Saturday, January 30, 2010

My first published book

Dear friends and regular readers of Good Morning Yesterday. I am very happy to announce that I have just published my first book, something I have always wanted to do. The title of my book is ideas@work and it is available at the online bookstore It is about how to manage the suggestions programme or what is more popularly known here in Singapore as the Staff Suggestion Scheme or SSS. I have written a more detailed article about this book in my other blog; My 5S Corner.

I should explain why I chose to publish my book on and not through a local publisher. The main reason is that the Singapore market is too small and I doubt any publisher would want to publish my book here. Unfortunately, going the ‘ route’ pushes up the price considerably especially for Singapore buyers. This is because at, the books are manufactured on a Print-on-Demand mode.

I want to take this opportunity to thank some people. Besides the three Japanese experts who taught me about Japanese management concepts, Mr Hajime Suzuki, Mr Motomu Baba and the late Mr Kazuo Tsuchiya, I should thank three Singapore friends. They are Mr Koo Sem Khen, Chia Yew Heng and Peh Seng Ket.

Koo Sem Khen, or Koo-san as friends would call him, was formerly manager of the TQC promotion office at Matsushita Electronics (Mesa). I remember one occasion back in 1987 or thereabouts, when my employers the National Productivity Board wanted to send me to Penang to conduct a seminar on SSS for the Malaysian Productivity Association. At that time, I was still quite new at this and wasn’t very confident. I remember Koo-san actually coming to my house on the night before my trip to share with me about the SSS at Mesa. He was very proud of his company’s SSS calling it the ‘kingpin’ of their TQC movement.

The second gentleman is my old friend from my NPB days, Chia Yew Heng. Chia and I both went to Japan for our Productivity Development Project Fellowship training in 1985. After he left NPB, he worked as the training manager of TIBS; doubling as their productivity manager and taking charge of their SSS. I gave his managers a talk about SSS and gave him advice on how to manage and promote their SSS. Subsequently he went on to CIAS where he held a similar appointment. Whilst working with him on their SSS at TIBS, I gathered quite a bit of information from him.

The third person is another old friend, Peh Seng Ket who was head of the SSS secretariat at ODE. Likewise, I did some training for them and also worked with him and learnt a lot from him about how their suggestion system.

They say that a consultant is a person who borrows your watch, tells you the time and then walks away with it. I should thank these three old friends for their fine watches.

As I turn the bend on the last stretch of my career, I want to move away from ‘hardcore’ training and consultancy (which is very energy-sapping) and do more writing. Hence, regardless of whether or not my first book sells, I aim, God willing, to write two more books. One will be on my pet subject, 5S, and the second I have not decided. Maybe with all the interest in Productivity being stirring up in Singapore lately, I will write something on this subject.

My book is listed at online bookstore here.

Friday, January 22, 2010

SGH Museum

A few months ago, I accompanied a relative to the Singapore General Hospital. It was during the peak of the H1N1 scare. To avoid the hassle of temperature taking and so on, I decided to take a walk around the hospital grounds instead of waiting indoors. And I stumbled upon the SGH Museum.

Actually, I was quite disappointed with the exhibits inside. A large section of the museum was closed off and some of the major exhibits were undergoing renovation. The rest of the exhibits were mostly about the pioneers of the health care industry and old medical equipment; the latter being too technical to interest me. However I did see something that brought back memories. They were the hypodermic needles of old. In those days, they did not use disposable hypodermic needles. Instead the needles had a stainless steel base which was mounted onto the syringe. To sterilize the needles, the nurse would use a stainless steel tray with hot water. As a kid, whenever we heard the clanging of the metallic tray, we knew what to expect.

Looking at some of the old photos of the SGH complex, I realized how much the hospital has been transformed since the 1980’s when I occasionally brought my mum there for visits. I also recall one occasion when I accompanied my brother Chun Chew (Zen) there because he swallowed this huge fish bone. I will leave him to fill in the details for himself. Practically all the old blocks had been demolished except for the Bowyer Block which now housed the SGH Museum. In those days, all the blocks had English-sounding names; but I can remember only two - Bowyer and Norris. I think the Norris Block housed the dental department. And then of course there are the two roundabouts that I blogged about here.

This is a shot of the Bowyer Block with its iconic clock tower

Thankfully, I never had to stay in SGH as a patient before. Actually I do not like going to the SGH. Usually I go there to visit friends and relatives. It’s not that I am superstitious or afraid of coming into contact with diseases. I really dislike the crowds and finding a car park is such a hassle.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The bars of Sembawang Hills Estate – Edward Williams

During the 60’s and 70’s, Sembawang Hills Estate had 3 bars which catered to the British and later ANZUK servicemen: the Sembawang Café, Kasbah and another which I cannot remember its name.

