Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Of The Best And Worst Singaporean Habits

In The Glenn & FD Singaporean Habit Challenge, Class 95 FM urged listeners to phone in what they thought were the worst and best of typical Singaporean habits.

I'm a fan of Robin Sharma as well as Stephen Covey. If a book were to be written entitled 7 Habits of Highly Effective Countries, I'd vouch for Singapore as one of the first countries the author should look at. Just a few months ago, my friend Mr. Chippy and I attempted to start a blog that would list one hundred and one simple things that other countries in the region could learn from Singapore and implement locally. We wanted to first set our sights on those that could be undertaken with minimal costs before progressing to the more complex ones that require significant funding. This project is still underway.

Congruent with that original idea, this blog site was created with the intention of celebrating Singapore’s best or at the very least, its goods. With that in mind, I want this post to be consistent with that philosophy (or idea, value, concept or WYWTCI-Whatever You Want To Call It) without losing my grasp of reality. After all, it’s easier to find the worst in people than the best in them. Also, anyone can rant; even my 80-year old grandma and my 5-year old cousin are good at that at times. I’ll save the bests for last and start off with the worsts. I'll stick to lucky number seven (7).

Off To A Worsts Start
  • Not giving way to passengers alighting the MRT

    During my first trip to Singapore four years ago, this was one of the things I admired most -- people following the huge, yellow arrows on the train platforms to give way to alighting passengers, before they themselves boarded.

    Now, I get very annoyed to see a lot of people blocking the doorways and forcing themselves to board the train even before the first alighting passenger takes his initial step.

  • Riding the MRT with an overpowering body odor

    Morning. A man wearing a necktie and having one of those ubiquitous white earphones plugged into his ears boards the MRT. It's definitely him. What possible excuse could he have for not yet having discovered the substance effective at controlling body odor, a commodity commonly known as a deodorant?

    While in theory there may be cultures that do not find bodily odors offensive, I find it difficult to believe that such a culture exists nowadays, and I know for a fact that the Singaporean culture was never one of them.

    I can discern the smell of food on clothes left to dry in the kitchen that have absorbed the aroma of cooking. I can accept that. A person literally sweats to make a living? My heart is bigger than my nose to take that. Someone is sick and can't take a bath? I can bear with that. But not knowing that deodorants were invented for a reason (just like sunscreens) when you have an iPod? I'm sorry, but that's just too much for me to take.

    I know this doesn't technically qualify as a habit, and it's not even typical. It's actually more of the exception. But forming the habit of using deodorants especially for those with special powers seems like a good idea. Can hor?

  • Spitting -- worse, spitting on you

    I've read somewhere that a true gentleman doesn't spit even in his own backyard.

    There's a certain age group that's more prone to this habit that's why I have to be more forgiving here. But please make sure the sprays don't land on another human being. Tissue papers can help too. But then again, isn't this against the law?

    If we do it in the bathroom sink, maybe we can get rid of the evidence?

  • Clearing the table before you're done eating

    In a restaurant.

    "May I clear this?"

    "Why, is it vague?" Fuzzy perhaps?"

    In a hawker center.

    "Should I growl or hold my fork in a certain way when I see auntie approach to scare her away lest she takes my plate before I'm even done eating?"

    Forgive my sarcastic lunch buddy who's bound to give himself a heart attack. The waiters in the restaurants and the aunties in the hawker centers just ignore him anyway. Surely he doesn't appreciate the zealous application of efficiency here.

    This is also one of those things I found a bit discourteous and annoying, more so during my earlier days here. It's difficult to enjoy the food when you have to be on the constant lookout for the auntie clearers.

  • Irresponsible handling of food

    Now this isn't funny or annoying. It's sad.

    I find it hard to believe that some things I consider common sense need to be taught. For instance, when a waiter brings your soup or desert, you wouldn’t expect to see his thumb dipped inside to provide additional flavor, right? What about when serving drinks and putting cups on the tray? Being able to hold several at once may seem like a neat trick but I certainly don’t appreciate it if the fingers go into the cup and touch the ice. Same goes for handing off straws, spoons and forks; shouldn’t the food server know by instinct that he shouldn’t touching the parts that go into the mouth?

    Call me finicky or kiasu (I've learned that word late last year), but I believe good service means not taking such things for granted. Educating our food handlers will certainly lessen the risk of spreading disease. But how?

  • Proof of lunch

    Someone once said to me that the best way to enjoy food is to use one’s hands to eat. I won’t disagree.

