Gunung Pulai

View from Gunung Pulai to Johor

View from Gunung Pulai halfway mark

Forced out of Singapore by the closure of our Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, three nature-starved friends and I crossed the border to Malaysia Gunung Pulai for a hike this morning.

Gunung is the Malay word for mountain but this is actually a hill (bukit) just over 650m (2,000 feet) high with two telecoms towers on its summit and a 4.7km tar road cut through virgin rain forest.

Its a popular walk with the locals who turned out to be an extremely cordial bunch with ready smiles, friendly eye contacts and warm greetings.

It was just a two-hour climb and less to descend. But that’s enough for our fix – the fresh country air, sounds of birds and insects, sights of lush greenery, the simple sweet scent for nature. Will certainly be back again.

Joan Yap

Towering Seraya trees

Adorable kampong village kids happy for a photo with fellow hikers

Adorable kampong village kids happy for a photo with fellow hikers

Kampong house where you can park your car in their yard for a small fee.

Kampong house where you can park your car in their yard for a small fee.

Singlish

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When my niece’s British boyfriend met the family for lunch for the first time, he wore a strange look throughout and we thought he was just nervous, naturally.

As it turned out, he was having a hard time following our conversation even though we were speaking English, well sort of.

Foreign friends who hear Singaporeans for the first time will be puzzled by our concoction of words and expressions in an English soup of speech.

It’s not that we can’t speak proper English but when we’re together, we somehow break into this unique blend of colloquialism known as Singlish.

The origin of our Singlish is similar to the other former British colonies. It’s defined as English-based creole which is an adaptation with the native language, in our case a host of native languages.

The main ingredients of Singlish are from southern China dialects, native Malay, Straits Malay and Indian English. Besides using borrowed words and phrases, Singlish favours shortening and orphaning of words that will make an English purist squirm. Some examples of Singlish –

Chope  < to reserve >

Tompang  < to get a ride or favour >

Kopi-O  < coffee without milk >

Tah Pow  < takeaway >

Lah  < this has no particular meaning and is used at the end of a sentence or to emphasize another word >

When used in daily conversations, it goes like this – Please chope this table. Can tompang you to buy kopi-o? I go tah pow some deserts. Want to eat what? Quick-lah.

It’s confusing and may sound totally gibberish. But it’s alright. We get by in this world.

In fact there was an interesting incident when our Air Force pilots on a combat exercise in USA completely baffled their counterparts by switching from Standard English to Singlish after realizing that the USAF pilots were eavesdropping on their conversations.

So if you are in the company of Singaporeans and can’t understand what we’re saying, we’re most happy to switch to English for you. Any time-lah!

Joan Yap

World’s most expensive cars

Photo credit : Munshi Ahmed/Bloomberg

Photo credit : Munshi Ahmed/Bloomberg

It’s Formula1 season here. Another one-of-its-kind night race, the first in the world in 2008 won by Spaniard Fernando Alonso. People involved in the event have been busy for weeks, fans are arriving, last minute ticketing frenzy, entertainment all lined up, glitz and glam guaranteed.

According to TripAdvisor, the cost of the cheapest race ticket, one night’s stay in a hotel close to the circuit, a burger meal, a pint of beer (most expensive in F1 venues ), and a soda, could chalk up to a total of S$622.67 (US$500), making Singapore the seventh-costliest place in the world to watch the grand prix.

Besides beer, Singapore is the most expensive place in the world to own a car. Even the stars from Fast and Furious were shocked at the prices we pay for our four-wheels.

A small family car such as the Toyota Yaris costs about S$120,000 (US$96,000); China Chery subcompact car is over S$85,000 (US$68,000); BMW 3series sedan S$200,000 (US$160,000); Mercedes E63 S$500,000 (US$400,000); and we’ve not gone into the dizzying range of luxury cars.

Why so expensive?

It all started on labour day in 1990 when the transport authority implemented a quota limit to vehicles called the Certificate Of Entitlement (COE). The COE system was intended to curb vehicle ownership by imposing an additional variable cost to anyone buying new cars.

