[About this blog] Inspired by local soccer player Mike Lim during my rookie reporter days at Singapore Polytechnic, I set up this blog in August 2002. I feel that blogging is a novel platform to document interesting facets of my life and my thoughts on certain issues. [Email blogger] ephraim@singnet.com.sg

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

[Meeting Residents of Blks 419-421 Hougang Ave 10]
1. It was a warm evening and I had arrived a little late because of a bad jam on the TPE. After visiting the units at Blk 421, I had a dialogue with residents of Blks 419-421. Many were happy just to chat. Dirty lifts were a particular problem especially urine, even faeces! I asked the Town Council official to step up enforcement. Unless we take action against one or two culprits, the problem can't be solved.

2. As always, the number one request was lift upgrading. I replied that the application has been made and we are hoping for the green light next year. However, not all residents may benefit because some of the blocks in the precinct have a complicated design which makes it hard to build additional lift shafts. I hope the architects and engineers can come up with good solutions. Cost of living, particularly food and fuel inflation, was a big concern. Traffic safety was another worry. A few residents asked for better landscaping in the vicinity including a fitness corner for senior citizens.

3. I met a number of boys and girls who were either studying or going to study in polys and universities. That cheered me up because they are Singapore's future. One TP student asked me about the Mas Selamat case. He asked how the government was going to ensure security with him on the loose. I spent some time talking to him and his parents about the terrorism situation and how we have long been a JI target. Mas Selamat was a serious setback but this is a long fight and we'll just have to keep at it and work with other countries.

4. After the session ended, I took a group picture with Peter Tang and his RC members including a few young kids who've been helping out since they were in primary school.

Do also read my posts on Beyond SG

[Almost a good term]
It has been a rather fruitful term that has passed. I digress. I think my posts are quite boring. I've been reading the blogs of younger people - both guys and girls - and what they write seems to be more exciting that what I write. All those birthday parties and photos that trigger memories. And not forgetting their challenges in life at a life changing stage. Maybe I am way past that. Maybe.

Back to the topic of results, they are improving albeit only by an unsignificant miniscule amount - maybe about 0.02. At least this term I am an average B student. I am quite satisfied although an A once a while would be good. Am I am moving from idealism to pragmatism?

Many things have happened this term - it hasn't been smooth sailing, many uncharted waters, many pioneering acts, many opportunities and a gold medal (which I have not written about yet).

Some things happened for the better. But not all have. But there were many lessons learnt. Thanks for pointing that out Minghuei - life is fair, when you lose something, you gain something - that was a good one.

There are many interpretations of life. Some say life is a journey, others say life is a stage. But whatever it is, the meaning of your life is what you experience first hand and make out of it.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

[Reactions at the next elections]
I was listening to a Mr Brown Show podcast titled blame it on somebody and it is hilarious. I can't describe how funny it is, you have to go listen to it yourself. Okay, maybe just one sentence: it is just as funny as the Mas Selamat escape.

They say time changes everything. And I strongly agree. As time goes by, the incident fades from our minds - the posters of Mas Selamat turn yellow, they drop off. So when the hype dies down and the people let down their guard, our dear Mas Selamat can slowly start to disappear. Let's move on.

My brother asked me if I think Wong Kan Seng will lose votes during the next General Elections. I painted two scenarios.

The first, is a fundamental one - will there be an opposition there or would it be a walkover? If there is a contest then there's a possibility. Another factor is whether Mas Selamat is caught by then. Well, if Mas Selamat is caught, there's no case in point. If not, the opposition would likely capitalise on this issue.

The second, is whether Wong Kang Seng would be running in his ward - Bishan-Toa Payoh. If Wong Kan Seng runs, would the residents of Bishan-Toa Payoh want to lose two cabinet ministers (provided there is no reshuffle) - Wong Kan Seng and Ng Eng Hen. My guess is probably not.

I was reading some comments on theonlinecitizen and one comment struck me - there was no evidence to show that Mas Selamat did indeed escape from the detention centre.

Some ideas suggested to show that this was not a conspiracy or a cover-up by the government was to present the last medical report of Mas Selamat showing the condition of his health to disprove that he was accidentally killed while in detention. Other suggestions were to provide evidence of the last time Mas Selamat's family members had visited him to show that he was well and good as well as other eye-witness accounts of people who saw him escape.

Perhaps posting such suggestions here would get some answers. Because I know many people read what I post here. Let's see where this goes.

Friday, April 25, 2008

[Pragmatic Singapore]
Is philosophy a belief? That was a question that Singaporean contemporary artist Cheo Chai Hiang raised to provoke in an artist talk at NAFA today. His answer? Philosophy makes people think, belief is a lazy emotion.

