Sunday 25 January 2009

Chinese New Year dilemma: Shorts or long pants?

An important decision lies ahead of me on the first day of Chinese New Year, ie, tomorrow: I have to decide whether to wear shorts or long pants.

In previous years, I have always donned shorts to visit relatives. And I mean decent (in my opinion), almost knee-length shorts, not hot pants or Goldlion boxer shorts - which I still wear of course, but on the inside.

And I do try to wear brand new shorts - it's Chinese New Year after all.

My mother has always been slightly embarrassed by her adult son's exposed calves at family gatherings, but is relieved that I've at least stopped wearing berms to wedding dinners.

The simple reason is that most wedding dinner venues are air-conditioned whereas the homes of my relatives are not.

Another critical factor is footwear. Or more specifically, the custom of removing them prior to entering a relative's home.

Which utterly defeats the purpose of dressing up for the new year.

You may be James Bond sporting the finest tuxedo ever made, but once the shoes come off, you can't help but look like James Dork.

However, if you're wearing shorts, somehow your bare feet don't look so incongruous.

That is, assuming you're taking your socks off as well. Or should you? Since you're not sure if your feet smell worse with or without them.

But remember if you do take off your socks, you have to put them back on again along with your shoes after searching through other people's smelly footwear, a process that you would have to repeat if you're visiting more than one relative's home in a single day.

In which case, it's more convenient to keep your socks on no matter how they smell.

As for me, I skip that whole bourgeoisie socks-and-shoes thing altogether - I wear flip-flops for easy removal and re-application.

And what goes with flip-flops? Shorts!

The dilemma I have this year is that for the first time, I have to return to work in the evening after visiting my relatives tomorrow.

My boss has already made some snide comments when he spotted me wearing shorts in the office once one weekend.

HR has e-mailed a reminder that proper office attire is required during business hours, but it's my belief that weekends and the first day of Chinese New Year don't count count as "business hours".

Still, those snide comments can hurt.

Perhaps I could wear shorts to visit my relatives and then change to long pants at the office? But that would mean I'd have to change from flip-flops to socks and shoes too. Way too much hassle.

What the hell, I may just wear long pants all day and not embarrass my mother for a change. Just hope she doesn't start expecting it every year.

- Published in The New Paper, 25 January 2009

Thursday 22 January 2009

Another even more 'discordant note'?

In Parliament on Monday, Minister-in-charge of the Civil Service Teo Chee Hean said that senior permanent secretaries and entry-grade ministers will be getting a 20 per cent pay cut.

This made sense. Singapore is in a recession. Many Singaporeans are too facing pay cuts and even lay-offs, that is if we still have jobs. So it seems fair that our civil servants should also make some sacrifices.

And then it was revealed that after the 20 per cent pay cut, these civil servants will receive a reduced annual salary of $1.54 million this year.

It was a sum that most Singaporeans will not earn in a lifetime or 10, even without a recession. Suddenly, the words "fair" and "sacrifices" don't apply any more.

That our civil servants are among the highest paid in the world is old news.

What is ironic is that on the same day in Parliament, Mr Teo also expressed disappointment with an article that Mr Tan Yong Soon, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources, wrote in the Straits Times about spending $45,000 on a cooking course in France for his family.

"The article showed a lack of sensitivity and was ill-judged," said Mr Teo.

"It struck a discordant note during the current difficult economic circumstances where it is especially important to show solidarity and empathy for Singaporeans who are facing uncertainties and hardship."

The same could be said about revealing that civil servants will be making more than one and a half million dollars this year - after a pay cut.

The issue isn't whether the high salary is justified. The issue is that calling attention to it during the current difficult economic circumstances shows a lack of sensitivity.

Especially when, as Mr Teo pointed out, it is important for civil servants "to show solidarity and empathy for Singaporeans who are facing uncertainties and hardship".

Is it possible for anyone to empathise with "Singaporeans who are facing uncertainties and hardship" when your pay is cut to $1.54 million a year?

Was the timing of the pay-cut announcement ill-judged, underscored by the unfortunate juxtaposition with the criticism of Mr Tan's article?

Isn't Mr Teo in effect doing what he is chiding Mr Tan for having done?

Or perhaps we should applaud the Government for its transparency to the point where it chastises one of its own so publicly.

In which case, paradoxically, we should commend Mr Tan for being the most transparent of all.

- Unpublished

Sunday 18 January 2009

Hate how the show ended? Call the scriptwriter to complain

As a former TV scriptwriter, I sympathise with the writer of Little Nyonya.

Here you are, responsible for the highest rated programme in Singapore in a long time and all people can talk about is how your ending sucked.

It’s like you’re this airline pilot who did a wonderful job taking off and flying the plane, but just because you didn’t know how to land it properly and killed everyone on board – oh, suddenly you’re the bad guy. No one remembers the wonderful job you did before the crash.

