Propaganda, Politics and Trash in Singapore

William Gibson wrote a scathing article about Singapore in 1996 called Disneyland with the Death Penalty. You can imagine his opinion of the city with a title like that. Mine is significantly less dire, but he writes prose; I write software. When he writes software I’ll have a stronger critique of his content, but boldly competing with him on journalism and grammar is something I don’t aspire to.

My very limited view of the Singapore system in action mostly comes from two places: the newspaper supplied by my hotel, and the taxi drivers I met.

I’ll give a brief example of how the newspapers seem to inform public opinion by comparing two articles.

The February 1 edition of the Straits Times has the following cover story: Jobless rate falls to 14-year low.

The edition for the following day, February 2, has the following stories on its cover page: $600 million boost for MRT service, Govt surplus ‘to exceed forecast’, and Inmate numbers fall, thanks to rehabilitation. There were two additional articles mentioned on the front page available online but only to subscribers (hence no links): “Young & jobless in Europe” describing the mounting concern of employment in Europe, and “Yaw back in public eye,” about the  minority political party leader returning after allegations of an extra-marital affair.

Did you catch that, between one day and the next? One day the newspaper mentions Singapore’s low jobless rate, and the next day mentions Europe’s high jobless rate. This seemed to surprise nobody I spoke to.

The taxi drivers almost always seem willing to complain about life in Singapore.

“The political party is PAP. People’s Action Party. Some people say it now means ‘Pay and Pay’.”

“Singapore is a fine and fine country. It’s fine, and if you cause trouble, you get a fine.”

A consolidation of multiple taxi drivers opinions: “All Singapore taxi drivers are from Singapore. That way if there is any trouble, they know exactly where I am. If they had taxi drivers not from Singapore and there was trouble, the person could just leave the country. So, taxis are very safe. Nobody wants to try to pull a trick on you.”

An older cabbie said, “Singapore is a good place for the young to work hard. When you get older, it’s harder, and real estate is getting more expensive. I own a house now, so I’m OK, but I’m worried about the younger people.”

Religious free expression seems to be very positive here. Within two blocks I found a Moslem Mosque, a Hindu temple and a Buddhist temple, all with various levels of openness to the public. And as previously mentioned, I visited the oldest synagogue in Southeast Asia.

You heard the famous stories of the clean streets and lack of graffiti? It’s true. On more than one occasion I actively searched for, and failed, to find any trash on the streets, curbs, or alleys. There were always litter bins close at hand. The only exception I found was inside the boundary of an active alleyway construction site. There I saw a salty snack bag and a soda bottle. I have two other short stories about litter:

While walking through Chinatown on my first day I noticed two young Chinese men in front of me, wearing crisp white shirts. One seemed to accidentally drop a paper napkin while in mid-stride. He looked back and said “Ah!” (as in “Ach, what have I done?”), slowed down, looked around for any eye witnesses, and resumed his normal speed, satisfied it wasn’t an issue.

I saw one person I could classify as homeless. He was standing at an entrance to one of the many immaculate MRT stations.  He looked down, picked up what seemed to be a lighter, failed to light it after several attempts, opened his palm and let the lighter fall out of his hand back onto the ground.

Those are my only litter stories.

Visiting The Orthodox Singaporean Synagogue

This trip has afforded me a chance to see many great temples. Hindu, Moslem, Buddhist, and even Balilnese Hindu. But one thing I like to do when traveling internationally is visit synagogues. I’ve been impressed by what parts of a synagogue are similar to my upbringing, and what parts of the culture are purely local to the area being visited.  Because of this I planned to visit Maghain Aboth, the oldest Synagogue in Southeast Asia. Almost no information about visiting the synagogue is available online, and an attempt at contacting the synagogue by phone didn’t go as I’d hoped so I hoped I could just show up. Being Jewish by heritage might afford me an entry.

Knowing that I only had two days on my second visit to Singapore, I found a hotel quite close to the synagogue. After checking in, I walked over with the hope of gaining entry. However, the entire property is surrounded with six foot high black metal gates with small signs attached every few feet saying “No photographs, please.” I could see a security office but could find no officer on duty, and nobody in sight. I left, hopeful that I could do better the next day, in the morning.

