Sunday 27 December 2009

Post-PSLE anxiety: After six years, it comes down to this

At exactly 6.14am on 22 Dec, my wife was woken by the frenzied opening guitar riff of the song Wonderland by Big Country.

The 1984 UK top 10 hit was coming from her Walkman handphone which she had placed beside her on our bed where I was still snoring away.

The song meant that she had received an SMS. We had been waiting for this SMS for three weeks.

But in a way, we had been waiting for this moment for six long years – from when we balloted for the place in my son's primary school to agonising over whether his PSLE score was good enough to him into his first-choice secondary school.

A few months ago, he had taken the selection test to get into NUS High School of Math and Science.

When we were informed that he had failed to qualify for the next round of selection, the blow was like a death in the family. Our hopes had been raised - then snuffed out.

After a few days of mourning, we regrouped and re-evaluated our options.

I said let's forget about trying to get him into a supposedly "good" school and just go for the nearest. I was aiming low to avoid another heartbreak.

My wife baulked at the idea.

This is even though she had sometimes regretted not sending our children to the primary school that is right next to our home and opting instead for the supposedly "better" neighbourhood primary school, which was farther away.

My wife quickly did some research and came up with Bukit Panjang Government High School, which had perfect blend of reputation and "nearness".

Being a casual parent, I never heard of the school before. For one thing, I didn't know it's not in Bukit Panjang, but in Choa Chu Kang, which is where I live.

That was three weeks earlier.

Barely conscious, my wife instinctive flipped open her clamshell phone, cutting off one of my favourite songs, and read the message:

"From MOE: S97XXXXXJ is posted to BUKIT PANJANG GOVT HIGH SCHOOL, Exp course. Please report to the secondary school on 23 Dec 2009 at 8:30am."

She immediately leapt out of bed to tell our son the good news. Meanwhile, I was still dreaming about being a pro golfer.

Then she came back to wake me. "We got Bukit Panjang!" she said excitedly.

"Oh, good," I replied, closed my eyes and went back to my 14 mistresses.

At exactly 7am on 23 Dec, my wife was woken by the frenzied opening synthesizer riff of the song Strange Love by Depeche Mode from her handphone.

That was the alarm that she had set to wake her up and get ready to be at the school by 8.30am.

She immediately leapt out of bed to go wake our son, before coming back to wake me. “You going with us?” she asked.

“No,” I replied and went back to my 30 mistresses.

By the time I woke up at lunchtime, my wife and son had already returned from the school with a folder containing several lists of things we had to pay for.

Apart from the usual uniforms and textbooks, there were two name tags ($5.40), a school tie ($7.40), a yearbook, an organiser, a locker, a padlock and passport-size photographs.

I'm glad I'm a citizen so that I don't have to pay higher school fees from 2011.

Also in the folder was a flyer promoting a blood donation drive organised by the school. Talk about bleeding us dry.

At least, we didn’t pay for the folder.

My wife then told me that she found out Bukit Panjang is the National Science Challenge 2009 champion - after beating Raffles Institution and NUS High School on TV!

And that somehow made it all seem worthwhile.

- Published in The New Paper, 27 December 2009

Saturday 26 December 2009

Why Ris Low is my Singaporean Of The Year

When it was recently reported that CNN had named Ris Low as one of Asia's 25 "most influential" people in 2009, a few Singaporeans I know threatened to renounce their citizenship.

But then when the Government announced on Monday that non-citizens will have to pay higher school fees, those same Singaporeans realised that a 19-year-old dethroned beauty queen is perhaps the least of their problems and kept their pink IC.

I would contend that Ms Low is not only one of the most influential Singaporeans of 2009, but is Singaporean Of The Year

Actually, the CNN report was somewhat inaccurate.

In the first place, it wasn't CNN, but a CNN-affiliated website called CNNGo. You may say it's the same thing, but it's like equating American Idol with the Singapore Idol website. There is a huge difference.

And it wasn't a list of the "most influential", but of "Who Mattered Most" - which only trivialises the list even more.

Regardless, it served to add to Ms Low's notoriety and extend it beyond our coastlines.

On top of that, the ex-Miss Singapore World also made it to Yahoo! Singapore's 2009 top 10 most searched list.

Interestingly, the CNNGo list and the Yahoo! top 10 had one thing in common apart from Ms Low - the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).

And the only thing that Ms Low and Aware have in common is that they're female.

One of them has seriously tarnished the image of Singapore women this year while the other ... uh, okay, maybe they have two things in common.

But Ms Low's singular achievement, as correctly identified by CNNGo, is the coinage of the word "boomz" and its proliferation in local popular culture.

