Archive for April, 2012

My daughter, Greta, has had to brush up on her spelling lately.

Don’t worry – it’s not through lack of ability.

She is one of six spellers starring in the Trinity College Musical, which this year is The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

The Bee, as it is known, was conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, and will be performed at Melbourne University’s Guild Theatre, Union House, from 23-26 May

It’s the story of six nerdy overachievers competing in a spelling championship. In the process, they learn that “winning isn’t everything and losing doesn’t necessarily make you a loser”. (http://www.tcmts.org.au/ )

Here endeth the shameless advertising.

However, I guess that’s why an ad for The Straits Times National Spelling Championship (NSC) 2012 caught my eye last week.

The NSC aims to “develop a greater appreciation of the importance of spelling in literacy development among Primary 4, 5 and 6 pupils in Singapore”.

A total of 108 spellers from 51 schools competed in the zonal round championships on April 14, and the four winners will go on to the national competition.

Ironically, Nandana Jayachandran, 11, who beat 34 other spellers to win the West Zone round, did so with a word that is spelled phonetically and contains no traps: didgeridoo

More than 1000 students entered the initial round, which is why I don’t think Singaporeans would agree with Australian educator Dr Val Yule.

Dr Yule says that spelling bees are “uniquely English-language institutions that demonstrate that only a few can spell well in English”.

Dr Yule, who has held academic positions in psychology and education  at Melbourne, Monash and Aberdeen Universities, and is a former clinical psychologist at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital, believes that the traps in English spelling should be eradicated rather than taught.

In some recent correspondence, she wrote: “I am trying to perswade… pepl to try Parallel Texts.” Along with normal text, the page “oposit” would contain text without spelling traps.

Dr Yule believes this would be particularly helpful for Aborigines, whose native languages are not written, but are handed down orally.

In an article in English Today, in September 2011, she argues that modern English has evolved through a gradual dropping of irrelevant letters. For example, musick became music, horrour became horror, and exotick became exotic. However, she says that the advent of spellcheckers means that such natural evolutions no longer occur.

She says British children lag three years behind children from countries with consistent spelling systems and that English spelling is a further hindrance for dyslexics.

Dr Yule favors omitting surplus letters that do not aid meaning or pronunciation – as occurs with texting – although she says text messages “leave out more letters than most ple wd find helpful”.

Her answer is simple. “It would be sufficient to change only 3 per cent of letters in words in ordinary text, and omit 6 per cent as surplus because they do not help with meaning or pronunciation,” she says.

Dr Yule is not the only one recommending this. Frenchman Jean-Paul Nerrierre has created a language called Globish that uses only 1500 words, and an Indian man has created a similar language, also called Globish, using 4000 words.

However, Globish uses plain English and simple translations of complex ideas rather than spelling reform.

For we journos, this is nothing new. Melbourne’s Herald Sun, and any other tabloid worth its salt, is written in plain English.

It’s the language of news, which must be able to be read and digested quickly by the masses.

While people are more highly educated these days, they have less time and less tolerance for complex reading, so using “news English”, as we call it, is even more important.

So wot do u rekon? Shood we hold spelling bees or reform spelling?

Here is some further reading:




And here’s a classic on spelling reform from Mark Twain


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Women only

The other day I was delighted to find a bookshop hidden away at the back of Tanglin Mall. It stocked mostly travel and children’s books, but there was one shelf that was headed: “Ladies read”.

Among the selections were: The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis, which debated the existence of heaven and earth, Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella, and Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl, by Tracy Quan. 

I chose The Plays of Oscar Wilde, from the shelf below, beginning with An Ideal Husband.


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Our apartment in Singapore came furnished with the basics – a couch, table and chairs, TV and coffee table.

But the walls are large, white and blank, making it feel a bit like a bomb shelter.

That’s why we’ve been looking around for something large that will fill the space, without emptying our pockets too much.

However, everything we’ve seen so far is too small. “I need something that doesn’t look like a postage stamp on an envelope,” I said to Rob.

So, I was pleased and surprised one night last week when he said that he had solved the problem. “Remember that work induction I went to,” he ventured, carefully cutting his pork chop.

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, I bid at a silent auction,” he said, without looking up. “And I won.”

“Really? What did you bid on?” I asked, imagining something pretty and sparkly might be coming my way.

“A photo. It’s coming tomorrow,” he said.

“A photo of what?”