The next morning, I went back, found some cars and people inside the gates, and, a security guard on duty!  I approached the young Indian man and he asked how he could help.

“Hello. I am visiting Singapore, and I would like to know if I can come inside to see the Synagogue.”

“I’m sorry, no.”

“I see. I just want to look around. I don’t want to take photos.”

“No, I’m sorry.”

Then I pulled out my last card.

“Can I attend Mincha services?”

Mincha services just means “afternoon services.” Jews pray three times a day: morning, afternoon and evening, also known as “Shacharit, Mincha and Ma’ariv.” Many synagogues combine Mincha and Ma’ariv into one service, performing Mincha just prior to sundown, taking a short pause, and performing Ma’ariv, thereby limiting the number of times someone has to leave their business to come to temple.

(For those of you who need pronunciation help, “ch” here sounds like the German “achtung” and not “Manchuria“.)

“I don’t know,” he said.

“I’m Jewish. I can behave respectfully, I will wear a kipah (the head covering.) I won’t take photos.”

“When are you leaving?”

“I leave tomorrow.”

“Well, it’s my first day. I don’t know. Wait here while I ask my supervisor.”

“Congratulations on your new job!” I said. Every bit of kindness helps.

While waiting a middle-aged man whom I identified as Jewish from the kepah he was wearing, happened to walk out the gate and stopped to speak with me. We had a very nice chat, and he invited me to Mincha / Ma’ariv services (so they combined them into one like most places) at “a quarter to seven.” I was also invited to stay for dinner. I told him I wasn’t particularly observant, which he said did not matter, that I was welcome.

Another security guard came to speak with me, a Chinese man, who took my passport, and asked many of the same questions. While they were checking me out, a young man, whom later I learned came from Virginia to work at the synagogue, spoke with me, asked many of the same questions. It was at that time the schoolchildren arrived.

Twenty children from a Singaporean preparatory school, accompanied by four adults, were there to take a tour of the temple. The children were a mix of the standard Singaporean races (as I have been able to identify), Chinese, English, Indian. The young Jew from the temple told me to just tag along with the students.

Success! I was badged as a visitor and off we went.

The tour guide had also arrived five months ago. I realize now that they probably arrived on, or close, to Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. I wonder they are taking part in an organized series of  year-long internships for visiting students.

We entered the sanctuary together. A small cabinet with spare kipot (kipah, plural) sits at the door. My synagogue at home has hundreds of kipot for visitors. This one has a few. Not just because there are probably very few visitors, but because at this synagogue, everyone knows to bring their own from home.

Because the tour was geared toward nine-year-olds, the tour guide covered very basic things, like the meaning of Kashrut, the importance and observances of Shabbat, the Talit, but while he did that I sat quietly in the sanctuary, admiring the architecture and  decorations.

Some facts: The synagogue was built in 1878, and was built by, and for, an Iraqi population of Orthodox Jews, meaning also that they followed Sephardic customs. It is not the first Singaporean synagogue, but it is the oldest. For that history, feel free to read the Wikipedia article.

Whereas in my synagogue, the rabbi typically sat in front, Christian church-style, this synagogue has a separate bimah for the rabbis in the center of the sanctuary. Actually, I say Christian church-style, but this might actually be another distinction between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews.

The architecture itself was not all that interesting. The benches were wooden with wicker seats. It was a familiar wicker weave which, if I tried to describe, would make me look like an idiot. And although the bimah was in the center, all seats faced forward to the ark.

The ark is where all the Torahs are stored. I got a brief look inside the beautiful and holy space. It contained maybe twenty torahs. The tour guide assured me that most of them were out of commission; irreplaceable antiques at this point. Another distinction between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews is how they actually scroll pages in the torah. Ashkenazic Jews (like me) remove the torah from its cover, nuding the torah itself. Sephardic torahs live inside cases that, when opened, give enough access to read it, allowing the scroll to remain safely inside its silver armor. I assume two of the handles on top can then be used to safely scroll the pages.

