June 25, 2017

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Authors Posts by Qiu Ping Lim

Qiu Ping Lim

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by Lim Qiu Ping

“DONBURI” simply means the bowl. As a food item, it refers to a bowl of Japanese short-grain rice topped with certain ingredients. It could be fried cutlets of different meats, cooked or raw seafood, or curry, just to name a few. There are different categories of donburi depending on the ingredient resting on the rice.

Though the donburi is not unknown in Singapore, the spotlight has shone more on the ramen or sushi. But there is an increased appreciation of this Japanese rice bowl dish in recent years, towards specific types of donburi:

 

1. Current rage in town – the ten-don

Ten-don is a Japanese compound of two words – the “tempura” and “donburi”. The bowl of rice is topped with tempura, which is deep-fried battered vegetables or seafood. This particular type of donburi has been on the radar of Japanese food enthusiasts since the first ten-don specialty restaurant, Ten-don Ginza Itsuki, opened at Tanjong Pagar in July 2015.

Ten-don Ginza Itsuki

Image from Facebook user Foodogenic by nanatang.

There are only two offerings available at Ten-don Ginza Itsuki – the Special Ten-don and Vegetable Ten-don. The Special Ten-don (at $13.90) consists of two tempura prawns, an assortment of tempura vegetables, slices of tempura chicken meat and a tempura egg on top of the rice. The Vegetable Ten-don (at $12.90), on the other hand, has only vegetable tempura on rice.

Tempura ingredients are fried separately, according to the temperature optimal to cook them into fresh, crispiness without being excessively oily. In addition, the ten-don here is served in beautiful bowls made by the 400-year old Arita porcelain brand.

Near to two years after its opening, customers are still queuing up for a taste. Lines could be formed within 30 minutes of its 11.30am opening time and definitely during lunch and dinner hours.    

Ten-don Kohaku

Image from Facebook user Ong KiAn YEe.

Ten-don Kohaku, also a ten-don specialty restaurant, entered the scene in June 2016 to a similar welcome at Suntec City. It sells Edomae ten-don, or ten-don in the Edo-era style – a category of Japanese cuisine which is known to be heavier in taste.

The menu is simple, with items differentiated by the one with meat or without; drizzled with the original sauce or spicy. While the Kohaku Ten-don and its spicy version cost $15, the Vegetable Ten-don and its spicy version are a dollar cheaper.

For the tempura, ingredients included crab stick, squid, shrimp and chicken breast and an assortment of vegetables, such as pumpkin, long beans and mushroom, cooked in oil blended with sesame oil for an extra fragrance. The fluffy rice, which is of Nanatsuboshi variety, is imported from Hokkaido

The Suntec establishment has been so popular, another branch opened at Boat Quay in December of the same year. Queues at either locations could last more than an hour.

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Don Meijin

Image from Lim Qiu Ping

Don Meijin, the newest addition to the Ramen Champion foodcourt at the 4th floor of Bugis+ since February this year, has cooked up a local kick to the ten-don: the Spicy Chilli Crab ten-don.

The regular ten-don (priced at $13.80) has tempura featuring black tiger prawns, seasonal fish fillet, asparagus, pumpkin, eggplant and the kakiage, which is made of mixed vegetable strips. The aromatic bed of rice, specially imported from Hokkaido, is cooked to al dente consistency. Then, to create the Spicy Chilli Crab ten-don, a Japanised spicy chilli crab sauce – prepared for more than four hours using fresh chicken broth, chunks of snow crab, mirin and Japanese soy sauce – is poured over the tempura. This particular ten-don costs $14.80.

Don Meijin boasts of being the first ten-don shop to introduce the Ochazuke method of enjoying the ten-don. With a top-up of $2, the customer is given some wasabi, rice crisps and a pot of dashi soup. Mix them into the remaining rice and tempura pieces of a half-eaten ten-don to enjoy the rest of the dish as rice soup. This is how it’s done in Japan, apparently!

 

2. The craze for raw fish on rice – the chirashi-don, bara chirashi-don and kaisen-don

Chirashi means “to scatter”. So, expect to see in chirashi-don a colourful and artistic “scatter” of sashimi, or slices of various raw fish, on top of vinegary sushi rice. It is said that chirashi-don began as a dish meant to utilise leftover fish parts after the best portions have been used for sashimi platters or making sushi.

The bara chirashi-don is supposed to be the humbler variation of chirashi-don but has come into its own nowadays; just as fancy and happily, less pricey. As opposed to thick slices of sashimi, blocks of fish and other ingredients (usually cooked or marinated) are laden on the sushi rice.

By 2015, comparison of the most affordable, or value-for-money chirashi-don and bara chirashi-don was rife in Singapore with Japanese food enthusiasts looking for joints selling chirashi-don below $30 and bara chirashi-don below $20.

The Sushi Bar

The Sushi Bar, specifically its branch at Far East Plaza, makes their chirashi-don with slices of salmon, yellowtail, tuna, swordfish, scallops and Japanese-styled rolled omelette; a piece of blowtorched salmon belly; and salmon roe attractively spread on top of sushi rice. This is the normal bowl priced at $24.90. A basic bowl without the scallop or salmon belly is cheaper at $19.90 while the premium one is priced seasonally.

Sushiro

Image from Facebook user Sushiro Singapore.

A bara chirashi-don from Sushiro, a sushi bar opened in late November 2015 at the basement of Thomson Plaza, allows one to enjoy a heap of chunky raw salmon, tuna, octopus, prawn and salmon roe on top of sushi rice. The serving is well-made, generous and more noteworthy for its price, as Sushiro’s bara chirashi-don is said to be the cheapest around at $12.80.

Teppei Japanese Restaurant and Teppei Syudoku

Image from Facebook user HappyYummy.

