Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Wonderful Wizard of Blah-Blopi-Boo

It was a very good, Good Friday today. Spent most of the day with Thuy at the movies. Between chasing the press coverage for IIMPact 2013: New Frontiers, which is taking place April 5 – 6, 2013 and the night job, I’ve not really had the time to spend with her and to do my bit to ensure that her English is up to scratch.
Anyway, we decided to treat ourselves to two-movies. Morning movie was a good old fashioned Chinese slap stick. Then we decided to see “Oz, the Great and Powerful.” I enjoyed this movie because it was the “prequel” to the well-loved story I had grown-up with – “The Wizard of Oz.” This was the story of how the “Wizard” got to “Oz” in the first place.  

It turns out that the “Wizard” is an unpleasant character. He is a small-time circus magician who is a con-artist. He cheats and abuses his ‘business-partner’ and seduces women with nothing more than a few cheap gimmicks. When it looks like he’s going to get his just deserts, he does a runner – which is precisely how he ends up in Oz. Once in Oz, he continues as he did in Kansas and has some pretty close encounters, until he decides to use his skills as a ‘con-man’ for the greater good of the people of Oz.

I think one of the reasons why this movie spoke to me was the fact that it showed that despite being a shit of the highest order, you ended up cheering for the “wizard.” The reason was simple – after a while, you realized that it ended up saying more about the people who got taken in by him than it did about him.

Upon arrival he meets the first witch (who will end up becoming the wicked witch that Dorothy had to melt), he actually convinces her that he’s got genuine magic powers. What does he do? His hot air balloon falls out of the sky and he pulls out gimmick flowers for her (she is at this stage a very hot chick – character played by Mila Kunis). Did he ever suggest to her that he was a wizard? No, she’s the one who tells him that he’s a wizard and he merely does what every con-artist does – takes advantage of the situation.

I know this is a fairy tale of sorts but the beauty here is that a charlatan with no magic powers to speak of manages to convince someone with real magic power (and she does have potent powers) that he has powers that exceed hers.

If you look at the movie closely, you’ll realize that the “Wizard” has several things going for him. They are:

His Looks

The very first thing that one should note about the “Wizard” (played by James Franco) is that he’s a good looking guy. Despite the situations that he gets involved in, he is immaculately groomed and is always with his hat. When you look at him, you can believe that young women – even ones with magical powers, would be attracted to him.

Let’s face it, we love looking at attractive people. We will give them the time of the day. I am guilty of this. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve allowed myself to remain engaged in a conversation with women who bored me into shitting my pants or parting with money I could have used more wisely. If I look back at those moments, I realize that I only myself to do things against my better judgment was because I found the chick in question “hot.”

It works the other way too. Women are as guilty as men of being easily lead astray by good looking men. One of my best friends in the UK had the luxury of being very pretty – women would offer him their number out of the blue. He also had plenty of admirers from the homosexual community too.

I think back to what my Uncle Jeffery said to me when I went to work for him at Asher Communications – “Cosmetics Count.”

If you look at the world’s con-artist, you’ll realize that they’re all exceedingly well groomed…….

Charm and the Ability to Make Others Feel Special

One of the “wizard’s” most popular tools is a series of “musical boxes,” (movie is set in the 1900s, musical boxes were today’s iPhones) which he gives away to women he plans to seduce. His line is always the same – it was his grandmother’s musical box and she left it to him and now he wants to give it to the lady in question.

The line is corny. It is obvious. It works. The ladies fall for him because he makes them feel special. He makes them feel as if they are the only one for him.

We all like to feel special. Relationships always seem better when they are exclusive. I think of journalist who have asked me for “exclusives” and I think of how I’ve valued certain relationships over others because some just seemed more “special” than others.

When you make someone feel special and good – you are more likely to get them to do things for you.

The Willingness to be Lucky or Understanding the Situation

Say what you like about the “Wizard” but he understands situations and is able to tailor his actions according to the situation. When people at the circus claim that they see a wire in his levitation act, ‘cuts’ the wires. Then in Oz, he knows when to rescue and heal people and when to run……In short, he is a survivor.

These are simple facets to his character and if we applied them to our daily lives, we may be surprised with the results.  

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Importance of Self-Belief

You could call a series of happy coincidences that lead to the creation of this blog post. First, my favourite litigator got himself interviewed in the mainstream media and was presented as a champion of underdogs. Then for some reason I decided to get onto youtube to watch “Tyson vs Lewis.” Both these events got me thinking about the concept of “underdogs.”

