Thursday, March 31, 2011

A murtabak story

With the buzz still going on about that picture going round of a maid carrying an NSman's backpack for him as he presumably heads back to his camp, I am reminded of my "brief stint" as a supposed bag carrier.

Many years ago, soon after I joined an organisation, I was told to accompany the director to a conference in Wellington, New Zealand.

"Ah, you are the bag carrier," an old hand told me. Having worked mostly in jeans-are-okay setups until then, I was clueless about what that meant but made a note of it.

For sure, after meeting my director at Changi Airport (his bags were already checked in), I duly settled into cattle class aboard the plane and did not see him again until we landed in Wellington. People were there anyway to help him with his luggage and it was looking like I had no job as a bag carrier! 

We sat together during the conference sessions and he was busy taking notes. I didn't do much of that since the issues covered were stuff I was familiar with and, anyway, no new insights were being offered by the speakers. About the only chance I had of being helpful was to answer some questions he had about some points made by the presenters.

As for meetings with officials, again, there were people fussing about and making the arrangements, so I had little to do in that area too.

One evening, there was no dinner appointment scheduled for us -- ie, free time! -- so I took the opportunity to wander along the streets of what really is a small town. I saw an eatery that sold murtabak. A change from the dreary conference meals! So I asked for a takeaway order which, when ready, I hurried to my hotel room to feast on.

Back at the hotel, sitting in the lobby was my director. The aroma of my murtabak was unmistakable (if you are Singaporean, that is) and he inquired what was the packet in my plastic bag.

I was excited about my find and eagerly told him, yes, he can get murtabak just a short distance away from the hotel. Then I went up to my room to eat my dinner. I was that gondu!

So, nowadays, whenever I retell this story to family (and some friends). they "roll their eyes and sigh" and teasingly tell me what a fool I was! (My then director is now an even bigger shot).

But what would I have done if I could turn back the clock? Exactly what I did then. Guess I'm not cut out to be a bag carrier.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A letter, from one whose parent are hawkers

This response in Today, by one Huang Lifen, whose parents are hawkers, is posted below ("The dirty world of hawker stall rentals", Today, 30 March):

"I would like to thank Eileen Tan Chwee Lin [I had put up excerpts of her letter on this blog yesterday] for speaking up on behalf of all hawkers.

I could not agree with her more. My parents are hawkers and I have seen them toil long hours just to pay the rent on their stall.

The whole system is flawed. The National Environment Agency (NEA) leases out hawker stalls based on the highest bids, which most of the time are a reasonable $1,200 to $2,400 a month depending on location.

But what actually happens is that the successful bidder, instead of operating the stalls themselve, rents them out.

For most of the stalls my parents have been operating over the years, they are the second or even third tier sub-lessees -- they rent from one person who in turn leases the stall from another person who has successfully bid for the stall.

When the government gives rebates to hawker stall holders, the savings are not passed on to the actual operators but pocketed by the successful bidder.

When a hawker centre closes for cleaning or upgrading, the NEA offers rebates on the stall rentals to help hawkers tide over the period they are unable to operate -- but this money, too, is pocketed by the main lessee.

Even more absurd is that some successful bidders try to resell the right to operate the stall for $10,000 (or more, depending on location), just like COEs for cars.

The offenders, when caught, are fined. But I think this is hardly a deterrent, as these people sometimes have more than one stall earning rental profit and raids are too infrequent to impact their profits.

I think a more effective deterrent would be to confiscate their stall and bar them from renting one again.

This is in the interest of the general public who eat out too. I strongly urge the authorities to stop this kind of profiteering before our fishball noodles and laksa become $10 per serving."           

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A ruckus over a rucksack?

For today, I just want to excerpt and comment on letters that caught my eye in ST and Today:

1) First one is a letter in Today (29 March) headlined "Was bra ad appropriate?". The writer felt that an explicit "one-minute" ad for a brand of  maximizer bra shown during a Mandarin TV programme on Channel 8 that began at 10.45pm on a weeknight was inappropriate.

She was "appalled" to see shots of women slowly unzipping their tops and close-ups of cleavage. She wondered how "such an advertisement made its way to a programme aired at a family viewing hour".

Today obviously contacted its parent company, MediaCorp, and here is the latter's interesting reply on the same day and on the same page, as excerpted:

"The said 30-second advertisement was aired at 10.45pm, past the family-viewing time of 6am to 10pm [in compliance with the regulatory authority's ruling]".

So, there you have it, folks. Singapore's official family-viewing time is from 6am to 10pm. To put it in Singlish, if your kids watch TV before 6am and after 10pm, that's your pasar!

MediaCorp then tried to be helpful -- on behalf of the advertiser -- with regards to the way the "said 30-second advertisement" was done. It said: "The treatment of the advertisement is cheeky and, in our opinion, did not contain any sexual innuendos."

So, again, there you have it. Bra advertisers now know that they are safe if they show shots of women slowly unzipping their tops and close-ups of cleavage. Only after 10pm, of course. And presumably before 6am.

2) Also in Today (29 March) is a very pertinent point made by another writer in her letter headlined "What about not raising rents". She notes that MPs were "going around hawker centres and coffeeshops urging stallholders to be part of the Retail Watch Group by making them promise to maintain their prices". She added: "The small profits of these food sellers would have been squeezed by higher ingredient prices and higher rents. Shouldn't the MPs look at dealing with the increased cost upstream by urging landlords not to raise rents or by getting wholesalers to similarly pledge not to increase their prices?"

3) The Straits Times (29 March) published two letters that commented on a picture story the newspaper ran yesterday ("He's in the army... but she has the backpack") which showed a fit-looking NSman in uniform walking ahead and what looks like a diminutive maid (although the story merely said "woman") carrying his military-issue backpack trailing behind.

One writer commended the SAF for promising to look into the matter, adding that the "stint in the army is to toughen the individual and turn them from boys to men, and into soldiers".

The other writer made the seemingly valid point that the photographer should have stopped the soldier and asked him why he needed a helper to carry his backpack.

Netizens, it seems, have already weighed in.

I smell a rat in the photo, which was sent to ST's STOMP, the paper's citizen journalism platform. I suspect it was a posed shot, sent to ST to "cho luan" (create a controversy). Let's see if I'm right.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Don't let hackers make a 'monkey' out of you

I decided to Google for "silly passwords" and found a multitude of links. Just taking one example, I found it had a list of what it claimed are the 10 silliest passwords of all time. They are:

1) 123456. Yes, since most passwords need to have six characters... I suppose variations would be abcdef, uvwxyz, etc.

2) abc123. This one is thought up because the advice is given to make the password more secure by making it "alpha-numeric" ie having a combination of letters and numbers.

3) charlie. For some reason, in the Anglo-Saxon world at least, Charlie is the most popular password name if a given name is used. Over here, I wonder if we have ahlian, ahbeng, abdullah (ahmad is too short with just five characters) and sammyvelu, etc.

4) monkey. Again, for some reason, "monkey" is a favourite animal-based password.   

5) manchesteru (or reddevils), liverpool, chelsea, etc. So, you are a soccer fan. Mr Hacker hopes you are.

6) facebook1, google1, etc. So you think adding "1" makes it more secure?

7) your name 1. Ditto.

8) password1. Unbelievable as it is, this is cited as a common password.

9) letmein. This seems to be a variation of opensesame, and a figure of one in 550 people was cited as using this.

10) qwerty. Why? Look at the keyboard, mate. I siuppose variations on this theme would be asdfgh and zxcvbn, etc (depending on how your keyboard layout is arranged).

Incidentally, 13 April will be marked as "Singapore 1st Cyber Security Awareness Day" (see the adverstising feature in TODAY, 28 March, page 7). The write-up about this event has this interesting fact:

"Strong passwords usually comprise at least eight letters in upper and lower case, numbers and symbols. A hacker takes about four days to randomly guess an eight-character password if letters are all in lower case, three years if they are upper and lower case, and 463 years if all permutations including symbols and numbers are used."

So, there!    

Sunday, March 27, 2011

What the recruitment ads did not promise...

Here's another St Peter at the Pearly Gates anecdote, the target in this case being a HR manager sent up to Heaven. It was emailed some time back by an old friend, Lik Khui:

A highly successful Human Resources Manager was killed in a road accident and her soul arrived up in Heaven where she was met at the Pearly Gates by St. Peter himself.

"Welcome," said St. Peter. "Before you get settled in, though, it seems we have a problem. You see, strangely enough, we've never once had a Human Resources Manager make it this far, and we're not really sure what to do with you."

 "No worries, just let me in," said the woman.

"Well, I'd like to, but I have my instructions. What we're going to do is let you have a day in Hell and a day in Heaven and then you can choose whichever one you want to spend eternity in."

