Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Jaywalking, eating in buses and other tales of Singapore

After my earlier posts on the whole process orientation of Singapore, some of you may have got the impression that Singapore is nothing more than Big Brother in the way it monitors its citizens. Well, the reality is a bit different. I saw people jaywalking with impunity and even sometimes eating food in the buses. Now, given that the police are so scattered, and that CCTVs rely on sampling with little monitoring, it is understandable that people can break the law without getting caught. But the penalties for getting caught are immense. The SGD 500 fine for eating in MRT/buses for instance, ensures that the person will have his costliest meal IF caught. The deterrent factor apart, I noticed that even law abiding citizens do follow the lead of the first rule breaker-this is particularly true in case of jaywalking(crossing the road even when red light to pedestrians).And that is why I guess Singapore has this zero tolerance to such low impact offenses, because they are similar to Stephen Leviit's broken window analogy-if left unattended will encourage the repetition of these offenses. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Some interesting quirks about Singapore

To an Indian(or any other South Asian for that matter), Singapore does take some time to adapt to. Some apparent oddities do get sorted out once you take some effort to understand why. With that in mind, I elaborate on the following things:-
  1. People wear very short pants/shorts close to jockey length! This is apparently due to the heat but then India sees worse.So I guess it is a cultural thing. Do not pass any cultural judgements on people here for merely wearing skimpy dresses
  2. Fresh food is costlier than packed food because Singapore imports virtually everything(save bread) from milk to apples to meat, from Malaysia/Australia etc
  3. Veg food is costlier than non veg again because per gram of imported raw material,non veg is 'chunky' and yields a better return
  4. Drinking from the tap is safe unlike some other places
  5. There is silence in the public transport/places because people are hooked on to their smartphones all the time. Unlike other places where complete strangers can(and do) strike up conversations on the commute, here people are too engrossed in their mobiles(in general) to do anything else. Do not get too lonely but find something else to do. When in as the Romans do!
  6. Elections are virtually a farce here with little voter interest, a strong ruling party(in power since independence) and a fragmented opposition. To its credit, the ruling party has not faced any corruption scandals or major issues, and has guided Singapore through thick and thin. So I guess there is something to be said for good governance. The only minus is that though political debate does exist, it barely translates into a constructive political opposition
  7. There is virtually no home news here. Since Singapore is this goody-goody place with little crime/turmoil/active politics, there is very little interesting news. And the selection of domestic newspapers is quite low, most published by Singapore Press Holdings(SPH)
  8. Right from the modular furniture, to the garbage chutes/bins in apartments, everything is mechanized to the last T. You could conceivably live without ever dealing with a human being! To its credit though, this plug and play approach makes it easier to settle into.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Avoid that $30phone call-and other money saving tips in Singapore

As shown by the remarkable lack of price comparison sites, Singapore is NOT a price sensitive shopping hub-and these tips may seem incongruous-but they may be valuable to new expats and so I'm posting it.

  1. Veggies please check that the cheese spread you buy does not have garlic. Generally it does
  2. That 'curry' flavored noodles you may pick up is NON VEG and it has a weird taste.
  3. Purchase household need/food items from Mustafa Centre. Even electronics/durables are often cheaper there. For example, milk packets costing $1.7 there sell for $2.7-$3.5 elsewhere
  4. The minimum cab flagdown fare is $2.8, so unlike India, even short distances do not make sense by cab
  5. Use the site for superb directions(including waiting times) on how to use public transport to commute to places unknown also
  6. The amenities here are so easy to get-even an apartment/condo will do and a service apartment is actually a waste. The entire set up is virtually plug and play with extreme ease of getting internet, TV etc
  7. Take photos at home-here the passport photos cost $6 for 4 copies(!) and the normal ones are not much cheaper.
  8. Use the ISD code provided by your operator(like 018/021 etc) to get that concessional ISD rate to India, else pay $2.5/minute or more. I speak from experience.
  9. Do your shopping in Fairprice shops rather than 7-11s(of course Mustafa is first option)
  10. For shopping in the Orchard Road/other electronics shops, do your price search online for atleast a start. Then you can haggle down the rates which are as high as Lamington Road/Fashion Street(initially)

The quest for 'interesting work'-will it ever be met?

