My Father The King Of Kuachee

His wish for me when I was in my twenties was for me to “get a professional qualification”, like accountancy, and then “do whatever you want and don’t work for other people”.

IMG_7088My father vacillated between a stable career and adventures in enterprise. He had the former in establishing his own chartered accounting practice – which he later sold, and which still bears his name  – and the latter in a series of remarkable and unconventional business deals which made our family pretty well off.

His wish for me when I was in my twenties was for me to “get a professional qualification”, like accountancy, and then “do whatever you want and don’t work for other people”.

He tried coaxing me to become a “businessman” in the true, vague definition of it, trading in whatever opportunities fell into our laps. In his capacity as the Honorary Consul-General for the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, he gave me a box of raw PNG Highlands Arabica beans, and asked me to see if I could find any buyers. Unfortunately, I wasn’t motivated enough to make that work.

Then he gave me a box of Agar wood, and sent me researching on the subject, and urging me to see if there were any interested buyers. Again, this didn’t stick, and I’m sure he was disappointed in my lack of interest.

There were other exotic mystery boxes –  sea cucumbers, logging concessions, selling second hand computers to New Guinea – they never stuck.

Instead I did something my friends thought even more unconventional – I started a business teaching gymnastics to primary school children. It tanked after five years – and that’s a long, drawn-out business failure. It didn’t frazzle my father a bit. He just said, “do something else lah” – which I understood to be “keep doing what you want to do, and what you’re good at”.

My father never seemed to be discouraged by setbacks. There seemed always to be silver linings in the darkest clouds. Or rather, he painted those linings himself. If a business deal failed, he would pick up the pieces and make something out of them.

I remember most about the time he invested heavily in a factory that produced roasted melon seeds and pumpkin seeds – the type you eat at Chinese New Year and at funerals – and for some reason or another, the other partners in the factory made off with the money and the factory closed. Creditors claimed the factory’s equipment, and my father was left with an inventory of perhaps several hundred kilograms of melon and pumpkin seeds in tins, bags, and jars.

What did he do with them? He had them brought home of course. And to my mother’s lasting dismay, every nook and cranny of our house – including the shoe cabinet – was stacked with tins, bags, and jars of melon and pumpkin seeds. I think we only threw them out when we sold and moved out of the house ten years ago.

In the years between the kuachee factory fiasco and when we moved out, my father could be seen spending his days on his sofa, cracking open melon seeds and eating them. He’d laugh and say, “Not bad, what – Chinese New Year no need to buy kuachee ever again”.

Ceremonies Are For Eating

We send my father off this afternoon with a church service and cremation. The ritual and ceremony of the event would have made him feel a little awkward. Most gatherings did.

We send my father off this afternoon with a church service and cremation. The ritual and ceremony of the event would have made him feel a little awkward. Most gatherings did. He would mumble through hymns, anthems and carols and once was even caught holding a hymnal upside down. He liked nothing better than to sit in a quiet corner and stuff his face with his favourite foods – and there were many – and then chuckle when he was found doing so.

When his mother passed away in 1999, my father, being one of two offspring, was tasked with marching and chanting around her coffin with the Taoist priest-mediums every few hours. They made perhaps about 8 rounds each session. At one of these sessions, my father dragged his feet mournfully around his mother’s coffin, lips pursed as if in protest at having to repeat whatever Taoist mantra that was being sung/shouted.

I remember watching him do two laps and then losing sight of him among the robes, ribbons, and incense. I thought at first the he might have stumbled and fallen, but the others in the procession would’ve helped him up. I thought he might’ve been overcome by grief and excused himself, so I got up from where I was seated and looked around the family’s Hose Road Seremban house for him.

I found him at a corner table, feeding himself a plate of funeral caterer’s beehoon and curry. When I asked him if he was alright, he said, “two rounds enough lah, no need to do so many times”, and carried on stuffing his face.

So, while I may not excuse myself and sneak out this afternoon when we hold the Catholic service that was arranged by my brother, I might sneak a handful of groundnuts, kwa chee or M&Ms in my pocket and stuff my face a bit. Don’t mind the crunching ok? Papa wouldn’t have.

Support Lim Swee Say In Spite Of What He Says

TL;DR version: Support Lim Swee Say, but let other voices help in steering the labour movement.

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) was forged in days of a different political landscape. It had its genesis in the founding of what later became the dominant political party. It served its purpose then, galvanising the rank and file behind the push to take over Singapore on independence.

That was 54 years ago and I am having trouble with the term ‘Labour Movement’ in this day and age, and in this country. If the governing party is for us, with us and for the country, then why is there a need for a Labour Movement, and why is there a third wheel just so we can call something ‘tripartism’? Surely MOM would be working for the workers, and we would be represented by our votes cast?

Plus, a government minister has always been appointed to the post of NTUC’s Secretary General – so I dunno man, it’s like a redundancy department of redundancy. You would think that the cabinet minister / secretary general would have the unions’ and government’s views aligned most times, and if workers had grievances against the government, you wouldn’t trust him to take your side.

