Driving into Cultures: Bangkok vs. Singapore

The past week, I’ve had the good fortune to finally experience driving in Bangkok traffic. To many fellow Singaporeans, judging by the face value of the mayhem that is Bangkok traffic, the phrase “good fortune” might be somewhat displaced, and in some parts of Bangkok (the Victory Monument being one dastardly good example, they may be right. But in the study of a country’s culture, much can be learnt through a foreigner’s observations behind the wheel of a car, or even just as a passenger. And this shall be my testament of why I will always love Bangkok more than my own country.

For starters, bumper-to-bumper traffic is not uncommon in either Singaporean and Bangkok roads, but the typical driver in either state would react very differently.

The typical Singaporean (driver or not) simply does not have the patience to deal with expressway stoppages of more than 10 minutes at a go, nor are they able to graciously deal with jammed stretches of road more than 25 minutes in waiting time. Note whenever you hit the CTE before the PIE exits, that 1 in 8 cars will make concerted efforts to cut into and out of lanes in the vain hopes of just being 1-2 car lengths faster than the lane they were originally on.

In Bangkok, jams are a way of life, infused to such a level that it has become a component of the phenomenon that the locals and expatriates have termed “Thai time”, where tardiness is expected, and schedules elasticised by 1/2 to 3 hours depending on traffic conditions, among other, less explainable holdups. This being the case, drivers in Bangkok tend to be a lot calmer when dealing with traffic jams, which explains why garland sellers seem to think walking down the middle of a jammed road knocking on windscreens can be such a lucrative business. (I personally love buying their steamed peanuts while in the car; it’s got a sort of rustic, drive-in theatre kind of feel to bite into nuts while going nowhere fast.)

Another notable note; tailgating and driving within inches of the cars next to you. In Singapore, this is strictly frowned upon, and often seen as an act of aggression. While on a Singapore expressway and some larger main roads, me and my wife will sometimes (but not often) encounter testosterone-driven tailgaters in heavily modded Japanese Frankensteins, indicating we should either go faster (and flout the given speed limit, not to mention our poor Nissan Sunny engine) or get the hell out of the way. My wife loves dealing with these speedsters by doing the exact opposite; slowing down to 80kph and making sure they don’t have an opportunity to overtake us for at least a 2km stretch and thoroughly annoying the young punks.

In Bangkok however, tailgating and the disregard of personal space is a way of life, but not as an act of aggression, but as an act of consideration. For the most part, Thais do maintain lane discipline as a rule, but as the road gets more crowded, space becomes a commodity, but unlike Singaporeans who generally drie closer to prevent others from cutting in front of them, the Thai approach is exactly the opposite. The reason for the squeeze is, surprisingly, for the road users to be able to maximize their advances further on into the traffic, and the creation of new lanes where lanes should not exist propagates that advancement. How would one know this is an act of courtesy and not a maneuver of patience? In Thailand, you can switch lanes even in the tightest squeezes, simply because most of the time, the other cars will give way to you.

The third thing I can say about the comparison of driving cultures is probably the only good thing I can give the state of Singapore traffic (and probably the one thing that makes the most difference in deciding whether to make that leap of faith and deciding to drive in Bangkok). Our transport infrastructure is extremely well defined and well maintained; the LTA has made every effort to make our roads safe, our traffic lights work near 100% of the time, and enforcing road regulations to such a degree that to flout it would be near inconceivable. Hence, expressways will only move at a maximum of 30kph above limit, and most of the daytime, no one will even overstep that boundary. Drunks don’t drive, and if they do, you can almost be sure they won’t drive again. And most accidents are cleared in record time, no matter how severe (save that one time with the overturned private bus on the speed lane of the PIE a few weeks ago). The roads are always clean, the road markings always clear, and most of all, the drivers always obeying the law.

In Bangkok, I wouldn’t go so far as to say traffic infrastructure is sub-standard, but more often than not, traffic signs, lights and road clarity are not something you can take for granted. At times, one does feel the planning of roads to be self-serving (why have the busiest junction run around a monument, and plant all the major bus routes there instead of allowing alternative diversions which can quicken the pace of traffic by leaps and bounds?), or leaving something to be desired (Bangkok City is filled with unmarked, unnamed lanes, certain lanes in te CBD area change direction at certain times of the day, and traffic lights can go on red for up to 5 minutes at a stretch, and then it turns green for 15 seconds before starting it’s 300-second clock again).

