April 29, 2017

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Mr Zainudin Nordin, President of the Football Association of Singapore; marking StarHub's appointment as official broadcaster and principal sponsor of the LionsXII in 2012.Image by HealthSX at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

by Bertha Henson

THERE’S something to be said about having free and open elections: It allows questions to be aired in the expectation that answers will be given.

I am not a football fan but the saga surrounding the Football Association of Singapore’s (FAS) upcoming April 29 elections has been riveting. Some might say that challenger Mr Bill Ng’s questions regarding a $500,000 donation he (or his Tiong Bahru FC) made was a distraction and that more attention should be paid to the plans of both teams that are contesting the election.

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I don’t think so.

What it shows is that an electoral process brings more scrutiny and urges more transparency from office-holders and those vying for the job. So world football governing body Fifa finally realised that for decades, the FAS was breaking the rules by having officers appointed by the G. After seven years on the job, Mr Zainudin Nordin has stepped down to pave the way for elections. FAS is usually headed by an MP, and the past list included those who have made it into ministerial ranks such as Mr Mah Bow Tan and Mr Ho Peng Kee.

Doubtless, the FAS is a tough organisation to manage given its myriad clubs, tournaments, programmes as well as the attention paid to it by people at the grassroots. That the G has a hand in its running isn’t surprising since it gives out grants to sports bodies, that is, taxpayers’ money of more than $2 million annually to FAS. Its other major donor is the Tote Board, which used to disburse some $25 million to the FAS annually, but which will now do so through Sport Singapore (SportSg).

Members of the public who are interested in the management of FAS can turn to its annual reports but in the main, the concern is about crowd turn-out, football rankings and whether goals of the football kind are being delivered given the resources poured into the sport. It takes an electoral process to bring matters out in the open, whether among those with a stake or the community at large. Of course, like all elections, there will be agendas and strategies, like rubbishing the old to make way for the new.

Now the FAS is embroiled in controversy with questions raised over the past year about its handling of money, including donations. There have been particularly feisty exchanges between Mr Ng and the FAS through the person of General Secretary Winston Lee over what happened three years ago. To put it bluntly, they are accusing each other of lying.

So what are the issues involved?

The key point is whether Mr Ng knew where the $500,000 donation was going to go. He claims it was for local football but it went to the Asean Football Federation (AFF). There’s no question that the AFF received the money – although it fumbled about whether the money was from the FAS or Mr Ng’s Tiong Bahru FC. The FAS has a paper trail, including a letter setting out the terms of the donation, which Mr Ng, rather improbably said was drafted by the FAS and which he was somehow made to sign.

In any case, even if the money had always been intended for AFF, the question is why such a big sum, which is about half the income of an S-League club, should go to outside entities at a time of a struggling football scene here.

Another issue is whether the sum was properly recorded somewhere. So far, not a single person in past councils has come out to say he had knowledge of the sum. What’s worse is that most people evinced surprise.

Then comes the question of why Mr Ng chose to raise the matter now instead of three years ago. Is this an election gambit to allege improprieties in the FAS which he, a challenger, will want to clean up?

In the middle of it all is the deafening silence of ex-chief Zainudin, which the FAS said was the person who solicited the donation. Mr Ng, however, denied this and pointed his finger at Mr Lee.

Mr Zainudin must know by now that he would have to say something lest gossip and misinformation fill in the blanks, thereby impugning his reputation. To say nothing because he is not standing for the upcoming election is a bad excuse for something that happened during his tenure.

Which brings me back to the point of having democratic elections. They are complicated and fussy affairs and there might even be those who say that such “disagreements” should be dealt with behind closed-doors so as not to give Singapore football a bad name. If so, they forget that it was “closed-doors” which gave rise to the current controversy.

To a spectator, the FAS looks like the Augean stables. It might be better for the challengers to discuss sweeping and mopping up operations first, before moving on to pronouncing grand visions. SportSg has ordered FAS to give a full account of the donation. Hopefully, it will be done before the elections so that there will be more clarity.

Good luck to Singapore football.

by Abraham Lee

YOU, at work, not getting enough exercise, not eating right and stressing out. That’s going to cost you – years of life and insurance money, compounded by a medical inflation rate of 15 per cent in 2015. It’s going to cost your employer – lower productivity from the time you spend, sick days and medical claims. It’s going to cost the nation – more than $1 billion from diabetes alone in 2010, and expected to be over $2.5 billion by 2050. 12 per cent of Singapore’s population is pre-diabetic- it will get worse.

But who should be concerned about employee health? Employers currently have the most control over workplace culture, but how can employers, human resource professionals, and even employees, build a healthy culture at the workplace?

