Sunday 29 May 2016

Singlish debate redux: Dr Gwee Li Sui is the new Phua Chu Kang sia

Dear Dr Gwee Li Sui,

Congratulations on your article about Singlish in The New York Times on May 13.

Congratulations, too, on the Prime Minister’s press secretary, Ms Chang Li Lin, responding to your article on Monday.

In her letter to the editor, she said you were making “light of the Government’s efforts to promote the mastery of standard English by Singaporeans”.

Wow, a letter from the PM’s press secretary. I’m jealous. For my column, all I get is hate mail from Adam Lambert fans.

As one of my editors used to say: “I don’t care if people hate you as long as they read you.”

Sure, but I bet he has never been called an “ignorant asshat” by an angry reader.

At least you, Dr Gwee, are being read by a higher class of people — not that Glamberts aren’t high-class people. (I’m terrified of them.)

The last time a Singaporean made such an impact at The New York Times was in 2014, when cartoonist Heng Kim Song was accused of being racist for depicting the country of India as a turbaned mustachioed man with a cow.

Way to keep the Singapore flag flying high at the Old Grey Lady!

But the reason I’m writing to you is that I am worried about you, doc.

Reacting to Ms Chang’s letter, you wrote at various times on Facebook:
  • “Alamak.”
  • “Kena marked liao lor.”
  • “Uncle kena buak gooyoo :(”
  • “Sigh. Why must so mee siam mai hum?”
I don’t know exactly what you meant by these comments since I’m no Singlish expert like you are, but these posts, especially the sad face emoticon plus an illustration of a man being flagellated, suggest that you may be feeling a little distressed.

I’m here to reassure you that everything will be okay.

You see, I’ve been there. I’m a survivor of the Great Singlish War of 1999.

As you wrote in your NYT article, that was the year “the country’s late great statesman Lee Kuan Yew declared Singlish ‘a handicap we must not wish on Singaporeans.’”

Back then, I was the executive producer (and a scriptwriter) of Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd.

The popularity of the Singlish-infused sitcom 17 years ago engendered a debate over language much like the one that’s raging today but even more intense.

And we didn’t even have the Oxford English Dick to back us up then.

Be thankful that all you got (so far) was a letter to the editor from the PM’s press secretary.

What we got was an epic lecture from then PM Goh Chok Tong during his National Day Rally speech about how PCK was leading the youth of Singapore astray.

He said:
“One of the problems MOE (Ministry of Education) has getting students to speak standard English is that the students often hear Singlish being spoken around them, including on TV.

“So they learn wrong ways of speaking.

“Teachers complain that their students are picking up catchphrases like ‘Don’t pray, pray’ and using them even in the classroom.

“The students may think that it is acceptable and even fashionable to speak like Phua Chu Kang...

“So in trying to imitate life, Phua Chu Kang has made the teaching of proper English more difficult.”
And that’s just an excerpt.

I thought the show would be cancelled and banned by the Government.

Worse still, someone warned me that there could be a knock on my door late one night and I would never be heard from again.

Paranoid much?

As Gurmit Singh, who played Phua Chu Kang (and still does for hire), recently recalled:
“PCK was brilliant and won all sorts of awards…

“Then one parent wrote, saying something like ‘I don’t appreciate this, my child is talking like PCK, something has to be done.’

“Boom, that was it. I thought I had to pack my bags and migrate.”
But the TV series lasted another eight years by sending PCK for English lessons, making it Singapore’s longest running sitcom. And Gurmit didn’t have to flee the country.

Looking back, I realise Mr Goh’s speech was, in a way, a blessing in disguise.

For years after that, any discussion about the Government’s policy on Singlish had to namecheck Phua Chu Kang.

This helped PCK transcend from being a mere sitcom character to a national icon — which in turn helped Gurmit pay for a Lamborghini.

You don’t see Tan Ah Teck from Under One Roof in Madame Tussauds, do you?

Phua Chu Kang and his yellow boots probably wouldn’t be in the wax museum if not for the Singlish controversy.

And now it’s your turn.

Because of Ms Chang’s letter, any discussion about the Government’s policy on Singlish will henceforth have to namecheck Dr Gwee Li Sui.

You have essentially become the new Phua Chu Kang, thanks to the Great Singlish Skirmish of 2016.

And you don’t even need a wig or a fake mole.

I can’t guarantee you’ll get into Madame Tussauds, though.

Well, at least not without buying a ticket.

And if you get extremely lucky with your Toto QuickPick buy, you could have a Lambo too.