1983 map of this part of Sembawang Hills Estate
Sembawang Café stood at the corner of Jalan Batai and Jalan Leban, at the end of a row of two-storey shop houses along Jalan Leban. It served very good sizzling t-bone steak on a large wooden plate at $4 each. The café was a popular hangout for the Maoris from the early 70’s onwards. On one of its glass doors a kiwi sticker was stuck there, as a sign of their territorial claim.

Present day photo of corner of Jalan Batai and Jalan Leban

Kasbah, an Indian bar and restaurant was situated along the row of shop houses in Jalan Kuras. This bar was run by a Sikh family who lived in the village not far from Sembawang Hills Drive. Mrs Singh managed the day to day operations of the bar with the help of her daughter Muni. I think the owner of the bar was an English woman who was related to Mrs Singh. The bar served a wide range of Indian cuisines. Of the three bars Kasbah was the “late comer”. It started in 1970 or 1971.

Present day photo of Jalan Kuras

A few doors away from Kasbah, at the end of this row of shops, sat the third bar whose name escapes me. This bar was located at the corner of Jalan Kuras and Jalan Gelenggang. It was an “open plan” bar – people walking along the street could see right inside. Like Sembawang Café the bar was more western oriented where fish and chips and steaks were served. Since this was an “open plan” bar it was bathed in full sunlight during the day. Obviously there was no air conditioning here and ventilation was not an issue. I observed that this bar had a family atmosphere with a more sober crowd. I supposed being an exposed “open plan” bar it tended to discourage the rowdier groups.

Present day photo of corner of Jalan Kuras and Jalan Gelenggang

In contrast the interior of Sembawang Café was always dark, mysterious and intimidating, particularly late at night. The brightest spot in the café was the dart board, lighted by one solitary lamp above. It took about a minute or two to get accustomed to the interior once you stepped inside. Kasbah’s interior was bright enough during the day, with sunlight streaming through the glass window which formed the front façade of the bar.

There was one common item which could be found in all 3 bars – a dart board. In fact I dare say that all bars frequented by servicemen had dart boards as this was a game everybody played, mostly for fun but sometimes for money or drinks.

According to Freddy Neo, “From 1958 to about 1969, about 25% of the houses in the estate were rented to British Servicemen and their families.” During this period the corner bar and Sembawang Café were patronised mainly by British servicemen and their families. In the early 70’s the British presence was scaled down and was replaced by the ANZUK forces. At this stage Kasbah came into existence. The Maoris from the New Zealand contingent made their presence felt especially in Kasbah and Sembawang Café. They practically “colonised” Sembawang Café.

Amongst the British, Australian and NZ servicemen, the Maoris (from the NZ contingent) were the wildest of the three. I recall one Maori wedding celebration at Kasbah. They booked the entire bar that afternoon and by the evening everybody was drunk (as usual) and the bar sustained quite a “trauma”. All of the brass ornaments that decorated the bar’s interior became objects of souvenir hunters. So the bar was stripped bare and the Military Police was called and order was eventually restored. Many of the servicemen ended up in the guard room (military lockup) and some compensation was paid to the bar. Within a week the incident was forgotten and hardly spoken about. Bar owners generally accepted such incidents and the occasional fights as a part of the life cycle of their businesses, and as long as the incidents did not go overboard they were tolerated. If you ban one customer from your bar you lose the patronage of that person and his mates as well.

The Maoris also enjoyed communal singing. Give them a guitar and they’ll have a hearty sing-a-long. It doesn’t matter if they played or sang well. They were prepared to give it a go and everybody seemed to enjoy themselves tremendously. Once I even saw a Maori strumming a guitar with only 2 or 3 strings left. Nobody seemed to mind, or perhaps they couldn’t tell the difference after a number of drinks!

I think Thursday was pay day for the servicemen. They’d go on a “pub crawl” starting from Sembawang, then to Nee Soon and finally ending up in Sembawang Hills Estate. By the time they reached our estate, most would be inebriated. However this did not stop them from partying through the night. Sometimes they drank till the early hours of the morning, on the night before a major exercise. Of course some would end up in the lockup the next day.

In the early 70’s Kasbah was my favourite weekend hangout. I played 301 and Micky Mouse with anybody who cared to have a game of darts. It was mostly for fun although some of the patrons would insist on having a wager. There were 2 legendary dart players at Kasbah whose reputations were entrenched in the bars as far as Nee Soon and Sembawang. One was a local at the estate (from Jalan Lanjut) and the other hailed from Nee Soon. It was not uncommon to see one of them “splitting” the darts, so deadly accurate were his aims. Most players demanded a big handicap to play them, unless it was a “friendly” game i.e. no bets involved. On rare occasions when these 2 played against each other, everybody watched in awe as the game of 301 usually ended within a few minutes.

