The little red dot gets a green stamp

From Tokyo, 11 July – Singapore is sometimes referred to as the little red dot, the way the island nation is usually indicated on the world map. The red dot now has acquired a new greenish tinge after gaining a green international stamp of recognition on 4 July. As recently as early 2012, the island nation had yet to ratify the UNESCO convention, but three years on, it has joined the list of cities that are home to a world heritage site.

The Singapore Botanical Gardens does not immediately strike me as even a national heritage, much less the world’s. A vast stretch of tropical green on the outskirts of Orchard Road, the garden city’s prime shopping district, the lack of foliage over its open areas can sometimes be forbidding in the perennial equatorial heat. Add the threat of marauding mosquito squadrons and the park becomes the abode of those ready to brave the conditions in search of free public space that offers the tranquil of nature in a concrete jungle. Many come prepared, glazed with the necessary repellants and armed with tools to beat the heat.

Foggy memories of a handful of visits often bring to mind tourists and expats with children in tow quietly admiring the lush vegetation, contrasted by school excursions in sweltering heat and chatty children rushing past the weeping willow and towering trees along the path. On weekends, the open grounds are often dotted by families and gatherings of foreign workers camped out on the slopes facing the Symphony Stage, sometimes treated to an evening of live relaxing music under the stars.

A public park is the image that first comes to mind. Not especially accessible and not a very generous selection of urban comforts. A landmark that’s been there since who knows when, is another. Today, it faces a high-profile local rival in the Gardens by the Bay. The heritage Gardens are immediately recognizable but it lacked depth in the collective memory, so it was no surprise that the government agencies sought to raise public awareness in a hark back to the years when the nation was known as “campaign country”.

The campaigns would have benefited public support and national pride, but the treasures and the park’s natural gems uncovered by the people closest to the nomination dossier remain unapparent to the broader citizenry. A race through the history of the national landmark on the Internet left many gray areas. Contrast this with a recently re-aired NHK documentary on an ongoing 150-year experiment that is the manmade forest around the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. Well-documented and persuasively written, as a viewer I witnessed the experiment, shared the vision and eventually found myself living the dream of creating a self-sustaining forest in urban Tokyo. Singapore’s national media would do well to consider a careful trek through the Garden’s archives and staff to uncover the paths to secrets and stories surrounding the country’s latest global landmark.

The Gardens itself faces many challenges, in presenting its past, living the present and building for the future. Will the ground’s history become plain to visiting eyes? Will people recognize the trees that are more than a century old? Hitachi’s iconic centurion raintree, a species indigenous to the region, draws thousands of Japanese tourists to the Moanalua Gardens in Honolulu every year. How will it ensure that it links with the population and creates new common memory? Will the Gardens grow as an institution for botanic research in tie-ups with local and regional bodies? Budding green thumbs like myself would be looking for some home gardening tips, or practical herb use or cooking courses from a herbarium with big ambitions. A current course covers local plants and their use in Malay food, a promising connection to regional culture and society. The economic gardens could hold hints from the past for the way forward. I, for one, will expect more when its new online registration portal is up and running.

The Gardens probably recognize the work lined up ahead to turn Singapore “from a garden city into a city in a garden”, and it would definitely help to provide more accessible outreach and practical programs, link the people closer to nature and create more space for tired city eyes and souls. This green stamp of approval must give it the impetus and receive the support it deserves.

Singapore Botanical Gardens

Staying on top with a book

Tokyo, 5 June – The Japanese Women’s national football team are enjoying a golden era. Sitting pretty atop the world since 2011, they went on to narrowly miss out on the 2012 London Olympics gold, but bounced back to win the last edition of the Asian prize in 2014. Nicknamed Nadeshiko Japan, the former a Japanese variety of the carnation and a synonym for reserved resilience in Japanese women, the team have had a few wobbles in their run-up to the 2015 Women’s World Cup starting tomorrow. Off the pitch, preparations to consolidate themselves at the top of the game have already gained ground in Japan.

