Sunday 24 July 2005

Remembering my first drowned body job

Last month, naval divers recovered the body of the 16-year-old boy who drowned in Seletar Reservoir.

For them, a 'drowned body job' or the recovery of a drowned body is probably the most gruesome part of their work.

Imagine being submerged in water for hours and combing the murky depths for a bloated corpse which sometimes has begun to decompose.

You're not sure you can find the body. If you do, you can finally go home and get a much desired shower. If you don't, well, you don't.

It isn't a pretty sight, let me tell you, although I was never a naval diver myself. And then you have to bring it to the surface.

Even diving gloves don't mitigate the horror of touching the cold dead flesh of a recently drowned human being.

And you never get used to it because drowned body jobs aren't frequent enough to allow you to. However, they are frequent enough for you to dread

Unless, of course, you happen to be me. Then you almost sort of look forward to them. You see, many years ago, during my full-time NS stint, I was an underwater medic in the navy.

One of my duties was to accompany naval diving teams on their assorted 'jobs' in case of any medical emergency.

Fortunately, I didn't have to do any diving, even though I was in the first batch of underwater medics to complete the basic underwater diving course. The course was the most interesting thing I ever did in my life at that point. Since then, the most interesting thing I ever did was share a lift with MTV VJ Denise Keller. Twice.

My first drowned-body job was on St John's island. An old woman had fallen into the water while disembarking from a ferry and drowned. Our task wasn't to rescue her, but to retrieve her remains.

I remember that it was a lovely day, apart from the fact that someone had just died a horrible unexpected death.

I waited with my medical pouch, oxygen tanks and automatic resuscitator set on the jetty while the divers searched for the body below.

I think it was also the first and only time I had been to St John's. I was enjoying the change of pace away from my regular routine at the base medical centre - and then the divers found the body.

After she was brought to the surface, foam oozed out of her mouth, which is what usually happens in drowning cases. It was an indelible image for a bookish then-20-year-old homebody like me.

I was grateful my job wasn't to save her (so, no mouth-to-mouth, thank goodness!). My job was only to take care of my divers.

I tagged along for several more drowned body jobs after that, but that was the only time I ever saw a corpse.

Because of these memorable experiences and more, I now look back on my years of national service with a perverse nostalgia as I'm soon about to 'retire' as an operationally-ready NSman.

Is it simply the mourning for lost youth? Or is it due to the sad truth that if it weren't for NS, my life would be even more boring than it already is, Denise Keller notwithstanding.

My next in-camp training will be my last. It won't include drowned body jobs.

- Published in The New Paper, 24 July 2005

UPDATE: Dear Jack Neo, you don't wanna mess with this frogman

Sunday 3 July 2005

Great Singapore Sale is Christmas Part Deux

The Great Singapore Sale is like Christmas.

Except that nobody complains about the Great Singapore Sale getting over-commercialised because the whole point of the Great Singapore Sale is over-commercialism.

Like Christmas, it is a major island-wide annual sales event loved by shoppers and retailers of all races and religions, but without the downer minor-chord spiritual undertones.

However, unlike Christmas, the GSS offers none of that guilt-freeing pseudo-altruistic rubbish about 'the joy of giving'.

You're shopping for yourself - not your overbearing family, your fairweather friends, your vain-glorious boss, your back-stabbing colleagues or your incompetent underlings, but you, you, you! It's all about you, baby. So no gift-wrapping necessary!

Correction: At the GSS, you are not shopping for yourself, but for your country! Remember when Sars emptied the malls and emaciated the economy two years ago?

The fate of the GSS came to represent the fate of the Republic itself. Shopping, no longer a mere national pastime, became a matter of life and death. Buying that pair of lavender Bonia open-toe wedges at 15 per cent off at Robinson's became an act of profound patriotism.

Unlike the Great Singapore Sale, Christmas cannot be cancelled or postponed, Dr Seuss notwithstanding.

However, although the season can begin whenever we want, like October, it absolutely, positively must end promptly at midnight on Dec 25. Thank heavens someone invented the post-Christmas sale. Can a Post-Great Singapore Sale sale be far behind?

Unlike Christmas, we don't send cards wishing each other a 'Merry Great Singapore Sale'.

But, like Christmas, the Great Singapore Sale falls conveniently on the long school holiday for the kids to avoid jostling with the maddening weekend crowd when maxing out their parents' credit cards.

Unlike Christmas, there are no songs written about the Great Singapore Sale - yet.

But if you need some musical accompaniment to your bargain-hunting, you can download 'Shop Around', either the original Miracles' version from the '60s or Captain and Tennille's version from the '70s will do fine.

Something from the '80s? You can't go wrong with the Pet Shop Boys' Shopping.

