Saturday, November 29, 2008

Retrenchment And Job Permanence

This post has been moved here permanently:

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Friday, November 21, 2008

The Case Of The White Coffin

     She must have been dead for quite some time, possibly of heart attack, they theorized. When the paramedics told him they had to take his mother to the morgue to do an autopsy, Pok Teh only nodded. They said he looked genuinely distraught. The only thing that bothered them, save Pok Teh it seemed, was the coffin that lay on the living room. There was no other indication of foul play.

     The three of us arrived at the house ten minutes after we were summoned, and was greeted at the door by one of the paramedics. My colleagues went about the business of searching the house, while I asked to be led straightaway to Pok Teh, whom we found slumped --certainly alive but not lively-- beside the entrance to the kitchen. Pok Teh was a tall, overweight, balding man in his forties. He had bloodshot eyes accented by dark circles underneath them, and a round, dreary face.

     "I'm Detective Gan." I said as I reached out my hand. He never took it, instead he continued staring blankly at the wall at the far end of the room.

     I thought I saw him give a slight nod as I sat beside him on the floor. The paramedics had just taken the body out, and from my angle I could see the edge of the huge white coffin protruding from the living room.

     "I'm sorry for your loss," I said, "but I'm here just to ask you a few questions."

     He said nothing but shifted his eyes to the ground.

     "Why don't you tell me what happened?"

     He gave an audible sigh and looked at me briefly before training his eyes on the floor once again.

     "I know this is difficult but I need your help to clear things up."

     I checked my notes. There wasn't much. Pok Teh's call came in at seven o'two. The ambulance arrived twelves minutes later.

     "The dispatcher said that you told them you found your mother lying on the floor when you arrived. You came from work, yes?" I asked.

     He gave no response and showed no intention of doing so.

     "Would you like to tell me what's with the coffin?" I offered.

     I was taken aback when the big man suddenty started crying like a baby. His body rocked with this sobs, which quickly turned to moans. I didn't quite know what to say, so we sat there just like that for a while. But even when he was through, the tears weren't enough to get him started talking.

     We arrived at the station a little past eight o'clock. I had no choice but to take Pok Teh for questioning.

     My colleagues had collected a few things that seemed relevant. We found four things stood out from the rest. One was a flight ticket going to China under the name of the deceased, scheduled for departure at six o'clock of the same day. Next was the receipt for a towing service issued at six thirty also of the same day, found in Pok Teh's shirt pocket. A bottle of Valium tablets was also found in his underwear drawer. Lastly, a huge paper bag containing two hundred thousand dollars was found in his cabinet.

     We, my colleagues and I, had different theories about the whole thing. The case was our first real assignment after having made it through the academy. Part of the job, we were told, was to make sense of the bizarre.

     "I don't like the guy from the instance I saw him," one said. "Something just isn't right about him. Maybe he had deliberately staged the whole thing to make it look like his mother was leaving the country and that he was in the middle of the road when she was dying. He must have had something to do with her death."

     "Maybe he gets to keep the house if she was out of the way. I mean, what kind of guy would still be living with his mom at that age?" another one conjectured.

     "The cash could be his inheritance," added the first one.

     "Or he was planning to leave the country after he killed her!" exclaimed the second guy.

     "Look, I don't like the guy too," I declared, "but that doesn't mean he had something to do with his own mother's death. Besides, that doesn't take into account the most bizarre thing of all..."

     "Maybe she was some sort of psychic," the second guy, the wiseass, cracked. "Maybe she saw her own death in her dream or something. That's why she bought the coffin."

     "Or maybe he's the psychic! Maybe he bought the coffin," the first one offered.

     We stopped our discussion before it got too out of hand. The autopsy report was coming in by ten o'clock, which became our self-imposed deadline for the day. We had some time on our hands.

