Friday 24 April 2009

What do you do when a fly lands in a stranger's cup of tea?

So I’m eating mee siam at a new food court called The Cafe Lobby at Yew Tee MRT station.

Seated facing me at another table is a Chinese man in his 50s drinking a cup of tea.

As he’s looking around the food court, I notice one of the flies I have been waving away from my food landing on the inside of his cup.

I think to myself: “Alamak, I hope he’s done with the tea.”

Then the fly flies off. Unaware, the man lifts the cup to drink. “Oh no!” I scream silently in my mind.

What’s the etiquette in a situation like this? Should I say something? Like maybe “Stop!”?

But I don’t know this man and he doesn’t know me. If I suddenly shout at him, I may actually scare him to death. He’s old enough that he could die of a heart attack. A fly won’t kill him – but I might.

And if he doesn’t die, he’s not going to be happy that some stranger with crazy hair just shouted at him for no good reason. How do I tell him about the fly?

What if he doesn’t understand English? I have no idea how to say “fly” in Mandarin or any Chinese dialect.

But I do know how to say “mosquito” in Chinese. So maybe when I’m explaining to him why I almost gave him a heart attack, I can substitute the word “fly” with “mosquito”. Would that make a difference?

Would he mind that a mosquito flew into his cup instead of a fly? We all know that flies can spread disease by landing on the food you eat, but mosquitoes are pretty harmless unless they bite you, right?

How believeable is it anyway that a mosquito would fly into someone’s cup? That’s what flies do, not mosquitoes – not that I’m an expert on insect behaviour or anything.

Hey, wait, I also know how to say “snake” in Chinese. What if I say: “Oh, I was shouting at you like a crazy person because I saw a snake fly into your cup.”

No, that won’t work. I’m not sure I know how to say “crazy person” in Chinese.

You know what I blame for this? This retro trend of making food courts look like the roadside food stalls of Singapore’s Third World past. It seems like they’re reviving Third World hygiene standards as well, along with the hat-wearing Hokkien mee seller.

Nostalgia is one thing, but not to the point where our health is compro...

The cup reaches his lips. Oh well. Too late for me to do anything now.

He’s drinking from the exact spot where the fly landed. I’m wondering if tea flavoured with a fly’s feet tastes any different from regular tea. Judging by his lack of retching, I guess not.

The man finishes the tea and leaves. He looks okay. For now.

I make a mental note never to eat in this food court again. At least, until they get rid of all the flies.

Never mind the ABC grading. The National Environment Agency should just do something about these damn flies in food centres.

Or I'll really have to brush up on my Chinese.

- Published in The New Paper, 24 April 2009

Dear Ms/Mr Ong,

Thks for the article in The New Paper today re the fly.

FYI, S11 coffee shop at Bishan next to Junction 8 have more flies than you could count but I dont know how to go about it informing the authorities. I eat there almost daily and had to keep swatting the flies away while eating my favourite minced pork mushroom mee pok. Hope you can do something about this.

Best regards,
Sally Lim

Tuesday 21 April 2009

Aware vs mountaineers: Who better represent Singapore women?

In The New Paper on Saturday, there was a story about two extraordinary groups of Singapore women.

One group was a little younger and the other more experienced. Both groups more or less wanted to accomplish the same thing - and no, I'm not talking about running the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).

They wanted to scale Mt Everest.

An all-women team made up of students and teachers from Christ Church Secondary School met the Singapore Women’s Everest Team at the Everest Base Camp in Nepal on 7 Apr.

The Christ Churchers reportedly battled below-freezing temperatures, a snowstorm and a hailstorm to achieve their lofty goal. The youngest among them are only 15 years old.

Also in The New Paper that day - as well as the days before and after - was a story of another two groups of women, the new Executive Committee members of Aware and the "old guard", battling each other over control of the association.

I ask you: Who do you think represent Singapore women in a more positive light: the climbers or the members of Aware?

Ironically, Aware's stated mission is to "encourage positive change" and "support women in realising their highest potential". I only know this because I just went to its website (before the server crashed).

