April 29, 2017

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by Najeer Yusof

WHEN Ms Dawn Sim, 30, needed a babysitter to watch her son while she was away, all she had to do was put up a post on the Chip Bee Gardens’ Facebook group.

“There was this 14-year-old Canadian girl, living two streets down, who responded and she has been helping me out for a month already,” she said. The resident of six months added: “Just the other day someone was requesting for a ladder on the page. This is a really wonderful initiative that brings the residents in my community closer.”

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Unlike the Chip Bee Gardens of the past, which was formerly a British military estate, the community today comprises a mix of locals and foreigners. This change in the demographics of Chip Bee Gardens is one of the issues that the seventh edition of OH! Open House’s annual art walk will highlight. Chip Bee Gardens is an estate comprising single and double-storey colonial houses in Holland Village.

This year’s art walk explores the historical significance of Holland Village and it is done through three 45-minute tours. The Chip Bee tour will feature art installations in residents’ houses. The tour will draw attention to the social and lifestyle changes in the community due to evolving demographics, and architectural remnants from the British era.

Encompassing the theme of “Borders”, the tour will feature artwork such as Creep in Three Movements by artist Yen Phang. Mr Phang, 38, used inked and stained toilet paper which he layered and bundled across a resident’s living room. His installation, placed among the objects of the house, seeks to portray “artwork as a pest”. This is to address the relation to existing developments and incoming changes to Chip Bee Gardens.

 

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Mr Yen Phang, 38, with his installation, Creep in Three Movements. He inked and stained toilet paper before layering and bundling them. His installation can be seen in the resident’s living room, as part of the Chip Bee tour.

 

OH! is organising two other tours: The HDB tour and the Hakka Cemetery tour. The HDB tour, which is themed “Goods”, will showcase artworks that appreciate the value of everyday objects defining one’s identity.

 

Mr Joel Chin, 31, with his installation, Echo, which is a display of porcelain items. Using a power tool with a sanding bit, he removed all motifs on the porcelain items to reflect a loss of identity. Within these items, he placed a speaker that plays a recording of his attempts at learning the Hakka language. His work can be seen in the HDB flat, which is part of the HDB tour.
Mr Joel Chin, 31, with his installation, Echo, which is a display of porcelain items. Using a power tool with a sanding bit, he removed all motifs on the porcelain items to reflect a loss of identity. Within these items, he placed a speaker that plays a recording of his attempts at learning the Hakka language. His work can be seen in the HDB flat, which is part of the HDB tour.

 

“Rituals” is the theme of the Hakka Cemetery tour, which seeks to highlight the concepts of repetition, order, loss and remembrance. This tour is self-guided.

 

Don't Ask Me Where I Come From, a sculptural installation by Mr Ivan David Ng, 26. His work, made from rock, stone and clay, reflects his Hakka heritage. His work can be seen within the field in the Shuang Long Shan Hakka cemetery.
Don’t Ask Me Where I Come From, a sculptural installation by Mr Ivan David Ng, 26. His work, made from rock, stone and clay, reflects his Hakka heritage. His work can be seen within the field in the Shuang Long Shan Hakka cemetery.

 

OH! Open House Art Walk is an art exhibition that ventures outside of museums into the heartlands, showcasing the heritage of these neighbourhoods through art. The past eight years have seen them set up in Marine Parade (2011), Tiong Bahru (2012), Marina Bay (2013), Joo Chiat (2015) and Potong Pasir (2016). This year’s art walk will run on Saturdays and Sundays, and will take place from Mar 4 to Mar 19. Ticket are priced at $25.

 

Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

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by Azimin Saini (Michelin Guide Singapore)
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ON RUE de La Roquette in the outskirts of Paris, Alain Ducasse, the illustrious chef behind the many Michelin-starred restaurants from Paris to London is hunched over a mound of cocoa beans spread on a metal counter. “I had the dream of making my own chocolate, making it the traditional way from bean to bar,” he says in French. The counter is in a factory that specialises in bean-to-bar chocolates supplied to his restaurants and sold online. Many of them are single origin products made with beans sourced from the likes of Peru, Java and Vietnam.

Half a world away in the Malaysian state of Pahang, a member of the Temuan community – an orang asli (indigenous) ethnic group harvests a cocoa pod, to be sold to a local chocolatier. These are foraged from the wild and grow as solo trees rather than in organised plantations. Their way of life has been unchanged for generations and many depend on rubber tapping and forest foraging for an income.

From Paris to Pahang: the two locations are distinct but connected threads that make up the auburn fabric of the chocolate world. For centuries, the relationship between cocoa production and chocolate consumption has been a portrait depicting the haves and the have-nots.

One sees it as an affordable but luxurious indulgence, the other to merely eke out a living.

Countries home to cocoa bean farms are often developing or middle-income countries which supply raw materials to Western production centres thousands of kilometres away. Most chocolates produced by these origin growing countries are often seen as inferior, made by constituting low-quality cocoa powder with vegetable fat – not cocoa butter as is the case of quality chocolates.

“It’s ironic,” says Toby Garritt, CEO and founder of Pod Chocolate. “When you ask people about their favourite chocolate, they’re invariably going to mention chocolates from France, Switzerland or Belgium. None of these countries are cocoa-growing countries.”

“I’m from Australia and my family had a vineyard in South Australia,” Garritt continues. “And where you have the vineyard, you have the winery. No one would imagine taking Australian grapes to France and calling that a French wine. And yet, it’s perfectly normal for cocoa to travel thousands of kilometres and somehow it becomes French or Swiss. Why is that?”

 

The Big Change
But a tectonic shift is happening. Garritt is part of a growing crop of Southeast Asia-based fine chocolate makers who operate a short distance away from cocoa tree farms. The CEO lives in Bali and uses Balinese cocoa beans for his range of chocolate bars.
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It’s a niche playing field and these makers are scattered across the South East Asian region. In Malaysia, there’s Chocolate Concierge whose products includes bars made from cocoa pods foraged by the Temuan community. Over in Vietnam, there’s Marou Faiseurs de Chocolat created by Samuel Maruta and Vincent Mourou. Further east in The Philippines, there’s Hiraya Chocolates – the brainchild of Arvin Peralta who sources his cocoa beans from Davao. Indonesia, the world’s third largest exporter of cocoa, is emerging as the biggest player in the bean-to-bar scene as it’s home to a handful of makers ranging from Pipiltin Cocoa to Pod Chocolate.

These makers are only a few years old, and the scene is at its infancy. But already, domestic and international coverage is picking up, along with export offers promising to take these bars to the global stage. What unites them is a sense of irony – that cocoa producing countries are not also home to premium chocolate makers.

 

Cocoa’s History in South East Asia
In part, it’s because of the global development of the chocolate economy. For all its sweetness and associations with luxury and romance today, chocolate has a dark history. That French, Swiss and Belgian chocolates are seen as the pinnacle of quality is a direct result of history – one that has seen the dawn of colonisation and heard the rallying cries for national independence.
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Here’s a brief but vital history: cocoa itself is native to Central America and grows in a narrow girdle stretching 20 degrees north and south of the equator. The Spanish conquest of the region introduced this exotic tropical product to Europe where it was first enjoyed as a drink, and then in confectionery. It wasn’t long before colonial powers sought to increase its production, and began planting the trees in other colonies – including Southeast Asia.
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The first cocoa beans to reach the region was in 1660s on the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade – a route that connected the Spanish colonies of The Philippines and Mexico across the Pacific Ocean.