For something more recent, there's Candy Shop by 50 Cent, which is not about shopping at all (sample lyric: 'I take you to the candy shop, I'll let you lick the lollipop'), but at least contains the word 'shop' is in the title.

Like Christmas, the GSS coincides with the Hollywood blockbuster movie season, perfect timing to hawk all those Star Wars and Batman movie merchandising. Well, the kids on holiday need to milk their parents' credit cards on something, don't they?

This November, the movie Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire will lead the holiday blockbuster charge along with all the attendant merchandising, just in time for - what else? - Christmas.

It will be the young wizard's second major appearance of the year. The new book Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince will be out soon. When? Why, in two weeks during the GSS, of course.

Finally, unlike Christmas, the GSS has no special trees, no Orchard Road light-up and no mythical obese elderly Caucasian male who likes children a little too much.

And the difference that makes the difference? No year-end bonus to spend.

- Published in The New Paper, 3 July 2005

Sunday 5 June 2005

Stop fare increase? Ha! Take a hike

So the public transport fare hike has been approved. Is anyone really surprised?

What surprised me was that people protested against the fare hike as if it would actually make a difference. Haven't we been through this before? Like only three years ago? In the middle of a recession?

Trying to stop the rising cost of public transportation is like attempting to halt the march of time itself. You might as well stand in front of a moving bus that will cost you a couple of cents more to ride from July 1.

I was watching Channel 5 news when the newsreader blithely introduced a report about how Singaporeans felt about the fare hike.

Over-reacting as usual, I yelled at my crumbling nine-year-old Sony Trinitron.

'How do you expect Singaporeans to feel about the price hike! We love it? We're not paying enough! We have too much money! Oh, the top execs of big companies are grossly underpaid! They need a raise!'

True enough, the first couple of 'men in the street' interviewed by the reporter were against the fare hike, as if that was news.

Knowing that would-be journalists are required to report both sides of the story to appear objective, I was wondering how the reporter was going to find someone who wasn't against the price increase.

Who would want to pay more for anything? The reporter did find the person. A woman appeared on-screen and said: 'No more than five cents. I think that's acceptable.'

Mouth agape, I was stunned.

Didn't she know that for lower-income workers who have to take public transport every day, even a less than five cents fare hike per trip adds up?

But the fact is that if fuel costs and inflation rise, we might have to go through the whole rigmarole again. Some things are beyond tiny Singapore's control.

Another fare hike will be announced. Another TV news report about how Singaporeans feel about the fare hike. Another public outcry.

And we'll still be paying more for fares.

In another three years, it's going to be deja vu all over again.

But I'm okay with it. I've accepted that the public transportation cost will continue to rise like I've accepted that I will grow old and die, unless I get hit by a moving bus. Then I'll be skipping the growing old part.

What irks me is all this 'public outcry' stuff - people writing letters to the newspapers complaining about how the fare hike is unjustified, the columns, the petitions, et cetera.

It's just so tiresomely predictable, almost Pavlovian. I guess we all just need to vent. Get it out of our system. If we're going to pay more for anything, we should at least get to bitch about it.

It might make it difficult for service providers to push through the next price increase. Who knows? Maybe one day, protests might prevail and prevent a price hike.

And we'll stop the globe from spinning around a little red dot.

- Published in The New Paper, 5 June 2005

Sunday 8 May 2005

Help! My mother is a racist

Since today is Mother's Day, I want to say something about the woman who gave birth to me, raised me and still nags at me to get my hair cut.

She is a racist.

Mum used to warn me not to play with the neighbour's kids - of another ethnic group - as they were 'dirty'.

And she also forbade me to marry anyone outside my race. And even if the girl is Chinese, she absolutely positively could not be Khek (or Hakka). Why?

Because, my mum said, we were Hainanese - as if that explained everything.

Even when young, I had been easily unnerved by blanket assumptions made of whole swathes of people.

So imagine the shock of hearing such vileness from my own mum, otherwise as loving and caring as mothers are supposed to be.

The struggle was to reject her racism, but not her. To embrace her, but not her bigotry.

She's my mum, after all.

For many children, unfortunately, this is how racism is handed down from generation to generation.

My mother probably learnt it from her mother. Like charity, it begins at home.

I'm not saying that the parents of the PSC scholar who made the racist comments in his blog should take all the blame.

But surely parents have the responsibility not to turn their kids into bigots.

They should teach their children not just 'racial tolerance', but to celebrate the diversity of all races.

Mind you, like most people, I suffer lapses.

Once, I had an argument with one of two Indian colleagues in my office. He denied saying something that I knew he had.

In exasperation, I blurted out that, if it wasn't he who said it, then it was the other Indian - because they both looked alike to me.

I regretted it the moment I said it.

And I've come to realise that he, as a member of a minority race in Singapore, has learnt to accept such incidents as part of life here.