Do pray, pray.

SM Ong

- Published in The New Paper, 29 May 2016

A photo posted by Gurmit (@gurmitgurmit) on

Thursday 26 May 2016

#tbt Were you invited to join the Inconvenient Questions debate too?

When I first read this news, the name Inconvenient Questions sounded familiar.

So went through my old e-mails and found this from a year ago:

So I was invited (along with my "society and its members") to join a debate that Inconvenient Questions was organising.

My first reaction was, what the hell is Inconvenient Questions? I had never heard of it before.

My second reaction was, Inconvenient Questions is such a terribly awkward and self-important name.

My third reaction was, they must be pretty desperate to be cold-emailing someone like me with this copied and pasted invitation, which was also copied and pasted in the comment section of at least two websites:
Even worse, on the latter website, Luke Phang embarrassingly forgot to delete my name after copying and pasting the invitation.

Anyway, I didn't respond to the e-mail.

The debate went on without my attendance and here are the videos to prove it:

I haven't heard or read much if anything about Inconvenient Questions since then.

That is, until the news about its shutting down.

Ironically, by announcing that it will cease operations next month, founder Viswa Sadasivan is probably generating more interest in Inconvenient Questions than its actual content ever did.

I mean, even I'm writing about it in this blog post.

Still, you got to hand it to these Old Media types like Viswa and Six-Six News' Kannan Chandran, who are at least trying to adapt to New Media, albeit probably not as successfully as they hoped.

Like me.

Sunday 22 May 2016

Daydreaming? How a drive to get people to drive less is backfiring on LTA

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) just can’t seem to catch a break.

Last month, The Straits Times published this headline: “Rise in major breakdowns but MRT gets more reliable.

Minds were blown.

It was like saying there were a rise in bedbug bites at the Esplanade, but there were no bedbugs at the Esplanade.

When I first read the headline, I thought I had been zapped to an alternate universe where words have similar but slightly different meaning.

As someone pointed out online, the headline is an “oxymoron to anybody who can understand simple English”.

And “oxymoron” doesn’t mean an imbecile with too much pimple cream on his face.

Taken literally, the headline could just mean we can now rely on MRT more than ever to provide us with major breakdowns.

But that would be a rather odd, though self-aware, thing for LTA to announce.

So what was LTA really trying to say?

According to a PDF titled “Performance of Rail Service Reliability” on its website , what LTA wants you to know is that, yes, the number of service delays lasting more than 30 minutes for the overall MRT network has increased from nine in 2011 to 14 last year.

That’s the “rise in major breakdowns” part of the headline.

But the mean distance travelled between delays lasting more than five minutes has increased from 58,000km in 2011 to 133,000km last year.

I guess that’s the “more reliable” part that LTA wanted to brag about.

A month later, as if to show LTA up, lightning struck somewhere between Yio Chu Kang and Khatib MRT stations causing a delay on the North-South Line. The affected train was reportedly pushed by another train to a station.

Someone commented online: “Now even the Lightning God is telling SMRT to wake up their idea.”

Another blamed the Government, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and the Singaporeans who voted for it:
“You vote PAP means you vote lightning party. See logo for reference. You voted for the lightning to strike the train. Blame the Government. Blame PAP.”
If the train were struck by a giant hammer, then could we blame the Workers’ Party?

But even before the MRT was struck by the PAP logo, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan had said that in terms of rail reliability, we are “way below” the much-acclaimed Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR).

Yah, but has the MTR ever been struck by lightning?

Oh, it has? In 2014? And we’re still losing to them? How can?

“We want to catch up with Hong Kong, and we will,” said Mr Khaw. Yah, as long as we don’t get hit by any more lightning.

As if the task isn’t hard enough, LTA is promoting a “car-lite” society and wants more commuters to switch to our already overburdened public transport system.

“Hmmm, the MRT is breaking down more often than before. What should we do? Get more people to take the MRT!”

And even that LTA can’t seem to do right.

As part of its Walk Cycle Ride campaign, LTA has put up a series of banners with illustrations of a woman not driving a car with taglines such as “The only rubber I’m burning is on my shoes”.

One banner showing a woman riding a bicycle with the tagline “Freedom to come and go” has been likened to a sanitary pad ad.

Another showing a woman on a bus with the tagline “Someone else is driving, I can daydream” has been criticised by no less a personage than poet and playwright Alfian Sa’at, who co-wrote Hotel, which won Best Original Script and Production of the Year at the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards last month.