Not to be outdone, other European powers began experimenting in their South East Asian colonies. The trees flourished but they found better commercial success with other cash crops. Spices are of greater value in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia), rubber easily outweighed cocoa beans in Malaya while the French similarly found greater commercial imperative with growing coffee in Vietnam.

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Despite its introduction as a crop in this region, Arvin Peralta of Hiraya notes that Asians were not exposed to the chocolate making traditions of Europe. “The Spanish just used chocolate for chocolate drinks. That’s the product that developed here in The Philippines,” he says referring to tableya – a Filipino chocolate drink introduced during the Spanish colonial era.

Instead, it is the fledgling chocolate companies in the European metropoles that would emerge as leviathans in today’s chocolate world. Van Houten was one such – the Dutch firm invented the cocoa press in 1828 – the hydraulic machine that separates cocoa solids from cocoa powder that made mass chocolate manufacturing a reality. British maker Fry’s was another, for inventing the chocolate bar in 1847 by mixing sugar with cocoa powder and cocoa butter.

Over the course of a hundred years, many of the original chocolate makers have merged into massive multinationals. Fry’s was gobbled up by rival British chocolate company Cadbury in 1919 which was in turn acquired by Kraft Foods in 2010. Belgian chocolate maker Callebaut and French Firm Cacao Barry merged in 1996 to form Barry Callebaut which today produces 1.7 million tonnes of cocoa per year.

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By the 2010s, change was in the air. Consumers started growing conscious of the source of their food and support for small producers took off. Craft beers boomed, as did the third wave coffee joints that swept much of the world’s cities. With it rose the bean-to-bar chocolatier that was the antithesis of everything a multinational offers: terroir sensitivity, fair trade and to some, exclusivity.

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The fleshy white insides of a cocoa pod.
The fleshy white insides of a cocoa pod.
The Importance of Staying Local

This new wave of chocolate makers do everything from purchasing their own cocoa beans, grinding them down on site, moulding, packaging and marketing them.There was just one problem: few are based in the origin growing countries. This distance and lack of direct access to farmers have led to criticism of bean-to-bar makers for using inferior beans even if the products are single origin.

One such critic is Frederic Loraschi, a pastry chef and consultant for juggernauts like Hershey who believes that bigger buyers get better beans. “These guys get the best beans because they buy big volumes and can afford it,” he tells trade website Confectionerynews.com. “The others buy leftovers that nobody wants.”

Small chocolatiers are not able to afford travelling regularly to form strong relationships or control the fermentation process, he says.

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“You need to be on the field selecting beans yourself but they [the plantation or seller] have probably already sold their best beans to Barry Callebaut,” he adds.
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And that’s exactly where Southeast Asia’s chocolate makers have an edge. Living a short day trip away from the farms means they are, “[not only] able to be on site to inspect the beans,” says Ning of Chocolate Concierge, “but are able to take it one step further, which is to start from the tree itself.”

Agreeing, Garritt (pictured left) says: “How do you know if you’ve got a high quality raw material? The first thing you have to do is go into the farm and ask yourself, is this a healthy and happy looking farm? If it isn’t why is that?”

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Empowering the Powerless
Part of the appeal of these bean-to-bar chocolate makers is their social mission which has an impact on communities as much as on the quality of the cocoa beans that they get. They are closer economically and emotionally to these farms: their multiple sojourns into the cocoa growing depths of their countries often come with the intention of helping farmers to maximise yields, better cocoa quality and hence increase their earnings.
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The week before we spoke to Arvin Peralta of Hiraya, he was visiting cocoa farmers east of Manila in an old port city where the Spanish first introduced cocoa to the region. Unlike in the south where there are established plantations and where he primarily already sources his beans, the cocoa trees here are much older and the farmers are not clued in on post processing techniques.

“The production is small and they don’t know how to ferment the beans which is required in making fine chocolates,” he says referring to the crucial step in which microorganisms work to develop chocolate’s flavour and colour.

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Arvin Peralta (in blue) inspects the cocoa beans with a farmer.
Arvin Peralta (in blue) inspects the cocoa beans with a farmer.

“Doing so can double or triple the selling price. When I spoke to them, they’re interested to learn how and we’ll connect them with the Cocoa Foundation of The Philippines to teach them about post processing. So by the time it’s the May harvest season, they can apply what they’ve learnt.”

The root of the issue is because the farmers themselves have never seen the end product.

“Being at the bottom of the global food chain, farmers typically sell their beans to a middle man and then lose sight of them,” wrote Tissa Aunilla, co-founder of Pipiltin Cocoa on her alma mater’s website. “As a result, some of our suppliers in Tabanan, Bali had never tasted chocolate in their life, even though they had been cocoa bean farmers for 30 years.”
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This makes a massive difference. Garritt says: “Coffee farmers drink their own coffee, so they will know whether his coffee this year was good. He can ask himself, ‘hey this is good, what happened this year?’ With cocoa, the farmers have absolutely no idea. They don’t know the difference between fermented and non-fermented beans, or if it works well.”

One way his company gets around this is to receive beans from co-operatives and turn it into chocolate for them to sample. “So we provide feedback and input on their process even though we’re not the ones ultimately buying the beans,” he says.

Their efforts to help farmers don’t end there. Instead, they also typically pay the farmers higher prices. Pipiltin Cocoa, for instance, pays its suppliers 40-50% more than market price – the same figure that Pod Chocolate reports.

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Vincent Mourou and Samuel Maruta. Photo credit: marouchocolate.com
Vincent Mourou and Samuel Maruta. Photo credit: marouchocolate.com
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“In Vietnam we are fortunately working in good conditions, meaning that the normal market price farmers will get for fermented cacao beans is very close to the price of cacao delivered in London or New York, that’s already more than double what a West African farmer would typically earn,” wrote the duo behind Marou Chocolates on their website.

“At Marou we pay a significant premium over this local market price […] we pay more than the other buyers to have access to higher quality cacao before the other buyers.”

The Rise of The Affluent Class?
Naturally, this means fine chocolates costs more, rendering it almost an accidental luxury product. In The Philippines, a low-quality chocolate bar could is priced as little as 20 to 40 Pesos while a bar of Hiraya chocolates rings up 180 pesos at the cash tills.
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Even so, all the chocolatiers we spoke to report that their sales are on an upward swing. To support this boom, Pod Chocolate just opened a new factory to quadruple production capacity with ample space to expand in future. This is also the factory from which they would start looking for export partners. Pipiltin Cocoa has just made its bars available in Tokyo along with an expanded digital Japanese footprint to serve that market.
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Hiraya Chocolates is looking to double their production this year and Chocolate Concierge purchased an entire farm to have complete control over its products from tree to bar.

The clincher? The bulk of their customer base is local. It’s a sure sign that the taste buds of at least a certain affluent segment of the South East Asian population are becoming not just more discerning but are developing a sensitivity to terroir and ethical consumption.

“There’s an emerging market for this similar to the third wave coffee trend,” says Peralta whose bars are often sold out at retail locations. “It’s mostly millennials and hipsters or the older generation who are looking for healthier options.”

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A staff member from Pod Chocolate in Bali.
A staff member from Pod Chocolate in Bali.

