Thursday, November 15, 2007

Chapter 8: Crabs, Coffee and Cantonese Opera

One of our colleagues from the London branch office was in town. Bruce was an account manager from the UK Corporate Finance team and he was in Singapore to attend a training session on “Prevention of Money Laundering”. Nicky, KZ, Ju and I had known this guy for two to three years. He was a humorous gentleman who was very interested in Chinese culture. So Nicky suggested taking him to somewhere memorable on the night before his departure. A Cantonese opera performance.

The opera was held at the famous Esplanade. This durian-shaped theatre house is the place to watch free but “difficult to understand” performances by symphonic bands, musicians and vocalists who are not so well-known, affordable but “not easy to appreciate” contemporary dances, not costly but “very cultural” performances by famous musicians together with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, and expensive but “easily accepted by the public” operas and musicals, like Mama Mia.

Since the opera was starting at eight o’clock, we reached the Esplanade early to have our dinner. Ju suggested having a seafood dinner at a popular seafood restaurant there.

“Hey Ju, have you forgotten that KZ is a vegetarian?” I nudged.
“Oops!” Ju realized then.
“Don’t worry. Got vegetables,” said KZ calmly.

So we proceeded to have our dinner at that popular seafood restaurant. The four omnivores could not decide on whether to have chili crabs or black pepper crabs, so Ju ordered both. She ordered one more steamed fish and two vegetarian dishes for KZ, one stir-fried greens and another tofu on hotplate, and reminded the waitress sternly not to add any garlic or onions into these two dishes.

When the two plates of crabs arrived at the table, the exhilarated Bruce blurted a “Wow!” so loudly that the patrons on the next table turned around and looked. He explained to us excitedly that he had never seen such enormous crabs in the United Kingdom before.

“Are all Singapore crabs so big?” Bruce asked Ju avidly.
“No, Singapore crabs are small,” explained Ju. “These crabs are from Sri Lanka.”

Yes, Singapore relies heavily on foreign talents. We had a Malaysian to climb the Everest for us; we formed a national table tennis team with China Chinese and gave them permanent resident status so that we could compete with China during the Olympics; we even employed a Caucasian to develop our Sentosa island. We will stop at nothing if we could make use of foreign talents shamelessly to impress the world. Including crabs.

Bruce was indeed impressed by the size of the crabs though they were not locals. He was happy posing and taking pictures of the plate of crabs, the crab claws and the crab shells with his digital camera. He even requested a waitress to take a group picture of five human beings and four crabs.

“Why is he so excited?” Nicky whispered to me. “Hasn’t he seen any crabs before?”
“Hey, who posed and took picture with a plate of fish and chips in London?” I replied softly.

Nicky pretended he did not hear me and continued digging and eating the meat from the crab claw.

Our dinner finished early and we even had time to stroll by the expensive shops in the Esplanade. Bruce had been looking forward to the opera for the whole day so while most Singaporeans were late for five minutes, the five of us were already sitting in the Recital Studio fifteen minutes before the starting time. As expected, most of the audiences were old Cantonese uncles and aunties who were dressing up for a wedding dinner. What we did not expect was to see quite a number of Caucasians who were dressing up to watch The Phantom of the Opera. It was ironical that while more young Chinese Singaporeans were struggling with speaking and writing basic Chinese, more Westerners had learnt to appreciate the Chinese culture.

When the opera finally started, KZ, Ju and I were delighted to find English and Chinese subtitles flashed on the narrow white screen above the stage. I would not expect our Hong Konger Nicky to have any difficulty understanding the opera so the subtitles should be optional for him. True indeed, he did not even take a glance at the subtitles. As for Bruce, he was busy nodding his head so that he could read the subtitles above and watches the actions below. Suddenly I realized that he looked like the Hidamari No Tami Japanese toy on my desk that moved its head up and down in slow motion.

The whole performance was actually consisted of six mini operas, which Nicky said were classic Cantonese operas. The first one was about two famous warriors during the epoch of The Three Kingdoms, Zhang Fei and Ma Chao, who had to quarrel for half an hour before finally engaging in battle. The two warriors were played by two aunties dressed in modern clothing. I heard Bruce whispering to Nicky: “Geez, I had long mistaken Zhang Fei to be a guy!”

The second opera was about Wang Zhao Jun, one of the Four Beauties of ancient China, who was also one of Emperor Han Yuan Di’s concubine. The king of Eastern Xiongnu, a.k.a. some kind of barbarian state, requested to marry a Han Chinese princess on the basis of “peace marriage”. Wang Zhao Jun volunteered and so in the opera, it related how she rode a horse and left for the border with an imperial official, one soldier and two palace maids. One part where I felt very illogical in the opera was the way these people traveled. The soldier would scout the land before Wang Zhao Jun and the imperial official followed in their horse, and the palace maids followed behind, with one of them carrying Wang Zhao Jun’s famous Pi Pa, a kind of Chinese musical instrument that looked like a guitar. Either the horses were moving very slowly, or we had got three potential Olympics long distance runners there.

There was some problem in the English subtitles as well. There was a part where Wang Zhao Jun sang that she would be leading her life somewhere so far away from the country, and she was worried that nobody would know of her death in the future, and that nobody would be there to bury her bones. The translated English subtitle was “Today I go far away not knowing who would bury me when I die tomorrow”.

The third opera was about an unfaithful wife who forced her husband, a poor scholar, to divorce her so that she could marry a rich man. The unfaithful wife sang and nagged at the poor husband about how she had suffered with him, while the poor husband sang and envisaged on how they should make it through the hardship together. Finally, the unfaithful wife admitted that she had an affair with a rich man and the infuriated poor husband signed on the divorce paper.

“Poor guy,” Ju whispered softly to me.
“Yeh, but the story could’ve been more interesting. The script’s too simple.”
“Like say, the affair could rankle the husband so much that in a fit of anger, he takes up the axe besides the pile of woods there and slash the wife from the back. Then he drags her behind that wooden frame and after a while comes out with lumps of rocks wrapped up that symbolizes the wife has been chopped into pieces. There could be a few long pieces of moving blue cloths at the back of the stage to symbolize a river, and the husband walks toward it and throws the chopped body parts of the wife into the river.”

Ju stared at me so hard that her eyes were like two torch lights shining on my face in a dark cinema.

“Have you been waiting too much Hong Kong triads movies?” Ju hissed.
“No, but I’ve been watching the news,” I whispered back.

The fourth opera was a part taken from the Dream of the Red Chamber. This time, Nick was quick enough to tell Bruce that the young master Jia Bao Yu was played by a female, before Bruce mistaken that Jia Bao Yu was a gay.

The fifth opera was about how Diao Chan, another one of the Four Beauties of ancient China, who seduced Lu Bu the warrior during the epoch of The Three Kingdoms. Together with Lu Bu, all of us except Ju had our eyes fixed on Diao Chan as well. She was the prettiest, slenderest and youngest female performer in the whole night. Especially the part where this pretty lady in pink dress and shining head gear performed a fan dance for Lu Bu.

The last opera was about the romance between a water fairy and a poor scholar. Well, they sure had lots of poor scholars in ancient China, not the rich ones we had in present days. By then, Bruce had finally understood that most of the male roles in Cantonese opera, especially those poor scholars, were played by women. Then I heard him whispering to Nicky: “Why don’t they employ more guys to play the male roles?”

After the Cantonese opera, we were rather hungry due to the early dinner so Nicky suggested that we go head towards the couple of cafes at the Fullerton One. Ju pointed out that one particular café was rather famous for its cakes, like its strawberries shortcake, so we decided to give it a try. We chose to sit by the river instead of in the air-conditioned cafe because Bruce wanted to “feel the natural air”. It was one against four, but he was the guest.