Even the catchphrase king himself, Phua Chu Kang - who popularised "Don't play play" and "Use your brain, use your brain" - got into the Ris Low act.

The sitcom character, played by Gurmit Singh, spoofed Ms Low's now iconic "leopard preenz" RazorTV interview in a series of MediaCorp-produced videos that also went viral, but on a smaller scale.

Remember "Shut up and sit down"? It was the most memorable quote that came out of the Aware saga.

"Shut up and sit down" T-shirts were printed, but unlike the "Boomz" T-shirts, they weren't sold at New Urban Male and the would-be catchphrase never really caught on.

Hoping that lightning would strike twice, Ms Low herself tried to introduce another buzzword with "shingz", but failed because it was too self-conscious and calculated.

The "boomz" boom was a happy accident. (Okay, maybe more of an annoying accident for some.) No one planned it, least of all Ms Low herself.

Of all her mistakes, from linguistic to the credit card fraud, I thought the dumbest was her not getting a cut of the New Urban Male T-shirt sales.

One of the year's greatest ironies is that it all started because of protests that the "bipolar" teen was unfit to represent our country in the Miss World pageant, which eventually led to her representing Singapore on CNNGo's "Who Matter Most In Asia 2009" list.

If only those protesters had shut up and sit down, Ms Low would've faded into obscurity just like the woman who eventually took her place in the Miss World pageant did.

Instead, Ris Low is now, by my estimation, 2009's Singaporean Of The Year.

- Published in The New Paper, 26 December 2009

Sunday 20 December 2009

How TVMobile lasted longer than two Glenn Ong marriages

It's a time for joy and celebration. And it's not just because it's Christmas.

What all Singaporeans are celebrating this week - regardless of race, language or religion - is not the birth of Jesus Christ or Singapore’s SEA games medals or the opening of the Uniqlo megastore at 313@Somerset, but the death of TVMobile.

Last Tuesday, as a Christmas present to commuters, MediaCorp announced that it will finally be putting the much loathed mobile TV service out of its misery on New Year's Day - after nine long, baffling years.

Baffling because ever since its multi-million-dollar launch on 1,500 air-conditioned SBS buses in February 2001, TVMobile has been reviled as a service that no one asked for and no one wanted. Yet, it managed to outlast Glenn Ong's second marriage.

And if you take into account that the public trial for TVMobile started in 1999, it actually outlasted both of Glenn's marriages to Kate Reyes (2000 to 2003) and Jamie Yeo (2004 to 2009).

Yes, MediaCorp was more committed to its troubled digital TV platform than Glenn was to his two hot wives.

In its 15 Dec media release announcing the long overdue euthanasia of TVMobile, MediaCorp described it as "a rich source of entertainment and information to commuters".

Commuters would beg to differ. For much of the new millennium, they have written to the press complaining that they could not "switch channels, lower volumes, or turn off the broadcast altogether".

A day after the 2001 launch, one letter writer even wished for its "early demise". His wish didn't come true. Nine years later is not what you can call "early".

MediaCorp's response at the time was: "As with any new technology and service, there will be some teething problems. It may also take some time for people to adapt to the new service."

And how people adapted was by plugging in earphones and looking out the bus window.

Then came the gripes that when TVMobile wasn't rerunning Just For Laughs ad nauseam, it was showing too many Chinese programmes, which didn't reflect Singapore's multiracial society. If there's anything worse than noise pollution, it's noise pollution in a language you don't understand.

Some have suggested that TVMobile is so annoying that it has driven people away from taking public transportation and forcing them to buy cars, thus increasing our carbon emissions.

So in a way, TVMobile is also responsible for killing the Earth. Is it a coincidence that MediaCorp announced the discontinuation of TVMobile in the same week as the Copenhagen climate talks?

Or maybe MediaCorp just realised how lame it is to have communal TV on public transport in the age of PSPs, iPods and other ubiquitous portable personal entertainment devices.

Actually, it's simply because MediaCorp's contract with SBS Transit is expiring.

Whatever the reason, with TVMobile flickering out for good, many commuters will be having a merrier Christmas and happier new year.

But now what is SBS Transit going to do with the 3,600 dead screens on its buses?

- Published in The New Paper, 20 December 2009

Saturday 12 December 2009

iPhone again? I'd rather talk about hunky vampires and werewolves

On Wednesday, a friend asked me if I was getting the iPhone since prices are going down because of the telco war that broke out last week. He already has an iPhone, but was thinking of getting one for his girlfriend.