     It took a few phone calls to sort out the first two pieces of the puzzle. First, the flight ticket. The airline stated it had to cancel flights because their pilots were on a strike, and that someone with the name of Pok Teh's mom had checked in earlier but was later informed of the flight's cancellation. Second, the towing receipt. The towing company confirmed it had indeed towed Pok Teh's car and that they had dealt with someone resembling his description. The signature on the form they faxed matched Pok Teh's signature in his ID.

     Unfortunately, ten o'clock had came too soon and the matter of the white coffin remained unresolved. The huge amount of money was almost equally perplexing. Pok Teh was a dead end because not a single word could be extracted from him. We had to send him home after receiving the autopsy report, which gave us the most important bits of fact yet. The report indicated heart attack as the cause of death, and that Pok Teh's mother could not have been dead for more than three hours.

     Two days later --Sunday-- we watched Pok Teh bury his mother in the same, white coffin that previously lay in their living room. But not before I got to take one last look at her when everyone was given the chance to pay their final respect. She could have been a foot taller and twice as large and they wouldn't have any trouble fitting her; she looked like a spoon getting buried in a shoe box.

     We invited Pok Teh back to the station after the ceremony. He looked worse than than ever, probably from combination of grief and the lack of sleep.

     "We've been busy," I started. "We've traced the coffin to its seller and we've even talked to the people who delivered it. We've also talked to some of your neighbors as well as your colleagues in the office. As for the money in the paper bag, you emptied your savings just the day before that fateful night. You weren't intending to spend all that money on yourself, were you?"

     I detected only a very subtle change in his bearing but he kept his eyes on the table. I was seated across him, barely two meters away.

     "Perhaps, you'd like to take this opportunity to tell me what happened?"

     I knew by then I wouldn't be able to get him to talk. But I had to give him a chance. He didn't take it.

     "No? Very well. Maybe I could tell you what happened?"

     The only response I got was a slight movement of his eyebrows. I couldn't say if that was an expression of agreement, bewilderment or surprise.

     "You left the office at about five-thirty," I said. "Your colleagues say it was the first time you did that in months, maybe even years. You wanted to get home early, but then your car broke down along Henderson Road, near the intersection. You had to call the towing service and it took them some time to get to you."

     I stood up and leaned forward a bit towards him.

     "With your car towed, you took a cab instead. Now I don't know why you just didn't leave your car..." I began to pace the room.

     "Anyway, you managed to call the funeral services to say you were going to be home late. It's just that you didn't expect your mother to be home. You expected her to be well on her way to China but instead you found her lying on the floor when you arrived. You never expected her to be dead. "

     The big man in front of me was once again sobbing like a child, and like the first time, it took a while to compose himself.

     "The guys who made the delivery were already on their way to you doorstep when you called the funeral service. They never got the instructions to wait for you because they left their service phone in their car. Your mother just arrived from the airport and was changing her clothes when they knocked, so she yelled to let themselves in. Coming out of her room, she must have been shocked to see the coffin in her living room, enough to give herself a heart attack."

     I paused to watch Pok Teh's reaction. By now he had covered his face with his hands and was shaking his head continually.

     "You bought the coffin over a month ago, soon after you've bought the flight ticket for your mother. But you inquired about the coffin three weeks earlier than that. It must have taken you some time to persuade her to go take a vacation in China. But things didn't go as you've planned. Your mother's flight was canceled. Then your car broke down."

     I took the bottle of Valium tablets and placed it on the table. It made a bang that was louder than I intended. Pok Teh looked up.

     "The coffin was really never for your mother was it?"

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Rules Are Made To Be Broken, Even In A Fine City Called Singapore

Rules were made to be broken. For every written law that exists, someone's bound to break it. More so for unwritten ones. This couldn't have been more evident yesterday morning, as I set out on my way to work.

First, there was that man on the escalator, who got on the right side and held his position as the people in front of him continued walking upwards. The lady following him said, "Excuse me" and overtook through the space left between him and the person on his left. Three more overtakers followed. But the man never budged.