My interest in football and children’s content drew me to this book a few months back, waiting quietly amidst the Doraemon corner of a bookstore. (Take a quick peek inside at:

Pulling it out of the pile, straightaway the words on the cover struck me – for girls and boys alike! The order was clear, the target pretty high. Doraemon fans would be quick to realize that Shizuka has some innate sporting ability (when she did a body swap with Nobita and played a blinder in a baseball game), but the book goes beyond that by bringing in a new girl classmate. And guess what, that girl is an expert in football.

The book brings the usual suspects through a journey of learning the basics, from passing, heading, trapping and dribbling littered with rather blunt jokes by the willing cast. Besides the story, the book doubles, or rather it’s primary purpose is, as a quick intro to the rules of the game. It goes further, describing mini-games and drills to do with friends or alone. Moving through awareness of team mates and passing to tackling dribbling in the latter pages, the editors obviously recognize the difficulty and skill involved to maintain reader interest as she/he developed. A Shizuka-chan mini-series runs inside too, where she goes through some exercises to familiarize with the ball. The target can’t be any more clearer, and as a parent that would gladly take his children to a game, the idea certainly sold very quickly.

In my everyday routine, I’ve noticed many children’s football teams in Japan, and all-girl teams are not uncommon. The supervisors of this book, the Japan Football Association, obviously recognizes that for girls to develop their game, they have to play with their friends, and that often means playing among the boys, as did Homare Sawa, Japan’s most capped women’s player.

She’s no longer the captain, but still a highly influential figure on and off the pitch. The Japanese team is simply a joy to watch. They pass, link up and use the occasional dribble and feint to create and find space for team mates to capitalize. Not the most physical team around, their work and organization as a team are excellent. However, their recent string of successes seems to created some pressure, but the media have been very supportive, unlike their often scathing coverage of the men’s team. With such warm support and a book like this to help unearth and nurture new generations, I sure hope we get to enjoy this brand of football at the highest level in years to come!

『ドラえもんのスポーツおもしろ攻略 サッカーが楽しくできる』
(Doraemon Fun Sports Guides – Enjoy Soccer)
Shogakukan, Dec. 2013, 850 yen + tax

A flag and a legacy

Tokyo – I remember being surprised by flags one day as I came to the office. A crumpled one clinging to the post over the staff entrance left me wondering. It was slightly cloudy, trains were on time, I was at the office, and I was quite sure of the need to be there that day, even if it were only perfunctory. The flag failed to flutter but the black strip under it tied round the post did. Did someone important just die? It was March 11. Then it dawned on me.

Four years had passed since the tsunami struck northeast Japan. Today, Japan is in its best moment, riding on the pro-growth Abenomics rhetoric, and cherry blossom buds growing fuller. The prospects are good, but the lack of respect was startling. We all understand protocol and the need to observe events, but to do things properly should be at the root of all meaningful actions. Otherwise, it’s just not worth doing.

Flags are symbols that command respect, and desecration can, in most countries, have severe consequences. Japan is one surprising exception; desecration is implicitly covered in the Japanese Constitution under freedom of speech, that is, people are allowed to disrespect the Japanese national flag. No other law exists to prohibit it, yet foreign flags are protected under Japanese law.

Scant respect for its own drew scrutiny at lunchtime from a security guard, peering overhead to see what had happened. Someone had apparently failed to iron it, or simply took it too quickly out from the washer. At least it wasn’t dripping or visibly torn. There was a slight breeze, and anyone who noticed as they walked past would inevitably feel a sense of shame or indignity, if they cared.

I raised the problem to a friend. The word “shame” was mentioned softly as people around me kept it quiet. It seemed as though they wanted this day to pass without issue and for the flag to hang in plain public view undetected. From the security guard’s actions, they just didn’t bother to correct it or even consider improving the situation. Any act to adjust the flag that was already hoisted would be incriminating, so just leave it as a doubtful entanglement hanging off the building, and lower it at the end of the day. Besides, it would be worse to leave this one pole empty if it took hours to iron out the creases, wouldn’t it?

Painful, appalling inaction and disrespect – the flag PAID the price of someone who simply followed the book without observing its substance, and everyone else who did not bother to do anything to change it. That the flag was probably only seen by company employees and visitors was its only saving grace, for it, not the people.