Teppei’s bara chirashi-don must be mentioned at this point, having been credited as the brand which ushered in the fervour for the raw fish donburi since its first takeaway outlet opened at Takashimaya in September 2014. It’s donburi is a variant of the bara chirashi-don, called the kaisen-don. The difference is in the bed of Japanese rice prepared without vinegar. Teppei lightly treated its sweet Niigata rice grains with a savoury house sauce instead.

Its kaisen-don boasts a marinated pile of raw salmon, tuna and white fish chunks, with a sprinkling of salmon roe, daikon sprout and bits of tempura batter. There is even a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) version, sold at its Ion Orchard takeaway outlet, where customers can choose what goes into the kaisen-don: two, four or five choices of seafood to go on top of the rice. Options consist of salmon, tuna, swordfish and yellowtail, whelk, baby scallop, octopus and squid.

The Teppei brand has its flagship restaurant at Orchid Hotel in Tanjong Pagar, where the kaisen-don is sold for $17.60. At its takeaway outlets, named Teppei Syokudo, the kaisen-don goes for $16. And depending on the number of seafood chosen, the DIY kaisen-don can cost $8.50, $15.80 or $19.80.

 

3. The next donburi rush – unatama-don?

Image from Facebook user Gnninethree.

Man Man Japanese Unagi Restaurant, part of the Teppei chain, only opened last October. Already, customers are willing to stand in line for more than two hours to eat at this unagi specialty restaurant in Chinatown, along Keong Saik Road.

As the term “unatama-don” indicates, it is a type of donburi served with “unagi” and “tamagoyaki” – freshwater eel and Japanese-styled rolled omelette – placed on top of rice. Live eels are imported from the Mikawa Isshiki region, which means the unagi is prepared on the spot by cutting, deboning and then grilling the eel flesh with a sweet and salty soy-based marinate called tare. The spongy slabs of tamagoyaki, with its lighter flavour, contrast well against the savouriness of the unagi.

A small unatama-don costs $18.60 while a medium and large bowl set the customer back $25.80 and $32.80 respectively.

Note that all prices given come without additional charges and tax.

 

Featured image by Pixabay user Sharonang. (CC0 1.0)

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by Lim Qiu Ping

INNOVATION, technological change, internationalise – words and ideas like these are nothing new regarding how Singapore economy is steered. The SkillsFuture initiative and the principle of lifelong learning are being pushed hard. And the report from the Committee on the Future Economy released in February recommended strengthening the innovation ecosystem and raising the profile of startups.

Singapore is trying to reinvent itself, especially economically, at the individual, organisational and national scale. At the bleeding edge of this re-invention is the startup scene. Singapore’s quest for Silicon Valley-ism has seen the development of ecosystems that contributed to the vibrancy of startup hubs the world over.

One notable ecosystem piece is the accelerator: an intensive, short-term and structured programme available to founders that assure mentorship, funding, emotional and educational support, networking with potential partners and investors; all culminating in a public pitch event known as demo day. In exchange for participation in their programme, accelerators take equity, typically less than a 10 per cent share, from the startup. They earn when the startup successfully ‘exits’ – referring to how startups are to develop till they can either get publicly listed or be acquired by another business entity.

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Questioning Singapore’s accelerator boom

So, what are the bearings on a startup ecosystem if accelerators are the ones finding it difficult to survive? During mid-2016, at least 15 accelerator programmes could be found in Singapore, not least due to efforts by the wholly-owned investment arm of the Infocomm Development Authority, known formerly as Infocomm Investments (IIPL) and revamped as SGInnovate in November last year, which helped fund and launch several accelerators.

Questions were raised if there have been too many accelerator programmes here. Since 2014, IIPL (now SGInnovate) has embarked on an accelerator strategy to pump up the startup ecosystem of Singapore. It began signing Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) with commercial accelerators and corporations, creating partnerships where IIPL supported accelerators to run their programmes for a certain length of time. The first such partnership was with Joyful Frog Digital Incubator (JFDI), a commercial accelerator, in March 2014. Other examples included the European financial tech accelerator Startupbootcamp FinTech, brought in in October 2014. And the partnership that sprung up with Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and California-headquartered accelerator Plug and Play in April 2015, formed SPH Plug and Play. Meanwhile, corporations such as DBS Bank and Mediacorp jumped on the bandwagon, setting up their own corporate accelerator programmes.

Then on Sep 14 2016, JFDI announced in a blog post that it would cease operating as an accelerator. It had not only been the first accelerator partner of IIPL but also Singapore’s first ever accelerator programme, founded in 2010. Three months later in January 2017, SPH Plug and Play confirmed that they would be closing.

 

How viable is the accelerator model in Singapore?

Ultimately, accelerators are businesses and businesses, no matter how valid its products and services to a community, survive according to the calculation of dollars and cents.

Mr Hugh Mason, 50, the co-founder of JFDI, explained the difficulty of sustainability in his company’s blog post. “In Asia, the time to exit is more like six to eight years and the valuation at exit is perhaps 30 [per cent] of that it would be in the US,” he wrote. In short, JFDI was unable to generate sufficient returns (from equity obtained) fast enough to cover the “high costs” incurred while operating in Singapore. He further recognised that the accelerator business model carried over from US did not fit well in the local and Asian context.

The model consists of setting up a team, which could include paid personnel such as programme directors, facilitators and a full-time secretariat. This team is only able to handle so many startup cases per programme batch, even if it benefits the accelerator to groom as many startups as possible in hopes of hitting gold with one that could garner a high valuation.

With this business model, the accelerator outfit is non-scalable. Mr Jarrod Luo, 32, a startup founder as well as startup consultant, explained the model and how the profitability of an accelerator is curtailed because of this. “To scale, you have to do a one-for-one multiplication… if you want to increase the cohort size, you have to increase your team size. [It is] logistically heavy, it takes a toll on your corporate communications, internal qualification… co-ordination gets more expensive as the team grows.”