I experienced the same thing when I was a student in the US.

My best buddy in college was a blond Irish-German Protestant named Darren. He had befriended me because he mistakenly thought I could teach him gongfu.

He was fond of calling me 'Chinaman' and 'ricehead', and half-jokingly saying 'Chinks have no soul'.

So was he a cardboard-cutout bad guy?

Yet Darren also took me home to meet his small-town family for Thanksgiving, who seemed good people.

Ironically, he would move to Taiwan to teach English and marry a 'chink' girl he met there.

I wonder how her mother felt about the marriage. Mine would freak out.

Happy Mother's Day, Mum!

- Published in The New Paper, 8 May 2005

Sunday 27 March 2005

Don't call me Johnson Baby Powder

Is there some sort of worldwide contest that I'm unaware of where parents are competing to see who can come up with the most ridiculous name?

Isn't David Beckham naming his son after Tom Cruise's ex-girlfriend enough?

Do we also have to endure Zoe Tay, our very own Queen of Caldecott, bestowing such an ass of a name like Brayden on her innocent newborn?

She's lucky that everyone is so distracted by Li Nanxing's divorce that the donkey name isn't a bigger scandal.

This trend of silly celebrity baby names has got to stop. I mean if there really were a contest, no-one will ever beat the late great Frank Zappa, who christened his children Moon Unit and Dweezil, still the most potent one-two punch in kooky baby names ever.

Of course, questionable name selection isn't the sole province of vacuous showbiz and sports personalities.

I was just going through this year's list of Miss Singapore hopefuls and there's a Destiny, a Blyss and a Swyn. The last two names actually contain no vowels! What are the odds of that?

Of course, it's possible that Destiny, Blyss and Swyn aren't the names chosen by their parents and the girls conjured those names for themselves.

I know, for instance, that when she was a teenager, my sister, who was never given a Christian name by our parents, opted to call herself  'Melissa'.

Recently, I was surprised and somewhat confused to learn that my sister, now in her 20s, has decided that 'Jaime' was more her and changed her name accordingly, but not legally.

Of course, if you haven't figured it out yet, Johnson isn't the name I was born with either.

Like my sister Melis... I mean Jaime - whatever! - I too felt the need to acquire a Christian name, except that I was led to believe, by my parents, that only Christians were allowed to have Christian names and we weren't Christians. I was, and still am, mildly agnostic at best.

However, being the fearless iconoclast that I was in primary school, I wasn't going to allow such an itty-bitty thing like the wrath of God prevent me from having my own cool Christian name.

But I had a dilemma. I was torn between two names: 'Peter', which I thought the coolest, probably for the same reason I thought board games and short pants were cool; and 'Johnson', which I thought was the most exotic.

Of course, being a lot younger and a little less informed than I am now, I was unaware at the time that both Peter and Johnson were common euphemisms for, well, a man's organ. I might as well have called myself Willie or Dick, coincidentally the nicknames of America's two most infamous presidents.

So with characteristic un-Solomon-like sagacity, I resolved the issue by choosing both names.

'Peter Johnson Ong,' I wrote proudly on the cover of my school exercise books.

Soon after, my teacher was returning our exercise books when she puzzled over a pupil she had never heard of. 'Who's Peter Johnson Ong?' she asked the class.

I meekly put up my hand. My classmates laughed. Someone said: 'Johnson Baby Powder!' God had His revenge.

I immediately dropped 'Peter Johnson' and reverted to my given Chinese name.

That is, until decades later, as a nostalgic homage to one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, I resurrected 'Johnson' as my pen name.

Genitalia connotation notwithstanding, I contend it's still better than Brayden.

- Published in The New Paper, 27 March 2005

Sunday 30 January 2005

Singapore Idol guys Taufik & Sly promote BeeDees girls' underwear

It's not often that I stop and stare at something in the women's underwear department. Once a month at the most.

For instance, I was once utterly intrigued by the Aqua Bra. The science that goes into women's breast support is just mind-boggling.

And whoever invented the technology that allows you to wear a thong without feeling like your backside is getting flossed should get some sort of Nobel Prize.

And with God as my witness, I hereby pledge that I shall one day be able to discern the difference between a camisole and a chemise like an expert - while blindfolded!

But what caught my attention last week wasn't the latest cutting-edge brassiere technology. Or even the new come-hither, point-of-sale displays for the spring/summer 2005 lingerie collections that could turn a gay man straight.

It was the faces of Taufik Batisah and Sylvester Sim grinning at me from the tops of racks of Triumph BeeDees bras, briefs and other unmentionables.

I couldn't believe my eyes. What did the first Singapore Idol and runner-up possibly have to do with girls' undergarments? For some reason, Tom Jones came to mind.