He posted on Facebook last week:
“LTA, why you Fail. So. Hard. Intended meaning: ‘Because someone else is driving, it frees me up to do other things’. Frustrated-by-cost-of-living Singaporeans will read: ‘Some other rich folks are driving their cars, I can only daydream of owning one’.”
The woman is probably daydreaming about placing a $1 Toto QuickPick bet and winning $8 million so that she can afford a car — like all of us.

And this is how LTA’s innocent attempt to encourage more people to use public transport turns into class warfare.

The sanitary pad ad doesn’t look so bad now, does it?

LTA needn’t have bothered.

On Thursday, Traffic Police announced new speed laser cameras to catch speeding drivers from even farther distances in 44 locations around Singapore day and night.

That should scare off more people from driving than any sanitary pad ad.

- Published in The New Paper, 22 May 2016

Sunday 15 May 2016

New Singapore words in Oxford English Dictionary: Get to the (Chinese) chopper!

Look! Up in the sky. It’s a bird! It’s a Chinese helicopter!

It’s 19 super new Singapore English words in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Shiok!

Actually, it’s only 17 words because “lepak” and “sabo” were each counted twice as a verb and a noun.

Wait. “Sabo” can be used as a noun? Really? I think Oxford kena sabo.

Also, the inclusion of “lepaking” and “sabo king” seems rather random as “blur” is also added but not “blur king”. Why so sotong?

By the way, “sotong” is another new entry but is counted only as a noun. Shouldn’t it be counted as an adjective as well? Don’t be such a sotong king, Oxford.

And how is “HDB” a word? It’s just an abbreviation for Housing and Development Board.

Might as well include MRT (Mass Rapid Transit), CPF (Central Provident Fund) and CMI (cannot make it).

And if names of local food and beverage like “char siu”, “chilli crab” and “teh tarik” can qualify to be in the dictionary, where does it end?

Is it only a matter of time before “bo bo cha cha”, “McDonald’s curry sauce” and Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim’s favourite, “orh luak”, all become Oxford-approved words?

A photo posted by Sylvia Lim (@sylvialim65) on

By the way, remember how a few years ago, the Malaysian tourism minister claimed that chilli crab is a Malaysian dish, sparking a debate over its true origin?

In one fell swoop, Oxford pretty much settles it by defining “chilli crab” as “a dish originating in Singapore but also popular in Malaysia”.

Ha! Take that, Malaysia.

Unfortunately, there’s no word yet from Oxford on the origin of Hainanese chicken rice, which the Malaysian minister also claimed to be Malaysian, so that’s still up in the air.

As a Hainanese man, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the origin of Hainanese chicken rice is… Hainanese?

Food origins aside, probably the most controversial addition to the dictionary is “Chinese helicopter”, which has nothing to do with China or aviation.

Oxford defines it as “a Singaporean whose schooling was conducted in Mandarin Chinese and who has limited knowledge of English”.

According to the 1985 book, Army Daze, by Michael Chiang: “The story goes that a Chinese-educated recruit, when asked what school he came from, answered ‘Chinese helucated’, which went down in the army annals as Chinese helicopter.”

Yet it seems that many Singaporeans have never heard of the term. One person in an online forum accused Oxford of making it up: “Oxford invent new Singlish slang for us?”

A headline on the AsiaOne website asks: “What’s a ‘Chinese helicopter’? Latest Singlish entry in Oxford Dictionary has us scratching our heads.”

A BBC headline says: “‘Chinese helicopter’: Singlish OED entry baffles Singaporeans.”

I am baffled that Singaporeans are baffled by “Chinese helicopter”.

Maybe they didn’t do national service.

Even Chinese helicopters know what “Chinese helicopter” means.

In 2005, film-maker and performer Jack Neo starred in a one-man stage show called The Last Chinese Helicopter.

He said at the time: “I look at things from the perspective of a Chinese helicopter. But some things are always the same, no matter how you look at it. If you get a traffic summons, it’s still the same experience, no matter what you’re educated in.”

In a 2004 interview with The Straits Times, Neo’s frequent collaborator, Mark Lee, was asked: “Are you really a Chinese helicopter? You were a student at Jurong Secondary School which is an English-medium school, no? So how come your English is so like that?”

Lee replied: “My first language is Hokkien and I was the last batch of Chinese-educated students in the school. So really, I am really Chinese helicopter.”

Wait, does this mean that Lee, 47, is among the last generation of Singaporeans to be schooled in the Chinese medium?

So no new Chinese helicopters have been produced since then?

No wonder many (younger?) Singaporeans have never heard the term.

