Tag Archive: Singapore


I don’t know if I like the word “rebellion” or if World Travel resonates with me that way. But the words that follow do hum and buzz with my nomad soul.

travel is rebellion

In Singapore (where I live), I am slapped with many labels and shoulder several roles: the responsible mother, the objective journalist, the good Catholic girl, perhaps role model, “media personality” etc. But I was never fully aware of these till I took a year off to backpack around the world.

When I left the familiar to venture into the unknown, I felt for the first time in my life that all the invisible labels and roles that defined me in Singapore were suddenly stripped away.

This did not happen immediately, of course. It took a while. But there comes a moment when you realise nobody recognises you in these foreign lands and you stop putting on makeup, you stop putting on a show.

Overnight train: Yangon to Bagan, Myanmar

18hr overnight train from Yangon to Bagan, Myanmar

At some point, I started walking at my own pace, without being pushed along against my will or dragged back. I started paying attention to what made me smile, the sound of my own laughter, what made me frightened, what upset or annoyed me, what mattered to me.

I remember being alone in Bali and strolling along an unfamiliar road in Seminyak (looking for coffee!). It was late afternoon, and I chanced upon an obscure patch of grass. It was quiet and serene, and nothing much was happening, except for a couple of ducks quacking after a tropical rain. I stood there for a good 20mins, doing nothing, just soaking it all in.

Solo in Seminyak, 2013

Solo in Seminyak, Bali 2013

I can’t even label this experience. It cannot be pigeon-holed into any category of “nature” or “urban landscape”; it’s even hard to bring up in conversation because it’s so insignificant. It’s simply my little moment. And even if it holds no meaning to anyone else, it left a lasting impression on me. It’s now a part of me.

You only realise how little you know yourself and how much you are running on defined roles when you’re torn away from all that’s familiar, and you have nothing to grasp at or fall back on.

I’m not saying roles and labels are bad or wrong. I’m just saying they don’t define who I am. And it’s important to have such an experience of liberation from them – even if you do go back to assuming them out of necessity – because at least you know what it feels like, smells like, looks like, in that sacred space free from them.

I love backpacking and traveling solo!

I love traveling solo!

To me, many short trips do not equal a long continuous one. I realise that people who travel frequently do not necessarily understand this experience that long-term world travellers understand. It’s because short vacations often don’t allow you to fully shed these labels and roles, especially if you are traveling with loved ones.

You need to fall off the grid completely for a time. But if you can’t afford that luxury, then do a solo trip, or choose to get off social media completely.

One thing I’m learning: You can’t expect to experience something different – something life changing or liberating – if you keep doing the same thing, over and over again. You need to do something different.

And if travel is rebellion in its purest form, then I’d say rebel at least once in your life. You never know till you take that leap of faith!

Do it now

#NoRegrets

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“Aunty Pamela!” She often greets me with a grin, calling out to me even from a distance. My neighbour’s daughter has mild autism and is enrolled in a mainstream school. I often think she is more sociable than my twin boys.

One of my son’s classmates has autism too. R comes over to play with my twin boys because he only has a sister at home and they don’t play well together. I suspect R appreciates getting a 2-for-1 deal when he comes over!

And then, there is a little boy who lives in my block whom I suspect has autism. Before he enters the lift, his parents put on headphones for him to calm him down. He rides the lift, grunting, groaning and shouting, which scares the neighbours “trapped” in the lift with him. But the sad part is that his parents often look apologetic.

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Autism is characterised – in varying degrees – by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and repetitive behaviours. Because it falls on a continuum, it’s known scientifically as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Studies have shown that autism is about four times more common among boys than girls.

While I have interacted with children with autism, I have not – for some bizarre reason – entertained the thought that these children will someday grow up to be adults.

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Hosting The Living Room on 938LIVE (2008-2011)

Around 2009, when I did a radio interview with a father who was coping with a grown-up son with severe autism, my eyes were opened to a reality that broke my heart.

The father told me that they had only one child because his son’s condition was so severe that they had to take care of him 24/7 – there was no room for another dependent. In fact, his wife left her full-time job and had been taking care of him for almost two decades. The couple had not gone on a single vacation.

“People always tell us God only gives you what you can handle,” he said, his voice breaking. “That is so easy to say.”