Still, Ning of Chocolate Concierge strikes a cautious note and believes that Asia still has some way to go at least when it comes to terroir and origin. “Japan has the longest history of regional awareness but this sensitivity is not as developed elsewhere in Asia. Yes, we can tell the difference between durians like a D24 from a Musang King but that has not extended to other types of food.”

“We are still in the infancy, but the trend is only moving one way and people are becoming more aware and asking the right questions. For me, the person who picks up the bar and doesn’t know the Malaysian bean-to-bar chocolate story goes, “wow, I want to know how the bar is made,” then that to me, is success.”

But beyond Asia, the common goal of these indie makers is for the world to pivot to these cocoa-growing regions as fine chocolate producing countries too, and for farmers to have a fair shot at a better life.

These are valiant efforts, even if it’s at its nascence. It may not quite narrow the gap between Paris and Pahang or the haves and have-nots just yet, but it does at least take it that much closer.

 

This article first appeared on Michelin Guide Singapore. Visit Michelin Guide Singapore on Facebook.

Featured image by Pixabay user AlexanderStein. (CC0 1.0)

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Hyundai replaces Yeo's as S.league sponsor for 2017 season
Hyundai replaces Yeo's as S.league sponsor for 2017 season

by Daniel Yap

AFTER a run of 13 years, food and beverage maker Yeo’s will no longer be sponsoring the S. League.

The company confirmed in a statement it would pull out of supporting the 2017 season after weeks of back-and-forth, including reports of Yeo’s desire for a five-year plan for the league, and the league’s lack of such a plan.

New sponsor Hyundai will step in to take Yeo’s place, while co-sponsor Great Eastern has already confirmed its support for the 2017 season. Komoco Motors, the local dealer for Hyundai, with its Chairman Mr Teo Hock Seng has been a long-time patron of Singapore football. Mr Teo was the former chairman of Tampines Rovers FC.

The two-year deal means that the league will now be called the Great Eastern-Hyundai S. League. And after much hand-wringing about long delays in jersey printing due to the late sponsor announcements, the league will kick off this Sunday (Feb 26) at 6pm at the National Stadium with the Great Eastern Community Shield match between defending league champions Albirex Niigata FC (S) and Tampines Rovers FC.

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The S. League is in a bit of a leadership pickle now that CEO Mr Lim Chin has resigned, leaving the reins to director of operations Mr Kok Wai Leong in the interim. The Football Association of Singapore (FAS), which runs the league, is also facing its first open elections in the wake of reports of under-spending on grassroots football, a FIFA order to end political nominees sitting on the council and hold fair elections, and a lack of confidence in the current leadership.

Tote Board funding for the FAS has also now been given to statutory board Sport Singapore to administer, another sign that confidence in FAS management is less than complete. It used to be disbursed directly to the FAS, although it is not unusual for Sport Singapore to administer funds to national sports associations.

Hyundai’s sponsorship also means that chances are now slim that Mr Teo might run for the hot seat of FAS President. Mr Lim Kia Tong, current President of the FAS Provisional Council, former Woodlands Wellington General Manager Mr R Vengadasalam and Hougang United Chairman Mr Bill Ng are rumoured to be in the running for the FAS top spot.

 

Featured image courtesy of the Football Association of Singapore.

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by Daniel Yap

TWO op-eds on tobacco in the run-up to Budget 2017 caught my eye.

The first is one by the economist Mr Donald Low in the Business Times on Feb 17, calling for a “grand bargain” – an exchange of cigarettes for reduced-risk tobacco products.

The second is by Dr Chia Kee Seng, professor and dean at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore, and Dr Kenneth Warner, Avedis Donabedian Distinguished University Professor of Public Health at the Michigan School of Public Health, University of Michigan, published in Straits Times (ST) on Feb 18.

The two doctors called for an end to the scourge of smoking, pitching once again the G’s already-proposed measures of age limits, flavour bans and packaging changes as the way forward. These ideas are already being implemented by other nations.

Both pieces agree on this point – courageous action must be taken to mitigate the high cost of tobacco on our society. But do Singapore’s policymakers have the courage to save lives?

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Singapore’s tobacco policy of ever-higher taxation, bans and graphic marketing has not put a significant dent in the smoker population in Singapore over the last decade. Smoking prevalence has hovered between 12 and 16 per cent, with male smoker prevalence around 25 per cent.

One should note first that in Singapore, one-fourth of those below 18, the current legal age, had already tried smoking. It stands to reason that more laws will not stop this segment of curious youth from engaging in risky, illegal behaviour. And with the youth segment being the true “gateway” to smoking (a huge majority of smokers get hooked before the age of 21), it seems that more laws alone are unlikely to put a significant dent in the smoking rate.

The Health Ministry has set an ambitious target of 10 per cent smoking prevalence by 2020. It is admirable, maybe even attainable, but it is a big reach nonetheless. Dr Chia and Dr Warner pointed to New Zealand, Finland, Canada, Sweden and France as countries that have set a goal for a smoke-free society in eight to 23 years.

What is notable is that these countries, and many others at the forefront of the anti-smoking movement, allow reduced-risk tobacco products as a way for smokers to either quit or at least reduce the cost of smoking to society.

Singapore remains stubbornly behind the times in this area, maintaining a ban against reduced-risk products and constantly citing worry about a “gateway effect” where e-cigarettes, snus (chewing tobacco popular in Sweden and Finland), and heat-not-burn products would lead youth and non-smokers to pick up smoking.

Studies in the United Kingdom (UK) over the last few years, however, have shown that the gate swings almost uniformly in one direction: helping smokers quit (and typically become e-cigarette smokers) rather than enticing youth or non-smokers to “upgrade” to smoking. You can find the Department of Health’s findings published here.

 

Taking on some risks for greater good

That’s where Mr Low’s “grand bargain” comes in.

Based on the UK research, would it not be more prudent to lift the ban on reduced-risk products while at the same time clamping down on smoking tobacco? No doubt e-cigarettes are harmful to health, but this is a risk mitigation situation, much like how the G wants gamblers to put their money with well-regulated casinos or with entities like Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club, which will redistribute to social causes.

We must remember why we want to bring the smoking rate down: the health and social costs of smoking are high. If there is a way to reduce the costs by allowing alternative products, why not? Reduced-risk products can continue to be regulated and taxed as cigarettes currently are. And with alternatives in place, we can look to the other side of the “grand bargain” – cutting down on smoking, perhaps even to the point of banning it altogether.

It seems that harsher laws against smoking would be most effective in tandem with the availability of alternative tobacco or nicotine products, with a complete smoking ban as the end game.

Perhaps Singapore can lead the world in this area as well, and become a smoke-free nation by 2030? What will it cost us? Likely nothing more than converting smokers to lower-risk non-smoking tobacco and nicotine products. Courageous policy-making like this, I think, is the best care that this nation can provide for the long-term health of its smokers – and non-smokers too.

 

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by Melissa Tsang

I’M A 23-year-old Chinese Singaporean woman. After graduating culinary school in 2016, I started as a commis (also known as 马王, or minion) in a Chinese restaurant kitchen along Orchard Road. This is a description of my everyday work, in English, written for friends and family who are curious.

The structure of a Chinese restaurant kitchen

I drew a diagram of what our kitchen looks like, from where I stand (I only know how to hand draw and then upload a picture, please forgive incompetence):

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Dim Sum, 点心: They make the har gow, siew mai, XLB (little soup dumplings), carrot cake, cheong fun, and many other forms of dim sum and desserts. Because nearly everything there is made by hand, from scratch, they start work at 7am to finish their prep before service starts at 11am. Since we only serve dim sum in the afternoon, they get off work at 5pm, or whenever they finish their scheduled prep for the day. They are usually considered a separate kingdom from The Main Kitchen and the roasting department.

