Les Petits Contes

About life's little observations, which matter. About hilarious situations, which illuminate. About stories which offer immense possibilities, open endings, different interpretations and perspectives.

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Location: Singapore

A nature lover; sun-worshipper, manic book-collector, dessert-devourer and a magnet for hazards

Sunday, May 05, 2013

ArchAngel is No Angel at all

I think I have thrown away more shoes than I’ve kept them – expensive branded ones, low cost locally made ones, cheap ones from night markets.

Shoes just hate my bunion-ed, calloused, and skinny feet with long bony toes.  Apart from my Asics running shoes (and they have to be Asics, not Nike), very few fit well.  Most give me blisters – at the heels, at the ankles, and the toes – anywhere I try to avoid them, that’s where blisters attack even more.

And so it was with a hopeful heart that I visited the ArchAngel shoe store at Purvis Street.  It had been highly recommended by at least two friends.  They are supposed to sell super comfy shoes, super good-for-your-feet shoes, super ‘’supportive’’ shoes that are supposed to be ‘’good for you’’.  Actually, they are super ugly to me too. 

But I am nearing 50 – I don’t need to strut around in dangerously high stilettos, and even if I fell from wearing them, I doubt I would fall into the rescuing arms of any tall, dark and handsome (and eligible) man.  Besides, mature women are supposed to be more poised and self confident and can hold her own (style) – including ugly shoes, I guess.

What the self righteous woman at the shop did was to condemn all shoes in the world, except those that are sold at her store.  Worse, she made me feel like I’ve been torturing my feet all my life.  The only way to protect your feet, it seems, is to wear her special pair of sandals at home: ‘’Don’t you feel pain at your heels when you walk at home?’’ she asked incredulously.  ‘’No, why?’’  I asked, even more incredulous.  ‘’The floor is so hard!  You must be sooooo lucky you are not in pain,’’ she declared.  I wanted to retort – for someone who runs marathons, trains almost daily and have had personal training for 7 years, I know how to take care of my JOINTS and legs, and spine, and core muscles to support my body, and would not be such a softie that I would feel pain just walking around at home!

She looked at what I was wearing – a low wedge heel – and immediately pronounced that it was ‘’very bad’’ because it was ‘’no support in front’’.  I told her I used that for short distance walking, like walking from the office nearby to her store during lunch.  Usually I would wear flats as I did not want to stress my calves.  ‘’Flat shoes are bad too,’’ she was quick to retort.  Yes, yes, I know by now that flat shoes, heels, flip flops, slingbacks, peeptoes, wedges, stilettos - anything her shop does not sell, are ‘’bad’’.

Then she proceeded to do a few ‘’demo’s and tests’’ by making me hold my hands in front of me for her to push them down.  In so doing, I leaned forward.  ‘’That, shows your feet are very weak,’’ she pronounced smugly.  Any fool knows that if you pushed me forward, I would lean forward.  In fact, had I resisted and locked my knees, I would have hurt my legs even more!

If she were really educated about feet and strength, she would have known that what is ‘’good’’ for you to protect yourself is not just shoes, but posture, core strength and flexibility – all of which have got nothing to do with shoes.

And if she were really smart about winning over a prospective customer, she should really go for a crash course on tact and basic etiquette.

Bangkok Past and Present

I’ve been visiting Bangkok regularly since the late 90’s.  Whether it was for business or leisure, Bangkok always conjures up images of shopping, eating, street food, inexpensive local snacks and night markets.  

For me – it was more than that. It was images of mercenary and dishonest taxi drivers.  Taxi drivers who demand fares at least four times the metered fare.  Taxi drivers who claim they do not have change.  

My latest trip last week, I noticed: many things have changed, and some things never change.

Bangkok is getting more and more prosperous.  And expensive.  Gleaming skyscraper malls and offices buildings outshine those in Singapore.  Banks are bolder and doing a roaring trade.  Modern eateries and restaurant chains give traditional Thai food a new twist.  The hormuk I used to love do not look nor taste like hormuk.  Desserts are served in unusual receptacles.  The lunch time crowd in these stores are filled with loud, young, trendy executives.  (whatever happened to soft spoken, gentle Thai folks?)

