Sunday 31 May 2009

I slept in 'haunted' Tekong bunk with third door and survived

I don't believe in ghosts.

(Or Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past, the new movie starring Matthew McConaughey, because, well, it stars Matthew McConaughey, but I digress.)

Two weeks ago, an army recruit reportedly became “delirious” on the ferry leaving Pulau Tekong and died hours later in hospital.

A male colleague heard the news and suggested that the Tekong ghost had struck again.

“What Tekong ghost?” a female colleague asked.

How could any Singaporean not know about the ghost of Pulau Tekong? Didn’t she see that episode of Incredible Tales on TV?

It’s one of our young nation’s most cherished urban legends, along with why an octagon is engraved on our dollar coin and the myth of the Singaporean with an opinion.

There are a few variations to the tale, all set in Pulau Tekong where generations of young Singaporean males are sent for basic military training.

Decades ago, a recruit from Charlie Company went missing after a long route march. He was later found in the woods, dead from an apparent stomach rupture, but somehow the story became he was found disemboweled with his intestines neatly laid out in front of him.

Anyway, after that, there were reports of “hauntings” in the bunk he had slept in. So an exorcist was called in. The bunk had two doors. The ghostbuster recommended building another door to let the ghost out.

Of course, I do not know how true any of this is, except for one thing – the third door exists.

I was from Charlie Company and I stayed in that bunk for the three months of my full-time national service. When I was there, the third door was padlocked and never opened.

But I was an extremely “blur” recruit – and not just “acting blur” as my instructors and platoon mates accused me of doing. I was so blur that I assumed it was perfectly normal for a bunk to have three doors and thought nothing of it at the time.

The only thing I was haunted by beeing called a "chee-bye brain" by my sergeant after I misunderstood some instructions at the range. I lost my innocence that day.

After deciding I had been sufficiently verbally abused in the army, I managed to get myself posted to the navy, where I was attached to the big ships known as LSTs or landing ship tanks (which have since been replaced).

Then I was told that those old LSTs were bought from the American navy who used them to ferry dead soldiers during World War II and wouldn’t you know it, the ships were haunted too!

Maybe Matthew McConaughey isn’t so bad after all.

- Published in The New Paper, 31 May 2009

UPDATE: Why I ain’t afraid of no ghost on Pulau Tekong

The Sunday Times: Charlie, we may have company

Sunday 24 May 2009

How to be a good neighbour, according to HDB

Don’t vandalise. Don’t litter. Don’t urinate anywhere other than in a toilet unless you’re living in the jungle.

These are some of the takeaways from a guidebook called My Neighbour, My Friend, It Begins With Me, launched by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) last month. The rather slim volume can be downloaded from the HDB website at

Let me contribute something that is not in the guidebook: Don’t waste time and money coming up with a guidebook that states the obvious.

Everyone knows vandalism is a crime punishable by caning. Just ask Michael Fay. And you just have to read any “Singapore is a Fine City” T-shirt to know that littering, urinating in lifts, spitting and bird-feeding are also frowned upon.

The guidebook is the result of recommendations from a “workgroup” set up last year to “examine how neighbourliness could be improved”.

Now I want better neighbours as much as the guy living next door to me, but a guidebook with “simple pointers on how to be closer to our neighbours, as well as the common do's and don’ts of high-rise living” appears, uh, misguided.

It assumes HDB residents want to be good neighbours but are too oblivious to know how. Thus, such Pollyanna advice like “Talk to your neighbour and be prepared to listen” and “Be friendly and lend a helping hand”.

Oh, if only the world were the candy-coloured two-dimensional cartoon depicted in the book, peace would be in the Middle East and potato chips would be good for you.

But alas, people don’t behave inconsiderately because they lack a guidebook to tell them how not to. They do so because they couldn’t care less about being good neighbours, much less downloading any book to teach them how to be good neighbours.

But to its credit, the workgroup “recognises that there may be a small minority of residents who are not receptive to general public education on neighbourliness and display anti-social behaviour without consideration to their neighbours”.

This is where the handbook finally comes in handy because it also tells you how to deal with such nightmare neighbours after the talking and listening don’t work. It gives you the Community Mediation Centre hotline number and its operating hours.

And if mediation doesn’t work, it’s off to the courts to see the Magistrate. Just don’t wear your “Singapore is a Fine City” T-shirt.

In the end, the only way to deal with bad neighbours is not to be their neighbour any more – move.

- Published in The New Paper, 24 May 2009

Sunday 17 May 2009

Why can't my home be as tidy as Mas Selamat's hideout?

Did you see the pictures in last Tuesday’s New Paper of the Johor Baru house in Kampung Tawakal where escaped terrorsist Mas Selamat Kastari was arrested?

It was like the tidiest terrorist hideout I had ever seen – not that I have seen that many terrorist hideouts.

I’m used to flipping through interior design magazines and seeing these pictures of other people’s beautiful homes and thinking, “My god, compared to them, I live in a pigsty.”

By the way, living in a pigsty is not so bad anymore since swine flu has been renamed Influenza A (H1N1).

