Friday, December 7, 2007

Chapter 9: Sorry, am I late, or early?

It was a challenge going to work each morning. Not because of the part where it was difficult to pull myself out of the bed so early in the morning, nor was it because of the part where I had to barge my way through the crowd blocking the MRT train exit and if failing so will face the danger of alighting the train one stop later. It was the challenge of boarding a punctual feeder bus.

Singapore is divided into different new, young and matured estates like Punggol, Jurong West and Toa Payoh respectively. Usually, a couple of feeder buses will service the residents in the estates and bring them to the nearest bus interchange. A feeder bus will circle only around the estate itself as compared to normal buses that travel from estates to estates. The distance is shorter and the normal duration for a feeder bus to travel from the bus interchange to around the estate and back again is usually less than thirty minutes.

The feeder bus system is a resounding success in connecting people around the country. Conversely, every bus interchange’s scheduling system for its feeder buses is an utter failure. The expected behavior of a feeder bus is to arrive at each bus stop at an interval of approximately five minutes. However the actual behavior of the feeder buses in the country are to arrive at their respective bus stops in pairs or threes, after making the commuters wait for fifteen to twenty minutes. All these years, commuters have been writing complaint letters to the bus companies, and all these years, the bus companies’ official explanations are always “due to unforeseen traffic conditions”. Either the roads in a little estate are too complicated for our bus companies, or there have been too many dead dogs lying in the middle of the roads.

My flat was three bus stops away from the bus interchange and served by a single feeder bus route. The journey would usually take me fifteen minutes, inclusive of ten minutes waiting time. The bus stop was usually overflowing with people so whenever the wait exceeded ten minutes, the bus stop could become rather noisy.

“Penny, please tell boss that I’ll be slightly late today. Yeh, the bus is late again.”
“Ah Loh, I’ll be slightly late. Sorry about that. The bus again.”
“Hello? Yes, I’ll need a cab now. From Seng Kang to Tanjong Pagar.”

There are other areas where punctuality is a problem too. Singaporeans are never on time for Chinese wedding dinners. The starting time of a wedding dinner is usually stated clearly on the invitation card as 7:30p.m., for formality purpose. The actual starting time of the wedding dinner will range between 8:00p.m. to 9:00p.m.. It is largely dependent on the time that majority of the guests have arrived, or when a certain highly respected VIP has arrived. That is the reason why most people will take a bite before attending a Chinese wedding dinner…

“Hey Beng, should we leave early at six today?”
“Have you forgotten? We need to attend Peter’s wedding dinner tonight!”
“Oh, okay. So where should we have dinner?”

Besides Chinese wedding dinners, our concerts and theatres start late as well. An 8:00p.m. concert will usually start at about 9:00p.m., probably so that the audience have amble time to digest their dinners before cheering furiously for their idols. You know, it could get rather dirty if these jubilant fans throw up onto the people sitting in front of them. The theatres are slightly better, where they are usually late for only about fifteen minutes. So are the cinemas. Yes, Singaporeans are usually late for their movies because they know that the movies themselves will be late…

“Daddy, where is Harry Porter? When will he come out?”
“You’ll see him soon after this advertisement, okay?”

Ten minutes later…

“Daddy, why isn’t Harry Porter coming out yet?”
“He’ll be soon, after this advertisement, okay?”

Punctuality has become such a common problem that Singaporeans have accepted lateness as their way of life. Heinous local companies are late in paying salaries to their employees; users of services are late in paying up their bills; service providers are late in refunding their users when discrepancies are found; and office executives work late though they are not paid for the overtime.

With the shutdown time of Orchard Road’s ERP gantry extended, our daily activities have just become later too…

“Nicky, why are you still here? It’s already seven!”
“Oh, I’m just reading up some candlesticks charts for an IPO tomorrow.”
“Ha, I thought you were rushing some urgent jobs!”
“Hahaha… no, I’m waiting for that Orchard Road ERP gantry to shut down at eight. I need to go to the Top of the M for dinner tonight.”