At the airport, all Thai snacks look the same – same packaging, same food, same variety.  Same, same, even the price, which is ridiculously expensive.  But different – they were sold at ‘’different’’ souvenir shops, which all look like they belong to the same clan or cartel anyway.  

Other differences: The airport and the malls are swarming with mainland Chinese.  (In fact, Naraya, the store I used to frequent to get cute, inexpensive fabric gifts, are packed with mainland Chinese who mobbed the store like there was no tomorrow.)  At the airport, I used to be spoken to in Thai (given my tan).  These days, they speak to me in Mandarin.  The Chinese are ruling the world.

And the Africans are making their presence felt.  The hotel at I stayed was full of them – monopolising the receptionists and not understanding anything the receptionist tried to explain, including check out time, payment, reservation...

Sometimes amidst all the differences, one looks for the familiarity for consolation.  Not so in my case, when the only familiarity is about mercenary taxi drivers.  

After dinner at CentralWorld, I tried to take a cab back to the hotel.  All the cabs lined outside the mall demanded a flat 150 baht for a 10 minute ride round the corner.  I tried to get them to use the metre, or to reduce the price, but they would not budge, but smirked instead.  ‘’I have to pay parking here,’’ they lied. 
Disgusted, I walked to a nearby hotel hoping the bellboy would help hail a cab.  There was a group before me, and many cabs dropped in and went away.  They all demanded 200 baht, despite the intervention of the bellboy.  The cab drivers here all have ‘’the same face’’, he explained.  Finally he managed to get one who would take the group for 120 baht.

Next came my turn.  The driver who came by agreed to go by the metre, said the bellboy.  I hopped into the car thinking it was too good to be true.  And I was right.  My ex dean used to say, ‘’if something is too good to be true, then it is too good to be true!’’.  After driving off the hotel porch, the driver switched off his metre and said, ‘’200 baht’’.  I told him to switch the metre on, and he said, ‘’150 baht’’.  I barked, ‘’STOP; I get off NOW.’’  And he switched his metre back on.  

After that I almost regretted being so aggressive.  What if he drove me to some deserted place and dumped me off?  Working for my current company has made me rather paranoid.  

Well, he did not, and delivered me safely back to my hotel.  

Back in my hotel, I decided Bangkok is no longer the fun, shopping and food paradise it used to be.  True, I’ve had great memories of hanging out with friends and colleagues there, and true, I’ve been there on gleeful shopping spree.  

But that was the Bangkok I knew.  The Bangkok I know today is the city I would grudgingly go for a night on a hurried business trip to meet and handle my scheming colleagues. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston Marathon Blast

I have become rather blasé about disasters, crises and bad news.  And now, at work, where we deal with injuries, deaths, crashes, hostages, kidnaps, natural and man-made disasters, diseases, viruses and pandemics daily, hourly, 24/7, has made me very exhausted and tired, but still blasé.  In fact, as a true-blue marketer, these bad news make for great marketing opportunities for us, and send our adrenaline pumping, the way journalists would react when ‘’news’’ break.

This morning, it was different.  As I was scooping my breakfast cereal in the kitchen, my ears pricked up when I heard the words ‘’blasts at Boston Marathon’’ from my TV and I dashed to the living room to watch the news.  Tears welled up and my stomach churned.

I guess it’s because I run marathons.  And my anger swelled.  It dawned on me – I have been exposing myself to such terrorist acts.  A lot of preparations go into organizing a marathon.  Safety and medical facilities are usually emphasized.  You even have officials stationed at the start point to enforce rules and make sure only registered runners with the right bibs are allowed to enter the starting area.  But rarely do I see security folks.  Yet for a large scale event like a marathon, held in an open space, with as many as 70,000 runners, what security measures have been taken? 

And I am not just referring to those held in Singapore.  I run the Hong Kong race, and will be running the Gold Coast one in July, as well as the Siem Reap one in December.  These places are teeming with tourists and Americans – all targets for ‘’acts of terror’’.  This Thursday, my colleagues and I are running the JP Morgan Corporate Challenge.  Will there be a ‘’copy cat’’ blast at this event, which is sponsored by an American firm, and widely supported by expats in Singapore?