"Actually, I think I've made up my mind, I prefer to stay in Heaven", said the woman.

"Sorry, we have rules..." And with that St. Peter put the executive in a lift and it went down-down-down to Hell. The doors opened and the HR Manager found herself stepping out onto the putting green of a beautiful golf course. In the distance was a country club and in front of her were all her fellow executive friends that she had worked with, and they were well dressed and cheering for her.

 They ran up and kissed her on both cheeks and they talked about old times. They played an excellent round of golf and at night went to the country club where she enjoyed a superb steak and lobster dinner.

She even met the Devil who was actually a really nice guy (kinda cute) and she had a great time hearing him tell jokes She was having such a good time that before she knew it, it was time to leave. Everybody shook her hand and waved good-bye as she got on the lift to go up to Heaven.

The lift went up-up-up and opened back up at the Pearly Gates and she found St. Peter waiting for her.

"Now it's time to spend a day in heaven," he said. So she spent the next 24 hours lounging around on clouds and playing the harp and singing. She had a great time and before she knew it her 24 hours were up and St. Peter came to talk to her.

"So, you've spent a day in Hell and you've spent a day in Heaven. Now you must choose how you will spend eternity."

The woman paused for a second and then replied, "Well, I never thought I would say this. I mean, Heaven has been really nice, but I had a better time in Hell. I'll choose that."
"You sure?," asked St Peter.

"Yes, haha, lock that answer in," she replied.

So St. Peter escorted her to the lift and again she went down-down-down back to Hell. When the doors of the lift opened she found herself standing in a desolate waste land covered in garbage and filth. She saw that her friends were dressed in rags and picking up garbage and putting it in sacks.

The Devil came up to her and, with a devilish smile (what else!) put his arm around her.

"I don't understand," stammered the woman, "yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and a country club and we ate lobster and we danced and had a great time. Now all there is a wasteland and all my friends look miserable."

The Devil looked at her and smiled again. "Yesterday, we were recruiting you. Today you're one of the staff..."

The moral of this story? Go figure.

Postscript: What gives a copy editor a thrill? A flash of inspiration. There was this rather dry story filed by the reporter on how Earth Hour was marked at 8.30 pm yesterday (Saturday) in Singapore at The Promontory at Marina Bay. It needed a snazzy intro for a start, and (in a flash), I found what I thought was a pretty cool one. Here it is:

"Earth to Marina Bay... lights off for an hour please" ("Let there be no lights...", The Sunday Times, 27 March, page 8).

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Did Noah try to catch fish?

My friend Nick sent me this rib-tickling irreverant list:

1. Muslims do not recognize Jews as God's Chosen People.
2. Jews do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah.
3. Protestants do not recognize the Pope as the leader of the Christian world.
4. Baptists do not recognize each other at the liquor store. 

A Sunday school teacher was telling her class the story of the Good Samaritan.  She asked the class, "If you saw a person lying on the roadside, all wounded and bleeding, what would you do?" A thoughtful little girl broke the silence, "I think I'd throw up."

A Sunday school teacher asked, "Johnny, do you think Noah did a lot of fishing when he was on the Ark ?"
"No," replied Johnny.  "How could he, with just two worms?"

A Sunday school teacher decided to have her young class memorize one of the most quoted passages in the Bible - Psalm 23.  She gave the youngsters a month to learn the chapter.
Little Rick was excited about the task - but he just couldn't remember the Psalm.  After much practice, he could barely get past the first line. On the day that the kids were scheduled to recite Psalm 23 in front of the congregation, Ricky was very nervous. When it was his turn, he stepped up to the microphone and said proudly, "The Lord is my Shepherd, and that's all I need to know." 

The preacher's 5 year-old daughter noticed that her father always paused and bowed his head for a moment before starting his sermon.  One day, she asked him why.
"Well, Honey," he began, proud that his daughter was so observant of his messages.  "I'm asking the Lord to help me preach a good sermon."
"How come He doesn't answer it?" she asked.

A Rabbi said to a precocious six-year-old boy, "So your mother says your prayers for you each night?  That's very commendable. What does she say?"
The little boy replied, "Thank God he's in bed!"

When my daughter, Kelly, said her bedtime prayers, she would bless every family member, every friend, and every animal (current and past)..
For several weeks, after we had finished the nightly prayer, Kelly would say,"And all girls."  This soon became part of her nightly routine, to include
this closing.  My curiosity got the best of me and I asked her, "Kelly, why do you always add the part about all girls?"  Her response, "Because everybody else always finishes their prayers by saying 'All Men!"

Little Johnny and his family were having Sunday dinner at his grandmother's house.  Everyone was seated around the table as the food  was being served.  When Little Johnny received his plate, he started eating right away.
"Johnny!  Please wait until we say our prayer." said his mother.  "I don't need to," the boy replied.
"Of course, you do" his mother insisted..."We always say a prayer before eating at our house."
"That's at our house." Johnny explained.  "But this is Grandma's house, and she knows how to cook."

Friday, March 25, 2011

What's in a building project's name? If it's Ancilla, it's gotta be "hot"!

What was yesterday's most-read online ST story? The one on the 92-year-old woman in Florida taking a gun to shoot at her 53-year-old neighbour who declined to give her a kiss!

Meanwhile, a friend alerted me to this strange name that the HDB gave to a Build-to-Order (BTO) project -- Compassvale Ancilla, in Sengkang. What is "Ancilla"? A Google search revealed three possibilities:

1) An aid to achieving or mastering something difficult. What kind of a name is that for a housing project?
2) A maid servant (Latin). Also, a name some nuns call themselves. Again, why did the HDB choose such a name? 
3) Ancilla is also the professional name of a Dutch woman who describes herself as a "modern fetish pinup" and "Amsterdam's hottest export". Wow, what a name for a "hot property"!

Actually, the HDB's other BTO project announced yesterday has a strange -- if less puzzling -- name: Boon Lay Fields, in Jurong West. An apartment project with the word "Fields" in it? What was the person who conjured it up thinking of? Was he a Beatles fan (Strawberry Fields Forever)?

What other strange building names are there in Singapore? It's Friday (the usual short posting), so this short list is one that comes right off my head:

Toa Payoh Bloom -- this collection of HDB apartment blocks in a working class area  is near my office. If blooms conjure up a lush field or meadow, I don't think so in this case.

Rafflesia -- I suspect the developer of this private condominium in Bishan named it as such because it is near Raffles Institution and Raffles Junior College. And I bet the promo ads will want people to pronounce it as "Raffles-sia". But rafflesia is in fact a stinky flowering plant! It is pronounced "raff-fleece-sia". A rose by any other name? Au contraire.

Wing On Life Garden -- this upmarket condo is in Bukit Timah Road (District 10). Why "wing on life"? I know about the expression "on a wing and a prayer" but this? The mystery is solved only if one is aware that the developer is called Wing On Investment Company (you gotta say "Wing On", take a pause, then say the rest).

Singapore Power Training Institute (Upper Serangoon Road) -- hmmm? Is this where politicians get their training in the art of getting into power? With election talk in the air, there must be a hive of activity going on there now. 

Singapore Rubber House (Collyer Quay) -- this building has been demolished. Or was it erased?

A-Z Building (Paya Lebar Road) -- pow kar liao, everything under one roof, everything but the kitchen sink, no stones left unturned....

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hell hath no fury like a 92-year-old woman scorned!

I've blogged about the scarcity of offbeat stories in The Straits Times (read: it's too staid.... The Staid Times?) compared to at least one or two such items that Today puts on its pages almost daily. Well, there was a funny Reuters wire story in ST today (24 March) on Page A4, headlined "Kiss shot down", and accompanied by a cartoon:

A 92-year-old woman in St Petersburg, Florida, pestered her 53-year-old neighbour for a kiss. When he refused, she shot at him with a gun, barely missing him.

The authorities say Helen Staudinger just would not take no for an answer. According to a police report, she went to Mr Dwight Bettner's house in Fort McCoy and refused to leave until he gave her a kiss. When he said no, they argued, and she left angry.

Moments later, Mr Bettner, a former law enforcement officer, was talking on the phone with his father when he heard gunshots. One bullet went through a window, spraying him with glass. Staudinger had apparently stormed back to her home, picked up a semi-automatic pistol, and fired four times at her neighbour's house.

"If my head (had) been over just a little bit further, (a bullet) probably would have hit me in the back of the head," said Mr Bettner.

Staudinger was arrested on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and shooting into a dwelling.

Mr Bettner said his elderly neighbour had seemed attracted to him since he moved in six months ago. "I have taken her trash out for her, just neighbourly stuff," he said. "I guess she just took that as something else."      


ST, however, drew the line at putting into print another wacky (sick, actually) wire story. But it did publish the story online at

Guess what? It was the most-read online. The headline was "US man who had sex with a horse released from prison". Incidentally, Today published that story on Wednesday, on page 36.