Earlier, my wife had wanted to know exactly what it was that Aware did. My somewhat glib answer was it released press statements.

Then realising I was being somewhat glib, I added that Aware also runs a helpline for women. That was all I could think of.

Later, I asked a female colleague what Aware did. She said they wrote letters to the press. She didn't even mention the helpline.

People may not know much about Aware, but thanks to the coup d'état, at least people are now asking about it. After all, it makes for far more entertaining soap opera than anything on local TV like Red Thread because it's real life and no one is pretending to be blind.

It also helps that the characters are all women. If this was happening in, say, the Association of Men for Action and Research (Amare), I don't think people would care as much.

As my colleague Tan Mae Lynn put it in her commentary on Sunday, it's a "cat fight". If only I could sell tickets!

One unfortunate consequence, however, is that more attention is paid to this highly diverting feline in-fighting than the inspiring high-altitude feats of our female mountaineers.

After this contretemps, for Aware to regain its standing as a credible voice on local women's issues is going to be a uphill task, but no tougher than conquering the world's tallest peak.

I await the next press release with bated breath.

- Published in The New Paper, 21 April 2009

Monday 20 April 2009

Firing a maid: From trust to paranoia

My daughter was barely two years old when her fingers were scalded so badly that the skin was peeling off.

My wife and I weren’t home at the time so we don’t know exactly what happened.

Our Filipino maid, whose name was Beth, said she was carrying my daughter while preparing a milk bottle and accidentally spilled boiling water on my daughter’s hands.

Beth then called my wife and we rushed home to find our daughter still crying uncontrollably. We quickly took her to a neighbourhood clinic and my daughter’s fingers healed eventually.

Because of the incident and other issues, we finally made the difficult decision to let Beth go. My wife called the maid agent to make the arrangements.

A few days later, without giving her any warning, we told Beth that we were sending her home and to pack her things immediately.

I know it was a terribly heartless thing to do, but we were paranoid that if we gave her notice of her termination beforehand, she might do something to harm us – or worse, our children – out of spite.

In tears, Beth pleaded with us to give her another chance, but we didn’t budge, although my heart was breaking for her.

When we took Beth to the maid agent’s office in Bukit Timah Shopping Centre, the agent was very nice to my wife and me, but then turned to poor Beth and scolded her for misbehaving and causing us to fire her.

At that moment, I wanted to tell off the agent:

“Who are you to scold Beth? You know nothing about her. This person lived with us for one and a half years. We entrusted her with the two most precious things in our lives, our children. She means more to us than you do. You have no right to treat her like... a maid!”

But I didn’t.

What was a mere scolding from the agent compared to the way we – who looked after her well-being for the past 18 months – were getting rid of her?

And just like that, Beth went from practically being a member of the family to an ex-employee. From being an integral part of our lives everyday to a stranger almost, a foreigner – someone whom we would never see again.

And we didn’t even say goodbye to her. We just left Beth weeping in the agent’s office without looking back.

We never hired another maid. My wife decided to look after the kids herself. So now every time I read about maids abusing the children they’re supposed to be looking after, I’m glad we made that decision.

And whenever I read about employers abusing their maids, I’m reminded of the maid agent’s callous attitude towards Beth – and perhaps mine.

Now 10, my daughter doesn’t even remember Beth at all. But I do.

- Published in The New Paper, 20 April 2009

Sunday 19 April 2009

I found a dead body and all I did was update my Facebook

This happened last Sunday night – or to be more precise, 2:30am Monday morning. Because of how late it was, there was no one else around.

I was on my way home from work when I spotted someone lying face up on the pavement below my flat.

To my horror, it turned out to be the body of a dead woman with blood still flowing from the back of her head. Well, at least she didn’t have to worry about the recession and unhygienic hawkers anymore.

I took out my handphone – not to take pictures because I didn’t have a camera phone, but to call the police.

Unfortunately, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember the number. Could you blame me, considering the circumstances? I had never had to call the police for anything before.