“It’s quite interesting really,” he said, focusing on his salad. “It’s a historical photo.”

“Of what?”

“The bank.”

“The bank?”

“Standard  Chartered – in Singapore.”

“A photo of the Standard Chartered building?” I asked.

“No – inside the office, at the turn of the century.”

“It’s a photo of the office?”

“With Manchurians.”


“Yes, you know, with the pig tails.”

“And how much did you bid for this?” I asked, having now lost my appetite.

“A couple of hundred,” he said. Then added, “It was a fundraiser. I had to contribute something.”

“So?” I said. “You should have bid $34 – then you would have contributed without running the risk of winning.”

“I thought it was interesting,” he said.

The next day he texted me from work to say that the photo was on its way. I wondered why a 8X10 photo had to be delivered.

Shortly afterwards, I received a call from someone called Sam. “I have photo,” Sam said. “You want one piece or three pieces?”

“Three? Just one, I think,” I said.

Sam turned up an hour later, struggling with three pieces of what looked like large white plasterboard, all wrapped in cling-wrap together.

I was quite excited to see the picture of the Manchurians banking – until he unwrapped it.

It was huge – about 1.2 metres by one metre – which would have been fine if the original photo hadn’t been three centimetres by two centimetresImage.

As you can see here, the six people sitting at their desks are all fuzzy, and only one appears to be a Manchurian. By that I mean that if you look really hard, you can see the guy in the front has a pig tail, but there may be another, as the guy at the back seems to be wearing a Manchurian hat.

The others are just ordinary people sitting at ordinary desks. There is a typewriter on one desk, or perhaps it is an abacus? There is a clock on the wall at the back of the room which indicates that it may be about 10 to 10, possibly on a Monday morning, by the looks on their faces.

“You want other pieces,” Sam asked. I looked at the second piece – a blow up of a Standard Chartered truck – and declined before he unwrapped the third.

“Text me when it arrives,” Rob had said.

So I did.

“Were you drunk?” I wrote.

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Here in Singapore, if you see any rubbish around in a public place, you can just call the litter hotline and the authorities will come and remove it, according to a report in The Straits Times.(31 March 2012)

So far, I haven’t seen any litter in public places in Singapore, but I plan to put this number in my phone and call it next time I am in Richmond after a big match at the MCG.

I hope that this particular type of cultural  homogeneity will extend to Victoria, and that Yarra Council will follow in the foot steps of Singapore’s newly created Department of Public Cleanliness (DPC).

In Singapore, the DPC will work closely with town councils to take charge of cleaning in public areas, The Straits Times says.The DPC will also use technology, including remote monitoring of litter bins.

“A tag will be placed in all the NEA (National Environment Agency) litter bins, allowing officers to keep count of all  emptied bins with a quick scan.

“Web-based cameras will also be installed for real-time tracking of the ground situation and contractors’ performance,” the report says.

Back in Richmond, they still do it the old-fashioned way – employing a team of mostly African men to walk around with spikes and rubbish bags on Monday mornings, spiking any paper and picking up the broken glass and empty beer cans.

But no amount of technology can solve the problem of footy revellers who have had too much beer and who can’t make it to the Richmond station toilet on time.

Once when I was walking home from the station, I spied a young man urinating against the wall, his pelvis thrust forward, while his hands were pressed against the wall above his head to hold himself steady.

I had seen this too many times before, so this time  I slipped my hand into my pocket, retrieving my iphone, and quickly pressed the camera icon.

Unfortunately, I forgot to turn off the flash.

“Hey, mate, that woman jush took a pitcha of your bum,” the man’s friend slurred, as the flash lit up two round pale buttocks, a pair of skinny, hairy legs and jeans concertinaed around his ankles.

“Wot?” the young man said, turning around.

“See you on youtube, guys!” I yelled – and made a dash for the front door.

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Same, same – but same

I have a friend who once trekked all the way up a mountain in Nepal. She figured it was worth it, as when she got there she was enthralled with the rich local culture, and brought back some beautiful little brass bowls as souvenirs.

That is until she saw the same bowls in Aldi in Melbourne some years later.

Exactly the same. And made in Nepal, not China.

The queue at the checkout was a lot easier than lugging the heavy brass back down the mountain track, but nowhere near as satisfying.

I know how she feels.