We ordered a couple of cakes and desserts, and Bruce asked the waitress if he could have a glass of iced water.

“Sorry sir, we don’t serve iced water,” replied the waitress coldly. “We have different coffees and teas on the menu, maybe you would like to take a look?”
“Isn’t now a bit late for coffee?” asked Bruce.
“Er… we have Evian mineral water too.”

Bruce pondered for a while, and then replied: “Just give me a cup of coffee then.”
“Do you want a cappuccino, latte or …”
“No, just a normal brewed hot coffee. Thank you.”
“Oh… okay, thank you sir. Let me repeat your orders…”

After the waitress had done repeating our orders and left the table, Bruce turned to me and asked: “I thought the New Water and desalination plant have already solved the water shortage issue in Singapore?”

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Chapter 7: Missing Food Scene Investigation

“This is so disgusting!” Ju hollered from her desk in aghast.

Rose, Choi, Nicky and Sally rushed to her desk and looked at a blank space in the basket where Ju’s finger was pointing.

“What happened? I don’t see any ants or cockroaches,” said the puzzled Sally.
“Somebody stole my cookies!” berated Ju. “I put a new unopened package of butter cookies here yesterday and now it’s gone!”

The basket on the corner of Ju’s desk had been used as a “food basket” by our team. Everybody in the team would contribute some food regularly, like biscuits, chocolates, chips and other snacks, and put them into the basket. As and when any of us decided to take a bite, we would just walk over and “pick and munch” from the basket. A very simple idea that kept us from getting hungry and allowed us to socialize at the same time.

However, it appeared that somebody had been stealing from this “food basket” of ours.

“Urgh… first it was my pack of potato chips, now it’s Ju’s cookies,” complained the miffed Choi.
“I think this thief is getting daring,” noted Ju. “I know he used to pick up a couple of biscuits every now and then, but now he’s taking the whole pack!”
“Maybe you guys can start to hide those unopened food below Ju’s table instead of placing them so openly in the basket?” suggested Nicky.
“No, no use. My pack of potato chips was placed under Ju’s table,” Choi shook his head.
“I just don’t understand! Why must this guy steal food from the office? I don’t believe anybody who works around here can be so poor and underprivileged!” Ju screamed again.

I could easily make a safe guess that the lowest paid executive on this floor was drawing a monthly salary of at least two thousands dollars. How poor and underprivileged can this person be? The nearest foods available were the chicken pies from the café downstairs and the food court in the building across the road. Even if he/she had not taken any meal since the night before, I was certain that he/she could make his/her way safely to these foods. How weak from hunger can this person be?

“Maybe we should try to build a profile of this thief so that we know who is the suspicious one?” suggested Rose.
“This guy definitely has a sweet tooth. I know he drank from the bottle of Terik Pepsi that I put in the fridge in the pantry,” said Choi.
“What’s a ‘Terik Pepsi’?” asked Nicky.
“Oh, it’s coffee flavored Pepsi.”
”Yak… that’s a taste for weird stuff, not sweet,” commented Sally.
“I agree he has got a sweet tooth! He ate from the tub of ice-cream that I put in the freezer as well!” remembered Nicky.
“And three pieces of chocolates that Beng got for me from London,” said Ju.
“Hang on… that thief might not be a ‘he’ after all,” analyzed Nicky. “Ju, you’re talking about those berry jam-filled heart shaped chocolates that Beng bought back? Then we should be looking at a ‘her’.”
“Why?” asked Ju.
“Because most straight guys will not appreciate eating berry jam-filled heart shaped chocolates. Well, unless he’s a gay, of course. But I’m not aware of any gay on this floor” Nicky said solemnly.

“KZ, have you ever lost any food from your table?” asked Sally.
KZ looked up from his notebook and replied, “Cereal bar.”
“Hang on…,” analyzed Nicky. “Why will a sweet toothed gal eat KZ’s low fat, no sugar, no taste cereal bar?”
“Because she was trying to neutralize the sweetness in her mouth after eating those sweet stuffs?” answered Sally.
“No! I think it’s more likely that there is more than one thief!” exclaimed Nicky.

Nicky had once again proved that he was the uncontested and undisputed product analyst of our team, with unbeatable experience in analyzing financial products, stock markets and… food stealing thieves.

“Beng, have you lost any food before?” asked Ju.
“Erm… I guess the thieves are not very keen in taking mint leaves?”

Yes, mint leaves. Because the only thing edible on my desk was the small pot of mint plant. I had chosen a pot of mint plant over the typical office plants of money plants and cactuses because I liked the fresh smell emitted from its leaves. It was easy to handle and grew fast too. Not like the three-tired bamboo plant on Nicky’s table that had a specific number of bamboo sticks on each tier. It could only be watered a specific amount of water during some specific times of the day, and it hardly grew from the time that Nicky had bought it.

After Nicky had finished writing the food that had been stolen on a piece of paper, he read from it.

“Okay, so these thieves liked weird Pepsi…”
“Terik Pepsi,” interrupted Choi.
“Terik Pepsi, ice-cream, berries-filled heart shaped chocolates, tasteless cereal bar…”
KZ looked up from his notebook and raised an eyebrow at Nicky’s description of his cereal bar.
“Potato chips, digestive biscuits, chocolate biscuits, yogurts, dried vegetable snacks and butter cookies.”
“Wow, that’s a lot of food they’ve stolen!” exclaimed Sally.
“They disliked and thus did not touch Rose’s green apples, carrot sticks and celery sticks; KZ’s wheatgrass powder and green tea bags; my preserved prunes, preserved lemon skins and preserved century eggs…”
“Nobody will steal your preserved stuffs,” interrupted Choi.
Nicky raised an eyebrow to Choi before continuing: “and Beng’s mint leaves.”

Geez, I supposed none of us would have expected such long list of food that the thieves had been stealing from us. I could understand the greed of those who stole hand soups from hotel rooms or even those who queued up twice for free food samples given away at MRT train stations. Those were simply greedy. But the greed of those who stole food from their own colleagues working in the same company? These were amorally greedy.

“What do you think we can do to prevent our food from being stolen again?” Ju asked Nicky.
“Paste a ‘do not steal our food’ sign near the basket?” suggested Nicky.
“No, it won’t work,” commented Choi. “Remember how motorists love to park next to the ‘do not park’ sign and on the double yellow lines? Pasting the sign will only prompt them to steal more.”
“How about we wrap the packets and boxes of food in newspapers as camouflage?” suggested Sally.
“Haha… you’ll find the food missing and the tore newspapers in the nearby wastepaper basket!” Choi laughed. “The more you try to cover, the more interested they will be, and the more they’ll try to find out.”

Choi was right. Warning signs never worked. Just like you can always find smokers smoking near the “no smoking” sign, like in the lift or at the bus stop. Just like you can always find people fishing near the “no fishing” signs at reservoirs. Just like you can always find people munching their burgers on the bus, standing next to the “no eating and drinking” sign.

“Stupid thieves!” Sally blurted. “Why don’t we get hold of some expired food and place them in the basket for these thieves to steal?”
“No, some people are not allergic to expired food,” Nicky mused. “We should put some itchy powder on the food packages instead!”
“Or superglue!” exclaimed Choi.
“Or put some mini mousetraps inside the food packages!” exclaimed Rose.
“And I can also ask a Taoist to write a ‘fu’ and paste it on the food basket, so that whoever that steals from us will be cursed for seven years!” Nicky suggested avidly.

Everybody stopped to stare at Nicky. His brain was running too fast again.

“Hey guys, why don’t you just lock up the basket of food before going home?” I suggested.
“It’s too troublesome!” Rose, Ju, Choi and Nicky shouted at me all at once. Talk about unity for the wrong reason.