He tells me that the curious thing about autistic children is that they often look normal. In fact, many of them are very good-looking. As such, people around them often do not know that they have a disorder. But as they grow up into teenagers and adults, their behaviours often frighten people because what they see is not what they expect.

Teenager with Autism (Photo: www.jsonline.com)

Teenager with Autism (Photo: http://www.jsonline.com)

I could feel the father’s pain when he recounted how his teenage son was scorned because he could not control his sexual urges in public. Nobody could understand that this good-looking teenager had a disorder. They thought he was poorly disciplined and they blamed the parents.

“It was easier when he was a child,” the father told me. “People were more forgiving.”

What he said next hit me like a brick wall.

“What will happen to my son when we die?” he asked. “Who will take care of him?”

I did not have an answer.

This very intense interview never left me all these years. So when I was invited for an event recently that celebrated a partnership between a business and the Autism Resource Centre (ARC) in Singapore, I knew it was something to celebrate!

When Starbucks first came to Singapore 17 years ago, it was cool to hang out there because the concept was novel and the espresso-based coffees and Frappuccinos were hip alternatives to our kopitiam coffee and 3-in-1s. The ambience was also trendy with the hiss of espresso machines, the shouting of baristas over the counter and piped-in jazz.

Coffee Masters at Starbucks Fullerton Waterboat House

Coffee Masters at Starbucks Fullerton Waterboat House

But over the years, with the arrival of Melbourne-styled artisan cafés in Singapore, Starbucks became the MacDonald’s of coffee. It was mass, commercial, and the coffee couldn’t match up to some. And hanging out at Starbucks started to become a little less cool.

As a coffee lover, I do agree they don’t serve the best coffee. Personally, I like La Ristrettos and Papa Palheta better. But I admit I have a soft spot for Starbucks because their heart is in the right place.

CoffeeHeart

This soft spot started in 2003 when I read the book Pour Your Heart Into It by Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks. I read it as a case study on leadership and read it again some years later because that book inspired me so much.

When you know the heart of a leader – what he stands for – you know where his company comes from when they do what they do. And through the years, I’ve seen Starbucks keep to these principles even though they have been criticized for many things.

Pour your heart into it

So when I was invited to the opening of Starbucks Singapore’s 100th store on 14 February 2014, I was thrilled; especially hearing that this will be Asia’s first Give Back Store.

To me, every Starbucks store is a Give Back Store – I know they have an annual event around Christmas where proceeds go to the Salvation Army, they promote fair-trade, recycle coffee grounds as fertilisers, and support local musicians by selling their CDs in stores and giving them a platform to perform.

So how is this 100th store different?

Sbux 100 logo

In a cosy round-table discussion with Jeff Hansberry (President, Starbucks China & Southeast Asia) and Denise Phua (President, Autism Resource Centre), I learnt that Starbucks Singapore has been partnering the Autism Resource Centre (ARC) for the past 10 years. They helped set up a café training facility at Pathlight School and have been training the students there for a decade. They’ve also accepted students from Pathlight for part-time work attachments.

With Denise Phua (ARC) and Jeff Hansberry (Starbucks)

With Denise Phua (ARC) and Jeff Hansberry (Starbucks)

But this 100th store takes the partnership a step further.

As a Give Back Store, Starbucks Fullerton Waterboat House hires youths with autism as full-time staff. This means they don’t just have a job, they have a career path with Starbucks. And at least 25 per cent of the full-time staff at this store will be from ARC.

Youths with Autism as full-time Starbucks staff

Youths with Autism as full-time Starbucks staff

What’s more, the artistic talent of kids with autism is celebrated here. On a feature wall in this pretty nautical-themed store, drawings by students from Pathlight School are proudly showcased. Such amazing attention to detail! I could not have drawn these in a thousand years!

Artwork by students of Pathlight School

Artwork by students of Pathlight School

One of the students, 17-year-old Glenn Phua, even had his artwork featured on a Starbucks tumbler. This special tumbler is sold exclusively at Starbucks Fullerton Waterboat House, and $5 from the sale of each tumbler goes back to funding the work of ARC. I’m told this collaboration is expected to strengthen in the coming years.

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Any business that gives back to the community and promotes inclusiveness is a business I’m inclined to support. In a world where there is so much bad news, good news should be celebrated and shared, not gunned down. We do that far too often and way too quickly!

So what if they don’t serve the best coffee? There is more to life than good coffee!