Roasting/BBQ, 烧腊:This is where the Peking duck, braised duck, roasted suckling pig, soy sauce chicken, char siew, roasted pork belly, braised pig’s intestines, etc. are made. They have two work areas — the back, and the front. The back is where all the heavy prep work is done. Every day they have to wash, marinate, dress, and hang carcasses; as well as roast them in their huge apollo oven (it looks like a tandoor). The front (a tiny work space beside the main kitchen) is where they carve and plate their finished products. They don’t just prepare their own items, like an a la carte order of a Peking duck; they also make products for the main kitchen. For example, they have to produce char siew for the rest of the kitchen — dim sum uses a lot of char siew for their pastries; the main kitchen uses char siew in a Yangzhou fried rice.

The Main Kitchen, 厨房: When industry people say “kitchen” they often refer to any of these sub-sections, and not dim sum or BBQ:

Steaming, 上什/蒸锅/蛋扣: They are located right beside dim sum, and are responsible for anything from the main kitchen that requires steaming — for example, Teochew steamed pomfret, Cantonese steamed marble goby, steamed bamboo clams with fried garlic and tung hoon. They make the daily double-boiled soups, and are also in charge of preparing the sharks’ fin and sea cucumber (very labour intensive, time-consuming products to prepare). Unlike the rest of the main kitchen sub-sections, they coexist very peacefully with dim sum.

Wok, 炉头/炒锅: Most people are more able to understand this sub-section of the kitchen. It’s basically where all the things are stir-fried or deep-fried. Within the wok line (our wok line can accommodate six, but most of the time we work with four) there is a hierarchy.

Wok 1 is head chef, 老大/大佬. He makes the big and final decisions for the main kitchen. He doesn’t do much prep work. If there are orders for abalone, sea cucumber, Alaskan crab, the expensive stuff, they go to him. But he is really more important as a political figure, not as a cook. Like a gang leader, or any head chef, he is supposed to enforce discipline and consistency in his kitchen. He is also supposed to protect the interests of the main kitchen, especially against Front-of-House and higher management, especially in disputes with HR. For this reason, people expect him to exhibit a lot of machismo and dominance, or else they consider him ineffective and weak.

Wok 2 is the sous chef. He is not as politically significant as the Laoda, but he is acting chief in Laoda’s absence. He schedules our duty roster. He may also cook the Very Expensive Things. Some corporations/restaurants that do Cantonese cuisine have a policy of hiring only Hong Kong nationals to occupy head chef and sous chef positions. Ours is one such company.

Wok 3 is expected to cook anything short of the Very Expensive Things. Although he is lower in rank than Wok 2, he is not necessarily less experienced.

Wok 4 is also known as the deep-frying wok, or the “tail wok”. It is usually occupied by a more junior person. If a whole fish needs to be deep fried, it goes to him. He also handles a lot of fried rice, ee fu noodles, fried bee hoon, stir-fried carrot cake. Since the larger and heavier woks are all kept at his end of the line, he cooks off most of our sauces (XO sauce, black pepper sauce, chilli crab sauce, sweet and sour sauce etc. ), deep fries peanuts, cashews, walnuts, whole chickens multiple times a week. He has an enormous role in prep. This person must work very quickly, and must multitask well. When service gets very busy, he should be able to deep fry two different items while stir frying ee fu noodles, without losing his shit.

Woks 5 and/or 6 are opened when we’re descending into chaos and desperately need another wok guy to help out. That’s when a qualified person, who otherwise performs another role, goes on the line for the night.

Butchery, 水台: The person working in butchery has one of the most strenuous jobs ever. Our butcher happens to be the largest dude in the kitchen. When deliveries come, they go straight to his room. He is the one who has to wash cartons and cartons of vegetables alone, break down entire carcasses of cod, hack entire legs of Jinhua ham, chop crates of ribs into smaller chunks, etc. He has to lug boxes and boxes of stuff to and from the walk in freezer. These are on top of the fish and seafood he has to kill and clean. He mostly works with the heaviest cleaver.

Knife work, 砧板: This station is a line of three cutting blocks (literal blocks, they are very thick and heavy, for stability). People doing knife work slice and chop almost everything the kitchen uses. They also have to marinate all the meat, sliced fish, diced chicken, etc. They have a never-ending list of things to do. They are also the first line to read and process order tickets. For example, an order comes for “Seafood fried rice, medium, +salted fish, on hold, no MSG, not too oily, VIP, split into 6 portions”. The relevant information to the dude at the cutting block is “seafood fried rice medium + salted fish” has to pass the ticket over with the correct amount of diced seafood, julienned lettuce, and a small handful of chopped salted fish. Then his job is done and he has nothing else to do with this order ticket.

The Center Line/Traffic control/Communications, 打荷: This is where I work, between the knives and the fire. This is the section most difficult to explain to outsiders. This is where the youngest, most junior people work. This is the section that is the least technically demanding (i.e. you can train a monkey to do this job), but it is the most physically mobile, and the most cognitively demanding position during peak hours.

I’ll first explain what happens when we get a single order, using the above example – “Seafood fried rice, medium, +salted fish, on hold, no MSG, not too oily, VIP, split into 6 portions”. The dude at the chopping board has already pushed the lettuce, diced seafood, and salted fish from his side to our side of the table. We take a quick glance at the order sheet. First, we grab a medium-sized portion of rice. Then we transfer everything from our side of the table to the table directly accessible to the wok guys. We tell him, “no MSG, not too oily”. We then fetch a serving tray, six small plates, a small rice bowl, and a metal dish. The wok guy makes the fried rice, dumps it in the metal dish, then we portion the fried rice using the small rice bowl (so that every portion is in a neat little mound). This fried rice example is a very simple example involving a bit of communication between our section and the wok line.

Here is another example, involving more inter-department teamwork: an appetiser plate named 特式三拼

pic 2

Let’s say there’s an order for this item for five people. The knife work dude will toss over five butterflied prawns and five mantou rings (the dim sum department makes these weekly, in huge quantities). I will have to dust the prawns in potato starch, garnish and decorate five plates on a serving tray, sear five pieces of foie gras, and have wasabi sauce and foie gras-mushroom sauce on standby. At the same time I have to talk to Wok 4 – “特式5位”. Sometimes he forgets what he has to do, so I will say “炸锅巴5件,wasabi 虾球5粒,打鹅肝汁”. He will do all that while I sear the foie gras. When the foie gras is almost ready, I will call BBQ. They will bring five individual portions of braised duck and tofu, and I will plate up and send the dishes out.

These are only individual examples. On their own, they are very easy to execute. But on a busy night, between 6:30 – 9pm, the ticket printer doesn’t stop running. It will feel like the orders are coming in faster than we can send out dishes. This is when our roles within the section become specialised, and the concept of “queue” and “time” becomes especially relevant:

pic 3

Incoming orders:

Highlighted in pink is the table where we process incoming orders. The shaded black box is the ticket machine, facing Knifework. Any order printed is first visible to them, although we have trained ourselves to read from the other side.

