April 28, 2017

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Glenn Ong

Glenn Ong
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Glenn is a third year undergraduate reading History and Political Science at the National University of Singapore. As a former national athlete, he represented Singapore at the ASEAN University Games (2014) and the World University Games (2015) in Taekwondo Poomsae.

by Glenn Ong

THE plight of the Rohingyas – a Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine State – has captured the attention of many in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.

Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak attended a rally in Kuala Lumpur last month (Dec 4), where thousands gathered to protest the treatment of the Rohingyas. Mr Najib said: “The world cannot sit by and watch genocide taking place”.

He also called the crisis “an insult to Islam“. In Indonesia, 300 protesters gathered outside the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta last November, holding large banners which read “Save Rohingya Muslim from Slaughter” and “Stop Rohingya Genocide”.

“The world cannot sit by and watch genocide taking place.”

– Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak

These protests are not surprising, given that many Muslims in the region interpret the refugee crisis as a persecution of the Muslim minority in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country.

 

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What is the Rohingya crisis?

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Image Myanmar/Burma: Little hope for Rohingya IDPs by Flickr user European Commission DG ECHO(CC BY-ND 2.0)

Denied citizenship by the government in Yangon, the Rohingyas are stateless partly due to a 1982 law requiring all minority groups to prove that their residence in Myanmar predates the first Anglo-Burmese War of 1824. The Rohingyas, who are Sunni Muslims, speak a dialect similar to that of people in Chittagong, Bangladesh. This has led other ethnic groups to regard the Rohingyas as Bengali illegal immigrants, even though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.

Since 2012, however, more than 120,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar amid increasing military crackdowns. This has exacerbated the refugee crisis, with many pouring into neighbouring Bangladesh, and embarking on perilous sea journeys to Thailand and Malaysia. The refugee flows have also complicated efforts by governments to crack down on human trafficking.

 

What’s been said and done in Singapore?

As of last month (Dec 2016), Singaporeans have raised more than S$350,000 for victims of the refugee crisis in Myanmar, and also for earthquake victims in Aceh, Indonesia. In addition, the G has contributed US$200,000 (S$267,000) to a “trust fund to support emergency humanitarian and relief efforts in the event of refugee flows”, administered by the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Secretariat.

The refugee crisis was also discussed in Parliament on Monday (Jan 9), when Members of Parliament (MPs) Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) and Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) posed parliamentary questions about Singapore’s role in response to the humanitarian crisis.

In his reply, Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said: “From Singapore’s perspective, we have emphasised that every government must ensure the safety and protection of all its people regardless of race or religion, and that all people must enjoy the same basic rights.”

He also said that the funds will be “channelled through Myanmar-based organisations to assist all affected communities, regardless of ethnicity and/or religion.”

He added: “At the same time, it is also the right and the responsibility of every state to secure its borders and to maintain internal security.” This basically means that aside from humanitarian aid, Singapore would be abiding by Asean’s principle of non-interference with the domestic affairs of member countries.

This echoes what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in June 2015. In an interview with foreign journalists, PM Lee said Asean “cannot solve all problems, and cannot compel any member to act in a certain way”.

 

Myanmar’s perspective

TMG asked Associate Professor Maitrii Aung-Thwin, a historian from the National University of Singapore, on what he thinks are the difficulties faced by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi – Myanmar’s de facto leader – regarding the crisis. In response, Prof Aung-Thwin said that her government faces two main challenges.

“The first concerns the difficulty of the government in presenting its position on what is essentially an ongoing immigration-socio-economic crisis,” he said. “Decades of transnational movement along the western border with Bangladesh, the borderlands of north-eastern India, and other coastlines in Asean has been simplified as a domestic political issue originating in Myanmar,” said Prof Aung-Thwin, adding that this misrepresentation has constrained the ability of the government to act decisively.

“Decades of transnational movement has been simplified as a domestic political issue…”

– Assoc Prof Maitrii Aung-Thwin, National University of Singapore

The second challenge concerns a lack of capacity by previous and current administrations to “address the needs of peripheral areas, such as Rakhine State and other borderland zones”. Prof Aung-Thwin said that this is due to Myanmar and Bangladesh’s complicated post-colonial history, which has “left both countries struggling to deal with internal divisions, civil war, and sectarian violence rather than economic development”.

Last month (Dec 2016), Ms Suu Kyi paid a state visit to Singapore, where she addressed questions regarding the Rohingya crisis in an interview with Channel NewsAsia:

She said she doesn’t think the refugee issue is out of control, but acknowledged that it was a substantial problem. “It’s not just Muslims who are nervous and worried. The Rakhine are worried too, they are worried about the fact that they are shrinking as a Rakhine population percentage-wise,” she said.

She added that “we cannot ignore the fact that the relationship between the two communities has not been good and we want to try to make it better”.

 

How has the issue affected relations within Asean?

When asked about how the crisis has influenced dynamics within Asean, Prof Aung-Thwin said that the issue is one of several others that non-governmental organisations (NGOs), transnational advocacy networks (TANs), and mainstream media have used to “portray Myanmar as a pariah state, part of a larger discourse that was employed to render Myanmar’s military government as illegitimate”.

However, such a move has created a paradox of sorts. “These issues challenged and strained Asean’s ability to defend its member while maintaining its own credibility as a regional body,” he added.

On what Singapore can do to improve the situation, Prof Aung-Thwin said: “Singapore and the local media can help complicate the oversimplified representation of the issue”. In addition, Singapore can also provide a “neutral ground” for discussions and negotiations.

 

Featured image Myanmar/Burma: Still suffering from the impact of Cyclone Komen by Flickr user European Commission DG ECHO(CC BY-ND 2.0)

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by Glenn Ong

EVER since winning the US presidential elections on Nov 8 last year, Donald Trump just hasn’t been able to catch a break – and not always for the right reasons.

His electoral college victory – confirmed on Dec 19 – will see him inaugurated on Jan 20 as the 45th President of the United States. However, this hasn’t been sitting well with many of his detractors, and Trump continues to be the subject of jokes, parodies, and yes – insults.

Trump, however, is not one to take things lying down. The celebrity businessman-turned-President seems intent on sharing – or hogging – the spotlight. In a country where it is common for celebrities and politicians to become the butt of jokes, Trump’s frequent expressions of indignation have been described as impetuous and thin-skinned.

Here are some of the people he’s clashed with so far:

 

1. Meryl Streep

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Image FESTIVAL INTERNAZIONALE DEL FILM DI ROMA ’09 by Flickr user Vincent Luigi Molino(CC BY-ND 2.0)

The most recent celebrity to be embroiled in a conflict with Donald Trump is Hollywood actress and 19-time Academy Award nominee Meryl Streep.

In her acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award, she called Trump out for ridiculing a disabled New York Times reporter, and for inciting a culture of hate and intolerance, though she stopped short of naming him:

In her six-minute speech for the lifetime achievement award, Streep addressed the circumstances surrounding Trump’s rise to office, saying:

Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.

The President-elect did not take kindly to Streep’s speech, retaliating in a series of tweets calling her “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood”:

Trump’s labelling of Streep as “over-rated” is a reversal of his previous opinion of the actress. When asked to name his favourite actresses in 2015, Trump said, “Meryl Streep is excellent; she’s a fine person, too.”