Mr Luo’s role as a startup consultant from his consultancy firm 2Bite is akin to that of an accelerator programme. It has been financially tenable for him, so far. He has served as mentor to and point-of-network for startup founders, tailoring knowledge and advice on growing a startup to the needs of his clients, who were travelling on their own entrepreneurial journey. Payment type, however, is negotiable, rather than following the rule of equity in exchange for participation.

 

Accelerators in perspective: just one piece of a bigger puzzle

To point, the function of and need for accelerator programmes should be subordinate to the progress of the entrepreneur, who encounters different issues at different phases of growing a startup. The accelerator as a device has its place in the startup ecosystem because its structured curriculum provides some form of stability in an industry characterised by risk and unpredictability. Nonetheless, it is possible for the individual to gain guidance, know-how, contacts and even funding through other means.

As startup founders, Mr Luo and his two partners chose to skip the accelerator experience when Tembusu Systems, their financial technology startup, was founded in 2014. They already possessed the skills, vision and structural knowledge to develop their business idea. “We weren’t like newly graduated students with no contacts in the world and no exposure; no experience… We were already quite well-placed in whatever we’re doing. We’re already consultants. We had the necessary contacts in the local Singapore scene,” he explained. Participating in an accelerator programme was not cost advantageous to them and what the accelerators offered was not “critical”.

Other founders have also bypassed the accelerator programme experience, such as those from startups Shopback and ViSenze. The first is an e-commerce business and the second a visualisation and artificial intelligence technology used in e-commerce. Their source of support and grooming comes from NUS Enterprise, the entrepreneurial arm of the National University of Singapore (NUS).

 

A bigger vision?

NUS Enterprise facilitates entrepreneurship in a wider scope than the accelerator concept, more like a matrix of human and infrastructural resources as well as knowledge base. Truly, its greatest asset is its community – and relationships within – built through time. Though officially beginning in 2001, its roots could be traced back to 1988 when a university-level centre called the Centre for Management of Innovation and Technopreneurship was started. It was meant to “nurture entrepreneurial learning and venture creation among the NUS community”.

Describing how it stood apart from standalone accelerators, NUS Enterprise acknowledged the “significant benefits” of being set in a university “with strong roots in education and research”, even as it remained open to those outside of the NUS fraternity. The aim is to create culture, not only success stories. Part of student life could include six months to a year’s internship in startups for immersive learning, facilitated through a NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) programme. Shopback was started by alumni who knew one another as course-mates or through NOC. NUS researchers or serial startup founders could also mentor and re-invest in younger entrepreneurs, as they did with ViSenze. University alumni could return and tap into the entrepreneurial community established, gaining support and resources for startups planted within the ambit of NUS Enterprise. Other advantages include “access to technologies, research and intellectual property developed at NUS”. Start-ups such as ViSenze, have been spun out of technologies developed in NUS.

The accelerator is but a part of the NUS Enterprise mechanism, called the NUS Start-up Runway. NUS Enterprise explained it as “a series of initiatives and activities that help [startups] to grow and scale”. On its website, NUS Start-up Runway calls itself “the most comprehensive university-based incubation/acceleration programme in Singapore”. Access to it is part of the package of participating in the wider ecosystem unique to NUS Enterprise. With or without utilising the accelerator, people thrive in the startup industry. Therefore the industry thrives.

Perhaps, questioning what bearings the business survival of accelerators has on the startup ecosystem is to miss the forest. Rather, the thought for how healthy and self-sustaining the ecosystem is should frame the challenge of figuring out the most apt model for accelerators in Singapore.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Lim Qiu Ping

FATAL road accidents make news. So, it’s no surprise when video captures of them attract attention. But what does it say of a community if the talk that follows smacks more of generalisations and blame games than sympathy and consolation?

Add to this, a mainstream media outlet that put in details of the deceased that, while padding the sense of tragedy, turned out to be untrue.

So much drama spun from a recent death of a woman cyclist. The story becomes not only about the mourning family but a public at large who made it their business to discharge opinions of what is wrong with the world and what should or should not be done.

Indeed, death affects us all:

 

An MSM that added to the sorrow

Ms Chua Hanyi had to object against the mis-reportage. She is the daughter of Ms Wong Lai Cheng, 47, whose bicycle was struck by a 45-seater bus at Pioneer Road North on the evening of Jan 12. Paramedics had declared her mother dead at the scene.

She corrected Shin Min Daily News, the Chinese daily, via a Facebook post put up on Jan 15 at 3:24pm, for claiming that her father had “cried out distraughtly that [her] mother was battling cancer”. Her mother was a “normal healthy individual,” she clarified.

According to the post, Ms Chua and her father had been waiting for Ms Wong to return home for dinner. The latter did not appear as expected and unable to contact her, both worried father and daughter decided to head down to her workplace at Nanyang Technological University. Along the way, they encountered the accident scene.

Shin Min’s embellishment to the narrative was inserted around here, presumably. Finding the paper “negligent” of its mistake despite having contacted its staff for a retraction, Ms Chua took matters into her own hands through social media.

Even The Straits Times’s (ST) Jan 14 story of the accident was affected by the error. By now, an amendment has been made, with a correction note found at the bottom of the page.

This instance of careless reporting is the latest controversy to have emerged since the accident happened last Thursday (Jan 12).

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The videos behind the storm

The bus was driven by a 29-year-old Indian national, who is currently out on bail after his arrest for allegedly causing death by a negligent act. After knocking down Ms Wong, the vehicle went on to mow down a small tree, cut across a three-lane road, ram into the fence on the divider and hit a white BMW before coming to a stop.