(As far as possible), according to the order in which they were printed, Knifework pushes ingredients with their order sheets over to our side, and they will all be received by the Korkor, who is the most senior person in the section. The first thing he will do is separate dishes “on hold” from “fire”. “On hold” means the order has been processed, but the customer doesn’t want it now. For dishes on hold, he groups them by table number. For dishes ready to fire, he sorts them according to

1. Time of order. But it’s not rigid, it’s no big deal if an order printed at 7:35pm goes out before an order printed at 7:32pm.

2. Whether it is a soup, appetiser plate, non-starch item, or starch item. Within the same time frame, items should be sorted to prioritise soups and starters first, and starch dishes last.

3. Front-of-House mistakes – sometimes FOH barges in saying “I FORGOT TO KEY THIS ORDER IN PLEASE SAVE ME AND MAKE IT NOW”. We could say “no, dis your problem”, or we could allow that item to jump the queue.

4. How angry the customer is. Some customers are able to wait, others are not. If it’s been 15 minutes and a table hasn’t gotten their fried rice and are upset, we understand and will help that item move up the queue. But if the order has literally just been printed and a server comes in saying “HE’S PISSED OFF”, we do not entertain this request. Because we honour the concept of the queue.

Outgoing dishes:

When we’re busy, I stand facing the table highlighted in green. On this table we cram at most three to four items in a wok guy’s immediate cue. Meaning he simply has to concern himself with clearing these few items as quickly as possible. The rest of the space is reserved for plating and garnishing. In a five minute time frame, I might have fish pan frying on the stove, tofu in the deep fryer, while plating lobster ee fu noodles for 10 people, while listening to wok sounds. We look down when we plate so we can’t see much else, but we are able to hear when a wok guy is done with a dish. If he’s done, we have to drop what we are doing and send out the dish. As soon as the immediate queue begins to clear, any one of us will fetch items from Korkor’s Organised Queue of Incoming Orders.

Stacking and efficiency:

Sometimes there’s a Yangzhou fried rice in Wok 4’s immediate queue, but he’s been busy and the fried rice hasn’t been started. Then Korkor receives another Yangzhou fried rice order, but if we go strictly by time, that Yangzhou fried rice would be quite further down the queue. Nevermind, we let it stack. The Korkor will call out “扬州炒饭有塔!” then he tosses it over to me. Stacking is inevitable because if we went item by item, according to time, we would literally die.

Prep work and miscellaneous duties:

There are many other small, routine, menial tasks that I do every day, that I don’t need to talk about here. Oil does not pour itself, I need to fill metal drums of oil for each wok guy about twice a day. Eggs don’t crack and separate themselves. Seasoning containers don’t refill themselves. And so on.

The more interesting prep work is in sauces. A great example would be XO sauce. We make roughly 10 litres of XO sauce every two weeks. When we realise we’re running low, we need to start dicing (very small dice) Jinhua ham and salted fish. This is very difficult. They are very tough ingredients. I do not like this part. Then we need to soak dried shrimp, steam and shred dried scallops, and grind chillies, shallots, garlic, and the soaked shrimp. We will weigh the required MSG and sugar. Then the XO sauce is ready to be cooked off.

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This article was first published at eightmileswide.svbtle.com/.

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ONE legend of Valentine’s Day says that Valentine was a Christian priest who lived around 300 AD in Rome. Marriage for young men was outlawed by the Roman Emperor Claudius II, who thought single men unencumbered by a wife and family would make better soldiers. Thinking the edict unjust, Valentine defied the emperor to continue secretly performing marriages for young couples. He was found out and executed in the end.

Leaving aside the question of how true the story is, it seems that opposition have always played a part in the Valentine’s Day narrative; not necessarily out of romance. For the people of these countries, they had cause to protest in the name of some other love:

 

1. Islamabad, Pakistan – court banned Valentine’s Day celebration

Pakistan

Image from Facebook user Sam Mugabe.

Pakistani florists and restauranteurs aren’t too happy. The Islamabad High Court banned all celebrations of Valentine’s Day in government offices and public spaces, with immediate effect. For the first time, flowers and heart-shaped balloons could not be sold on the streets of Islamabad. This came in response to a private petition arguing that Valentine’s Day was un-Islamic, as it promoted immorality, nudity and indecency under the guise of spreading love.

While conservative Pakistanis cheered the court order, younger and more liberal residents voiced their dissatisfaction at what they perceived as state interference in a non-issue. Many Pakistanis managed to circumvent this law, by celebrating the occasion in groups or holding private parties indoors.

At least one person was happy with the ban. USA Today reported that Ms Mehak Haque, 23, a communications student in Lahore, found Valentine’s Day to be “a dreadful day for all the single people out there… There is unwarranted pressure on those who don’t have a Valentine date or aren’t seeing anyone.”

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2. Surabaya, Indonesia – students protested against Valentine’s Day

Indonesia

Image from Facebook user Surabaya Kita.

“Say No to Valentine!”

Students from one Muslim school in the city of Surabaya held a protest against Valentine’s Day on Monday (Feb 13). Protestors ranged from 13 to 15-year olds and included many girls wearing the hijab, or headscarf. They denounced Valentine’s Day as a Western occasion that encourages casual sex; something incompatible with Indonesian values.

Such sentiment is not new. Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, has often seen Islamic clerics and religious leaders deride Valentine’s Day as a celebration of sexual immorality. In 2015, Indonesia’s Islamic clerical body even threatened to issue a fatwa, or a ruling under the Islamic law, against the sale of condoms, following reports they were sold together with chocolate to mark Valentine’s Day.

Despite these objections, many in Indonesia still enjoy the occasion, particularly in major cities such as Jakarta where cards and chocolates are widely available.

 

3. Mecca, Saudi Arabia – no longer so disapproving of Valentine’s Day

Saudi arabia

Image from Facebook user Sujit Pal.

While some Islamic countries are tightening regulations for Valentine’s Day, Saudi Arabia has done just the opposite. It kept to its efforts for reform under the leadership of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Salman, aimed at making Saudi Arabia more open to the world. This year for instance, flower shops throughout the Arab city, Jeddah, were selling custom-made Valentine boxes, including balloons and flowers, starting at 550 Saudi riyals (around SGD$209).

This is in stark contrast to previous years when religious police patrolled flower shops and confiscated  offending red roses they found. In 2012, more than 140 people were arrested for celebrating the event. This year however, celebrations were possible after the cabinet banned the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice from pursuing, questioning, requesting identification from or arresting suspects in April last year.

However, some florists in the kingdom still chose to avoid participating in the holiday to prevent controversy. “We have experienced problems in the past and I am not willing to go through the same dilemma again,” an anonymous florist in the city of Riyadh told Arab News.

 

4. New York, USA – charity drive named after a banned Valentine’s Day custom

Sofitel

Image by Facebook user Sofitel New York.

Here’s a Valentine’s Day nugget: New York Trend, a weekly news publication of New York city and Long Island, reported on 7 Feb that New York’s luxury hotel, Sofitel New York, was holding a charity drive named “Une Loterie d’Amour”, which translated to A Love Lottery. Like the legend of Valentine the priest, the hotel seemed to be making good out of a bad case. Because the charity drive, which lasted from Feb 1 till Feb 14, actually shared the same name as an old, outlawed French Valentine’s Day custom.

Hotel guests who donated to The Bowery Mission – which provided for poor and homeless New Yorkers – got to pick one of the red valentine envelopes hung from the window display at the hotel’s Gaby Brasserie Francaise restaurant. The envelopes were differentiated based on the currency denomination of the donation – USD$10, USD$25, USD$50, USD$100, USD$250 and USD$500. Prizes written inside ranged from one complimentary cocktail, a dinner or dessert for two, to a two-night Sofitel Los Angeles stay at Beverly Hills.