In a way, you’re the victim of your own success. If only you had done a sucky job from the start and written a flop, then no one would’ve given a kueh how the series ended.

Trust me, I’ve been there, having worked on the series finales of PCK Pte Ltd and Living With Lydia.

Viewers can be a bitch sometimes. Can't live with them, can't live without them.

My first TV scriptwriting gig was for a Twilight Zone wannabe on Channel 5 called Shiver.

One day at then Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS), I received an unexpected phone call from a viewer demanding that I explained an inconsistency in a Shiver episode I had written.

The episode starred Zachary Mosalle as a mentally retarded man (a role for which he was nominated an Asian Television Award in 1998) who is abused by his sister's husband and then ... actually, it was so long ago that I don't remember the story.

Anyway, I couldn’t believe that someone had actually bothered to watch the show, analyse it, take note of my name in the credits, call TCS and get my extension – just to ask me to clarify a plot point.

I was tempted to tell the caller what William Shatner told a bunch of overgrown Star Trek fans in a classic Saturday Night Live skit: “Get a life.”

But a viewer is like a customer and as anyone who knows me can attest, my motto has always been “The customer (and woman) comes first”.

I should be grateful Shiver had any viewers at all.

So I told the viewer the story was open to interpretation – instead of admitting that I was aware of the plot problem, but didn't know how to fix it.

His reaction was “Where got like that one?” and he hung up. That was the first – and fortunately the last time – a viewer had contacted me directly to complain about a show I had written.

Unlike the scriptwriter for Little Nyonya, I didn’t have the luxury of producing three extra minutes of footage just to make up for the inadequacies in my script the first time around.

However, judging by the negative response, MediaCorp may need to produce another three minutes to make up for those three minutes.

I wonder if anyone called the writer directly.

- Published in The New Paper, 18 Jan 2009

UPDATE ON SHIVER: Shiver me timbers! It's back from the dead!

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Why I shall never trouble MPs and multi-billionaires ever again

A man accosted an MP at a grassroots event because the man was upset that he didn't get what he was there for.

No, I'm not talking about Ong Kah Chua who set MP Seng Han Thong ablaze at the Yio Chu Kang Community Club last Sunday, apparently because Ong didn't get a hongbao.

I'm talking about me.

I had woken up early one weekend morning to join a walk-a-jog only to find that the organisers had ran out of T-shirts for the participants.

I felt aggrieved enough that when I spotted MP Yeo Cheow Tong in the crowd, I went right up to him, accepted his handshake and demanded my free T-shirt.

Taken aback, the MP said he wasn't in charge of T-shirts. Then some dude accompanying Mr Yeo sensed that I was a trouble-maker and quickly stood between me and the MP without saying a word.

Mr Yeo wisely walked away to glad-hand someone else and the dude followed him - leaving me still aggrieved and T-shirtless.

Did I consider scoring some thinner and a lighter so that I could get me some fiery justice? No, because I had to get past the dude who had already seen me and would be watching out for me.

Did Mr Seng had a dude like that with him last Sunday?

Security doesn't necessarily mean cutting off access.

In the mid-'90s, Bill Gates was in Singapore to promote the launch of Windows 95. I wrote a column about it for a magazine:
"There I was in the front row at the Shangri-la Hotel ballroom. There he was up on stage, mere metres away from where I was slouching in my seat.

"I was so close to Bill Gates that that if I did it just right, I could clamber onto the stage, grab him by his lapels and yell into his face: 'You're the richest man in America, you're the CEO of the largest software company in the world, you're the visionary leader of our technological future - for God's sake, why can't you get glasses that won't keep slipping down your nose?' before any of the security people could get to me (not that I spotted any)."
Soon after the article was published, I received a fax from someone named Alan Solomon. He wrote:
"In the paragraph where you described Mr Bill Gates' glasses and the action you thought of taking to rectify the situation, you stated that you felt you could grab Mr Gates before his security could get to you.

"You then had in brackets: 'not that I spotted any'.

"Well, Mr Ong, we spotted you.

"My company was in charge of Mr Gates' security planning. So the statement that you didn't see any security is a compliment to my security advice.

"Good personal security does not mean a uniform and a gun. It is highly-trained specialists who sit right beside people like yourself."
Our MPs should hire Mr Solomon.

- Published in The New Paper, 14 January 2009


I was sent the news items of the attack on MP Seng Han Thong along with your piece about the fax you received from me about 300 years ago [it seems].

Thanks for mentioning the situation, and I am pleased to know that you are still writing with that nice intelligent sense of humor which has always been evident in your articles.