Second, those large yellow lines on the MRT platorm. Someone always has to play the role of the antagonist, right? I was willing to bet an entire day's meal that someone would. What was his or her character going to be like this time? A more senior member of the society (to distinguish from a senior citizen) who's earned his or her right to bully the rest? An office hotshot who gives off the don't-talk-to-me attitude with a little pursing of the lips and wrinkling of the forehead? An extraordinarily cool guy or gal who gets to play dumb and doesn't understand the concept of arrows or the logic of letting people come out of the train first before boarding, perhaps? Or someone just mean, or selfish, or maybe a winner who always gets to let other people eat his dust because he's always so far ahead? I had my answer faster than I could say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious ten times. Yesterday, it had to be the office hotshot.

The third and last illustration. Ahh! But this one shows there is hope. When the train was on its third stop after we boarded, a pregnant lady got on and stood right in front of the macho who occupied the seat nearest the door, the one with the huge sign above that said "Priority Seat. Be considerate. Give up this seat to a passenger with special needs." She smoothed her hand over her tummy, as if to say, "Hey, look at me. I'm pregnant." One, two, three seconds passed. The guy didn't move. The lady seated across him raced everyone else and stood up, offering her seat to the pregnant lady. The story doesn't end there though. Another three stations away and the macho was given an opportunity to redeem himself. An elderly couple got on the train, with the man looking older and not as strong as his wife. This time the macho didn't pass up the chance to do the right thing. He stood up and offered his seat to the elderly man.

It was going to be a fine day in the fine city of Singapore, after all.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Dial A Friend

There on the train, he stood by the door.
With his right index finger, he dialed his friend.
When that didn't work, he used his thumb.
He gave a sigh so I thought he was done.
But then he saw me staring so I threw my gaze on the floor.
Then he looked at his nails just to make sure.
With a flick of his finger, he let it go.
Then reached into his nose and dialed some more.

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Zouk Vampires

Red eyes on fire
Blinding lights
We groove into the night

Moving, shaking
Right and left
We are dexterous and deft

Rythmn and Harmony

Zouk is in 17 Jiak Kim St., Singapore. It is about $6 and 5 minutes away from Clarke Quay.

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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Singapore Zoo Adventure

Meet Inuka, the first polar bear to be born in the tropics. He is one of the main attractions of the Singapore Zoo, the place where his mother, Sheba, gave birth to him in 1990, the day after Christmas.

Thanks to relatives and friends who visit us here in Singapore, we get to go places where we'd normally use work as the excuse not to visit. The zoo is one of those places.

I couldn't even remember my first visit to the zoo. Either my parents brought me or it was due to a school field trip. But I'm sure I had a lot of fun. Kids normally do, as demonstrated by my 6-year old cousin and the countless kids we encountered on that day we visited the Singapore Zoo.

It happened on a Saturday, a sunny day at that, which was perfect for the short adventure we had thought of only a few days earlier. We got there, the six of us -- one of which is Mr. Matthew, my cousin, the other characters are not important -- at around 8 a.m. We had some time to go around before we entered as we waited for our two other companions, only one of them showed up.

Upon our entry, we were taken to spot near the entrance where our picture was taken by the zoo staff. We were informed that we could buy the photo if we chose to, but otherwise we were under no obligation to do so. We had our cameras in hand, so we passed up on the offer.

The monkeys were the first creatures we came upon. We saw a lot of them and their distant relative, the apes, in the course of our visit. The best way to tell them apart is through the tail -- monkeys have tails while apes don't. You can read more about the difference between apes and monkeys here and here.

The monument shown above is a tribute to Ah Meng, a female Sumatran Orangutan that was once the poster girl of the Singapore Zoo. Ah Meng's fame went far and wide, enough to attract visits from dignitaries and celebrities such as Prince Philip and Michael Jackson. She was previously smuggled from Indonesia and kept illegally as a domestic pet before being recovered by a veterinarian in 1971 and subsequently donated to the zoo.

