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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