A Thunderstruck Look
Those of us who moan about power failures, water shortages, traffic chaos and flash strikes can take heart in the fact that things do go wrong in “earthly paradises” like Washington or Singapore. A couple of years ago, while visiting my daughter at Alexandria, Virginia—a half-hour drive from Washington DC—an evening’s thunder showers snapped electric poles, uprooted trees and disrupted traffic. We were without power for most of the night. Such thundershowers hit Mumbai almost daily during the monsoon but the impact is seldom as harsh. During a recent trip to Singapore, the local papers reported major disruptions of rail traffic on the North East Line (NEL) on two days. Despite regular maintenance, a pair of steel cables snapped just before services began. Over 90,000 commuters were hit during peak hours and had to make do with emergency bus services and cabs. It took 10 hours to restore normalcy. On another day at Boon Lay station, two escalators broke down during the morning rush hour. Once again, thousands of commuters were hit; two had to be hospitalised. The packed escalators suddenly stopped and came down crashing.
Tooting No Horn
A recent hefty stamp duty hike in Singapore brought back unpleasant memories of Mumbai and could hit foreign investment and trade. Yet these are minor, infrequent mishaps in a city which is clean, wholesome, green, noiseless (no honking at all) and prosperous. If ever Laloo Prasad came here he would agree that the roads were as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks. The large Tamil migrant population practise their rituals like fire-walking and temple visits in peace. There is no language problem because all public announcements, statements and ads also appear in Tamil. Singapore was next to Japan in public approval among Indonesians in a recent poll. Yet 44.2 per cent of Singapore’s professionals migrate and work somewhere else. The figure was only 29.4 per cent for Hong Kong, a more crowded, noisy and chaotic city. There is no accounting for public taste!
Maid To Order
For someone who reads eight dailies and doesn’t miss TV news bulletins, it was hard to manage with just one paper, The Straits Times, a rather bland, government-controlled publication. TV news was even more boring, the lead stories mainly about renaming of streets, traffic problems or digging up and relocating cemeteries. While political news coverage was skimpy, no detail was spared in reporting crime and punishment. Reports on murders, fraud, molestation and rapes and court judgements spare no salacious details like which breast the accused squeezed. Jail terms and fines are supplemented with strokes of the cane. Maids are bit news in the Singapore media. You can hire them from government agencies. The maids normally come from Indonesia, Philippines and Sri Lanka. I read, in great detail, of a “Maid War” when Indonesia hiked the rates of its maids who were going abroad. There was more fun after negotiations with Malaysia and Indonesia when the former hotly denied that Indonesia had insisted on a “One maid, one task” rule. If a maid was asked to do two tasks like cleaning and washing clothes, she should be paid extra for the additional task! The Malaysian “Minister for Maids” clarified that the confusion arose due to a “miscommunication in language” during the press briefing. Salaries and perks like weekly offs, extra work payment, airfare for going home during annual vacation, were all fixed by government agencies. Pampering? Maybe, but that didn’t stop an Indonesian maid from stealing nearly $250,000 using a DBS ATM card that had gone missing from her employer in 2007.
All That Glitters
Qualified Indian professionals do well in Singapore. My host Hemant, an IIT engineer from Mumbai, and his wife came to the island some 18 years ago. Hemant is an executive consultant with IBM and Anju, a student of B.K.S. Iyengar, teaches yoga to batches of students throughout the day. The Indian high commissioner’s wife is a student. The couple faced difficulties and for years nursed Hemant’s father, an Alzheimer’s victim who demanded constant attention. Owners of a new three-bedroom flat, they enjoy Singapore’s facilities and professional challenges, but miss Mumbai’s bustle and cultural activities.
The Chinese seldom seem to cook at home! ‘Little India’ offered a fascinating variety of Indian goods, including fabulous idlis at Murugan Idli House. The salesgirl at a busy supermarket was puzzled when I asked for ‘adai mavu’ (batter for the south Indian delicacy adai). “Theriyadha, adai dosaiin Annan? (Don’t you know, adai is Dosai’s elder brother?),” I explained. She burst out laughing and promised to have it stocked the next time I came to the store.