Any Orthodox synagogue separates the men from the women.  Women pray on the balcony on the second floor, men pray on the first floor. Old and injured are allowed to sit on the first floor, but in the back, and separated from the men by a divider. Some synagogues have what is known as a Shabbat elevator, but I imagine it is difficult to add on an elevator to a structure built in the late 1800s.

There is only one Kosher restaurant in Singapore, and it’s on the synagogue grounds. The synagogue also sports a combination gift shop and kosher food store with some tasteful and pretty gifts.

I separated from the student group, thanked the parents and teachers, and returned to buy a gift from the shop. This also afforded me an opportunity to ask with the woman running the store my remaining question.

“In my childhood Conservative synagogue, they now allow women to read from the Torah and to count toward the Minyan (the minimum number of observers required to pray as a group.) Is that kind of discussion going on here in Singapore?”

Maghain Aboth is an Orthodox synagogue, so separation of men and women will remain. But there is a reform synagogue in Singapore, the United Hebrew Congregation. So if that matters enough to a congregant, then the opportunity is there. Of course, she referred to the group as Reform, but UHC self-identifies as Reform/Liberal/Conservative/Reconstructionist.

Will I return for Mincha/Ma’ariv? Maybe. Probably not. I’ve received several invitations to services in the cities and countries where I’ve visited synagogues. Sometimes, like the Ashkenazic one in Istanbul, was probably desperate for attendees to form a Minyan in the dead middle of summer, as most people were away. I doubt Maghain Aboth has difficulty getting a Minyan together when school is in. All the offers are kind and genuine, and always an honor for me to receive. But oh, my Hebrew is so terrible!

Special Lunch

My neighbor on the flight from Hong Kong to Singapore had all sorts of suggestions for my trip, from restaurants, to music, to a hotel with classy prostitutes. So when we finished our morning at the superb Singapore Art Museum I spotted one of his recommendations.

Not that one, pervie.

The Wah Lok Cantonese Restaurant in the Carlton Hotel (not to be confused with the Ritz Carlton) is known for its Dim Sum. My friend and I agreed to go. We arrived at 2:15, and they were taking last orders at 2:30, closing at 3PM. My friend didn’t know much about ordering Dim Sum, and fortunately for expediency’s sake the dim sum menu was rather limited, so I could make fast decisions.


Table setting. There are three types of pickles on the table. One is a mix of mushrooms, pork and an unknown root vegetable. One was red chilies, and the third was an uninteresting red paste.

Baked Barbequeue Pork Buns

Their pork buns came two to an order. I knew we would want two apiece. The waitress claimed they were famous for their pork buns and I could see way. They had a flaky crust on top that was oh, so good.

Steamed Pork Ribs

While these were overall delicious, there were occasional pieces of bone which I had to navigate through by chewing off the meat and then placing the bone on my chopsticks. At least I think that’s the polite way to spit at the Carlton.

Baked Abalone and Chicken Pie
I expected better. They weren’t bad but they didn’t have much flavor.


Steamed Prawn Dumplings

I think if you make Dim Sum and can’t get this right, you’re doing something wrong. They handled this one very well.


Steamed Pork Dumplings

They tasted more like prawn dumplings, so much so that I had to ask if they really had pork. They assured me there was but I hardly noticed.

Pan Friend Nian Gao
Glutenous, chewy, and tasty.

Dessert: Baked Custard Pastry and Deep-fried Mashed Potato and Lotus Seed Pastry.

Either you like Chinese desserts or you don’t. I do. Both were quite good.

The second dish was special for the New Year.


Bonus: New Years oranges (or are these tangerines?)

A traditional New Year’s gift that came in the decorative bag you see.

Comfort breakfast at Toastbox

After yesterday’s food court adventure, I went searching for a recommendation outside the world of hawker sites. But Singapore is not built for the early-rising tourist. In New York City you can find breakfast 24-hours a day. So it took some work to search for a new breakfast spot in the early morning. I fell on what seems to be a chain called Toastbox that had some interesting choices, and was a short walk from my hotel. The recommender suggested the Kaya Toast Set, and with that knowledge I  set out to find it.