“Actually I think I’ve got the perfect solution that will work for sure,” Choi grinned and rubbed his chin.

Everybody looked at him quietly. Even KZ looked up from his notebook.

“Why don’t we put the food basket at Dawn’s desk?” Choi suggested.

Everybody then turned and looked at Dawn’s empty desk. She was on medical leave, which explained her absence from this whole conversation.

“Though she hardly contributes, but she hardly eats these snacks as well!” interrupted the puzzled Sally.
“That’s why it’s safe there!” exclaimed the excited Choi. “And knowing how busybody she is, she won’t mind having the basket there!”
“But why won’t the thieves steal from the food basket if it’s on Dawn’s table?” asked the still puzzled Sally.
“Because Dawn will use her communication power on the MSN Messenger to ask around and find out who stole from the basket. And for those not in her contact list, she’ll walk up to their desk and ask them one by one. Imagine you’re one of the thieves and Dawn comes over to your desk to ask ‘do you know who stole from the food basket?’ everyday…”

Good Choi! That was one good method to drive the thieves mad and away.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Chapter 6: Cheating the Old folks, Foreigners or Lowly-educated Ones

It was just another morning at the office. After I had booted up my notebook, I habitually walked to the pantry to get a cup of fresh coffee. There, I saw the three cleaning aunties in our company mumbling softly and solemnly in a corner.

“Morning aunties,” I greeted as I walked past them to the coffee machine. They paused to greet me back before continuing their mumblings. While waiting for my coffee to be made, I could not help myself eavesdropping their conversation. No, it was not because of me being too busybody. It was because hard as they tried to keep their voices down, their conversation was still audible in the small pantry.

“So how long has the boss being cheating him?” asked the youngest looking cleaning aunty.
“He said six months,” replied the fattest cleaning aunty. “When his son checked the transactions on his CPF account via the internet, he discovered that starting from April, the boss has not been depositing his CPF contribution into his account.”
“Gosh, I guess I’d better ask my daughter to check my CPF account as well,” said the worry looking cleaning aunty with short hair.

It appeared that one of the cleaning staffs has been cheated by their employer again. Yes, I said ‘again’ because the previous cleaning company had cheated these cleaning staffs before. The cleaning contract for our company was awarded to a different cleaning company every year, probably depending on who was the lowest bidder. After a new cleaning company has won the contract, it would employ the same cleaning staffs from the previous company. When these cleaning staffs were employed by the previous cleaning company, the company failed to deposit its share of employer CPF contributions into their CPF account.

All of the cleaning staffs were kept in the dark for about eight months till the daughter of one of the cleaning staffs discovered that her mother had been cheated of CPF contributions from her employer. When the rest of the cleaning staffs checked on their CPF accounts, they realized that none had been receiving their employer’s CPF contribution. Companies in Singapore are required to pay the employer’s and employee’s share of CPF contributions monthly for all of their employees at the rates set out in the CPF Act. The contributions payable were based on the employee’s actual wages earned for the month. By cheating on the employer’s share of CPF contributions, the cleaning company could save a substantial amount of money from its operations.

Furious that the cleaning company had cheated on them, the cleaning staffs wrote complaint letters to the CPF Board, which started investigating on the company. Even after being probed by the authority, the cleaning company did not pay up the owed CPF contributions to its employees and eventually it was being sued. The cleaning staffs did get their CPF contributions from the cleaning company, but the full amount was only credited after a period of six months.

After the current cleaning company won the cleaning contract, the boss informed these cleaning staffs that he would definitely deposit its share of employer CPF contributions into their CPF account, under one condition. He explained to them that due to the low price that the company had quoted to win the bid for the cleaning contract, he would need to deduce an amount equivalent to the company’s share of employer CPF contributions from their existing salaries. This meant that, if a cleaning aunty’s existing salary of six hundred dollars required a sixty dollars employer’s CPF contribution, her salary would be reduced to five hundred and forty dollars. He also threatened that any of the cleaning staffs were unhappy with their reduced salary, they could always resign. Unhappy but unable to negotiate on the conditions, the cleaning staffs accepted the boss’s proposal. Never did they expect to be cheated again.

“But I think we’re pretty lucky already,” commented the fattest cleaning aunty. “One of my friends is working as a cleaner in a school, and you know what? She has not been paid for half a year!”
“What? You mean her boss has not been paying her for six months and yet she’s still working?” asked the shocked youngest looking cleaning aunty.
“Yes, she’s still working there. Because on every month’s pay day, her boss promised the staffs that all the salary that he has owed will be paid to them on the following month. But of course, on every month, there’s another next month.”
“Why don’t the staffs complain to the Ministry of Manpower?” asked the cleaning aunty with short hair.
“Hey, that smart boss has thought of that!” exclaimed the fattest cleaning aunty. “He threatened them that if they complain to the authority, he will declare bankruptcy and they won’t get a single cent from him!”
“So scheming!” the cleaning aunty with short hair sounded miffed.

The local cleaning industry is indeed full of cheats. But these cleaning aunties are definitely not alone. Slick bosses are thriving in the construction industry and among maid employment agencies as well. There are rampant tales of bosses abusing the foreign workers in the construction industry like not paying their salaries to them on time (no, not late for a few weeks, but late for a few months), requiring them to pay for their own meals (at a price that is twice the actual cost) and requesting for rentals for their stays at the cramp and dirty containers at the construction site.

As for the maid employment agencies, these bosses are constantly thinking of ways to save more operation costs as well. Somebody had recently reported to a local newspaper about the lady boss of a maid agency who made her maids slept exposed in her terrace house’s backyard. These maids spent their day at the employment agency's office and only returned to the house at around 9p.m. to sleep. They would lay huddled on the cemented backyard, sleeping on thin mattresses, mats and newspapers underneath the zinc roofs. When questioned by the newspaper, the lady boss claimed that the arrangement was only "temporary" until a new boarding house was ready. Of course, only the maids knew whether there was a new boarding house at all.

One commonality between the cleaning companies, construction companies and maid employment agencies is that their employees are usually old, foreigners or lowly-educated. These people are the best victims to be cheated because they might not even be aware that they are being cheated. Even if they do, they might not know the correct channel to lodge a complaint. Even if they do lodge a complaint successfully, the authorities could take months to investigate into the matter. By then, the company could have already closed down and started afresh as a new company.

Besides cheating on salaries and CPF employer’s contributions, the companies could shortchange their employees on other matters as well…

“Ah Leng Aunty, I might be taking a week’s leave during the December,” said the youngest cleaning aunty.
“Are we allowed to take leave? I thought the boss has said that we need to work for one year before we can apply for any annual leave?” asked the cleaning aunty with short hair.
“I know, but my son’s getting married! I’ve got to take leave!”
“I think you can talk to the boss about it. Anyway, I think this regulation about working for a year before applying for our annual leave is crappy,” commented the fattest cleaning aunty.
“Yeh, remember our previous boss?” reminded the cleaning aunty with short hair. “He didn’t allow us to take any leave till we’ve worked for one year as well, then when he didn’t win the bid for renewing the cleaning contract and this new boss took over, this new boss said we can’t claim the annual leave we’ve brought over from the previous year!”

Geez, these cleaning aunties were only allowed to apply for their annual leaves after working for a year? And what if their boss loses the cleaning contract to another company next year? When will these cleaning aunties ever get to see their annual leaves?