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No budget? No problem. While the first step to building a healthy culture in the workplace requires commitment from the company’s (or the department’s) leadership, it can be simple and cheap to implement. Mr Alexander Yap, Global Rewards Director at United Test and Assembly Center, shared about how his department, after talking about losing weight and getting healthier for ages, decided to set team health as one of their Key Performance Indicators.

Mr Yap said that it “starts with an awakening” and leading by example. He formed a cycling team at work and started off with just short routes around the company premises. Over time, the team cycled longer distances and more often, at times covering 200km a week. In just five months, Mr Yap lost 16kg, and every member of his team clocked some healthy weight loss.

Offering smart incentives is also key to guiding workers towards developing healthier habits because of the short-term judgement errors likely to be made when it comes to decisions on health. Mr Yap highlighted that since the company became an existing AIA customer, the corporate AIA Vitality programme encouraged him and his colleagues to pursue healthier choices.

Encouraging a culture of health can also come from the choice architecture of our office spaces. For example, placing prominent staircases in the layout of an office building can encourage employees to climb stairs. Low uptake on the free fruit basket? Simply moving the complimentary fruit from the corner pantry to a well-lit, accessible part of the office would increase consumption two-fold. Introducing standing desks will encourage workers to get off their bums more often.

The panel experts also emphasised the importance of not procrastinating and taking small, repeatable actions. Dr Derek Yach, Chief Health Officer of Vitality Group, talked about how physical activity triggers more healthy activity and encourages healthier habits, and that this cycle can lead to more success.

He shared data showing how companies that participated in the AIA Vitality programme saw fewer medical certificates being taken and produced lower rates of absenteeism. There was also a correlation between companies with more active participants in the programme and those that saw lower medical costs. Healthier employees are also more productive and motivated at work.

Senior Consultant of the National Heart Centre, Dr Carolyn Lam echoed these sentiments and said that “we have to start somewhere” and that “that feeling of being on the right track… is addictive”. As a cardiologist, she was more eager to preventing heart disease than treat it, and started encouraging the medical staff on her shift to walk up and down the stairs between wards instead of taking the lift.

These small, measurable changes, she said, help to build habits and it is best when these habits are reinforced with small rewards. When asked how long results take to be seen, Dr Lam said, “We expect a response to lifestyle measurements in terms of the reduction in blood pressure or reduction in cholesterol levels and so on, within three months.”

Perhaps it’s time we started taking our workplace health as seriously as we do our careers. The end of a career is retirement, usually at 63, but our health choices stay with us until the very end of our lives.
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This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.

AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Featured image by Flickr user Ray_LAC CC BY 2.0

by Abraham Lee

DIABETES isn’t a disease you “catch”, and that means that nobody can “give” it to you. But it’s not far-fetched to say that your job could put you at risk. Lifestyle factors form many of the risk factors for developing diabetes, and since we spend about a third of our day working (and for some of us another third of our day thinking about work), your job, work environment and the people around you become key factors in the war against diabetes.

Singaporeans work among the longest hours in the world. In 2015, we worked “an average of 2,371.2 paid hours” – longer hours than those in reputedly ‘workaholic’ nations like South Korea and Japan. Work habits and culture have a great deal of influence over our lives simply because we spend so much of our time at work.

While great habits at work can promote positivity, bad ones can debilitate other areas of our lives, especially our health. Singapore ranks second among developed nations for diabetics as a proportion of the population, with 11.3 per cent of Singapore residents suffering from diabetes in 2010. That number is projected to rise dramatically to 20 per cent by 2050.

None of us wants the lifetime burden that diabetes promises. The incurable disease is also the gateway to heart disease, stroke, blindness and other complications. The most common strain, Type 2 diabetes, is largely due to lifestyle factors and is usually seen “in people aged 40 and above who are overweight and physically inactive”.

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So what are the riskiest things about our job, diabetes-wise?

Working late can disrupt your mealtimes, sleep patterns, and heighten stress levels. Irregular meal times from skipped meals or late lunches or working late “are linked to a higher risk of metabolic syndrome”, a group of factors that increase the risk of heart disease and problems like diabetes.

Stress from work also messes up your hormone levels, including cortisol which increases appetite and can lead to overeating when its levels remain elevated due to continued stress.

Entertaining clients over drinks, or going out drinking with colleagues, if done too frequently, can also become a hazardous habit as alcohol intake is linked to Type 2 diabetes.

Your work posture can cause tension in your muscles which in turn changes our hormone levels. Sedentary, desk-bound work also lowers our activity levels, which puts us at risk of weight gain, which can lead to diabetes.

Fatigue from work often discourages us from spending time in the evening exercising – it’s much more tempting to veg out in front of the computer or TV, and then go to sleep.