The historical “Une Loterie d’Amour” however, was not so loving. Singles of both sexes and all ages would enter houses opposite each other in the middle of February and shout through the windows for their desired partner. Unfortunately, should the female partner not come up to the man’s standards, the match was called off for him to continue with his search. Vengeful women left high and dry would gather before a ceremonial bonfire to hurl vulgarities at as well as burn the belongings of the men who did the rejecting. Behaviour got so bad during the Love Lottery that the authorities felt the whole custom had to be stopped.

Though Sofitel New York’s “Une Loterie d’Amour” shared faint echoes of the banned tradition, such as approaching a window and picking a prize, it is not confirmed if it drew inspiration from the past. More likely,  thankfulness, rather than hurt feelings, rounded off the modern “Une Loterie d’Amour”.

 

5. Paris, France – say no to love locks

love lock

Image by Facebook user Briony Wemyss.

Inscribed your name and your lover’s on a padlock, clip it to the railing of a bridge and throw the key into the river. This is the love lock – 21st century’s grand gesture of romantic love.

But there are those who thought walls of love locks on monuments unsightly and structurally hazardous to boot. In June 2014, part of Paris’s iconic bridge, the Pont des Arts, collapsed due to the sheer weight of the locks.

Two Parisian residents, Lisa Anselmo and Lisa Taylor Huff, had observed how the trend got out of hand from 2008 and decided to launch a “No Love Locks” campaign in January 2014. For four years running, it declared Valentine’s Day a “No Love Locks Day”.

Its 2014 petition, which called for a ban of love locks in France gathered more than 11,000 signatures. Though no formal ban was instituted, the city cleared all 45 tonnes of padlocks from the Pont des Arts in June 2015. Later in the same year, transparent panels replaced the mesh wires to discourage love locks from being clipped to the grilles.

The campaign continued because the problem has not been isolated to Pont des Arts. The organisers counted at least “10 bridges… the entire quay along the Seine, and several landmarks including the Eiffel Tower” affected by love locks. They were convinced that “only a ban will begin to make a permanent change in Paris, and save their historic landmarks”.

 

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by

The Difference Between Western and Asian-style breads
UNLESS they’re softer varieties like brioche, traditional European breads have a harder crust and a drier, saltier crumb while Asian style buns are soft, springy and sweet. Think multigrain sourdough loaves versus kaya buns or slices of rye bread versus hotdog rolls.The key difference lies in the dough’s chemistry: “Western-style bread has zero fat – its main [components] are flour, salt and water,” says Daniel Tay, founder of Old Seng Choon – the modern revival of his parents’ confectionery which operated from 1965 to 1996. “Asian-style bread is high in fat and sugar – about 15 per cent ft and 25 per cent sugar. These two work together to give the soft texture.”
https://robert-parker-michelin-sg-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/media/image/2017/02/06/9e5b5de6117e48138fcc5855ee4e7da2_Daniel+Tay.jpg

 

The successful pastry chef turned entrepreneur has seen the ebbs and flows of trends. He’s the man behind brands like Bakerzin to Cat & The Fiddle and counts reputable establishments like two-Michelin-starred Les Amis and French delicatessen Fauchon as former work places. He also runs Foodgnostic, a food solutions manufacturer. Tapping into his knowledge of bread baking was merely dipping one’s toes in the rich reservoir of his experience and technical savoir faire of the baking sciences.

“I know it’s been trendy to eat crusty bread recently,” he says. “But are most of us trained to eat that from young? Not to me.”

Indeed, it was only in recent years with the profusion of gourmet bakeries like Artisan Boulangerie Co and Baker & Cook that Western-style bread took centre stage. Otherwise, the bakeries that churn out soft buns still prevail and are found in just about every turn. This softer variant of bread has been the dominant preference for local tastes, so much so that even top end restaurants like two-Michelin-starred Odette take it into consideration when composing the bread basket.

Tangzhong Dough

But the difference doesn’t end at just fat and sugar content. Asian-style breads are also made by adding a Japanese-invented dough called tangzhong.“The Japanese realised that by cooking the flour, the dough absorbs all the water. This cooked dough is added into the rest of the bread mixture which gives a moister mouthfeel,” says Tay.

https://robert-parker-michelin-sg-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/media/image/2017/02/06/cb843e245bfd49cfac6f2db32110a3b0_tangzhong.jpg

 

In this method, equal parts flour and boiling water is mixed in a pan. Once it is cooled, the dough can be added into the actual bread mix to comprise 5-10 per cent of its total weight.

The precise roots of this method are unclear, but the Japanese preference for soft, sweet breads can likely be traced back to 1875 when a former samurai named Yasube Kimura invented the anpan – a soft bun stuffed with bean paste that’s otherwise used for wagashi. He found that the bread introduced to Japan was either salty or sour – flavours which were out of step with the Japanese palate.

How It Is Made
Tay has kindly provided his recipe for those who wish to make these soft buns at home. This forms the basic recipe sweet bun recipe from which modifications can be made. Bear in mind that sour dough can be omitted and to use strong bread flour of 12.5 per cent protein for both the main as well as tangzhong dough for better gluten development. 

Tangzhong Dough
100g strong bread flour (12.5 per cent protein)
100ml water

Sweet Bun Dough
1kg strong bread flour (12.5 per cent protein)
18g yeast
18g bread improver
240g sugar
30g milk powder
14g salt
2 eggs (50g each)
35ml condensed milk
450ml water
180g unsalted butter
100g tangzhong dough
100g sourdough (optional)

Illustration by: Siow Jun
Illustration by: Siow Jun

 

Step one: Make the tanzhong dough
Bring 100ml of water to a boil in a pan and add 100 grams of strong bread flour. Stir quickly and remove from fire to prevent the dough from over cooking.

Illustration by: Siow Jun
Illustration by: Siow Jun

 

Step two: Let it cool
Continue knead the dough with a spoon or by hand if cool enough until dough is formed. This step is crucial as adding a warm dough into the rest of the bread dough will alter the temperature.
Illustration by: Siow Jun
Illustration by: Siow Jun

 

Step three: Make the bread dough
Place flour, yeast, bread improver, sugar, milk powder and salt into a mixing bowl and stir until well-mixed. Then add in the eggs, condensed milk and water and start the mixer with a dough hook.
Illustration by: Siow Jun
Illustration by: Siow Jun

 

Step four
Add the tangzhong dough first and continue to knead. At this stage, the dough would’ve developed gluten. Next, add the unsalted butter and knead until dough starts to make slapping sounds against the mixing bowl.
Illustration by: Siow Jun
Illustration by: Siow Jun

 

Step five: Let it rise
Cover the bowl with clean wrap film or a cloth and allow the dough to ferment for approximately one hour. Place the bowl in a cupboard or space away from heat and moving air.
Illustration by: Siow Jun
Illustration by: Siow Jun

 

Step Six: Shape
Shape the dough into round balls and insert your choice of filling if any. Place the dough balls into small paper holders similar to the ones for cupcakes.
Illustration by: Siow Jun
Illustration by: Siow Jun

 

Step seven: Let it rise (again)
Proof the dough again in the cupboard away from heat and moving air and let it rise until it is 2 ½ times its normal size. To see if it’s ready, poke it gently with your finger and the dent made should only return half way up. As the dough proofs, pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees celcius.
Illustration by: Siow Jun
Illustration by: Siow Jun

 

Step eight: Give it colour
Beat one egg and lightly brush over the top of the bun. This gives the bun a sheen when baked. Be sure to avoid the sides or drips.
Illustration by: Siow Jun
Illustration by: Siow Jun

 

Step nine: Bake!
Bake for 18 minutes or until golden brown. Remove and allow to cool. Enjoy.