“Peng, do you still have Aunty Sun’s contacts?” the youngest cleaning aunty asked the fattest cleaning aunty.
“Are you going to look for her to be your replacement?” replied the fattest cleaning aunty.
“Yeh, I hope she’ll be free around that period.”
“Susan, how much are you paying your replacement?” asked the cleaning aunty with short hair.
“Thirty dollars a day,” replied the youngest cleaning aunty. “That’s my daily salary.”
“Okay, I’d just like to let you know that sometimes these replacements will ask for a few dollars more.”

What kind of working life were these cleaning aunties having? Not only were they expected to look for their own replacements while they were on their annual leaves, they would also need to pay their replacements’ salaries out of their own pockets? Is this even a legal regulation that is recognized by the Ministry of Manpower?

“Erm… hello aunties, where’s that old aunty who only speaks Cantonese?” I interrupted after realizing that one of the cleaning aunties seemed to be missing from this conversation.
“Oh, you mean Aunty Lim? She’s hospitalized.”
“Hospitalized?” I was shocked because I thought I had just seen her in the pantry the day before.
“Yes, she fell down last evening when mopping the floor,” replied the youngest cleaning aunty. “But don’t worry, she’s okay. Just a minor fracture on her right leg.”
“Poor thing, I heard that the hospitalization bill is pretty high,” commented the fattest cleaning aunty.
“Hospitalization bill? I thought she was injured at work? Won’t the hospitalization bill be paid by the company then?” This comment was even more shocking than the hospitalized part.

At that point, the three cleaning aunties laughed at me as if I had just told them that a camel can swim.

“Young man, we are not insured by the company, and no, we don’t have any medical benefits.”

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Chapter 5: What are we having for lunch today?

A pregnant woman tends to have all sorts of cravings for certain types of food. Their imagination could affect their cravings so wild that they can crave for curries in the middle of the night, durians in the early morning, or worse, assam laksa in Penang. For the assam laksa craving, the husband might have to make a quick and painful decision on whether he should endure his wife’s non-stop grumbles about how little he understands a pregnant woman’s misery, or to make a grueling drive up to Penang. And usually, the intelligent husband will choose the latter, which is less painful.

Some experts suggested that a pregnant woman’s cravings could be caused by the chaotic hormone progesterone in her body. A pregnant woman will support this theory when she argued that her craving for a bowl of Vietnamese beef noodles came from deep inside her body in a manner that she could not explain, and had absolutely nothing to do with the host on the gourmet food show on television who had just eaten a bowl of Vietnamese beef noodles and exclaimed how delicious it was.

Other experts suggested that the cravings could be due to the culture in a society that expects this type of behavior with every pregnant woman. In this situation, she might be subconsciously complying with tradition. This theory is applied when a pregnant woman chided her husband for not being sensitive to her needs and cited that the pregnant Mrs. Wong next door had such a caring husband that he drove all the way to Penang to get her assam laksa.

Whatever the reasons for a pregnant woman’s cravings, it is a common practice that husbands will try to fulfill their wives’ desire at all cost and all time. However, what is not disclosed is that, colleagues can be pulled into this quicksand of never-ending pregnant woman cravings as well. Just like how our lunch venues were related to Dawn’s cravings.

As a pregnant woman, Dawn faithfully exercised her “thou shalt obey pregnant womens’ cravings” right. But luckily for us, she did not request for assam laksa lunch at Penang. Her cravings were ‘normal’ food like pork porridge, sushi, dim sum and fish soup, which could be easily found in our dining venues. One problem though. Her cravings will persist for a long period of time.

When she craved for sushi, she urged us to accompany her to a Japanese restaurant for every lunch and each of our lunch budgets busted for that month. When she craved for dim sum, all of us scheduled our meetings and conference calls during our lunch time because we knew that a dim sum lunch at a Chinese restaurant everyday for a month could bust our lunch budgets further. However, when she craved for fish soup, we did not reject her lunch invites initially because we were thinking that since fish soups can be found in most hawker centers and food courts, and lunching at these places were kind to our pockets. But we did not expect her to fall in love with one specific fish soup stall in one particular hawker center, which led to similar messages on our MSN Messengers everyday…

“lunch together later? Wat do u wanna eat?”
“I feel like taking fish soup. Let’s go to Telok Blangah hawker center, ok?”

“lunch together later? Wat do u wanna eat?”
“feel like having a burger”
“I feel like taking fish soup. Let’s go to Telok Blangah hawker center, ok?”

“lunch together later? Wat do u wanna eat?”
“I wanna have the western food at Clementi coffee shop”
“I feel like taking fish soup. Let’s go to Telok Blangah hawker center, ok?”

After one whole man, every single one of us had tried the food offered by every single stall in Telok Blangah hawker center. Except for KZ. Because KZ was a vegetarian, he had been eating the same food from the same vegetarian food stall in the hawker center.

In Singapore, hawker centers around the whole country sell almost the same kind of food. You can always be sure to find fish soup (yes, again), fishball noodles, fried carrot cakes and char kway teow (some kind of flat noodles), prawn noodles, duck rice, hot and cold desserts, yong tau fu (tofus and vegetables stuffed with minced fish), vegetarian food and of course, chicken rice. Chicken rice is a mandatory food that must exist in every single hawker center and food court because it is the most popular food among Singaporeans. So how does our team choose which hawker center to go to for our lunches? It’s still the food, stupid! Citing from the kind of messages running around in our MSN Messengers…

“hey Beng, feel like eating fried kway teow today?”
“ok, let’s go Bukit Merah!”

“Nicky Nicky! Wanna eat some roast duck rice?”
“cool! Let’s go Bukit Timah for lunch!”

“Dawn, shd we go for some dumplings noodles today?”
“ok! They’ve got dumplings noodles at Telok Blangah! And even better fish soup!”

Hawker centers could be selling the same but different food. The chicken rice in hawker center A and hawker center B might contain the same ingredients – chicken and rice. However, due to some secret recipes, the chicken rice in hawker center A could taste better than hawker center B. So when our team felt like taking chicken rice, we would rush to hawker center A, but we will go to hawker center B another day for their delicious prawn noodles.

Food courts are another story. There is one food court in every shopping complex in Singapore. Food courts are the air-conditioned and cleaner versions of hawker centers. The range of food that they sell is akin to the ones offered by the hawker centers, though in some food courts, they tried to sell lower quality Japanese food with prices that could compete with those served in most Japanese restaurants. The main difference between a food court and a hawker center is that you pay more for food that are lower in quality and quantity. However in a hot and humid country like Singapore, our team does appreciate some air-conditioned dining at times. But since most food served in the different food courts are as tasteless, and the chicken rice in food court A could taste as tasteless as the one offered in food court B, how do we choose which food court to go to for our lunches? It’s the distance, stupid!

Typically, this happened in the office on a daily basis…

At about 10a.m., my MSN Messenger popped out. It was Dawn.

“wat do u wanna eat for lunch later?”
“dunno. Haven’t decided yet”
“ok, lemme see wat are the rest planning”
“I feel like taking fish soup”
“I’m busy with something now”
“oops, sorry!”

Fifteen minutes before lunch, Nicky sent a message to KZ.

“hey, let’s go for lunch! got 2pm meeting or conf call?”
“who’s tat inconsiderate idiot tat planned the meeting?”
“will packet”
“ok then, I’ll see where r the rest going”

So Nicky sent another message to Choi…

“Choi! Let’s go for lunch! got 2pm meeting or conf call?”
“of course not! Where shd we go?”
“how abt the yong tau fu at the Arcade?”
“I think the one at People’s Park is better”
“ok, we’ll go there then, call the rest!”