Here in Singapore, I eat cake at Brunetti’s, I buy homewares at Ikea,  I buy electrical goods at Harvey Norman, have my shoes fixed at Mr Minit, get my vitamins from GNC and our clothes at Guess, Esprit and Forever New. At night, we watch the Australia network and listen to the ABC news on the radio.

“I feel like I’ve never left home,” I complain to Rob, as we watch Australian Story. Admittedly, this is a repeat, but then so is my life – or so it feels.

This homogeneity of culture is not unique to Singapore.

When we were in Sydney for Christmas last year, we decided not to bother shopping for clothes, as most of the stores, such as Sportsgirl , Esprit, Myer and David Jones, were exactly the same as those in Melbourne.

Even a charming little Japanese stationery shop here in Singapore was not unique. “Oh, they have one of these in Box Hill,” Greta said as we went past.

This feeling of “same same – but same”, rather than “same, same – but different”, was reinforced when we went to see Wicked at Singapore’s Esplanade Theatre a few weeks ago.

The show wonderful, as was the Wicked we saw in Melbourne a year or so before.

It wasn’t just that the cast was Australian, it was the fact that the two stars, Jemma Rix as Elphaba, and Suzie Mathers, as Glinda, were physical clones of the original Broadway stars Idina Menzel and Kristen Chenoweth respectively: right down to the short-waisted perky blondness of Kristen and the dramatic profile of Idina. The set looked exactly the same, too, and the same merchandise was being sold in the theatre shop with the same logo stamped on everything.

In the old days, it was the star that was promoted, not the brand….Ethel Merman in Gypsy! or Mary Martin in Peter Pan, or Howard Keel in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Now the logo is the star.

I guess this is why I always get lost in the underground malls in Orchard Rd.

“It’s just near the Coffee Club,” I tell Greta when trying to remember the location of a particular shop.

But around every corner, it seems there is another Coffee Club, or Guess, or Prada, or Starbucks, making my directions useless.

But I am grateful that there is a Brunetti’s here. That’s where Greta and I often met for coffee when I lived in Melbourne, and where we are meeting for coffee again next Friday: Greta in Brunetti’s in Carlton and me in Brunetti’s in Singapore. We plan to meet at a set time, order our usual fare, and facetime each other on our iphones.

It makes it easier to say goodbye after our Easter holiday here. I type into my calendar “Coffee with Greta – Brunetti’s” and for once, I feel grateful for my pasteurised and homogenised life.

Next time, we might go to a movie together: me at the Shaw cinema in Orchard Rd and her at Hoyts in Melbourne Central. I see that both are screening, Mirror, Mirror.

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The honeymoon

Years ago, when I was writing for Accent, the women’s page in The Age, I was asked to review an exhibition of women artists.

Among the exhibits was a painting titled The Honeymoon. It depicted a woman as a passenger in a car, with her husband driving.

It made me laugh out loud at the time.

I thought of this often when my husband and I  spent a few days in Lorne a few years ago.

At home in Melbourne, I drive myself in my own car, a lilac-coloured Getz, but when we travel together, we tend to take Rob’s car, a sporty Renault –  and he drives.

It’s not that I can’t drive it. I had a go when he bought it four years ago, but I am not confident in it, especially on unfamiliar winding roads.

So, like the honeymooner of the painting, I am a passenger on our trips together. On this trip, it seemed a metaphor for the lives of women throughout the ages, and for mine in particular.

As we set off across the West Gate Bridge and along the Geelong Rd, I said, “Remember when we took Johannes to the fairy park outside Geelong?”

“No,” said Rob.

“I think it was called Anakie or something,” I said, trying to jog his memory.

“No…not me”, said Rob. And then I realised that that while I had been a passenger on that particular trip, the driver had been my previous husband.

Rob shrugged off this mistake with a wry acceptance of my past life. But it struck me that while the drivers had changed, the metaphor remained. I was still a passenger.

Now, for the first time, we don’t have a car – there is seems no point in Singapore, a country so well served by public transport. It is also very expensive to get a certificate of entitlement, a useful tool to discourage too many cars on such a tiny island.

But I am still a passenger, metaphorically and physically, only this time the drivers are taxi drivers, who are also educating me about my new home.

The self-named Crazy Charlie, laughs when, as he is dropped off at work, Rob turns and asks him  to “take my wife” to Takashimaya, the big Japanese department store in Orchard Rd.

