Folding paper ingots forbidden by some religions

From ‘Religion getting in the way of filial piety’, 22 March 2014, Voices, Today

(Evelyn Tan): My husband’s grandmother died recently at the age of 91. The last couple of years were difficult as she was bedridden and fading day by day….According to her wishes, the funeral arrangements followed Taoist tradition. This involved elaborate prayers, processions and folding thousands of paper ingots to send her on a comfortable journey to the afterlife. With that many offspring, one would have expected all hands on deck.

What materialised seemed to be a reflection of changing times and narrow beliefs. Several of her offspring have adopted other religions and refused to participate in any of the Taoist ceremonies, including the folding of paper ingots. I find this a strange phenomenon. Surely, what matters must be the wishes of the deceased, rather than the beliefs of the living?

As more Singaporeans become well-travelled, no one has qualms about visiting religious landmarks, such as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican and the Tiger’s Nest monastery in Bhutan. In fact, many plan to visit these landmarks. As we progress in this society, we must remain tolerant of all beliefs.

Using religion as an excuse to distance oneself from religious ceremonies for a loved one seems to be a practice of double standards and the start of an intolerant approach.

Although the writer did not specify what religion her uncooperative relatives belonged to, it’s likely to be Christianity,  in which a related funeral custom, the handling of joss sticks, is frowned upon by some practitioners.  Some refuse to even touch a bag of it as if it were poison. According to a certain pastor ‘Steven Wong’, holding joss sticks is a symbol of ancestral worship, and God explicitly forbids ‘a relationship with the spirits of the dead (Deuteronomy 18:9-14). He goes so far to call the practice  ‘demonic and occultic’, and makes you a bad, bad Christian.

Joss sticks aside, burning ‘hell money’ is also discouraged, for its purpose is to ‘bribe’ the departing spirits and keep them from descending into our realm and peek at us from behind the closet. Tough luck for dead Granny if her only Christian child refuses to send a paper iPad up to her in heaven, which makes her more likely to come down and haunt your dreams. A baptised ‘child of God’ is also prohibited from kneeling before a corpse, because it’s an act of demonic supplication. All this coming from a faith where you ‘eat’ the body and ‘drink’ the blood of Jesus Christ, channel gibberish in fits of ecstasy, and you carry around wooden cross talismans as protection against vampires.

The Deuteronomy text is specific on what constitutes an ‘abomination’ in the eyes of the Lord: Divination, enchanter, witch, charmer, consulter with familiar spirits, wizard, NECROMANCER. There’s no disclaimer on conducting rites as a ‘mark of respect’ for a dead human being rather than a wandering garden deity. As long as you oblige your funeral hosts with the simplest of tasks like burning incense or folding pieces of paper, you’re deemed to be engaging in evil hocus-pocus and black magic, like you’re part of a seance communicating with dead punters for Toto numbers. By that argument, Christians are also forbidden from believing in fairy godmothers, or watching clowns perform magic in front of terminally ill children.

Christians are free to visit other places of worship, of course, as long as they don’t attempt to communicate with other spirits and look like they’re worshipping another invisible heavenly being. So there’s no ‘double standard’ to speak of. But it’s not just others’ religious rites that Christians condemn as cult behaviour. They may even be a wet blanket at wedding banquets. Christian forum writer Steve Ngo experienced one of a Chinese couple where it was forbidden to shout ‘YUM SENG’ because conservative Christians considered it ‘paganistic’. Even the 12 animals in the zodiac are not spared from accusations of occultism and idolatry. One Christian writer says it’s not right to even wish your loved ones ‘GONG XI FA CAI’. My God, can you guys even wish upon a star? Whether you’re Christian or not, we engage in little acts of ‘unholy’ divination every single day. We buy ‘lucky numbers’ at the pools, we refrain from lying on the bed of the dearly departed, we throw bouquets at bridesmaids in a wedding, we shake a pair of dice longer thinking we’ll get a better roll, we throw coins in a well, we seal a love letter with a kiss. If all these are signs of devil worship, then by all means, I’d rather be Satan’s little imp than an obedient servant of a nitpicky God. Life would be so boring without fantasy and ‘black magic’.

Refusing to abide by superstitious traditions, unlike what the title of the letter suggests, isn’t so much an act of impious rebellion (The author makes no mention of the words ‘filial piety’), than being a stickler to indoctrination.  Just making the effort to turn up or stand before the altar in silence is already a decent sign of respect and gratitude and no one has the right to force you to burn incence or follow a monk around a coffin if you don’t want to, for whatever silly arcane reasons. But if you look beyond these superficial rituals, you’d see such family activities not just as netherwordly appeasement, but they serve as a form of social bonding, and if it’s in your benefit to play along even if your religion labels it as sacrilegious, then indulge your relatives just for the moment.  If your God is the loving God that He claims he is, he’d understand your intentions. Of course most Chinese Christians don’t go so far as to rubbish the ‘Year of the Horse’ or refuse to wear red over CNY because it’s a sign of sucking up to Cai Shen Ye, a pagan magical troll in the eyes of the Lord, but if you’re the kind who thinks folding paper ingots is a satanic ritual, then you should be at least consistent in your beliefs, like, burning your Harry Potter books and banning your kids from watching the Wizard of Oz.