An axiom of journalism is that sex sells, but this one carries the meaning of a stud too far!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fukushima's real lessons

Yesterday, I referred to a Straits Times blooper for which it carried a correction. Well, Today gets its turn to be cited today. I just wonder if it will carry a correction in the next few days.

On page 8 (23 March), the story headlined "Minister Mah's commentaries in TODAY now feature in book" has this picture of a book cover with its title "Reflections on Housing a Nation" clearly visible.

But the story itself said:

"From concerns about rising flat prices to options for home buyers; these are among some of the issues addressed by Mr Mah Bow Tan in a new book...

"Reflections of a Nation, which was released yesterday..."

So what happened! A number of sharp eyes must have seen the page proof at the editorial stage, yet no one spotted this glaring error in the text.

Anywhere, for those who want to read this book online, the story gives its link:

The above brickbat for Today aside, I have a bouquet for it. A blog article it published on page 22 is, I feel,  worth reproducing here:

"A physicist speaks out against the witch-burning" -- by Peter Heller

There is no place on Earth I would rather be right now than at Fukushima — right in the atomic power plant, at the centre of the event. I say this because I am a physicist and there is no other place that could be more exciting and interesting for a physicist.

There were times in history when ignorance and cowardice overshadowed human life. Religious dogma, like the Earth being the centre of the universe, or creationism, forbade people to question. The forbiddance of opening a human body and examining it prevented questions from being answered. Today these mediaeval rules appear backward and close-minded. We simply cannot imagine this way of thinking could have any acceptance.

But over recent days, I have grown concerned that we are headed again for such dark times. Hysterical and sensationalist media reporting, paired with a remarkably stark display of ignorance of technical and scientific
interrelations and the attempt by a vast majority of journalists to fan the public’s angst and opposition to nuclear energy — pure witch-burning disguised as modernity.

So it fills me with sadness and anger on how the work of the giants of physics is now being dragged through the mud, how the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century are being redefined and criminalised.

The current debate in Germany is also a debate on freedom of research. The stigmatisation and ostracism of nuclear energy, the demand for an immediate stop of its use, is also the demand for the end of its research
and development. Stopping nuclear energy is nothing less than rejecting the legacy of Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr and all others. It is tantamount to scrapping it, labelling it as dangerous — all in a fit of ignorance.

The media suggests a nuclear catastrophe, a mega-meltdown and that the apocalypse has already begun. It is almost as if the 10,000 deaths in Japan were actually victims of nuclear energy and not the earthquake or the tsunami.

Here again one has to remind us that Fukushima was first hit by an unimaginable 9.0 earthquake and then by a massive 10m wave of water just an hour later. As a result, the facility no longer found itself in a highly technological area but surrounded by a desert of rubble. All around the power plant the infrastructure, residential areas, traffic routes, energy and communication networks are simply no longer there. They were wiped out.

Yet, after an entire week, the apocalypse still has not come to pass.

Only relatively small amounts of radioactive materials have leaked out and have had only a local impact. If one considers the pure facts exclusively, i.e. only the things we really know, then it exposes the unfounded interpretations of scientific illiterates in the media. One can only arrive to one conclusion: This sorrowful state will remain so.

In truth, this does not show that the ideologically motivated, fear-laden admonitions and warnings were correct. Fukushima illustrates that we are indeed able to control atomic energy. Fukushima shows that we can master it even when natural disasters beyond planning befall us.

There is no other place at the moment where so much can be learned about atomic energy, which keeps our world together and the technical possibilities to benefit from it. Fukushima will show us possibilities on how to use the direct conversion of matter into energy in a better and safer way, something that Einstein and others could have only dreamed of.

This is an excerpt of a translation from a blogpost in German by Dr Peter Heller, a trained astronomer and physicist who co-runs the Science Skeptical Blog at The English translation was published at leading science blog

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A bone of contention

When a newspaper runs a correction, this is either a "sin" committed by the newsmaker and requires clarification on his or her behalf or is a lapse by the newspaper itself. Nobody is perfect and a consistent zero-defect record is all but impossible.

But there are bloopers (some can be hilarious) that should have been spotted by the checkers. From time to time, I'll point these out, my catchment being both The Straits Times and Today. ST, unfortunately for it, takes the first hit with its "What it should have been" today (22 March). Within the newsroom, we refer to this short column as the WISHBone.

Here is what it had to apologise for today: "In Saturday's report, 'Quality of air, water and food in S'pore all safe', we said Singapore's higher level of radiation was due to its proximity to the equator. This is wrong. The level of radiation varies from country to country depending on cosmic rays and the underlying rock structure."

Indeed! If natural background radiation is highest near the equator per se, all the sunbathers soaking in the sun will not only get their desired perfect sun tan but will also be highly radioactive. The confusion here is to equate intense direct sunlight and its associated harmful UV rays with other cosmic rays including those that are radioactive.

So, sunbathers in "equatorial" resorts including our sunny Sentosa beaches, go ahead and soak in the sun -- in moderation of course, and with plenty of sunscreen slapped on!

Here's some equatorial trivia to wrap this posting up.

The African country known as Equitorial Guinea is not on the Equator, But the countries listed below do have territories within the Equator:

Sao Tome and Principe
Republic of the Congo
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Equador (aha, this one got its name right!)

(Source: Wikipedia).

Monday, March 21, 2011

Celebrating Singapore's water paradigm shift

There are two news items today (21 March), one from The Straits Times and the other from Today, that I would like to highlight on this blog today.

The first is existentially vital to Singapore -- water. I had, some years ago, gone to schools to talk about the water issue. I am glad Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong reiterated the fundamentals of this issue and gave readers an update, in the ST artcicle "Clean water a result of a wave of effort" (page B2).

Here are the key points of the story:

"The clean and readily available water Singaporeans have today is a result of political will, sheer determination, and creativity... At an event... to mark World Water Day [Tuesday, 22 March], [SM Goh] recalled how Singapore, at the time of independence in 1965, was almost totally dependent on imported water from Malaysia.

"That is no longer the situation following investments in technology and water infrastructure... [A strategy known as the "four national taps" was] realised around 2000 when Mr Goh was prime minister. [It] refers to the current four sources of water supply: imported water, water from local catchments, Newater and desalinated water.

"Mr Goh said that come 2061, when the second of Singapore's two water agreements with Malaysia expires, the country will have enough water for itself even if new agreements are not signed. The first water agreement will expire in August this year."

Yes, I think we have come a long way in moving towards water sufficiency since 1965. We should drink to that, without being wasteful of this precious resource, of course.

On a lighter note, some years ago, government ministers were actively promoting the safety of Newater for drinking purposes (for the uninitiated, Newater is ultra-processed and super-filtered effluent water that includes our pee). The ministers were seen -- and photographed by the press -- at official functions and community events downing this bottled liquid without hesitation.

One minister even jokingly referred to himself as "Lim Si Si". And one wag suggested that there is a special blend of Newater -- known as Cabinet Sauvignon!

And here's one water trivia tidbit: Did you know that the water we drink was also drunk by dinosaurs? Yes, all the water on this earth has been there since Day One, because Earth is an enclosed eco-system. So no water gets lost. It does get "unfairly" distributed though; some countries have plenty of it while some do not. A lot of water too has become polluted. And I guess a bit might have been lost if the moon-walking astronauts had left any of Earth's water behind on the moon.

The other story, in Today,  is a commentary by a former British army general on the allied military strikes on Libya. It is a refreshing contrast to the stuff that armchair pundits have been spewing out in print. Titled "The real, if unspoken, task: Unseat Gaddafi" (page 18), it is expertly written and gives the low down on the allied aims. Here is the link:,-if-unspoken,-task--Unseat-Gaddafi


Sunday, March 20, 2011

When God created Man... the Hokkien version

There is a saying, "What God proposes, man disposes". The following "Hokkien" interpretation of the creation of man seems to have this in mind:

On the very first day of creation, God brought into being the cow. He had a plan for this beast, and so He told the cow: "Ah Gu (cow), your job is to go out to the field with the farmer I will soon create. You will provide the brute energy to pull things. You will also provide milk for people to drink. You are to work all day under the sun. In return, you will only eat grass. For that, you will have a life span of 50 years."

Ah Gu objected. "What? I will have to work all day in the sun and I get only to eat grass! On top of that, I have to give my milk away. This is a tough life and you want me to live 50 years! I'll take 20 and you can have the remaining 30 years back!"

God agreed.

The next day, God created the dog. He said to it: "Ah Kow (dog), I have created you for a purpose. You are to sit all day by the door of your master's house. Should anyone come in, you are to bark at them. In return, you will eat your master's leftovers. I'll give you a life span of 20 years."