The concept of the “underdog” is a most curious one. On one hand, we all have an emotional pull towards supporting “underdogs.” However, when it comes to life, we often try our best to avoid being underdogs and move into situations where our success becomes a forgone conclusion.

I think of Singapore, the place I’ve called home for the last decade. On one hand, Singapore goes on and on about how it’s the perpetual “underdog” on the global scale. We are always the small island that wasn’t supposed to survive as an independent nation. Yet, if you look at the way Singapore is run, it’s all about BIG things – BIG GOVERNMENT AND BIG CORPORATIONS are, in practice, the only entities of significance in Singapore.

Anyway, I’ve spent the better part of a decade being an insignificant fly in this pool of people obsessed by “BIG” things. So, I figured that if there is topic that I am qualified to talk about, it is the topic of being successful despite being insignificant.

I think the key to success as an underdog is ‘self-belief.’ In order to succeed as underdog, you need to believe in yourself and you need to develop a healthy disregard for conventional perceptions of reality.
Let me clarify that there is a difference between having ‘self-belief’ and being “delusional.” I took karate at school (I was in fact the school captain). However, despite having some training in a martial art and being confident enough that when push comes to shove, I can handle myself in a fight, I’m not about to rush off and challenge Mike Tyson. That would be delusional and feeling Mike’s fist against my jaw would cure me of that pretty quickly.

Having ‘self-belief’ means that you recognize what you are and what you have. You recognize that you can’t win every battle but you can win others. A person with ‘self-belief’ creates situations where he or she can win.

One can see this when it comes to boxing. This is particularly true when you look at the career of Mike Tyson. In his heyday, Mike Tyson was considered an indestructible force of nature. Getting into the ring with Mike was as good as going into the ring against a tornado.

The beauty of Mike Tyson was a fighter was that his destruction of his opponents created a situation where people became terrified of him. I think of his 91 second demolition of Michael Spinks, who was in his own right, a decent fighter. How did Tyson win so easily? The answer was simple – Spinks was shitting in his pants the moment he stepped into the ring.

Tyson wasn’t the biggest fighter but he did have the biggest reputation. Many of Tyson’s opponents were superior physical specimens. Yet their physical strength was nothing when compared to Tyson’s reputation. Take Frank Bruno as an example. It was considered a major achievement for him to last five rounds the first time and nobody was terribly surprised that he got a three round hiding the second time they met. Frank Bruno was bigger and probably stronger than Mike Tyson. However, on the two occasions he got into the ring, he was shit scared of what Tyson would do to him.

His reign as heavy weight champion of the world ended when he ran into James Buster Douglas. The fight should have been a foregone conclusion. However, Douglas decided not to be intimidated and fought instead of rolling over. Hey presto – Mike Tyson got knocked out.

Latter on Tyson ran into Holyfield and much to everyone’s surprise, landed on his rear end. Then, came the fight with Lennox Lewis.

This was supposed to be the fight of all fights. Everyone expected Tyson to be at his ferocious best and would give Lennox the fight of his life. “Iron Mike” didn’t even come close to hurting Lennox. As one boxing commentator said, ‘The bad boy of boxing got a spanking from Lennox Lewis.”

How did Douglas, Holyfield and Lewis do it? I think all three men found the amazing ability to look beyond the reputation of Mike Tyson, understood what they had over him and used it to their advantage. They boxed in a way that suited them rather than Tyson. The Lewis fight was particularly instructional. Lennox was the bigger man so he used his jab. He never allowed Tyson to really get close to him. Then, when Tyson got tiered, Lewis demolished him.

Most of us tend to look at the obvious. It often becomes easy to become focused on what the other fellow has rather than on what you have. Let’s face it, gossip magazines that pry into the lives of the rich and famous would be thriving if human beings were not obsessed with other people.

While following gossip is good fun – it is a distraction. Checking out other people becomes a means in itself rather than an act to achieve an objective. Let’s face it, there would be a lot more fortunes in this world if ten percent of the people following gossip magazines about the rich and famous decided to focus on being rich and famous themselves.

We all have our talents as much as we have our weaknesses. Yet, despite this, many of us fail because we become so obsessed with everything else other than using what we have, that we end up going nowhere.
I stress again, self-belief is not fantasy. In order to be useful, it has to be based on reality. Let’s look at American military campaigns as an example. America has undoubtedly the most powerful military machine in the world. The American government spend more on developing its military than the rest of the G20 combined.