But we’ve had the late President Ong Teng Cheong proving otherwise when he was NTUC Chief, authorising a strike in 1986 (yes, they are legal) without the approval of cabinet, earning the ire of his peers.

A couple of appointments later, we had Lim Swee Say, now Minister of Manpower. Now this man is easily ridiculed for his wacky turns of phrases (cheaperer and betterer, circa 2013), off-colour jokes (kiasu, kiasi, kia-SARS, circa 2004) and non-sequitur anecdotes (toothpicks 2014). But take a look at his tenure at NTUC – he pushed for all manner of schemes to be financed – oversaw the formation of two institutions aimed at making our citizens more skilled and competitive – WDA and e2i, and pulled at the Government’s purse strings to build a sizeable war chest in the millions of dollars to throw at the unions’ charters of making workers’ lives better.

There’s a story I like telling my friends and clients about how e2i funding helped an old and small noodle making factory retain their loyal but ageing staff by forking out almost 90% of the costs of machinery and a freaking brand new and larger truck because it would make the workers’ lives easier – the staff don’t have to carry loads of flour because machines the e2i bought do it for them, and the driver makes fewer trips because the new truck is larger.

Despite this and other happy stories, the main problem with e2i funding is, incredibly, that not enough businesses know how to access it.

From what I’ve seen at NTUC, I venture to say that there is no other country in the world with this kind of labour movement. And you have to give credit to Zorro Lim Swee Say for some of the things currently in place, just don’t let him sing his Upturn the Downturn song.

For all the admiration I have of the former Secretary General Minister, there is a caveat. The third prong of tripartism is still too tied to the PAP for my liking, and if it remains this way, will be the main obstacle to it being a truly independent, worker-centric player in our labour troika.

I attended the May Day Rally in 2014 and this year, and both times I was disturbed by the rally cry of ‘Majulah PAP’ at the end of the event. I finally brought this up at a online media session last month featuring the new Secretary General Chan Chun Sing, who dismissed it as mere ‘form’, and that he was ‘more concerned with substance’.

I suggested that since it was mere form, then get rid of it. He parried and changed the subject somewhat, so I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. I believe what the NTUC and Lim Swee Say has done – like our version of minimum wage – is working, and we’re nimble enough to tweak stuff as we go along. But I really want the NTUC to cut its umbilical cord from Mother PAP – it’s time to let other minds join the work on getting the right mix.

A Few Things About Tan Chuan-Jin

TL:DR version: If I lived in Marine Parade and it was an SMC, I’d vote for Tan Chuan-Jin, because he’s the real deal. Too bad he’s got ‘Self-Check’ Goh Chok Tong as his GRC mate.

I lost touch with Chuan-Jin, or CJ as I remembered him in school, the moment he left for RJC. He was the high flying sort while my friends and I preferred (or were consigned to) treetop skimming.

Over the years I read or heard about a Guardsman officer who led by example, was extremely likeable, inspiring and compassionate. He wouldn’t ask his subordinates to do something he wouldn’t be prepared to do himself, it seemed.

In December 2004 and the first few months of 2005, Chuan-Jin’s face appeared in the news as the colonel in charge of the rescue operations in the aftermath of the Great Tsunami. A few of us treetop skimmers remembered him, and noted that among all the officers who were involved in the operations, he was the only one that kept his full battle order (LBV or whatever you call it these days) and headdress on, no matter if a press event was being held in the officers’ mess or on the ground. It was an Operation, and he had to be seen to be operating.

Us Treetop Skimmers also knew that it was only a matter of time before our former classmate would be called to tea, and would be asked to don a different kind of battle order. And so it was no surprise that when the 2011 elections were called, the then Brigadier General resigned his commission from the Singapore Army and accepted the invitation to be elected to Parliament.

CJ the MP threw himself into his new job with glee, and I remember him being on Facebook at 2am on most nights, trying to answer with the sincerest of efforts every stupid question thrown at him. No ‘admin’ or ‘PA’ for this MP. He’d sleep at 2.30am and be awake by 6am because he was determined to respond to everyone that reached out to him.

In early 2012, when he was holding the two Minister of State portfolios (MND and MOM), we met over lunch a few times at his office (not sure if it was picked for him, but it was in the MOM building), and reacquainted ourselves with each other. I was the short fart who sat at the front of Mrs Evelyn Wee’s class because I was a short fart, while he was the most talkative person that ever lived on the islands of the main.

We chatted, and I must disclose here that myself and Hossan Leong, my best friend and fellow Treetop Skimmer, had an agenda for wanting to meet – we were having trouble with getting temporary work visas for a few Australian actors selected to perform in local musicals. These actors had previously studied in Singapore, at LaSalle, and were very talented, and perfect for the roles they had auditioned for.

