Sunday 31 August 2008

Educating Phua Chu Kang - and failing

This year's Good English “It’s Not A Campaign” Movement was launched on Tuesday and somehow I feel I’m partially to blame for its existence – even though I speak English more gooder than the Queen.

The movement was first launched in 2000, a year after Phua Chu Kang was criticised for promoting Singlish by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in his National Day Rally speech.

And just my luck, I happened to be executive producer and writer for PCK at the time.

I’m accustomed to having my work rubbished by reviewers, bosses, colleagues, family, acquaintances and strangers I meet on the street, but when the head of state expresses his disapproval of your little sitcom in front of the whole country like that, it stings just a little bit more

There were fears that the series would be cancelled. Or the Government might even shut the whole TV station down (which to some, wouldn’t have been such a bad idea).

The more paranoid warned that there would be a knock on the doors of all those who were involved in the show and we would never be heard from again.

My biggest worry was they would bring back Three Rooms.

So when the PM suggested that PCK should attend English lessons, who was I not to dutifully write the episode where PCK had completed those lessons?

To keep Singapore’s favourite contractor alive, I had to neutralise what made him both popular and undesirable – the Singlish.

Then going beyond the call of duty, in the same episode, I took the opportunity to correct the mispronunciation of the name of PCK’s nephew “Aloysius”, which should be pronounced with four syllables, not three. (Incidentally, Aloysius was played by future detention barracks guest Marcus Ng.)

But soon after I left the series midway through the third season, the show – which survived eight seasons until February last year – reverted to the mispronunciation, which is understandable because it reflects how most Singaporeans speak.

I guess if Ralph “Call Me Rafe” Fiennes can insist on pronouncing his name differently from how the rest of the world pronounces it, all the Aloysiuses of Singapore can do the same.

(Try whispering “Aloysiuses” really fast a dozen times in its correct pronunciation without sounding like you were imitating the ocean.)

So my mini Speak Good English Movement on Phua Chu Kang failed, and rightfully so.

The actual Speak Good English Movement, on the other hand, has outlasted the sitcom whose linguistic influence the movement was created to counter.

That is, assuming PCK isn’t coming back.

Or is he? Stay tuned.

- Published in The New Paper, 31 August 2008

Sunday 24 August 2008

Why I bet against Singapore in Olympics

Just before the historic Olympic women's table-tennis semi-final between Singapore and South Korea two weeks ago, I had a wager with a Malaysian friend.

I bet $20 on Singapore to lose.

Now before someone revokes my Singapore citizenship and library card for treason and possible illegal gambling, let me say in my defence that I did it out of love for my country.

The thing is - as sung by Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris Cher as well as Nazareth, still the greatest rock band ever named after a New Testament location - love hurts.

I love Singapore so much that I felt pain the numerous times we failed to win a medal over the decades.

It's like this existential running gag that fans of the deeply profound Peanuts comic strip should be familiar with:

Lucy promises to hold the football for Charlie Brown to kick. (This is American football, by the way. So imagine a rugby ball.

Charlie Brown runs toward the football and just as he is about to kick it, Lucy suddenly pulls the football away, causing him to fly up in the air and land painfully on his back.

Charlie Brown curses himself for believing Lucy and vows never to fall for her ploy again.

Then Lucy tempts Charlie Brown to kick the football again and as much as he resists, Charlie Brown inevitably ends up on his back again. And again. And again.

Every four years, I was Charlie Brown. Lucy was the Olympics and the football was Singapore winning a medal.

During every Olympic Summer Games, I wanted to believe that Singapore had a shot at a medal, even though I should've known better from past experience.

After all, the only time we won a medal, I wasn't even born yet. And I'm not a young guy.

But there's always hope, as they say.

And sometimes that hope was raised crazy high every time we came oh-so-close. Like when Tao Li qualified for the women's 100m butterfly final after breaking the Asian record in the heats. It all seemed so promising.

And then Lucy pulled the football away. Fifth place. Once again, I was brought down to earth with a crash.

I cursed myself for falling for the hype. I should've treated the Olympics like the Miss Universe pageant, another major international event in which Singapore competes regularly as a matter of course, but we shouldn't expect to win anything.

It was all about managing expectations. I wasn't going to be Charlie Brown anymore. And that meant betting against the Singapore table-tennis team.

To me, it was win-win. If Li Jiawei and her fellow expats won the semi-final, it would guarantee Singapore our first medal in nearly half a century. If they lost... hey, I won 20 bucks.

But this time, Lucy didn't pull the football away. Hell froze over. The cows came home.

I was almost disappointed because I could've used the extra cash - you know, with inflation and all that.

When Singapore was eventually chewed and spat out by China in the final and subsequent singles competition, I found it strangely comforting that we haven't completely abandoned our 48-year-old losing tradition.

No matter. We have won our first Olympic medal since before the Beatles' first hit, before Singapore joined and was kicked out of Malaysia, before the invention of three-in-one coffee.

And that's worth losing $20.

Even if it's to a Malaysian.

- Published in The New Paper, 24 August 2008

Sunday 17 August 2008

Help! My mother wants me fat

I've recently come to the realisation that my mother is an idiot. To her credit, she has managed to hide this from me for decades.

My kids are only in primary school and they've already figured out I'm a dunce. Just because I have no idea how to do their homework. Modelling mystifies me.

My mother is an idiot simply because she wants me to be fat.

It all started a few months ago when undergoing a medical check-up, I was told I had high blood pressure. I couldn't believe it.

Now I was no Michael Phelps or even Michael Learns To Rock, but I did try to keep fit by working out and watching my diet in the most cursory manner I could muster.

That blood pressure result shocked me out of my complacency. So I went on a decidedly less cursory health regiment - basically exercise more, eat less.