Toastbox claims to have been:

“… developed in October 2005 to recreate the warm atmosphere of local Nanyang coffee shops of the 60s and 70s. It seeks to bring an old-world charm to the current vibrancy of life as we know it now. Toast Box harks back to the simplicity of a bygone era, with its pleasurable comforts of coffee and toast. It serves up traditional favourites like peanut toast thick, Asian favourites such as mee siam, nasi lemak and soft-boiled eggs. South-east Asian coffee, the mainstay of the concept, is made the traditional way where it is ‘pulled’ to bring out the flavour.”

The path to Toastbox was through very quiet and empty streets. If it was not for the constant reminders that Singapore is a very safe city, I might have been more concerned, but quiet Singapore is a treat worth savoring.

Every storefront, every business and every residence along the path to Toastbox was closed, save for a martial arts studio with a block-long floor to ceiling window showcasing kickboxing and karate classes.

But Toasbox was open! Huzzah! There were twenty-odd outdoor tables and only six customers in total, and a short line. I found the “Kaya Toast Set” listed as number 2, and waited for my turn in line to place my order with the cashier:

“Two, please.”

“Two what?”

I felt silly: people here speak excellent English. “Number two, please.”

“Kaya Toast Set,” he said.

“Yes, Kaya Toast Set.”

The cashier prepared a tray with two eggs on a dish.

“Soft boil,” the cashier said.

“OK,” I said. “Soft boil.”

Someone else poured a cup of thick coffee. I asked for a little milk, which they happily added. The cashier put a metal sign that said “16” on the tray, and I took that to mean the toast would be delivered to my seat, which I then went to find.

Given the lack of an egg cup I assumed the eggs were actually hard-boiled with a runny interior. But one crack revealed otherwise: these eggs were properly soft. I could improvise, but in decided instead the best choice was to wait for someone to deliver my toast.

Less than a minute later a young woman arrived with the toast. I asked for her advice on eating the eggs. Her answer helped only somewhat: “However you like.”

The toast had thick slices of Kaya, a tasty paste made from coconut, eggs, sugar and butter. The thick coffee, which I believe is called Nanyang Kopi, was sweet and delicious, and might not have needed milk, though that’s just my style. The eggs were runny and tasty. In the end I cracked them into their serving dish and used a second spoon I found hidden behind its partner on the coffee dish.

I’ve seen many restaurants offer English Breakfast, or even an American variety of that (eggs, toast, coffee, bacon, sausage) but my experience with international restaurants claiming to provide American fare has been disappointing at best. I’d much prefer something similar yet based on ingredients local people know well. This was a great having plenty of familiarity on my plate, and a few items to explore. A bit of a long turn comfortville.

Toastbox has a few varieties on this breakfast dish which will entice my return, and incidentally, my friend enjoyed their Laksa later that morning.

A Hundred Years of Anxiety

I’m starting to adjust to local time. Last night I crashed pretty hard and managed to get six hours of sleep. My friend Raghu is still asleep, because one advantage he has from racing around the world by boat is that his circadian rhythm is always acclimatized to local time.

So after waking up I spent an hour making vacation plans, and by 6:30AM could no longer ignore my grumbling stomach. Having had two successful trips to the Maxwell Hawker Center I thought I’d get an early breakfast to hold me over until Raghu awoke.

One piece of advice about Singaporean food is that the stalls with the best food have the longest lines, which typically means they’re worth the wait. I could only spot one long line, at a stall labeled as Zhen Zhen Porridge (they have their own Facebook page). Prices and operating hours were in English, but menu descriptions were entirely in Chinese. This was a good time for food bravery so I got on line. A few minutes later a man got on line behind me but eventually left. Not long after that, an older woman replaced him, and the line grew behind her.

All the while I thought over a plan for decrypting the menu, and the only strategy I could come up with was asking for help. As far as I could tell my choices were to bother the busy hawker, which would slow the line, irritating everyone behind me, or ask the woman on line behind me. Speaking with the woman behind me seemed like the lowest risk option, so I turned and asked.