For all my studies into the cultures of our neighbours vs. our own, my experience in driving within these 2 states has really impacted my views of each, and am also able to simply define each culture with a formula of inverse relationships; in Singapore, a 1st world government to service 3rd world citizenship, and in Bangkok, a people, attitude and culture deserving of 1st world status, but marred by 3rd world infrastructure.

Such simplification would invariably lead to this all-important question: is a nation’s success to be judged by the efficiency and effectiveness of its government, or by the attitudes and culture of its people, or if both, which should be lent more weight?

The Dating Game (Singapore Edition)

It is mankind’s perpetual quest, and the animal kingdom’s basest and yet most important of instincts; finding a mate. And in our 65,000 years of existence, you’d think we’d have gotten this basic instinct down pat. But how is it that such a large part of us find ourselves so adept at being unintentionally single?

Singaporean men in particular are at an acute disadvantage. I am sure some of my international readers might start saying no, it’s Hong Kongers, or Thais, or whatever other exotic romantically challenged Asian male population of dicks would top that bill, but bear with me. I’ve only ever dated one guy (unintentionally), and he was Singaporean (and also gay, which makes him unqualified for mention here), so I seriously wouldn’t know how the others rate.

But I digress.

The problem with being a guy in Singapore is that girls in Singapore will realize upon maturity that in essence, we turn out to be as interesting and as riveting in conversation as my secondary school Physics teacher who had to tote around a boombox and mic to be heard in the back row of a 20-student class, and once cried in class when no one was paying attention (true story). The really eligible women in Singapore just aren’t looking inland, because who wants locally farmed chickens when you can have Angus steak, you know?

I’m not saying our women are the problem, though. On the contrary, WE are all the problem. Singapore culture dictates a strict set of rules, both spoken and unspoken, one of the biggest and most adhered to being that “Rules are to be adhered”. Singaporean men are so straightlaced and obedient that no one takes risks with anything or anyone (including themselves) for fear of trouble, rejection, failure and embarrassment. The biggest problem with this mindset in the scope of the dating arena is that dating encompasses all of these traits, and in force. Every time a man approaches a woman for a date, whether it be a stranger or someone he knows, there is potential for trouble. Every time a woman replies, rejection is almost always a possibility. Every time a guy goes on a date, risk of failure far outweighs success. And every time a guy opens his mouth, he opens himself to embarrassment.

The point is, dating is a very delicate 2-way process, much like making babies (which dating, if the process succeeds, should lead to). Who’s to say the woman isn’t feeling the exact same sentiments when embarking on a date with a man, and if that truly is the case, why are Singaporean women’s success rate of getting laid so much higher than their male counterparts (besides the obvious fact that they are much much better looking and have boobs)?

Another thing: Singapore has conditioned her men to have such exacting standards in life (salaries have to be so much, cars have to have such engine power and so much boot space, things MUST be done only in a certain way so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation) that inevitably that same perfectionist attitude gets reflected into the way we choose our friends and potential life partners.

Before the Singaporean man has even stepped into the game, he’s already jotted down his preferences and expectations into a Powerpoint presentation, created flowcharts of his perfect woman and organisational structure of his future family plans. As it is, the global male population is falling behind the female headcount; it’s not like you’re bloody spoilt for choice as it is, and worse still, the own women in your country have stopped buying local brands and are shopping for imports. You STILL want to be choosy?

I know, some of you will have watched enough Animal Planet and National Geographic to say, “Hey, pandas are picky about who they mate with, why shouldn’t we? And spiders eat their lovers.” To that I say, hey. Pandas have nitpicked their way into the endangered species list, and female spiders are bitches, so stop comparing yourself to eight legged freaks, get your ass off the cable TV and please go get some sunlight and meet some people.

Of course, I’m not saying go pick any permed-hair auntie with black calf-length leggings and a Northeast CDC Walk ‘N’ Jog t-shirt off the street and make wild passionate love to her, but how do you really know what is right for you if you’ve never taken the time (and the risk) to find out?

The average Singaporean woman is the stuff of dreams for so many people outside this sunny island set in the sea. They’re smart, family-oriented souls that are not unattractive and not afraid to try stuff out. And they almost always get their man. So what is it they can do that Singaporean men can’t? And with such wonderful pickings for a fulfilling lifelong partnership, what can possibly be holding you back?

Time Flies

It’s June, 2010. Seems like only yesterday when we celebrated the New Year; I still have Chinese New Year goodies sitting on our buffet counter in the dining room.