Not again. It seemed like every other conversation I’ve had recently – or overheard – was about whether someone was or wasn’t getting an iPhone.

So I just rolled my eyes and tried to steer the discussion to something less banal – like whether Robert Pattinson or Tayler Lautner is hotter.

Then my friend mentioned that to fight off M1 and StarHub, SingTel was offering the iPhone for $0 with its lowest-priced plan, which is $39 a month.

I said no way. If that were true, then everyone would get the iPhone – SingTel might as well not bother selling any other handphone models.

My friend insisted that he saw the SingTel ad in the newspaper. I insisted that he must have misread the ad.

So we made a bet that if he was right, I would buy him a meal. We hooked each other’s pinky finger to seal the wager and went to find a copy of a newspaper.

And there it was – a full-page SingTel ad with a huge picture of the iPhone 3GS. The copy read: “$0 on iFlexi Plans.”

I couldn’t believe it – I had to pay for someone else’s food. The horror.

The iPhone ads that day by the other two telco didn't say how much they were charging for the handset. SingTel had clearly trumped them.

For $39 a month, it would be remiss of me not to get an iPhone for myself – and my entire family.’

All of a sudden, my beloved iPod Touch, bought only two months ago, seemed hopelessly inadequate. Why couldn’t I make phone calls with this damn thing? It was like owning a black and white TV when everyone else had full HD.

I felt sorry for the suckers who paid hundreds of dollars for the iPhone just before the war broke out.

My friend decided to get the iPhone for his girlfriend and called SingTel to apply for the $39 iFlexi plan right there and then – with his iPhone, of course, which he paid hundreds of dollars for.

That was when he found out that he had to pay over $500 for the phone. Huh?

But didn’t the ad say $0?

We had failed to notice the fine print at the bottom of the ad. The $0 price only applied to the $95 and $205 iFlexi plans, he was told. Alamak! Who’s the sucker now?

This is what I call "LPPL", an abbreviation of a Hokkien phrase I picked up during NS regarding the collision of the male genitalia.

If you compare the iPhone plans of the three telcos now, they are actually not that different from one another. Both M1 and StarHub are also offering $0 iPhones with the higher priced plans.

I don’t know if my friend is still getting an iPhone for his girlfriend – but at least I got a free meal out of him.

- Published in The New Paper, 13 December 2009

Sunday 6 December 2009

Revenge of the potato eater: Speak English or don't work here

During my full-time national service, someone once asked me in English: “You eat potato?”

I thought to myself: What a strange question. Neither of us was even eating anything at the time.

As I pause to ponder if this was a serious or trick question, my tuber-fixated interrogator repeated the query, insisting on an answer: “You eat potato?”

Hasn’t everyone eaten a potato at least once in his or her life?

So I said: “Yah, I eat potato.”

“You eat potato?” he repeated with bemusement, as if I confessed to masturbation.

“I eat potato.”

“You eat potato.”

“I eat potato.”

This went on for a while until the person was satisfied that I had indeed confirmed my potato-eating and left to tell everyone very loudly that I said I ate potatoes like it was the funniest thing in the world.

It wasn’t until later when I found out that is to say a Chinese Singaporean “eats potatoes” is to mock him for being so Westernised that he speaks English rather than Chinese.

The assumption here is that the potato is a Western food, like the fries in a McDonald’s meal.

But when I was asked the potato question, the first thing that came to mind was the spuds in my mother's chicken curry – not a Western dish, I believe.

So it never occurred to me that "eating potatoes" had anything to do with my language preference.

That was when I realised that being a English-speaking Chinese Singaporean, I was in the minority.

But we are a big enough minority – or big enough spenders – that last week, the Government announced a new rule that will hopefully reverse the trend of a growing number of service workers recruited from abroad who can’t speak English to customers like me.

From the third quarter of next year, new foreign workers have to pass an English test before they can get a work permit as a skilled worker.

We felt vindicated after MM Lee Kuan Yew’s admission that Chinese has been wrongly taught in our schools for 30 years, turning Chinese Singaporeans like me off our mother tongue.

Many potato-eating Singaporeans has treated MM Lee’s mea culpa as licence to openly condemn the Government’s oppressive bilingual education policy for screwing up our lives and the lives of our children.

Some complain about how they were forced to emigrate because of the policy. Hey, at least they had the option to emigrate. No other country would have me.

So it’s almost fitting that foreigners now have to learn English to work in our country. Why should we be the only ones to suffer?

I don’t even mind being called a “potato eater”. Take that, you Chinese helicopter.

Suddenly, I feel like curry.

- Published in The New Paper. 6 December 2009