 

This article first appeared on Michelin Guide Singapore. Visit Michelin Guide Singapore on Facebook.

Featured image May22: Wonderland by Flickr user Daniel Ansel Tingcungco. (CC BY 2.0)

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by Vanessa Wu

NEITHER is ComfortDelGro for that matter.

Singapore’s biggest taxi company is hoping to introduce surge pricing, which is an Uber innovation, reported The Straits Times (ST) today. It is also proposing to flatten its complicated fare structure, said its new CEO, Mr Yang Ban Seng.

Commuters would probably appreciate a simpler system given that there are close to 10 different flag-down rates, three different metered-fare structures and more than 10 kinds of surcharges, as well as eight types of phone-booking charges in Singapore. This, however, is provided that a flatter fare is not levelled up, going by what the Land Transport Authority (LTA) found out in 2015.

But surge pricing where fares rise according to real-time demand? Such fares can exceed $140 at crunch times, such as during rail breakdowns.

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Mr Yang said that the proposals would be made to the Public Transport Council (PTC), although he doesn’t seem to hold out much hope: “We would love to do surge pricing, but I don’t think we’re allowed to.”

If ComfortDelGro, the biggest player with more than 16,800 taxis in its fleet gets its way, you can bet the other smaller taxi companies will follow suit.

Uber as well as other ride-hailing companies like Grab are probably watching developments closely, even as others put their operations and strategies under a microscope.

Uber Singapore’s general manager Mr Warren Tseng came out hammer and tongs to rebut a newspaper report that close to 1,000 of its cars were idling in carpark. He said this in an interview with The Business Times (BT) on Feb 8, even though the article appeared in The Straits Times and was based on the newspapers’ checks.

Mr Tseng said that cars that have been “deemed idling in carpark lots” were either new cars that were still under inspection and needed to have the In-Vehicle Unit (IU) installed or cars that were being cleaned after their rental owners returned them.

“With such flexibility, you see cars coming in and out daily. Sometimes they are parked for servicing; other times for cleaning after the driver is done using the vehicle. As an outsider, if you look at the lots, it is easy to assume they are not being hired,” said Mr Tseng. He refused to reveal the total number of vehicles in Uber’s fleet “for strategic reasons”.

Mr Tseng also defended Uber from industry watchers who felt that it had been creating pressure on prices of Certificates of Entitlement (COE), saying that “it is unfair and misdirected to assume so.”

“If you look at LTA’s (Land Transport Authority) data, COE prices have actually dropped from April 2015, which was a month after LCR [Lion City Rental] started, to the current rates,” said Mr Tseng. Lion City Rental is a Uber-owned car rental company that rents out private cars to Uber drivers and the general public.

COE prices have definitely fallen since nearly two years ago as a general trend. But last year, industry watchers said that Uber kept COE prices up when “aggressive” bidding was observed in one of Uber’s exercise to obtain fresh COEs in 2016.

According to an ST report in April last year as well as figures from LTA, the COE prices for cars in all three categories increased in April 2016.

If there was any decrease, it was the Prevailing Quota Premium (PQP). For instance, PQP fell from $49,541 for Mar to $46,077 for April for Category A cars in 2016. PQP is the amount required for a COE extension or renewal for a vehicle already in use.

The COE prices began to fall in the second bidding in May 2016, but an ST report said that “they would have fallen more dramatically if not for strong bidding from Uber”.

In the same report, ST said that Lion City Rental had secured about 1,700 COEs for cars in three separate bids in just two months of bidding.

From this comparison, Mr Tseng’s rebuttal is mostly in conflict with other reports and LTA’s figures. But since Uber doesn’t want to talk about numbers, the actual situation is unclear and left to further speculation.

Another newspaper report today is also not helping Uber’s reputation. Saddam Hussein Norazman, 23, was yesterday jailed for six weeks and banned from driving for five years for causing the death of one of his rear seat passengers and injuring a van driver in an accident on Sept 25 last year. This is the first case of an Uber driver involved in a fatal accident.

 

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FOR a paper published in this month’s issue of the Environmental Research Letters journal, Ms Yuan Lin, Mr Lahiru Wijedasa and Dr Ryan Chisholm from the National University of Singapore (NUS) asked 390 people of varying ages and income brackets this: from a range of 0.05 per cent to 5 per cent, how much of one’s annual income is worth giving to secure clean air?

About 0.97 per cent, it turns out. In real terms, that amounts to USD$643.5 million (SGD$913 million) a year.

Transboundary haze is a long-standing problem in the South-east Asian region, largely caused by the drainage of carbon-rich peatland as well as companies and farmers in Indonesia using fire to clear land. Singapore experienced its worst haze episode in 2015 from September to November, with the Pollutant Standards Index hitting hazardous levels.

“[Sufficiently] negative impacts” from the air pollution make compelling enough the reason to trade-off “personal financial gain” for an improved environment, the NUS researchers concluded. At least it is, to a certain point, and to most people. Three out of 10 interviewees remained unconvinced of the need to pay at all.

The underlying challenge between personal comfort and environmental responsibility is valid too for people of these countries. 

 

1. Beijing, China – smog data control tightened

beijing

Image from Flickr user Kevin Dooley.

It was announced on Tuesday (Feb 7) in People’s Daily, China’s state newspaper, that the Beijing government has established a national network that will track the smog affecting several major cities. It will use a combination of data gathered from manual sampling stations, satellite sensing and airborne platforms to generate reports about the air quality. This national system replaces the manual smog tracking system of local meteorological stations, which smog alert services the China Meteorological Administration suspended on Jan 17.

The People’s Daily’s article reported that this change of monitoring structure was to better pollution reduction and prevent falsified data. Last year in October, environmental protection officials in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, were caught producing false numbers about the air quality by tampering with the monitoring equipment.

Public anger against China’s infamous smog condition has been rising. When the local smog alert service was suspended, citizens took to severely criticising the authorities online and raising suspicions of information suppression. Independent media outlets have complained about being told to take down articles that are derisive of Beijing’s efforts.  A Peking University study published on Feb 4, 2015, claiming that the smog had caused 257,000 excess deaths in 31 Chinese cities cannot be found online.

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2. Fukushima, Japan – radiation reading the highest since 2011

fukushima

Image from Wikimedia Commons by Digital Globe.

On Monday (Feb 6), China urged the Japanese government to detail plans on how to tackle the radiation from the broken reactors of the defunct Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. It was responding to utility operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) revelation that radiation level in the containment vessel of reactor 2 was at 530 sieverts per hour.

This is the highest reading calculated since the March 2011 meltdown of the three reactors in the plant, triggered by an earthquake and tsunami and followed a few days later with the breaking down of the fourth reactor. The previous highest reading was 73 sieverts per hour.

According to Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences, 4 sieverts of radiation exposure already would kill 1 in 2 people. Japan Times, an English language newspaper in Japan, reported that experts have claimed this reading as “unimaginable” and that an institute official said medical professionals have never considered dealing with this level of radiation.