But thanks to Mas Selamat, I now realise that I’m not only living in a pigsty, but I’m living in the undesirable part of the pigsty where the local pigs send foreign workers to live.

How did my home become such a mess? Where did all this clutter come from? How can a fugitive have better housekeeping habits than I do?

I’m assuming Mas Selamat didn’t have a maid. Neither do I because, you know, good help is so hard to find these days.

And here I was, thinking he was hiding in constant fear of capture somewhere in the woods, feeding on insects and sleeping without a mattress, blanket, pillow, bolster or air-conditioning – in this heat!

While all this time, Singapore’s most wanted man was reportedly going fishing, picnicking and growing rambutans as he lived among some remarkably clueless villagers.

(But his kampung house looked like it didn’t have any air-con, which made me feel slightly better.)

Mas Selamat even had a garden. The only garden I have is the mildew growing in my bathroom.

But you know what I’m really jealous about? He had a punching bag hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the living room! How awesome is that? It was like his own private gym. No membership fees required.

You think my wife would let me have a punching bag hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the living room? All she gave me were these two little dumbbells, but I really shouldn’t talk about our kids like that.

You know what? That’s who I blame – the kids. Because of them, my HDB flat has never been – and will never be – featured in Home & Decor.

They spill. They vandalise the walls and furniture. They leave toys accumulated over numerous birthdays and Christmases all over the place. They hide half-eaten sandwiches in the storeroom that you discover months later when you’re wondering, “What the hell is that smell?”

Once you have children, you can kiss any illusions of having a picture-perfect home good-bye.

But for all the messiness, I suppose having a family is still marginally preferable to being a fugitive. Though I wouldn’t mind some free rambutans.

- Published in The New Paper, 17 May 2009

Sunday 10 May 2009

Aware EGM: My hair flashed before my eyes

When the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) old guard defeated the usurpers at the truly extraordinary general meeting (EGM) last Saturday, it was a victory for pluralism, diversity and tolerance.

And I'm just talking about the hair.

Basically, the people with the craziest hair won. And let me tell, I know first-hand about crazy hair.

On the scalps of the 3,000 who swarmed the Suntec event were an eye-popping variety of coifs in unexpected styles and colours.

The scary thing is that I've had every one of those hairstyles at least once in my lifetime. It was like seeing the life of my hair flash before my eyes.

Take for instance Ms Alex Serrenti, an Aware volunteer who was featured in The New Paper on Monday. She is botak.

This was of course the look I sported when I was a fresh army recruit like so many other Singaporean males on Pulau Tekong. Possibly the lowest period of my life - apart from last month when I ate some bad Indian rojak.

At the Aware EGM was another volunteer who has so far only been identified as "woman with loud hailer".

This could be because it would be rude to identify her as "woman with extremely unflattering bowl cut".

Maybe she planned to see the new Star Trek movie as a Vulcan, but still.

My mother forced me to have this haircut when I was in primary school and I haven't forgiven her since. Oh, is today Mother's Day? I'll send her an e-card - even though she doesn't have a computer. Ha! Revenge!

And then there's Ms Zaibun Siraj, a former Aware president, with that retro-futuristic purple streak in her hair.

If I was a middle-age woman with a matching outfit, that was exactly what I looked like back in the early '80s as a fan of all those great New Romantic bands from Duran Duran to A Flock Of Seagulls.

Yes, I ran... I ran so far away. The only difference was my streak was blue in colour.

My theory is that the old guard won simply because Ms Siraj frightened the bejesus out of Ms Josie Lau and company with her purple hair and matching oufit.

"Did you see the scary woman with the purple hair? She looks like the Joker. What chance do we mere mortals, who believe that a neutral stance on homosexuality is tantamount to a tacit approval of gay lifestyle, have against a super villain like that?"

Hair today, gone tomorrow.

- Published in The New Paper, 10 May 2009

Dear Mr Ong,

Thank you for the light take today. It's good to be able to laugh at ourselves, although I don't think Zaibun is going to relish comparisons with The Joker. Then again, who knows? We all love a good laugh.

Dana Lam

Sunday 3 May 2009

Good news or bad news? Every day here is Singapore Day

Last week was a case of bad news-good news for Singapore.

The bad news was that Singapore raised the alert level because of the H1N1 flu pandemic, which is basically a sequel to Sars but with Speedy Gonzales’ accent and Porky Pig’s stutter. We’ve seen this movie before.

I’d rather be watching Star Trek – which the Mexicans won’t be able to because their cinemas have been shut down because of the outbreak. The good news is our cineplexes are still open – for now.

Another bit of good news is that Singapore has been ranked the top Asian city in a “quality of living” survey by Mercer, “the global leader” in human resource and other services, whatever that means.

This seems like a direct rebuttal to the Facebook group called Singapore Sucks reported a week earlier.

It’s worth noting that Mercer’s quality of living factors include “limitation on personal freedom” and “media and censorship”. Yet, Singapore managed to beat Paris, Tokyo and New York. Go figure.