“Number one is fish. Number two is raw fish. Number three chicken. Number four chicken, fish and century egg. Number five just century egg.” I don’t remember six and seven, because I had already settled on 4: chicken fish and century egg: a mix of comfort and bravery. I’d never had century egg before but it looked as though the opportunity had presented itself. So I told my new friend that I’d get number four. “You know century egg?” she asked. Yes, I assured her, I did. The truth was I didn’t. I used to know, but after all these years I only remember its reputation. Incidentally, the man who shared my row on the flight from Hong Kong to Singapore shared a story with me about his American friend who wanted to authentic Singaporean food but did not want to be told what it was. He enjoyed it, and only found out what he ate years later. If he liked it, then so could I.

My new friend on line tried explaining Century Egg to me. “You know horse?”

“What?”

“Horse.”

I still don’t know what she was trying to say, but I sure hope it wasn’t “horse.” But heard “salt”, and that the eggs were black, which I did know.

She then offered to buy the congee for me. “Oh, no,” I replied, meaning that I wouldn’t want her to pay for me, but she meant something different. The stall also offers raw fish, which my new friend likes, but they won’t sell just raw fish without porridge. Could we order together so she could get raw fish? That was fine with me, ignoring being taken far out of my comfort zone.

Next we discussed sizes. Did I want small, medium or large? I settled after some discussion on small.

We finally got personal, and she asked all kinds of questions: where was I from? Why was my accent so easy to understand? (Because I speak the same as everyone in the movies.) What hotel was I staying at? Was I going to KL (Kuala Lumpur?) Although I am planning to to go KL, I felt I was giving away too much information. “Maybe,” I said. “Don’t go,” she said. “It’s not safe there. Some times people will try to steal your money. Woman walking with a purse and a man with a motorcycle will drive by and try to take her purse. She either lets it go or falls on the ground.” She continued: “Do you want to go to Bangkok?” “No,” I replied.” “Good. It’s dirty.”

We were almost at the front of the line. My new friend took out some money. My dish, number four small, was S$3.50. I told her I didn’t have exact change, and I pulled out an S$10 bill which she plucked out of my hands. How odd! Should I be concerned? If it’s a scam, I thought, it’s only ten dollars – not a real problem, and yet still, somehow, a problem.

We got to the front of the line and my friend ordered for us both. She and the hawker spoke back in forth for a few seconds in calm Chinese. My friend gave the hawker my S$10 bill, collected the change and handed it to me: S$7.50. Shouldn’t it have been S$6.50? She also didn’t seem to pay for her fish. What happened?

What seems to have happened is this: in the discussion of century egg, she thought that was all I wanted. Dish number five, century egg porridge small, only costs S$2.50. And now I suspect that it came with the raw fish which, unless I missed it, she did not pay for. In retrospect, she must have paid for it separately because other people ordered porridge and as far as I could tell it didn’t come with raw fish.

She asked me where I wanted to sit. I pointed at a large bank of empty tables, far enough for personal space, but close enough to the large group to feel safe. We sat quietly for a minute, and without notice she stood up and walked straight out of the center. She was gone! This became too strange, and I started composing an escape. I couldn’t just get up and leave since I fully planned to return to the center many times over the next several days. So I devised an excuse to leave, and made a fake name, in case she asked for one when she returned, if she returned, which she did a couple of minutes later. I sat quietly for a short period so as to not tip my hand too soon.

“What time is it?” I asked.

She told me.

I pretended to do time zone math and anxiously said that I was supposed to call my wife thirty minutes ago, that I had to go. The nice benefit of this excuse was that I could surfacing some of my real anxiety.

“Do you want your food to go?”

I didn’t expect that question. I couldn’t say no for the sake of a hastier retreat so I nodded, yes. She want up to the hawker and asked for the food to go. “She (the hawker) wants another twenty cents for the box,” my friend said. I gave her a fifty cent coin and she walked away.

