26 December 2008

Our New Attraction

Come experience the Flyer
Relive peeing into a diaper
Or what the hag
Just use a plastic bag

Oh my goodness
What if it's big business?
Why haven't we thought of that?
Er, can drop them into your hat?

Wonder why it's called a "flight"?
'Cos last 7 hours it might
You could have flown to Hong Kong and back
But with us, you just stay put and relak

You may be chosen for an extended stay
If you are, take time to admire the bay
Yes it may seem a little boring for some
But the most exciting part is yet to come

Be treated to a rare acrobatic display
Climbers on the spokes coming your way
While watching entertainment you deserve
Refreshments from the sky we serve

You could have missed it in the army
No, it is not in the itinerary
Something that's called "abseiling"
We assure you it's very exciting

The climbers do not just entertain
In abseiling they did train
Oh so you do have acrophobia?
Just close your eyes and you'll not fear

Eh, why are you complaining?
For only a 35-minute ride you are paying
You get a 7-hour adventure
Anyone would've been thrilled for sure

20 December 2008

Does This Rock Look Familiar?

This quiz should be an easy one for YG. At different times, he came across to me as an entomologist (insect expert), an ornithologist (bird expert) or a botanist (plant expert). I believe YG's former profession as a teacher has something to do with his wide knowledge of diversified topics, except perhaps only in investment. :p Obviously, YG made a very good teacher.

So far, YG has never shown himself to be a petrologist. That is a rock expert, not of the music kind, according to this Wikipedia link. (Hmm... I wonder what do they call someone who studies petrol?) However, as YG seems to have been all over our little island of late, he must have seen this rock before. So YG, what's your answer?

As for me, I am no rock expert myself. I only know how to talk rocks. :p

Answer To Quiz - Updated on 26 Dec 2008

YG, Chun See and Icemoon obviously knew the answer to the quiz right away but they didn't want to spoil the game for the rest. Yes, the answer is Bukit Timah Summit.

graphic myspace at Gickr.com

The inscription says:
Bukit Timah Summit
Ht. 163.63m
Lat. N 1 deg 21' 16.85"
Long. E 103 deg 46' 34.95"
The climb to the summit is about half an hour to one hour, depending on how fast you climb. If you do it slowly, the walk can be quite romantic.

A tree trunk with a heart-shaped cross section. Ain't it lovely?

Take your time to see nature at its best. You can admire the long-tailed macaques but don't feed them. Your act may hurt your pocket more than their hunger may hurt them. ;) But more importantly, feeding the macaques will alter their feeding habits and make them associate human beings with food. They become reliant on us for food and may even turn aggressive if they don't get what they want. In fact, I witnessed a macaque snatching a plastic bag containing a water bottle from an unwary woman. It was quite scary.

The last part of the climb is a flight of stairs. This is a shortcut. If you take the road, the climb is less steep but it is further, naturally (pun intended).

After an arduous climb (for people of my age), I finally reached the summit.

If you are lucky, you might even see some unusual sights. On the day I was there, Mediacorp was filming on location.

The man in pink shirt was Director Michael Woo.

Come on. If Michael Woo I can make it to the summit, surely you can too. Make an attempt, if you haven't. I'm sure you will not regret it.

The Bukit Timah Summit

At the Bukit Timah Summit, there is a sign that reads:
"You have reached the top of Singapore's highest natural point at 163.8 metres. The first men to reach the summit was Singapore's Resident Councillor John Prince and his contractors in June 1827.

It took them five hours to cover a distance of 22.5 kilometres of plantations, hills and swamps from the south. A white flag was hoisted up the tallest tree, which could be seen from as far as Fort Canning Hill. The access road to the summit was built in 1843.

Believe it or not! Once upon a time .... where the tigers roamed. 'Bukit Timah was known to be horrid tiger-infested, forested blob to the early Colonials where tiger roars can be heard at twilight.' - A View From The Summit"
Battle For Bukit Timah

The inscription on the plaque near the Visitor Centre reads as follows:
"Bukit Timah, which dominates the arterial Bukit Timah and Dunearn Roads leading to the city, was a strategically important point for both the Allied troops and the Japanese.