In her speech, Streep – who has won at least 157 awards in her career – also called for greater press freedom and more support for the non-profit Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). As of yesterday (Jan 9), just a day after her speech, the CPJ reported a spike in donations totalling US$80,000 (S$114,900).

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2. Alec Baldwin

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Image Alec Baldwin 2008 PETA New York City by David Shankbone by Flickr user David Shankbone(CC BY 2.0)

Alec Baldwin’s unflattering impersonation of Donald Trump on American variety show Saturday Night Live (SNL) has earned him much praise from SNL’s viewers, but also plenty of scorn from Trump and his supporters.

In another tweet, Trump called SNL a “totally one-sided, biased show – nothing funny at all”. Yet, SNL’s parodies of Trump remain popular. While many SNL videos cannot be viewed in Singapore, one of its sketches – of the town hall debate – garnered more than 20 million views and over 135,000 ‘likes’ on YouTube.

Below is a full video of SNL’s town hall debate parody, uploaded by another user:

 

The President-elect, who had difficulties getting celebrities to agree to perform at his inauguration, even received a sarcastic offer by Baldwin to show up – provided Trump allowed him to perform the song “Highway to Hell” by rock band AC/DC.

However, not all of Baldwin’s retorts have been caustic.

In a series of tweets, Baldwin told Trump what he would do if he were President: “I’d be focused on how to improve the lives of AS MANY AMERICANS AS POSSIBLE… I’d be focused on improving our reputation abroad, including actually fighting for freedom and not just oil.”

“I would make appointments that encouraged people, not generate fear and doubt,” he added. He concluded with, “I could go on. You want more advice, call me. I’ll be at SNL.”

 

3. Arnold Schwarzenegger

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Image Arnold Schwarzenegger by Flickr user Eva Rinaldi(CC BY-SA 2.0)

Trump allegedly picked a fight with former Republican Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger over the ratings of the reality show, “The Celebrity Apprentice”, which Schwarzenegger now hosts. In a tweet last Friday (Jan 6), The Donald ridiculed Schwarzenegger for failing to match the ratings of Trump’s previous hit series, “The Apprentice”.

“The Celebrity Apprentice”, which premiered last Monday (Jan 2) with 4.9 million viewers, is a new iteration of Trump’s iconic reality show, which garnered 18.5 million viewers when it premiered in 2004. Calling himself the “ratings machine”, Trump said he “swamped (or destroyed)” Schwarzenegger.

Mr Schwarzenegger hit back at Trump, tweeting: “I wish you the best of luck and I hope you’ll work for ALL of the American people as aggressively as you worked for your ratings.”

Calling Schwarzenegger out for the show’s poor ratings might have been an odd move, since Trump is himself the official executive producer of the show. However, Trump’s hostility towards Schwarzenegger is not surprising, since the latter stated last October that he would not vote for Trump.

 

4. Joe Biden

After the tape of Trump bragging about sexual assault was leaked last year, US Vice-President Joe Biden was among the many who publicly expressed outrage, saying on Oct 21 that he wished he could “take Trump behind the gym”, a euphemism for settling their differences with a fight.

 

Trump responded less than a week later (Oct 25), saying he’d be more than willing to take on the Vice-President’s challenge, whom he described as “creepy“.

 

While the two have yet to fight out their differences, the verbal squabble hasn’t ended.

Just last Friday (Jan 6), Mr Biden was asked by PBS NewsHour, an American news program, on what his thoughts were on Trump’s tweets, to which the Vice-President responded: “Grow up, Donald. Grow up. Time to be an adult.”

He added: “You’re president. You’ve got to do something. Show us what you have. You’re going to propose legislation. We’re going to get to debate it. Let the public decide. Let them vote in Congress. Let’s see what happens.”

 

5. Charlie Brotman

brotman

Image _MG_9498 by Flickr user David(CC BY 2.0)

Not all of Donald Trump’s snubs are hostile and confrontational.

While he’s probably unknown to people outside America, 89-year-old Charlie Brotman has been the parade announcer for every presidential inauguration since Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President, was sworn in for his second term in 1957. Brotman also made a name as the stadium announcer for the Washington Senators baseball team.

On Sunday (Jan 8), however, the Trump campaign broke with tradition and announced that they would be dropping Brotman from the inauguration. Instead, the campaign has appointed Steve Ray, a 58-year-old freelance announcer.

Upon receiving the notice, Brotman said, “I looked at my email, then I got the shock of my life”, and that “I felt like Muhammad Ali had hit me in the stomach.”

The Trump transition team spokesman, Boris Epshteyn, said that in recognition of his services, Brotman would be honoured as “announcer chairman emeritus”. While Brotman isn’t sure why he was dropped, he said it is likely because Ray is being rewarded for expressing support for the Trump campaign.

While he is “heartbroken” and “destroyed”, Brotman wished his successor well, telling reporters, “I want [Ray] to do good“.

 

6. Mark Cuban

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Image 509306865DH00026_TechCrunch by Flickr user TechCrunch(CC BY 2.0)

Perhaps one of the most well-known public feuds Donald Trump has is with billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban. A vocal critic of the President-elect, Cuban has been dubbed a “Trump troll” for his comical and sometimes absurd taunts. In 2012, Cuban offered Trump US$1 million (S$1.43 million) to a charity of his choice if he agreed to shave his head. Both continued to exchange blows online, with Trump tweeting:

However, they weren’t constant enemies. When Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, Cuban had said that he would consider being his running mate.

Cuban changed his position in the following months, launching scathing criticisms against Trump and publicly endorsing Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton. Defending his reversal, Cuban said in an interview, “I liked Trump’s honesty because it was different and had a chance to change the business of politics”.  He added: “What I didn’t realize he was missing at the time was a complete and utter lack of preparation, knowledge, and common sense.”

Last September, when Trump suggested that Cuban wasn’t intelligent enough to understand his policies, the latter issued a dare, tweeting: “$10 [million] to the charity of YOUR choice if you let ME interview you for 4 hrs on YOUR policies and their substance.”

When Donald Trump’s victory was confirmed, however, Cuban took to Twitter to call for optimism:

 

Covering all bases

But just to make sure he didn’t miss out anyone, The Donald made sure to end last year right by sending out a greeting on New Year’s Eve to anyone who has ever crossed him:

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Glenn Ong

LOCATED along the narrow yet busy Bukit Pasoh Road, the three-storey Ee Hoe Hean Club is one of Singapore’s oldest millionaires’ clubs.

Ee Hoe Hean, which in Chinese is 怡和轩 (yí hé xuān), literally translates to “Pavilion of Joy and Harmony”. Ee Hoe Hean looks nothing like the country clubs of today, however. Lacking amenities like a swimming pool and posh restaurants, the club is fronted by a humble lobby large enough for only two or three cars. According to a 2008 report by The Straits Times (ST), the club serves only simple porridge fare for its members.

Founded in 1895 as a gentlemen’s club for Hokkien businessmen, the club counts among its alumni luminaries Tan Kah Kee, Gan Eng Seng and Lim Boon Keng, all of whom were renowned businessmen and philanthropists. Membership into the club is still restricted to men, and was previously strictly by invitation, though it is now possible to apply for membership. According to its website, the club currently has 299 members.