So even though weeks later, the follow-up medical revealed that I didn't have any hypertension at all, the good was done. I had shed a few kilograms.

My pants became loose. I could pull the waistband so far away from my tummy that I could pleasure myself effectively without unzipping.

Needless to say, I was happy with my weight loss.

And then my mother came to visit.

Roughly translated from Hainanese, this was her appalled reaction: "What happened to you?! Are you sick? You're so thin! You're not my son anymore!"

I tried to explain that I was actually fitter than I've ever been, except I didn't know the Hainanese word for "fitter".

"Look at your cousins Ricky and Chee Seng! They're fat, happy and successful! Why can't you be more like them?"

To my mother, "prosperous" is not merely a polite euphemism for "fat", but a literal equivalent.

The irony is that my mother herself is overweight and taking medication to lower her blood pressure. And my father died at age 58 from complications caused by his fatness and hypertension.

Knowing all this, she still wants me to be fat? And that is why my mother is an idiot.

Now if I can only get my kids to finish their rice...

- Published in The New Paper, 17 August 2008

Sunday 3 August 2008

Why I'm never going to the cinema again

Blame Hellboy. Or more accurately Hellboy 2: The Golden Army.

I had decided to see the movie one afternoon at the West Mall multiplex in Bukit Batok near my home. I regretted it the moment I stepped up to the box office to buy a ticket.

When I asked if I could get a discount with my credit card as advertised by the bank, the ticket seller rather irritably pointed to a sign, which said that credit cards could only be used for payments of at least $20.

So no discount for me. Strike one.

Then when I went to find my assigned seat, I discovered that someone was already sitting in it.

Since the lights were already turned off because the movie was about to begin, I decided to simply take the next empty seat. The auditorium was less than a third full anyway.

Then somebody else came along and discovered I was sitting in his or her seat. I couldn’t tell if it was a “him” or a “her” because it was dark and I avoided making eye contact out of guilt that I had taken his or her seat. Like me, this person also decided to take the next empty seat.

Strike two.

Then when the movie began, there was no sound. At first, I thought that being the maverick filmmaker that he is, director Guillermo del Toro had made the daring creative decision to open the movie with complete silence.

But when the actors opened their mouths and no words came out except for the subtitles, that was when I realised something was seriously wrong.

Strike three – and you’re out!

It was at that moment that I swore I would never pay to see a movie at any cinema again.

The irony is that I didn’t even have to go the cinema to see the Hellboy sequel. I could’ve stayed home and watched it over the Internet for free, just like I did all the recent Hollywood blockbusters like Iron Man, Indiana Jones and Hancock.

But because I had enjoyed the first Hellboy movie on the big screen, I was willing to actually pay hard cash (since I wasn’t allowed to use my credit card) to see the second one on the big screen as well.

And I was being punished for it.

A few minutes into the silent movie, I heard someone, who sounded like a cinema employee, yelling in Chinese to the unseen projectionist that there was no sound and to restart the movie.

The screen suddenly went blank. After a few suspenseful seconds, the movie started again. This time with glorious sound, much to the relief of me, the person who had taken my seat, the person whose seat I had taken and the rest of the audience.

But we didn’t get any apology from any cinema staff.

Fortunately, the rest of the movie continued without any mishap except for Selma Blair’s acting.

A week later, in a moment of weakness, I was tempted to go see The Dark Knight at a cinema. Then I remembered my promise to myself and watched a pirated version over the Internet instead.

Sure, the video and audio quality sucked, but it was free. And at least it had sound.

- Unpublished

UPDATE: Breaking my promise to myself, I've gone to the cinema many times since this incident, but in February 2013, Cathay bought over the Eng Wah multiplex in West Mall.

No role too small at National Day Parade

IT’S my belief that every Singaporean should be part of the National Day Parade at least once in his or her lifetime.

Even if it’s just guarding a door.

That’s what a colleague of mine is doing at this year’s NDP. He’s an MP, you see.

Obviously, he is not a Member of Parliament since he is my colleague, because being his colleague would make me a Member of Parliament too. And if I’m a Member of Parliament, I seriously need a haircut.

In my colleague’s case, MP stands for military police, his vocation as an
NSman. And his orders are to guard a door along a corridor during the parade at Marina Bay, where it is held this year.

This may not seem glamorous, but at least he gets to see part of the parade
from his post. It is much better than my first “participation” in the NDP 20 years ago during my full-time national service.

Since I was a medic, I was assigned to provide medical cover for the fireworks people in the unlikelihood that they set themselves on fire in addition to the fireworks. Talk about working behind the scenes. This was kilometres away. I didn’t get to see the parade at all.

Just the spectacular fireworks which thankfully went off without me having to apply any of my burn dressings on anyone.

After that, I was resigned to my fate of never seeing the NDP in person.

Then, many years after completing my full-time national service, when I was well into my 30s, I received a letter from Singapore Armed Forces telling me to report for NDP.

What? Another medical cover?

Then I found out that it was my reservist unit’s turn to represent the navy in the marching contingent.

March? At my age?

I had a job – in management! I had kids. They were the ones who should be marching. So what if the oldest was only four?

Then I thought it could be my last chance. To be part of something I had managed to see only on TV every year.

I had secretly hoped to be Guard Of Honour just to wear the No 1 ceremonial
uniform. As it turned out, I was part of the contingent forming the “2” in “NDP 2001” during the parade.

At least my kids got to see me on TV, even if I was just this little dot.

I hope that one day, they too will get to be part of the nation’s grandest annual event – even if it’s just guarding a door.

I want to ask my colleague what exactly is behind that door he will be guarding. But I’m concerned that being the dedicated serviceman that he is, if he told me, he would have to kill me.

- Published in The New Paper, 3 August 2008