And coming from a die-hard coffee lover, you better believe it.

Marcus, who has autistism, makes me a Frap!

Marcus, who has autistism, makes me a Java Chip Frap!

My hope is that all businesses that have a heart for people with special needs not forget the teenagers and adults too. Give them opportunities. Be the support network their parents need. Include them. Because for most severe cases, it’s often when these children grow up – and their parents grow older – that coping becomes harder. We do live in a society that is unforgiving and slow to understand.

And as a parent, I can identity with the fears of these parents. If I had a child with special needs, how would I feel if I knew I wouldn’t be around for much longer and would soon leave him behind, alone? What sort of world would I want to create so that I can leave knowing he is taken care of?

Let that be the space from where our daily choices spring.

be-the-change-you-want-to-see-in-the-world

One of my favourite subjects in school was Geography. I studied  it for 6 years, and taught it as a teacher for 3 years.

My love for the subject grew when I topped the standard at 15 and 16. It was a ‘living’ subject that ignited my imagination. I saw in my mind an amazing world outside my classroom. And it’s one of the reasons I suffer from Wanderlust today.

In those formative years, I learnt about “slash and burn” agriculture. Our case studies were all from Indonesia.

 

WHAT I KNEW

With the advent of the worst haze in Singapore’s history (PSI hit 401 on 21 June), I found myself revisiting what I learnt in those early years.

This is what I remember:

“Slash and burn agriculture is the process of cutting down the vegetation in a particular plot of land, setting fire to the remaining foliage, and using the ashes to provide nutrients to the soil for use of planting food crops. 

The cleared area following slash and burn, also known as swidden, is used for a relatively short period of time, and then left alone for a longer period of time so that vegetation can grow again. For this reason, this type of agriculture is also known as shifting cultivation.” (Source: About.com)

thumbnail-1.phpWe studied “slash and burn” as a method used by shifting cultivators. It was a form of subsistence farming. Small scale and sustainable. Practised in many parts of Southeast Asia, and widespread in Indonesia.

Back in the 1980s, these concepts were theoretical to me. I do not remember ever having to deal with the haze or having to wear a mask to school. My learning was not experiential.

Apparently, the haze problem started 40 years ago, back in 1972. My friend Michelle pointed me to a blog post that outlined specific years where the haze was particularly bad. Personally, I don’t remember much of it.

But 10-15 years ago, things changed. I started to feel the effects of this annual fires in Indonesia. But this year has been the worst in Singapore’s history, with the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hitting 401 on June 21. (>300 – hazardous)

I look back and I ask this question: What exactly has changed?

 

WHAT I KNOW 

An article in The Star has surfaced, suggesting that land ownership laws (or the lack of) in Indonesia is to blame.

Based on this article entitled ‘Why Indonesia Cannot Stop Fires and Haze‘ by Francis Ng, it’s hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers who “claim land” by burning who are to blame. He writes that until the government institutes proper land laws, this will not stop. It’s a cultural, traditional mindset.

thumbnail.php“The custom in Kalimantan is that any land cleared and occupied belongs to whoever clears and occupies it. Any land that reverts back to jungle is open to others to clear and claim. As a result, each settler clears as much land as possible although he is able to farm only a small part of it. The rest would revert back to jungle but is prevented from doing so by fires set by the settlers themselves whenever the weather is dry. So the same land is burnt year after year after year.

These are fires on low vegetation, deliberately set by hundreds of thousands of independent poor farmers who barely survive from hand to mouth, living in absolutely primitive conditions. When will it end? When somebody buys the land and converts it to permanent organised agriculture, as for growing oil palm. The land that the settlers clear and claim represent their only hope of escape from poverty.” ~ Francis Ng, The Star

He ends off his article by making this claim:

“I cannot help but suspect that the real reasons for the fires and haze were known long ago by people on the ground, but it served the purpose of the international environmental NGOs and the international news agencies to put the blame on their favourite baddies the logging and oil palm industries. So long as the problem is not examined honestly, no implementable solution is likely to be found.” ~ Francis Ng, The Star

I’ve been told by a journalist in the field that this phenomenon of “owning by burning” has been mentioned in conversations with villagers in Riau. It does happen. How widespread? We can’t be sure. Is this is the source of the haze problem? We also can’t be sure.