However, Ee Hoe Hean shed its veneer of exclusivity in Mar 2008, when it opened its doors to the public for the first time in its 113-year history with a monthly series of public talks. The ground floor was also converted into a 2,000 sq ft memorial hall for the club’s pioneers, reported ST in October that year.

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Yesterday (Jan 2), however, the club made the news for an entirely different reason: An 80-year-old member lost control of his Mercedes sedan and crashed into the side of Oso Ristorante, an Italian restaurant just opposite Ee Hoe Hean. The restaurant was closed yesterday, but some of its staff were in the other restaurant beside it, Oso Grillery, which was hosting an event when the crash took place.

The club valet on duty, Mr Ab Razak, said to ST: “It seems that the driver reversed and hit a wall (at the building), before he panicked and crashed the car.”

A spokesman for the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) said the driver “has no reported injuries and was not taken to hospital”.

 

The club’s activities

In the early 1900s, according to its website, the Ee Hoe Hean Club supported the Xinhai Revolution, which toppled the Qing dynasty in China. During World War II, the club worked with the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry to mobilise manpower and resources in Southeast Asia to aid the Chinese war effort against Japan. It later served as the headquarters for coordinating fundraising efforts for disaster relief in China.

After the war, the club became a base from which its members supported the anti-colonial movements of Asian and African countries. Its members also helped establish the Nanyang University, also known as Nantah, in the 1950s.

Presently, Ee Hoe Hean functions as a networking venue for Chinese business leaders regardless of dialect. Its incumbent Chairman is Dr Phua Kok Khoo, Adjunct Professor of Physics at the Nanyang Technological University. Originally located at Duxton Hill, the club moved to its present location in 1925. Initially renting the space, the club later bought the building in 1927.

In 1999, cracks started to appear on the building, apparently due to the construction of the Circle Line which runs underneath it. The building was declared unsafe in 2002 and was subsequently demolished. Yet, as the original clubhouse was gazetted as a historic site by the National Heritage Board in 2005, an identical building had to be constructed in its place. The construction was completed in 2007, costing S$2.5 million.

When TMG visited Ee Hoe Hean today (Jan 3), a staff of the club declined to speak to us, saying the club does not grant media interviews. However, an employee of a shop opposite the club, Kaiyo Reptile Products, told TMG that the club frequently holds “talks about investments and antiques” for its members, of whom “many are bankers”.

Others we spoke to in the vicinity were not even aware of the club’s existence. When asked if they had any knowledge of the club’s activities, employees from dessert cafe Mad About Sucre and fitness centre Cut Gym Singapore, which are just one block away from Ee Hoe Hean, said they did not know that there was a millionaires’ club in the area.

 

Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

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by Glenn Ong

THE unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) belonging to the US Navy, which was seized by China last Thursday (Dec 15) was returned today (Dec 20). The return took place at midday in the South China Sea, according to the Chinese Defence Ministry.

For more on the South China Sea dispute, click here.

The unarmed UUV was seized just as it was completing a collection of “military oceanographic data such as salinity, water temperature, and sound speed,” according to a US government press release. Such data is useful for tracking submarines.

“China steals United States Navy research drone…”

– US president-elect Donald Trump on Twitter, Dec 17.

The data collection (and seizure) took place around 90km (50 nautical miles) off the Philippines’ Subic Bay. Both Democrats and Republicans have denounced China’s actions as a “brazen violation of international law” and an act of “provocation”.

While it is tempting to dismiss China as unreasonable and arrogant, its fears are not completely unfounded. Professor Zhang Baohui, a political scientist at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said in response to CNN that US activities in the South China Sea have likely increased China’s sense of vulnerability, especially for its small fleet of strategic nuclear submarines in those waters.

“First I want to say we strongly dislike the term ‘steal’ as it’s entirely inaccurate…”

– Hua Chunying, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Dec 19.

China, which is a continental rather than maritime power, is not surrounded by a vast ocean that allows its submarines to go undetected – an attribute that the US and Russia possess and benefit from, Prof Zhang added.

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The East China Sea. Image a screenshot from Google Maps.

With the threat of American monitoring activities in the South China Sea amplified by the danger of Japanese surveillance in the East China Sea up north, Prof Zhang said: “It is my reading that China thought the US was using the drone to track down one of its submarines and they felt that [they] had to act.”

Yet, while US president-elect Donald Trump was right to denounce the seizure in particular as “unprecedented”, this is not the first time both countries have locked horns at sea in the early stages of a new presidency.

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Presidency of George W. Bush (2001) 

On Mar 24, 2001, just three months after George W. Bush took office, a Chinese frigate stopped just 100m away from an unarmed US survey ship, switched on its gun control radar and forced the American vessel to retreat. The American ship was conducting data collection in the Yellow Sea, which lies north of the East China Sea.

Then, a week later on Apr 1, a mid-air collision took place between an American spy plane and an intercepting Chinese fighter jet near Hainan Island, resulting in the death of Chinese pilot Wang Wei. China then detained the US spy plane and its 24-member crew for 11 days in a political standoff that only ended when Washington apologised for Wang’s death.

 

Presidency of Barack Obama (2009)

Bush’s successor was to encounter similar challenges less than three months after his inauguration. On Mar 9, 2009, the US accused China of harassing US surveillance ship USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea “while it was conducting routine operations in international waters”.

Five Chinese vessels allegedly “shadowed and aggressively manoeuvred in dangerously close proximity to USNS Impeccable”. Two of the ships came within 15m of the American vessel, with Chinese crew members reportedly waving Chinese flags and ordering the Impeccable to leave.

When the US ship tried to leave the area, two Chinese ships moved “directly ahead of USNS Impeccable, forcing Impeccable to conduct an emergency ‘all stop’ in order to avoid collision”, according to the US Department of Defense.

While some observers suggest that the recent drone seizure is a direct and immediate response to Trump’s questioning of the “One China” policy, this pattern of behaviour appears to reflect a continuity in the perceived threat that the US and its allies pose to China.

Other experts also suggest that such behaviour is a tactic employed by China to gauge the diplomatic posture of a new or incoming administration.

 

Featured image 150416-N-ZZ786-112 by Flickr user Naval Surface Warriors(CC BY-SA 2.0)

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by Glenn Ong

YOU may have read about the death of 96-year-old Henry J. Heimlich on Saturday (Dec 17), a doctor credited with the invention of the Heimlich Manoeuvre in 1974, a life-saving technique to dislodge airway blockages.

Before the manoeuvre became widespread, the conventional wisdom of the time was to continuously slap the backs of choking victims until the object was ejected. Heimlich, who often clashed with the mainstream medical community over his odd and sometimes unscientific ideas, campaigned for 10 years before his technique was officially endorsed by the wider medical community.

However, Heimlich wasn’t the only famous inventor who died recently.

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Rose Evansky, inventor of blow-dry styling

Born in 1921 – just a year after Adolf Hitler assumed leadership of the Nazi Party – Rose Evansky (born Rosel Lerner, also known as Rose Cannan) fled Germany in 1938 after her father, a Polish Jew, was arrested and incarcerated in the Dachau concentration camp. She was sent to Britain on one of the last transport trains that evacuated Jewish children from Germany amid growing anti-Semitism.