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JEM mall using Feng Shui to reverse misfortune

From ‘Jem to reopen only when mall is risk-free’, 21 Sept 2013, article by Jessica Lim, ST

The boss of the development firm behind the Jem mall yesterday promised that it would reopen only when there is “no risk” of incidents like a burst pipe occurring again. It came as a team of experts flew in from Australia to assess damage at the beleaguered shopping centre – which is even considering hiring a fengshui master to revive its flagging fortunes.

Mr Steve McCann, group chief executive officer of Australian firm Land Lease, also refuted an accusation from MP Ang Wei Neng that his company may have taken short cuts in a rush to finish the mall, which was eventually opened four days late in June.

Calling the MP’s comment “unfortunate”, Mr McCann told The Straits Times in an exclusive interview: “We certainly do not put revenue ahead of safety.”

…Last month, the mall also made the news when three employees suffered burns in a deep fat fryer accident and a car went up in flames in its carpark.

He added: “It goes without saying that, (it is) unfortunate, but totally unrelated to the centre and quality of the asset.”

Following the collapse, MP Ang said he was ‘concerned that there was some rush to open the mall’ and that the builders ‘may have taken some short cuts’ (Collapse of ceiling: Jem closure worries shoppers, 20 Sept, ST). Though Lend Lease denies any accusation of doing a rushed job, the management should be faulted for bad planning from the very beginning, getting off to a shoddy start with a 4-day delay back in June due to ‘administrative issues’. In a 2011 MND press release on JEM’s website, the country’s third largest suburban mall was scheduled for completion in 2014.  But JEM isn’t the only building being erected in a jiffy these days. Condos, BTOs, offices and every other cookie-cutter mall are sprouting across the city like a mold infestation, and nobody notices when something catches fire, or walls collapse within them because they don’t name themselves after hard, precious stones.

I’ve passed through JEM just once, the self-proclaimed ‘CROWN JEWEL of the WEST’, and the recent incident would make any wary future shopper brace for broken slabs of concrete falling on their own crowns instead of window shopping. Designed to bring the retail buzz of Orchard Road to Jurong, it was built according to meet the requirements of the BCA Greenmark Platinum award, the country’s highest accolade for SUSTAINABILITY. Whatever that means. To most people who are unfamiliar with eco-jargon, a ‘sustainable’ design is something that doesn’t topple on your head. JEM Park consists of ‘green space and sky gardens’ across 3 levels, as part of a ’100% green replacement strategy’. In air-conditioned comfort. If you want a true ‘green’ design, you’d build a much cheaper attap longhouse on stilts instead, with the same risk of things falling on your face.

So what good can geomancy do for what seems to be a cursed shopping mall? In 2008, feng shui masters advised that the Singapore Flyer spin in the opposite direction to wheel in fresh prosperity and blow the ‘qi’ towards the financial heart rather than sucking it away. In December the same year, the icon was hit by an electrical fire, followed by a lightning strike in 2010. It’s also technically out of business as we speak. Of course the fengshui experts may explain away these mishaps as a price to pay for what the direction change really intended to do, which is fan fortune our way at its own expense.

The prime example of fengshui-focused design is none other than Suntec City Mall, which has its Fountain of Wealth and towers arranged like a human hand. Business started to suffer since 2010 because of collateral events like the NDP and YOG, and has just reopened recently after a $410 million facelift. Another national icon the Marina Bay Sands also invested in feng shui on the selection of opening dates, which could have explained the phenomenal success of the casinos to date, but apparently didn’t ward off people plummeting to their deaths from over 50 storeys.

MM Lee once famously derided Feng Shui as ‘utter rubbish’, and anyone with a skeptical, rational mind can understand why, yet both bigwigs at Lend Lease and MBS are First World Westerners who subscribe to such magical thinking. Flailing revenues and accidents are part and parcel of the natural progression of any retail structure, but I guess a little superstition wouldn’t hurt. I’m not an expert in the ancient pseudoscience, but I question how effective geomancy is compared to say, getting religious leaders from every faith down to pray for JEM’s structural integrity and the safety of its tenants and shoppers. It seemed to have brought down the spate of Bedok Reservoir drownings.

It would be interesting to see how JEM incorporates feng shui in its remedial action plan, though the consultation fees could be better spent on securing water pipes. A name change would be awkward at this juncture, even though JEM rhymes with ‘(caught in a ) JAM’. Maybe all the sharp pointy leaves as part of their green replacement strategy has something to do with it.

Postscript: Jem reopened on 2 Oct 2013, after the BCA certified it safe for humans and a fengshui consultant instructed that a trolley bay be removed at the Jurong Gateway entrance because it was ‘blocking the flow of energy through the entrance’ (Jem mall reopens after 2 week closure, 3 Oct 2013, ST). Take note, future mall builders, that your interiors must be flushed with energy to prevent walls from falling down.

Bidadari new town should be renamed ‘Sunshine estate’

From ‘S’poreans unfazed by Bidadari’s past’, 1 Sept 2013, article by Rachel Tan, Sunday Times

…Once the largest grave site in Singapore, the 18ha Bidadari Cemetery is making way for a new Housing Board town and private estates. However, many young Singaporeans are not aware of its history. From a group of around 20 people in their 20s and 30s that The Sunday Times spoke to, only half knew it was a burial ground.