This genesis for this post came from a recent debate with a colleague about the linkage between interest in work, attention to detail and the resultant mistake(s). In that discussion, I realized that like many others of my generation, I was guilty of wanting to pick the work I wanted to do, and paying 100% attention only to that! When I spoke informally later on this subject to the recruiters, even they voiced the view that interact with the younger generation(school/college/post grad etc) and one resounding message which comes out is the zeal for work that 'adds meaning', 'is interesting' and is non routine. While I agree that few people would want monotonous clerical jobs by choice(when they are capable of much more), the fact remains that no one can be a CEO from the entry level itself-unless he sets up his own organization. In any setup with division of labour, people at the bottom end of the totem pole('entry level') do get the short end of the stick, in terms of initially mind numbing routine tasks till they prove themselves. After all, what better(and safer) way for the employer to assess the obedience, commitment and dedication of the employee, than to assign such work? That is why fraternities have 'rites of passage', student bodies have 'hazing'-all with the intent of making the new entrant 'pay his dues'. Assigning routine work at entry level is an organizational way of making the new entrant pay his view. Think of it this way, the existing staff are devoting their time/efforts on you. Taking burden/pain off their heads is a way of repaying the 'guru dakhshina'.

So when you want to resign your job to escape that mechanical/routine work, look for that light at the end of the tunnel before putting in your papers. That interesting work you looked for, may just come your way with some well timed moves/organizational shifts. But remember that with the increasing trend towards automation/process driven tasks, there is more chance of work becoming routine, than of it becoming more creative/involved. So try to find fun in your existing 'routine' work-light the candle instead of cursing the darkness.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Surviving as a veggie in Singapore

Its nearing the 2nd weekend of my internship-and yet I see no convenient solution in sight to the food issue. As I blogged in some of my earlier posts, the veggie food options are few in the area I stay. I can choose between, and there is very little variety/customization as one is used to in India. Still, I must have put on 1-2 kilos since coming here, and the reasons are outlined below

  1. They have a 'kaya toast' with ordinary toast but a yummy stuffing which melts in your mouth and tastes heavenly. $2-3 worth of toast will fill your stomach
  2. Funnily, a flavoured milk brand(Dutch Lady) costs less than ordinary milk! So I slurp up 0.5-1Ltr a day, all on the pretext of calcium intake
  3. On office days, there are many food plazas and restaurants nearby so there is no problem in eating. The real issue is on weekends where the only Indian restaurent nearby does not do home delivery, and the ones in Little India take upto 2 hours. So using ready to eat/cooking at home seem the only options
  4. While I felt(in India) that processed food was a rip off, I thank MTR, Kohinoor etc for the abundant options in the frozen segment. Whether it be roti, paratha, naan, dal, bhaji, paneer, pulav, puranpoli etc, virtually everything is available in ready to eat, at a quality comparable to hotels, and at an unsurpassed convenience. Try ordering food at 10pm in the night, and you will get what I mean
  5. Breakfast is not an issue with eggs, bread, cornflakes, milk, flavoured milk and fruits all on the table
  6. Fruit stalls are few but the selection of fruits is good in them AND at the local Fair Price super market. And thank to South East Asia, there are some exotic fruits like durians etc which I intend to sample over the coming weeks.
  7. Luckily, I am not finicky about eating in places where non veg is served/present in proximity else it would not be possible to eat in most places!! For those who like non veg, Singapore has all kinds of exotic cusines and dining out would be a pleasure
  8. As in other aspects of Singapore life, processed bakery goods are much cheaper and better than those served in shops/stalls. I had yummy bread buns, cream rolls, cakes etc for a reasonable sum, as well as cold coffee from 7-11 for just $3. So buying off the shelf is both convenient and better.
It is now that I realize that even the IIM-A mess type food would have been welcome here-and that is saying a LOT! Still, it is an experience and I guess I'll come out with intact health/waistline albeit with a lighter wallet  Nothing beats home food though, which I'm looking forward to!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Why change agents should prepare draft documents/discussion papers

In Mar-11, Prof Anil Gupta(of 'Shodh Yatra', Honeybee network etc fame) addressed a group of us IIM-A students, on the possibility of launching a course geared towards discussing, analyzing and impacting Indian/international politics in a non partisan apolitical way. During that discussion, one thing of his struck me as quite important-the suggestion that preparing draft laws/frameworks allows quick action to be taken when the circumstances are ripe. For instance, he said that in the present scenario(Mar-11), with plenty of angst against corruption in Govt dealings, the time was ripe to pass a comprehensive law to put an end to corruption. But because there were no documents ready for discussion, he felt that the time was fast ebbing away. I feel that this applies to the corporate world as well, and explains why consulting firms/investment bankers spend to much time on documents which may be too ahead of their time.