And Choi sent another to Sally…

“we’re going to People’s Park for lunch today”
“People’s Park very stuffy, can go somewhere else?”
“how about Raffles City food court? Got air-con”
“but wat’s there to eat?”
“sure to have something you can eat wat, the food court’s so big”
“ok then, call the rest”

And Sally sent another to Ju…

“Ju, we going Raffles City food court, you coming?”
“tat food court very crowded and not much to eat”
“wat do u suggest then?”
“how abt the Marina Sq food court? It has just been renovated”
“sounds great. Can you ask Beng if he’s joining us?”

And Ju sent another to me…

“Beng, u joining us for lunch at Marina Sq food court?”

Before I could reply, Dawn sent a message to me as well…

“Hey, let’s go for fish soup at Telok Blangah?”
“no, got meeting soon”
“oh, ok. I’ll ask the rest then”

Without losing a second, I replied Ju…

“Ju, Dawn asking to go Telok Blangah again”
“ok, I’ll send out evacuation to the rest”
“see u at the 1st floor lobby”

And Ju sent out a message to all except KZ and Rose, who will be having meeting and thus will be packaging their lunches, and of course, Dawn.

“evacuate now! Dawn looking for ppl to go Telok Blangah again!”

In five minutes’ time, we gathered at the lobby and left for Marina Square food court. As for Dawn, she found colleagues from the other team who were willing to join her for lunch at Telok Blangah hawker center, while wondering why most of us were having meetings during the lunch time.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Chapter 4: Respect and Responsibility

I stepped out of the cab and walked into the lobby area of the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel. It used to be a rather quiet and unheard of hotel, and then in 1998 it was bought over by Millennium & Copthorne Hotels plc. With the super power of renovation, marketing and most importantly, rebranding, this previously four stars hotel is resurrected. Now it is one of the largest five-star conference accommodation properties in Singapore.

I took the lift up to the Conference Centre, where the conference was held. The sponsoring companies had set up spectacular exhibition spiders at their booths to impress the conference participants. Wow, JM had a plasma TV on to showcase their products. Impressive. Most companies had brochures and advertorials at their booths; one even had little dolphin soft toys for giving away. I walked down the corridor flanked with booths and finally reached our company booth. We had brochures and financial reports on our table as well. Except that something vital was missing from this booth. The person manning the booth was missing.

I looked at my watch. The conference will be starting in ten minutes’ time. Quickly, I took out my mobile phone and was about to dial when I heard a familiar voice behind me.

“Hey, you’re here!”

It was Choi with a cup of coffee-like liquid on one hand and a document bag on the other.

“Why isn’t there anyone manning the booth?”
“Why don’t you make a guess on who’s supposed to be standing by this booth since half an hour ago?”

I suddenly had a very bad feeling. It seemed like somebody had made a bad choice in selecting the person responsible for the first shift.

“It’s Sally, isn’t it?”
“Yes! Who else could be as irresponsible as our young and promising fresh grad?” said Choi wryly.
“Geez, who put her at first shift?”
“I think it’s Ju,” said Choi as he sipped his coffee. “Why don’t you go grab some coffee and sandwiches around that corner, while I man the booth?”
“No, it’s okay. I’ve already taken my breakfast.”

I took a copy of the financial reports and read it. Among the charts and tables created by Nicky, there was one article that was written by KZ. As a man of one, not few, word, KZ’s articles were always unequivocal and undisputed.

In the next fifteen minutes, more participants arrived at the Conference Centre, received their name tags from the registration booth, took some brochures and reports from the sponsoring companies’ booths, grabbed a cup of coffee or tea and went into the conference room.

At nine o’clock, the conference room door closed. At ten minutes past nine, Sally arrived at the booth.

“Do you know what’s the time now?” Choi berated.
“Why? I’m only ten minutes late what,” rebuked Sally. “I guess the conference had only just started right?”
“But those participants were here early for breakfast and that was the best time to showcase our products to them!”
“I thought the Marketing people were supposed to come early to set up the booth and arrange the brochures nicely on the table?”
“Yes, the Marketing folks did all that, but they’re not obliged to man the booth! Do you know that nobody was manning the booth when I arrived?”
“It’s okay what. The participants can just come by and take whatever brochures and reports that they wanted what.”

I could see Choi’s exasperated face turning into a red balloon that was about to burst. And Sally’s “I don’t care what you said, but I’m not wrong” attitude was not helping the situation. People at the nearby booths were already staring over to our direction.

“Hey, why don’t the two of you sort things out outside while I man the booth?” I interrupted.
“No need to. I’ll only be wasting my breath since our young friend here doesn’t feel that she has done anything wrong,” Choi chastised.

Sally looked at Choi, then at me, and sighed. “It’s no big deal right? Why make such a big hoo haa over it? Okay, I’m sorry that I was slightly late. Okay?”

I stayed at the booth till ten o’clock, when I had to rush back to office for a meeting. Choi left with me as well. Sally was left behind to sit at the booth. She flipped through a brochure boringly and waited for the participants to break for lunch.

In the cab, I could feel that Choi was still miffed with what happened.

“I don’t understand why our company employed such a person!”
“Let’s forget about it. You know Sally’s never punctual.” I consoled.
“I really can’t stand these fresh grads from our local universities. They like to think that they’re so smart and the word ‘respect’ doesn’t mean anything to them at all.”
“Hey, Sally doesn’t represent all fresh grads,” I reminded.
“Beng, I’ve been working long enough. These snobs are everywhere. They like to think that their local university degrees worth hundreds time more than our foreign university degrees, and we are holding a higher position than them simply because we had worked longer in the company.”

Choi snorted and folded his arms. Reflecting upon what he had just said, I too agreed that these fresh graduates from our local universities needed to be taught the meaning of ‘respect’. In fact, previously I had overheard the vendor complaining to Ju about Sally’s rude attitude.

“And there’s this thing I can’t stand about these young punks! They think that they’re always right. You chide them for doing one thing wrong and they’ll give you ten reasons why it’s not their fault!”

The moment we stepped into the office, Rose asked Choi for his product report which was two weeks late. Choi apologized, promised that he will finish by the end of the day and rushed to his desk. Gosh, he should not have gone to the conference since he had got more important things to do. But then, that was our Choi. He just likes to do things in his own priorities, which were usually in the wrong sequence.

After an exhaustive meeting and a quick lunch, I went back to the office, when I saw another commotion happening. An upset Ju was questioning Sally who was back from the conference.

“You mean you just come back like that?” snarled Ju.
“My shift ends by lunch time what.”
“But you should have waited for the Project Financing guy before leaving the booth!”
“But how do I know what time he’ll be there? I can’t wait forever right? I haven’t even taken my lunch!” argued Sally.
“So nobody’s manning the booth now?”
“Erm… nobody when I left.”

The agitated Ju walked away from the argument and tried to dial somebody from her desk phone. Thinking that she was off the hook, Sally walked out of the office, probably to have lunch. Ju spoke to somebody softly on the phone, looking initially flustered, eventually calmed down and finally relieved. After Ju put down her phone, she came over to my desk.

“Sigh… why did our company employ such a person?”
Why did this sentence sound some familiar?

“Has the problem been solved?” I asked.
“Yes, when I called Sam from the Project Financing, he said that his guys were already on the way there and told me not to worry. But still, I’ll go over and take a look later.”
“Did Choi tell you anything about what happened this morning?”
“Yes,” she let off another deep sigh. “Shouldn’t have planned her for the first shift.”
“Maybe she was not aware that she had to be there half an hour before the conference starts?”
“How can it be? I just briefed her on the timing yesterday!”
“Well, don’t you find Sally quite an irresponsible worker?”
“Maybe it’s because she’s still young and this is her first job?”
“Beng, when I was on my first job after I graduated, I was a more responsible worker than this.”

Yeh, Ju was right. I remembered when I was on my first job, I was a paranoid freak. I triple checked every job that I did because I did not want my manager to blame me for any stupid or careless mistakes. Whenever I was given a task, I made sure I monitored it end to end. Then, I was even younger than Sally.

