Friday, 2 June 2017

Apple Store - Wasted Opportunity For Singapore

Finally, Apple opened an official store in Singapore last week. Predictably along Orchard Road. Thousands arrived on opening day to pay homage to the brand, had multiple more Instagram and Snapchat shots taken, probably not buy anything, and left. 

Is the store going to bring an injection of buzz to unabashedly boring shopping street? Maybe, likely not. Why? Apple used to be APPLE and now it's just apple. Half the country has iPhones and the other half are watching movies on their iPads. I've got a MacBook. The problem with ubiquity is that it kills novelty. Hermes Birkin bags go for a truckload of cash because there are so few of them. It's probably not Apple's dream to not be mass market but clearly they've got to keep their innovation pipeline bursting at the rivets to keep our short attention spans clued into their latest gizmos. And that's hard to do. $100 Japanese fruit of the same moniker would get more buzz. 

So who's at the store buying up stuff? Tourists. Likely Indonesian and Chinese. Our affluent neighbours to the south have about 50 flights a day between Jakarta and this little red dot to choose from, and shopping, concerts and quick getaways have become mere day trips. There are too many Chinese mainlanders who want to get their hands on the latest gizmos to resell back home. It's just a weird consequence of too much demand for the coolest toys among a population of 1+ billion, all trying to be cool. Even those barely getting by seem to want to show off - a new phone, a real Apple, not a China made rip-off - regardless how broke they become. What's even more awesome for our tourists is the GST rebate they get back at the airport. No lucky 7% for the locals. 

My gripe is the missed opportunity for Apple and our gahmen to do something great together, for the big Singapore picture. Imagine if the gahmen gave Apple a nice plot of land to build a magnificent glass house that would glitter and be resplendent enough to mesmerise those drawn to things bright and shiny. To build a standout. With a clever twist - place where no one would expect it to be. Not antiquated Orchard Road but somewhere where more attention is due, somewhere the gahmen wants people to look at and also be drawn to. Say Jurong East, the second CBD. Shocking at first thought I believe. Incredulous even. Not in Apple's image you might think. My take is Apple hasn't done much lately to stun anyone. Apple used to be APPLE because not many people had the shiny fruit. Definitely the folks strutting up and down Orchard Road would be too familiar with and blasé about the brand. But perhaps the folks in the boondocks or more politely, the heartlands, would appreciate a slice of the Apple pie in their neck of the woods. An Apple cube in Jurong or Woodlands or Tampines would attract the attention. MNCs and even luxury brands which may want to follow suit and stake some ground to roll in the average Joe's dough. A wasted opportunity to stir up much needed noise. A store up north would have attracted rich Johoreans to come spend their ringgit here too and scuttle back across all before lunchtime. 

Unless rents come down, I don't think the Apple Store at Knightsbridge is going to last 5 years I fear. Singaporeans are going to get their devices online or from their package deal peddling telcos. And tourists won't be enough to keep the coffers plump. Let's see. 

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Meeting My MP About Coffee

Some years ago, when I moved into my flat in Sengkang, I discovered that there was no coffeeshop in the neighbourhood. In fact it was one of the contractors working on my home renovation who asked me where he could buy food for his men. When the realisation that my Saturday morning teh-si and kaya toast and Sunday morning pratas were gonna be a thing of the gastronomic past, I was a little dumbfounded.

I then wrote to the Straits Times forum page and was published under the headline "Where is my coffeeshop?". I also 'threatened' to move out in 5 years back to Hougang if the status quo remained.

A couple of years ago, I went to the Meet-The-People Session (MPS) in my neighbourhood to tell my MP about this issue of mine. He wasn't in. He had to go to another nearby ward to cover Michael Palmer who had resigned amid naughty circumstances. So they RC minions told me to write my grievances down on a proper sheet of paper for submission to Mr Teo. I did that and never heard a word back.

It's past 5 years now. Nothing's changed. And I am starving.

On Monday night last week, I went to the MPS once more. I was given a number to wait to see Mr Teo. I saw wandering about the inside room of a PAP kindergarten used for this official purpose once a month. It was abuzz of activity in there - more people in white polo tees sitting with problem-ridden Singaporeans having conversations, taking notes and typing into laptops. It was quieter in the outer room, everyone with laminated numbers keeping to themselves, and the RC members chatting by the entrance. We had water, 3-in-1 coffee mixes, Khong Guan biscuits and something dessert-ish bubbling in a rice cooker, green bean soup perhaps. It was a scene from an army camp minus the green and guns. I sat next to the coloured pencils and crayon stash and played with my phone. There was no paper for I would have channelled my inner Monet.