…Mr Gan Ying Kiat, 30, was looking to move to the Bidadari area with his wife. “I’m not bothered by its cemetery history,” he said. “I’m aware that other housing areas like Bishan were also cemeteries.

…Bidadari – meaning “angel” or “fairy” in Malay – had sections for Muslims, Hindus, Singhalese and Christians but burials ended there in 1972. Towns such as Bishan, Toa Payoh and parts of Bukit Timah were also cemeteries.

…Businesswoman Eunice Tan believes it will take a lot of incentives to entice people to live on a former graveyard. The 60-year-old said: “Frankly, I wouldn’t like to live on such burial grounds unless the prices and amenities are extremely attractive, especially for first-time buyers.”

She even proposed alternative names for the new development – including “Happy Estate” and “Sunshine Estate”.

Ms Sitifazilah Perey had similar sentiments. She wrote on Facebook: “Since there are a significant number of superstitious Singaporeans, it is better to change the name.”

Bishan today is more renown for an elite institution, a congested MRT interchange and an iconic park than a place where dead bodies were left to rot. It’s also known for maisonettes with sky-high prices more terrifying than the ghost stories we used to tell about the last train on the MRT line, or creepy tales about the said prestigious school itself. Not that supernatural urban legends or dug up skeletons will stop people from sending their children to RI, or making Bishan their home (because of wanting to send their children to RI).

Formerly the graveyard known as ‘Pek San Teng’, Bishan was renamed to its Hanyu Pinyin version as part of a $700 million facelift with the original intention of housing ‘LOWER and MIDDLE income groups’. Haunted or not, that didn’t stop ‘superstitious Singaporeans’ from flocking to what was touted as a ‘spanking new’, ‘state of the art HDB‘. Nobody cared if Kampung San Teng used to be a gangster hideout; Bishan was the future then and remains popular now, even if property prices continue to feel like bloody extortion.

Bidadari, a bird naturalist and cyclist haven, looks set to follow in Bishan’s footsteps, yet another relentless drive to turn our hallowed grounds into trendy estates, unabashed urban sacrilege for the sake of progress. History tells us that the government may tweak its name to help people forget about wandering spirits, but one shouldn’t patronise its morbid past by calling it the schmaltzy ‘Sunshine estate’, which sounds more like a retirement hub than an up-and-coming model for sustainable living.

I doubt they would turn a Malay word into Hanyu Pinyin either, because there’s no difference between ‘Bi Da Da Li’ and ‘Bidadari’. My only reservation with the sing-song ‘Bidadari’ is its inconvenient phonetics which encourages tongue-twisters, like ‘Hey Dar, I bid for Bidadari BTO already!’, and that it sounds like a lyric in a 90′s techno song . I have to admit I also typo-ed ‘Bididari’ and ‘Bidadiri’ while writing this post.  Who knows, there may be a competition for such things. How about ‘Vernon’ after the nearby columbarium? ‘Woodley’ as a hybrid of Bartley and Woodleigh (both neighbouring MRT stations)? Or Angelville?

Whatever it’s called, there will be urban legends, legends that our kids will remember more than what Bidadari actually once was.  But it’s not just the ghost of long-haired women in white that we should be worried about, but the ghost of ecological damage coming back to haunt us. Nobody cared about exotic birds or variable squirrels when Bishan was developed, and if voices against environmental holocaust go ignored this time, Bidadari, like Bishan, will within 30 years turn from promising ‘urban oasis’ to a cookie-cutter HDB town with smatterings of sterile, forced greenery where the only link it has with its cemetery past would be how devoid of a soul it is.

Compassvale Ancilla Latin for ‘girl servant’ or ‘sea snails’

From ‘Matilda Portico? HDB gets into the name game’, 19 May 2013, article by Daryl Chin, Sunday Times

A portico is a columned walkway that originated in ancient Greece. Nautilus is a shellfish and the name of Captain Nemo’s submarine in the Jules Verne classic 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. What about ancilla? It does not exist even in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, but is said to have a Latin origin and apparently means girl servant, or sea snails.

…Among the latest Build-To-Order (BTO) projects announced in March this year was one in Punggol called Matilda Portico. Compassvale Ancilla in Sengkang Central and the Nautilus in Punggol are the other names the HDB has come up with in recent years. Others include Waterway Sunbeam, Punggol Spectra, The Periwinkle, Edgedale Green and The Coris.

These tongue-twisters may be a bane to non-English-speaking elderly folk and taxi drivers, but the HDB says it is all part of a long- term branding policy, which it hopes creates a special identity and builds a sense of community among residents. “The objective was to create local identities that residents can relate to and foster neighbourliness,” said a spokesman for HDB.

…The HDB said its guiding principles for names include the location of the estate, special design features and any interesting historical or cultural link. As much as possible, HDB would also choose names that are distinct from nearby developments to avoid confusion.

…The HDB even has a theme going for studio apartment projects, which are meant to provide seniors with affordable housing. All have the word “golden” in the first part of their names to indicate graceful ageing. The second part can come from local plants or spices, like Golden Saffron in Woodlands.

*Video stills from Stomp/Wah Banana.