How did these kids become so self-centered and arrogant? Why are they so different from how we used to be when we were young? What happened along the way? Could it be the new education system? When academic development is more important and more focused than character development? Or could it be their parents who thought that the best way to raise their children is to pamper them and give them anything and everything they desire?

My MSN Messenger popped out. I had got a new message.

“Hi, wat were Ju and Sally quarrelling about just now? Wat did Sally do wrong at the conference?”

It was Dawn.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Chapter 3: The Art of Feng Shui


All our hearts skipped a beat from the sudden noise. I turned my head to my left and saw Nicky with his head resting on the keyboard. I looked at Dawn’s desk. She was not there. I opened my MSN Messenger window and checked. She was not online. Okay, so it was not the “where and what for lunch” harass from Dawn. I went over to Nicky’s desk to find out what was going on.

“Hey, you okay?”

Nicky slowly raised his head from the keyboard and stared at me with a distraught look. My heart skipped another beat. He looked just like that Ju-On ghost from the famous Japanese horror movie.

“I just knew it! I just knew that it’s bad luck! But not this bad!” Nicky hollered.
“Maybe you would like to tell me what’s going on here?”

Nicky pulled me down to stare at one of his two monitors. He was the only one in the team that worked on a desktop computer instead of a notebook. As a product analyst, his job did not require him to hop from meetings to meetings like us, and besides that, he needed a strong processor to render the vast amount of charts. Yes, he did use one of the monitors to monitor his shares most of the time, but that was not its intended function. The two monitors are meant for him to compare charts and tables side by side.

One look at the monitor screen and it did not take long for me to realize what the problem was. The screen was showing a watchlist of shares with their respective prices and volumes. And the screen was awash with red numbers. Nicky must have placed a considerable amount of his assets somewhere there.

“See that bloody STel?” Nicky poked his finger hard onto the screen, so hard that it was as if he wanted to rub away the red number behind the screen. “I bought it at $2.50! And in half a day’s time, it actually dropped to $2.35! I just knew it is coming!”
“You knew that the price will drop?”
“No, not the price! The bad luck!”

I was sure that the irregular pulsating of the purple veins on his forehead was disturbing the functioning of his brain. Nicky was not making any sense at all.

“Erm… could I get you some cold water?”
“No, I’m okay! Lost lots of money but okay,” Nicky sighed. “This bad luck must be due to the broken Pi Xiu.”
“The pair of jade Pi Xius that I placed by my shoe rack, facing the main door. I accidentally dropped something onto one of it yesterday and broke its horn.”
“What’s a Pi Xiu? Some kind of Feng Shui animal again?”
“Yeh, it has got a horn, a face that looks like a mix between a lion and a dog, hoofs at its feet, two little wings and a tail.”

That animal sounded like it will scare the hell out of the Beast from the Beauty and the Beast.

“And it’s mad that you broke its horn, so it’s bringing you bad luck now?”
“No, that’s not how it works! You see, in Feng Shui, we believe that if a part of a Feng Shui animal is broken, it can’t protect you or enhance your luck anymore.”

Which means that, due to Nicky’s negligence that caused his Pi Xiu to lose its horn, good luck will desert him, and all shares that he own will start to tumble. For a second, the thought of shorting whatever shares that he had bought crossed my mind.

“I need to take get a new Pi Xiu during lunch time.”
“Isn’t that a bit hasty?” I was astonished at the emergency caused by a broken Pi Xiu.
“No it’s not. I need to replace the broken Pi Xiu ASAP, before worse things happen to me. You want to come along?”
“Where are you going to get a new Pi Xiu?”
“The Bencoolen.”

During lunch time, the two of us proceeded to shop for a new Pi Xiu. Nicky parked his car at the Fortune Center and we walked down the street towards The Bencoolen. En route, we passed by the busy Krishnan Temple and Kwan Im Tong Hood Che Temple.

The Krishnan Temple is a very unique Hindu temple. It is the only Hindu temple I was aware of that had a joss sticks urn in front of the temple so that passer-bys, especially the Chinese, could light some joss sticks and pray for blessings.

The Kwan Im Tong Hood Che Temple is a temple built for the Goddess of Mercy, a.k.a. Kwan Im. If there is a top ten popularity chart for temples, I was certain that this temple would make it to the top easily. The number of devotees barging into the temple to offer joss sticks and pray could easily outnumber the ants that are required to shift a lollipop.

“Geez, if this temple can be so crowded during a weekday, I can’t imagine a weekend.”
“But this temple’s good. The Kwan Im ‘qian’ here is very accurate,” Nicky commented.

A ‘qian’ is a prediction of the future. To get a ‘qian’, devotees would have to rely on some bamboo sticks. On each one of the thirty over little bamboo sticks stuffed in a bamboo container was written a number, and each number represented a ‘qian’. A devotee will get on his knees and shake this bamboo container furiously till one stick fall off the container and onto the ground. With this bamboo stick, he could then get a small slip of pink paper from the ‘qian’ counter. Written on that slip of pink paper will be his fated destiny, the answer to the question that he asked when doing the “Shake’em up” action. And it would be written in both English and Chinese.

“So I presume, you must have gotten one before?”
“No, not one. More than that. Whenever I feel that I need a direction, I’ll drop by for a ‘qian’.”

I wondered was Nicky’s ‘direction’ referring to the ups and downs of the Straits Times Index. I imagined Nicky kneeing on the ground among other devotees and do the “Shake’em up” action, while mumbling “Please, oh Goddess of Mercy, please tell me if I should get the China Construction Bank call warrant or put warrant!”

Finally, after squeezing through the carts selling flowers to the devotees for offering to the Goddess of Mercy, and stands of fortune tellers telling their patrons what their ‘qian’ actually meant if they really read between the lines, we reached The Bencoolen. Ninety percent of the shops in The Bencoolen were Feng Shui shops selling crystals, jades accessories and bronze Feng Shui animals.

Nicky led me straight into a small shop that seemed too narrow for its plump owner. He must be the ‘Si Fu’ that Nicky told me about, the Feng Shui master who assisted Nicky in his apartment’s interior design by placing the appropriate Feng Shui items on specific locations in a very precise manner. The solemn looking ‘Si Fu’ listened as Nicky told him in Cantonese about the misfortune of his Pi Xiu. After Nicky finished his story, the ‘Si Fu’ told him to wait and went into the back of the shop. When he finally emerged, he was holding a beautiful pair of animals craved out of something that looked like jade, lying on a pair of matching wooden stands. From the grin on Nicky’s face, I knew that he was going to bring them home.

After we left the shop, I queried Nicky on the pair of Feng Shui animals that he paid almost two hundred dollars for.

“It’s a pair of Pi Xius”

So that was how Pi Xius looked like. Not as horrifying as the way he described. They actually looked similar to the pair of stone lions in front of the Kwan Im Tong Hood Che Temple.

“But I thought only one of your Pi Xiu was broken?”
“Yeh, but in Feng Shui, when you replace, you replace in pairs. And anyway, nobody sells a single piece of jade Pi Xiu.”
“But what’re you going to do with your old Pi Xiu?”
“Just wrap it in a piece of red paper and throw it away!”

Gosh, not only would people abandon their living pets, they will also abandon their Feng Shui animals.

“Anyway, the previous pair that I’ve got is made of yellow jasper. This pair looks better.”
“And this is some kind of jade?”
“Yeh, it’s called rainbow jade,” he answered avidly.

Somehow, I felt that the jade was not named appropriately. A rainbow contains seven colors. However, the jade had an elegant light greenish grey with random strokes of shades of brown on it. But of course it would have looked horrible if it had seven colors on it.