But the question remains for me: Has the number of peasant farmers suddenly exploded to such an uncontrollable number in the last 10-15 years that their “slash and burn” method is causing this regional problem?

sumatra-fires

While Singapore is enjoying a temporary respite from the haze, Johor is experiencing the brunt of it right now. In Muar yesterday, the Air Pollution Index (API) hit a ridiculous 750!

(The air quality in Malaysia is reported as the API, which is based closely on the PSI. Unlike the PSI, the index number can exceed 500. Above 500, a state of emergency is declared in the reporting area. Usually, this means that non-essential government services are suspended, and all ports in the affected area closed).

“Slash and burn is a method of agriculture primarily used by tribal communities for subsistence farming (farming to survive). Humans have practiced this method for about 12,000 years, ever since the transition known as the Neolithic Revolution, the time when humans stopped hunting and gathering and started to stay put and grow crops. Today, between 200 and 500 million people, or up to 7% of the world’s population, uses slash and burn agriculture.

When used properly, slash and burn agriculture provides communities with a source of food and income. Slash and burn allows for people to farm in places where it usually is not possible because of dense vegetation, soil infertility, low soil nutrient content, uncontrollable pests, or other reasons.” (Source: About.com

12,000 years is a long, LONG time. To give this some context, I was at the Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb exhibition at the ArtScience Museum yesterday, and the mummies there were 3,000 years old. That’s Ancient Egypt. Multiply that by four.

It has been somewhat manageable – even tolerable – till today. So what has changed? What is causing hot spots in Indonesia to number several hundreds, and some larger than the size of Singapore?

There are 437 hotspots in Indonesia today, nearly double yesterday's. (Source: Channel NewsAsia)

There are 437 hotspots in Indonesia today, nearly double yesterday’s. (Source: Channel NewsAsia)

 

SIZE MATTERS 

The finger is now pointing to large companies in Indonesia with vast oil palm plantations – some larger than the size of Singapore – that are clearing their land by burning.

sumatra-fire-palm-oil

Yes, it is cheaper. You set fire in the centre of the plantation and let it burn its way outwards. And with June being the hottest month in the year, this hot dry season is perfect for keeping the fires going.

ken TehI saw images of oil palms burning on Channel NewsAsia. Flames of fire licking the charred leaves and dancing from branch to branch. It’s a little curious to me that the whole tree is burning. Traditionally, farmers slash the plants first before they burn the low vegetation to clear the land.

My ex-colleague reporting from the field tells me that for some plantations, the nearby villagers say that the hot dry weather started the fires and some of the plantation owners aren’t even aware of the fires! They are desperately trying to reach them.

Maybe the situation is not as simple and straightforward as it seems. Maybe we are all trying to find one reason, one scapegoat, but maybe it’s a combination of a few.

But from aerial photos, one thing is clear: The role of the large companies cannot be overlooked or downplayed.

indonesia-forest-fire

Singapore has pressed Indonesia to name these companies responsible for using “slash and burn” as a method of clearing. The approach is to name-and-shame, and Malaysia is joining in to pressure Indonesia.

Cheap, primitive methods used by small subsistence farmers are being employed by these large companies on plantations the size of a small country. Now that is a scary thought.

Is the difference then.. SCALE?

Sometimes, what is meant for “subsistence” (farming to survive) should stay at the “subsistence” level. Imagine. What if businesses used dynamite fishing for profit? What would happen to our coral reefs and marine life?

Sharks fin was meant for the Emperor in Imperial China. Look what happened when businesses decided to turn this exclusive delicacy meant for royalty to food for the masses.

shark-fins-dna_10403_600x450

Many people do not understand this, I realise. It’s not common sense.

Always. Always. It’s cents over sense.

foreign-currencyI acknowledge that there is great value in studying Economics and Mathematics – it makes one think logically in facts and figures. But without a sprinkle of common sense, such approaches can be dangerous.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that the U.S. is setting up a 54-member task force in Congress to look into boosting the Humanities and Social Sciences.

The committee includes distinguished jurists, business leaders, artists, scholars, university presidents and politicians, many of whom offer stirring testimonials on the value of their own liberal arts training. A 61-page report, entitled “The Heart of the Matter”, has also been presented in the U.S. Congress. (Source: NY Times)

I believe that without some form of Humanities education, the humanitarian balance in decision-making will be missing. And our world would be a scary place to live in.