HDB has been ripping off condo concepts for BTO branding for years, and since most words containing ‘water’ in them have already been taken, why not a name that sounds like a high-end Italian bakery? Matilda Portico is supposedly inspired by the nearby Matilda House, an abandoned and the only bungalow left standing in Punggol which as of 2012 has been converted to a clubhouse for a condo that calls itself A TREASURE TROVE . Imagine asking a taxi uncle to take you to ‘A Treasure Trove’. He’d probably ask you if you have a wooden leg and a parrot on your shoulder.

And what an ‘interesting historical link’ this Matilda House is, especially if you’re the superstitious sort. ‘Matilda’ was the mother of an Irish businessman named Alexander Cashin, who built the house in her honour in 1902. Alexander’s father, Joseph, was a 19th century expat who made his fortune out of OPIUM farms. Also known as Istana Menanti (The Waiting Palace), rumour has it that it’s HAUNTED and that several construction workers were killed mysteriously while trying to demolish it. In fact, so renown is its spookiness that it is one of the stopovers of the Singapore Spooky Tour organised by the Asia Paranormal Investigators, advertised as the ‘most haunted home in the city’. With the recent makeover, the only thing scary about Matilda today are the prices of the condos and ‘atas’ BTO flats surrounding it. With a name like Portico, I’d expect the facade of a Roman bathhouse at the very least.

Punggol Amityville.

‘Ancilla’, on the other hand, has as much cultural or historical relevance as naming another BTO after a fabled submarine. A quick Google tells us that it indeed refers to a genus of sea snails, while in Latin it also means maid, or girl-slave. I don’t know about the natural history of sea snails in Punggol or whether they have been eaten to extinction thanks to Pungool Seafood, but maids we have aplenty. If you Google IMAGE ‘Ancilla’, however, you don’t see gastropods or slaves, but THIS:

Ancilla, Playboy model

Ancilla, Playboy model

Goodness, HDB has unwittingly named one of its projects after a nude model. Let’s hope it turns out to be as sexy as it sounds. But remember, residents of Ancilla, it’s not pronounced AHN-SEE-LA, but AHN-KEE-LA (though both will confuse taxi drivers nonetheless). I bet some smart-alecks will attempt to say it like AHN-CHI-LA, as in CHINCHILLA. Those in the medical field will make nerdy jokes about how close it sounds to ‘axilla’, or ARMPIT. Meanwhile I would suggest HDB consult a marine biologist before giving BTOs such fishy names.

So it’s not just old people or taxi uncles who get confused about BTO and condo names, it’s the people who LIVE in these buildings themselves. Even deceptively simple words can have different interpretations, like Fernvale LEA: (LEE or LE-A). Don’t even get me started on D’Nest. You have BTO names which are a mouthful like WATERWAY SUNBEAM (not to be confused with Waterway Sundew),  or named after one of the 7 sins (Keat Hong Pride), a Wonder Woman accessory (Corporation Tiara), or a Superman accessory (Compassvale Cape). Not to mention frustrating clones like Tampines GreenTerrace, GreenForest and Greenleaf. All without the spacing in between. Like, you know, atreasuretrove. Kids, don’t try this in school.

There is also the trend of naming studio apartment for seniors with the word ‘Golden’ in them. I’m sure old folks can handle numbers and traditional names like ‘Kim Keat’ and ‘Choa Chu Kang’ easily, but forcing them to say ‘Golden Saffron’, ‘Golden Clover’ or ‘Golden KISMIS‘ is a form of elderly abuse. There’s even a ‘Golden DAISY’ which sounds more like a florist in People’s Park Complex than a home. What if they get lost and need help finding their way home but can’t tell us where they live? What if taxi drivers and paramedics end up at Golden Mile or Golden Village cinema instead? In any case, ‘golden’ is passe. Seniors now belong to the ‘silver’ generation. So how about Silver Crest, Silver Hills, Silvervale or Silver Waves? Wait, scrap the last one, that sounds too much like a tsunami.

Satanic soldier having sex with 11 year old cousin

From ‘Soldier jailed for sex with two minors; told one minor that he was a Satanist’, 12 March 2013, article by Elena Chong, ST.

A 21-year-old army regular was jailed for 20 months on Tuesday for having sex with two minors. Neither the accused nor the two girls, then aged 15 and 11, can be named as there is a gag order. A district court heard that he was initially given a 12-month conditional warning for having sex with his girlfriend, aged 15, at his home in November 2008. He was then 17. The girl, now 19, became pregnant and underwent an abortion.

He breached the condition of the warning to remain crime-free for the next 12 months by committing similar offences. This time, he preyed on his 11-year-old cousin. Claiming that he was a “Satanist”, he told her in October 2009 that since she was the first person to touch him, she must have sex with him or else “Satan” would “come after her”.

The girl became disturbed and later on, began to believe him as she started seeing “figures” in her bedroom. She was often scolded by her mother and she attributed the incidents of “bad luck” to the fact that she did not have sex with the accused.

Satanism is one way to use alleged powers of the occult to frighten gullible girls into sex, but the Horned One and the blood rituals committed in his honour have gone out of fashion in recent decades, which makes the victim’s fear of the Prince of Darkness rather surprising. Telling a kid horrific stories about Satan these days is as good as wriggling your fingers in a creepy fashion and summoning the Boogeyman. Parents no longer use scare tactics to send children to bed or ‘be good..or else’, when sometimes the threat of imaginary monsters may be more effective than a stern wagging finger and ‘rationalising’ with a brat who refuses to let go of your iPad.