Chinese helicopters are a dying breed, soon to go the way of the dodo and libidinous ex-MP David Ong’s political career.

So it’s timely that the “Chinese helicopter” has now been memorialised in the Oxford English Dictionary.

At least we’ll still have Ah Bengs. They will never die out.

I can’t wait for “Ah Beng” to get into Oxford.

And maybe “Ah Lian” too.

Then we can all say in unison another new word in the dictionary: “Wah.”

- Published in The New Paper, 15 May 2016

UPDATE: Petition to remove derogatory Singlish term from OED

UPDATE UPDATE: 'Ah Beng' was added to OED in September 2016

Tuesday 10 May 2016

#Cheebyelection over: Can don't 'Chee, bye' & stop abusing his name or not?

Monday 9 May 2016

How many 'rare' glimpses of North Korea before they're not so 'rare' any more?

I just came back from there and I took lots of selfies. And some videos too.

And with the number of foreign journalists in Pyongyang now for the "rare" ruling party congress, there are even more "glimpses" than usual.

So it's about time news outlets stop calling all these North Korea images "rare".


I went to North Korea & asked for the Kim Jong Un haircut (and lived)

I went to North Korea & ran 10k in the Pyongyang marathon

I took the MRT train in North Korea & it didn't break down

I went to North Korea & took lots of selfies

Sunday 8 May 2016

Why Seth Rogen thinks we hate him

Did you read the big news on Wednesday?

No, not the by-election thing.

No, not the eight Bangladeshis detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

Though Seth Rogen has a beard too and probably should be held under ISA if he ever returns to Singapore.

I’m talking about The Straits Times report that Rogen believes Singaporeans hate him.

In an interview with the paper to promote his movie Bad Neighbours 2 (now showing in cinemas), the Canadian actor said: “Singapore? They hate me there.”

But why does Rogen think Singaporeans hate him?

All The Straits Times said was: “He is referring to the backlash following his comments about a trip to the island while promoting his superhero flick Green Hornet in 2011.

“He made fun of the country’s laws on drug smuggling, chewing gum and caning, and some Singaporeans took exception to his remarks.”

What were these remarks, pray tell?

The Straits Times didn’t say. Many of you probably don’t remember. It was five years ago.

So as a public service for my fellow Singaporeans (and for the benefit of Rogen’s blur Bad Neighbours co-star Zac Efron), let me recap specifically what Rogen said so that you can hate him as he is already convinced you do.

The offending remarks were made on the Conan O’Brien talk show on March 10, 2011.

Rogen was there to promote the movie Paul, where he plays a weed-smoking alien. So he pretty much plays himself.

But the interview started with them talking about the Green Hornet movie, which was released two months earlier.

O’Brien kicked things off by pointing out how stars like Rogen have to promote their movies internationally.

Rogen said: “But you get to go to places that you would never ever go. They sent us to Singapore to sell the movie.”

O’Brien said: “I’ve never been to Singapore.”

Rogen said: “Most people haven’t because Singapore’s kind of claim to fame is that in the 80s, that dude did graffiti and got caned a bunch of times by the Government.”

Actually, it was in 1994 when Michael Fay was sentenced to four months in jail and six strokes of the cane (later reduced to four strokes) for not just vandalism, but stealing road signs as well.

Should we hate Rogen just for getting the year wrong?

Anyway, Rogen continued: “They whacked him with a cane which seemed barbaric and so I was afraid to go there because I’m a graffiti enthusiast.”

He then went from caning to cannabis.

“You land and they put a thing in your passport literally that says, ‘Death to drug smugglers’, which is kind of my second career. So it was very frightening to be there.”

But that’s not even the most frightening thing.

“Gum is illegal. No gum at all in Singapore. You literally can’t chew gum. There’s a weird story to it. Someone once stuck gum to a subway door and it messed up the subway system. So they made gum illegal. And mouths. No mouths allowed. Chewing of any sort has been outlawed.”

Okay, a few factual errors there. You literally can chew gum in Singapore. Mouths are allowed. Chewing has not been outlawed.

Ironically, the “weird story” about the subway is true, though. Yes, there was a time when train service was delayed due not to track fault but gum fault. Those were the days.

O’Brien then asked Rogen if he talked to the people there, meaning us.

Rogen said: “I did. No one who lives there has ever voted.”

Perhaps he was referring to Singaporeans who live in constituencies where the MP didn’t resign because of a “personal indiscretion”. No, wait...