Though oral/email communication have their own place, nothing beats a concrete, well written document which charts the way forward for a transaction/policy/law etc. Writing being something which few people are good at, and fewer having the time/objectivity to write well, the person who can produce a solid good draft can slant it his way; and can also shift the onus on the others to raise any issues-which by inertia they may not. Also, if any issues come out, they can only improve the draft because it would become more robust, and also people will support it once their inputs have been considered. Also, one cannot exactly circulate an email chain/telephone call transcript; and therefore a document beats them hands down in this aspect.

So what is the takeaway? By all means drum up support for your proposed change, but do flesh out a written document giving sufficient time to comment/react. While allowing for reactions(avoiding unpleasant surprises later), others would be grateful to you for getting the documentation out of the way. If you hate it, get some one who likes that work.

Of condoms, booze, chewing gums, healthy food,drugs and refunds-the sucess story of a 'nanny state' Singapore

Whenever governments try to increase their regulatory ambit(as even the best intentioned ones do sometimes purely from power politics basis), there are calls from libertarians to avoid 'nanny states'. With the caveat that Singapore as a small city state, with the same ruling party since independence, is probably unique, I proceed to connect the dots which I've noticed, to infer that this is on balance, good for the citizens. Though media freedom and choice is limited-reflecting in the relatively few local papers-and the Govt does not tolerate dissent, there are few issues with the Govt services offered. Some examples are
  1. Not being prudish with sale of booze/condoms(which are sold at the checkout counters) of supermarkets) with only the age restriction(18+) being imposed. This ensures that bootleggers do not gain from black market sales/customers do not shy away from impulse purchase(!) of contraceptives.
  2. Chewing gum ban seems absurd but not if you realize the tremendous manual effort involved in cleaning up stains(as the pan stained Mumbai local trains would attest to if they could speak).
  3. Recently, the Govt launched an initiative in partnership with hawkers and private sector food companies, to make street food healthier(yet tastier) by using brown rice, healthier oil etc, all without extra cost to the hawkers. 
  4. I also noticed that when the private sector bus operators had inadvertently overcharged by 0.3km on 5-6 routes, they had to prominently display that information on ALL bus stops, and provide an automated refund mechanism. In other countries, this would have been dealt with via regulatory fine/future fare adjustments but Singapore upheld the welfare of the affected customers, which technology enabled it to identify.
  5. The death penalty for trafficking of drugs, the steep penalties for even 'minor' violations of the law, coupled with CCTV monitoring ensures that Singapore stays crime free. That is certainly a plus. 
  6. Some drawbacks are Govt controlled HDB housing supply staying low/restricted thus jacking up realty prices, presumption of guilt in several aspects of the legal system, and also the automatic deportation of work permit holders diagnosed with HIV etc.
Maybe we could compare it with the coastal areas of China, where the population has a Faustian pact with the Govt to accept limited freedom in return for high incomes/amenities/services(this is NOT true of other parts which have lower incomes but comparable amenities). Like how China is finding it difficult to quell unrest post economic growth slowdown, Singapore had given several populist freebies in its own budgets as well. How these work will be critical in determining how Singapore fares vis-a-vis Hong Kong/Shangai in the near future.

How Singapore is like mass retail banking(their way or the highway)

My first experience with Singapore rigidity was on my first day itself-when I went for breakfast. The eggs were not quite boiled right, yet when I requested(even offering an extra charge) for them to be more hardboiled, the response I received was 'no'. This response was typical in other mass market joints where the wait-staff do not offer options/take requests for menu adaptions. Even in supermarkets, fruit stalls, transport systems etc, there is no customization/flexibility. The system is geared towards producing the maximum throughput, rather than on satisfying individual demand. That is exactly how retail banking works(automated high volume non branch transactions) compared to private banking(personalized, branch based).This is a good thing when it comes to service delivery for the common man, because the private banking approach is probably more inefficient or expensive. And one of the reasons I was able to adjust so fast to Singapore is their 'plug and play' infrastructure-social and physical-geared to service ANYone.