She then apprenticed for a barber, eventually becoming London’s most successful female hairstylist, a field largely monopolised by men. Vidal Sassoon, a prominent British hairstylist, called Evansky “without question the top female stylist in the country and the equal of any man”.

While the blow-dry technique, also known as the woman’s blowout, has since become ubiquitous and largely taken for granted, it was only invented in 1962. In an interview in 2012, Evansky recounted the process of the invention. To straighten their hair, women in the 1960s had only one option: to sit under a large, overhead hood dryer that emitted such intense heat it was described as “frying” and “sizzling“. The process was also extremely laborious for the hairstylist, and Evansky said frankly: “I hated straightening hair.”

One Friday in 1962, she was getting ready to straighten a client’s hair the usual way when she suddenly recalled a sight she encountered a few days before – that of a barber drying a man’s hair with a brush and a handheld hairdryer. She wondered why this method wasn’t used on women as well, and proceeded to experiment on her client.

While Evansky was attempting the blow-dry technique, Lady Clare Rendlesham, the editor of fashion magazine Vogue, walked in and exclaimed, “What are you doing, Rose?” Evansky thought she was in trouble for violating the norms of hair-styling, for Rendlesham could “make or break a career.” Rendlesham returned with Barbara Griggs, the fashion editor of The Evening Standard. That afternoon, the paper ran a story on the new “blow wave”, which according to Hairdressers Journal International “instantly earned her a reputation as one of the top hairdressers in London and went on to become the norm in hair drying”.

However, the news wasn’t met with unanimous acclaim and approval. Her first husband and business partner, the late Albert Evansky, said: “Have you gone mad? We’ve just bought 20 new hood dryers! What shall we do with them? Throw ’em out?!”

She remained defiant. “I do feel like I’ve achieved something. I’ve freed women from having to sit under a hot dryer for ages, frying on hot days,” Evansky said. She added: “I was the opposite of all those male crimpers – I wanted to operate with clients who were mature women who understood what I was doing for them.”

Evansky died last month on Nov 21 at the age of 94, though the British media reported her death only last week. Her humble yet innovative blow-dry technique, however, seems unlikely to disappear any time soon.

 

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Glenn Ong 

THERE’S plenty of talk in the news this week about the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High-Speed Rail (HSR) project. There’s a lot to digest, even for the speediest readers. Here’s a quick guide to get you up to speed – in definitely less than 90 minutes.

 

What’s the latest?

On Tuesday (Dec 13), a legally binding deal between Malaysia and Singapore was signed to move ahead on the HSR – five months after both parties inked a memorandum of understanding in July this year. Completion date has been set for December 2026. No hard deadline has been given for when construction will start, but to make the 2026 opening date, some experts say it shouldn’t start later than 2018.

 

Where will it go?

The HSR will consist of three services managed by two operators. The first will be an express service between the two terminal stations in Jurong East in Singapore and Bandar Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. The second will be a shuttle service between Singapore and Iskandar Puteri in Johor, while the third will be a domestic service linking the seven stations within Malaysia.

The project will have a total of eight stations, of which one will be in Singapore. Just 15km of the 350km track will lie in Singapore. The HSR is expected to shorten the travel time between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur from about four hours to just 90 minutes, with trains travelling more than 300km/h. International commuters will only have to clear customs once, at the point of departure.

 

Sounds amazing. Who came up with the idea?

The idea of the HSR was first mooted by Malaysian Prime Minister, Mr Najib Razak in 2012. A few months later, in February 2013, he and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced during a Leaders’ Retreat that both countries had commenced serious talks about the project. Since then, both sides have agreed that each country will be responsible for managing the infrastructure and stations in their respective territories, though other aspects – such as security and the operation of rail assets – will either be jointly administered or be managed by private entities.

 

Who’s going to build it?

According to a joint press release, both Gs will call for a joint tender for the operator of the first two services, while Malaysia will hold an independent tender for its domestic service. A separate joint tender will also be called for a rail assets operator.

A number of countries and companies have expressed interest in the lucrative project – Mr Najib paid a visit to China last month, where he rode on the Tianjin high-speed rail and received a briefing by its operator, which is bidding for the Singapore-KL HSR. When asked if the project would be awarded to a consortium instead, PM Lee said that it is “too premature to speculate on the permutations”.

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How much will it cost (and who’s going to pay for it)?

While it is unclear exactly how much the project will cost, it is currently valued at RM50 billion (S$16.6 billion). For now, no word is out on how the project will be managed. PM Lee stopped short of providing details, saying that the tender will be awarded to “the best one”.

Questions remain over how the costs will be split – since less than 5 per cent of the tracks and only one station will be located in Singapore – how much the tickets will cost, and whether the company or consortium that is awarded the tender will encounter the same problems we experienced with our local trains.

 

The Singapore media can’t get enough of the news – why?

The HSR goes beyond merely expediting the journey between both countries. The project has been touted as a “game-changer” in improving bilateral ties. When the idea was first proposed, PM Lee pointed to the Eurostar, which he said transformed “two European cities into one virtual urban community”, as a model for the Singapore-KL HSR. On Tuesday, he added that “our relationship must be more than just economic and transactional”. As part of the agreement, cultural showcases by both countries will become a regular feature starting from 2018.

Calling it a “historic” deal, TODAY reported that the formalised agreement establishes the basis of cooperation for both countries in terms of construction standards and regulatory frameworks. The Straits Times was likewise optimistic that the project will be realised on time and within budget, calling it “ambitious but achievable”.

Both leaders said that the completion of the HSR will have a “multiplier effect” on the gross national income of both countries and will help create “almost 30,000 jobs”.

 

What about in Malaysia?

The Malaysian press has likewise reported on the project favourably. Datuk Rahman Dahlan, who signed the deal on Malaysia’s behalf, said in a press statement on Sunday (Dec 11) that this project benefits Malaysia in multiple ways, such as contributing to the economic, social, and technological sectors of the country. The HSR will also increase business productivity and broaden access to different markets. All these will contribute to the improvement of bilateral relations between Singapore and Malaysia.

He added: “The [Malaysian] government wants to build a project that links both countries and ensures that the country remains competitive.”

 

OK, it all sounds so positive. Is there a downside to the HSR?

While the project is good news for many who make frequent trips across the Causeway, it is not without some issues. With greater ease of movement across borders also comes a greater potential for security threats. In response, PM Lee said that the border both countries share is already the busiest in the world, and that closing it is not the appropriate response to security threats. He added that the border agencies of both countries will work closely to maximise safety, security, and convenience.

 

What could derail the project?

A long-term commitment of resources and manpower from both countries, as well as competent and reliable private sector partners, is required for the project to see the light of day.

Acknowledging the difficulties of coordinating and channelling resources, PM Lee said that “it’s a very tight timeline, and there are many potential bumps” such as the threat of an economic downturn. However, he added that if “the countries have been able to put aside their resources which are available, the project will proceed”.

Besides the cost to both countries, PM Lee noted that any decision made has to be agreed upon by both parties, as it is a “joint project”.

Yet, the fact that the entire project – from its conception, to the announcement, and to the conducting of the signing ceremonies in Malaysia – has been framed as the brainchild of the Malaysian PM, suggests that Putrajaya will do most of the heavy lifting for the HSR. After all, it is Malaysia – not Singapore – that has to deal directly with the bulk of the consequences should any serious mistakes be made.