Within hours, the first video of the accident, taken from an in-car camera, was made available on Facebook. It was posted on the Beh Chia Lor Facebook page at 9:27pm and credited to Tony Ng. It has gained at least 299,000 views, around 4,700 shares and 517 comments. By the following morning at 8:15am, ST had a different video posted on their Facebook page, credited to Yi Qing Chong. To date, it has garnered at least 436,000 views, near 5,200 shares and 760 comments.

Both clips showed the harrowing sequence of collisions, but from two different angles. ST found it necessary to put up a warning in its post and video regarding the graphic footage.

 

Because they are foreigners

As a non-Singaporean driver was involved, the brickbats soon began. Expressions of pity and well-wishing were buried beneath castigation of reckless driving and anecdotes of dangerously speeding vehicles. Fingers point at drivers who are foreigners, purported to have bad driving habits, on top of being unfamiliar with Singapore’s roads.

Facebook user, Douglas Lim, typed in the comments under the Beh Chia Lor post: “What is happening is that more and more foreign workers are working as drivers, they are not used to our roads systems that’s why more and more of these types of freak accidents happening.”
.

 

No jumping the gun, please

There was caution against speculations. Take Facebook user Lim Dong Hyun for example, who attempted to reason with the more excited commentators on Beh Chia Lor’s post. No one knows the driver’s side of the story, he pointed out.

Lim had posted his comment on Jan 13 at 12:43am. Investigation into the accident had only just begun. The ST article, which reported that the driver said his brake had failed him, was published on Jan 14. It was reported that he said so as he apologised to the driver of the BMW, known as Mr Salim in the story.

In absence of evidence, how far can – or should – accusations go?

 

A medical condition has become a joke

Nonetheless, lack of data did not temper pot shots that the guilt of irresponsible drivers would be excused by touting medical depression. This was in reference to recent cases where drivers charged for their dangerous driving have pulled the psychological card to explain their rash behaviour on the road. First it was the 53-year-old driver, Lim Chai Heng, who killed one and left four injured on Dec 19 as he drove against traffic on the Ayer Rajah Expressway. And within a month later, it was the 30-year-old driver, Brandon Ng; arrested for pulling the same stunt in the early hours of Jan 5, though no casualty occurred.

 

Are so many Singaporeans truly heartless?

But the greatest outrage and debate came from commentators who began reproaching occupants of passing vehicles for not stopping to lend a hand.

Facebook user, Chong Yi Qing, the one who sent ST the video of the accident taken from her father’s car, had to justify her eye-witness position. It was not callousness that had drivers leaving, she explained. Rather, it was shock and an accompanying loss for what to do. There was also the question of what could drivers accomplish in the middle of traffic without ending up obstructing professional help from tending to the victim.

“Honestly, unless you are a paramedic,” she argued, “the best thing you can do, is to call the ambulance (which is obviously done).”

Screenshot of The Straits Times' Facebook post.
Screenshot of comments from The Straits Times’ Facebook post.

 

Such online clamour might show a facet of Singapore’s society that is blunt and opinionated. But the bristling could be read as a reaction to the overwhelming pity towards the victim’s family.

Poignantly, a Facebook user wrote in his comment under Shin Min’s post about the accident: “Sad!! 2 weeks more CNY.”

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Lim Qiu Ping

THAT’S how Kalimahton Mohamed Samuri passed herself off – as a member of Brunei royalty. “Datin Sharinah” swanned around in fine cars, owned two adjacent bungalows and a restaurant. Enough people trusted her, including a diamond merchant.

But she was a cheat, who had another moniker, Pawnshop Princess. In 2000, the then 42-year-old was sentenced to six-and-a-half years for swindling the merchant and pawnshop owners out of $7.26 million.

Prison didn’t do her any good. She was back to new scams and was sent back to jail on Friday for swindling 15 people out of $3.9 million. Although her loot was half what it was earlier, she got a sentence that was twice as heavy, 12 years. She is now 55 and was in court in a wheelchair.

She is now 55 and was in court in a wheelchair.

Her modus operandi in the second round was rather different from the first, which required some pretty audacious acting.

 

“Career cheat”

In 1997, the real Kalimahton was a single-mother of three who owned a restaurant at Prinsep Street, called Ms Sharina’s Jalan Kayu Prata and Thai Seafood. She had a facade of wealth, making a home out of two adjacent bungalows at Punggol Seventeenth Avenue. Whichever way she managed it, Kalimahton convinced Madam So Sock Wah of K J Tiffany that she was a loaded Brunei princess.

A few successful transactions between the two grew into a friendship, and Madam So began leaving gems and jewellery with her on consignment, even delivering the valuables to Kalimahton’s restaurant and houses. There was a ring with 47 carats worth of diamonds, said to cost $1 million and belonging to someone else. There was another diamond ring, of $140,000; a $135,000 tiara; a diamond and emerald necklace, ring and earring set priced at $550,000. This was so Kalimahton could take her time to pick out what she wanted.

Instead, she pawned them in pawnshops round the island. So familiar a face was she to pawnshop owners that she was dubbed the Pawnshop Princess.

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The royal pretence had granted Kalimahton special favour among valuers at the pawnshops. She would make prior appointments and be chauffeured around in her Mercedes-Benz. Her transactions were made in the backroom because her items were too important to be dealt with over the counter. Pawn slips were signed off using “Kalimah Ton”, with “Ton” explained away as a title.

Pawnshop staff had qualms about her. She was constantly jiggling her legs, a sign of nervousness. Or someone would remember the Malay noble title is “Tun”, not “Ton”. Yet these voices were subdued by Kalimahton’s glamour.