“So I guess the first thing you’ll do when you reach home today, will be to replace your old Pi Xius with this new pair?”
“No, I’ll do it at 3a.m.”
“What? You’re going to wake up in the middle of the night to replace your Pi Xius?”
“Of course! That’s the auspicious hour of the day!”

After this experience, I realized that believing in Feng Shui was not only expensive, but knackering.

A few days later, Nicky told me happily that his new Pi Xiu was bringing him lots of good luck. In fact, after the new Pi Xiu was placed at his door, the shares of CapLand rebounded for three straight days and broke the cap at $3.30. He had gained back whatever he lost and more.

So the CEO of CapLand should write Nicky a thank-you note because his company shares were up, not due to their successful investment in Shanghai residential properties, but because of Nicky’s new pair of rainbow jade Pi Xius.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Chapter 2: Our Obsessions with Rankings

The Capital Markets team got our company listed on a couple of top ten charts for Asia Pacific in one of the reputable financial magazines. To celebrate the winning, the team was having free drinks from the head at the Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar. In his jubilant mode, the head of the Capital Markets team was generous enough to invite our team as well.

The Long Bar is the only place in Singapore where you could crack endless supply of peanut, pop the peanuts into your mouth and throw the shells on the ground freely. Yes, most patrons for those neighborhood coffee shops will also throw peanut shells and cigarette butts on the ground freely. But it is different at the Long Bar. It is the proper thing to do there. You will not get disapproving stares from the next table and silent curses from the coffee shop cleaners sweeping the litter that you created. In fact, the waiters in the Long Bar will smile at you with an apologetic “excuse me” before sweeping away the shells.

After a few drinks and some jestings among the team, our team head Rose threw us a question: “Guys, how do I select a primary school?”

Either she had too much of a drink, or she figured out that we had too much of a drink and a solemn question at that point was necessary. Though I could not connect the relationships between a primary school, a bar and a group of finance guys.

“Why?” asked KZ.
“You see, my kid will be getting his primary school education in two years’ time,” Rose explained. “And I’m thinking of selecting a good school for him.”
“Nearest?” asked KZ again.
“We’ve only got one primary school nearby but I heard that it’s standard is not very good,” Rose explained again. “Anyway, location is not a major problem because we can always move.”
“Choices?” asked KZ yet again.

To speed up the questioning, I decided to get Rose out of KZ’s single-word conversation.

“Which are the schools you’ve got on your mind?”
“Oh, I’ve heard about FM Primary, HP Primary and NH Primary. Do you think they’ve got any top ten charts for primary schools?”
“No, not a top ten chart. I can’t imagine what the schools would do to push the students in order to get to top ten,” I laughed. “But they’ve got this Sustained Achievement Awards for Physical and Aesthetics for Primary Schools, where the primary schools will be awarded for their students’ achievement in sports and arts.”
“But that doesn’t tell me how high the standard of the schools will be,” she frowned.

She was right. There must be a way to find out which were the better schools. Those parents who camped overnight outside the reputable primary schools in order to be ahead of the primary school registration queue must know something.

“Ju,” KZ said calmly.

Yes! Why did I not think of that?

“Well, if you insist, there is a proven but unrecorded ranking system for primary school standards thought. All you need is to ask a mother.”
“Ask a mother?”
“Yeh. Judging from the length of an ‘Oh’ when you tell her which primary school your kid is studying in, you could tell whether the school’s good or not. The longer the ‘Oh’, the better the school.”

Rose raised an eyebrow and gave me that “you’ve got to be kidding me” look.
“I’ll show you,” I assured her.

I turned around and tried to search for Ju. I found her talking to a Capital Markets guy by the bar. Judging from the “I’m confused by you but I’ll try to be polite and appear interested” look on her face, I knew she would love to be interrupted.

“Hey Ju!” I waved at her. Sure enough, at the spot of my wave, she apologized and left the Capital Markets guy hurriedly to join our table.

Rose looked at her anxiously.

“Why?” Ju looked innocently at me.
“Hey, I’ve got a nephew who has just got into FM Primary.”

“Then I’ve got a niece who is studying at NH Primary,” I continued asking.

“And a friend whose son is studying at HP Primary.”

“Is that school good?” Rose asked.

With the smile on Rose’s face, I knew she had got the answer she wanted. At that moment, Nicky came over to our table with a glass of vodka on his right hand and a newspaper on his left.

“Hey dude! Guess what? Singapore is ranked 140th out of 167 countries in the World Press Freedom Index!”

Geez, that was not a very good piece of news. Singapore had got this obsession about rankings and anything less than top ten was unforgivable. And now 140th!

I remembered a few days ago when the National University of Singapore was announced to be ranked 22nd out of two hundreds in the World University Rankings, the university president was not very happy. News was that the slip was due to the university’s poor score in the new rankings indicator which puts universities to the test of the job market. National University of Singapore scored 12 out of a possible 100 when international employers were asked which university graduates they prefer to employ. However the president still believed that universities are best ranked by their peers.

What a sore loser. If the purpose of that piece of paper labeled degree was to get a good job for the student, it made all senses to test the university in the job market! What is the point of getting a degree that is respected by other university professors and peers, but not recognized by the potential employer?

“… we’re one place behind the Philippines,” Nicky continued. “And look! We’re way behind Malaysia and Indonesia as well!”
“Reasons?” asked KZ.
“The association Reporters Sans Frontieres said that our low ranking is due to the complete absence of independent newspapers, radio stations and TV stations, the application of prison sentences for press offences, media self-censorship and the opposition's lack of access to the state media,” read Nicky in one breath.

Yes, that long explanation gave more than enough reason to place us at the 140th.

“Actually Singapore should treasure its 140th place, because I think it’ll slip further next year,” commented Nicky.
“Why?” asked KZ again.
“With the kind of close relationship Singapore has with China nowadays and all the friendly visits to China,” Nicky explained. “I won’t be surprised if the Media Development Authority decided to introduce a Great Firewall of Singapore that is akin to the Great Firewall of China.”
“No, I don’t think things will turn that bad,” Rose disagreed. “Singapore is a republic, not a communist country.”

I crossed my fingers and hoped Rose was right. It would just look too ugly if we were to be ranked below North Korea in the following year.

“Hey, back to the school problem,” urged Rose. “Let’s say I’ve decided to enroll my kid into the HP Primary, what should I do to increase his chance of getting in?”
“You would need to stay near the school,” I suggested.
“No problem. I think there’re a couple of condominiums around that area.”
“You could donate to the school.”
“Like how much?”
“Erm… I would think that they’ll prefer you to donate fixed assets like fax machines, copier machines and computers, instead of hard cash.”
“Oh,” Rose pondered. “That sounds so troublesome.”
“Or you could do some volunteer work for the school.”
“What kind of volunteer work?”
“Erm… I’m not sure.”

I wanted to suggest teaching, but I could not imagine a class of primary school kids trying to catch a fighter plane so that they could catch Rose’s every sentence. With the amount of fat on her body and the amount of exercises she did, I could not suggest teaching sports to her. I could not imagine her doing some dirty cleaning jobs for the school either. Hey, she was a team lead in a reputable MNC, for god’s sake!

“I know what you can do!” Nicky said avidly.
“What can I do?” Rose looked at him hopefully.
“You can help the school to launch a million dollars inaugural bond, preferably Renminbi denominated, into the China market! Since Singapore has such a good trading relationship with China, and the Chinese so eager to invest their monies, the bond will sell like hot cake! With the cash collected from the bond, the school could tear down its buildings and rebuild all classrooms and halls!”