To compound matters, with elections in Malaysia just around the corner, and with the 1MDB scandal leaving many Malaysians divided, doubts loom over whether the project will proceed as agreed should Mr Najib and the ruling Barisan Nasional be unseated.

In response to The Straits Times, Dr Lee Der Horng, a professor of transport engineering at the National University of Singapore, said that the actual construction of the rail system is unlikely to take more than three years. This is because the system, unlike those in Japan and Taiwan, does not need to be able to withstand natural disasters.

Rather, he said that because both governments have no experience overseeing such a massive rail project, the major obstacles are completing the tender and contract documents and finalising the alignment of the railway in time for construction to begin.

 

Additional reporting by Iffah Nadhirah Osman.

Featured image CRH / 和谐号 by Flickr user Tauno Tõhk / 陶诺. (CC BY 2.0)

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by Glenn Ong

THERE’S nothing special about him.

That’s what Colin Schooling, Joseph Schooling’s father, said just after his son made history to take home Singapore’s very first Olympic gold medal. He was a bundle of emotions. Beaming with pride, moved to tears, yet composed and unassuming, he was visibly exhausted from the 16 long years of helping his son chase that once-elusive dream.

Surely, though, the older Schooling was being modest. It takes an immense amount of grit, training, resources – and yes, talent – for his son to do what others couldn’t. Despite having represented Singapore twice in Taekwondo Poomsae myself, I can’t even imagine what the pressure is like for him at that level of competition – at the Olympics, so much more is at stake. Indeed, Schooling had said that he was only interested in winning gold, but until August 13, few were certain what the outcome would be.

Within 50.39 seconds, Schooling washed all doubts away with a splashing victory. He smashed the 100m butterfly Olympic record of 50.58s, set at the 2008 Beijing Olympics by the most decorated Olympian of all time, American swimmer Michael Phelps.

 

Besides hard work and talent, access to opportunities count too

What accounts for his success? Surely, swimming professionals will be busy breaking down the race and analysing his movements. But beyond sporting technicalities, there are many layers beneath the surface, a vast network of support and resources extending beyond his immediate family and stretching way before his first claim to national fame.

Without taking any credit away from him, the amount of help that Schooling had cannot be understated. Few in Singapore have access to the opportunities and resources that were made available to him, to have the moral (and material) support of his family, the swimming association, and his sponsors. We have no idea how many athletes in Singapore have or will miss out on their chance to fulfill their potential because they did or do not receive such support. Some Singaporeans have taken to Facebook to comment that socio-economic backgrounds matter substantially in the making of a successful athlete:

 

Indeed, Colin Schooling was candid about what went behind the making of this Olympic dream. He and his wife were meticulous in their preparations, assembling an “extensive library” of “hand-written notes” that scrutinised his every move in the pool, right down to each stroke. Both attended swim clinics, took up courses, and consulted with experts, so that they could provide Joseph with more than just words of encouragement. They even mobilised the help of family friends, who generously offered their assistance, in good times and in bad. Mr and Mrs Schooling would not be mere bystanders in the making of their son’s career; no avenue was spared, and nothing was left to chance.

And it didn’t hurt that both parents were themselves athletes who competed at the state and national levels. They had the opportunity to pass on the privileges afforded to them, and this has undoubtedly played a significant role in shaping him. It is difficult even for parents to be understanding, much less personally vested in and committed to their children’s sporting dreams. The family would eventually spend almost $1.5 million of their money to fund this dream. This was a dream they shared, and could afford.

 

Coming full circle

The sporting tradition runs much deeper in the family. His grand-uncle, the late Lloyd Valberg, was Singapore’s very first Olympian, having competed in the 1948 iteration in the high jump event. The family says that it was Valberg’s journey to the Olympics that inspired Schooling to want to do the same. How poignant it is to have come full circle.

Moreover, Schooling, who spent two years at Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) before going on to the Bolles School and the University of Texas at Austin in the United States, has benefited from being in the best swimming schools both in Singapore and abroad. Here is a family that has been conscious from the start about making this dream a reality, and they were equipped not only with the willingness, but also the ability and know-how to see it through.

To his credit, Schooling is well aware that he had stood on the shoulders of giants to reach that podium. He said after winning his historic gold, “I’ve received a lot of support and that’s phenomenal” and “I’m really honoured and privileged to have the opportunity to race in the Olympic final alongside huge names”.

Now that he has fulfilled his promise and achieved his target, questions of his National Service (NS) deferment have began to surface. Should he or should he not fulfill the obligations of his citizenship, or has he already paid his dues with this medal? Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen announced yesterday (August 15) that Schooling’s deferment would be extended until after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a move which has been praised as “good news” by many on Facebook.

However, journalism academic Cherian George wrote against granting Schooling exemption on the basis that this would create a slippery slope that will invariably favour those from more privileged backgrounds:

The main reason I’m opposed to liberalising enlistment rules is that educated, upper middle class families are bound to benefit disproportionately—they are the ones who will be able to find the loopholes and write up convincing justifications. We could end up with a situation where less privileged Singaporeans are the ones compelled to put their lives on the line for the country.

 

Unsaid privilege in Singapore

As much as Schooling’s story generates discussions of privilege and inequality, the topic was actually recently revived before his win at the Games.

A video by student-led organisation UNSAID titled “The Privilege Walk” has been viewed more than 200,000 times and shared more than 4,500 times on Facebook, since it was posted on August 9. The group said it chose to post it on National Day because it provided a good opportunity for Singaporeans to take stock of the “great disparity in social privilege” in the country, “even if it may not always be obvious”.

Yet, the idea of the privilege walk isn’t new. It made its first rounds on social media last July, when popular entertainment site Buzzfeed conducted it on Americans from different religious, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds.

For the first time, people could quite literally “check their privilege” against a set of questions similar to those in UNSAID’s project. The video has since garnered more than two million views and attracted almost 59,000 likes, and became popular for its visual portrayal of privilege and disadvantage. You can view Buzzfeed’s video below.

I did the test according to UNSAID’s 35 questions, which you can find here. I found that I had walked forward 14 times and stayed put 16 times, which gave me a very sobering idea of how much I stood to gain (steps forward) and how much I took for granted (steps not taken) from qualities I had no control over, or did not work for, such as my race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and socio-economic background. What was even more sobering was that I only had to step back five times.

Yet, while such an experiment gives us a good opportunity to reflect on the privileges and disadvantages present in our society, it should also allow us space to improve on the way we think about privilege, or lack thereof.

 

Improving the way we think about privilege

Some questions were loaded with biases and assumptions that tended to imply inequalities that do not necessarily follow from the logic of the question. For example, one read:

4. If the primary language spoken in your household is not English, take one step back.

It’s safe to say that most of us know where this question is coming from. It implies that if you do not speak English at home, either you or some of your family members are uncomfortable with or not fluent in English. It then implies that because you lack a good command of English, you stand to lose to others in socio-economic standing. More importantly, it also suggests that if some of your older relatives are unable to converse in English, you probably already started out disadvantaged through no fault of your own.

(Of course, the question comes with a crucial premise that many can readily agree on: That a good grasp of English is necessary not just to eke out a decent living in Singapore, but also to bridge the gap between different ethnic groups.)