And I agree. Sometime back in Ethnography class, we asked why a chair is a chair? Does a chair need to have four legs? Does having three legs still make a chair a chair? What if it has no legs? Is it still a chair? That brought up the discussion of the great philosophers Plato and Aristotle. A chair is simple a chair because of the inscibed meanings that we place on it. The discussion grew deeper and we debated about names and other things such as if one is still alive when brain dead. Now that is philosophy.

After the talk, I posed a question to my colleagues. Is belief an art or a science? It is a science if it follows the positivist approach where every single aspect is based on direct observation or experience and based on facts. It is an art because belief is taken at face value and not questioned.

Cheo Chai Hiang's talk on Journying and Sojournying opened my mind further towards the interpretation of art. I was intrigued before with the exposure that I had with installation art as well as during Singapore Biennale in 2006.

After doing an installation art during my Creative Thinking classes, I realised art is deep. It may seem simple when taken at face value. But when you take time to think about it, you go deeper in thought about what it really is. What is the meaning of art? Is it the essence of art that is important, the object, or the thinking that makes art art? I believe in the latter.

There were many small details and lessons in just one talk alone.

One was on searching for the source of the Singapore. Chai Hiang traced the source of the Singapore River and reached a covered area where he believed was the start of the river. He talked about the uncovering of the covered source of the Singapore river.

Another was a political take on art. When the old national library was going to close, he proposed an artpiece which puts the old national library and a building designed by I.M Pei - The Gateway - together in a large bin. His idea was to have people transport the remains (rubble) of the old national library to the new national library. This rubble was to be put in a bin together with elements of The Gateway. A video of the process was to be recorded thus becoming a symbolism of throwing away the old national library. This proposal was sadly rejected by the National Library Board.

Chai Hiang spoke about how many of his ideas were clamped down upon or rejected by the Singapore Government (or its officials). For example, he spoke of how a portrait of Lu Xun at the old LaSalle building was white-washed. This prompted him to talk about his artwork titled Erased, Mislaid, Rejected, Revisited.

Another strong idea was of how things do not remain for long and the idea of holding on to things that one has. He spoke about the building of K K Hospital on a cemetery site - from death (cemetery) to life (K K Hospital). This was to show that nothing really remains the same. To illustrate his point on dying street opera, he took to the streets with people dressed in opera costumes and thick make-up. These actors went all over town and even travelled on the MRT trains.

Cheo Chai Hiang's works are justaposed with poems (usually Chinese ones) and are thought-provoking. They are political (his work in Sydney had bags under the counter to make a point where corruption was rampant in Sydney during the real estate boom where politicians were bribed) and are a form of social commentaries beyond the written word.

Before ending the talk, he challenged those present to think outside pragmatism (which is the current situation in Singapore) and to add in a bit of idealism. Pragmatism to him, I suppose, is boring (from what he said) because if everyone is so practical, you can expect the outcomes. Well, I think he wants to have some surprises. I believe surprises are good. Then we can break out from that mould that makes Singapore the way it has been for the last 42 years. Has it been stiff and boring?

Photo credit: http://www.pilotlondon.org/artists/image.php?img_id=436&year=2005

I'm glad to say that internship at the National Arts Council is not about sticking in the office the whole day. The exposure to many artworks both in the office (through looking at magazines of other worldwide biennales) and though such talks quenches the thirst to know more. Some surprises are good. There's no doubt about it.

1. When I told my wife that I was visiting Bhopal, capital of Madhya Pradesh, she asked if the place was still radioactive. Radioactive? Well, many people remember the terrible accident that happened in 1984 when a Union Carbide fertiliser plant leaked noxious gas killing thousands of people. It was not a radioactive leak but cyanide. Hundreds of thousands of others were affected, some for life. The morning after I arrived, I visited the site. Part of the plant is still there. Next to it was an open ground where some kids were playing soccer.

2. Madhya Pradesh is India's second biggest state with a population of 60 million. It is poised to join the ranks of faster growing states like Maharashtra. With relatively more land, investors are coming in from other states to take advantage of cheaper real estate and the availability of power and natural resources. As more highways are built and with the improvement in Indian Rail, Madhya Pradesh's central location has become an important advantage. Recently, Proctor&Gamble decided to centralise its distribution in Bhopal. I was returning a visit made by the Chief Minister to Singapore in November 2006.

With Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan

3. Coming from Delhi or Mumbai, the lakes and hills of Bhopal are a welcome relief. Property prices have been going up. Nearby is Sanchi which is an important Buddhist site dating back to the 3rd century BC. Founded by Ashoka, the Sanchi Stupa is the biggest in India. The British started restoring the ruins in the 19th century. It is now considered one of the best maintained archaelogical sites in India. We met a group of East Asian tourists which included a few Buddhist nuns. The guide said they were Japanese. In fact they were Taiwanese speaking Hokkien. In the coming years, we can expect to see a huge increase in the number of East Asians visiting Buddhist sites in India.

Do also read my posts on Beyond SG

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

[Return to India]
1. Last year, during his bilateral visit to Singapore, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee and I agreed to hold ministerial consultations every year. I am here in Delhi for the inaugural consultation. It is a pleasure working with Shri Mukherjee. He is one of India's most well regarded political leaders, having served in different governments in different capacities. Unfailingly courteous, he is measured in his views and wise. I learn much from him. Our bilateral relations are excellent with cooperation now extending into defence, education and culture.

Meeting with Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee

2. India is making rapid strides. Despite many bottlenecks, the economy is already cantering along at 8-9% a year. With better logistics and physical infrastructure, it can also make double digits. But, as with all countries, there'll be up's and down's. Right now, inflation in fuel and food prices has become a serious political problem. Like China, the country has a huge reservoir of talent. Like China, it has a high savings rate. In recent years, the savings rates at the individual, corporate, state and federal levels have all gone up. Like China, India is fully capable of funding its own growth.

3. The re-emergence of these two giants on the global stage is a huge phenomenon. Their encounter with each other in the 21st century will be on all fronts, not just economic, but also political, cultural and philosophical. Meeting some young Indian MPs today, I was surprised that many had not been to China before. They need to engage each other much more. I floated this idea to them: why not establish reciprocal cheap rail travel for young people so that undergraduates can travel to each other's country, develop mutual understanding and make friends? (A kind of Asiarail linking the two biggest rail systems in the world.) Start with students from the top 50 or 100 universities. Of course, we in ASEAN must also make sure we are not left behind in preparing the next generation for an exciting new Asia.

4. I was not at all surprised that the Indian Government took care to ensure that the Olympic torch was well-protected when it was in Delhi last week. Sino-Indian relations are too important to be lightly trifled with.

Do also read my posts on Beyond SG

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

[Hitting the nail on the head]
MPs hit the nail on the head with the important question about whether one should step down for one's mistakes. And that was what Singaporeans had started to comment on immediately after the escape of Mas Selamat.

When I posed that question in class during the eruption of the case, my Prof compared the situation to other countries. He mentioned that had this happened in European countries, ministers would have gladly stepped down with no questions asked.

For now, as said by PM Lee in Parliament today: "Let us pull together, grow from this experience, and emerge stronger from this."

Monday, April 21, 2008

[CCTV down must explain]
Even before the findings were released in Parliament today, I was discussing the Mas Selamat case with one of my managers at the community club. We were using the Mas Selamat case as a parallel to another non-related event. I boldly said that there would probably be not just one factor that led to Mas Selamat's escape - it would have been based on a confluence of factors. And a confluence of factors it was as what DPM Wong had described.

Said PM Lee in his first time commenting on the Mas Selamat case: "It's not done us good for our reputation but I don't think people believe that we are just like any other place where you can have television sets and handphones and other things in jail. I mean we are different ..."

And I have got to agree that we are different - no television sets, no handphones. Just windows that should have grills but did not and CCTV cameras that cannot record. We are indeed different.

I thought it was a big joke when it was revealed that the CCTV cameras had not been commissione and therefore could not record. The footage of CCTV cameras were the key to explaining how Mas Selamat escaped during the lapse of 11 minutes from the time he closed the cubical door to the time his escape was discovered.

In 2006, CCTV footage had played a key role in ascertaining whether something as simple as a form was submitted or not. Sorry seems to be the hardest word to use to apologise for such complacency.

Surely if the Home Team can boast about themselves using their latest technology and warfare in the field and jungles, one can conclude that the Home Team indeed invests in the best equipment including the best CCTV system.

But no one expected it not to work. Now how to explain?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

I'm both excited and happy today.

I'm happy because the Bedok Reservoir-Punggol dragonboat team scored the top honours in this year's Inter-Divisional race. And this had taught me many lessons on diplomacy and handling the wierdest and hardest things - human relations and interactions. And I'm all red from the two days of hot sun at the Bedok Reservoir.