Mr Azby Brown, a member of a radiation-monitoring citizen science organisation called Safecast cautioned against unnecessary alarm by noting that this reading reflected radiation activity inside the reactor and not what was happening in the wider area of Fukushima.

 

3. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – toxic smog failed to abate

mongolia

Image from Flickr user Einar Fredriksen.

Reuters, the international news agency, produced an article this week about the smog that has been shrouding the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, created from the smoke from thousands of chimneys. The World Health Organisation has set acceptable standard of harmful breathable particles existing in the air, known as PM2.5, at 20-25 micrograms per cubic metre. Late last month, the reading in Ulaanbaatar hit 855 micrograms per cubic metre, at least over 30 times that limit.

But this pollution is also a socio-economic problem.  About 80 per cent of the smog comes from what is known as the “ger” districts found at the edge of the city, said Mr Tsogtbaatar Byamba, director of Mongolia’s Institute of Public Health. “Ger” districts are a mass of traditional tents, housing ex-herders who migrated to the city upon losing all their livestock to the harsh environment and weather conditions. Winter could be fierce in Ulaanbaatar and these poor would burn whatever they can get their hands on – coal, wood and even trash – to keep warm.

To tackle the smog, the Mayor of Ulaanbaatar, Mr S. Batbold, had announced on Jan 9 measures that heightened restriction of migrants to the capital. It would accept only those who need long-term medical care, already owning homes or mortgage loan.

Still, the pollution failed to abate. So, on Jan 28, near 7,000 protestors gathered in the capital’s Chinggis Square to signal their dissatisfaction against the authorities’ inability to improve air condition.

 

4. London, United Kingdom – multiple failings in applying environmental laws

london

Image from Flickr user David Holt.

The European Commission released the Environmental Implementation Review on Monday (Feb 6) which pointed at the United Kingdom (UK) as one of the 23 member states within the European Union (EU) that failed to meet air pollution quality standards.

The review aimed to improve implementation of EU’s current environmental legislation and policies, which UK has been in breach of since 2010 when it first crossed safety limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2). In fact, within just five days of 2017, it was reported that London overshot its annual air pollution limit. Not only has UK failed in effectively applying laws on air quality, laws on water standards and conservation of several species, particularly marine porpoises, have not been followed. Until the Brexit deal is realised, UK remains obliged to fulfill all EU’s environmental regulations.

According to the review, about 50,000 Britons have died prematurely from illnesses related to the country’s air pollution. Also, six million working days are wasted, at the cost of €28 billion (or SGD$49.7 billion) per year.

 

5. Dakota, United States – US Army has given approval to complete Dakota Access pipeline

Dakota

Image from Wikimedia Commons by Pax Ahimsa Gethen.

On Tuesday (Feb 7), the United States (US) Army granted the last permit, or easement, needed to allow the final section of the Dakota Access oil pipeline to be built under North Dakota’s Lake Oahe, which forms part of the Missouri River system. Should construction process goes well, the USD$3.8 billion pipeline can begin operation by June.

This project became controversial because of resistance by The Standing Rock Sioux, a native American tribe which contended that the pipeline desecrates sacred sites and could potentially pollute its water source. Protest camps sprung up in the North Dakota plains, where thousands gathered last year to show their support for the tribe. Activists clashed several times with law enforcers, with more than 600 people arrested. In late November, the police even used water cannons in the -4°C weather against them. The previous US president, Mr Barack Obama, allowed a delay in the completion of the pipeline because of this protest and instructed last December for an environmental study to be carried out.

However, the suspension of the project was overturned when the current president, Trump, ordered on Jan 24 a continuation of the construction. Supporters of the pipeline believe that it is safer to transport oil using a pipeline than by rail or trucks. Then, less than a fortnight after, the Army said that it would cancel the study. Mr Robert Speer, the acting secretary of the Army stated that there was already enough information on the likely effect on the environment to make a decision about whether to grant the easement.

The tribe and its supporters are not accepting the recent development. Mr Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, one of the activist groups, promised even greater “mass resistance”.

 

Featured image Earth by Flickr user Kevin Gill. (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

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by Suhaile Md

DIGITAL jobs like software, web, and multimedia developers are the third most in-demand jobs according to a report released by the Manpower Ministry on Tuesday (Feb 7). Clearly, technical skills like coding and data analysis will put candidates in a good position for these jobs.

But it would be a mistake to think coding is all that matters. Soft skills play an integral role in career progression as well.

The idea of the “lone wolf” who does not get along well with others, but writes brilliant code, is a thing of the past, said Mr Sheng Yunzhou, a software engineer.

“Like any other job, domain skills alone are not enough,” he said. Other skills like resilience, ability to learn, teamwork, and communication, are important, added Mr Sheng. The 29-year-old develops apps for private banking clients at a major international bank.

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Teamwork

In the past, coding used to be “product or project centric”. So when a project came along, various people were pulled together to work on it, only to be disbanded once completed. But now, it’s about “nurturing a strong team, keeping them together”, to work on successive projects said Mr Sheng.

A team “has to become an entity itself… so that it can move quickly” to solve problems.

Mr Sheng recalled the time his team had a developer whose coding was good but his inability to work with others created problems. For example, the team would have two weeks of the project planned out but the developer’s tendency to do things his own way would throw the plans off. Time, and hence money, was lost due to a lack of cooperation from the developer.

Learning how to work well with people is a skill that can be picked up.

For example, understanding what motivates others, or why they act a certain way, goes far in making one an effective team player. The Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS) course “Winning with difficult people” is a course you can take. Singaporeans can use their SkillsFuture credit to pay for the course. 

 

Communication

The “biggest problem” with many developers, Mr Sheng found, is their inability to “communicate ideas clearly” even to their fellow coders.

Bad communication can hamper the quality of work. After all, developers basically “teach computers to do things that people can use”. If developers do not learn how to listen, to talk to people to find out what problems users are facing, or to hold a conversation exploring different ideas, how can they create a product that people find useful?

Courses that teach skills like how to structure a conversation such that you draw out the relevant information, understand the various communication styles people have, and craft clear messages, are available. For example, the “interpersonal communication skills” course by the British Council.

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Resilience

Coding is hard, even for developers, said Mr Sheng. The field changes so fast, “it’s a must to keep on learning new things, all the time”. New jargon crop up every time there’s a development.

So anyone who wishes to progress in this field needs to “instil the habit of deliberate practise”.

It’s the “most valuable asset”.

Coders need to practise harder codes and different programming languages in their downtime, over the weekends and so on. Or other developers will take their place.

The challenge of continual learning and deliberate practise is that failing is part of the process, which can be “really daunting,” he added. Without resilience, effective learning in this field is difficult.

It’s a sentiment shared by Mr Tan Choon Ngee, CEO of aZaaS, a Singapore-based Information Technology firm with subsidiaries in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China.

“Positive nature and grit” is what Mr Tan looks out for in his new hires. Otherwise they would not be able to keep up with the industry as it “experiences high rates of change”, said the 42-year-old.

At the end of the day, as Mr Sheng said, while coding is a must-have primary skill in his field, without communication skills, team work, and resilience, your career would be stunted.

His advice, regardless of which industry you’re in: “Keep learning, don’t stop.”

 

This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

 

Featured image by Pixabay user Tumisu. (CC0 1.0)

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