I am not just concerned about my own safety, but moved by the strength of marathoners.  Runners are amazing people, and I risk being labeled immodest by saying this here.  They know the virtues of discipline and perseverance, and they are brave.  And these virtues are amplified at the Boston Marathon.  After the Boston blasts, runners who have completed the race prior to the blast (read: exhausted) went back to help the injured.  Many who have trained hard and were nearing the dream of finishing well could not complete the race as they neared the carnage at the finishing line.  Nothing is as agonising as having trained hard and yet not being able to complete the race. 

Marathon supporters are amazing people too.  Their claps and cheers as they stand in the hot sun to cheer runners are a great source of encouragement.  Last December at my race, a Caucasian lady had a tub of chilled Coke by her side as she handed out cans of the drink to thirsty runners.  I smiled and declined.  She was obviously not a runner – Coke and gassy drinks make you burp, hence impeding your breathing and ultimately your running speed. But I was touched by her good intentions and her effort. 

As I read all the coverage about the marathon, I came across this article which sums up my sentiments so well, that I wanted to share it here. 

Read in particular these bits:
Marathon running has a long tradition of celebrating, commemorating, and affirming life. The original Olympic marathon in 1896 was to commemorate the man who carried the news of a victory for freedom. The first Boston Marathon a year later followed that idea by honoring the ride of Paul Revere, not on his actual route, but always on his day, Patriots Day in the State of Massachusetts (that's why it's on Monday). The Kosice Marathon in Slovakia and the Comrades Marathon in South Africa were created to commemorate the dead in World War 1. The Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon affirms life after the bombings in that city in 1995. This very Boston Marathon mourned and honored the school kids who were gunned down a few months ago in Newtown, Connecticut, not far from here. Out of respect for them, the race was started for the first time in 117 years not with a gun but with an air horn.
Even without that special purpose, marathon running is a sport of goodwill. It's the only sport in the world where if a competitor falls, the others around will pick him or her up. It's the only sport in the world open to absolutely everyone, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or any other division you can think of. It's the only occasion when thousands of people assemble, often in a major city, for a reason that is totally peaceful, healthy and well-meaning. It's the only sport in the world where no one ever boos anybody.
If you're losing your faith in human nature, look at marathon crowds, standing for hours with no seating, no cover, no bathrooms, to cheer thousands of strangers.

* Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent that of any organisation I work for.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

''Doing CSR''

Two weeks ago I was in Phuket visiting schools and Sunshine Village, a home for underprivileged children with a company specializing in team building.

The mission?  To find some ‘’CSR activities’’ for my colleagues as part of their ‘’team building session’’ with underprivileged children, during their sales workshop in April.

We trudged around a crowded school of screaming children, drove to a remote village in the chaotic traffic of Phuket to hunt down Sunshine Village, met up with the administrator, walked around in the blazing heat scratching our head to think of ‘’activities’’ for my colleagues. 

‘’What do you need?’’ we asked?  Gardening, farming, said the lady.  When are you coming, she asked.  April 13th?  Oh, that’s Songkran – there will be no kids.

‘’Can we invite them back?’’ asked Dave, from the team building company.

The lady seemed at a loss of what we can do at her home.  We circulated her compound, with Dave throwing up ideas and trying very hard to think of ways we could contribute.  He found old bikes lying around and said we could repair bikes.  He found lots of old computers lying around unused and said we could repair them.  Tim, his colleague asked, ‘’but what for?’’ ‘’Don’t worry what for – just repair them!’’

We were supposed to have 3 groups of colleagues – doing 3 different activities – supposedly for team building, with a ‘’CSR’’ element.  The home said they could accommodate only 2 groups and suggested we visited a nearby school and the principal to discuss possible activities for the 3rd group. 

Same issues – ‘’when, April?  Songkran!’’ What could we do?  More head scratching and finally the principal said – you can scrub the floor, paint the walls…

By now, you can guess from the way I am writing this – that I find this whole ‘’team building CSR’’ affair ridiculous.