She was fair-skinned, plump, and beautiful. She was stylish and well made-up, wearing collars and cuffs of baju kurung that were sewn with golden thread; “just like a princess”, a valuer then with Fook Hin Pawnshop in Geylang Road was reported to have said. “Datin Sharinah” was even considered flashy. Her manners were also praised, the way she had listened to people politely and attentively, and spoke with a soft and gentle voice.

She charmed the staff of the pawnshops so well that in one significant instance, she was allowed to redeem and walk off with $4 million worth of jewellery without first getting her $6 million cheque – which turned out to be a dud – cleared.

Her web of deception had been extensive, using near to 40 pawnshops for pawning or re-pawning of gems and jewellery. The money made from such transactions was used to perpetuate her lie. As long as she had passed Madam So and returned the pawnshops a cut, no one was wiser to the truth. Otherwise, Kalimahton had spent to upkeep a lavish lifestyle. Until Madam So reported her to the police in November 1999.

Roll the reel to more than a decade later, the period between 2012 and 2015.

Kalimahton passed herself off as an upper-class Indonesian wife and heiress (with her inheritance unfortunately detained by authorities there). Or, she was a representative of wealthy buyers from Malaysia who were interested in luxury goods from Singapore. In another story, she could offer favourable exchange rates for foreign currencies. And depending on who one might ask, she was into premium rice or property investment.

However, the victims this round were not jewellery merchants and pawnshop valuers with access to goods worth millions. Instead, they were pickings from the simpler community: a housewife; a retiree; a scuba diver; a customer service officer; a fishmonger; crane operators; taxi drivers. What they had was their life savings.

What they had was their life savings.

Kalimahton knew one of them, a taxi driver, because she was a regular customer. She managed to extract $450,000 out of him over a year for some “lot investment” scheme, assuring him that he could earn $50,000 for every $100,000 invested. A pair of sisters (the customer service officer and the retiree) sank a total of $852,000 into the rice and forex investment schemes.

Again, victims did not suspect duplicity while Kalimahton had been able to deliver on her promise of profits. She simply moved the money around from one victim to another as supposed investment returns. Of the $3.9 million she had managed to milk, $1.14 million was returned.

The rest of the spoils were spent on herself. She had been gambling and owing debts.

Kalimahton had admitted to 20 of the 69 cheating charges, where each could have her fined and locked up for up to 10 years. Calling her a “career cheat”, Deputy Public Prosecutor Thiam Jia Min called for a stiff sentence of 12 to 14 years imprisonment.

Her sentence has been backdated to Nov 21, 2015 and even with a remission of jail term due to good behaviour, she would be in her early 60s upon her release.

Maybe she would decide to retire then.

 

Featured image by Pixabay user Absichtlich_mit_Herz (CC0 1.0).

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by Lim Qiu Ping

WHAT are Singaporeans looking for in this year’s Budget?

A 90-minute “Live” Q&A session, through Facebook, was held yesterday (Jan 4) at 8pm to find out. Organised by Reach, the G’s official feedback portal, the event was chaired by Mr Liang Eng Hwa, Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Finance and Trade and Industry, as well as Reach Supervisory Panel member Ms Foo Mee Har, a member of the same GPC.

The Facebook conversation covered three pre-arranged topics, with a fourth introduced in the final 13 minutes. These topics are, in the following order: supporting our families; transforming business to thrive in a competitive and digital world; enhancing workers’ skills and capabilities; building an inclusive society where people help one another.

There were 24 Facebook participants involved – including Reach, Mr Liang and Ms Foo – who provided a total of 46 comments (not counting the replies in the threads). The topic, which generated the most responses, is the one on how to transform businesses, creating a total of 40 replies.

Under this topic, three main areas of concern emerged.

First, about accessibility of grants for business to stay afloat or expand, with particular attention paid to the needs of the SMEs. Second, on what is necessary to create an ecosystem where entrepreneurship could thrive. Third, raising solutions to structural difficulties and unemployment, with particular worry for older workers amidst a consensus that local and overseas businesses are either already or getting digitalised.

 

 

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The next most popular topic was that of upgrading workers’ skills, which generated 21 replies. There was some debate on how effective skills upgrading programmes have been in helping people, especially older workers, find jobs. Time constraint was also a factor inhibiting the drive to acquire new skills, as pointed out by Facebook user Faizal Mohd.

 

In contrast, topics regarding developing an inclusive society and supporting families attracted 18 and 15 replies respectively. Input from participants included receiving childcare support in terms of time-offs and subsidies or rebates, as well as how to better inculcate volunteerism in Singaporeans, especially from young onwards. One Facebook user, Teo Lay Yan, gave an insight on looking beyond the handicapped when identifying those more needful of help.

 

Both Mr Liang and Ms Foo provided solutions when they were able to – such as in the case when Facebook user, Shabil Ali, raised the problem of increasing business costs and the toll it is taking on the SMEs. Mr Liang replied that there are a few assistance schemes in place, citing wage credit as well as those offered by the government agency Spring Singapore:  ICV (Innovation & Capability Voucher), CDG (Capability Development Grant) and TAP (Technology Adoption Programme).

Ms Foo agreed with Facebook user, Alan Yeap, that mentorship is needed to encourage expansion of businesses. She directed the user to an International Enterprise (IE) Singapore webpage, where relevant data and tips can be received for the purpose of business expansion into overseas markets.

Otherwise, Mr Liang and Ms Foo accepted and expressed thanks for some of the recommendations made. In a few cases, Ms Foo said they would convey the feedback to the relevant agencies. The two chairing GPC members were most active on the topics pertaining to transforming businesses and workers’ skills.

 

 

This is the second time Reach has organised a pre-Budget “Live” Q&A session on Facebook. The one last year, also 90 minutes long, was held at noon. The top topic then was about the SkillsFuture scheme and how its details could be better disseminated to the public.

It also attracted 20 participants altogether and 37 comments, 34 likes and five shares. Not only was this year’s discussion busier with more participants and comments, it garnered 48 likes and six shares.