Singapore-the ultimate prosumer destination

Marketing theory defines prosumers as those actively involved in creating their own customer experience. Whatever those who coined that term may have intended, that concept has lead to more business functions being transferred to the customer. But I'm digressing. In my week here, I have done more self service than in the entire year back in India.
  1. Topped up my prepaid mobile balance online-to avail of that 25%+ bonus offered by M-One
  2. Booked an online appointment for my Training Employment Pass(TEP) application
  3. Paid 20cents in an unattended box for using the public toilet
  4. Swiped my cards twice a day for using the bus/train
  5. Used the website for finding out directions-instead of asking an helpline
  6. Bagged my own fruits/vegetables without assistance from supermarket staff, because the billing is on a per piece/per prepacked bag. 
I'm sure this list will grow in the next 8 weeks. 

The tale of three Singapores-upmarket, middle and down rung

This classification can be done for any country. But for a small island state like Singapore, this is easier to do and validate. From my observations/discussions with people, I could do the following demographic classification.
  1. Upmarket:- Typically senior banking/finance/shipping professionals/businessmen/inherited wealth with 7 figure incomes. They can stay in privately build mansions, drive to work, shop till they drop in the upmarket Orchard Place(with A-Z luxury brands), eat in the amazingly expensive outlets on Clarke Quay, import domestic help from adjoining Asian countries etc. Basically, the equivalent of some South Bombay/BKC residents in India
  2. Middle: Above professionals with incomes say above $70000-$140000(very approx range I may be mistaken in the exact figures). They can stay in a reasonable sized condo/HDB apartment, commute to office in bus/MRT, afford the essentials and that occasional shopping/partying binge, and that periodic domestic service. Lifestyle is not the tops but pretty good. Entry level expats would fit here
  3. Lower rung: Sanitation, Supermarket and other workers. Their incomes may not cross $30000-50000, making it difficult to meet both ends. 
 Interestingly, I have seen Indians at all 3 levels, but more concentrated in the bottom 2 rungs-perhaps a reason why some Singaporeans may perceive Indians as their domestic workers. Apparently(as history informs), the original Indian settlers in Singapore were low skilled labour whose future generations became professionals. The older Singaporean settlers may not connect this though.

One challenge is 'cutting your clothes as per your cloth'. As  some Western expats told me, Singapore is more expensive than Amsterdam/London, and they find even $110000+ incomes hard to sustain on. Of course, Indian expats will have the reverse problem-ensuring that the new found wealth does not go to their head.

Will I tire of the Disneyland/'Matrix' feel of Singapore?

Let me clarify that this post may have some ethnocentrism(me comparing everything to India) but I have tried to keep it as objective as possible. With that disclaimer, let me proceed. While people go to Disneyland for fun, they know the experience they will get. There are no surprises, customizations, adaptions etc. Innovations may happen but they are mostly to improve operational efficiency rather than customer satisfaction. And those who watched the 'Matrix' would agree that newcomers to Singapore may feel that they are in a virtual world.

It is said that girls tire of 'good guys'. Something like that may hold here. Singapore is SO efficient that at times, it does become dull on working days. People from other Asian countries may be glad to be 'far from the maddening crowd' but may miss that crowd, warmth, noise, chatter, traffic jams, uncertainty  and companionship feeling you get over there. Here, it is quite easy to get lonely. And the impersonal service in stores(where a chime sounds every time you leave like in 7-11 supermarkets) does get on your nerves at times.

Of course, there are party options too. Clarke Quay and other areas are there where people can unwind after a day's/week's hard work. But on a routine basis, that would be difficult. And it is the routine basis that really counts. Feeling lonely on Monday-Friday does not get wiped out by partying away the Sat-Sun weekend.Of course, from a lifestyle point of view, the public service delivery here is probably among the best in the world. While private 'services' may tip the cost side of the cost-value equation, they are pretty OK for those who can afford it. So all things said and done, either stay in a planned city like Lavasa or shift to Singapore-that would be my recipe. Lets see