In the first place – charity is not CSR.  Go find a good book on the topic and you will find how wrong most of us are about CSR.  In the second place – doing charity work should come from the heart.  Not ‘’organised charity’’.  Not because it’s something you are made to go -  in an air-con chartered coach - after a sales workshop, so the company and you feel good to have done some ‘’CSR’’.  I have nothing against team building activities – they help motivate employees so that they can sell more and then the company can earn more and hence the shareholders can pocket more…

While I laud the creativity and enthusiasm of Dave and Tim, who came up with so many interesting ideas that I would never have dreamt of, I could not help being cynical.  Asking my division GM to scrub the floor?  Posing with the brush, for a photo op, maybe. But spend 4 hours scrubbing the floor of the entire compound? 

I recall a similar ‘’CSR’’ activity we did last August in Chiang Mai.  Then, there was much hard labour too, like farming, making mud bricks etc.  But that was well disguised as ‘’learning a new trade’’ from an organic farm managed by some charitable organization.

But this scrubbing floor, repairing bikes and computers, and gardening  – these are the real needs of the home and school, but not something that quite fit the company’s need for ‘’team building’’.  And certainly not quite what I think my colleagues, who have domestic helpers to attend to all their needs, would want to do. 

Friends used to wonder why I ‘’spend so much’’ time doing volunteer work – manning hotlines, teaching hearing impaired kids and helping at museums and arts houses.  But that’s because I genuinely want to help.  Not because I’ve been ‘’sent’’ to ‘’do CSR’’

Now I wonder, do my colleagues genuinely love children, or want to labour in the hot sun, to volunteer their time?  Or have they been ‘’volunteered’’ by their company?

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Men-Women Talk

There is always so much cacophonous twaddle when talking about equality for women, equal opportunities for them and all those feminist vitriol about not doing enough for women to help them excel at the work force.

Then there are all the crocodile tears about how much they have to sacrifice if they hold a high powered job, and having to leave behind their kids with nannies and halfway houses and their men should have helped more at home, and how ‘’society’’ or ‘’the government’’ or the companies should have helped more – with more child care centres, more ‘’work-life balance’’, and more pro-family policies.

Come off it – both men and women.   It’s not that these women don’t enjoy their Pradas, Porsches and Paris sprees with their hard earned money.  They do have a choice – if they want eternal ‘’bonding’’ with their kids, be there for them when they hold their first public piano performance instead of being on the plane to attend a senior management meeting, they can choose to be a full time homemaker, or opt for less demanding work.  Nobody said you need to have that high flying job.  Nobody forced you to wear that Jil Sander suit, lug that LV luggage and that Chanel laptop bag to your next big wig pow wow to secure that multi million dollar contract for the big MNC.

You want equality for women?  Start with the right mindset, and start simply.  Start with eliminating hypocrisy.  Last week the front page of the 3 August issue of the Sunday Times screamed, ‘’Feng Tianwei – she plays like a man, powered by tragedy, fear and failure.’’

They published a profile of her, which discussed her childhood training, her ‘’masculine’’ skills and mental strength as she boldly overcame tough times, etc.

Wait.  Are you saying women cannot be mentally tough and be skillful in sports?  Hasn’t it been reported ad nauseam that women are ‘’tougher mentally’’ and can cope with tragedies and crises better?  What, in sports, is ‘’masculine skill’’?!

I am not denying that women and men ARE different, physically.  That’s why in sports you have men and women’s divisions.  But to attribute her success to ‘’playing like a man’’ – it’s the biggest injustice you can do to both the men and the women. 

And you are merely reinforcing the men-women stereotyping. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

The filthiest block in Bukit Panjang

For the second year running, Singapore is ranked number 3 in the INSEAD-WIPO Global Innovation Index 2012, after Switzerland and Sweden.  For the 5th year running, since the Index was established, Singapore has always been the first in Asia.

For the third year running, Singapore is ranked number 2 in the Network Readiness Index of the WEF-INSEAD Global Information Technology Report, after Sweden, and followed by Finland.  Ever since this study was founded 10 years ago, Singapore has always been ranked among the top 5.

In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s ‘’Most Livable Cities’’ study, Singapore was no where in sight.  Neither was Singapore any where in sight, in Mercer’s ‘’Quality of Living’’ survey, nor in Monocle’s ‘’Most Livable Cities’’ study.  Yet Finland, Sweden and many Asian countries made it to the list.

Are we surprised?

Why is it that an educated, rich, modern economy like Singapore can score well in technological advances and taking advantages of ICT, but its people score pathetically when it comes to being civilized? 