There seems to be a trend of boys taking liberties with evil deities to deceive innocent girls. A certain ‘John’ fell into a trance in order to make girls succumb as he channeled Yan Luo Wang, the Chinese God of Hell back in 2011. Just earlier this month, Simon Wong Choy Chuan pretended to be possessed by ghosts whilst chanting and speaking in a different voice, calling himself ‘Gasura’, which sounds more like Godzilla’s bumbling arch nemesis than an embodiment of pure evil. For his theatrics he got 5 girls to submit to him, his hisses, fits and sputters probably more convincing than any of the professional actors on Channel 5′s Incredible Tales. But even blessed angels and saints aren’t spared from lecherous pretenders. You have fake monks ripping you off your ‘donations’ and priests touching boys where they shouldn’t be touching. If drawing inspiration from the pits of hell doesn’t work, there’s always the other side of the ‘supernatural’ to turn to.

The ‘medium con’ was first brought into public awareness by the shocking trial of serial rapist-killer Adrian Lim, who was an ‘ardent believer of the goddess Kali’. In 1983, he related to the courts how he SOMERSAULTED and rolled to the front of an altar, mimicking the ‘voice of an old man’. But it’s not just playing a vessel for spirit possession that makes people piss their pants. Conversely, you may trick someone into sex by convincing her that she herself is the one who needs a special brand of ‘exorcism’, taking ‘sexual healing’ to gruesome extremes. Lying alone is useless without a little persuasion, authority, plenty of charisma, and perhaps some gravity defying acrobatics for authenticity. You also have to choose your avatar wisely. It would be embarrassing to channel Hades, mythic Ruler of the Underworld and get a blank stare instead of reluctant undressing.

As customary as it is to symphatise with any victim of such a ruse, you’d have to wonder what good a little common sense and skepticism could do to save a child, or even an ADULT for that matter, from trouble. We teach our kids how to solve complex Maths problems but fail in our duty to protect them from malicious superstition or predators. Even if you’re the sort to be fooled by eyeball rolling and scary gibberish, at least ask yourself what our army is doing letting these wild, incestuous Satanists serve the country, what with their blood rite nonsense and heavy metal music and all. Let’s see what the Dark Lord has in store in return for this follower desecrating a nubile and blood relative like a good Satanist should. A hot tub in hell would be well deserved.

Chinatown snake sculpture reminds people of death

From ‘Good designs are sensitive to cultural norms’, 19 Jan 2013, ST Forum

(Dr Tam Chen Hee): I READ with interest the report (“Chinatown snake sculptures may slither into S’pore record books”; Wednesday) on the negative feedback some Chinatown residents gave about snake decorations in the area.

One cardinal rule of good design is that the design must be in keeping, rather than in conflict, with the implicit norms and cultural understanding of the local community and/or habitat. Hence, some research and understanding of the local customs and heritage should have been done, and some thoughtful consideration exercised when deciding to introduce avant garde ideas (which are clearly to be welcomed but need to be sensitively and creatively tailored to the local context).

The students were trying to be creative, which is good, yet they also need to be taught to create sensitively and with care to local knowledge. This will serve them well when they design for overseas markets. The Chinese, even the Peranakans, avoid sharp edges (for instance, a round dining table is preferred) and indeed, the cubic lantern boxes in the snake sculpture (above right) do remind the older generation of Chinese of funereal objects.

Another lesson from this episode is that good designers should always look out for good examples by others. In the report, one student said that as the snake is symbolically ambiguous, unlike the dragon, it is harder to design decorations appropriate to it.

I saw one good snake design in Taiwan recently – snakes circling around pillars (showing movement and vitality) and looking skywards with their jaws open, spewing golden showers of coins for the new year or cherry blossoms for new growth. I hope the students have learnt something useful from this and take the well-intended criticism in their stride, so they can better themselves next time.

8-bit snake

8-bit snake

In an earlier feature on the potentially record-breaking snake design, the SUTD students were told by elderly folks that they didn’t like to have ‘snakes all over the place’. I wonder how they would feel if it weren’t the Year of the Snake but the RAT instead. Then again, you already see live rats any time of the year in Chinatown, not just during CNY. I’m no expert in art and crafts but the boxy sculpture looks like it was inspired by an 8-bit Nintendo game. Giving the snake a ‘pixellated’ look may nullify the primal fear we all have of a slithery mythological creature that has inspired centuries of dark villainy, sorcery and Samuel L Jackson swear words. But if you overdo it and give the fearsome Serpent a smiley face like the other hovering Chinatown snake, you risk having people mistaking it for an overgrown flying tadpole, or a happy Sperm deity. It’s a Chinese Zodiac icon, not a Japanese sex festival mascot. Even the resident Pokemon reptiles Ekans and Arbok look more terrifying than this.

La Mamba

I don’t know about the Taiwanese Snake, but it sounds like a rip-off of the Caduceus, the symbol of the medical profession. Entwining pillars may signify ‘movement and vitality’, but that’s also the way the reptile suffocates its prey. More like ‘torture and death’, especially if you’re at the receiving end of a snaky cuddle.