I really need to throw those goodies out.

My kid’s been going to daycare for 2 days now. We keep referring to it as school, which really throws people off, but really, it actually is a school, and we’re gonna keep saying he’s going to school until either he graduates from university or we can’t afford the school fees any more.

So a lot of people have been asking me and my wife, school? At 18 months old? Are you sadists? To this, my official reply would be that this is one of those decisions we took quite a bit of time to make. In Singapore, this is a situation that invariably crosses the life of any parent in our current generation. Almost the entire population is working in one way or another (elderly included), and dual-income families are not just a norm, but compulsory in an economy where government housing costs about 20-30 years’ of an executive’s salary, and a decent car costs 5 years’ worth (and has to be paid for all over again every decade; COE is a four-letter word).

My wife has been lucky to be offered a very flexible work schedule since my son was born, but at some point we both realized the time we have both as working individuals as well as together as a family needed to be better managed. We’ve pored through every available option society has to offer, from our own grandparents (emotional blackmail is a craft best honed when your mother and you can both use your kid as leverage), to a full-time maid (those maid-from-hell stories should be compiled together and made into a episodic Hallmark Channel horror-thriller series), to playgroups (rare, and no guarantees), to our present daycare/preschool option (more expensive than a university education).

Amidst all the questions and seeking all the answers (…can we afford it? …is the curriculum suitable? …are the teachers of sound mind and body? …is he going to raise a coup with his classmates against his teachers?), we finally decided to bite the bullet (and my?leather wallet, because after paying the initial fees, it was the only meat-based product I have left to eat).

By the advice of the school teacher-in-charge, we were told to expect a rough ride for the first month. Separation issues, changes in habits, misbehaviour,… and that’s just the parents.

The first day was a little rough. We managed to be late (school starts at an insane 7am; We usually wake up at 9.30am on a good day), and dropped him off 1 1/2 hours behind time. We dangled around him for a little while to see how school mornings would typically go (washing hands, setting down school bags in the classroom, washing hands, breakfast, washing hands), took a few pictures (if you got my wife in your Facebook list, they’re online now), and sneaked out. We had it easy?already; we saw a bunch of parents drop their kids off at the door and have to literally run away before their kid realized they’re leaving him/her there and started screaming for waffles (you know, “WAAAAAAH! Fuh, fuh, fuh, WAAAAAAH!”).

The remainder of the morning and half the afternoon we were both wondering what to do with ourselves, what with the sudden freedom of time. But we were wondering much more, how our son was doing. Was he playing with the other kids? Was he hitting the teachers? Did he miss us? Is he napping properly? Eating well?

After a round of roaming around 313 Orchard and visiting Uniqlo for the first time, and failing to find an iPad in EpiCentre to ogle at, we headed back to the school at 3.30pm to find our kid greeting us at the door in his teacher’s arms, pouting and red-eyed from
just waking up and realising everything that happened that morning wasn’t just a bad dream.

An hour later, he was back to his old cheery self and we heaved a sigh of relief from the fact that the transition wasn’t as bad as we imagined it to be.

Day 2 was when we found out our kid was as much a morning person as his parents were, which, very frankly, was not at all.

We were determined to make it to school at a much more respectable time, and woke up at 6 in the morning (the only other times we woke up that early was when I had a flight to catch, one of us smelled something burning or Glenn and the Flying Dutchman were too loud when they start their shift on the radio).

I dug our son out of his cot at 6.30am and dressed him in his school, and instead of running around the house after that as per his usual after bed routine, he just lay there on the sofa, eyes half closed with his milk bottle hanging limply from his mouth, occasionally complaining with a short teary cry about how 6.30am was really a ridiculous time to be alive and being generally as grumpy as the void deck uncle with 2 beers and unloving middle aged children.

But he fared much better in school on his second day. At one point, he even managed to entertain the entire school (about 9 kids total and 4 adults; it’s a very new school) with his signature twirl-till-you’re-dizzy dance, and we would like to believe he managed to Casanova his way into the hearts of the pretty preschool girls there, and will soon be bringing his girlfriend home to see his parents.

Time flies. He was only just born not long before, and now he’s in school. I always dreaded the day he would start primary school; never would I have imagined that at 18 months old, I would already have to start waking up at an ungodly hour to bring him to school. I now know the problem I have understanding the grammatically awkward phrase “suffer the children”; it is missing a “with”.