Today the average cost of a COE is S$70,000 (US$56,000). Top this to the price of your dream car and only then are you entitled to put it on the road.

Oh I forget to say that the COE expires after 10 years. I know it’s hard to accept but that’s one of the high costs of living here. My own run-around faithful 4-seater will be ten next year and I’ll have to scrap it even though it’s in immaculate condition. (sigh)

Now you understand why Singaporeans get excited when we see the prices of cars in showrooms overseas because back home, most of us can only ogle.

 Joan Yap

Sing Dollar

Sing$

Singapore is still a relatively unknown country to the rest of the world if my experience at the Camino is anything to go by.

It’s the usual questions whenever I tell people where I’m from – Are we part of China or Korea or Japan? Where did I learn to speak English? Is Singapore a city, a state or a country?

The most interesting question was from a lady from Idaho, USA who asked if Singapore has her own currency.

Come to think of it, she’s quite right to question the sovereignty of a country she heard of for the first time. Having our own flag does not necessary mean an independent country, I mean a school or club has its flag too.

So yes, we have our own currency – the Singapore Dollar aka Sing Dollar or SGD/S$ – which has been in use for the past 47 years.

Being a diehard history buff, I can’t help telling you how our currency came about. It won’t take too much time, I promise.

To cut a long story short, different forms of currencies were used here tracing back to the fateful day when an Englishman and a Scot landed on this infertile, mosquito infested, tiger roaming, obscure island that was razed to the ground and abandoned by the Portuguese way back when.

Spanish$

Around noon one January day in 1819 Sir Stamford Raffles and his sidekick William Farquhar arranged a treaty with a hastily appointed Malay sultan and his chief minister for the right to set up a trading post on behalf of the British East Indies company. The whole deal which almost caused a war between the Dutch and the British was transacted in Spanish dollars, real de a ocho aka “pieces of eight”, the de facto trading currency of that time.

Straits$

As the British Empire grew in power and established the Straits Settlements, the Straits dollar became the currency for Singapore for almost 100 years until it was replaced by the Malayan dollar just before the outbreak of WWII.

banana-money

During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945, Imperial Japan issued a new currency for its occupied territories. Informally known as “banana money”, the notes have motifs of overbearing banana bunches and no serial numbers as they were printed whenever money is required, thus causing hyperinflation and subsequently became worthless by the end of the occupation.

Malayan$

The years leading to independence from United Kingdom, Singapore used the Malaya and British Borneo dollar, aka ringgit. These post-war currency notes adopted anti-forgery features such as security threads and watermarks. The first series in 1953 bore the head of a young Queen Elizabeth. Later series carried more ethnic themes, a sign of breaking away from the monarchy.

Singapore became fully independent in 1965 after the tearful separation from Malaysia but continued to use the ringgit.

Finally two years later, we issued our own notes and coins at par with Malaysia and pegged to the Sterling Pound £1 = S$8.57. Today £1 = S$2.05 and M$1 = S$0.40.

We’ve come a long way since, don’t you think?

Joan Yap

Little Red Dot

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I promised my foreign friends that I’ll write about my country, Singapore and will start with a warm introduction.

Back from a spring-to-summer vacation in temperatures averaging 19°C, the heat at home takes some getting used to.

Singapore is one degree north of the equator along the latitude that crosses Uganda and Kenya in Africa, and north Brazil, Columbia and Ecuador in South America.

Its a “cool” 29°C now with humidity close to 90% which means you’ll start sweating the minute you’re out of the shower. Unless you have the air-con on which almost every home has, and that’s why we’re dubbed the most air-conditioned country in the world. It’s actually conceivable to artificially cool our environment.

Only 700 sq km in size (less than one-tenth of metro London) with a growing population, organic and imported, most of us live in high-rise apartments, also referred to as pigeon-holes or shoeboxes. But don’t be fooled, these little plots stacked up in the air cost more than big family houses in many parts of the world, Something we’re still trying to get over and probably will never be as long as we choose to stay here.