Not one to follow customs or shy away from taboos even though I’m a Snake Baby myself, I’m not sure if traditional Chinese refrain from sharp lines or using sharp objects only during auspicious festivities or run for the hills (not mountains, these have jagged edges) every single time we sit at a square jutting table as the writer suggests. In spring cleaning rituals, the use of sharp objects like scissors may ‘cut off’ your fortune. But I’m not aware if there’s a taboo over dining tables, boxes or HDTVs, though some Chinese may take offence towards PLANTS. In 2011, a pair of squabbling neighbours were deflecting bad luck off each other with curtain hooks and pointy leaf blades. Guess I should start checking on my neighbours’ flowers to make sure the thorns aren’t facing my doorway.  That explains the sharp pain in my skull every time I step out for work. I should also avoid walking behind people with earrings. Damn you plants and jewellery!

This fear of edges explains why wedding banquet tables are round but I haven’t seen any couple cut the cake with a truncheon (rather than a knife), signed off their marriage certs with thumbprints instead of pens, nor has anyone banished forks or bony fish from the dinner package. In fact, I don’t think one can even live without sharp edges or objects unless you live in a ballpit. As for lanterns, they have been used as skyborne vessels for well-wishes and good fortune too, not just to light up a trail for visiting spirits at a wake, something I’m sure the writer should know having visited Taiwan. But wait, maybe there IS one thing with sharp edges that every married adult should avoid during the New Year: ANG POWs. Those dreaded things can give you the most gruesome papercuts other than burning holes in your pocket and can be used in place of Ninja throwing stars. If this superstition is to be applied across the board I think we should do away not just with the scissors and other pokey things, but also over-crisp 2-dollar notes, red packets, expensive bak kwa, and give out coins, balloons and pineapple tarts instead.

Maids adding bodily fluids into food

From ‘Maid charged with stirring menstrual blood into employer’s coffee’, 22 May 2012, article by Alvina Soh,  Channel News Asia

An Indonesian domestic worker was charged on Tuesday with adding her menstrual blood into her employer’s coffee cup. 24-year-old Jumiah allegedly committed the act at a residential flat early in the morning on 31 August last year.

For mischief, she could be jailed up to a year and fined.  Her case will be mentioned next week.

Sometimes it’s better to get your own damned coffee. At first glance Jumiah may be trying to get herself sacked, taking revenge against an unreasonable employer or just severely absent minded. Chances are she was taking the advice of a bomoh, that by tainting her employer with her endometrial secretions, relations would improve by some form of devilish possession. If the intention was to charm the drinker with her menses, then it’s not so much ‘mischief’ as a desperate, deluded faith in ‘black magic ‘. Yet the same disgust towards eating or drinking womb remnants doesn’t apply to local women eating placentas for youthful skin.

Cannibalising a part of another human as transference of one’s ‘essence’ is a superstition as ancient as there have been shamans and broomsticks, such as  drinking your sworn brother’s blood in a secret society initiation ritual. Christians eat a piece of their Lord and drink his blood all the time. For all its symbolic and religious associations, (menses) blood isn’t the only bodily discharge that have been used against employers. In 2009, Indonesian maid Sri Aryati added urine into drinking water in a kettle and jug. In Hong Kong, another Indonesian maid put her own urine in milk to feed a baby, with the belief that she should have ‘greater influence’ over the child by bonding through her pee. Between the two bodily fluids, urine is probably less hazardous, though I’d imagine to be equally unpalatable.

Real ‘mischief’, or even ‘attempted murder’,  occurs when maids trick owners into consuming window-cleaning solutions, mix detergent into milk powder to feed babies or switch shampoo and conditioner with household bleach. The malicious (forced) feeding of inedibles  and unmentionables goes both ways, with several instances of maids being abused by employers and forced to EAT faeces (Granny accused of making maid eat faeces, 11 April 2003, ST) or drink urine, with some bullies dishing out the worst possible humiliation by force-feeding animal dung (Pair accused of forcing maid to eat dog faeces, 19 Sept 1997, ST). If I were ever tortured and forced to choose between a menses-soaked teabag and a piece of poo, I would settle for some period-infused Earl bloody Grey in a second.

Elder-care centres bring more deaths

From ‘Woodlands residents worry elder-care centres in estate may mean more deaths’, 3 Feb 2012, article in asiaone.com

Residents of two Woodlands HDB blocks are worried that building an elder-care centre at their void decks may mean more deaths in the area.

Their concern comes on the heels of the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) plans to build an elder-care centre at the void decks of Blocks 860 and 861 at Woodlands Street 83.

…Upset residents from Blk 861 later sent a petition to Sembawang GRC Member of Parliament Ellen Lee voicing their opposition to the plans.

They gave eight reasons for opposing the plan, one of which was that there are not many elderly people living in the two blocks, as well as the reasons given above.