While workers should take responsibility for their own choices, companies are also key stakeholders in promoting healthy lifestyles for employees through healthier work culture. Promoting work life balance, encouraging workers to exercise more and reminding them to practise self-care will result in healthier and more productive employees.

It’s not all that difficult to do either. The Health Promotion Board (HPB) has led the way with healthy eating campaigns and the National Steps Challenge which encourages walking 10,000 steps per day with in-kind rewards. In its second season, it introduced the Corporate Challenge pitting companies against each other with cash prizes at stake and setting up a platform for intra-company challenges.

Complementing HPB’s National Step Challenge is AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme, launched by AIA Singapore to help users make real change to their health. The programme offers weekly rewards to members when they meet their weekly physical activity targets, cashback, discounts on gym memberships, airfares and more to incentivise them in making healthy choices. This wellness programme is also made available to companies who wish to have it as part of a comprehensive health and wellness benefit for its employees.

It’s going to be a tough fight to live a healthy lifestyle at the workplace, but with the commitment from both the public and private sectors to create a healthier workforce, we can win the fight against diabetes. In the end everyone stands to gain – us, the G, employers and our children.

 

This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.

AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.

 

Featured image by Flickr user Ray_LAC. (CC BY 2.0)

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by Daniel Yap

THE late Mr Lee Kuan Yew worked out for about an hour each day, including during lunchtime. President Barack Obama exercises for 45 minutes, six times a week. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour plays tennis daily. The “Oracle” Warren Buffet exercises regularly as well, and they all swear it makes them more productive at work, in addition to the obvious health benefits.

It’s something companies have caught on to as well. As a matter of fact, the short-term productivity benefits of regular exercise – happy workers and sharper minds from naturally-produced endorphins and stimulants – are significant enough for bosses to start consider exercise to be part of a workday.

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Those of us who have worked at Japanese or Chinese firms may have experienced a bit of that “workout” workplace culture – stretches and simple calisthenics at the start of each workday. But many companies are taking it further than that.

One study of more than 200 workers at three sites: a university, a computer company and a life insurance firm, showed that 30-60 minutes of exercise resulted in a 15 per cent boost to work productivity that day – that’s 6-12 per cent of an 8-hour workday in exchange for a 15 per cent boost.

On top of that, workers felt better about their work and about themselves after exercising, which could have longer-term benefits in terms of worker retention and mental wellness.

In the long-term, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine showed that replacing 2.5 hours of work with exercise in six healthcare workplaces led to a noticeable reduction in absences, higher productivity and more patients seen.

Locally, OCBC, AIA Singapore and KPMG have launched programmes to reward employees who exercise regularly. The advent of wearable fitness trackers has enabled easy and accurate tracking of employee activity and disbursement of incentives, which can be worth as much as $100 a month.

But what’s the cost to set up such a programme for other firms, especially smaller ones? Building an in-house gym may be out of reach for most, and gym memberships can be costly to reimburse, and usage hard to track.

Some HR consulting firms can help plan a programme for a fee, or one could turn to a growing number of fitness incentive apps from vendors in Singapore and abroad.

The AIA Vitality wellness programme, which is exclusive to AIA policyholders at $36 a year, is also made available to companies that wish to have it as part of a comprehensive health and wellness benefit for its employees.

Nevertheless, a determined worker shouldn’t let the lack of a company policy stand in the way of better performance. Aim for a 20-30 minute activity during your lunch break, which should give you time to cool off and grab a quick bite before getting back in the hot seat.

The science is clear: It’s high time we considered fitness and exercise to be part of the job.

 

This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.

AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

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by Daniel Yap

SINGAPORE is engaging in a long-term war, with high stakes. It’s the war for our health and overall well-being, and for disease prevention which has long-run payoffs – better quality of life, reduced costs, lower risks. The details of NurtureSG, a Ministry of Health plan to instill healthy habits in our children, will be announced later this year, but any plan needs to consider potential obstacles.

The first thing standing in the way of healthier children is unhealthy adults. We need no reminding that children are most influenced not by what they are told by their parents and teachers to do, but by what they see their parents and teachers doing. Thus, any aim to change the health-wise behaviour of the next generation must take into account the behaviour of this generation.

It may be straightforward enough to try to drill healthy habits into our children, but how then can we incentivise adults, whose habits have already been formed and practiced for decades, to change? We would not want to train our children up a certain way only to have them slip back into an unhealthy adult lifestyle because they were following their parents’ footsteps.

Adults need to replace old habits by forming new ones, and new habits are formed by repetitive behaviour. Without long-term goals, such sustained change would be difficult.

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For starters, we need to address the psychology that defeats long-term goals: affective bias, risk discounting, and hyperbolic discounting.

Affective bias, that is, bias that is rooted in our emotions, causes us to hear only what we want to hear. For example, the strong emotion associated with comfort eating can cause us to put too much stock in a “reduced fat” label on an unhealthy snack…and there goes the diet.