I know we are getting cynical of ‘’rankings’’, but anecdotally, I can provide a catalogue of examples of churlish behaviour in our day to day activities that need not involve studies and ranking exercises: Texting and being glued to the smart phone at social settings and even to the extent of holding up queues while boarding MRT trains and buses, hogging and blocking jogging paths at gardens and ignoring ‘’excuse me’s’’ of the runners, walking towards the jogger as if the latter is invisible and not giving way, jumping queue, ill treating domestic helpers… Ironically, it is usually the maligned ‘’foreign workers’’ who gave way to me, allowed me to check out first ahead of them if I had only one item to purchase, and loaned me umbrellas during the pouring rain.

And of course, the latest example of barbaric, farmer behaviour – throwing trash out of the window, and ruining laundry that are hung out to dry, or soiling other’s property.

Take a look at this photo of Block 179 Lompang Road at Bukit Panjang, taken on Friday 20 July 2012.  Cakes and eggs had been hurled down from above, landing at my bedroom window.  This is the umpteenth time garbage has been thrown down, ruining my laundry or littering the window ledges. 

Appealing to the town council for help has been a frustratingly futile exercise.  My letter regarding this latest incident, attaching some photos, to my MP went unanswered.  I copied the Bukit Timah Holland Town Council and got in return a template, useless reply from their ‘’PR officer’’, saying ‘’the matter has been referred to’’ so and so and that  ‘’she will look into it as soon as she can’’.  I wonder which is more infuriating – the silence, or the nonchalant, might-as-well-not-reply’’ type of reply?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

It's Not about the Winning

Last week I posted a silly gripe on Facebook after my run:’’ Argh, run interrupted by darned rain’’.

A friend posted a flippant remark in reply, ‘’what rain?  It was only a slight drizzle – showers of blessings’’.

I guess a non runner will say this.  I told him that I am a responsible runner and do not want to catch a cold just a few days before my race.  In fact, people who know me well will know that I do more than that – I train, eat and prepare sensibly before any race, and I do so responsibly, so that I do not collapse at the finishing line and send my friends and relatives panicking to the hospital.

Today, I am happy to see this article about the Olympics.  It says ‘’it’s not about the winning’’ and goes on to explain that it’s the ‘’striving’’ that is the essence of the Games.  Of course I am not elevating my races and training to the Olympic level, but I’d like to think that in sports and games, the majority of time spent is in the training and preparation.  The actual ‘’deed’’ (competition, run, performance) is but a fraction of the prep time. 

The article goes on to mention what I’d been trying to get my friends to understand, whenever they say things like, ‘’aiya, no sweat lah – you have been running so many years,’’, or, ‘’wah, you’re really serious ah, about the rain and what you eat’’. 

‘’You can catch the flu a week before those 5 minutes’’ and ‘’have another hurdler fall on you’’, says this article. 

This morning, I was pushed twice by an aggressive woman as we neared the finishing line, and a few times earlier, had to avoid being pushed off by two others too.  While racing in Hong Kong 2 years ago, a hefty man nearly fell on me.  While racing in Singapore more than 5 years ago, I nearly fell and broke my toes just 50 metres from the finishing line.

So, even if my race was ‘’only 10 km’’ as many put it, something sway can happen, and it will have fucked up your entire year of training. 

And even if it was ‘’only 10 km’’ and that I am a seasoned runner, contrary to all the air brushed glossy ads in the media, I don’t look pretty during the run.  I was huffing, puffing and panting loudly, and at times I was dribbling and drooling and wiping snot on my shorts and sweat off my eyebrows with my already sweaty hands. 

Many times (usually it’s towards the last 2 km) I would promise myself that I would not run for the next month after the race, like what our gymnast said in the article – ‘’not move’’ when the Game is over in London. 

Usually I managed to hold out for only a week, not one month.  This morning I beat my personal best with a good timing, and maybe I shall reward myself with more than a week.

Well, all I can say is, a run is not 5 minutes, unlike gymnastics.  In my case, it was 57 minutes of non stop, intense, focused-pounding on the road….

Friday, July 13, 2012

Doing Good

Building orphanages and doing something ‘’green’’ in Cambodia is very l’air du temps these days.  Even MBA students do that as part of their stint in Asia, or should I say, as part of their ‘’voluntourism’’?