I thought the number couldn’t possibly be triple nine because that was the name of a TV show. (The number is 999, I found out later.)

995? Wasn’t that for the ambulance? A little bit too late for that now.

I wanted to try 911, but wasn’t that another TV show starring William Shatner?

So there I was – standing over the body, staring at my phone and contemplating what digits to dial when some guy I didn’t see earlier called out to me and said he had already contacted the police.

Oh. Okay.

I was relieved – and somewhat disappointed.

This was the most exciting thing that had happened to me since the opening of Yew Tee Point and it was over just like that.

What was I supposed to do now?

Nothing, except go home and go to bed.

But I didn’t want to go to sleep with the dead woman as the last image in my mind.
So I turned on the computer to update my Facebook status: SM Ong “just returned from work to find a fresh dead body at the foot of my apartment block”.

(I didn’t tweet it because I have zero Twitter followers.)

Then I went to sleep.

But not before looking out my window to see that the police had indeed arrived and was doing whatever they did in situations like this.

When I woke up the next morning, the police and the body were gone.

As I was taking my daughter to her primary school, I pointed out to her where the body had been. Flies were staking out the remaining blood stain.

My daughter said she was going to tell all her friends at school that her daddy had found a dead body.

I felt so proud.

- Published in The New Paper, 19 April 2009

Sunday 12 April 2009

Only 17 bus services in Singapore are overcrowded? Really?

So I was sitting in SMRT feeder bus service 302, accompanying my daughter home from her primary school one evening last week.

Except the bus wasn’t moving.

The bus captain was waiting for the last action hero who boarded the sardine tin on wheels to squeeze in just enough to allow the bus door to be shut before he could drive off.

The bus jerked into motion. Our hero made it. We were finally on our way.

Perfect time to read my newspaper.

That was when I learnt that the Public Transport Council (PTC) had fined the bus companies for their overcrowded buses.

It was about time, I thought, as a fellow passenger standing next to me turned to alight and unknowingly whacked my head with her Billabong backpack. That hurt. My daughter laughed.

Served me right for reading the newspaper in an overcrowded bus.

Some critics had pointed out that the $4,500 and $100 fines for SBS Transit and SMRT respectively were pittance compared to the companies’ profits – not to mention the stress and indignity suffered by thousands, if not millions, of commuters on a daily basis.

But what flabbergasted me wasn’t the Mickey Mouse-ness of the fines, but what the fines were for.

According to the PTC, the following bus services were found to be “more than 95 per cent full during daily weekday peak hours”: SBS Transit services 7, 8, 10, 16, 21, 28, 58, 59, 90, 97, 145, 196, 198, 246, 254, 255, and SMRT service 925.

That was it? Only 17 bus services?

Hands up anyone who has taken other bus services and experienced the squeeze.

Does the PTC seriously expect us to believe that, of the over 250 bus services run by SBS Transit and SMRT, only 17 of them are overcrowded during rush hour?

What alternate universe does the PTC live in? I want to live in that universe.

Apparently, the PTC had reviewed the bus operators' performance from 1 June to 30 November last year. Was this review conducted in chauffered limousines?

All you have to do is go to any bus interchange in Singapore at 7 o’clock in the morning or evening, on any working day, and witness the madness.

I was witnessing the madness right there on bus service 302, as more desperados attempted to get onto the vehicle even though it was clearly already more than 95 per cent full – and then some. Maybe they had also read the PTC report and since 302 wasn't on the list of overcrowded bus services, they thought the bus couldn't possibly be full.

When we eventually reached our stop, my daugher and I managed to squeeze our way through an obstacle course of bodies out of the bus only to see – you guessed it – two other 302 buses right behind ours.

Shouldn’t SMRT be fined for that too?

- Published in The New Paper, 12 April 2009

Sunday 5 April 2009

Three navy guys: Two became ministers, one became me

When it was announced recently that Teo Chee Hean would be promoted to Deputy Prime Minister and Lui Tuck Yew would be Acting Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, my first reaction was: “Hey, two ex-navy guys – just like me!”