On the night of 10th February 1942, the Japanese troops from the 5th and 18th Divisions, supported by armour, attacked troops of the 12th and 15th Indian Brigades, the 22nd Australian Brigade, The Special Reserve Battalion, Tomforce, Merrett's Force, the Argylls, Jind State Infantry and 'X' Battalion. The Allied forces had re-grouped to defend the critical junctions at Choa Chu Kang, Jurong and Clementi Roads leading to Bukit Timah Road.

By dawn of 11th February 1942, the Japanese troops reported to their commander Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita that they had seized Bukit Timah. The road to the city was open."

15 December 2008

A Crooked Product Or A Crooked System?

Recently, many people who bought structured products burnt their fingers when Lehman Brothers collapsed and the global financial markets trended downwards. Investors of Lehman Brothers Minibonds, DBS High Notes, Morgan Stanley Pinnacle Notes and Merrill Lynch Jubilee Notes were among those affected.

There was an article about the debacle in the Sunday Times of 7 Dec 2008 titled "Structured Products, Anyone?". It appears that many people have lost confidence in such products, if not in the banks that marketed them. I for one have lost all trust and confidence in my banks and relationship managers (RM) to invest my money for me. DBS recently retrenched 450 employees in Singapore but it claimed that the retrenchment had nothing to do with the High Notes debacle. I personally don't believe that claim. A relationship between and a bank and its customers is based very much on trust. If you lose that, you have lost everything, not just people's money. And it is going to take a long, long time to build up that trust again.

It turned out that banks in Singapore started marketing such high-risk products to retail investors (aka ordinary folks like me) from as early as 1999. How they managed to do so for so long is a wonder. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

Many other questions remained unanswered:

1. How many similar products were sold?

2. What is the total sum of money involved?

3. How many people have bought such products?

4. How many of these products are still in-force, i.e. have yet to reach maturity date?

5. What are the current values of these products?

I am a risk-averse investor myself. When you are barely 2 years away from collecting your CPF money, you should not be taking high risks. Moreover, I have been burnt badly before in 2001 when the technology bubble burst so I know how it feels like to lose your hard-earned money.

In June this year, I visited a well-known foreign bank in Singapore together with a good friend. I was there to look at their investment products. I told the RM that I was a risk-averse investor because of my previous bad experience investing in technology unit trusts. She showed me pamphlets of 3 products - the first was an agricultural commodity fund, the second was a structured product called JPMorgan AsiaConfidence Notes while the third was something called a "retail note" which I believe is also a structured product.

The expected return for the first product was not stated in the brochure. At that time, prices of commodities like wheat and rice were already quite high. So was the price of crude oil, at above US$120 a barrel. I thought the high prices were unsustainable, so I decided against this product. As for the second product, it paid an attractive coupon of 7.5% p.a. The principal was safe unless any of the 4 indices fell below 50% of the initial levels of the indices. (I do not know if any of them has already reached this so-called "unlikely" scenario by now.) I thought that the second product was too complicated and also likely to be of higher risk because of the high coupon payout. In the end, I invested a 5-figure sum in the third product which paid what I considered as a very modest 3.3% p.a. fixed coupon payout on a 5-year investment. The RM also reassured me that the third product was very safe. After all, she asked, "What is the probability of a country going bankrupt? Practically zero, right?"

Well, after what had happened in the global financial markets in recent months, I am not so sure if I could agree with her now. In any case, I now know that with structured products, you could lose your entire investment even if the reference entities did not fail. This was the case with the Lehman Brothers Minibonds and other such products. It looks like I have also been misled into investing in a vulnerable product. The irony is that in the eyes of the financial regulator, I am not considered as a vulnerable investor. I understand that the unofficial (or should it be official?) definition of a "vulnerable investor" is "someone who is above 62-year-old and has no more than primary education", arbitrary though the definition may seem.