The Facebook “Live” session was the latest in a number of outreach attempts by the G to feel the pulse of everyday Singaporeans when it comes to what they would like to see in the upcoming Budget. Since Dec 5 of last year till next Friday (Jan 13), members of the public have been and are still able to offer their suggestions for Budget 2017 through eight feedback channels opened by the Ministry of Finance.

These include the Singapore Budget Website, the Reach Budget microsite and Reach’s discussion forum.

During this period, Reach has also set up eight pre-Budget 2017 Listening Points islandwide, on various dates and times, where Singaporeans could give their opinions in person. This is an increase from three last year. The final Listening Point will happen this Saturday (Jan 8), 7.30am to 11am at Block 681, Hougang Avenue 8, Hougang Hawker Centre.

All public feedback will be taken into consideration for the design of Budget 2017, due to be announced on Feb 20 in parliament.

Significantly, a survey report released by the Singapore Business Federation on Dec 28 last year showed that most companies, especially the SMEs, did not find Budget 2016 helpful in dealing with immediate difficulties under the current more pessimistic economic climate. In the report, the proposed focus for Budget 2017 was to “look at measures to assist businesses with manpower issues as well as lower government compliance costs, fees and taxes”.

 

Featured image Numbers and Finance by Flickr user Ken Teegardin. (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

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by Lim Qiu Ping

AS 2016 draws to a close, we bring you the lowdown on what has gotten people in Singapore salivating and queuing up during the year. These are 13 food items, ingredients, and ideas that had customers ooh-ing and food establishments jumping on the bandwagon to offer the same or something related.

 

1. Korean fried chicken

korean-fc

Image Crisp Korean Fried Chicken by Flickr user Edsel Little (CC By-SA 2.0)

Yes, the other sort of ‘KFC’ which has been available in Singapore for a few years now but only exploded in popularity in 2015. In 2016, popular food blogs are still listing where to find the best Korean fried chicken in town. Looks like the siren call of crispy skin and meaty goodness slathered with viscous sweet and savoury sauce is here to stay.

 

2. Churros

churros

Image #churros! by Flickr user Lim Ashley (CC By 2.0)

First, we saw churros as a dessert item in cafes. And then, churros chain shops such as Churros Factory and Churros 101 started cropping up in the F&B scene in 2015. They are available even in our pasar malams, accompanied by local dips such as gula melaka. To date, the queue for this sugared fried dough remains.

 

3. Bingsu

bingsu

Image by Flickr user Lim Ashley (CC BY 2.0)

Shaved ice will always be appreciated in sunny Singapore. Throw in the Korean wave, the variety in flavours, fantastic designs and a bowl big enough to share; the popularity of bingsu has yet to abate after a year.

 

4. Light bulb drink

light-bulb-bub-tea

Image by Instagram User/ mr_mrs_p0tat0

Drinking from a light bulb is a new gimmick that has appeared this year. Bubbs, a Taiwanese bubble tea franchise which packages its drinks in a light bulb, opened a store in May. Then the Chicken Up Korean restaurant had a one-for-one light bulb drink promotion in August. There are now cafes providing their drinks in this adorable, Instagram-worthy container.

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5. Seafood white bee hoon

white-bee-hoon

Image White Bee Hoon by Flickr user Zhao! (CC BY 2.0)

Take pan-fried bee hoon and simmer it in flavourful seafood broth – this is the basics of the seafood white bee hoon. Years back, seafood white bee hoon first appeared in Sembawang and today, there are a restaurants and stalls offering their version of the dish.

 

6. Buttercream flower cake

buttercream-flower-cake

Image 버터플라워3 by Flickr user D Story (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The baking community is wowing over beautiful cake designs using buttercream flowers. The concept might be old, but this current trend originates from Korea, where baking enthusiasts and professionals re-created the Wilton buttercream flower techniques and equipment to startling effect. Just check out one such YouTube how-to video showing off the craft:

7. More cheese

cheese-fries

Image Curry Cheese Fries by Flickr user Chun Yip So (CC BY 2.0)

Swiss cheese fondue was once considered the fanciest cheese dish around. Today, cheese fries can be found even in your neighbourhood bubble tea shops. Currently, Korean and Thai barbeque restaurants are upping the ante by offering melted cheese to dip your slightly charred meats in. And let’s not forget the cheese tarts from Bake that are still commanding queues.

In the upmarket scene, the cheese wheel rolled into town this September. No longer is it enough to sprinkle cheese on your pasta – toss your noodles in it!

 

8. Re-inventions of toast

toast

Image French toast @ Wired Cafe @ Harakuju by Flickr user Gullhem Vellut (CC BY 2.0)

Ice-cream melting over the thick Shibuya toasts caught our attention in 2015, and this year, the gooey-centred richness of Lava toast takes its turn to wow us. Meanwhile, kaya toasts are perennially favoured, whether through the chain shops or the hidden gems. One principle is evident: toasted bread is in, whatever the form.

 

9. Rainbow foods

rainbow-dumplings

Image Rainbow bites by Flickr user kitty chirapongse (CC BY 2.0)

The rainbow cake had its turn in the spotlight in 2014, and some say the fad has cooled by now. The colour idea, however, persisted. Currently, rainbow creations include the kueh lapis, pudding cake, pancake, cake in a bottle, liqueur shots, bagel… And there is also a rainbow cheese toast. It is hard to imagine rainbow foods ever going away completely, especially when they are so Instagram-worthy.

 

10. Foods with salted egg yolk

liu-sha-bao

Image by Flickr user Felix Chia (CC BY 2.0)

If even McDonald’s is jumping on the bandwagon, things are serious. They tried to woo taste buds with their salted egg yolk burger but the bar had been set too high by June this year. Since the Golden Lava custard buns came into Singaporean’s consciousness a few years ago, products infused with this ingredient have expanded to include meats and seafood (other than crab), cakes, croissant, jams, dips, chips and many more.