It must have been the hypnotizing effect of the rows of slowly moving straw fans above our heads, or the number of drinks Nicky had.

“And if the bond yields favorable returns, the school could even buy some more land and put a fast food restaurant, a swimming pool, a movie theatre and a bowling gallery in it! I’m sure the school will be so eager to welcome your kid!”

Okay. It was the number of drinks Nicky had.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Chapter 1: The Beginning of Another Day

“kik kok… kik kok…”
“turk turk… turk turk…”

The sound of countless high heels and leather shoes knocking on the ceramic tiles reverberated through the quiet City Link. I wondered did the reverberated sound sounded so loud because City Link is actually an underground tunnel that ran through the sea, just like how loudly I had sounded when I held my breath under the pool.

It was eight in the morning. The owners of the high heels and leather shoes were rushing to enter their office door before their bosses, or in some cases, before their subordinates. Every single man and woman had put up a face as cold as the fish that I took out from the freezer last night, and as hard as the, well, the ceramic tiles they were stepping on. Nobody dared to talk, as if the slightest energy invested in saying “ah” will slow them down. Everybody just tried to walk as briskly as they could down the Link and overtake as many people as they could.

After I made the quick turn, the escalator appeared in front of me. Briskly, I climbed up the escalator just like everybody else and crossed the overhead bridge towards Suntec City. As I walked down the corridor, I suddenly realized how lonely those shops flanking both sides of the corridor looked. It would be four more hours before the first batch of customers will pay their visits to the shops. But right now, they were feeling so, empty.

Finally, I reached the office tower. Together with the rest of my neighbors in the tower, we took the lift to our respective offices.

“Ding… Eighth storey.”

I walked out of the lift and pushed the door into the company reception area.

“Morning, Beng!” greeted our darling receptionist.
“Hey, morning,” I mumbled.

I knew it was rude to mumble a greeting early in the morning, but after holding a cold and hard face all the way from my flat, to the bus, to the train, through the City Link, across the Suntec City shopping area, up the lift, and finally in front of her, my muscles had somehow solidified. And I knew she would understand that. Because part of her job was to hear hundred over mumbled morning’s everyday.

“You’re early today! Got an early meeting?”
“Nope, not meeting, but bad enough. Conference call. See ya later,” I waved before rushing into my office.

I switched on the lights as I walked into the office. Nobody seemed to be there yet, which means that I was the first to arrive, all thanks to that damn conference call. I took out my notebook from the document bag and docked it on the docking station. I took a glance at my watch. Just in time. Briskly, I put on my headset and dialed into the conference call.

While on the conference call, my fellow colleagues arrived at the office one by one.

The first that stepped in was KZ, as usual. KZ was a quiet guy hidden in an unconventional vegetarian body. ‘Quiet’ because from my latest statistics, he would not utter more than ten words a day. But every word he uttered would be more unequivocal than my ten sentences. ‘Unconventional’ because most would have expected a guy whose main stable was greens to look weak. Weighing at 60kg with a strong pair of arms and a ribbed abs, KZ looked more like a feather weight bodybuilder rather than a senior product manager for some financial instruments. Also as usual, he nodded at me and carried on to sat at his desk.

The usual second person who stepped into the office was Ju. Ju was the marketing person assigned to our team. An elegant lady in her forties, Ju was like an orange. When handling clients, she would talk so diplomatically that even her disagreement would not contain sharp edges when voiced. When handling vendors, she would be so firm that the vendors would be so joyous they could celebrate with fireworks each time they managed to change her requirements. Elegantly, Ju waved at me, sat down at her desk and took out her breakfast from the plastic bag. Each morning, Ju’s husband would drive her to get the breakfast she wanted, yes, even if it meant a ‘cross-country’ drive, before sending her to work. From the scent emitted from her desk, I betted it was fried carrot cakes.

Then the pregnant Dawn walked into the office. She was a fair looking lady in her late thirties and still slender though pregnant. Dawn was a project manager in the team as well as our ‘secret weapon’. Due to her capability to make a mountain out of a mole and the ability to delay things, whenever our team head encountered a situation when she could not politically reject a new project requested by the business heads, that project would falls into Dawn’s portfolio. In that case, the business heads would feel chuffed by our head’s enthusiasm and conversely, they would not feel unhappy when the project failed to materialize a few months later, thinking that we have tried our best.

Choi stepped in after Dawn. Weighing at 0.1 ton, it was hard not to notice him as he entered the office. Pearls of perspire were seen rolling down his cheek as he waved at everybody before sitting down at his desk. He was another product manager in our team and a very outstanding one. He knew his products well, so well that he could talk about them non-stop in twenty-four hours. The only problem though, was that he spent so much time talking that the action part was usually left to the end and done hastily, with mistakes thrown in for free.

It was five minutes to nine when the flustered Nicky rushed into the office. He was a tiny guy always dressed in polo t-shirts. Without a second to lose, he took out the notebook from his haversack, docked it on the docking station and switched it on. He then sat down and stared hard at the screen as if his stare would persuade the notebook to boot up faster. Nope, it was not any work he was so anxious about. It was the stock market which was due to open in five minutes’ time. Like any other Hong Kongers, Nicky’s passion for the stock market was as strong as his devotion for Feng Shui.

At exactly nine, the skinny Sally strolled in lazily. Yes, strolled, not walked. In fact nobody had ever seen her walking before. Sally was the youngest in the team, at her early twenties. This was her first job after her graduation from a local university but she was always trying very hard to display a ‘been there, done that’ aura at all time. And she was the only one in the team that would not greet anybody in the morning.

Five minutes past nine, Rose, our team head stepped in. Like her name, Rose always tried start the day as rosy as possible. She was the only one who would step into the office smiling with a subtitle at her feet that said “Today is such a wonderful day!” We were so fortunate to have Rose as our team head. She was the kind of leader who would fight bloody battles for her team and shield them from flying arrows. She was also the kind of person that anybody would also think twice before arguing with her. Perhaps because she was an Indian, it would be almost impossible for anybody to find a letup in her fast and winding sentences once she started talking. Sometimes I got the feeling that her breath could beat a veteran Korean pearl diver hands down.

After one hour and an addition of five entries to my to-do list, the conference call ended. Before I could finish stretching my back, my MSN Messenger popped out. I had got a message from Dawn.

“u on conf call just now?”

No, I was not on conference call just now. I just put on the headset because it looked great as an accessory to my blue shirt.


No, the only items on my to-do list were two with deadlines which were yesterday, a couple with deadlines in a few days’ time, oh, and another five new ones. I was so free I did not know what to do with my time.


However, to Dawn, ‘Yes, I’m busy’ was never equivalent to ‘Please do not disturb’.

“u got any lunch appointment?”
“lunch together later? Wat do u wanna eat?”

I looked at the clock on my notebook. Ten a.m. I looked at the watch on my wrist. Ten a.m. Asking me what I would like to have for lunch at this kind of hour? My guess was, Dawn had got too much time on her hands again.

“dunno. Why dun u ask the rest?”
“I feel like taking fish soup. Wat about u?”

Which part of ‘dunno’ did she not understand?

“dunno. I need to prepare for a meeting later. Why dun u ask the rest?”

After my cold rejection, Dawn went on to ask Nicky the same question on the MSN Messenger. How did I know? In the midst of his shares monitoring and product analysis report writing, he suddenly stopped clicking his mouse and gave his notebook a “What the?!!” look.

From there on, Dawn would habitually ask everybody, except our team head Rose, on their preferred lunch for the day. And each of us would reply ‘dunno’ before habitually blocking Dawn from our MSN Messenger for the rest of the morning, until after lunch. After lunch, Dawn would habitually complain that her MSN Messanger was malfunction because everybody looked offline to her.