In terms of history, we can be considered an infant compared to our neighbours and greater civilizations. Though young, we are a neighbourly and civilized metropolis built from the ashes of war after the breakdown of the British Empire and gaining full independence in 1965. And yes, many of us have witnessed the birth of our nation.

A nation with a mixed heritage of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian and other races, we have a unique blend of customs, social practices, food and language that can only be found in this tropical island fondly known as the “Little Red Dot”. Look at the world map and you’ll understand why.

For more insider stories about Singapore, stay with me and I’ll reveal them in the following weeks.

Joan Yap

LittleRedDot

A very special vacation

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What a summer this has been! Caught in a whiff of passion, the lightest nudge, a bold self-invitation and a lifetime experience.

Pounced on a good deal by Air France – two cities for the price of one, packed for two weeks and travelled around for two months. Walked the Camino, a pilgrimage I’ve only learned about last month;  stayed with Irene and Tony whom I’ve only known for one day.

So glad I came. Glad I took the chance. If I had done the practical thing by staying home, I would not have experienced the long walks and drives, the warm Spanish hugs, the many French kisses, the little tiffs about going left or right, the joy of reaching a new destination every day, the freshness of home grown vegetables and fruits, the toiling and tilling of earth, starlit nights and crispy mornings, the fullness of country living, and the pride of putting Singapore in the Camino map.

Thank you Irene and Tony, for being so gracious to open your home and hearts to me. We bade farewell this morning but the memories shared together will stay with me forever.

Till we meet again, some captured moments.

Joan Yap

At Maury for Tour de France

At Maury for Tour de France

Sending us to Lourdes to start the Camino. I still didn't know what I was in for that morning.

To Lourdes to start the Camino. Still didn’t know what I was in for that morning.

Putting Singapore in the Camino world map

Putting Singapore in the Camino world map

Start of a new day of walking

Start of a new day of walking

Camino chicas

Camino chicas

Irache wine fountain for a drink and more

Irache wine fountain for a drink and more

Boating

Boating

Fixing John Deree

Fixing John Deree

Simply irresistible!

Simply irresistible!

Happy Birthday!

Happy Birthday!

 

 

 

Carla-Bayle

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There is a place about eight km away from Berdot that Tony brought me to on a sunset drive around the neighbourhood. I was immediately drawn to this quaint tiny town with its packed houses all huddled together as if to keep warm against the harsh winters of a bygone era.

Another one of the many charming medieval villages on top of rolling hills in this part of France, Carla-Bayle was once the centre of Protestant activity and now a magnet for artists and dreamers. Didn’t get to see much during the drive, a fleeting visit that only made me yearn to come back for more.

So I persuaded Irene to join me for another walk before I return to Singapore. It took us 2.5 hours across farms through country sights and smells, ploughing in action, composting and dumping, making hay while the sun was shining, sunflowers brown and droopy waiting to be harvested, dogs barking behind fences, a murdered woman’s lodge now being renovated by new owners, and the occasional car and truck on their way to wherever.

Some climbing up the road, not as bad as the ones we did in the Camino but still needed effort. But that’s what makes the arrival so satisfying when you take in the awesome scenery before you with the deep big lungful of air. Simply breath-taking, as one would say.

Here in the small commune of no more than 800 people according to Wiki, are more art galleries and studios per person than any place I know.

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Barefoot artists in handmade clothes, flowing shirts, felt hats, smoking drinking chatting in the gentle breeze of the old square. Somewhere someone was frying onions, faint conversations along the alleys and above in apartments windows all laced up lined with flower pots, a sculptor working on wood, the church bell ringing on the hour, an old lady knitting on the steps of church with friend by her side, a cat in a studio looking like a an artwork, a sleeping dog like a rug.

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A certain creative hallucinating atmosphere hanging calmly over the place frozen in time except for ideas and imaginations, philosophical thinking and expressiveness, seeking the past, reaching into the future, never here nor there, tangible and profound – like the art pieces on the walls hoping to touch someone’s raw emotions to desire and possess.

C’est ici qu’on vit le mieux. Wouldn’t it be nice to be an artist here?

 Joan Yap