Ah Kow objected. " What? I have to sit by the door all day and will need to bark at people, and  what do I get? Leftovers! This isn't right. I'll take 10 years and you can have the remaining 10 years back!"

God agreed again.

On the third day, God created the monkey. He said to the monkey. "Lao Kao (monkey), your job is to entertain people. You will make them laugh, act stupid and make faces. You will also do somersaults and swing on
trees to amaze them. In return, you will get to eat bananas and peanuts. I'll give you 20 years to live."

Naturally the monkey objected. "This is ridiculous, I gotta make faces and make people laugh. Let's not even
come to the part about the trees and somersaults. Tell you what, I'll give back 10 years of my life to thank you for my existence and I'll take 10. What do you think?"

God agreed again.

On the forth day, God created humans, both man and woman.
God said to them: "You are my best piece of work, for that, you will only need to sleep, eat, sleep, play, eat, sleep again and do nothing else.You will get to eat all the best things and play with the best toys. All you need to do is enjoy life! For this kind of enviable life, I'll give you 20 years."

Just like the rest, the humans objected.

The ____ (fill in the blank... if you are a guy, say the siow Ah Lian spoke up; if you are a gal, say the gong Ah Boy opened his big mouth) told God: "What? All I need to do is relax and enjoy myself and I have only 20 years to live? Tell you what, you've 30 years back from Ah Gu, 10 years from Ah Kow and another 10 from Lao Kao.

"You probably don't know what to do with all those lives. Why not I take them all and I'll have 70."

God, in his infinite kindness and wisdom, agreed with a smile.

And that is why we humans eat, sleep, play and enjoy life for the first 20 years of our lives. We then work like cows for the next 30 to raise our family. We next sit outside the door and bark at people for the next 10 when we are retired.

And finally, we make faces and perform monkey tricks to entertain our grandchildren for the final 10 years.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A prophylactic story

Why are the French so persnickety?

First, they insisted that a sparkling white wine can only be called champagne if it comes from the Champagne region in Northeastern France. If it comes from anywhere else, it must be called sparkling white wine.

So, while champagne is always sparkling white wine, not all sparkling white wine is champagne (this information comes from

The French, it seems, can also get prickly over another naming issue.

There is a small town there (population: 7,500) called Condom. It is near the city of Bordeaux. The town has now banned the sale of condoms branded as "The Original Condom from Condom, France".

A company there, headed by royal descendant Charles-Emmanuel de Bourbon Parme and Count Gil de Bizemont, sells this product in France under this brand name. But the material and place of production is -- you guessed it! -- Malaysia.

So, Condom's mayor then got a judicial ruling that stated: "It is clear that the use of the name, the image and the renown of the town of Condom, without its knowledge, for entirely commercial ends, [is] manifestly illicit." The town is also seeking a complete ban on the "Original Condom" brand.

The Digital Spy website, which has a story on all this brouhaha, adds that in French, a condom is called a préservatif and the town name is said to derive from the latin Condatomagus, meaning "old gallic market". Condom is also located on the River Baïse, and "baise" is coincidentally French slang for "f**k".

On second thoughts, I can see why the people of Condom (is there a demonym for them?) are so prickly.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Good intentions: which road do they lead to?

I posted excerpts from two readers' letters -- one to Today and one to The Straits Times -- two days ago, and wondered how long it would take the relevant authorities to reply to them. Well, the Press Secretary to the Prime Minister has given a swift response to the question asked by the ST reader, to wit, "Why is the President paid more than the Prime Minister and veteran ministers?"

In his reply, "Why the President's salary is pegged higher" (ST, 18 March, page A23), the PM's Press Secretary said (as excerpted here): "The President occupies the highest office in Singapore. He exercises custodial powers to protect our past reserves and over the appointment of key public officers to protect the integrity of the public service. As the head of state, he represents the country and advances our interests internationally. This is why it is appropriate to peg the President's salary higher than ministers' and just above the Prime Minister's."

Moving on, I had also earlier commented on the sad plight of the remaining rebels in the Libyan imbroglio. The latest news is that the UN Security Council has given the "international community" the go-ahead to take "all necessary actions" to protect civilians there. That's code for military action.

But now that the Western powers have got what they wished for ("Be careful, you may get what you wish for", is an old Chinese saying, I believe), they are scrambling around on how to act. Meanwhile, the wily Gaddafi has declared that he is not pursuing further military action -- for now. So, if this "desert fox" is simply sitting tight, while the rebels run out of food, water, etc, what can the West do?

Roger Cohen, in his opinion piece in the New York Times, wrote a very trenchant essay on this matter:

I will wrap up this posting with two stories about the outcomes that can attend good intentions.

This first one actualy happened many years ago. A group of people were observing turtle hatchlings hiding in a sheltered cave. The beach beyond beckoned. There was still light but dusk was approaching. Up above, predator birds circled.

A few brave baby turtles ventured out, and quickly became dinner for the hungry birds. Still, after some time, a few more of the hatchlings, impatient despite the sunlight still there but rapidly fading, sallied forth -- and the birds again swopped down and started to attack their tiny, hapless victims.

It was at this point that one of the humans felt he had to do something. He broke from his cover and chased the birds away. Someone else joined him.

Momentarily surprised, the birds retreated into the air.

That was when all the other baby turtles, thinking the way was now clear, rushed out from their safe sanctuary. The few humans who now tried to fight off the great mass of birds that now came swooping down on the young turtles were outnumbered. That day, nearly everyone of the baby turtles died.

They never made it to the beach and the freedom to swim away. Yet, if nature had taken its course, the few hatchlings that had first ventured out were sacrificial signposts that it was not dark enough yet. Probably a few more such "suicide" waves would have taken place. But the vast majority would eventually make it to sea, when darkness fell.

This is the pessimistic story. The other one, probably apocryphal, is the optimistic one.

A little boy is picking up starfish stranded on a beach, as the water ebbs. He throws them -- one by one -- as far into the sea as he can. But there are hundreds of stranded starfish, dusk is approaching, and he must go home soon. A man walks up to him and says, "You are wasting your time. It makes no difference; there are too many of them to save."

The boy, still innocent of years, looks at the man in the eye and, as he throws yet one more starfish into the sea, says, "It makes a difference to this one!"

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Asking for trouble

I was going to stay off jokes about lawyers and judges for some time at least, but I found this one in my collection, so I might as well post it here:

A court trial is taking place in a small town in America. The prosecuting attorney has called his first witness to the stand: a grandmotherly, elderly woman.

He approached her and  asked, "Mrs. Jones, do you know me?" She  responded, "Why yes, I do know  you, Mr. Williams. I've known you since you were a young boy.

"And  frankly, you've been a big disappointment to me. You lie, you cheat on your  wife, you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. You think you're a big shot when you haven't the brains to realize you never will amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher.

"Yes, I know you." The lawyer was visibly stunned.

Not knowing what else to do, he pointed  across the room and asked, "Mrs. Jones, do you know the defence attorney?

She again replied. "Why yes, I do. I've known Mr. Bradley since he was a youngster too. He's lazy, bigoted, and he has a drinking problem. He can't build a normal relationship with anyone and his law practice  is one of the worst in the entire state. Not to mention that he cheated on his wife with three different women.

"Yes, I know him." The defence attorney almost died!

At this point, the judge adjourned the court session and called both counsellors to his chambers. In a very quiet voice, he told them: "When we go back in, if either of you bastards asks her if she knows me, you'll be jailed for  contempt."

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Will I be a Mr Saga, if push comes to shove?

There are a couple of enigmatic quotes and a couple of interesting letters in today's Straits Times and Today, and I'll come to them. But I want to first highlight one poignant incident from the continuing accounts about the aftermath of the horrendous earthquake in Japan.

This is excerpted from a New York Times article that Today (16 March, page 8) carried:

[A young Japanese man, Mr Yuta Saga, 21, fleeing with his mother from the impending tsunami, reached a junior high school, the tallest building around.]

"When they reached the school, [they] found the stairs to the roof clogged with older people... unable to muster the strength to climb them... As the bottom floor filled with fleeing residents, the wave hit.

"At first, the doors held. Then water [poured through]... In a panic to reach the roof, younger residents began to push and yelling 'Hurry!' and 'Out of the way!'...  'I couldn't believe it,' Mr Saga said. 'They were even shoving old people out of the way.'...

"Then the doors burst open and the water rushed in... Mr Saga saw an [old] woman without the strength or will to stand, sitting in water that rose to her nose. he said he rushed behind her, grabbd her under the arms and hoisted her up the stairs. Another person on the stairs grabbed her and lifted her up to another person. The men formed a human chain, lifting the older residents to the top. 'I saw the ugly side of peope, and then I saw the good side... Some people only thought of themselves. Others stopped to help."