However, while we can grant the premises of the question, the conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow from the options provided. Some families choose to converse in dialect or their mother tongue, and the reason can be simply that – choice. Some questions do not afford that leeway and flexibility, and that can be problematic in helping us to map out the true extent of inequality in Singapore. The first step to addressing inequality is to refrain from thinking about it in simple, zero-sum terms.

Indeed, many of these questions are short one-liners without qualifiers that impose false binaries and leave many assumptions and premises, well, unsaid. So, while they provide a good starting point to open conversations on – and convince sceptics of – the existence of inequality, such experiments should not be the be-all and end-all on the way we approach the inconvenient subject.

 

Questions that stumped me

The above, admittedly, aren’t major issues. What jolted me the most were questions that alerted me to disadvantages that many people unknowingly suffer from, and which sensitised me to privileges I’ve taken for granted for most of my life. For example:

11. If you were born in Singapore, take one step forward.

I had forgotten just how many of my friends do not hold citizenship, and how that has impeded their chances of success in Singapore. To compound matters, the social and economic standing of non-citizens in any country is constantly vulnerable and susceptible to the pressures of public opinion. It’s easy to forget that being born in a country that allows us a reasonable chance to succeed is also a privilege.

 

Swim to the podium: no walk in the park

Joseph Schooling may have made his win look easy, but that was only because he has gotten so good at what he does. Privilege should not be used to dismiss his achievements; instead, it should enrich our understanding of what makes athletes (and people in general) successful. How many steps forward did he take, and how many backward? We might never know.

Yet, what is probably most important is that in our quest to create more Joseph Schoolings, we should not neglect those who were left behind because they had to take too many steps back.

 

Featured image from Joseph Isaac Schooling‘s Facebook.

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by Glenn Ong

BAK KWA – or barbecued meat – is a favourite among many Singaporeans, especially during festive periods like Chinese New Year.

However, health concerns are popping up, with a report, released last month by the Thai Consumer Protection Association, saying that many brands of bak kwa from Bangkok contained high amounts of sodium nitrite, a carcinogen (cancer-causing). These brands had failed to clearly label the bak kwa’s expiry dates too.

Processed meat products in general can be cancer-causing too, according to a report by the World Health Organisation published last November.

But what exactly is sodium nitrite, and how is it harmful to us?

 

What is sodium nitrite?

Its scary name notwithstanding, sodium nitrite is actually a type of salt and anti-oxidant used in curing meats like ham, bacon, and sausages. Cured meat cannot be made without sodium nitrite, which also gives such meats their distinct flavour. This means that you have probably been unknowingly consuming it your entire life.

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Image Bacon! by Flickr user Didriks (CC BY 2.0)

Consuming sodium nitrite purportedly has benefits for your body. It prevents the growth of a bacteria that causes botulism, a potentially-fatal disease that causes weakness in the limbs and breathing difficulties. Also, the use of nitrite prevents the growth of a bacteria that causes listeriosis, a serious infection which can lead to miscarriage. As a preservative, sodium nitrite also increases the shelf life of food and prevents spoilage.

Yet, cured meats are not the largest source of our daily nitrite intake. According to the American Meat Institute, 93 per cent of nitrite intake is from tubers (like potatoes), vegetables, and even our own saliva.

The nitrate to nitrite conversion process from eating vegetables makes up 85 per cent of the average human dietary nitrite intake.

In fact, the amount of nitrate in cured meats is significantly lower than in vegetables. Spinach contains around 500 to 1900 parts per million of nitrate, whereas US food regulators allow “no more than 156 parts per million” of nitrite for cured meat.

 

Why is sodium nitrite bad?

Ms Gladys Chu, a lecturer from Nanyang Polytechnic’s (NYP) Diploma in Food Science and Nutrition programme, said: “According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), processed meat is classified as carcinogenic to humans, based on sufficient evidence that consumption of processed meat can cause colorectal cancer.” She added that “one of the chemical preservatives present in processed meats is sodium nitrite”.

So what makes sodium nitrite cancerous? Ms Chu said: “During meat processing, carcinogenic chemicals including N-nitroso compound are formed.”

To what extent is this chemical compound harmful? According to an academic paper titled “N-Nitroso compounds in the diet“, published in the scientific journal Mutation Research – Genetic Toxicology and Environmental Mutagenesis, “N-nitroso compounds have been shown in animal experiments to be the most broadly acting and the most potent group of carcinogens”.

The article also said that the “widespread exposure to N-nitroso compounds in food provides one link [to finding the cause of cancers] that should not be ignored”.

 

Does Singapore bak kwa contain sodium nitrite?

TMG reached out to local bak kwa producer Lim Chee Guan, which said that its bak kwa does not contain any sodium nitrite.

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Lim Chee Guan bak kwa. Image from Lim Chee Guan’s Facebook page by Facebook user Ong Hoey Siang.

“Our food processes comply with HACCP standards, and are thus safe for consumers,” said the spokesperson. When asked about what preservatives go into its bak kwa, the spokesperson said that the company only uses “sugar and common table salt”, which are natural preservatives.

On how long its bak kwa can last before expiring, the spokesperson said: “Our bak kwa are freshly made and packed upon purchase. Therefore, it is best consumed within ten days.”

 

Regulations in Singapore

Sodium nitrite is a permitted additive in Singapore. According to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore’s (AVA) food regulations, the maximum amount of sodium nitrite allowed in cured or preserved meats is 125 parts per million.

Conversely, it appears that Thailand, which generally follows the United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) and the Codex General Standard for Food Additives (GSFA) as a benchmark, presumably holds itself to stricter standards. The GSFA mandates that food products containing sodium nitrite cannot contain more than 80 parts per million.

On shelf life and expiry dates, AVA told TMG that for now, only products with limited shelf-lives need to be labelled with expiry dates. These products are:

  1. Perishable/short shelf-life products (such as tofu, pasteurised milk and some other milk products)
  2. Products whose quality may deteriorate over time (such as vitaminised drinks and cooking oil)
  3. Products such as raisins and breakfast cereals that are susceptible to contamination (such as insect infestation, after prolonged storage)
  4. Infant food

In addition, the AVA does not permit any form of meat from Thailand to be imported into Singapore. For more information on which countries are on the permitted list, you may refer to AVA’s website here.

An AVA spokesperson said to TMG: “Thailand is not an approved country to bring in meat products (for personal consumption) in view of its animal disease status.” The spokesperson said that these measures are necessary “to prevent introduction of diseases into Singapore which would have an impact on Singapore’s animal population and trade status”.

 

Safety for our bodies 

“Every 50g of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18 per cent.”

– Ms Chu quoted “studies”

NYP’s Ms Chu said that food products that keep to the 125 parts per million limit are generally safe for consumption. Said Ms Chu: “The food additive sodium nitrite may be safely used in processed meat in accordance with this recommendation.”

However, she cautioned against overconsumption of processed meat. “Studies show that every 50g of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18 per cent. Even a small amount of processed meat can increase cancer risk,” she said.

 

Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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by Glenn Ong

GO TO Park Mall these days, and you will see more movers than customers. No wonder, since the mall has only about a month left before it closes for redevelopment.