These white-brownish monkeys wanted their photos taken separately; they didn't want to be facing the camera simultaneously so they took turns. I obliged. If you know what type of monkeys they are, drop me a line at singaporefountainpen[at]

Sheep and giraffe. This is quite a view, especially with the pristine water as the background. Hmm... I don't think my shot did it much justice though.

This is of course, the great white tiger, fast asleep.

The zoo offers three shows. It didn't seem feasible for us to see them all in one day. However, we did get to see the elephant show before we went for lunch. It was a show of strength as these mammals lifted huge logs, rolled giant rocks and pulled heavy stuff. Of course, there were elements of fun but they're better experienced than read about.

It was difficult to find an empty table in the restaurant during lunchtime. Also, the queue for food was very long. It's advisable to go for either an early (i.e., before noon) or late (i.e., after 1 p.m.) lunch.

Tummies filled, feet rested, and fully awake from a doze of coffee, we were ready to see the Splash Safari show at 2:30. The stars of which included the penguins and the irresistibly cute and witty sea lioness. It was difficult not to think of the films Happy Feet, Madagascar and Batman Returns when I saw the penguins. Here's a web page that lists some movies where penguins have a starring role.

I passed up on the chance to feed the elephants earlier. But I figured I may not get too many chances trying to feed the manatees or sea cows, so I grabbed the opportunity when it was presented. As a matter of hygiene, we were asked to wash our hands with soap and water before and after the feeding. We bought two baskets of boiled carrots and potatoes for the marine mammals (and herbivores at that) and were instructed to continually give them food once we've started to keep them from swimming away. I was amazed to discover that their whiskers weren't as hard as I perceived them to be.

We were off to see the tortoises...

and the iguanas after that. There were scratches on the shells of the tortoises but they appeared to be very tough. It was very tempting to try knocking a few times on its carapace just to get a feel of how hard it is.

There wasn't a contest between a tortoise and hare. But it might have been interesting to see who makes it first to the finish line between a Rhinoceros Iguana and a turtle. In this particular scene, it looked like the turtle had a bit of an edge.

At some point after I have posted this, someone identified this huge lizard as a Komodo dragon, so I checked again. It's not easy to tell them apart if you're not used to seeing the two a lot; they’re both lizards but they belong to different genera. Anyway, the crest of pointed horned scales extending from the nape of the Rhino Iguana's neck to the tip of its tail is one distinguishing factor. If you click on the picture so that you’re zoomed in, you’d see the bony -plated pseudo-horn or outgrowth which resembles the horn of a rhinoceros on the iguana's snout where its name is derived from.

Like Indiana Jones, I don't like snakes very much. Although I'm not sure if I have ophidiophobia and I don't intend to find out. What do you feel about seeing something like the snake in the photo below? It might not be as scary looking as a cobra and it might not even be poisonous, but it still gives me the creeps and I'd avoid getting close to it anytime of the day. I think a lot of people fear snakes for good reason.

I'd appreciate it if you can help me identify this animal. And I'm not referring to the snake above. If you're interested to learn more about venomous snakes, this should be a good start. I am referring to the guy with the big ears below.

For some people, the photo below was more terrifying than the snake. Someone commented that the statue looked like a real human being that successfully climbed out of the big jar, now by its side. I did get to see mummified human skeletons taken from jars in a museum exhibit years ago. There's little resemblance between those and the one below, who, standing in his own two feet, looks alive to me.

Below are the usual suspects. But a zoo would not be complete without them.

Our plans of having dinner at home were derailed after waiting for two Maxi Cabs to arrive but failing to haggle with their drivers to take us home for the same (or near enough the) amount we had previously paid getting there. With no more reason to rush home, we took SBS Transit bus 138 going to the Ang Mo Kio Station and took the MRT from there.

Long day? Definitely. Good day? Absolutely.

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