I noticed a thin old man staring at me from the next table. He had beady black eyes, like the kind you ascribe to Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. He said nothing. I assumed he was staring at me to warn me about the bad situation I’ve put myself in, so I smiled to acknowledge him which I’m sure made me look like a gullible dumb tourist.

She returned with my thirty cents.

Desperate to divert attention away from me, I asked my new friend about her and her family. She drives a taxi. She has children. All four of her children are grown up. Her youngest son, she said, is twenty years old.

And then she said something strange:  “Can I tell you about you?”

That was a confusing question. Did she want to tell me something about herself? Or ask me about me? Or tell me about her 20-year-old son?

“Yes,” I said.

“You’re very angry.”

My face was impassive but my brain exploded.

“You’re angry and you change your mind all the time. You have pain in your body.”

She was telling my fortune. I tried to be coy and divert attention. “I don’t change my mind. When I decide, it’s done, but getting there is is the hard part.” What a horrible answer, but I was was willing to do just about anything to avoid giving an affirmative response, inviting further humiliation. Why couldn’t she just say that I had a hard time trusting strangers when I allowed myself far outside my comfort zone? I looked back to Eli Wallach, who made immediate eye contact. He was waiting for me to look at him. I looked away, ashamed that I had no calm facade after all.

Our food was ready. The hawker prepared in two bags. My porridge was put in to a red plastic bag. My friend took the other bag. We walked out together. For the second time she asked me the name of my hotel. I answered without answering, saying I was going to the 7-11. Then I thanked her, and walked away. She got into her taxi and drove off.

Here I am back at the hotel. The porridge is still sitting in its bag and it is still hot. The anxiety over what might have been a completely innocent symbiotic exchange has left a knot in my stomach, and I can’t decide whether eat my breakfast or toss it and snack on the hazelnut wafers I bought at the 7-11.

First Singaporean Meal

I arrived at my hotel room at 2:15AM, and managed to sleep from four to six. By 7AM I was awake, and hungry. I hadn’t yet studied the area around my hotel, nor thought about what I might like to eat. My hotel offered its own food, but I was anxious to see Singapore.

My hotel is fairly close to Maxwell House, one of the famous hawker centers in Chinatown. Not too many stalls were open, maybe a dozen or two out of what seemed like a hundred. A quick reference in my guide suggested that the most famous Chicken Rice is served at stall 10, Tian Tian. I found stall 10, which had its grate up and lights on. Perfect! I walked up, and the proprietor said “ten o clock”, meaning the stall wouldn’t be open for another three hours. Damn.

I walked around some more and found another stall which seemed to have a variety of noodle soups. I carefully studied the photos, of which there were three, and not yet knowing any other foods, settled on Chicken Laksa. “No Chicken Laksa, today,” said the owner, a woman in her 50s wearing a faded pink apron that said “I [heart] Hawker Food”, “Only two dishes.” The other two looked fairly similar, but one seemed to have chilies and the other looked like frog’s legs. I didn’t want to start off with chilies, so I settled on the other dish: if I’m going to be adventurous, frog’s legs seemed like a good start. “Mee Siam“, I said, and paid the two Singaporean dollars. I turned down the seller’s offer for red chili paste, but allowed her to squeeze the juice from a tiny lime onto it.

As you can see from the photo, there’s no frog’s legs. It’s a fish-based spicy broth with noodles, chicken and scallions. The chicken was boring, and there wasn’t much of it to start with, but the egg was pickled with a sweet vinegar.  The broth reminded me of thai soups I’ve had in the past. An easy dish to devour.

I went back to ask where to bus my dish. “Put it on the table,” the seller said. And then I managed to ask about the missing item, which I thought was frog’s legs. “Anchovies.” she said. “Cost extra.”

Overall a tasty first dish.

Mee Siam

What’s out there to read about UX and UI Design?

Hello Internet.

This year I am trying to focus more on UI design and user experience, the goal being to improve the user experience of the project I am responsible for at work. I’ve accomplished a few things toward that goal:

A good start, but I’d like recommendations for other material to read. So I’ll ask you: what excellent material is out there to read about UX and UI Design?