The bad news is the survey is intended as a guide for expatriates to decide which are the most desirable cities to work in. So if Singapore is ranked high in the survey, will more “foreign talent” be attracted to come here?

Which brings us to more bad news: Our jobless rate reached a five-year high of 4.8 per cent in March.

But the good news is that our newlywed imported Olympic silver-winning ping-ponger Li Jiawei said she would give birth to her child in Singapore.

No, wait, is that good news? (Or news at all?)

It just means that when the kid grows up, he or she will be competing for jobs with us “real” Singaporeans.

On the other hand, the scion may decide to move abroad like those 12,000 Singaporeans who celebrated Singapore Day in London last weekend with Adrian Pang, Michelle Chong, Hossan Leong, Taufik Batisah, the Dim Sum Dollies and, of course, lots of food.

By the way, Singapore at No 26 ranks way above London at No 38 in the Mercer survey.

For those Singaporeans overseas living in lower-ranked cities, Singapore Day is the only day that they can experience all the glory that is Singapore.

The good news is that for the rest of us still stuck here on this island, every day is Singapore Day.

The bad news is that we’re also stuck here with the never-ending story that is the Aware saga.

The good news is that the Aware saga can be more entertaining than Adrian Pang, Michelle Chong, Hossan Leong, Taufik Batisah and the Dim Sum Dollies, et al.

Besides giving us a chance to feel superior to fellow Singaporeans (specifically, the Aware members), the saga also provides a welcome distraction amid real bad news about a deadly virus and rising unemployment.

And that’s worth more than any Mercer ranking.

- Published in The New Paper, 3 May 2009

Friday 1 May 2009

PCK is back, but only in Malaysia - and online

Hey, have you seen the new PCK?

Yes, I'm talking about brand new freshly-squeezed episodes about the self-proclaimed best contractor in Singapore and JB - and some say this nearby Indonesian island where Singapore men like to go for cheap seafood and sex.

And no, not on television - well, at least not Singapore TV anyway. The new Phua Chu Kang series has been showing on Malaysia's ntv7 every Wednesday night since 25 Mar.

But if you don't live in Malaysia, you can watch the complete episodes on ntv7's website at All you need to do is register.

Wait a minute, you say. Didn't the show end back in February 2007 after 10 years and eight seasons with a grand finale episode where Gurmit cried?

Yes, it did and yes, he did. I should know. I was the executive producer of the much-ballyhooed “final season”.

Imagine my surprise when, about a year later, I was told that a Malaysian TV station wanted to commission new episodes of PCK.

For a uniquely Singaporean TV sitcom – mentioned in three National Day rally speeches by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong – to be transposed to another country is pretty historic.

The new PCK is set in KL and only Gurmit Singh and Irene Ang are retained from the original cast, supplemented by Malaysian actors and actresses playing new regular characters. While the show was shot in Malaysia, most of the creative team have earlier worked on the orginal PCK.

In a way, producing a PCK series specifically for the Malaysian market makes perfect sense. The show has always been hugely popular up north, judging by Gurmit’s frequent trips there to make live appearances as the yellow-booted contractor over the years.

Ironically, although PCK has become a genuine Singapore icon, it’s probably easier to find show sponsors in Malaysia than in Singapore, where the original series was considered too low-class to attract sponsorship in its last few seasons.

Or at least, that was what the MediaCorp sales people told me.

To reduce cost, two PCK Sdn Bhd seasons of 13 episodes each were reportedly filmed over two months, which is quite a feat. When I was producing the “final season”, our output was two episodes a week at most.

Another difference is that the spin-off series was shot entirely on location, even PCK’s new KL home. Whereas in Singapore, the interiors of PCK’s home were studio sets on Caldecott Hill.

Also, for the first time, you can watch full episodes of PCK online legally at the ntv7 website – for free – even from Singapore.

This follows the US model where many TV network programmes are made available online after they have been aired – but only to viewers in the US.

Up to now, you can only watch the original PCK online legally at MediaCorp’s Mob TV website after paying a subscription fee.

But this isn’t the first time a local sitcom has returned after its “final season”, of course. Under One Roof was resurrected in 2003 for a “special” one-off season after supposedly ending in 2001.

However, this new PCK is different – for one thing, it’s called Phua Chu Kang Sdn Bhd, not Pte Ltd. And it’s a spin-off, like how Joey was a spin-off from Friends and Frasier was a spin-off from Cheers.

Let’s hope PCK Sdn Bhd is more like Frasier, which lasted 11 seasons and won a record-breaking 37 Emmies, than Joey, which lasted only two seasons and won zero Emmies.

Just be grateful there isn’t another PCK musical.

- Published in The New Paper, 1 May 2009

UPDATE: PCK Sdn Bhd aired in Singapore from October to December 2009. The PCK movie, released in 2010, was set and filmed in Malaysia.

Watch PCK Pte Ltd Season 2 here

Watch PCK Pte Ltd Season 3 here

Watch PCK Pte Ltd Season 8 here