    It goes without saying that washing one’s hands before and after eating is a must. There is proof (more than one actually) however that suggest the second part is often times forgotten. Greasy phones, pens, keyboards and mice are on top of the list. If you had a sharp nose like mine, you’d smell the trace of evidence when making a call to confirm your 2 p.m. meeting.

  • Other forms of inconsiderateness

    Such as not moving near enough the person ahead of a queue while waiting for the bus so that more people end up being able to sit, parking a car that blocks the ramp for the disabled, etc.
Saving The Bests For Last
  • Offering one's seat in the MRT to someone who needs it more

    Yes, a lot of people would pretend to be asleep so that they won't have to offer their seats to those who have a greater need. This is indeed annoying. But what is amazing is that someone eventually gives up his or her seat. Always. Chivalry is very much alive with Singaporeans. And I'm referring to both genders.

  • Reading in the MRT

    Singapore has a very high literacy rate (92.5%). But a good number of people reading books on the MRT ride home is praiseworthy. Talk about habits that make good use of idle time.

    Oh, I know someone who listens to audio books stored in his PSP while riding the train.

  • Cabbies' habit of giving your $0.05 change

    Admiring something they ought to be doing and the law requires? Isn't this akin to praising or thanking someone for doing his or her job?

    Ah! You only have to make a trip to Malaysia or the Philippines and try taking a cab when you're there. Expecting the best from people is good practice but losing sense of reality is not -- ask for it if you must but don't expect the driver to use the taxi meter or give you your change (especially loose change). (No disrespect to these two countries, I'm just voicing out my observations like what the rest of this post is all about).

  • Punctuality & Efficiency all around, year-round

    I had to merge these two so I don't go beyond the lucky number because I cannot omit one of my favorite Singaporean habits.

    Efficiency -- there's conscious effort to achieve it, and then to maintain it.

    No wonder, this country has made good progress in a relatively short period of time. The habit of doing things efficiently or finding ways to continuously improve is remarkable. Maybe kaizen is a distant relative of kiasu?

    The downside of this is that the expectations are very high such that some people can be so unforgiving of mistakes. "What!?!? That cannot happen! This is Singapore!"

    Punctuality is a close relative of efficiency. But it deserves special treatment. It's a winning habit.

    Meetings? Bus arrival? Movie start? Parade? Store opening? Chances are, it's on time. Singaporeans respect other people's time. This might be easy to take for granted when you're so used to it. It's not difficult to be reminded and be appreciative of when you're outside the country.

  • Keeping left on the escalators

    Truly this is one of my favorites. How did this even start to be a practice? A government initative perhaps? Was there a campaign suggesting that citizens keep left on the escalators so that people racing to get to their destination can overtake on the right?

    Really commendable. Marvelous indeed.

  • Dressing up

    On the lighter side of things.

    I observed that Singapore ladies are always dressed up whether they're heading to the mall, the zoo or some other place. Good grooming is always a good habit. It's a lovely spectacle too, isn't it?

  • Giving

    This one is all about the heart.

    Money, food, clothing, books and other educational supplies, medicines, medical equipment and supplies, other high-tech stuff. Singapore knows how to give, starting with the government down to its citizens.

    I pass by the blind uncle in the MRTs who sings and plays the organ for a living. It's heartwarming to see people spare him a few coins. Also, how can I not notice the students on a regular mission who go marching around armed with a tin can and a bunch of stickers? You give coins and they give you a sticker in appreciation of your donation. From my point of view, it's an inspiring spectacle.

    Even with the recent scandal associated with the Ren Ci Hospital and Medicare Centre, I hope Singaporeans keep up the habit of giving.
So there you have it. I did not bother to rank them, much more overanalyze. What about you, what are the things you like most about the Singaporeans as a people? What admirable habits, practices or traits do they have that other countries (especially the developing ones) can emulate?

I'd like to end this entry with two quotes. One is from Robin Sharma in The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari -- "Bad habits can never be erased but they can be replaced." And this one, by Vince Lombardi: "Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing."

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Of Letters And The Singapore Post Centre

Last I heard, it's up for sale at a tag price of $850M.

It's a marvelous view, it might as well have hidden thrusters that allow the entire building to be propelled up into the air. I'm talking about the Singapore Post Centre in Eunos. My photo doesn't seem to do much justice to this futuristic-looking building but you should be able to do a google image search to find better pictures.

I had the opportunity to work with a BPO company in Ubi Techpark for a couple of months so I passed by this building almost every night going home. It's right next to the Paya Lebar MRT station. I've sent postcards and letters to friends and family through this post office.