After Nicky had jammed into Orchard Road, waited to park his car, waited for a table, waited for a waiter to take his order, and waited for the chef to cook up the meal, by the time the food arrived at his table, it was already renamed “supper”.

Because our daily activities are late, we are also late in reaching the milestones in our lives as well. We are so busy with our career that by the time there is a letup in the tight schedule that allows us to get married; we are already in our late twenties. By the time we give birth to our babies, we are already in our late thirties; by the time our kids grown up, we are already in our late fifties; by the time we have the time and money to enjoy life, we are already in our late sixties. That is why the average life span of Singaporeans is eighty years. We need more time to finish what we need to do before we can go.

Talking about punctuality, the efficient ministries and authorities are always early. Before the people could react to the fare hike proposals from the transportation companies, the council had already approved them. Before the Integrated Resorts have been built, the ministry has already envisaged being among the top treatment centers in Asia for gambling addictions. Before the people had heard of the new movie in town, the authority had already taken down the posters and banned them. No, they had no problem with the motion picture itself. They only had an issue with the static picture shown on the poster.

The other guys who are always early are the banks. While you are still queuing up to pay for a new pair of shoes by credit card at the shopping complex, the credit card bill for the month is already sitting in your letter box. And because they are early, they could not tolerate people who are late…

“Hi, I’m calling in regards to my credit card bill.”
“Can I have your credit card number?”
“Sure it’s 1111-2222-3333-4444.”
“And your card’s expiry date?”
“December 2005.”
“Your mother’s maiden name for security reasons?”
“Lim Ah Lian.”
“Your hidden sexual fetish?”

Okay, I made that last part up.

“How can I help you, Mr. Tan?”
“I have this ‘late charges’ item on my bill.”
“Oh, it’s because you failed to settle your bill by the payment date.”
“Yes, I know. I was on business trip so by the time I returned to Singapore and I sent out the cheque, it was late by a day. Could you waive off the ‘late charges’ and also the interest added to my bill?
“But sir, you were late. We have to punish you and make you feel the pain, so that you won’t be late again next time!”

Yes, I did make the last part up again. But I will bet that it was definitely the banks’ intention.

Sometimes, even the commoners could be early, or too early. The parents who are registering their kid into the popular primary schools are queuing up outside the schools as early as the night before the registration opens. The customers who are getting the limited 50 sets of $500 plasma televisions are queuing up outside the electronics mall as early as six in the morning. The kids who are attending their idol’s mini concert cum autograph session that starts at seven in the evening are queuing up as early as seven in the morning.

In offices, there is one thing that happens pretty early too.

One day, Rose, Nicky, Choi and Dawn were gathering at KZ’s desk and staring at his notebook screen.

“Hey, what’re you guys looking at?” I asked as I walked over.
“Oh, it’s the 2006 calendar,” Dawn replied, still staring at the screen.
“What’s wrong with this calendar? It has got only 364 days?”
“Public holidays,” KZ replied.

“So if I take three days of annual leaves from the first to third day of February, it’ll give me eight days of holidays!” calculated Choi.
“Cool! Let’s apply for the leaves!” said Nicky avidly.
“Hang on guys, please remember that we’ll need a skeleton crew here to support the business,” said Rose.
“I suggest that we look through the public holidays for 2006 and allocate accordingly,” suggested Dawn.

KZ scanned through the whole 2006 calendar and wrote down the periods where long holidays are possible.

“We’ve got the January to February Chinese New Year period, the October Deepavali and Hari Raya Puasa period, and the Christmas, Hari Raya Haji and New Year December period,” Nicky read from the note.
“Okay guys, please discuss among yourselves and choose the periods that you’re going to take leaves. And let me have the list by next week,” said Rose.

“Hey Beng, do you mind standing in for me during the Chinese New Year period?” asked Nicky.
“Yeh, okay. No problem.”
“Great! In that case, I’ll take the Chinese New Year period and fly back to Hong Kong! Talk to you later, I’ll need to call the travel agency to book the ticket. Have to book early, you know?”