Related: 5 must-try salted egg yolk foods

11. Hong Kong confectioneries

egg-tarts

Image Crispy Egg Tart by Flickr user Azchael (CC BY 2.0)

Conversations of Hong Kong foods no longer revolve around dim sum or teahouses. It is their big-name confectioneries that are garnering raves. The Jenny Bakery brand with its famed butter cookies got the first foot in late last year. Hot on its heel is Mr Rich Bakery brand. Then this year, Honolulu Café opened and their egg tarts are often sold out quickly.

The most recent player is Tai Cheong Bakery, and their egg tarts also command long queues.

 

12. Superfoods

acai

Image G by Flickr user André Schirm (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Eating food, more than just about the items consumed, is a mentality and behaviour. The movement towards a healthier lifestyle continues and the market for health products is growing.

Known superfoods such as kale and rocket leaves are now found in our supermarkets and the aisles for health foods are getting longer and more plentiful. The 2016 superfood buzzword is acai and there are now eateries dedicated to whipping up menu items of this berry-goodness.

Related: Will acai bowls help you lose weight?

13. Omakase

jap-chef

Image Itame by Flickr user Japanexperterna.se (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Local customers have become more discerning. Today, having a Japanese meal involves more than scoffing down as much cheap sushi as possible or hunting down the best-tasting ramen.

It is now about the exploration of the cuisine. “Omakase” means “I’ll leave it to you” and it will be up to the chef to surprise and delight you with exquisitely crafted items made from seasonal products. Establishments that have managed to balance between quality and budget – such as the Teppei Japanese Restaurant, with their meal sets priced from $40 to $60 – could have a waiting list that is months or, if the customer is fortunate, weeks long.

 

What else do you think qualifies as a food trend in 2016?

 

Featured image Cooking by Flickr user WorldSkills UK. (CC BY 2.0) 

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by Lim Qiu Ping

APPLE’S head of design Jonathan Ive once famously said: “A computer absolutely can be sexy” – but he probably didn’t think there would come a day when people would rather use their smartphones than get intimate with their partners.

A new survey has found that almost a third of Singaporeans believe their partners would rather spend time fiddling with their mobile phones than with their body parts. About half said they spend more time texting than actually talking to their friends, and while half said technology made it easier to meet new people, it also made it harder to have real and deep conversations.

Conducted in July by insurance provider Prudential Singapore, the survey collected data from about 500 residents in Singapore through online interviews. About three-quarters of those surveyed were either married or in a relationship.

About 32 per cent of those married or attached said they believed that their partners would prefer their mobile phones over getting intimate. In fact, 22 per cent admitted to “sometimes” making that choice.

The study also found that 28 per cent of couples in Singapore argue because of time spent on phones and computers. Spending too much time on the computer or phone was the fourth most likely source of arguments between couples, after children, money, and housework.

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Ms Angela Hunter, Chief Customer Officer at Prudential Singapore, said: “Technology has enabled us to communicate and to connect more effectively with people around the world and around the clock. However, technology can also create greater distance between people if it is not used with discipline.

“For instance, we may find ourselves constantly distracted by our phones and emails that we sometimes fail to be present in the company of family and friends. We need to be conscious of how we are using technology such that it becomes an enabler and not a disruptor of our relationships”.

Unsurprisingly, relationships among friends are not spared from negative technology habits.

Practically half of the population, or 48 per cent, texted their friends more than interact face-to-face. The number is even higher for those under 30 years old – at 58 per cent – although it is not clear how many of the research subjects fall under this age group. About 10 per cent said they have “very frequently” rather texted than talked to people they live with.

While half or 52 per cent said that technology made it easier for them to meet new people, a third of the research participants felt it was a barrier to building more meaningful conversations.

A total of more than 5,000 interviews were conducted in 10 countries and territories for the overall report. Compared to the other countries, which included China, Malaysia, and South Korea, Singaporeans “did not use social media as much to build relationships”, said the survey, which was released in October.

Only 23 per cent of their social media contacts counted as “good” friends, according to respondents in Singapore.

To read the full survey, click here.

 

Featured image Problèmes de couple ? by Flickr user L’oeil étranger (CC BY 2.0)

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by Lim Qiu Ping

WHERE North Bridge Road and Arab Street intersect: this is the threshold into Kampong Glam. A popular heritage neighbourhood in Singapore, both sidewalks and the cross junction are bustling with bodies.  Walk along North Bridge Road against the traffic, the venerable Masjid Sultan is the first building on the right. Eight colonial shophouses lie across the narrow road, equally a historical throwback.

Consider the signboards on the second to fifth shophouse. The first two are identical. Forest-green capitals upon bold yellow advertise the Singapore Zam Zam restaurant. The next pair are more pictorial, a one-word name visually pronounced. These belong to the Victory restaurant.

Our city-state boasts of an inimitable food culture. Therefore, the lineage of a restaurant bears weight. Zam Zam’s signboards tell passersby that it was established in 1908. Victory’s ones say 1910.

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Proximity in space and dates are not the only comparable aspects found. Upfront, it is hard to tell the two restaurants apart by referring to their menus. Or by the setup of their storefront kitchens and smells wafting out for that matter. After all, both specialise in the familiar Muslim Indian fare: a range of pratas, curries, noodles, nasi goreng, and of course, their murtabaks – made by dough stretched paper-thin and then filled with mince meat or fish plus egg and chopped onion before being folded into a flat, rectangular parcel and then panfried.