Best wishes
Alan Solomon
Safety and Security Manager
International School of Beijing

Sunday 11 January 2009

How a Singaporean declared war on the iPod - and lost

Apple CEO Steve Jobs revealed last week that he has a “hormonal imbalance” (notice the incredulous quote marks) which was blamed for his scary weight loss in the past year.

How will this affect the iPod maker’s future? At least one prominent Singaporean will be watching closely.

Whenever anyone talks about Singapore entrepreneurship, one name will invariably be brought up – Sim Wong Hoo, founder and CEO of Creative Technology, which launched its new Zii chip a few days ago at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas amid much self-manufactured hype.

Four years ago, the man fell for his own hype.

“The MP3 war has started and I am the one who has declared war,” he announced in November 2004. Infamous last words.

At the time, Creative’s Zen MP3 player was second only to Apple’s iPod in market share. “It’s our target to beat iPod in this quarter,” Mr Sim said.

What bravado! What chutzpah! What moxie!

A diploma holder from Ngee Ann Poly taking on Steve Jobs himself – a high school drop-out.

Mr Sim even dismissed the just released original iPod Shuffle as “a big let-down for the whole industry” and added that Apple was at “square one” while Creative was at “square 100”.

Fast forward to present day.

Needless to say, Apple remains top banana in the MP3 player market, leaving Zen to scramble for scraps with other iPod-killer wannabes like Microsoft’s Zune and Sony’s re-imagined Walkman.

According to Creative’s latest annual report, its workforce has been cut by 47 per cent in the last fiscal year. Casualties of a war that the company itself declared four years ago?

In a message to shareholders, Mr Sim thanked them for their “patience with Creative”. What? No more warmongering against companies named after fruit?

Actually, we don’t really hear much from Mr Sim nowadays. In recent times, the multi-millionaire has delegated the role of Creative’s frontman to the company’s president and COO, Mr Craig McHugh, an American – like Steve Jobs!

Because the Apple founder was one reason Creative never had a chance in the “MP3 war”.

With his black mock-turtleneck, blue jeans, sneakers and cult of personality, Jobs looks like a hip liberal arts professor you could hang out and discuss sex, drugs and rock and roll with.

Mr Sim, on the other hand, looks like the uncle in your neighbourhood traditional Chinese medicine shop dispensing ginseng and fungus to your grandmother.

Who would you rather buy a music player from?

If only Mr Sim had worn a mock-turtleneck back in 2004, the world could’ve been a very different place today.

- Published in The New Paper, 11 January 2009

UPDATE: Steve Jobs died in October 2011

Sunday 4 January 2009

Death of VHS: Whither Diana Ser's comic genius?

VHS is dead. Long live DVD! No, wait, isn’t DVD also dying? Long live Blu-ray!

No, wait. isn’t Blu-ray going to be obsolete in a few years? Long live digital distribution!

No wonder the salesman at Harvey Norman openly laughed in my face when I told him I was looking for a new VCR to replace mine that had just broken down.

Hey, at least I wasn’t looking for an LD player. Now that would be a joke. Unlike the short-lived laser disc, the VHS (or Video Home System) lasted 30 years.

But just before Christmas, the LA Times reported that the last major US supplier of video tapes was finally calling it quits. Hollywood has already stopped releasing movies on VHS in 2006.

Surprisingly, JVC was still manufacturing stand-alone VCRs until last October – the last company to do so.

Surely, I can buy one somewhere in Singapore. Otherwise, how was I going to play the dozens of mouldy tapes of shows I had recorded from TV over the years that I had never gotten around to watch?

Like that episode of the local sitcom Three Rooms from the late ’90s where Diana Ser supposedly did something hilarious which I can’t describe because dammit, I haven’t seen the episode.

Now I may never know the comic genius of Ms Ser, thanks to the obsolescence of video tape technology.

But it’s not just video. Research firm Gartner has recently urged the music industry to “move away from the retail CD as its primary revenue generator before Christmas 2009” to focus on digital distribution as CD sales continue to plummet in the new millennium.

And I still have cassettes.

But no eight-track cartridges, thank goodness.

The great thing about compact discs is that even if they stop making CD players, I have already ripped the songs from my CD collection onto my computer.

The trouble is my iTunes library has now swollen to over 18,000 songs – every one of which I’ve promised myself I would listen to at least once before I die.

Even the non-English titles by Celine Dion that I can’t pronounce. Even something called If You Love Someone, Set Them On Fire by the Dead Milkmen. And yes, even the Muppets.

After wiping the tears from his eyes from all that laughing, the salesman at Harvey Norman recommended that I get a DVD/HDD video recorder instead.

Long story short, on my HDD are now hours of shows recorded from TV that I will probably never get around to watch.

And soon it will be replaced by newer technology with which I will record more shows that I won’t get around to watch – and so on.

By the way, my turntable also just broke down.

Did Diana Ser ever release a comedy album?

- Published in The New Paper, 4 January 2009