Foreseeing myself aging into a cranky old man who would rather play with jigsaw puzzles alone than burst into karaoke chorus with other old folk, I wouldn’t frequent a void deck elder-care centre myself when I qualify to use one. But to deny others of the opportunity to engage in stimulating social activities like group knitting  over ‘inauspiciousness’, when the same  people are likely to tolerate funerals in their void decks, is absurd. It’s ageism at work when the younger lot of a community do not treat our elders with the customary air of respect, but as a harbinger of death, viewing an elder-care corner not as a sanctuary from an otherwise boring and neglected existence, but a blotch on property value like a wasp’s nest in one’s basement. In fact, I’d be worried about deaths if there were no old people sitting around void decks, because otherwise they’d be at home  staring at walls, slowly emitting the smell of death and found only days after they have expired.

This obsession with all things cursed plagued Woodlands residents last year as well, with residents petitioning to replace a water tank in which a maid was murdered, in fear of consuming ‘blood water’.  Superstitions aside, it’s interesting how such facilities, which really serve as lounges for old people, have been euphemised since the idea was first conceived in the late seventies when void decks came into existence. In 1980, it was called a ‘community home for the AGED’, catering to the ‘destitute’ OLD FOLK with no one to care for them. Of course no one uses the word ‘aged’ anymore in the era of Botox and ‘active aging’, where our seniors are obliged to keep their minds active, continue to play a part in society and forget that they are all shrivelled up, wrinkly, wear dentures and incontinence pads, but can still boogie as well, if not better, than you. Today, people use ‘aged’ only on people who are a few days away from corpse status. The fact is using nice terms won’t make them look any less younger or die later, nor does it make ageing any more pleasurable or less inevitable.

Later in the eighties, ‘homes’ became ‘senior citizen clubs’, which means it’s not just a secure holding area for the elderly anymore, but a place with actual ‘activities’, of which you are a valued ‘member’ of the community. The first ‘day-care’ centre as we know it today was known as the ‘Henderson SOCIAL centre for Senior Citizens’, with its own mini-gym of sorts. In 2000, day-care centres adopted ‘resort styles’ with bingo and mahjong to entertain seniors. I wouldn’t be surprised if they serve up alcohol-free Mai Thais as a welcome drink. The authorities weren’t satisfied with these centres just being satellites of old folk’s homes or rehab centres anymore. With all the fancy naming and sprucing going on, these oldies better HAVE FUN and MAKE FRIENDS while at it. Perhaps that’s the whole point, with a name like ‘elder-care’ and ‘senior’s club’, most of us would ASSUME that our old folks are well taken care of and don’t need our pampering and attention anymore.

Not all’s gloom and doom for senior citizens’ corners these days, for society has imparted on the arthritic and grey-haired an aura of upbeat optimism, an unshakable determination to live their silver years to the fullest, and never has this manufactured, escapist denial of death and loneliness been more prevalent as it is  today. Which is fine by the way, and I may even embrace the illusion when my time comes, though no matter how much one transforms void decks into paradises on Earth as a psychic substitute for sedatives and real family, it wouldn’t soothe the pain of having to face inflated medical and hospitalisation bills, a misery which all the bingo, karaoke and rubber ball squeezing in the world can do nothing about.

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!

Dragon babies are ‘incapable of hypocricy’

From ‘Enter the dragon babies’, article by Judith Tan, 8 Jan 2012, Sunday Times

Claris Ong and Alexandra Chin, both 11 years old, are ‘Dragon babies’….The girls are outstanding by virtue of being very driven and independent – both qualities true to the nature of those born under that Chinese zodiac sign.

…Since ancient times, the Chinese have always thought a ‘Dragon child’ would bring luck to the family. This is because dragons symbolise traits such as dominance and ambition. According to geomancers, ‘Dragon children’ prefer to live by their own rules and, if left to their own devices, are usually successful.

They are also said to be passionate, driven, unafraid of challenges, and willing to take risks. But this same passion and enthusiasm can also leave ‘Dragons’ feeling exhausted and even unfulfilled. On the plus side, they are said to be sincere and incapable of hypocrisy. They can also be very persuasive, with an ability to wear down resistance through their intuitive and diplomatic nature. But they are also known to be very sensitive, sometimes cutting and stubborn, or even wilful and vindictive.

…The last Dragon Year in 2000 saw more than 46,000 births – up from an average 42,000 live births in 1999 and 2001. And in 1988, there were 52,957 babies born here, compared with 43,616 in 1987 and 47,669 in 1989.

There’s little tolerance  for science and logic when it comes to grounded tradition and mythology. It’s unlikely that people born in the Year of the Dragon are necessarily more successful or driven than people born in any other year, and anyone embarking on such a study would face a daunting task, not to mention suffer brickbats from geomancers whose very livelihood depends on telling Dragon baby parents what they’d love to hear. Of course any birth spike is music to our government’s ears, even if this was borne out of unrealistic expectations resulting in increased competition from maternity beds to nursery, school and job placings. It would help if Dragon baby parents were Dragons themselves to give their kids a headstart, assuming that all the character traits are true. So even if by celestial order Dragon babies are genetically programmed to lead by example and boss other zodiac animals around, the environmental pressure would put the NURTURE element of the ‘nature vs nurture’ argument to the ultimate test.