Are Zam Zam and Victory two houses so alike in dignity? The staff of Singapore Zam Zam are outfitted in cobalt-blue polos while Victory’s workers wear theirs in lime-green or pewter-gray. It is easy to believe that there exists a rivalry of more than 100 years.

The question is, why did it become a bloody one?

 

Getting to know the competition

On August 26 last year, the supervisor of Victory, Mr Liakath Ali Mohamed Ibrahim, 52, was attacked by a gangster. Allegedly, the latter was paid to do so by Mr Zackeer Abbass Khan, 45, who manages Zam Zam.

Liakath’s face is now permanently scarred. While the gangster has been convicted, the trial is ongoing for the charge of engaging in a conspiracy to cause grievous hurt and/or criminal intimidation. Business competition has been cast as the root cause of this ill-intent and violence.

However, it is one thing for the management of an establishment to exert itself for sales. It is another for customers to be self-aware and adamant of his or her preference for one shop over the other. Are their visits to Zam Zam or Victory seeped in any contest?

This seems to be the case for Mr Amir Azhar, 22, a student. Victory, to him, just “happens to be” next to Zam Zam. Should he not be able to sit in Zam Zam at full house, he would rather forgo his beloved mutton murtabak.

Madam Masnia Suri, on the other hand, is a fan of Victory, recommending the mutton murtabak and briyani. At 64 years old, she is a retiree who enjoys outings to the Kampong Glam area and praying at Masjid Sultan. Victory is her come-to place for a meal.

In fact, Madam Masnia has been visiting both Zam Zam and Victory since she was 17 or 18 years old. She has no definite answer to why she prefers Victory, except that 7 to 10 years ago, her daughter and son-in-law would buy mutton murtabak back for her every Saturday until they shifted to a different address.

Perhaps mental and emotional associations swayed their choices. Madam Masnia’s loyalty to Victory is tied up with familial memories. Mr Amir thinks most people’s preferences are based on “probably what you are introduced to first”.

 

But what about taste?

Food at Zam Zam tastes better, said Ms Siti Imana A’basha, 42. She used her five fingers to gesture an explosion – that was how the restaurant’s dishes seem to her, a burst of flavours. The contract worker, however, was in Victory for nasi briyani with fried chicken. Because Singapore Zam Zam was too crowded, which happens a lot, she added.

Indeed, at noon, there were streams of customers in both restaurants, entering and exiting. But the head count seemed higher at Zam Zam, which had pulled out their tables onto the red-tiled corridor.

Meanwhile, the upper deck of Victory was three-fifth filled. The air had turned tepid despite air-conditioning, preferable nonetheless to the sharp heat outdoors.

By 1.20pm, the floor was half emptied. Chants from the Masjid Sultan filtered through the sealed windows, muffled but audible over an unhurried atmosphere. It was a Friday.

If taste is the determinant of which restaurant pulls ahead, then Mr Ariz Ansari, 24, undergraduate, has voted differently. He thought the skin of Zam Zam’s murtabak tasted raw and the filling of the deer murtabak tasted more like beef.

“And I guess I got kinda pissed off and just switched to Victory, he concluded. Mr Ariz said he patronises the restaurant once every two months. He agreed there was competition between the restaurants, pointing to how aggressively each would often “market their murtabak” to passers-by, by having their employees call them into the shop.

 

A murtabak by any other name

These employees stand outside all day but really begin their cattle call in the evenings, when the crowds return for dinner.

By 5pm, Zam Zam was only operating two of the three sections in its second floor but they soon filled up as the hour approached 6pm. And as the sky darkened into violet, even more people appeared. Now the waiters were not only working indoors, but running out every now and then with packed food for take-out customers in passing vehicles.

There were at least two representatives from each shop out on the tarmac. A member from one team would attempt to leapfrog over one from the other. That first dibs on a potential customer could mean success.

These were business tactics that some customers, including Mr Ariz, considered too assertive. But Mr Saiful Abdullah Sim, 48, thinks otherwise, saying it’s good “PR” – meaning, public relations. The business development executive said he understood the challenges of running a business, and acknowledged that there was a need for aggressiveness – but, “not to the extend of pressurising the customers”.

To this Zam Zam customer, competition is inevitable and in fact, healthy.

When asked, Mr Saiful said he thought the food quality and services of both establishment comparable. It was the restaurant as a brand, rather, that attracted him.

“From young, I already know Zam Zam is equal to murtabak,” he said, describing it as “basic instinct”. He attributed the inexplicable connection between name and food to how Singapore Zam Zam has marketed itself.

“From young, I already know Zam Zam is equal to murtabak.”

Zam Zam’s reputation was what drew South Korean tourists, Ms Lee Yoo Young, 22 and Ms Youn Si Hyeon, 22, to the restaurant. They were there to taste its chicken murtabak, apparently made famous in Korean blogs. They had not heard of Victory.

 

Freedom to choose

Mr Abdul Ghani, 70, is a retired chef. For a year, he has been sitting at the common corridor of Zam Zam and Victory and observing the two restaurants’ workers and customers. He said he knew about the crime that happened last year but felt it was an isolated incident. He had not seen any arguing or fighting among the staff from either restaurant, he said. In fact, they all got along quite well with one another.

“I feel free to eat anywhere,” he spread his arms wide when asked if he felt pressured to choose between Zam Zam or Victory.

Managers at both restaurants said they respected the customer’s right to choose.

“Our customer comes to us. [Victory’s] customer will go to Victory. There is competition but customers have the right to choose,” said Mr Koleth Navas, 30, a supervisor at Zam Zam.

This was echoed by Victory’s owner, Mr AB. Rashid, 63. In between counting money and giving change that evening, he said he had come to terms with the disparity in brand recognition between the two restaurants.

“You cook your own, I cook my own.”

 

Coming up next: The Mutton Murtabak Showdown

 

Additional reporting by Suhaile Md

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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