Jason, another weekend regular at Kasbah, was a commando sergeant who taught me how to ride his motor bike one night after the bar closed. We were both not quite sober but I was having the ball of my life. I remember racing uphill along Jalan Kuras with Jason frantically chasing after me, yelling at me to slow down. I wasn’t sure if he was more afraid for his precious motor bike or me! One night he said to me, “Hey these guys (the ANZUK servicemen) are supposed to defend our country. How can they be, in that state? Tomorrow many of them would be too drunk to participate in our joint military exercise. So they’ll do time in the lockup.” I guess seeing the servicemen in such a drunken state the day before a major exercise does not inspire much confidence!

When Jimmi Cliff’s “Vietnam” was released in 1970 it immediately became Muni’s favourite song. She’d play this song on a little portable cassette recorder during the bar’s quiet moments and danced her home-made reggae steps together with her cousin. Some of the boys would join in as the steps were pretty simple to follow. So the waitress Muni acted unofficially as the bar’s dancer when business was slack. Her mother Mrs Singh did not mind this unlicensed addition to the bar’s services as it kept the local boys happy and out of mischief.

One colourful character in Kasbah was Ah Kow (not his real name) who was also from the SAF commando battalion. Ah Kow had tattoos all over his body and arms right down to his wrists, which explained why he always wore a long-sleeved shirt buttoned at the wrists to conceal his tattoos. A short story of his life was tattooed on his back. I was told that Ah Kow was a boxer and when took off his coat in the ring his opponent freaked out at the sight of the tattoos! Now wasn’t he literally a “colourful” character?

During the early days in Singapore it was mostly the secret society members who spotted tattoos, as a symbol of membership and allegiance to their gangs. Apparently Ah Kow had a tattoo on his left shoulder which was a gang insignia. I heard that he ran away from home when he was a kid, slept in the streets and ended up joining a gang for protection and survival. Anyway I knew he was a reformed character after he joined the army and I noticed the he had a strong sense of loyalty to his friends. The army provided the much needed comradeship and security to his previously unsettled life.

Kasbah closed at midnight but the Sembawang Café was opened till the early hours of the morning. They did a roaring trade with the Maoris. One night after Kasbah closed a group of us went to the Sembawang Café. Imagine the shock we felt when we pushed open the glass door and saw the bar packed with Maoris in various stages of inebriation. The worst affected ones were asleep on the sofa and floor. The air was hazy with thick cigarette smoke by this late hour. The Maoris were generally big men and one was nicknamed Buddha. I suspect this was because he was shaped like a Buddha, somewhere around his belly. One of the guys from our group proceeded straight to the dart board and played a few games for drinks. Buddha was still standing (unlike some of his friends) and he cheerfully obliged. We won several free drinks which kept our spirits high. Of course the more our friend drank the quicker his skills deteriorated but the more he was convinced of his invincibility. Fortunately for him, his opponents were usually in a worse state of sobriety! I staggered home around 5 in the morning. That was my last memory of Sembawang Café.

It has been almost 4 decades since I last saw Sembawang Café, Kasbah or the corner bar at Jalan Kuras. Sometimes I wonder if they still exist today. Most likely they’d have given way to other shops many years ago. These bars thrived during the colonial and post colonial era, up to the mid 70’s. As the ANZUK contingent was scaled down businesses in these bars would have been increasingly less viable. It will come as no surprise to me if all the bars, including those in Nee Soon and Sembawang, have long been confined to the historical past.

Footnote: My thanks to Chun See for taking the photos of Sembawang Hills Estate to go with this story. Now I know the answer to that last question above.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Hands up those who agree

Recently I had another ‘pleasant encounter’ with a couple of ‘old friends’ that I had not seen for decades. I was at the Safti Military Institute to witness the commissioning parade of my son when my attention was drawn away from the fanfare in the parade square to these two magnificent ‘creatures’ in the distance. Oldies, including possibly our British friends like Brian Mitchell and John Harper would probably remember these two Merdeka Lions that used to stand guard on either ends of the Merdeka Bridge along Nicoll Highway.

The big brass in the army probably have some profound logic for placing these two lions at the footsteps leading to this tower. But I daresay, readers of Good Morning Yesterday would agree with me that it can’t be more important that the thrill that guys my generation will experience when we see the return of something that we thought had been destroyed along with the many other relics of the Singapore we grew up in.