I know I’ve raised more questions than I have answers. But I also think that while it’s important to not complicate simple matters, it’s also dangerous to simplify complex issues.

If nothing else, this is a timely wake-up call for Indonesia. And I only pray that they will respond swiftly and with compassion for their neighbours and for their own.

Gateways to the World

People say airports look the same the world over. To some extent, I agree.

Airports in most First World countries like the US and Europe are kind of like babies and very old people  – they are obviously different but they look suspiciously alike to me. If you showed me a picture of a departure lounge and asked me to guess where it is, chances are I’d get it wrong. It could well be London, Paris or New York.

But of course, when you’re flying into destinations that are not big cities or hot tourist spots, airports are always more interesting. One of my favourite airports of all time is the one on Moloka’i in Hawaii.

Moloka’i is a sleepy island that makes you feel like you’ve tumbled out of a time warp into Hawaii in the 1950s. It’s home to the world’s highest sea cliffs and to Kalaupapa, a former leper colony. The airport at Moloka’i only serves domestic flights, and there is only one runway. This is how the airport’s one and only luggage belt looks like…

Moloka'i Airport, Hawaii.

Moloka’i Airport, Hawaii.

But even airports in First World countries that are tourists hotspots can surprise you. I often think of Greece as a First World country – albeit in a severe debt crisis – and one of its most popular islands is Santorini. Oh, the gorgeous blues and whites…

Santorini, Greece.

Santorini, Greece.

When I was there in August 2011, I was mildly surprised to find the airport cramped and devoid of little luxuries you’d expect from a popular Greek holiday island. While we landed on a runway flanking the gorgeous blues of the Aegean Sea, the airport looked something like this…

Santorini Airport, Greece

Santorini Airport, Greece

There were fewer than 10 gates, and one of them (Gate 3, picture left) had been closed off and replaced by a snack stand!

But there is a certain charm about Santorini’s airport, especially once you step outside the terminal building onto the tarmac and are greeted by the breathtaking ocean view and the caressing sea breeze.

To be honest, I’m not sure how this airport has managed to handle the plane loads of tourists who have flocked to the island over the years, but somehow the Greeks have managed. They have survived this long after all, from ancient times. *blinks*

And then, there is Bhutan. The moment you step out of the plane, you know you’re in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

My BFF Ning at Bhutan Airport, 2011.

My BFF Ning at Bhutan Airport, 2011.

So much of Bhutan’s culture and heritage is reflected in its architecture, in the clothing the locals still wear daily, even the children’s school uniforms.

Ning with Sonam, our Bhutanese guide, 2011.

Sonam, our Bhutanese guide.

You almost feel like the locals are all dressed up in costumes and you’ve stepped onto a movie set. But the charm of Bhutan is that tourism is so controlled and restricted (you have to spend at least US$200 a day) that its cultural heritage is well-preserved and kept intact.

But I digress. We were talking about airports.

My favourite airport must still be Singapore’s. I must admit it’s not the most unique or memorable airport in terms of how it stands out aesthetically, but the feeling I get every time my plane closes in on the runway is unique and irreplaceable.

P1240821

P1240822

When I’m on an AirAsia flight, I love it when I hear the words announced, “And to all Singaporeans… welcome home.”

The BFF Ning & I upon returning from our world travels, 2011.

The BFF Ning & I upon returning from our world travels, 2011.

Much as I love traveling – and much as I’ve said “the journey is home” for me – I always feel proud when I touch down at Changi Airport and walk out into the arrival lounge towards immigration.

It seems now that the world agrees with me that Singapore’s airport is the best in the world.

According a Straits Times article dated 11 April 2013, Singapore Changi Airport has been named the World’s Best Airport at the 2013 Skytrax World Airport Awards held in Geneva.

It’s the 4th time our airport has bagged this prize. The Awards are based on The World Airport Survey, which included 395 airports worldwide this year, and evaluates key performance indicators in areas such as check-in, transfers, security and immigration, and shopping.

World's Best Airport, 2013.

World’s Best Airport, 2013.

It’s a reason to be proud – extra proud.

But I think for any Singaporean who travels extensively, no international award will mean more than the feeling we get when we step into this gateway to home.

It’s hard to explain that feeling. No matter how good a trip I’ve had or how reluctant I am to go back to reality, our airport makes me feel proud to be Singaporean – prouder than any National Day Parade.