As such, the American military lives on Napoleon’s truism that “God is on the side of big battalions.” Simply put, no army in the world will ever be able to stand up to the force of the US military.

Yet, despite this, the Americans have got stuck in places like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The image of the “world’s strongest military” running away on top of its embassy in Saigon has become iconic.

What happened? The insurgents understood that they would NEVER beat the American military in a pitched battle. However, instead of being intimidated, they realized that they had certain advantages and played to them. The American military planners failed to realize that there were other battles other than the pitched ones that would become more important to the scheme of things.

American military planners in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have been focused on things like troop numbers and guns. The insurgents in these places were focused on ensuring their people had their support and that the American people would not support the military campaign. The insurgent movements have fought their battles in such a way where their own people would die for them, while the American people would be against whatever their own military did.

Take the “Tet Offensive” as an example. In strict military terms, the Americans won on the basis that they killed more of them enemy. However, this became the turning point against American military action in Vietnam because, it was the point where the American public lost its heart for the fight – Say what you like but it was a damn good move to get American soldiers appearing to gun down “innocent civilians” on American TV. For a nation that takes pride in its role as a guarantor of peace and stability (a beacon of all that’s good), this was a little bit too much to bear.

Underdogs are not delusional. They merely understand themselves and the situation beyond the “hype” and “expectation” of convention. They then play according to what they know they can do best at.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


Today is the 9th of March, 2013. It is officially 16-years since the tragic accident of Exercise Swift Lion in New Zealand. It has been 16-years since Ronnie, the Gun Commander and Yin Tit, his gunner were killed in a freak accident in what should have been the crowning glory of their National Service Careers.

Although 16-years have passed, the memory of what I did on that day remains very fresh. You could say that I was fortunate not to be there first hand. I was in the battery that was waiting to go out to New Zealand. National Service was winding down and I guess you could say we were supposed to just mark time. Then, this incident took place and many things in our lives changed.

Suddenly National Service became serious. As they always say, it’s easy to be a hero in a simulation – it’s a different story when you have to attend a funeral of a friend you knew to be only a good guy. I’ve often described this as the last days of innocence that we had. The funerals that we had to attend suddenly woke us up to the reality that life was unfair. I knew Ronnie well enough. He was one of those chaps who would follow instructions to the letter. He was one of those who would go out of his way to help the most inconsiderate of us. He was dedicated to his job. Despite all of that, it was he who had to die.  

That incident simply didn’t make sense. Although the Committee of Inquiry has released its findings and officialdom has done its best to give us a sensible explanation of what happened, I still don’t understand why this good natured soul of all people had to have his life cut short.

I remember being unable to cry for a friend who deserved more than my tears. If anything, I was angry at a system that didn’t seem to give a shit for the life that was lost. From where I stood in Khatib Camp on that day, officialdom was more concerned with getting me to endorse a weapon system than it was about two young lives that had been cut short. It happened so suddenly that I’m not sure how many of us had time to be sad. It took me a good six-months and an unhealthy dose of vodka to be able to properly mourn a friend.
Sixteen years have passed. Most of us have built careers and families. Time has dulled the shock and pain from that incident. We have moved on with our lives. I believe that this is something that this is something that would have made Ronnie and Yin Tit happy.

Yet, there’s a part of me that won’t let go of these memories. For me this was the last days of my innocence. It was the time when I saw the worst in a system obsessed with perpetuating itself. It was the moment when I saw the best in people who found a way of reaching out to you.

Now, as I write this, I remember the moments that I was fortunate enough to share with Ronnie. I’m grateful that I’m blessed with good friends. I’ve loved intensely and been loved intensely. Yes, things could be better but they could also be worse. I wish I could tell my friend that I miss him and that he was here to share the highs and lows of growing older. It’s been sixteen-years since that terrible day. Now the anger and the pain have gone. I just miss a friend who deserved so many of the blessings life has.   

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Will they join?

You could say that I’m living my life backwards. As I approach the big four-zero mark, I seem to be doing all the things that I should have done in my twenties. One of those activities is working at a restaurant. Most of my nights are spent waiting tables in an Italian restaurant near my home. The work isn’t going to win me Nobel Prize anytime soon but it keeps me busy and provides me with some form of exercise. The pay is disproportionately low for the hours worked but it funds my day-to-day living expenses and more importantly it helps fund my CPF (compulsory savings scheme that employed Singaporeans contribute to – a few have bitched about it being a hidden tax but as my Dad pointed out, it’s the only way most of us have the means to buy a home.)