When TMG visited on a weekday afternoon, first floor anchor tenant XTRA Designs – the sole dealer of premium office furniture brand Herman Miller in Singapore – was among other businesses seen packing and moving their wares, while others were holding moving out sales of up to 70 per cent.

Mr Lim Choon Hong, managing director of XTRA Designs, said: “Currently apart from Park Mall, we have another outlet in Winsland House 1. We are relocating to Marina Square as Park Mall was sold to a new owner and will be torn down either this year or the next to make way for a new commercial building.”

However, not all tenants are employing movers to clear out; some are actually moving stocks into their shops. The stocks won’t stay there for long, however.

One of them is Grafunkt, which imports high-end European furniture. Ms Lauren Su, 22, who does marketing for Grafunkt, said: “We already have three outlets, so we shifted all our clearance items to Park Mall so that the prices are in line with other shops.”

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Discount signs adorn the walkways. Image by Najeer Yusof.

Yet, the massive discounts don’t seem to be drawing in crowds. When asked about the mall’s usual clientele, Madam Sandy Goh, 50, who runs The Frame Master with her husband, said in Mandarin: “We don’t usually have crowds here. Many who frequent the mall are “important” people, like the President, ministers, or bosses of large companies – because the Istana and their offices are nearby.”

 

Despite discounts, all is quiet

“I’ve only had two customers today, but that is already not bad considering that on some days there can be nobody at all.”

It’s not hard to see that the mall isn’t doing well. On two weekday evenings visits, there were at most 10 customers in the mall each time, and not all of them made purchases. Ms Barbara Yang, 30, a salesperson at mattress seller Sealy Asia, said in Mandarin: “I’ve only had two customers today, but that is already not bad considering that on some days there can be nobody at all.”

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All is quiet in Park Mall. Image by Najeer Yusof.

Ms Yang said that the number of walk-in customers is usually representative of the day’s total sales. “Almost all our customers are walk-in, because when it comes to mattresses, you can’t just call to place an order – you need to try to be able to make an informed decision,” she added.

Sealy isn’t the only tenant that is feeling the heat – or rather, the chill.

Ms Norain Jelani, 30, a sales associate at furniture retailer The Bear Knows, said: “The furniture business is not like the fashion industry; on some weekdays we might not even have more than one customer. However, weekends tend to be better, with around double the number of walk-ins.”

However, Madam Goh, who has been a tenant for 21 years, said that the furniture industry cannot be judged like others. She said: “You don’t see crowds because people only come to furniture stores if they are renovating or buying a new house.”

Ms Jelani agreed. When asked about what draws people to Park Mall, she said: “People usually only come whenever Build-To-Order flats are released. Another key period is when sales and promotions are held. When one of the bigger brands advertises a promotion in the papers, it will bring in crowds that will filter to other shops.”

“Three years ago when we were at Liang Court, the economy was doing well, so we could easily sell a sofa for $10,000. But now, I don’t think we can even sell one for $2,000.”

Yet, it’s not always the lack of discounts, new flats, or the mall’s location that’s responsible for poor sales figures – there are larger factors looming in the background too. Ms Jelani said: “I think whether business is good or not depends a lot on the economy. Three years ago when we were at Liang Court, the economy was doing well, so we could easily sell a sofa for $10,000. But now, I don’t think we can even sell one for $2,000.”

 

One-stop furniture mall: Bane or boon?

“Park Mall is located in the heart of the city, parallel to Orchard Road and yet is quiet, away from the hustle and bustle of Orchard Road…”

This is despite the fact that Park Mall is the only dedicated furniture mall in Singapore. “There is no competition from other malls because Park Mall is the only one-stop furniture mall in Singapore, and you can’t find the same quality anywhere else – there are no crowds here because this is not a retail mall; there are no cinemas and retail shops here to draw crowds in,” said Madam Goh in Mandarin.

Mr Lim from XTRA agreed. He said: “Park Mall is located in the heart of the city, parallel to Orchard Road and yet is quiet, away from the hustle and bustle of Orchard Road, which suits our trade.”

Indeed, the success and uniqueness of this concept helped some businesses take off.

Mr John Cheng, manager of The V Furniture located on the second floor, said: “We started our very first boutique at Park Mall eight years ago and gained a lot of trust and referrals, which helped us expand to the five boutiques we have today.”

Mr Chung Sew Meng, 42, who is the director of home accessories retailer OVAS Singapore, said that “the positioning of Park Mall as a high-end furniture mall is fantastic”. OVAS, which has been operating in Park Mall for 15 years, has benefited from the mall’s “prime and prominent location”, said Mr Chung.

“There are no food stalls here… How to draw people?”

But the concept of a dedicated furniture mall may also be its Achilles’ heel.

Said Mr Robert Chuang, 71, supervisor of sofa retailer Castilla Furniture, which has been the third floor anchor tenant for 24 years: “There are no food stalls here. The last time we had a foodcourt here is two years ago. How to draw people?”

He said that one reason why the mall had difficulties attracting food vendors was the high rent. “I pay around $10 per sq ft because I’m an old tenant, but food outlets have to pay around $15 to $16 per sq ft,” said Mr Chuang. He added: “The previous owner of the mall, Wing Tai, was more selective of tenants – the current management, not so much.”

 

From past to present: Fashion to furniture

News of Park Mall’s closure has been circulating for over a year now. Park Mall was sold last December for $411.8 million to a joint venture group, of which its current owner, Suntec Real Estate Investment Trust (Suntec Reit), is a part of. Tenants were informed around five months before the sale, in June, and have been making plans to move – or close – ever since. The 45-year-old, 15-storey mall will be demolished, and in its place, two office blocks and a retail section will be built.

Park Mall, which was built in 1971 and known as the Supreme House, was later positioned as a fashion centre in 1989. It was once home to prominent brands such as Metro and Style Singapore, but later shifted focus to become a furniture mall from 1995. The change was successful, as the mall went from $2 million in losses to $100 million in revenue.

 

Quality furniture, sturdy friendships

When asked what makes Park Mall different from other malls with furniture retailers, Madam Goh said: “The things sold at Park Mall are unique in design and higher in quality. When you say you’re buying from Park Mall, people will have a different impression of the furniture you have. But most people come here only to walk around and reminisce the past.”

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Stocks packed for moving. Image by Najeer Yusof.

For Mr Lim, whose Park Mall outlet is 22 years old, it was the location and branding of the mall that attracted him. “When Park Mall was refurbished 22 years ago to be a city furniture and furnishing centre, we were offered a premium location on the ground floor which was street-facing. It was a rare opportunity for us,” he said.

Yet, it’s not just the furniture which boast a high quality – the bonds forged between tenants are equally strong. Kith Cafe, which occupies a space on the first floor of the mall, will be moving to Marina Square, where it will share a space with its current neighbour, XTRA Designs.

“Our cafe, which values good design, stocks furniture from XTRA. Similarly, Kith supports XTRA by catering for their events, big and small alike.”

Ms Jane Hia, founder and owner of Kith Cafe, said of the relationship between the two businesses: “Though we are in different industries, both Kith Cafe and XTRA Designs are in the lifestyle business, so our brands complement each other very well. Our cafe, which values good design, stocks furniture from XTRA.

“Similarly, Kith supports XTRA by catering for their events, big and small alike. Kith Cafe offers a convenient space to facilitate meetings over good food and coffee,” she added.