I hope I can be a Mr Saga, or if I am no longer abled-bodied, a Mr Saga is in my presence in a time of need.

Okay, two interesting quotes, both from ST. The first, by Foreign Minister George Yeo (page B5), seemed strange, given that he has a masterly command of the English language. Replying to a Japanese diplomat at a religious conference, on racial and religious harmony in Singapore, he said the government worries about potential conflicts daily.

I'm not sure what he means by "potential conflicts daily"? Did he mean the potential for seemingly innocuous situations taking on an ugly mood? I can attest to such a danger. I once saw a cyclist and a pedestrian collide. Both were of different races. The cyclist apologised profusely but the pedestrian seemed unassuaged and started scolding him. Then I saw a group of old people who were just sitting around getting up and moving towards the scene. They were from the same race as the pedestrian. Fortunately, the cyclist decided to move on and the pedestrian cooled down. The group went back to their seats.

Then FM Yeo said maintaining harmony is "a daily struggle" for Singapore. What did he mean by that, and why did the reporter not query further to get a clarification? Pity.

But his enigmatic quote is this one -- explaining why Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses was banned but not The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, he said: "The Christians are less likely to riot."

The other enigmatic quote comes from PAP MP Charles Chong (page A16), who -- commenting on the very thorough logistical preparations his party was embarking on ahead of the expected general election -- said: "The PAP never leaves anything to chance."

Moving onto readers' letters, one Today letter writer (page 16) said he and fellow residents were exasperated that non-residents were parking their cars along their narrow road which led to a cul-de-sac, thus blocking even the garbage truck on its morning rounds. He said letters to the relevant authorities elicited the responses he cited here:

"The LTA has said it cannot enforce any action as there are no signs to forbid parking on both sides of the street, and that it is the job of the Traffic Police. However, the latter on their part say there are no painted yellow line that would enable them to take action against vehicles parked on both sides of the street."

Catch-22, huh?

The other letter-writer, who wrote to The Straits Times (page A34), seemed rather cheeky. Noting that the President's salary will be increased from $3,376,800 to $4,267,500, he then asked: "Why is the President paid more than the Prime Minister and veteran ministers?"

I await the official replies to these two letters.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What Caesar told Brutus on the Ides of March

My posting on Friday took a dig at a book extolling civil and courteous behaviour among lawyers.

The book was launched by the Chief Justice and The Straits Times today carried an edited excerpt of his speech (which took up the entire no-ad page save for the editorial column). I thought that an amusing ancedote in the speech is worth putting up here:

"An Australian criminal lawyer, Colin Lovitt QC, was defending an accused before a Brisbane magistrate. When the magistrate made an evidentiary ruling against him, he turned to the press box and said in a false whisper: 'This bloke's a complete cretin." Later, when the magistrate made a ruling in his favour, Mr Lovitt turned to the press box again and said: 'I take it back. He is not a complete cretin.'

"Mr Lovitt was cited for contempt of court, and fined A$10,000 and ordered to pay costs. Apparently, Mr Lovitt is known to prosecutors as 'the Cowboy' and 'the Embarrister'. I think we have embarristers in our midst, but perhaps not cowboys."

[Hmm... I wonder what the CJ meant by that last line? Also, for Mr Lovitt -- a QC no less -- to acquire the reputation he had, he must have paid up a few fines at least!]

Incidentally, today is the Ides of March, made famous by the assassination of Julius Caesar. As told by Shakespeare, Caesar had been warned by a soothsayer to "beware the Ides of March" (which simply means the 15th of March in the Roman calendar). But the emperor ignored him and went into the Senate where he was stabbed to death by a cabal of senators. Among the conspirators was Marcus Brutus, Caesar's close friend and confidante. Brutus was the last one to twist his dagger into Caesar.

The emperor's last words before falling down dead, since immortalised, was: "Et tu, Brute?" (You too, Brutus?).

The irreverant version of that encounter, which I heard when I was a schoolboy studying Julius Caesar as a literature text, goes like this:

Brutus, as he stabs his friend: "Great Caesar, how many eggs did you have for breakfast?"
Caesar: "Et tu, Brute!" (then he falls and dies).

Hey, that was a schoolboy joke, okay!

Last item today is the link below to an interesting science article, "No Face, but Plants Like Life Too", in the New York Times.

If you are a vegan or vegetarian, though, be forewarned that the article says plants do not like to be eaten, and provides the scientific evidence. Otherwise, go ahead, and order that Caesar's salad for lunch.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Some thoughts as the Libyan standoff nears crunch-time

Decent folks everywhere are rooting for the brave rebels fighting the Gaddafi regime and its mercenary thugs. But no less than the top American intelligence chief is pessimistic about the rebels' ability to prevail, as time goes by, with the "international community" yet to act decisively, including enforcing a so-called "no-fly zone".

Modern day uprisings -- that is, since the advent of the nation state -- seldom have a happy ending for the challengers when they are ill-prepared and lack the immediate support of external powers vis-a-vis the incumbent regime which, no matter how ruthless it is towards its people, is still the accepted government. Witness what happened in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968).

What happened in Tunesia and Egypt last month was a series of positive developments for the protesters, chiefly, the rulers had lost of the support of even the military forces and members of the elite in swift order. In other words, comparatively "little" was required of the international community. No internal uprising of the sort that is occurring in Libya took place in those two countries.

I think many factors have dealt the rebels a poor hand.

First is the issue of sovereignty. Intervention came too late for many in Rwanda (1994) despite the evidence of genocide. Even the intervention by Nato in the former Yugoslavia (1992-1995) took a long time, again despite the evidence of ethnic cleansing. Many of Libya's neighbours are themselves despotic, yet intervention -- or appeals for such action by other powers -- should begin with them. But while the Arab League has finally come around to call for a no-fly zone, the African Union continues to resist making such a call (Libya straddles the Middle East and northern Africa).

Secondly, the United Nations -- as the voice of the international community -- can only act to endorse intervention if all major powers agree to it. This has not happened. Meanwhile, the wily Gaddafi makes sure his military operations are not so brutal as to attract an international outcry.

Thirdly, intervention by, say, a coalition, must carry domestic support from each coalition member's public. The country everyone is looking to for leadership, the United States, is still unsure of the wisdom of military action -- even the implementation of a no-fly zone. Pilots will have to enforce this and even if a single US fighter pilot were to be shot down by Gadaffi's thugs, it will be politically costly for the Obama government.

Finally, there is the "Who the hell are these rebels?" factor. To be cynical, Gaddafi is the known devil, he is no friend of Al-Qaeda, he had begun to "cooperate" with the West before the current turn of events (he even gave funds to a few British universities), he sits on 2 per cent of the world's oil (Libya is the No 12 producer, and Libyan crude is top-grade ie low in sulphur), and like it or not, if he regains control of the country, such a status quo will eventually be re-established.

The rebels offer no such "guarantee". Their leadership is amorphous and they were not a movement in waiting, with an ideology (that the West can live with). Moreover, one analyst has pointed out that the eastern region of Libya -- where the rebels are still holding out -- is where the most Muslim fighters had made their way to Iraq a few years back, to liberate it from the American occupiers.

Such is the Libyan imbroglio.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Read the ads too. It's good for your sense of humour

Today's posting is on some ads that caught my eye in The Sunday Times while doing my own "post-mortem" (journalistic jargon on reviewing and critiquing a newspaper, usually soon after publication).

The first item here had drawn my attention with these words: "Are you looking for 100% capital security? And the potential to earn unlimited returns (historically 10% p.a. as quoted on Bloomberg)? Rare stamps -- one of the world's best kept investment secrets and safe haven asset classes."

While I am unlikely to strike it rich as a result of reading this ad, I recalled my stamp-collecting days as a lad. I think many of my classmates in primary school and secondary school had this hobby too, and I remember exchanging stamps with my penpals, both local and overseas.

I was keen enough on the hobby to buy stamp albums, and even a stamp tong -- to handle "special stamps" with care. These included exotic ones from places like Madagascar, Romania, Liechtenstein, and I am sure even North Korea. Many such stamps came from starter kits bought via mail order.

And then there were the Singapore first day covers commemorating events like National Day. I have a number of covers complete with the full set of stamps franked on the appropriate date somewhere among my forgotten stuff. Who knows, I might find a rare stamp or rare first day cover (hopefully, still in good condition) and uncover a "safe haven asset class" in my own home!

Anyway, thanks to today's online world, I found these two useful web links, if anyone is inspired to become a stamp collector:

Another ad that caught my eye was one for a well-known brand of German cars. The model it touted was claimed to have a special keyless entry and start-stop system. The ad proclaimed: "Now you can unlock the car with just the lightest touch of the door handle. All you need to be carrying is the transmitter, it's almost magical. And once inside, you only need to push a button to start the engine. Should the transmitter be left in the car by mistake, the system will refuse to lock."