I'm excited because I will start my internship at the National Arts Council handling the marketing and publications for Singapore's second art biennale which features contemporary art - videos, installations, drawings and an exciting exhibit at the Singapore Flyer. The people there have told me that it ain't gonna be easy and that I will have to do a lot of overtime but I am prepared for this big challenge. Having being involved in publications since my polytechnic days and as the pioneer Editor-in-Chief of the Singapore Management University's first student newspaper I am confident that I will deliver.

It's going to be a long journey ahead full of excitement and I am glad to be part of the team.

Friday, April 18, 2008

[Transforming Singapore]
Was the case of the recent Malaysian elections one of transformation or transplacement? Huntington writes that it is difficult to draw a clear line between the two. It was likely that PM Abdullah still wanted to have a majority share in Parliament. Although he allowed a longer campaigning period, that could have been a hint to open up thus leading to transformation. It could have been transplacement if there were covert interactions as the oppostion became stronger. To fully pinpoint what it was would require insider information.

Now for the Singapore context.

Transformation in Singapore can happen but this will not happen overnight. It would take years for our opposition parties to build up before the government would find the opposition in Singapore a threat. They may be worried about the role of the online media during the Malaysian elections and that it may happen to Singapore. But largely, the opposition parties are not united in fighting the incumbent (especially the more radical party). Although at the last elections, the ruling party's support declined, the majority of the seats still belong to the ruling party.

How can this change? There are two possibilities - when citizens realise the need to be a full democracy (or ideal democracy - high contestation and high participation) and when leaders with democratic ideals come into power. For the latter, this influence would be diffused thus causing the loosening up of the government. Simultaneously, the opposition parties build on their strengths by having more credible and rational members. Add to that, the relaxation of control over state media will further complement this change thus allowing more transparency.

Replacement in Singapore is very unlikely to happen. State-police and state-military are very unlikely to overthrow the powers-to-be in Singapore (they are all the king's men). Moveover, with assembly acts that prohibit even the gathering of more than four people, this rules out the possibility of having mass demonstrations. Students who demonstrated in public places in Singapore (i.e. their schools and indoors) against the military junta in Myanmar had little impact and caused little change. These actions are not strong enough to really bring about replacement in Singapore.

The death of a leader in Singapore would also not have any impact on the government and future developments of the party. The ruling party's ideals are self-running and even the death of the ruling party's founder would not shake the foundations of a party that was not built overnight.

Transplacement in Singapore is quite unlikely but not to be ruled out. If the opposition parties in Singapore build up and they win considerable landslide votes, they will have a strong representation in Parliament. When threatened, the ruling party may opt to have thorough negotiations with the opposition to further allow transplacement thus propelling Singapore to a full democracy. Unrest and violence (which happened during the transplacement in South Africa) against the Singapore government can be highly ruled out.

So it seems clear that the only way is for a transformation to occur. Whether it would will be based on a confluence of factors.

The next general election would be the first step. It'll probably take more than three elections to see Singapore transform into a full democracy. But that begs the question. Do Singaporeans want a full democracy? Or are they content with the Singapore model of governance?

[No time for a break]
I'm back. But I am not sure how long this will last.

Finished my fourth (and last) exam paper today and there was supposed to a lot of pictures and stories but hope of that is dashed since I have lost my phone (again!). Maybe I shall write to Nokia to get sponsorship.

There's been so much going on and I have yet to complete part two of my post on the next Singapore elections. Hang in there! It'll be up soon I promise. I will be starting my internship next week with the Singapore Biennale 2008 Secretariat. I had applied for SPH and MediaCorp but I felt I had so much more to learn so National Arts Council, here I come. Actually SPH and MediaCorp did not get back and I don't know what the heck is going on but I'm cool.

My office takes a premium spot in town and I think it'll be pretty arty farty. National Arts Council leh. Looking forward to that and also looking forward to flying to Beijing for the Olympics after my three-and-a-half month stint at NAC. And thereafter, the engines will roar for F1. The next half of the year will be pretty exciting. So please I don't want to screw it up.

Friday, April 11, 2008

1. Not many Singaporeans are aware that the per capita income of the Czech Republic has overtaken that of Portugal and Greece in the European Union. After the end of the Cold War, the old Czechoslovakia was split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It was a happy divorce by mutual consent. Both countries are now the best of neighbours.

2. I was able to travel by highway from Vienna to Bratislava, and from Bratislava to Prague without the hassle of border controls. This is the beauty of the Schengen Treaty which removed internal border controls for the majority of countries in the EU. The EU is an inspiration to us in ASEAN.

3. Many people had told me of the charm of Prague. The capital of the Czech Republic is indeed of rare beauty, with old bridges, castles, churches, monuments and libraries going back to the medieval ages.