“Ah, you work and she go shopping,” Crazy Charlie chuckles.

I find myself bristling at this assumption, so as we speed off, I make a point of telling crazy Charlie that this is the first time in 35 years that I have not been working myself.

He moves from scorn to pity. “Thirty five years?” he says incredulously, his view of Rob changing from patron to slave driver.

What he doesn’t realise is that now that I am without the responsibility of a job and young children, for the first time I can drive my own agenda.

I can spend the whole day in bedquarters if I want, writing my heart out, or I can go out and about touristing, or meet a friend for lunch (I now have two friends in Singapore). I can go to the museum, do a course, join a group or spend the day at the gym (unlikely).

Or as on that particular day, I can spend the day buying essential items for the house, and then lunch and write. Anything.

It’s a giddying thought, but also sobering, as for the first time in many years I do not have any independent income.

When I was writing for Accent, we used to joke that every dependent woman was just “one husband away” from the Sole Parent Pension. As a feminist earning good money, I never imagined that I would be in such a position myself, by choice as well as circumstance.

That’s why it was such a strange feeling to put “home duties” on the immigration card on the flight over, instead of journalist. “Home duties” smacks of subservience, while “journalist” suggests subversiveness.

It makes me think about how it must have been for my mother and the women of her generation, who unskilled and without access to reliable child care, were dependent through circumstance rather than choice. She worked when she could at menial jobs that fitted in with school hours, but the income was never enough to afford independence.

However, unlike my poor mother, who used to wait anxiously for pay day, when $20 “housekeeping” would be left under the sugar bowl in the morning, I have independent access to household funds, so I am not dependent in the same sense as the women of her generation.

But I am conscious of the fact that my contribution to the household is not financial anymore, and that with Rob working long hours and me at home, the dynamic has shifted slightly.

At the same time, I know that this support is both a risk and a privilege. A risk because it makes me vulnerable and a privilege because I now have a chance to rest and recoup after illness and to reflect on my past, present and future life.

This does not mean I am not doing any work at all. I still cook, clean, shop and do the washing. At this very moment, I am about to dash out and retrieve it from yet another tropical deluge.

For many people, one of the attractions of life in Singapore is cheap domestic help, but even if I needed it, which I don’t, I would not hire a maid as I value my privacy and independence too much.

So, I have work to do, but it is work that fills my time not my head.

This means that I am still a passenger of sorts, but also a driver – more conscious these days of the choices available to me than I was when I was young and more willing to take control. (In fact, Rob might argue that this is an insatiable desire).

Taking control also means taking responsibility.

It means not just sitting back and enjoying the scenery but deciding what direction you will go in  -because if you don’t choose now, one day you will find yourself at the end of a road and wonder how you got there.


“And what are you doing in Singapore?” That’s the polite question most people ask me here. I watch them glaze over as I explain that I am trying to write a book,  and that, as a diversion to that, I am writing plays, working on a musical with a composer, and of course, writing this blog.

To achieve all this, I set myself writing deadlines, made easier by the fact that I now have a writing buddy to whom I must front up every week with something other than an idea.

That’s why last week I ironed all Rob’s shirts (a first), made two kilos of potato salad, rearranged the cupboards, washed all the linen and ate every biscuit in the house – even those I don’t like.

This week, the kids have been here, so on Saturday we went shopping. On Sunday we went shopping. On Monday, we tried to go to the park but it rained so we went shopping. On Tuesday we went to the Colonial area looking for culture, but got lost so we went shopping.

And yesterday we went to the Asian Civilizations Museum, where thanks to our tour guides Gisella and Julia, we learned that there was much more to Singapore than shopping.

Today we are meeting an old friend for coffee and possibly going shopping. Then I must think about what to write for my writing deadline.

What am I waiting for, you ask? The last minute, of course. And that’s in about three seconds.

Better go and see what’s on telly.

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In Bangkok, when our driver said “Have construction, Madam,” it usually meant bad traffic and a slow trip into town. But here in Singapore, construction is just another word for progress.

Our apartment backs onto a construction site that has made extraordinary progress since we arrived – which isn’t surprising considering that they work late on weekdays and all day Saturday.

Fortunately, Rob arranged with the landlord for the windows in the kitchen to be sealed before I arrived, so the low hum and occasional bang you hear in the kitchen could easily be mistaken for my usual cooking travails.