Contrast this with the formal, organized State Funeral for Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. The media covered every inch, foreign dignitaries flocked to pay respects, and the people were understandably very emotional. You could see the bias among certain circles against this seemingly well-drilled regime, but the organization and finesse of the communications to the public spoke volumes of the people, its institutions and its government. The week-long run-up even included a faked government website release announcing his death.

Soon celebrating its 50th anniversary without its visionary leader but left with a legacy of friendships and connections that span the globe from the founding generation, the final day’s eulogies reflected the spirit of the nation; it sets aside time to remember, but remains ever ready to move on. Singapore’s anthem urges progress, its pledge aspires to a harmonious, prosperous future. Recognizing the constant struggle to survive, the endless marathon to stay relevant, and the journey ahead, this young nation and its people understands its needs and is prepared to pull together to build a better future.

The nation’s economic miracle is a legacy for everyone. The guiding light is gone but continues to shine beyond its existence, allowing others to follow, draw upon and make it travel further. Anyone blighted with internal struggles, nonchalance, or indifference bordering on conceit, can turn to this legacy to remember the constant struggle, the sacrifices made and the path that was painstakingly laid in a bid to remain competitive and relevant. A new journey will soon begin, toward inclusive, sustainable progress. Those already overtaken should take heed.

Of sniffles and snides

Tokyo, 23 Mar – I woke up this morning feeling tired and restless. Bereft of any desire to get to work, my feet trudged across the wooden flooring as I went about the morning routine. They somehow took a body that was slowly getting into gear to the train platform, when the arm, a perfectly programmed extension of the body, reached into the trouser pocket to retrieve my phone.

The commuter routine began. Masked, foggy glasses, jam-packed trains, intermittent stops. All part of the morning ride. My fingers worked the screen swiftly, scourging the Internet for news. My mind was racing through topics of interest that required updating and relayed them to fire the synapses into action. They were stopped by the Channel NewsAsia headline – Mr. Lee Kuan Yew had passed away at 91 earlier at 3.18 am.

As my train arrived, I felt insecure, shaken and struck by melancholy sadness that was tinged with a heavy dose of admiration and relief. Every sniffle around me, every listless eye peering out at the scenery whizzing by seemed captured by sympathy. It was over.

The past few days had been a Facebook timeline of tributes and prayers for Singapore’s founding Prime Minister. Famous words, unforgettable scenes, touching sequences. They all drew a picture of the person behind the face that all Singaporeans, and perhaps many Malaysians too, had grown so accustomed to seeing ever so often. The write-ups painted a demanding leader, visionary and inspirational, but also frugal and sentimental. The public domain was soon filled with messages and outpouring of sympathies for Mr. Lee from the world over. The world had soon overwhelmed this little red dot and its people. A week of national mourning in Singapore was declared by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and going to work felt beyond me.

Yet by that time, my feet had already taken me past my transfer. I had scarcely anything to do besides meager tasks, but a subsequent inquiry revealed that the condolence books at overseas missions would not be open until the next day. They would remain so till the weekend to allow citizens and friends of Singapore to offer their condolences to Mr. Lee, the most influential Asian leader that I’ve lived under.

Just a few years back, he was still attending conferences and making trips across the world to cement Singapore’s position in the global arena. The tireless spirit has finally left its citizens with a huge void to fill and a legacy of a first class nation. The rise of this tiny island from a third world nation to the world’s third in per capita GDP is a story that will inspire generations to come.

As part of a largely non-English corporate propaganda churning unit, I was invariably tasked with drafting private letters to my fellow countrymen. Laughs turned to sniggers, sniffs sounded like snorts. Insensitivity is an understatement. A simple direct instruction was viewed as a blatant order to punish the eternally-contracted foreigner.

The public domain was already full of templates and expressions. A gathering of them would do the job perfectly, but the senses left my fingers as they clutched and clasped at my head, struggling to claw the right words out for someone else. The limbs worked, sometimes in a flurry, sometimes stationary. Three paragraphs settled, done, I left the office deflated and eager to find my own words.

