In 2007 or thereabouts, we were informed that Tony Tan, the chairman of Singapore Press Holdings at the time, was coming down to Kuala Lumpur and would like to meet all SPH correspondents for breakfast at his hotel.
I was the KL bureau chief of Singapore Business Times at the time and so was duly present and accounted for at said meeting. Mr Tan tuned out to be a bespectacled gentleman who arched a supercilious eyebrow on learning that all of us, except for Reme Ahmad, were Malaysian.
“Really?” asked the man who would go on to becomes the republic’s seventh President. He volunteered that Malaysians had “serious issues”, the final word of which he articulated with some surprise and not a little distaste. He pronounced it carefully too and it rhymed with “misuse.”
On the plus side, it appeared that we were creative, even a nation of copywriters. As an example, he cited the acronyms we came up with to name our highways – Duke, Plus, Elite or Sprint.
At the time, I thought he was being condescending and I remember being repelled.
In hindsight, I may have misjudged the good Mr Tan.
Since January, my wife has taken up a position in Singapore and I have spent a great deal of time there. Mr Tan must have got his insights about highways just by listening to the traffic reports.
“Traffic is backed up on the PIE and don’t even think about going on to the AYE. But the SLE is fine and both the MCE and the PKE are only mildly congested. ”
No, the MCA is not a high school examination and neither is SLE a disease. They are all highways, parkways or expressways.
Given the grim reality of ceaseless traffic reports on the radio, you too might want to call for copywriters.
As an island nation, Singapore is a lot more humid than, say, Kuala Lumpur. But you wouldn’t know it, not if like us, you stay in a serviced apartment. Perhaps power is cheaper there because our apartment is always cold to the point of intolerance. I went around shutting off the various air conditioning units in each room the first day we arrived and it’s still cold.
It’s like that everywhere – the hotel lobbies, the restaurants. The temperature seems permanently set at 18 degrees. You really have to exercise like crazy to sweat in the gym as the cold there is of operating-theatre quality.
And you get used to it after a while, walking down Orchard Road. You know, the old now-you-chill, now-you-bake feeling as you alternately experience a cold gust of air-conditioning from one open store front before you step back on to the swelter of downtown Singapore.
Even so, there is much to appreciate about Singapore – its cleanliness, its safety and, wonder of wonders, its absolute absence of potholes anywhere.
And there is an ingrained element of maintenance in its culture that we would do well to emulate. Every time I enter the country, I am struck by the number of people on trucks I see pruning trees and shrubs so that they are not a liability during violent thunderstorms as they regularly are in Kuala Lumpur.
There’s a lot right about our southern neighbour. We should accept that reality with grace.