Surprisingly, very little can be heard in the rest of the apartment, unless they are drilling holes, which involves a lot of banging of metal on metal, as they shake the dirt from the drill.

At the same time, across the road they have demolished the old police station and are building a new one. Added to that, the Swiss Butchery next door to that is building a new restaurant, and just the other day I noticed that the bar next to that suddenly wasn’t.

One day we were walking past a group of locals and raucous expats enjoying a drink and watching the soccer and the next it was a pile of rubble.

This means that there is often a convoy of concrete mixers in the street, and that I am usually the only one walking around without a hard hat and a fluorescent jacket, as I drag my shopping trolley behind me on the way to the mall.

But amid all this construction – and the huge number of high-rise buildings in Singapore generally – there still remains the feeling that you are living in a tropical paradise.

This is because you are surrounded by large trees and beautifully maintained tropical gardens along every walkway and traffic island.

In fact, the trees along our construction site have been numbered – presumably to ensure their preservation.

It feels strange not to know the names of the plants that I am looking at, so I ask a local expert.

“What is the name of that big tree?” I ask my taxi driver, as we go past yet another huge tree with far-reaching branches and a large green canopy.

“That is the raining tree,” he obligingly replies.

This is confirmed by the National Parks Singapore website, which says that the rain tree’s name comes from the fact that its leaves fold up before it rains. Who needs the Bureau of Meteorology when you have rain trees?

The leaves also fold up at sunset. This is why in Malay it is known as the Puku Lima, which means “five-o’clock”, formerly the sunset hour in Singapore and Malaysia, before Standard Time was altered in the 1980s, the National Park website informs me.

With 4.8 million people living in just 710 square kilometres (for Australian readers that’s three times the size of Philip Island)  Singapore has one of the highest population densities in the world.

Yet there are around two million trees planted around parks, nature strips and protected areas.

Apart from countering any glare that may come from the glass and concrete buildings, the trees provide a welcome relief from the heat, cooling the city.

It makes me wonder about my home state of Victoria, where the battle to maintain its Green Wedges, also known as the city’s “lungs”, was recently lost.

Melbourne’s Green Wedges are defined as the non-urban areas of metropolitan Melbourne that are outside the Urban Growth Boundary.

According to the Victorian Department of  Planning and Community Development website, there are 12 designated Green Wedge areas that form a ring around the city spanning 17 municipalities.

The problem is that most of this is former farmland and is privately owned, and the owners are keen to turn “green into gold” as journalist  Royce Millar put it in his analysis in The Age on July 30 last year.

This latest expansion of Melbourne through its Green Wedges adds another four Philip Islands to its boundaries, providing another 134,000 homes for the next 20 years.

As reported in The Age, the change has been hailed as the “death of the green wedges” by  Green Wedges Coalition spokesperson, Rosemary West, as land that was formerly rural grasslands, woodlands and market gardens is destroyed and replaced by houses. However, the government argues that the move is fundamental to maintaining Melbourne’s housing affordability and supply.

But how much bigger can Melbourne get before we will need a passport to get from one end of the city to another – and at what cost?

It may come as a surprise to those who are not familiar with Melbourne that while there are many expensive “leafy suburbs”  there are also many leafless and lifeless ones, where freeways and housing developments stretch endlessly in Melbourne’s famous “urban sprawl”.

Naturally, the leafy inner city suburbs, which are close to amenities and services, are expensive and the ones on the urban fringe are cheap. In the outer suburbs a car is essential as public transport and other services are often limited or non-existent as local councils struggle to provide infrastructure.

So although Melbourne was given the lofty title of World’s Most Liveable city in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveable City Survey in 2011, in reality how green your valley is depends largely on the size of your wallet.

At the same time, the city’s population is growing, which puts pressure on the government to find a solution.

The logical solution is to go up rather than out.

But this brings another set of problems as Melbournians, unused to high-density living and the resulting traffic and social congestion, fight to maintain the traditional amenity of areas where every man’s home is his castle and every castle includes a backyard and a “barbie”.

However, a city’s liveability is judged on many factors, not just the environment. Safety, the cost of living and work opportunities are just some.

In the end, it was not the greenery but the work opportunities that brought us to Singapore.

The greenery is definitely a bonus but it also serves to remind me that in Victoria, the conservation of important vegetation is not a given but something that must be fought for – and whether you win or lose depends on how much financial and political strength you can muster, and how the numbers play out.

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