After I had indicated my interest in the product, the RM quickly filled in a survey form for me, saying that it was an MAS requirement. I remember that I specifically told her that I was not willing to take any risk at all. It took less than half an hour to close the deal. Such easy money (for the RM and the bank)! I did not receive a copy of the prospectus nor the survey form that I signed. It didn't occur to me to ask for them. Now I know that I should have. All I received was a brochure with a lot of fine print:

A few weeks later I received my bank statement and was very surprised to see the product that I bought being classified under "non-capital protected investments". I quickly looked for the brochure and scanned the small print. And I found this statement:


I got to be crazy to risk my entire principle for just a miserly 3.3% p.a. yearly return. You bet I will never trust a bank or an RM ever again. The next 4-1/2 years is going to be a very long and nervous wait for me. Meanwhile, nobody could say how likely my note-issuer might collapse like the Lehman Brothers or how much money I would get back in the end, if at all. To make matters worse, there are people who would say that I am greedy or I "went in with my eyes open". For some people, the situation is so bad that they are even contemplating suicide. Don't worry, I am not thinking of that yet.

05 December 2008

A Crooked Car Or A Crooked Driver?

I parked my car at the open-air carpark near Blk 83 Marine Parade just now and went to the food centre at Blk 84 to have dinner. (This carpark has perpendicular parking, i.e. the carpark lots are drawn perpendicular to the curb.) Because the adjacent cars were all parked out of alignment to the lots, I had no choice but to follow accordingly.

When I came back from dinner, I was surprised to find a white car parked very close to my car's driver side. The gap was less than a foot wide and hence it was almost impossible for me to get into the car through the driver's door. I checked on the other side of the white car and found that there was a large gap from the adjacent car. Just then, the driver of the white car came along and opened the boot of his car.

I said to him, "How can you park your car like that? How am I supposed to get into my car like this?"

What irked me more was actually not how he had "misparked" his car but his reply: "But look at my car - it is parked right in the centre of the lot. It's your car that's crookedly parked."

I said, "Hey, look at the car on the left side of mine - it is also parked out of alignment so I just have to follow him."

What he said next almost caused a parking-rage incident. By then, it seemed evident to me that he had purposely parked his car that way. I couldn't believe my ears when he said, "You can climb in through the other side."

I was lost for words for a moment. I felt my blood boiling inside me. After a while, his conscience seemed to prick him and he asked, "Do you want me to shift my car?"

Hey, I thought that was a no-brainer, right? But instead I said, "No, it's alright." And then I went away for 15 minutes to buy something sharp. That seemed to have worked - when I came back, the white car had been driven off.

Now you tell me who was the crooked driver?

23 November 2008

A Stressful And Hectic Time

The past week has been a stressful and hectic time for 12-year-olds in Singapore and their parents alike. I am of course referring to the release of the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination) results. The results were released at around noon on 20 November 2008 (Thursday). The pupils had to collect their result slips personally from their schools.

You could see the anticipation and nervousness on their faces just a short while before the moment of truth.

With such an attractive teacher, I am sure that if it was the "O" levels, my boy would have fared badly because of the distraction in class. Luckily this was only the PSLE and his male hormones had not fully developed yet. :p

In the end, I think he did well enough to qualify for one of the following schools:

1. Catholic High School;

2. Victoria School;

3. Anglican High School; and

4. Chung Cheng High School.

So Thursday afternoon was spent shuttling from one school to another, sort of like Chinese New Year visiting. It was tiring and time-consuming.

Among the 4 schools, Catholic High made a deep impression on me. What I saw on its school grounds reassured me that my son would be getting a well-rounded education.

Catholic High School seems to have a bit of everything.

Arts - There are many sculptures. This prominent one is aptly titled 爸爸的手 ("Father's Hands").