But of course, unlike the deck-scrubbing corporal that I was, Mr Teo and Rear-Admiral (NS) Lui weren’t mere navy guys – they were the navy guys in charge of all other navy guys.

Mr Teo was chief of navy when I completed my full-time NS way back when Paula Abdul was an actual American idol herself.

Yes, it was a long time ago.

Radm Lui was navy chief during my “operationally-ready NSman” phase except I didn’t know who he was at the time – that is, until he wasn’t going to be navy chief anymore.

Let me explain.

Six years ago, my ship’s coxswain called me up to ask if I wanted to go to a dinner. Our CO was paying for three tables at some navy event and the team, including myself, was invited to attend, probably as some sort of bonding exercise.

Being a devout mooch, as long as there’s free food, I’m there – with bells and a bib on. The dinner was held at a Chinese restaurant in the Mount Faber SAFRA clubhouse along Telok Blangah Way

I asked a fellow NSman at my table about some geeky-looking guy with the bad haircut and overbite at the event who seemed to be the centre of attention.

“That's our chief of navy,” I was told.


Even now, my image of a navy chief is someone who looks like Teo Chee Hean. And this guy didn’t look like Teo Chee Hean at all.

“This dinner is for him,” said my table-mate. “He’s retiring from the navy.”


Then my table-mate whispered, “There’s talk he may run for office.”

Yah, sure, whatever. Was anyone eating the last mini springroll?

The retiring navy chief went from table to table to personally say hi to everyone who was there, which I thought was a nice gesture. There might be a future in politics for this guy after all.

He even shook my hand – although he had no idea who I was – and said, “Thanks for coming.”

I might have said: “You’re welcome.”

And now he’s running MICA.

This means – since I work for a newspaper which comes under the purview of his ministry – Radm Lui is my big big big big big boss once again, just like back in the navy.

Cue Village People.

- Unpublished

UPDATE: Mr Lui later became Transport Minister. He quit politics in 2015.

Going insane: How not to find a job (but do network)

Unemployed and looking for a job – unsuccessfully? I’ve been there, friend. A number of times.

I was even jobless in America for a while. This was back in the early 1990s when “It’s the economy, stupid” was the mantra that would eventually help Bill Clinton win the US presidency. Those seem like the good old days now.

I was financially desperate enough that I signed up to be a human guinea pig in a drug trial.

For a few thousand dollars, all I had to do was stay in this dorm-like facility for three weeks with 15 other males aged between 18 and 45, take some mystery pill at the prescribed time and kill time by playing video games most of the day.

The only side effect was I wasn’t able to produce any semen. How I “accidentally” discovered this by myself cannot be described in a family newspaper. (I was masturbating in the bathtub.)

Also, I would occasionally feel so depressed – because of my unemployability and also because I had just went through a really bad break-up – that I talked to my fellow inmates about killing myself.

Or did the drug have something to do with it?

So a psychiatrist was called in to counsel me. I remember he asked if I was familiar with handling firearms. I told him I was trained to use the M16 rifle in the army during my national service. He seemed alarmed by this.

The next day, I was out of the drug trial and moved to a psychiatric hospital.

During group therapy, I came to know the other patients. One woman was there because she was obsessed about losing her hair, which I thought was hilarious but refrained from making fun of her.

Another patient was a 50something silver-haired gentleman who ran his own one-man specialty travel agency and suffered panic attacks. His name was Hal.

It was also during group that I mentioned I was looking for a job. Hal asked what I did. I said I did some desktop publishing. He said he was looking for someone to lay out travel brochures for him and asked if I was interested. Yes, I was.

So I called Hal after we were both discharged from the hospital and I designed brochures for him for about a year until I returned to Singapore.

Now I’m not suggesting that to find a job, you need to join a drug trial, become suicidal and be admitted to a mental institution. That would be crazy, not mention way too much trouble – although it worked for me.

The moral of the story is that you should always network at every opportunity – even when you’re in an insane asylum. Otherwise, you’re just nuts.

- Published in The New Paper, 4 Apr 2009