And it isn’t just the tenants who have grown close. Those who work in nearby offices and buildings, including the office space within Park Mall, have become loyal customers of the cafe. Said Ms Hia: “We have patrons who work in Park Mall who grew to become regular customers. As a cafe, we have made many valuable friendships in this mall.”

When asked what she thinks is special about Park Mall, Ms Hia said: “Kith Cafe at Park Mall has been popular for many reasons like huge capacity, accessibility of public transport, and parking availability, among other things. What is special about Park Mall is the location, with Fort Canning behind us and the giant trees surrounding us.”

For others, the mall holds a special place for their business because it reminds them of their early days. “I think because this is our oldest and also our first official retail outlet, the mall holds some good memories,” said Ms Su of Grafunkt.

Despite the friendships and good memories, competition remains stiff.

Mr Ben Teo, 53, sales consultant at Italian furniture retailer Furniture Club, which has been in Park Mall for seven years, said: “The furniture industry is very saturated. I would say that in order to survive, you need to make at least 40 per cent profit.” He added that the company depends on about “60 to 70 per cent of regular customers” for business.

“Our friendships aside, business is still business. In this trade, we have an unspoken rule, which is that we cannot step into each other’s showrooms,” Mr Teo added.

 

For the better?

“When Park Mall closes, it will filter shoppers islandwide…”

Ms Jelani from The Bear Knows said that the retailer is “in the process of moving to The Centrepoint”. They had previously moved from Liang Court to Park Mall, where they have remained for three years. For The V Furniture, Mr Cheng said: “We have opened a new outlet at Plaza Singapura, and we are also looking for a new showroom.”

However, Ms Yang from mattress retailer Sealy said that the company isn’t in a rush to seek out a new outlet or sell its stock. She said: “I’m not entirely sure, but it’s most likely going to close since we have a warehouse to store our stock.”

Indeed, not everyone is upset with its closing. “It’s for the better that the mall is closing,” said Castilla’s Mr Chuang. He added: “When Park Mall closes, it will filter furniture shoppers islandwide so that they don’t just shop in the town area.” Mr Chuang added that Castilla would be moving to Big Box, located at Jurong East, because they “couldn’t find another place in Orchard this big”. (Castilla takes up as many as five spaces.)

 

“Of course it’s a pity.”

“We believe we will continue to make new friends and keep old ones despite the move.”

For others, however, the mall’s closure is a pity for the furniture scene. On what his thoughts were on the mall’s closure, Mr Lim from XTRA Designs said: “Of course it’s a pity. We’ve been here for almost a quarter of a century! On the other hand, we are also excited about moving to a new location and embarking on a new beginning.”

Said Mr Ray Lee, a senior sales executive at curtain and fabric retailer Jespirit Collections: “It’s a pity because this is the only furniture mall in the Orchard area. When it closes, there will be no more such malls here.” However, he added that while the store has been at Park Mall for a good 16 years, “we have other outlets, so the closure of the mall is not a really big deal for us”.

Madam Goh from The Frame Master, which is the only shop in Park Mall to offer artworks and framing services, said that she is still considering her options. “We’re experimenting with going online. My husband and children are helping me with that,” she said in Mandarin.

For Kith Cafe’s Ms Hia, moving to Marina Square will be an exciting change, though that does not mean that the cafe will forget the bonds forged at Park Mall with tenants and customers alike.

She said: “We enjoy the synergy between our businesses, and don’t see why we should not continue to do so. We believe we will continue to make new friends and keep old ones despite the move.”

 

Additional reporting by Andrea Wang.

Featured image and images by Najeer Yusof.

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Seeing myself thru journalist's notebook

by Glenn Ong

EVERY phase in life can, I think, be summed up in an object: One that encapsulates happy times, hardships endured, or the mundane lull of quiet, uneventful days.

It could be a country flag eraser (if you remember that craze back in primary school), a pair of Goretex boots (if you’re serving the nation), or it could even be something intangible, like a thought, dreadful or otherwise (sleepless nights before the release of A Level results, for one).

For me, the past three months was a notebook.

I’ve wondered (not with fascination, but with frustration) for the longest time the journalist’s obsession with the cumbersome notebook. When conducting interviews, we were told, we should always use a notebook. When writing an article, we must always verify quotes from our notebook. When an editor is conducting a briefing, God forbid you don’t have your notebook. Never die before is it?

“A phone is just as good,” I would think to myself.

Later, I would be humbled by the knowledge that handwritten notes would serve as more credible evidence should somebody decide to challenge your reporting in future. I stopped resisting – there is no greater motivation than knowing it could some day save you from trouble.

Picture my defiance eroding into capitulation: Me waving the plain, immaculate pages of a notebook in the air, resigned and helpless, like a defeated soldier with a white flag of truce.

Thankfully, I managed the past three months without any real trouble. I had joined just two days after the Bukit Batok by-election, and so avoided the ground reporting. The people who would later become my friends weren’t so lucky – the past three months to them can probably be summed up with a warning letter from the police.

I searched my notebook for a defining experience, one that could inspire an answer to the dreaded question we were usually asked as our contract expired: “So, what did you learn?”

The question never came. Heng ah.

But as I sat ruffling through the pages, each one marked by illegible scratches and hasty punctuation, it dawned on me that my notebook isn’t just a log of the interviews I conducted. Neither was it a mere record of editorial briefings.

Objects tell stories. That’s what historians claim.

Indeed, I think the journalist’s notebook is simultaneously a diary, a novel, and a relic of history. Mine told stories in different ways. It was much like a poem, in that it was often abstract and at times undecipherable. But it was also a bit like prose, in that you could make out a rough chronology from cover to cover: Old malls, Vesak Day, 50 Faces, old malls (again?!), train breakdowns, the AGO report.

The notebook reveals traits and eccentricities of its user without stating them explicitly: Mine says I have a fear of approaching and bothering strangers, and that I was afraid of being brushed off whenever I muttered the words “Hi, I am a journalist”.

I drafted brief scripts of how I would introduce myself and broach the topic of the interview; I would steal occasional glances at them in my first few weeks on the job. I would tide through conversations with strangers by writing more words than necessary so I had a reason to look down and minimise awkward eye contact.

Have I grown thicker skin since? I can’t be sure, but at least I grew confident enough to phase out the scripts.

The notebook tells a story of cooperation too, even without reading those belonging to other reporters. You could notice gaps in logic and information, even when assignments were ticked off as completed: How dare one claim to complete “50 Faces” with just ten names? He doesn’t, not on his own. The notebook is a piece of fabric in the patchwork of a newsroom’s publications.

Or perhaps it is better compared to yarn, in its raw and unsewn form. You can make what you will of it, but you don’t have to. The notebook is a treasure trove in and of itself; it bears witness to parts of Singapore you’d never know about if you don’t talk to people you’ve never met.

Above all, I think my notebook tells a story of growth – incomplete and partial – but sufficient for now. It has more than one protagonist; it is growth with and through others.

At least for now, I’ll be putting the notebook away, definitely not for good, but perhaps for the better. Taking its place is a familiar red plastic file, one that I’ve used for the past two years in university.

And so it is: A brand new phase, another object that would tell a different story, or resume an old one where it was left off. I wiped the dust off the file.

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Featured image by Sean Chong.

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