I hope they will come to me in time, before my legs take me to the Embassy to stand before the condolence book ready to pen in my entry. My synapses and internal wiring would not be trusted to do a job that would end up entirely mechanical, devoid of emotion. I shall draw on my upbringing, education and childhood to express my gratitude, and then move on. Just like in Singapore, we stop, but only for a week to remember. Thank you Mr. Lee.

– updated 24 Mar

A shave with harmony

Random ramble – It’s been a while since I’ve thought about “h” words. The letter on its own means something totally different in Japanese (if you’ve heard about hentai (lit. perverse) then you know what I’m referring to), but to me “harmony” can connote so many other quietly passive aggressive aspects that it could stir an even stronger reaction from me.

Having lived in Japan for close to a decade, I appreciate the kind friendliness of your everyday cyclist who gives you the right of way or nods at your consideration in doing so for them. I have picked up the habit of thanking strangers along the way, something innately natural to do when expressing genial appreciation in this society. In Singapore, there are campaigns to make the society more polite and gracious. Here the virtue seems to be inundated in its people.

Harmony and consideration for others seem to be very closely related, almost like a razor and its blade. To me, harmony is building or keeping the peace, the razor, while consideration for others is a means towards achieving it, the blade. We all know that a blade can cut both ways, especially a blade with two similarly potent edges, one purely to maintain a clean demeanor and another to put unruly sprouts in their place – washed down the sink.

The second case is where harmony becomes stifling, where the shaver falls into the hands of a power monger. The case in question is how this becomes possible. For hegemony, there must be a dominant presence. In Singapore, it’s the 70% Chinese resident population, in Japan, well, the almost homogeneous society. Back to the question of how harmony breeds hegemony – consideration for others can be a virtue but also turned into a front for putting people in their place. Whether the latter poor souls desire it no longer becomes relevant since any personal aspirations would have been diluted by a sense of acceptance, or even worse resignation, which would only work to strengthen the consensus against their underlying wishes.

We can find the simplest example of a visibly foreign person in Japan employed to be just that, a foreigner. He is an ambassador for his country, culture, language, probably English, enlightening the wide-eyed curious populace and having a desk in the office with little or no prospect of moving elsewhere in the organization. He’s got a comfortable lifestyle, has time for family and friends, plus amiable working conditions but faces the prospects of a career and pay freeze even as the rest of society benefits from changes in the economy.

Our locked-in expat can soon be expected to be less happy because he might no longer be able to sustain his lifestyle despite an absolutely solid wage simply because of rising living costs. Total resignation would be suicide, acceptance would be letting things be. If keeping people in their place is social policy, then good luck to trying to retain valuable, skilled, and loyal employees, whether foreign or local. Outsiders will sure be faster to realize the dead-end ahead, and if we project the situation onto larger society, then it would be no surprise if it soon faces a foreign brain drain.

In what I see as a normal situation, certain skill sets would be associated with some particular area of expertise. However, social consensus on maintaining harmony by showing consideration for others beyond oneself reeks of hegemony; however capable, someone with a particular trait would inevitably be associated with it and put in the “rightful” place to fulfill a certain role. Even though some flexibility (read lip service) might be allowed by the powers that be to assuage temporary dissatisfaction, the general overarching framework remains virtually impenetrable and incapable of changing, even if for the better. Imagine a whole society of people wanting to succeed rather than just earning their keeps? Absolutely chaotic and ultimately undesirable! Dissatisfaction would soar and social order would be in peril.

Of course, the powers that be would not consider the fact that their loss of some authority would result in overall gain, or even new social backing; dissatisfaction would not be faced with resignation or acceptance, but with passionate creativity and innovation, which would bring renewed energy and transformation. The blade would then turn to cleaning up the entire face, not just plucking away at the most evident stubble around the mouth.

Everyone aspires to something sometime in their life, and with backs to the wall, people usually come out fighting; we get creative when we need to and society today needs to be more creative than relying on enforcing harmony through hegemony, but of course, we can’t make everyone happy can we? I can only hope that everyone is given the chance to find their place in society and not simply be put in someplace and be deprived of reaching their ultimate potential. Which reminds me – it’s time to find a new blade.