No, no, it’s not so simple as volunteerism or tourism.  It now has a fashionable name called ‘’social enterprise’’, and they even have a Club formed to promote it among the students, and to push media relations folks like me to tout their noble efforts to the press about how they are doing good and installing water filters in some remote village in Siem Reap.

I suppose I can’t blame marketers and charity workers for ‘’just doing their job’’ either.  So, we get inundated with flyers carrying photos of deformed, emaciated or disabled kids, hoping to tug at our heartstrings and to open our cheque books to make a donation.

Or, to have even greater visual impact, we see contorted old folks in wheelchairs and speaking in a slurred manner, thanking us for ‘’having a heart’’, during ‘’charity shows’’ on TV, where celebrities learnt contortions (of a different kind) to perform and impress, and again, in the hopes of tugging at our heartstrings.

All very well; very well.  I am not against charity, nor against fund raising, or volunteerism. 

But has anyone thought of this: what the ‘’less fortunate’’ need most is not sympathy?  They need to be treated with dignity.  Inside, they must be screaming, ‘’I am also as human as you are!’’. 

As for the ‘’less fortunate’’ kids: yes, they may be poor, and yes, they may have never seen an iPad.   But do get rid of the mental image that all ‘’poor kids’’ in developing countries are sad, diseased or disabled.  And do get rid of the idea that by throwing money at them, or by going there for a week to build something, you are ‘’helping’’.  If at all, you are helping to sooth either your own guilt or ego.

In 2004, I was in Galle for a holiday.  I never nursed the noble idea of going there to ‘’do good’’.  I was there to do myself some good – ie, to rest.  But I happened to stay in a hotel where the bosses believed in doing their bit for the less fortunate, and they almost literally dragged their guests to join them. 

So on Sunday afternoon, they brought us to a child care centre nearby so that we could interact with the kids and talk to them, and help them practice English.  These kids were healthy, happy and smiling, though many came from either poor families or were orphans.  They may not be wearing clothes from Osh Kosh or Kids 21 but they were not in tatters.  They had as much dignity and vivacity as any first world kid. 

Was I and the other hotel guests sad or in tears or full of sympathy for them?  No, we enjoyed ourselves chatting with them, and spent an hour laughing and learning from one another.  I went back feeling that I’ve learnt much more from them, than they have, from me.

These kids are like any kid in our country – they need friendship and time, which no amount of donations – corporate or personal – can provide.  Like what my former boss suggested once (when he was trying to get me to spend time with the orphans at the home he’d helped build in Cambodia), ‘’you don’t have to do anything ‘big’ – just show them how you bake your cookies, and they would be very thrilled’’.  They are not animals in a human zoo for us to ‘’visit’’ and ‘’see for ourselves’’ how they live. 

In the same trip, my tuk tuk driver bought me a Coke.  Yes, with the fares that I’d paid him, I suppose he can even afford a Coke for me.  But that’s not the point.  The point is, he was generous enough to buy me, someone from a developed nation, a drink, at the end of the trip, when he had stopped to get himself some cigarettes and water.  Do tuk tuk drivers in Bangkok do that?  Do our uniformed chauffeurs or picky cab drivers do that here?

When I was in Siem Reap in 2002, again, I did not go there with the thought of dumping cheap pens and T shirts at the children there (though I’d been advised to bring lots of these to give away, when ‘’beggars swarm you as you walk the streets’’, they say).  Indirectly, I contributed, by staying in a humble, locally-run inn, rather than a 5 star resort run by the Raffles Group.  This charming inn gives a portion of their earnings to an orphanage.  And I was moved by their simple hospitality, honesty and trusting nature, in the way they welcomed me as a first time guest. 

I can go on and on about how I’ve been touched by the simple grace and dignity of the people of Laos, Phnom Penh, Myanmar and Kerala – all ‘’poor’’ countries by our standard.  But they are certainly not poor in spirit.  I’ve received more than what I’d given in these places that I’ve visited. 

Of course, I am not naïve.  There ARE maimed people ravaged by landmines, wars, and abject poverty.  And they do need help – at every level – economic, social and humanitarian.  Just don’t flatter yourself thinking that your ‘’token’’ help of building something for a week there would suffice.