They had previously been granted visas, but on the second try, were rejected on grounds that they were ‘entertainers’ in the same class as entertainers who would perform in KTV lounges and ‘hang flower’ bars. These entertainers were not allowed to return to work in Singapore for a second time, for the same employer, once their passes expired.

Of course, we were indignant about real artists being lumped together with KTV hostesses and other artistes, and made it known to our former classmate, now that he was the big man in charge of such things. We proposed a scheme – where foreign students of local arts schools were to be given a one year work experience visa so that they’d be enticed to study here, and we’d be richer for having more talent to work on our shows.

The short answer was ‘no’. The protracted one was that he heard our view, and that he could not grant such an exception to current regulations because every other damned industry would clamour for an exception.

Over our long lunch, we chatted about other things critical to the nation – like the declining birth rate, and I remembered something a friend said I should bring up if I had the chance to speak with someone in cabinet: that one way to solve the declining birth rate is to start supporting single parents, teenage mothers, and do away with the legal notion of an illegitimate child.

So I brought it up, and was met with silence at first, and then I added, “I’m not asking you to encourage teenage pregnancies or single parenting – just support”.

CJ then said something to the effect of, “I see what you’re getting at, and I see many cases in my ward where teenagers are stuck in the same cycle. We must not let them fall through the cracks”, before going on for at least another 30 minutes about the residents he had met recently.

Among the people he had met were a few elderly folk who had taken to collecting cardboard for recycling, earning a few dollars each time. And this is where he learned, to his surprise, that to help these people wasn’t as easy and straightforward as asking if they needed help, and helping when they would invariably accept your offer.

Pride, embarrassment and suspicion pushed some to deny and reject offers – some saying they were doing this, as you’ve probably heard and read from some websites, as a hobby or for exercise.

What’s not reported in media offline and on, is how the Minister perseveres in ensuring that help reaches every single household in his ward, whether they reject it at first offer or not. Ask his MPS volunteers and they’ll tell you he makes sure he leaves no stone unturned. This is what he’s done, and what he hasn’t accomplished troubles him no end.

I was very happy to read, in just his first month being transferred to the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), he announced that he was looking into measures to bring benefits for single parents up to par with married couples’, and that he’d used, in among the rambling, long-winded explanations, the words ‘support’ and ‘encourage’, and that it was something he believed in, and that it was the right thing to do.

Inexplicably, this intent has been, and is still being twisted beyond recognition – with some accusing the government of still stigmatising single mothers, and others coming forth with the usual floodgates argument. I blame it on Chuan-Jin being Cheong Hei. Dude. Summarise.

Fortunately, the other thing going for the Minister is that he’s got a bunch of schoolmates, peers, Army brothers-in-arms who would tell it to him like it is. Because it’s way too easy, in his company of men in white, to be surrounded by enablers who won’t.

There are a few videos and photo sets going around showing Tan Chuan-Jin the tireless candidate running from house to house, with testimonials from residents showing how much he cares. This self-promotion is not what he’s about, and besides, these videos and photos are not going to sway voters who have half a mind to vote for the WP in Marine Parade.

Tan Chuan-Jin is a genuine fella, not prone to contriving a folksy demeanour like some of his colleagues. He’s also someone I’ve known since Secondary One. We used to joke that at 13, he already knew he wanted to become a cabinet minister. He’s always been outstanding and a leader in every aspect – and possibly the only times I’ve witnessed him being downcast was when he was in cabinet, being pilloried by the public for having said something that didn’t go down well.

If I manage to squeeze a few more words in sideways before polling day, I’d tell him simply (again), “You can do this, you’re very good at this job, and if you’re ever discouraged by naysayers, hecklers and people who simply disagree with you, suck it up, dude, you’re earning a million bucks. Deal with it”.

Ministry of Retirement

I wish Minister Lui Tuck Yew a deservedly happy retirement, and I appreciate the things he’s done during his tenure as Minister of Transport. I have no doubt it is a very, very tough job, made harder by some of the problems and missteps inherited from previous ministers. Think COE miscalculations, and if you’ve forgotten – how CAAS jeopardised Changi Airport’s status as an commercial hub when they fought Air Asia’s landing rights, trying to protect SQ. These are, by far, more serious problems than the occasional train breakdown which we treat like a natural disaster.

But to his credit, Minister Lui has not whinged about bearing the brunt of a nation’s grumblings. He’s instead, taken Khaw Boon Wan’s sage advice, and fallen on his sword. I would have liked to hear him say, “I am elected, selected, and paid to do this job, and by golly, I will stay to fix the freaking train system, and fire anyone who screws up some more. No more excuses”, but he’s entitled to throw in the towel now, and let someone else handle the nation’s high expectations.

Personally, I think he made a better MoT than a Minister for Information Communication & The Arts (MICA) Under his watch at MoT, we’ve had a proper plan for expanding our land transport network, and I’m personally glad for the wider expressways which have alleviated some of the morning traffic snarl. Although I wish the expressway were wider than the ERP gantry that came with it.

So, who do you think is up for the job?