Travel tips for Indians(specially Mumbaikers) heading to Singapore

If I had known these points before arrival in Singapore, I would have saved a lot of time and mental agony. I'm posting this in the hope that anyone Googling for similar tips can start off with some info. This post will be updated till I'm in Singapore so keep watching this space weekly.
  1. It is cheaper to convert your rupees here(at the airport) so carry minimal SGD with you and instead convert either at the airport or at the famous Mustafa Centre in Little India. Do not try the other local shops, they rip off
  2. Expect to pay roughly 1.5x-2x(in rupee terms) for supermarket food purchases or for eating Indian food in Little India/food plazas. Jack that to 3x-4x in restaurants.
  3. Remember to obey the laws strictly. As I mentioned in another post, people here strictly follow the system and ignorance of law is no excuse. That includes laws against chewing gum, jay walking, littering, eating on MRT/bus, smoking etc. When in doubt, use your good common sense or ask. 
  4. Keep your questions short and simple. While English is widely spoken in Singapore, accent/other issues make it difficult to communicate. Beware of understanding issues
  5. Do NOT criticize the city in public using English(Hindi/Tamil etc may be safe). Residents are(rightly so) proud of their city. 
  6. Do not jostle people in Q/run into trains/buses/speak loudly. Basically, do not encroach upon other's personal space. That is not liked here
  7. While looking for a property to rent, remember that even if a property is far from your workplace but a good point-point bus can cover it, then it is fine. Most points on the island can be reached within a 0.5hr travel. Ask a local contact to travel once and review. 
  8. While dealing with agents/landlords, remember that they prefer to stick to their standard terms on rent payments, contracts, duration etc. So try asking concessions in other areas rather than procedural aspects. 
  9. Unlike our dysfunctional(in terms of comfort) public transport, their public transport is both cheap and air-conditioned.And due to the high cost of(and restrictions on) private vehicle ownership, there is no stigma attached to using public transport.
  10. For getting to places by public transport(bus+train), this site( is widely used and amazingly effective. Combine that with the MRT/bus route map, and even novices can find out easily how to get to their workplace etc.
  11. Do not expect any customization/flexibility unless you are willing to pay a bomb. The wait staff in restaurants will not make that paratha extra soft/hard boil your egg, unless you are willing to pay a bomb, and sometimes not even then.
  12. Services cost a bomb so try doing your laundry, ironing etc yourself(till the cost benefit equation breaks down). It is generally faster, and may be the only option on weekends.
  13. Cab is generally not necessary and may in fact take more time due to the dedicated bus lanes here. Though they do not cheat, getting a cab can be very difficult at times while both trains and buses are pretty frequent
  14. People generally keep to themselves(contrast the relative silence on bus/train compared to India) and are unlikely to strike up conversations with strangers like we do back home. So respect that and do not push in case your fellow passenger does not reciprocate

Singapore-the ultimate expert in replacing people by automation

Its been just a week here, and already I'm awed, home sick and enthusiastic in equal proportions. Being from India where we routinely 'first break all the rules' whether relating to traffic, queues, tax etc; the Singapore automation system(perhaps routine for residents) was something which caught my eye. Consider these examples which give an insight into the extent by which the system eliminates manual labour
  1. In the underground train system(MRT), Card operated entry and exit gates(with carefully designed barriers) ensure fare collection without the need to issue tickets. For newbies/tourists, there are of course the ticket counters but they are not used often
  2. In the bus systems, the driver ensures that passengers swipe card at entry. If they do not do so at exit, the maximum fare is deducted after some time. So no conductor is needed. 
  3. Instead of having liftmen, offices have this system where when the access card is swiped, the elevator is automatically assigned to the person. This ensures that liftmen do not need to handle the crowding in lifts and other issues
  4. The CCTV system ensures that people think twice before committing crimes. That is why stores(barring a few exceptions) are so confident that they allow people to bring in their hand baggage(which is not allowed in India/other Asian countries)
  5. By encouraging online/card based transactions-like giving 25% bonus on mobile recharge online or through ATMs, charging 40cents extra per paper ticket on buses, promoting/mandating e-governance, the system is geared towards online/card based transactions
  6. The number of vending machines/kiosks are a lot, specially in offices. 
  7. IPO application can be done via ATMs-by the way a superb method of due diligence because the fact that someone has a bank account means that the investor background check is a piece of cake.
  8. The good geographic mapping allows easy reporting of system malfunctions-especially of traffic signals, public amenities, bus shelters etc.
But to avoid missing the forest for the trees, I should point out that all this is possible because people here are inherently trained to follow the system and the rules. Any system however well designed would breakdown if people start gaming the system. Because people are civil and law abiding(I did not hear a single 'honk' yet!), 
On the flip side though, system breakdown may result in total disruption if people cannot innovate on the spot. Thankfully,the system seems both robust and well designed for contingencies.