But I thought, hey, what if I had got out of such a car in a hurry to get to, say, a three-hour meeting. And that I had indeed forgotten to take the transmitter with me. And that I had parked my car at night on the streetside, not in a secure carpark? I can imagine a car thief trying his luck and checking out this model!

Last ad on my list here: it is one for a seminar to uncover "the secrets to nurturing [your child's] academic success, holistic development, and family happiness". What caught my eye was one speaker's topic, "How to develop a funtastic sense of humour: Essential humour habits for family wellness".

I am not making fun of this speaker's topic. I just wonder whether it is possible to develop "a sense of humour" and "humour habits" in individuals? How did I develop my sense of humour? I think it came from my own personality and disposition and probably the environmental influences as well. But I don't think that if I were a grumpy lad, my parents marching me off to humour school would have turned me into a laugh-a-minute fellow.

Maybe, to mangle a famous quotation, it is possible that some people are born with a funny bone, some have a funny bone stuck into them (probably from a fish called Wanda) and some acquire a funny bone (after being so conditioned by watching The Noose over and over again)?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Favourite lawyer jokes

I'll do one more day on the lawyer theme. These are my three favourite lawyer jokes:

A beautiful lawyer and a smarmy businessman were involved in a road collision. They got out of their cars and, of course, the business tried to hit on the lawyer as they waited for the tow trucks to arrive.

She reached inside her car and took out a bottle of wine and two glasses. "Let's share some wine while we wait, and maybe we can get to know each other better," she said, batting her eyelids.

Pleased as Punch, he of course took up the offer, not noticing that each time after she refilled their glasses, she would discreetly pour her wine into a drain nearby. He had several refills.

Then the sound of a police car's siren was heard. As she took his wine glass away from him and stashed the empty bottle and wine glasses back inside her car, she sweetly told the now inebriate man: "Oh, I called the police before I got out of my car. I'm sure they'll want to talk to you about this accident."

Okay, next.

An engineer ended up in Hell. The Devil was very pleased as this was the first engineer he had in the Netherworld. The man happened to be a refrigeration specialist and he set about making Hell very comfortable, with airconditioning piped everywhere there.

One day, Saint Peter was dispatched to Hell to explain that there was a terrible mistake, that the engineer was in fact meant to go to Heaven. Of course the Devil refused, and pointed to the now ultra comfy surroundings of the once hot-furnance setting. Even Peter was impressed. But he had a job to do, and so he threatened to sue the Devil if he kept the engineer in Hell.

Then the Devil sneered at Saint Peter. "And where will you find lawyers in Heaven?" he asked.

My last one involves a doctor, an engineer and a lawyer.

These three men were discussing who among them belonged to the oldest of the three professions represented. The doctor said, "Remember, on the sixth day God took a rib from Adam and fashioned Eve, making him the first surgeon. Therefore, medicine is the oldest profession."

The engineer countered, "But, before that, God created the heavens and earth from chaos and confusion, and thus he was the first engineer. Therefore, engineering is an older profession than medicine."

Then was a long pause as the two men waited for the lawyer to speak up. Then he slowly drawled: "Yes. But who do you think created all the chaos and confusion?"

Friday, March 11, 2011

Justice must be seen (always wear your shoes) and heard (just don't whisper loudly)

Can lawyers come up with a tongue-in-cheek book, one aimed at their esteemed peers?

A new book, A Civil Practice: Good Counsel For Learned Friends, touted as a light-hearted book complete with "cartoons and tips that range from the general (sic) right down to the brass tacks (sic!)" has been launched by the Chief Justice, as reported in The Straits Times ("Primer on manners for lawyers launched," 11 March, page A10).

The caption to a picture of the CJ unveiling the cover of the book carries a reminder by him to lawyers to maintain their "long tradition of mutual courtesy and respect in the discharge of their professional duties".

Now read the following excerpts, "Some rules of engagement for lawyers," from the book, as published by ST. My comments are in square brackets:

Your opponent is not your enemy. Don’t treat your opponent with automatic suspicion just because he is your opponent. While waiting for a meeting or a hearing, try to engage him in casual conversation or banter [Ask him if he has read War and Peace.] Don’t sit apart from him and ignore him studiously. [But just look at the heading above, which has "rules of engagement" -- definitely a military term that specifies how to deal with your enemy!]

Keep your shoes on. [Oh, I love this one!] Being shoeless is a bad idea, even if nobody can see it. No matter how tight your shoes are, or how high your heels, do your best to keep your footwear on. This applies to women as well. [Here's how I would describe this part: "Lawyers, always put your best foot forward, shod, not slipshod".]

Avoid legal jargon. [Show me a lawyer who does not use legal jargon and I'll show you a legal eagle who had decided to turn in his law books and is now a writer, playwright or journalist.] Jargon tends to confuse or intimidate or both. Simple English is most effective when communicating with a client or other lay person [Dear reader, try not to laugh at this last bit, please.]

Don’t do anything to distract anyone in court. [So, women lawyers, no low-cut blouses, please. And no nose digging in open court, whatever your gender.] Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of noisy actions that are not appreciated:
(a) Loud whispering. Speak quietly and only when necessary. Better still, write a note.
(b) Vigorous page-turning or bundle-shifting.
(c) Chuckling or snorting at your opponent’s submissions (believe it or not, the court is seldom inclined to dismiss an argument just because you laughed at it) [Finally, this comment in brackets attempts to be tongue-in-cheek. Bravo!].
(d) Sighing, smirking, shaking your head, rolling your eyes or showing pained facial expressions during your opponent’s submissions or during a witness’ evidence ["pained facial expression"... even if you suffer from late-stage incontinence and forgot to wear disposable adult diapers that day? Meanwhile, that terror judge is watching your every antsy antic...]
(e) Bashing your laptop keyboard [Wah, assault and battery! Okay, keyboard has no battery.]
(f) Clicking or twiddling your pen [You know how these lawyer types are... they will look for loopholes. So it's all right to chew on your pen, coat it with your saliva, take its parts apart and re-assemble them ad nauseum, etc.]
(g) Breaking the seals on bottles, pouring water [where? on your opponent's head?], gulping one’s drink from a bottle [Note: gulping is permissible; just don't do it from a bottle See next....] Use a cup or a glass at all times.
(h) Eating in court – this is absolutely forbidden [Hmmm... I'll like to know how many were caught out?]
(i) Opening and closing the courtroom door – do it quietly. It can be done [Yes, of course! Just stand there, quietly open the door, then quietly close the door, then.... ad nauseum.]
(j) Doodling when your opponent is speaking – if the judge has to listen to him droning on, so should you. [Once again, get this right, dear chap... doodling is permissible. I daresay even when the judge is, er, droning on. But you then risk being meted his or her poetic justice, of course.]

So, why do I find an element of farce here? Recall that the CJ extolled the "long tradition of mutual courtesy and respect"? These reminders do not seem just tongue-in-cheek. They seem to point to actual unseeming practice in court! I shall rest my case here.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

That other F-word (and it has four letters too)

I am "dedicating" today's blog posting to the person who let go of a stinker in the bus I was on. Everyone in that "war zone" looked around but no one looked sheepish enough to be fingered (hmm... is that why "sheepish" came about? After all, sheep are said to be the worst culprits in the methane-releasing league).

It so happened that a friend recently sent me the link below. Check it out: seemed like a royal fart led to some royal clowning but the Queen of course was not amused.

So, how do we say fart? Let me count the ways (this is of course not comprehensive; you are welcome to add to my short list here):

Flatulence (or should it be "to be flatulent?")
Break wind
Release gas
Let it rip
Pang pui (Hokkien)
Kentot (Malay)

Finally, there is this old joke about how when God created man, the various body parts vied to be the most important organ. The brain said it was the obvious candidate. so did the heart. When the anus tried to assert its right to the title, all the other organs laughed uncontrollably. Pissed off (eh?), the said rectum shut up. Read more in the link below. I liked this link because it uses the joke to emphasise the importance of keeping one's intestines in good shape. It also dishes out a yoga exercise that is claimed to be helpful in, er, gas control. Here it is:

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What the fandango!

I am sure we all have that moment, when a seemingly unfamiliar word or phrase crops up and triggers something from our memory that screams out, "It's from somewhere!". It happened to me today with this word, "fandango".

Mathew Lynn's very interesting commentary in TODAY (9 March, page 18), "Charlie Sheen could teach Wall Street a lesson," had this part, "What is fascinating about this whole fandango is not Sheen's public dramas. It is the way he has given us a master-class in modern media promotion...".

