians get euphoric listening to Xmas songs with the word ‘Jesus’ in them, where there is a prickly thin line drawn between what is ‘religious’ and what’s merely ‘ethnic’. I haven’t heard what’s being played in Macs myself but unless everyone’s favourite fast food joint and obesity’s bedfellow begins selling ketupats and curry instead of burgers and fries during Ramadan, I don’t see how this is worth starting a tudung saga all over again.  Now that ‘Alex ‘ has taken the flame-bait, and thanks to the rest of the Facebookers giving his McNuggets a good sockin’ even after an apology,  the rest of us who aren’t fans of monotonous chanting of any sort will just avoid Macs during the festivities, which is what everyone who doesn’t want a heart attack should be doing anyway.

I’ve written enough about how Facebook tends to make Hiroshimas out of little dynamite sticks, that it stirs pandemic levels of paranoia whether it’s about ministers’ sons deferring NS or foreign workers insulting Singaporeans, and this episode is no exception. In a related incident during CNY 2010,  Mcdonald’s  chose to remove the Doraemon Zodiac pig toy in order to appease their Muslim diners, offending Chinese customers born in the year of the Pig. I don’t remember if they played any CNY music then. Still, I’m PRAYING really hard that that this unnecessary reminder for solidarity doesn’t morph into a ‘Eat at McDonald’s with Prayers’ event after the ‘Cook a pot of Curry‘ fanfare. You have been warned.

NDP should be NC-16 because of cross-dressing

From ‘One people , one dress code, please’ and ‘Change to a neutral hue’, 11 Aug 2011, ST Forum

(Ronald Seow): …The National Day Parade is a celebration of citizens, united as one people, regardless of race, language or religion – and more so, political differences.

It should be a significant annual event uniting all political leaders to celebrate Singapore’s birthday. I hope future parades will see all MPs dressed in the national colours – a combination of red and white or the official orchid-patterned shirts and dresses.

MPs must make an effort to stand as one united people to serve the people of Singapore. They should take pride in their efforts to lead in nation building, and not show off their political party colours.

(MR ERIC ONG): I couldn’t help but wonder why no MP turned up in red. Instead, they wore white or light blue tops. Surely they should be together as one with fellow citizens in celebration. A red top with a pair of white trousers or skirt would not go amiss in the sea of red we saw in the stands.

We have had 46 years of independence and NDP celebrations, so why bring up minister dress code only now?  The PAP’s all-white get up has become an indispensable prop at parades by tradition, like marching soldiers or the playing of the national anthem. It is an iconic feature and source of countless ‘men in white’ puns throughout the PAP’s reign as the only political party ever to govern this young nation, which explains why it never struck us to have our ministers wearing red or orchid motifs for a change.  It’s like seeing a clown perform without a red nose, Professor Dumbledore without a flowing white beard, or Hawaiian hula dancers without coconuts.

The VIP stand in 1967

It only makes sense for the Workers’ Party MPs to come dressed in their own party colours because PAP wouldn’t budge having dressed white for half a century, nor would they don red because that also happens to be what SPP ‘s Lina Chiam was wearing that day, despite red being the most obvious alternative to white. If anyone had the foresight to picture this awkward situation even happening, they would have chosen non-flag colours for party logos in the first place. Like how Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United fans all wear England jerseys to a World Cup match, despite being loggerheads when dressed in their respective club jerseys.  Some MPs like Penny Low would gladly welcome the idea of being nondescript and disappearing into a sea of red, but for all the wrong reasons. Heck, why bother with the VIP stand at all and just  do away with the formality of physical segregation altogether? Why not make our ministers march with the contingent and perform for us like they used to do way back in 1966 (Day and night of fun and joy in S’pore, 10 Aug 1966, ST), mingle with us, sing NDP songs with us and rummage through Fun Packs with the enthusiasm of a child opening Santa’s present like everyone else?

From ‘Drag wrong, guys’, 11 Aug 2011, ST Forum

(Ivan Lau): ..As a parent of three young children, I question the appropriateness of cross-dressing in the segment on racial harmony and nation building.

Prominent male comedian Gurmit Singh, known to young audiences in his role as a male alien in the television series Cosmo & George that airs on Okto, was sari-clad as an Indian woman.

Talented male actor Chua Enlai, known to children as a male host of many programmes on Okto, was dressed as a young, modern woman.

Was such casting necessary in the context of portraying racial harmony and nation building on national television? Or was it the organising committee’s intention to portray harmony of another kind, namely that of transgender or transsexuality? It that was the intent, then the show should had been more aptly rated NC-16.

Singled ladies

Well you’ve got to admit, men in dresses are cheap sight gags and worthy of a snigger or two if you’re the kind who used to tape America’s Funniest Home Videos and play them at family gatherings,  but I thought in the spirit of family-friendly wholesomeness  it would have been more appropriate to rope in the Dim Sum Dollies for this skit. The trio has disappeared since the ‘Love Your Ride’ jingle-torture and are probably on indefinite hiatus from public service announcement jobs considering the fact that their boa-swishing and harmonised cooing did absolutely nothing to improve comfort or graciousness in trains. We even have to pay more for it now.

It probably didn’t matter who performs anyway because the script was a sheer waste of the gender-bending comedic talents of both Singh and En Lai, with both resorting to pitch changes and maniacal shrieking to amuse the crowd. And the problem with dolling up two men going over-the-top just to justify the extra weight of fake boobs and leaving one actual female actress in the cast is that it effectively renders the real woman invisible. As for rating, I thought slapping a NC-16 on cross-dressing was a tad harsh. Children are already familiar with the likes of Liang Po Po and Aunty Lucy on national TV, so a milder PG-13 would surely be enough.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 291 other followers