4. I called on the PM yesterday and met Foreign Minister Karel Shwarzenberg today. Our bilateral relationship is problem free but not substantial. Going forward, there are only opportunities for both sides. The Czech people have a rich heritage and a strong intellectual tradition. Once freed of Communism, they are again flourishing.

With Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek

With Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg

Do also read my posts on Beyond SG

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

1. It was my first visit to the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency). Since I was in Vienna for a bilateral meeting, I asked to meet the Director General Dr Mohamed Elbaradei. Recognising the importance of nuclear energy, ASEAN Leaders had called for a safety regime to be established so that nuclear energy could be harnessed in a safe and peaceful way. ASEAN also has a treaty to keep the region free of nuclear weapons.

2. Dr Elbaradei said that the IAEA would be happy to help ASEAN work out the safety regime. We also talked about the nuclear issue in North Korea and Iran. He was very clear in his mind that the key problem in both these cases was not nuclear proliferation but politics. He had publicly called for the US to engage the Iranians. I noted that, as we were speaking, the Americans and North Koreans were meeting in Singapore on the nuclear issue.

3. The IAEA enjoys a high prestige in the world today. What Dr Elbaradei says carries a lot of weight. Many of us still remember how he and Hans Blix appeared before the UN Security Council in New York on the Iraqi nuclear threat. I was impressed by his inner calm despite the many issues raging around him. Because he cuts an authoritative figure, many countries look to him for leadership and guidance.

Do also read my posts on Beyond SG

Saturday, April 05, 2008

[Al Azhar]
1. I called on Grand Sheikh Tantawi of Al Azhar on Thursday during my bilateral visit to Cairo. I first met him in 1993 when he was the Grand Mufti. In 2006, he visited Singapore to deliver the MUIS Lecture and was very well received. He recalled his visit fondly and praised Singapore's religious harmony. He spoke of the need for tolerance and dialogue. When I told him of our opposition to Geert Wilders' inflammatory video 'Fitna', he expressed appreciation.

2. Al Azhar is a remarkable institution. It teaches not only Islam but a whole range of subjects include science and medicine. According to the deputy of the Grand Mufti, Al Azhar has over 2 million students! They come from all over the Sunni world. When it was first established by the Fatimids over a thousand years ago, it was Shiite. The great Muslim Kurdish leader Saladin changed it into a Sunni university when he conquered Egypt. During the centuries of Ottoman domination, the Turks made no attempt to transfer the seat of Sunni instruction to Istanbul.

3. I thanked Sheikh Tantawi for looking after our religious students studying there who number over 200 and asked for Al Azhar's continued support of our madrasahs in Singapore. He is a mild man of deep spirituality.

Do also read my posts on Beyond SG

[Mt Sinai]
1. I had never felt so physically exhausted since leaving the SAF a long time ago. From St Catherine Monastary to the summit of Mt Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments was a steep ascent. We rode camels for an hour and a half to the base station before climbing the last 750 steps. At an altitude of over 2000m, the air was thin and I had to rest every twenty steps or so. The journey back was worse. We had to walk all the way because riding a camel downhill was dangerous. The sloping ground was uneven and put great stress on my knees. I had to concentrate on every step.

2. But the view at the top of the Sinai was breathtaking. There is a small church and a tiny mosque, pointing in different directions, the mosque to Mecca and the church presumably to Jerusalem. By the side of the mosque is a hole in which Moses was believed to have prayed 40 days. I was glad to have made the effort but don't think I want to do it again.

3. St Catherine Monastary itself is a treasure with a history going back to the 4th century. When Arab Muslims conquered the area in the 7th century, the Prophet Mohamed granted the monastary special protection. The document drafted by Ali was touched by the Prophet and still exists in the Topkapi in Istanbul. But for this protection, the monastary would have been destroyed centuries ago. Copies of the protection order also gave the monks who lived there free passage in the Muslim realm. There is a wonderful library of old books including the earliest complete bible in the world.

4. The Greek Orthodox Archbishop who received me has lived there 47 years. When he learnt that I was going to climb Mt Sinai, he gave me a special blessing. It was only later that I appreciated why he did so.

Do also read my posts on Beyond SG

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

[Upcoming events by my YEC]
Studies aside, I have also been busy planning for some interesting events in the Hougang area of Aljunied GRC.

There's the Flea Market which has overwhelming response from the public - we are oversubscribed now. But do go down and check out the stuff being sold.

And also another event to make more friends of the opposite sex through games.

I must say both events are priced fairly well so please come down and support the Punggol CC YEC!