That word "fandango" sounded familiar. Then I recalled that it was in the opening line of British rock group Procol Harum's classic 1967 song, "A Whiter Shade of Pale". Here are its opening lines:

We skipped a light fandango,
Turned cartwheels 'cross the floor.
I was feeling kind of seasick,
But the crowd called out for more.
The room was humming harder,
As the ceiling flew away.
When we called out for another drink,
The waiter brought a tray.

And so it was that later,
As the miller told his tale,
That her face at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale.

It's a lovely, hauntingly enigmatic song... a Baby Boomer's song. But what is fandango? I never knew! A check with Wikipedia revealed it as a flamenco dance.

Ah so. Now I know. Thanks, Mathew Lynn -- and Procol Harum.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Whither the Singapore Story, education-wise?

The current Parliamentary session debated the Education Ministry on Monday, and today's newspapers (8 March) duly gave prominent coverage to the matters raised.

I, for one, was was struck by the personal testimony of Education Minister Ng Eng Hen, who described how he grew up poor -- the first public housing for the family, comprising his parents and six children (including himself), was a rental flat in Zion Road shared with other tenants. "Upgrading meant moving to a three-room flat in Queenstown. This time we did not have to share and we could own the flat," Dr Ng told Parliament.

We know the rest of his story... he managed to get into ACS, he went on to study medicine at NUS, and he achieved success as a top cancer surgeon before becoming a politician.

His story is retold, with variations of course, in many other cases from the Baby Boomer generation. Not all of us reached the height that Dr Ng did, but most of my classmates, and I -- from the primary to the tertiary education levels -- can count ourselves as having achieved something. Many of us started poor or at least were not well-off.

Many factors were at work in the postwar and post-1965 Singapore Story. But this elusive term, motivation, seemed to play a major role (apart from the opportunity from "second chances" in those less relentless times).

Indeed, three American academics, in their highly acclaimed book "Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovations Will Change the Way the World Learns" pinpointed motivation as a necessary ingredient in classroom learning. The three men -- Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson -- went on to suggest that today's classroom methods will have to keep in step with today's Wired Generation to sustain its motivation and interest in learning.

Here is an excerpt from the book's introduction, which also has a brief reference to Singapore at the end:

Motivation is the catalyzing ingredient for every successful innovation. The same is true for learning.

We all know that becoming a great athlete or a great pianist requires an extraordinary amount of consistent work. The hours of time required to train the brain to fire the synapses in the correct ways and thus hone the necessary muscle memory and thinking required is no different from that needed to learn to read and process information or think through math and science problems. Unless students (and teachers, for that matter) are motivated, they will reject the rigor of any learning task and abandon it before achieving success.

Motivation can be extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation is that which comes from outside the task. For example, a person might learn to do something not because she found the task itself stimulating or interesting, but because learning it would give her access to something else she wanted.

Intrinsic motivation is when the work itself stimulates and compels an individual to stay with the task because the task by itself is inherently fun and enjoyable. In this situation, were there no outside pressures, an intrinsically motivated person might still very well decide to tackle this work.

When there is high extrinsic motivation for someone to learn something, schools’ jobs are easier. They do not have to teach material in an intrinsically motivating way because simply offering the material is enough. Students will choose to master it because of the extrinsic pressure.

When there is no extrinsic motivation, however, things become trickier. Schools need to create intrinsically engaging methods for learning.

Consider this example. When Japanese companies were developing their world-class manufacturing clout and passing American companies in the 1970s and 1980s, a common explanation was that four times as many Japanese college students were studying math, science, and engineering than were U.S. students — despite the fact that Japan had only 40 percent of the population of the United States. These scientists and engineers, many concluded, were responsible for Japan’s economic ascendancy, which was widely seen as a threat to the U.S. economy.

As Japan reached prosperity, an interesting thing happened, however. The percentage of students who graduated with science and engineering degrees declined. Why did this happen? The answer has little to do with the schools themselves, which did not change significantly. Prosperity was the culprit.

When Japan was emerging from the ashes of World War II, there was a clear extrinsic motivation that encouraged students to study subjects like science and engineering that would help lift them out of poverty and reward them with a generous wage. As the country and its families prospered, however, the external pressure diminished. Some people who are wired to enjoy science and engineering in the way schools traditionally teach it — and therefore are intrinsically motivated — or those who have other extrinsic motivations in play still study them. But many no longer need to endure studying subjects that are not fun for them.

The same downward trend is now beginning in Singapore and Korea. As their economies have prospered, a smaller portion of their students are studying math and engineering because the extrinsic motivation has disappeared — and there is precious little intrinsic motivation, given the way these subjects are taught.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A tribute to Earnest Lau

Tributes continue to pour in on the Facebook page that past ACS students had set up in honour of their history teacher, discipline master and headmaster Earnest Lau, 82, who died last Saturday of heart failure in his sleep.

I got to know him as a fellow worshipper at Kampong Kapor Methodist Church. We would sometimes discuss the uses and abuses of the English language, especially here in Singapore. His insistence on correct usage was legendary, I am told, but imparted in such a way that mistakes were learnt by the boys with just the right amount of "embarrassment" without their being put down.

This classic example was told to me:

Boy: Sir, can I be excused (to go to the toilet, or whatever)?
Earnest: Can you? I don't know... can you walk?
Boy (recovers quickly): Sir, may I be excused?

Given the care with which he handled the English language, it is a pity that today's Straits Times report on him ("Remembering their ACS Sir with love", page B4) had two sloppily written passages that the checkers failed to correct.

Part of one passage was: "While Mr Lau did not have any children with his late wife..."

To avert any unintended slur on Earnest in this phrasing, it should have been crafted as "While Mr Lau and his wife did not have any children..." [incidentally, the article had earlier said he was a widower, so it was unnecessary to say "late wife"].

The other badly done passage was: "The wake will last until tomorrow, and the funeral service will be at 2pm that day..."

This could have been more simply written as "The wake is until tomorrow, with the funeral service scheduled at 2pm...".


I had this running "thread" on the supposed boorish behaviour of our youths on the trains. I'll wrap it up with this letter in today's Straits Times by Ms Jacqueline See, which gives me hope:

"I agree there are young people who do not give up their seats on trains to the elderly or disabled ('Train courtesy'; Feb 24). But most Singaporeans are now more considerate. I am a teenager and I always give up my seat for those who need it more than me. More people now wait for passengers to alight rather than barge in. There is still hope for our generation."


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Psalm 23, an interesting pick-up line, and 'general-ly speaking, just wait, ah!'

Like many Christians, I've always been comforted by the 23rd Psalm. The hymn version is also a familiar favourite. In church today, I heard a lovely variation, "The King of Love My Shepherd Is" which introduces the Cross in the 4th stanza (line 4). Here are the lyrics:

The King of Love My Shepherd Is

The King of love my Shepherd is
Whose goodness faileth never
I nothing lack if I am His
And He is mine forever.

Where streams of living water flow
My ransomed soul He leadeth
And, where the verdant pastures grow
With food celestial feedeth.

Perverse and foolish oft I strayed
But yet in love He sought me
And on His shoulder gently laid
And home rejoicing brought me.

In death's dark vale I fear no ill
With Thee, dear Lord, beside me
Thy rod and staff my comfort still
Thy Cross before to guide me.

Thou spreadst a table in my sight
Thine unction grace bestoweth
And, oh, what transport of delight
From Thy pure chalice floweth!

And so through  all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never
Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise
Within Thy house forever.

Words: Henry W. Baker
Music: John Rutter


Last week, I posted here a letter to The Sunday Times from a Ms Queenie Campbell who bemoaned the lack of chivalry among Singaporean men. One male reader, Alan Ng, rose to the occasion in today's Sunday Times. He was cheeky to boot. Here's what he penned:

"I refer to Ms Queenie Campbell's letter last Sunday ('Where 's the chivalry, men?'). As a man, I apologise for the unpleasant encounter she and her sister had in Sim Lim Square.

But it would be unfair of her to pass judgment on all men here just because of a few bad encounters.

I am sure there were positive experiences too. If there were none, I would only be too happy to ask Ms Campbell out on a date. I would hold the door open for her, pull out her chair at the dinner table, walk on the side of the pavement nearer to traffic -- just like how my parents taught me."

Wah, this man oo kar si (as opposed to boh kar si). Go for it, ma'am! [Hmmm... maybe The Sunday Times should act as go-between? Watch this space?].


Last item here is a follow-up to my "general" election posting yesterday.

Thanks, Nick, for pointing out that the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts was a two-star Rear Admiral. I stand corrected.

And the "general speculation" with regard to the buzz over Major-General Chan Chun Sing, who retires from his job as Chief of Army on March 25 at only the age of 41, after one year in the job, is unbated. As reported in today's Sunday Times, when quizzed by reporters as to whether the PAP's lineup would include the general, the PM would only say: "We'll see." The general consensus among pundits is that, yes, the stars are in alignment for this man. Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Isn't it called a 'general' election?