Nature - These are real toucans (not clay models).

Politics - No explanation needed for this poster.

Humour - Also self-explanatory.

It even has its very own Speakers' Corner.

History - A mockup of Singapore's very first landmark 1959 General Elections, complete with authentic-looking election vehicle and posters. Singapore People's Alliance and Liberal Socialist Party were two political parties that contested the 1959 elections. Both parties had long since been dissolved. Hmm... the last picture (with the cross) seemed to caution against mixing religion with politics. ;)

And so does this two pictures:

Heritage - There are many miniature models on Singapore's heritage but this one caught my eyes:

And for good reason too - it also quoted my blog article on the ice ball man.

I am so proud of my son and myself.

17 November 2008

A Visit To The Firing Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln

This hot lobang (rare opportunity)* came last week from Mr Kevin Lim who is currently pursuing his doctoral degree in Communication at the University at Buffalo. It was a private invitation to visit Thow Kwang dragon kiln which was fired last weekend after a long hiatus of 5 years.

Kevin was actually conveying a private invitation to a rare firing of the Thow Kwang dragon kiln happening over 48 hours from 14th (Fri) to 16th (Sun) of November 2008. His fellow graduate student Carolyn Lim (blog here and photos here) is a member of a local pottery group involved in the firing. This is the third time the kiln was fired by the potters group. The kiln was first fired in 2001 after being dormant since 1994. In 2002, the potters received an NAC grant to carry out kiln repairs, to experiment with local clay, some glazes and salting effects in a wood-fired environment. This was followed with two firings in 2003 (March and November).

It was during one of their monthly breakfasts (around July or August this year) that they decided to do the firing. Somehow after 5 years of inactiveness, everything gathered momentum. One of the reasons for the long firing interval is that it is labour intensive, back-breaking work.

Pottery making is one of the most ancient arts. The earliest known ceramic objects were dated to 29,000-25,000 BCE while the earliest known pottery vessels were probably those made around 10,500 BCE found in Japan. The main processes of pottery making are shaping, glazing/decorating and firing. It is only after firing that the article can be called pottery. Pottery are commonly fired in a a kiln which is like an oven. Kilns may be heated by burning wood, coal and gas, or they could be powered by electricity. You can read more about pottery making from this Wikipedia entry.

Pottery production is not only a nostalgic activity but could be a sensual one too as those of us who have watched the 1990 movie Ghost (starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze) would know.

Thow Kwang has a very kampong feel to it. There is a pond:

There is even a kampong house, complete with a guard dog (not made of clay):

There is no doubt that pottery making is a dying art. Nowadays, many objects are made of plastic. They are cheap to produce and will not shatter on impact. Have you noticed that even small flower pots which are traditionally made of clay are now made of plastic?

It is not known how long more the dragon kiln will be around as Thow Kwang is occupying the land on temporary lease. Places like this are a rare find in Singapore. If Thow Kwang moves, it certainly could not move the dragon kiln along with it. Therefore, I urge you to visit this last vestige of a very ancient art in Singapore before it is gone forever. The year-end school holidays have just started. It is a good and beautiful place to bring the children to. I believe they will enjoy the visit as much as I did. Thow Kwang is located at 85 Lorong Tawas (off Jalan Bahar), Singapore 639823.

* - Note: Since the firing kiln looked like a flaming hole, I have called it a hot lobang. ("Lobang" is Malay for "hole" or "opening". Hence it is also a commonly used colloquial word for "opportunity". A "hot lobang" would mean a "rare opportunity".)

Below (text in blue) are transcripts of the explanatory notes at Thow Kwang's Dragon Kiln:

About the Dragon Kiln

Thow Kwang proudly welcomes you to visit the dragon kiln, the one and only working dragon kiln in Singapore.