We don't just go to the SingPost HQ when we want to send letters though. Sometimes my former colleagues and I would come here to have lunch either at Subway, KFC or McDonald's. We'd have coffee at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf after that. There's also a Kopitiam outlet at the basement that we visit when we're in the mood for it.

There's a beautiful fountain on the building grounds. I've seen people gather around it to sit and talk. A few pieces of coins in the water reveal wishes have been made by some visitors. I wish for their wishes to come true.

Speaking of wishes, don't you sometimes secretly wish that you'd get a letter in your mailbox? I'm talking about the snail-mail, classic, post office thingamajig. There's something truly special about receiving letters and postcards in your mailbox. It's just different from the feeling you get from receiving an e-mail. There's the thrill of sifting through the envelopes, looking for one that's addressed to you. Then there's the excitement of opening your very own letter.

Reading a letter that's hand-written is also special. It's absolutely rare. Who goes out of his way nowadays to write using a pen? It's always easier to type, revise and then print. I'm not saying it's wrong to be practical about the whole thing; I'm merely supporting my statement that a hand-written letter is indeed special.

I guess the same can be said about cards. It's always easier to send e-cards. Again, there's nothing wrong with that. But we let other people know they're special to us when we send them greeting cards through the snail mail system. More so when we give it a bit of personal touch -- a paragraph of thoughts that come from the heart rather than a one or two-liner of the usual "Hi! How are you?" stuff.

I remember my grandfather's delight when he received letters from my mom or distant relatives. I've also witnessed how happy my mom was to receive a letter from her dad or her friends. I am fortunate enough to have experienced the same thing. Letters from my parents, friends or even pen pals always brought a certain kind of warmth to my heart. I'd sure welcome one nowadays, it will be a respite from the tireless arrival of bills, ads and notices.

If sending an e-mail just seems to be the easier option, think again. If you're having second thoughts because you think your handwriting is too ugly, you might want to reconsider. You might just bring a smile to a person when he or she opens that envelope. When was the last time you sent someone a snail mail anyway?

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Botak Jones, Darn Good Food At A Darn Good Price

Change is something a consultant needs to constantly deal with and gracefully adapt to. Moving from one project to another translates to meeting new people, encountering different sets of challenges and embracing a variation of scenery every so often. Of course, this also means making new friends, obtaining a wider perspective and discovering new things.

As consultants who are always on the move, the hunt for new places to eat in search of gustatory pleasures is among the things my colleagues and I take delight in outside of work. It's a perfect way to cope with future shock. Still, being new to a place and having no dictator in the group, it isn't always easy for us to decide where to go for lunch. So when Michael proposed Botak Jones, which was a mere "two bus stops away", a feeling of relief and excitement abounded in us.

We took bus 57 from the Bukit Merah interchange and got off at the stop opposite Yue Hua Eating House at 118 Depot Lane. With the blue neon sign on the roof of the hawker center, it wasn't difficult to find. I later found out the Botak Jones outlet in this area is just one of several they had in Singapore.

Botak Jones' logo, which consisted of an outline of a man that resembled Michael Jordan, save for the ears, told us where to go inside the food center. There was a queue when we got there -- a very good sign indeed. I found the offerings of authentic American food in the menu quite tempting and the decision on what to try first challenging. In the end, I opted to go with Michael's suggestion and ordered The Botak Burger set. There would be plenty of time to try out the others once the initial experience proved wonderful.

I was not to be disappointed. The beef was juicy and tasty, making The Botak Burger absolutely fantastic. I also found the coleslaw the way I had wanted it to be. I was too stuffed to finish the other side (I forgot the name and the menu isn't updated to reflect the available choices apart from coleslaw and fries) I had ordered.

Everyone in our table seemed pleased with his or her food. We were happy with our new find. We agreed to eat there at least once a week.

We were back only two days after that. I had the Italian sausage and found it to be very pleasant. Everyone in the group had the same positive comments they gave previously. As for their staff, we found them to be polite and they looked happy to be doing their job. They sounded really interested in our answers when they asked us if we enjoyed their food. They even offered to replace the fries if we weren't happy with it. Turns out they've recently introduced new fries based on a different style of cooking. We actually like them; I just hope they're still cooking it with corn oil.

I think Botak Jones lives up to their slogan, "Damn Good Food At A Damn Good Price". And if I may add, "...At A Darn Good Service!"

More info on Botak Jones can be found in their web site.

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