Short posting again... came back late from work.

I don't understand all that buzz over speculations that two army generals -- a Major-General (two stars) and a Brigadier-General (one star) -- will appear on the People's Action Party ticket in the hustings, expected mid-year. The two are MG Chan Chun Sing and BG Tan Chuan-Jin.

Earlier, there had also been speculation that the first Malay general, BG Ishak Ismail, who also was leaving the armed forces, might enter politics too (read: join the PAP).

Well, isn't it called a "general" election?

These men below, who were generals, are already in the current Cabinet:

The Prime Minister -- BG
The Deputy PM and Defence Minister -- Rear Admiral (equivalent to a BG, one star)
The Foreign Minister -- BG
The Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts -- Rear Admiral (one star).

Disclaimer: Ok, I'm not being serious here. Just playing on the phrase "general election". No political agenda was harmed in the making of this posting.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Signs that say the darndest things

My usual Friday "short" posting. First, I forgot to include the item below yesterday, when I was watching "Point of Entry" on Channel 5 (which I do not usually do)...

The Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) team stakes out a building where suspected drug traffickers are holed up. The team secures the area and moves in. There is mayhem, scuffles, the works.

One baddie manages to run out to a parked motorcycle. The chase inside the building had earlier shown a couple of CNB men almost catching him. They seemed near enough.

But, for some strange reason, they are nowhere around as the baddie emerges, gets on his motorbike, starts the engine, and... now get this, he has time enough to put his helmet on, adjust the strap, is happy with it, and only then does he zip off!

And only then do we see the two CNB heroes running outside, in time to see the tailsmoke of the bike. Sheesh, talk about suspension of disbelief.

Okay, some signs for a laugh:

"Lighting controlled by motion sensor" -- yes, that's what it says on the outside of the toilet doors in my office (Toa Payoh North). So, the toilet stays dark if one goes inside only to pee?

"Classified staff only" -- Many years ago, when my office was in Times House, Kim Seng Road, this was the sign in big print outside one door. It led to the office of the Classified Ads people.

"The water is safe to drink. It has been passed by the Minister of the Environment" -- this was sent to me by my brother Tee Chuan. He swears it is a sign next to a drinking fountain at Shanghai Airport.

"No dog shall be in a public place without its master on a leash" -- a signboard in Belvedere, California. Sent to me by my friend Nicholas.

"Do not feed or molest alligators. $500 fine. Florida Statute 372.667" -- from the Internet.

I'll probably churn out more wacky signs in future postings.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Finally... here's the reason why children's books become dog-eared!

Click on this link above... it's fascinating, even if you don't care two woofs about dogs.

The article is about "how a primary school in Staffordshire, England, is using 'read dogs' -- specially trained greyhounds that listen patiently and nonjudgmentally while small children read aloud to them'. The school was inspired by a similar programme in the United States.

And greyhounds, it seems, are particularly well-suited: they do not bark and their short coat is less likely to trigger allergies. There is a picture of one such greyhound, Danny, lying patiently down beside a little girl, while she reads eagerly to him.

Now read the comments at the end of the article. It seems there are similar programmes in the US, Canada and Britain, especially at public libraries. There must be some special chemistry at work, leveraging on the natural affinity between friendly dogs and hyperactive young children.

Many of the comments are funny too. Here are some samples:

* Oh, very cool! Anything that removes the judgemental adult from the picture is a good thing. Animal puppets work great toward that end, as well. Kids that would usually prefer someone read to them, but are perfectly capable of doing it themselves, will often give in to a whiney dinosaur or monkey that begs them to read with a beseeching, "Oh, please please please please please!" You end up sounding like an idiot, but, it does get the kids to read.
* I heard of a library that does this where the kids can "check out" the dog for a half hour period, using a "bark code".

* "Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."

* A number of ex-stutterers -- including James Earl Jones, if I remember correctly -- have mentioned practising on animals for much this reason.

* I'll vouch for that, first hand. It helps. I had a debilitating stutter through about age 20, but was always fluent when speaking to animals. I still stutter, it's just rare for it to hold me up at all.
* You'll notice they're not doing this with cats. Judgmental bastards.

* Cats are also notorious for bad spelling and grammar.

* katz don't carrrrrrre

* You can't do this with Border collies. They keep interrupting to correct the kids' pronunciation.

* what about fish? reptiles?

As I write this posting (late at night), my two dogs -- Brady the beagle and Killer the mini schnauzer -- are already fast asleep. But after breakfast tomorrow, I'll dust off my War and Peace!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Never be too cocky for your own good?

My previous two postings, while peppered with some of my wacky comments, spotlighted an issue China's leaders take seriously -- preempting challenges to their rule from the Internet-savvy young and restless, many of whom keenly follow the "change has come/change is coming" events in the Middle East.

The Chinese "old cocks" still hope they can keep outfoxing the "young roosters". I am sure they'll find comfort in the irreverant "story" below:

A farmer had 25 young hens and one old cock. As the old cock was
no longer handling his job efficiently, the farmer bought one young
cock from the market. This was what then happened.

Old cock to Young cock : Welcome, and join me; we will work together
towards productivity.

Young cock : What you mean? As far as I know, you are old and should be

Old cock : Young boy, there are 25 hens here. Can't I help you
with some?

Young cock : No! Not even one; all of them will be mine.

Old cock : In that case, I shall challenge you to a competition and if I
win, you shall allow me to have one hen and if I lose, you will have all.

Young cock : O.K. What kind of competition?

Old cock : We will run the 50 metres from here to that tree. But due to my age, I
hope you will allow me to start off from the first 10 metres.

Young cock : No problem! We will compete tomorrow morning.

The following morning, the cocky Young cock allows the Old cock to
start off and when the Old cock crosses the 10 metres mark the Young cock
chases him with all his might. Soon enough, he was right behind the Old cock's back
in a matter of seconds.

Suddenly, Bang! ..... before he could overtake the Old cock, he was
shot dead by the farmer, who cursed,"Bloody hell ! This is the fifth GAY
young rooster I've bought this week!"


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Flower (jasmine) power, or the Great Chinese Farce (cont'd)

The Straits Times man in Beijing, Peh Shing Huei, continues to provide readers here with glimpses into the Chinese communist regime's paranoia over one word: "jasmine".

In a commentary piece today (1 March), he says:

"The Internet was heavily scrubbed of any mention of "jasmine" Even Chinese President Hu Jintao did not escape. Videos of him singing the Chinese song A Beautiful Jasmine Flower during a trip to Kenya in 2006 were taken down.

"Cable news channels like CNN went black frequently, at the merest mention of Egypt, jasmine and the gatherings [huh? what gatherings?] in China.

[Hmmm. I guess men in China with the women in their life with the name "Jasmine" will suddenly find they can't text them on their cellphone. The telcos would have scrubbed that vile name out! Go a teahouse in any Chinese city and ask for jasmine tea at your own peril... security goons will whisk you away! And, ladies, if your name is "Jasmine Ong Ah Lian", etc,  or even "Jas M. Ines", I suggest you postpone that holiday trip to the Forbidden City, or any other place in the country, while the Great Chinese Farce is raging.]

Peh also wryly adds:

"One [security] man asked me where I was from. Despite parking himself next to me for some 20 minutes, he said, in a nonchalant an air as he could possibly muster, that he could not make out my speech as I spoke to a fellow Singaporean. Who would have thought that Singlish had the potential to be a useful code language." [Yeah, viva la Singlish!!]

All this paranoia from just a mysterious online call for anti-government protests -- given the moniker "Chinese Jasmine Revolution" -- in various Chinese cities two Sundays ago. Nothing happened on the first Sunday (Feb 20) and ditto on Feb 27 (see my posting yesterday). Expect more wayang show this Sunday.

Indeed, in a news report today, Peh said: "Few people [in Beijing last Sunday] seemed aware of the 'jasmine rallies', with several onlookers overheard asking the police if there was an important politician or celebrity around... The jittery authorities had ensured that news of the gatherings [again, what gatherings??] did not reach most regular Chinese. There has been no mention of it in the mainstream media and online talk was heavily censored. So the main action at the gathering points became a tussle between the two largest groups present -- police and foreign journalists [at least one of whom was roughed up such that he required medical treatment].

True, Chinese history is full of turbulence and violent revolts. But it is the Chinese who invented the idea of luan (chaos) in the sense that luan is to be feared while social stability is to be revered. But the Chinese are also superstitious, and believe in the idea of the Mandate of Heaven. I think this is the regime's fear behind its paranoia over the word "jasmine". But no one in his right mind would imagine that the present regime is in danger of losing its mandate. Yet.