I had to get a closer look.

I approached the racks of female pubescent delicates with such intense fascination that a matronly saleslady patrolling the section showed understandable concern.

Despite wearing disposable contact lenses that were way past their expiry date, I wasn't deceived by my eyes at all.

It was Taufik and Sly, Singapore idols and now Triumph BeeDees pitchmen.

Spend at least $80 worth of Triumph products including a BeeDees bra and brief set or swimwear and you may get a chance to meet your idols on Valentine's Day.

I understand that Taufik and Sly appeal to young girls who are BeeDees' target market, but is it really appropriate for two guys to be selling girls' underwear?

As part of the promotion, 200 BeeDees cami-and-shorts sets autographed by Taufik and Sly are also being auctioned off in aid of the tsunami victims.

I know it's for charity, but again, is it really appropriate for two guys to be signing their names on girls' underwear?

For once, MediaCorp can't be blamed for this because our national broadcaster isn't the one who pimp out our idols to peddle teeth whitener and panties.

Taufik and Sly are managed by Artiste Networks, a subsidiary of Singapore Idol judge Ken Lim's Hype Records.

What if Olinda Cho had won? Would she be endorsing Anlene Gold?

What if I wanted to meet Taufik and Sly? Well, I could get $80 worth of Triumph products for my mother, I suppose, but asking for her cup size would likely scar me emotionally for life. Even then, I think Beedees may be little too small for her.

The matronly saleslady was glaring at me now. I decided to leave the women's underwear department and headed for Watson's to get some contact lens solution.

Who should loom in front of me but The New Paper Booby Award winner herself, Margaret Lee.

Actually, it was just a life-size cardboard standee of Margaret Lee, touting breast enhancement pills and sporting an interesting purplish bra that may or may not be Triumph, but is at least somewhat triumphant in containing Ms Lee's bulging bosom.

She's the one who should be selling underwear.

- Published in The New Paper, 30 January 2005

Sunday 9 January 2005

When wireless doesn't mean radio anymore

I have a blog.

Doesn't everyone?

You mean you don't? How uncool are you?

According to Merriam-Webster, 'blog' was the word of the year last year. Not having your own blog is like not having your own Gmail account.

What? You don't have Gmail either? My God, what are you? A caveman?

No problem. I'll send you an invite. You do have an Internet account, right?

That's a relief. What's your broadband speed? 1.5 meg? Cable? Huh? You're using dial-up? You mean, you still have a land line? How retro.

Wait. You're still using wires? The horror. But you have a handphone, right? Good, take my picture.

Huh? You can't take pictures with your phone. Then what's the point of having a phone?

You mean you actually use a camera to take pictures? What a concept.

Cheeeeeese! Snap!

Let me see the picture. Where's the little LCD screen on the camera? What do you mean I have to wait for the photos to be developed?

Film? Your camera uses film? I weep for you.

Next thing you'll be telling me is you listen to CDs, ha ha ha... oh. I see. You mean you actually buy whole albums?

I have two words for you: iPod and download. No filler, all killer.

What's this? A video cassette recorder? You should donate it to a museum, Grandpa, along with your eight-track cartridges and vinyl records. Tape is so last millennium.

Is that a DVD recorder? Oh, it's just a player. What movies do you have? Please, no LDs or - heaven forbid - VCDs. You got The Lord of the Rings DVD? Cool.

Wait. This is the theatrical cut! You didn't get the special extended edition?

What the hell is wrong with you? Never mind. At least you have the wide-screen version. So you're not a complete loser.

Where's the surround sound? Oh, I see. Your 'entertainment centre' has only two speakers. It's okay, I'm just grateful that it's not mono.

Hmmm, there's something not right about your TV, apart from the microscopic 36-inch curved screen. I think it's the cathode-ray tube. No, the cathode ray tube is working fine. The problem is your TV actually has a cathode ray tube.

I have one word and three letters for you: Plasma and LCD.

And if you say 'projection TV', I'll beat you to death with my Nintendo DS.

Speaking of trilogies, did you see the trailer for Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith? No, not in the cinema. On the web. I'll show you.

Where's your computer? Ah, that pesky cathode ray tube again. Three words: Flat panel monitor.

Ah, your mouse and keyboard - more wires. Wireless doesn't just refer to radio any more, you know. Get into the 21st century, man.

My ears! My ears! What's that awful screeching noise? The modem? Oh, yeah, I forgot. you're using dial-up.

How do you live like this? Like an animal!

Okay, I found the site. I'm downloading the Star Wars trailer for you now. Judging by your dial-up bit rate, I'd say this will take roughly 4,000 years.

Forget it, I'll Gmail you the file.

By the way, did I mention I have a blog?

- Published in The New Paper, 9 January 2005