I mention this aspect of my personal life because the experience of working in a job that is officially below my qualifications touches on one of the hot topics in today’s Singapore – jobs or the lack of them. The issue of jobs ties in heavily with everyone’s favourite hot topic – foreigners. As far as most Singaporeans are concerned, the influx of foreigners into the country is the key to all our social problems. One of the key social ills is jobs or the lack of them. If you talk to enough Singaporeans, many of them will complain that there aren’t enough jobs to go around and for those of us with jobs we’ll complain that they are so badly paid, it’s not worth doing them.

The issue is especially sensitive at the bottom of the social ladder. On one hand there is the argument that hiring forigners from the rest of Asia has helped depress wages at the bottom of the ladder thus pricing out the less educated Singaporean from the job market. The businesses have countered that Singaporeans won’t do the jobs so they have to get them from elsewhere.

Singapore’s normally pro-business government has decided to weigh in on the side of labour. In the recent budget announcement, the finance minister made it a point that businesses in certain sectors have become too dependent on “cheap” labour and have therefore ignored upgrading and becoming more productive. To change the situation, the government has increased the foreign worker levy to make foreigners less cheap than the locals and also introduced a slew of measures to encourage employers to become more “productive.” The sectors that have been targeted are retail, construction and F&B (food and beverage) as the sectors that need to up their game and become more productive.

In a way, this budget helps my blue collar persona. Well, the main point is things are going to look much better for that side of me. The employers in the industry are going to have a bigger problem finding people to do the work. The traditional source of labour will dry up and let’s face it, Singaporeans are not about to rush into the industry. Logic would have it that the owners of F&B establishments will have to be nicer to the Singaporeans who are already in the industry.

Let’s face it, the reality of the f&b industry is that it is a people intensive one. There are certain things that can be improved with IT. I think you’d have an instant hit amongst the various small restaurants if you had a bit of technology that would send the information straight to the cashier and the kitchen the moment the waiter takes an order.

Then there’s the issue of dishwashers. The big hotels wash their dishes by machine. The smaller outlets don’t. They have someone to do it. One of the key arguments is that they don’t have the space and human labour makes up for things.

Leaving aside these two areas, there’s arguably little that you can reduce. Perhaps some outlets can become ‘self-service’ restaurants. However, if you are planning on running a reasonably mid-priced restaurant, you still need the people to cook and serve the food.

So like it or not, the restaurant business needs people to keep things moving along. Unfortunately getting labour is going to be as tough as it has always been.

Let’s start with the obvious. Being in the service line is tough. It can be downright unpleasant especially if you have a ‘I won’t take shit’ mentality. I’ve had customers come up to me and challenge me to a fight. Apparently I didn’t see him wave at me and so after he got someone to take his order, he came up to me and asked, “Do you have a problem with me?” This is the type of thing that usually leads to someone having their face smacked in. However, I didn’t smack his face in – I had to get him to sit down and have his meal.
The job requires you to have a high level of tolerance for nonsense. You have to stay pleasant when the situation is such that you don’t particularly feel like being nice.

In a funny way, my years in PR have helped me to cope with the demands of the job. I’m older or at least I’ve reached the age where I’m more inclined to let certain things pass. I’m also at the stage where I’d rather laugh at things rather than getting angry or sad. Hence, I laugh at situations and for the most part, I end up laughing with customers and have a decent rapport with most of them.

I’m lucky. If you look at the demands of the job, you’ll see that one requires a decent amount of EQ rather than IQ to do the job. Unfortunately this is not the way the education system in Singapore has geared people up for. A good portion of the middle class, for example, have been raised by maids. How do you encourage people who have been brought up believing that it’s their birthright to be served to actually serve?

By contrast the Filipinos are used to providing service. A part of it is economics. Another part of it is probably cultural, where they’ve been more inclined to let things go.

This then brings in the question of pay or the lack of it. The F&B industry has always been known for being a tough paymaster. With the exception of executive chefs or restaurant owners, most people in the industry don’t earn pots of money. I have a friend who has worked in the industry for 25-year. He’s currently on a salary of $1,900 and considers it high. I know of a former restaurant manager who rose from $2,000 a month to $6,000 in 25-years. By comparison, I got $1,800 a month when I started out in my first agency job.

Long hours for relatively little money isn’t exactly the most attractive thing to bandy about when you are trying to get people to join the industry.

So what can be done? There are people who would rather be jobless than work in the industry. Pay could increase but then again, the question of how much pay do wages need to go up before people consider it attractive for the hours worked? That will be question for the industry to answer in the coming years.