The opposite to the Dragon Baby boom effect is the Year of the Tiger, which saw dips in births over the past 3 Tiger years.  Which is strange since the attributes that lead to a Tiger baby’s success are similar to those of a Dragon. It’s also sexist to think less favourably of a Tiger woman, stereotyped as being fierce and wilful, than a Tiger Man, who’s courageous and dominating and would have been indistinguishable from the stereotype of his Dragon counterpart. Marriages are also down during Tiger years, and with our already dismal fertility rate, the last thing we’ll need is horoscope predictions turning into self-fulfilling prophecies. Our PM (A dragon himself) made a plea to parents to act normal during the inauspicious Tiger year in 2010, and not ‘cling on to superstitions’, but will probably remain silent about the exaggerated faith placed on Dragon children this CNY, no thanks to ST celebrating living proof of clever Dragon children and enticing gullible couples to rush headlong into marriage or birth without considering more practical issues like whether they have a roof over their head or not.

If you read horoscopes closely, you’ll realise how inconsistent and vague their personality attributes are, and often you’d find a bit of yourself in every zodiac animal, though we’re usually not interested in what other horoscopes have to say. It’s a classic mind-reading trick, relying on our tendency to agree furiously with one thing that speaks true of ourselves and forgetting about the others that don’t. In the 1950′s, a Dragon was considered ‘benevolent and lovable‘ and it would be a blessing to marry one. Today’s dragons can be too sensitive, wilful or even vindictive, though it doesn’t really matter if the shortcomings of a dragon change from one era to another. It’s still a DRAGON after all, worshipped to demigod status by Emperors of centuries past.

If you’re aiming to debunk such superstitious hokum, the first parameter that you may want to examine is how many gifted leaders out there actually belong to the Dragon cohort, in proportion to all other animals in the zodiac. Using this helpful Wiki on Dragon birthdates, I carried out a premonitory survey of my own, using prominent Chinese Singaporean figures (politicians mainly) as a very narrow gauge of what we define as success:

Past and president PMs, presidents

  • LEE HSIEN LOONG, PM of SINGAPORE (10 Feb 1952, WATER dragon). Even his name has a dragon character in it, adding to the divine mystique of his auspicious birth. Incidentally his father Lee Kuan Yew, born in Sept 1923 (PIG), wasn’t. Tony Tan Keng Yam, the current president of Singapore, missed the Dragon year by a SINGLE DAY (7 Feb 1940). Neither are Goh Chok Tong (1941, SNAKE), Ong Teng Cheong (1936) or Wee Kim Wee (1915).

Past and present ministers/MPs/politicians

  • KHAW BOON WAN, National Development Minister (8 Dec 1952), TAN CHENG BOCK, ex MP and presidential candidate (26 April 1940). But not George Yeo (1954), DPM Teo Chee Hean (1954),  Chee Soon Juan (1962), Tan Jee Say (1954), WP MP Chen Show Mao (1961) or Wong Kan Seng (1946).

Past and present women ministers/MPs/politicians

  • GRACE FU, Senior Minister of State (29 March 1964, WOOD dragon) This dragon lady  has been heckled recently for her comments on ministerial pay cuts. Firebrand Nicole Seah of NSP (1986) isn’t one, nor is Tin Pei Ling (1983), Lee Bee Wah (1960), late wife of LKY Kwa Gek Choo (1920), WP MP Sylvia Lim, or prolific author and critic Catherine Lim (1942).

Tycoons

  • KHOO TECK PUAT (13 Jan 1917)
  • NG TENG FONG (Unconfirmed, but he was born in  1928, a dragon year)

Miscellaneous celebrities who make unlikely dragons

  • STEVEN LIM, eyebrow stylist, dancer, all round entertainer (30 Aug 1976, FIRE DRAGON) and HENRY ‘ALAMAK’ THIA (25 Feb 1952, same birthday month as PM Lee).

Without going into formal statistics I think it’s quite fair to say that there’s nothing special about Dragon babies and any Dragon baby that emerges as the leader of a generation or a multi-billionaire is pure coincidence and any success alluded to one’s date of birth suffers from post-hoc fallacious reasoning, conveniently ignoring all the other little dragons who fail to live up to their parent’s expectations, as well as other factors accounting for one’s fortune. Of course if a dragon happens to fail miserably in life or becomes a YouTube laughing stock, then feng shui masters would put the blame on the actual DATE of birth, if not the time you emerged from your mother’s womb down to the millisecond.

It’s worth exploring, however, if the very selective pressure of dealing with the dragon baby boomers in school or work is itself a factor in driving dragons to excel, not so much because they’re born in a certain way, but because of a consequence of a belief in them performing in a certain way. Note that among all the zodiac animals, the Dragon is the only one that exists only as a figment of our imagination. The media getting all pumped up celebrating brilliant children who SO HAPPEN to be Dragon babies is perpetuating a deep-seated symptom of magical thinking, just like the magical creature behind it. You won’t see the same coverage for RAT babies, that’s for sure.

Postscript: It turns out that there has been a misconception of what makes a Dragon baby. According to a 29 Jan 2012 Sunday Times article, you’re not a Dragon baby this year until the ‘Li Chun’, or start of Spring festival, on Feb 4. AT 1824 HOURS. Which means there are people who’ve been associated with dragons, embellished with all the positive traits of dragons, but are actually RABBITS. This, of course, simply disproves the myth of zodiac signs influencing character.  Also thanks to ‘CY’ for pointing out that Tony Tan is in fact a dragon.

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