Built in 1940, the dragon kiln is a wood-fired cross-draught kiln capable of firing up to 5000 individual pieces of ceramic work in one session. The dragon kiln has been cared for and operated by the Tan family of Thow Kwang ever since 1965. Thow Kwang invites you to walk through, learn and relive some of the past and present glories of the dragon kiln - a heritage of Singapore's ceramic industry and an outstanding example of ceramic kiln technology.

Within the belly of the dragon contains many tales and memories. The dragon kiln stands as a lasting testament to a centuries-old tradition of wood-fired kiln technology originally developed by potters in China. Its presence today in Singapore is a reminder of the entrepreneurial spirit of Singapore's migrant forefathers. The dragon is a perfect legacy of a family trade started by Tan Kin Seh and now managed by the second generation headed by Tan Teck Yoke. In the over forty years under Thow Kwang care, the kiln has produced different kinds of earthenware and consumer pottery ware. Its changing production is a reflection of the changing state of industry and consumer taste in Singapore as well as internationally.

Where Did The Dragon Kiln Get Its Name?

Where did the dragon kiln get its name? Does it breathe fire like the imaginary dragons of legends and folklore?

Head of dragon kiln /front firing chamber

The main chamber

If you look closely at the kiln, you would see much similiarity between the kiln and the dragon, the mythic serpentine animal with a lengthy, graceful body. The dragon kiln was probably named so for its resemblance to the dragon. The Thow Kwang dragon kiln is 40 metres in length and 5 metres in width and contains three main parts - a front firing chamber, the main chamber where ceramic pieces to be fired are placed and a chimney at the tail end where smoke is emitted.

Image taken from explanatory notes found at Thow Kwang

The dragon kiln has 17 holes throughout the entire length of its body called stoke holes which the kiln operator uses during firing for observation and feeding of wood fuel. Its head is 1.2 metres tall and its tail rises to 2.6 metres tall, giving it the posture of a crouching dragon. Such a kiln design uses rising hot air to keep the top part of the kiln hot and dry and ensures that moisture from pieces to be fired is removed.

Thow Kwang's dragon kiln was built in 1940 and bought over in 1965 by Mr Tan Kin Seh, Thow Kwang's founding father who hailed from Fengxi in ChaoZhou Guangdong, China. When the kiln is fired up, deep rumbling and crackling sounds can be heard. Flame and smoke escaping from the expansion cracks of the kiln illuminate and emphasise its shape, giving it the impression of a raging flame-blowing dragon.

People and Stories of Thow Kwang's Dragon Kiln

The dragon kiln is not only a traditional kiln technology; the memories and tales of it are also the stories of its builder and the people who work together to bring the dragon flaming alive.

Image taken from explanatory notes found at Thow Kwang

Work on the kiln is never an individual effort. A team with many pairs of hands is required to load the kiln, cart timber, stoke the fire and patch the kiln walls during each firing process. And even before the firing is done, teams of potters would already have been working hard with their hands, pinching, pulling and shaping clay into all manners of shapes and sizes to be ready for transformation into finished ceramic work within the belly of the dragon kiln. When Thow Kwang was producing ceramic works in the earlier decades with the dragon kiln, labour was organised around the extended family with the founder-patriach, Mr Tan Kin Seh at its helm.

This family-oriented labour organisation had been the basis of village life and economy in which Mr Tan Kin Seh grew up a part of in the region of Swatow in Guandong Province. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards to the outbreak of World War II in Singapore, a large number of Teochew migrants from the present-day prefectures of Swatow and Chaozhou made journeys to seek a better life in the region south of China known as Nanyang in which Singapore was a major port centre destination. As a young man of 15, Mr Tan Kin Seh made the Nanyang voyage, sent by his family down south to assist an uncle who had earlier made the journey and had established a pottery factory in Malacca. After having gained a better understanding of the operations of a ceramic factory working for his uncle, he started his own pottery factory in Johore in 1946. Unfortunately due to the unfavourable political circumstances that prevailed, he was forced to close down the business there. He moved to the newly-independent Singapore having bought over ownership of the dragon kiln in 1965.