A New Delhi tailor was asked by Singapore strongman Lee Kuan Yew how he could stitch four suits from a suit piece as against two in Hong Kong and just one in Singapore. The tailor explained, “Sir, the farther you move from Singapore, the more you tend to shrink!”
V. Gangadhar is a veteran journalist and columnist; E-mail your diarist: vgangadhar70 AT gmail.com
Apropos V. Gangadhar’s Singapore Diary (Aug 6), Singaporeans of all ethnic groups know ‘vadai’ but not ‘adai’. I am Tamil, but have never heard anyone say that adai is the ‘elder brother of dosai’. Adai is made from the ‘flour’ of various grains, not from batter.
Bala Kumar, Pondicherry
Ha, one can understand the power cut in Singapore due to a thundershower. But look at us! The mega-tripping we had was man-made.
There is an anecdote about Henry Kissinger which is similar to the one recounted for Lee Kuan Yew. Gifted a silk suit fabric, Kissinger was refused by tailors in many countries, saying the length of the cloth was not enough. Finally, a tailor in Jerusalem said he could stitch a suit easily, and have fabric left for a pair of trousers. Amazed, Kissinger asked how. “You may be big for others, but you are not so big for us,” said the tailor.
R.K. Singh, Gurgaon
The item ‘Maid to Order’ in Singapore Diary (Aug 6) made me wonder. In seven years, the accused Indonesian maid’s employer could not report the theft of his ATM card?
'pleased' to know that power failures do happen in those heavens! some solace to us.
Varun ... I don't think I suggested what you interpreted.
I just think we over emphasize our Democractic experiment over hard progress too much. Many times it comes across as a crutch and excuse for the lack of capability we have demonstrated in making hard progress. Our infrastructure is PATHETIC. Our basics are weak - primary education, and healthcare. We don't get small things right - we don't get the basics right yet we have delusional vision and aspirations. We think we can build on a shaky rickety house of cards.
It is not ONLY because China is non-democratic that it has progressed much better than us. It is not that because we are democratic (at least in terms of having election) that we have pathetic governance (and BTW I don't think it is about just the Governing Class - it is about We The People). It has in my mind to do with work ethics, and a better balance between the selfish needs of self/family vs collective good. These IMHO, are age old cultural issues for us rather than about democracy vs authoritarianism.
So Arun, if I read you correctly, a Singapore type authoritarian system, or a South Korean authoritarian( between 1950-1990) system was/is not only doable and desirable in India, but that it would also have been a resounding success. India would have been Singapore on a giant scale. Okay, that is arguable, but we'll have to agree to disagree.
About power trip in singapore. Tripping due to lightning strike or cable getting disrupted is acceptable as valid reason. But this mega tripping is man made but the regulatory authority is toothless mouthless in front of political leaders. Aleady, CM of UP has termed the incident as a ploy of congress party to blame the UP while the culpability of his state cannot be ruled out. MMS is already powerless from the beginning and Congress president cannot intervene for fear of displeasing a criminal potential supporter
Varun ... from the distance of Toronto and of course it's rarefied environments, I have always wondered, are you over reading the "freedom" and "openness" of Desh. You have of course more than once alluded to this as "something special about us". I am just not sure, how real this is vs in our deep desires yet unfullfilled.
I have often wondered, if you take, say the bottom 30% (may be even 50%) of the population in the socio-economic scheme of things in India and Singapore (for that matter pick Thailand, Malayasia, Indonesia). If you ask them "do you feel free", wonder what the answer would be? Personally, I don't think the folks at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder feel that free in India - I know in that situation I wouldn't - the books and TV shows notwithstanding. If you ask them to trade places for example, I wonder what the flow will be?
IMHO, economic freedom is very critical for the other freedoms to have some meaning and reality on a day to day basis. Do you really think between our society, state and the actual Governing Class, there is freedom and openness really available to a sizable part of our population?
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