Rogen continued: “It’s kind of like a benevolent dictatorship, I guess you can call it. You ask them, ‘How things are going on here?’ And everyone has the same answer. They go, ‘So far so good.’”

Then he went on to talk about what he did in Beijing.

Do you hate him already?

The way Rogen was badmouthing Singapore abroad, he might as well be running for election in Bukit Batok unsuccessfully.

But Rogen is convinced that Singaporeans hate him probably because of online comments like this:
“Next time he comes to Singapore , he sure will be bashed or even surrounded and beaten up ! No one will say ' I LOVE YOU SETH !!' My god . 'GET THE HELL OUT OF SINGAPORE !' That what they will say . Singapore is a country , my country !!! WTH .”

Wow, looks like if Rogen ever comes back, he might be better off being detained under ISA.

Still, it could’ve been worse for Rogen, who later in 2014 made The Interview, a movie where North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s head is blown up in painstaking CGI detail.

If you think Singaporeans can’t take a joke...

- Published in The New Paper, 8 May 2016


Who are these people? Seth Rogen, Conan O’Brien? Do they even know where we are, let alone what we are?

They do not know us, yet they seem to believe the worst of us.

It reminds me of when a major energy company in the US sent me a letter once, and at the end of the address was “Singapore, People’s Republic of China”. Seriously?

I do believe the US still has a long way to go in understanding other countries.

Does Rogen know that because of our strict laws, which are in fact enforced, the streets are actually safe to walk, even for women at 2am or 4am?

Not a drug peddler in sight, let alone someone trying to rob you of your Rolex.

This is what separates Singapore from the rest of the world.

When someone does try to flout the law and flaunt his right to do what he wants, like steal road signs or car number plates, the full force of the law will be brought to bear.

But of course, fairly, with the accused’s day in court, where he can defend himself against the charges brought against him.

And I still remember actress Jessica Chastain not being able to pronounce the word “durian” right.

She actually enjoys the fruit, or at least that is what she told the Singapore press.

But once back home, and on the Jimmy Kimmel talk show, she berated it, agreeing with her host’s disgust for the fruit.

I am not sure how much good that did in promoting Asia’s king of fruits in the West, when the poor fruit did not even get a chance to explain itself.

I believe it is important to understand and show respect at all times.

That is the only way one can establish a rapport with the world, and this does not apply only to politicians, but even more so to high-profile entertainers.

Their fame and fortune demands that they be responsible and get their facts right.

EARLIER in 2011: Why Seth Rogen should be Singapore's tourism spokesman

Monday 2 May 2016

Performance Series: Punggol Waterway-Coney Island: 1 down, 4 to go

This would be my first race since I returned from North Korea.

Running the 10k in the Pyongyang marathon was such a singular experience that any race that comes after seems pointless.

I had signed up for the five-race Performance Series because the multi-race concept sounded cool. I also like the idea of running somewhere besides the usual Marina Bay area.

The first race, held yesterday on May Day, was at Punggol Waterway Park and Coney Island, both of which I had never been before.

The starting line was opposite the interesting-looking Safra Punggol building.

Flag-off for the 10km first wave was at 7.30am, which was a little late, especially for the hotter-than-usual weather we're having lately.

I was in the second wave, which was flagged off more than 20 minutes later.

My wife, who was running the 5km race, said her 8am flag-off was delayed more than 15 minutes because of the VIP, Dr Janil Puthucheary, the MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC.

She wasn't happy about that. She blogged about it here.

The route was a bit narrow in the beginning, but fortunately, there wasn't much bottleneck.

Approaching the bridge to Coney Island:

Crossing the bridge:

The West Entrance to the island:

On the island, it was just 2km plus of straight sandy trail and rather boring. I didn't see any cow.

Crossing the bridge off the island:

Another, slightly more interesting, trail:

Another bridge:

The Safra building! Which means the end is near.

According to my numerous running apps, I had run more than 10km. So the route was longer than advertised.

After the finish line, there was a major bottleneck at the stairs.

I just ran 10km in the heat and now I have to queue for the stairs in the heat? This sucked.

Getting my finisher medal, T-shirt and bottle of Lucozade:

Another thing that sucked was that I couldn't find any water at the event site. There was a sign that said WATER POINT, but nothing was set up at the tent.

And there was a long queue at the Lucozade tent.

So all I had to drink after the race was just one bottle of Lucozade, which left an unpleasant aftertaste.

I hope the next race in the series, at Jurong Lake (my old neck of the woods), will be better, especially the post-race experience.

I never thought I (or anyone) would say this, but I miss North Korea.