Uncertainty about the goals we set is what leads to risk discounting, where we downplay the risky effects of our behaviour. If you didn’t know how much you needed to eat to lose weight, would you have chicken nasi briyani for dinner, and a large bag of potato chips at the movie afterwards? Probably. But if you knew you had to eat under 1700 calories a day to lose weight, then it would be immediately clear to you that the 900 calorie nasi bryani and the 1000 calorie bag of chips would completely wreck your goals, especially if you already had a typical 500 calorie breakfast and “diet” 400 calorie lunch.

Hyperbolic discounting is the cognitive bias that favours short-term gains – why someone would choose to get $50 now than $1,000 a year later. It is why diet plans fail, why savings plans fall through, why we won’t cut our carbon footprint even though we know we put the future in peril.

How can children and adults get past these roadblocks to a healthier life? First, the emotional appeal of a long-term healthy lifestyle needs to stay strong. We need constant reminders that this is good for our family, good for our children and good for our silver years. Strong campaigns and culture-building are key to achieving this.

Then, we need instant gratification for our efforts. This is the short-term counter to short-term temptations, and this has so far been the hardest to achieve on a national scale.

This is why people post their workouts and gym bods on social media – to soak up the likes and encouragement as fuel for the next workout. This is why wearables are effective, because they are a constant reminder on your wrist of whether you’ve covered your 20,000 steps today, or gotten enough sleep, or pushed your heart rate frequently enough this week.

Instant gratification is why we need incentive programmes like the national steps challenge, in-house corporate fitness or weight-loss competitions, or programmes for individuals like AIA Vitality to reward workouts with vouchers, send encouragement, form support groups, set reminders, and do anything necessary to keep our eyes on the short-term goal for as long as it takes to reach the long-term one.

We are all, in one way or another, attracted by short-term gain. And if healthy living isn’t attractive in the short-term, then unhealthy living will win out. And what happens in the short term determines who wins the long-term war for our well-being. If we lose the war for our own well-being, we’ll be putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of the G’s push to make our children healthier.

 

This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.

AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

 

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by Bertha Henson

I HAVE been swimming four times a week for the past four years. Okay, I’m lying. I have bouts of down time which usually last a couple of weeks. The last bout lasted two months, until the middle of February.

I suppose I can trot out the usual excuses like no time, crowded pool, rain etcetera to justify my sloth. Truth is, as anyone who exercises regularly knows, it’s so hard to get back into the groove if you’re out of it so long. So during the two months of inactivity, I did what I’m sure no doctor would recommend: I ate less. I figured that less exercise should be accompanied by less calorific intake. After all, my mantra is, I exercise so that I can eat whatever I want.

People say that even if the rain was pouring down or the pool filled with screaming kids, there’s always the gymnasium or other exercises that are weather and child-proof. I agree. Except I think swimming is the least disruptive of all exercises both pre-and post-wise. At least for me.

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I just change into my costume, drape a towel around myself and my feet in flip flops and take the lift to the ground-floor to the condo swimming pool. I do so in the mornings, when children are already in school and tai tais haven’t readied themselves for public exposure. Neighbours always ask me the same question when they see me in the pool: “Isn’t it cold?” I tell them it’s cold only if you decide to stay put in the pool, which is surely not the point of the activity.

I am no swimmer, frankly. I’ve always feared water and won’t get into a pool where my feet can’t feel the floor. I swim breast-stroke only and keep my head above water all the time. I do not wear goggles or a swimming cap. I find them “fussy”.

While I don’t know how to tread water, I am very good at walking, jogging and doing a whole bunch of exercises in the pool. I don’t know if they qualify as aqua-aerobics but they are, believe me, tiring.

When I am done, usually in 40 minutes, I get out of the pool, drape a towel and proceed home for a bath. It’s so much easier than getting into jogging gear with socks and the right shoes. And then having to get out of them.

How did I get myself back in the groove? By that most mundane of methods: looking in the mirror. People who exercise look healthier. I look thinner but unhealthy. Then there’s the other big difference between people who exercise and those who don’t: watch the way they walk. The fitter person seems to float on air while the sloth drags his weary body. I was starting to “feel’’ heavy.

Then there are the eight sets of swimming costumes that lie un-used in my wardrobe. I hesitate to get into them because I’m worried about looking flabby. Yet I know I will get flabbier if I don’t get into them. I did the next best thing: I bought myself another swimming costume. Now…if you buy something, you will use it. I don’t regret paying for the new costume because of what I have been able to receive in terms of healthier skin and lighter feet.

It also means I can eat more.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong. 

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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.

 

Featured image by Pixabay user markusspiske. (CC0 1.0)

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