Alongside various places in Yio Chu Kang, Sungei Road and Serangoon Road, the Boon Lay area had excellent clay deposit suitable to be processed for ceramic production. When Mr Tan established Thow Kwang in the area, there were already eight or nine families organised around dragon kiln ceramic production, all operating on the basis of family labour, in the cottage tradition of ceramic production back in their home villages in southern China. These kilns were producing latex cups, flower pots and water jars for the Malayan market. When the Singapore land development and public housing authorities began developing residential and industrial facilities in the Jurong area in 1985, many of these family-owned ceramic businesses were forced to close down. Only Thow Kwang and Guan Huat Porcelain Factory were spared eviction because of their relative more remote location. Since then, Guan Huat's dragon kiln has ceased operations as its succeeding generation has moved away from ceramic production.

The persistent possibility of being evicted, coupled with a production process that was increasingly unable to match Chinese and Taiwanese export ceramic in terms of price if not quality prompted Mr Tan Teck Yoke who had taken over the business upon his father's demise to refocus the family business onto the import and export of ceramics. In 1987, Mr Tan started to import ceramics from his ancestral village. Some of the ceramic products were re-exported to England and America. In 1993, Mr Tan established a factory in Fengxi, Guangdong to directly manufacture ceramics for export to Singapore and elsewhere internationally.

In the process, the dragon kiln here in Thow Kwang breathed with lesser intensity. Even so, the dragon kiln has been fired numerous times in the last decade. It remains a perfectly functioning kiln representative of a long-established and well-refined kiln technology passed on to the present generation from migrant forefathers.

Products Of The Kiln

Ever since Thow Kwang's founding father, Mr Tan Kin Seh bought over the kiln in 1965, it has played witness to much changes in local and international ceramics demand as a result of changing industry and consumer taste. The dragon kiln certainly has seen more productive days but it is by no means a legacy of the past.

The initial products of the Thow Kwang dragon kiln were water jars and latex cups, unglazed earthenware vessels used for the collection of rubber tree sap in plantations up and down the Malayan Peninsula. Whereas latex cups were sold to plantations, water jars met the demands of the local consumer market as they serve multiple purposes including the storage of bathwater and fermented vegetable and even the rearing of fishes. Even though the kiln's products primarily served plantation and household needs, pottery figurines were also made and sold as toys to children.

Demand of latex cups went into decline in the 1970s as a result of a significant shift in the domestic economy. The young Singapore government was actively promoting the establishment and growth of orchid farms in the Lim Chu Kang, Choa Chu Kang and Boon Lay areas whereas the rubber industry entered a decline. Thow Kwang became an important part of this rising industry when it began production of pots of various sizes to be sold to local farm owners cultivating orchid plants.

Firing took place as frequently as every fortnightly when demand for these locally produced earthen and ceramic pottery ware was the highest.

From 1974 onwards into the 1980s, the dragon kiln began to turn out a greater variety of consumer pottery ware - planting dishes, ornamental vases, hanging pots, lamp-stands etc. After Mr Tan Teck Yoke and the rest of the Tan siblings and their spouses took charge of Thow Kwang in 1980 upon the demise of their father, production for the consumer market continued to grow and so did the import and export of ceramic ware. This new aspect of Thow Kwang's business was a response to the uncertainty of lease for the plot of land that Thow Kwang is standing on today.

Even so, the dragon kiln continued to turn out consumer pottery ware like burial urns and souvenir pottery for hotel and tourists. In the mid-1980s, Thow Kwang also pioneered a series of flower pots with a distinctive textured and unglazed surface fired in the dragon kiln. Through the 1980s, Thow Kwang made headway into the Australian and New Zealand pottery market with decorative earthenware produced by the kiln and also purchased from households in Singapore for the purpose of re-exporting. The past two decades has seen the emergence of export ceramic production from China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand and Burma. Since then, Thow Kwang has moved into the import of decorative pottery ware from these places.