When 21 flashed in red, it was my turn to enter to the room of busy bees. I sat down a young man who seemed weirdly nervous. He was of course in a polo tee and proceeded to confirm who I was and ended by asking "So you want to see the MP?" I replied "Well I don't need to see him. I just have a suggestion." He seemed oddly relieved at this point. "This neighbourhood needs a coffeeshop." "Oh ok" and started to type something into his computer.

Coincidentally at this point, my MP and another man in white long sleeves happened to be passing by and heard the point of my visit. The man in white long sleeves was hovering where I was and quite suddenly interjected without introducing himself. His not so exact words were "We've discussed this coffeeshop issue before and raised it up. For many years now. It's not new. We'll make a note of it." This man seemed to be of quite some stature within this group. He had what you call gravitas. My boy in the polo tee resumed his anxiety. The man looked late 40-early 50 ish, full head of hair, and a plain, tan, slightly puffy face. His eyes were dark, slightly red and he looked tired, like he was running on adrenaline or drugs. His fringe and his downward standing stance made him look even more sinister.

"When was this discussed?" I asked and he replied "There was a town hall about 5 years ago which you probably didn't attend." Wow nice jab. "5 years? A town hall should happen every 6 months!" I replied incredulously.

He went on to explain that residents in my hood did want a coffeeshop, just not under their apartment block. Too noisy, too messy. So apparently the issues been dingdonging for years now. And the estate's 20 years old. It's a legacy problem.

As this man went on some sort of uppity been there, done that sort of tirade, I could tell he was tired. Tired of complainers who did little to remedy their own predicaments. I think the age on his face belied the actual experience he has endured with residents, legalese, social norms and politics. In the middle of his defense I realised I was getting pissed off too with all this rhetoric being thrown in opposition of my opinion. That wasn't good for anyone, so I consciously told myself to listen and keep calm. As a wise friend said once "the first person to get angry is the loser".

When a pause came in, I told Mr White Shirt, he hadn't introduced himself. I shot out my right hand and said "I'm Gurmit" "Steven Lam" he replied. He talked about how residents weren't as forgiving with government decisions and were voicing grievances that didn't help move the wheels along. Steven added that the coffeeshop at Block 206 kept changing hands every 3 years because whoever was running it couldn't keep up with the escalating rents. The rent issue also plighted the Sengkang Square Kopitiam where the MP had to ask the owners to keep rents for some stalls low so that residents could buy food at under $3. "Not good food but still food", he lamented.

Steven laughingly said he also wanted a coffeeshop in this neighbourhood so that he could get a beer. I bet he does after meeting me.

Steven expounded on what he does for a bit. He's ex-Police, well-decorated and now volunteers with RCs all over the place. Ah, now I understood why it seems he's dealt with all manner of riff-raff, at both ends of the affluent scale. He doesn't live in Sengkang but helps out here with my MP. Nice guy I guess once he cools off. But still I had an agenda to get chicken rice in my hood.

After his stories, I told that this lack of this aforementioned amenity was a planning mistake. There were more coffeeshops in the nearby newer part of the my housing estate and these were built in from the start. Not a potential afterthought like I was hoping to append under a block. I told him I surveyed the car parks and that no one really parked on the 3rd or top floors and those could be potential locations. He replied the residents' committees he tried organising activities there before but the noise complaints came in fast and furious. I then pointed out a patch of green state land behind primary school that was more than ample. "It's 50 by 50 meters. The new part of Buangkok with the new FairPrice, a coffeeshop, and a few shops was built on a 40 by 40 meter piece of land."

Steven said he loved residents like me. Loved. Because I was proactive about concerns affecting others. He asked me to join the RC. I gagged a little and then responded "But this is political." "No, it isn't." "Yes, it is," I replied pointing back to where the MP had disappeared behind me to. "Ok, yes that is political. But we welcome everyone to serve the residents. Even WP members." Hmm. I left it at that, though service to others isn't beneath me. But not this way perhaps.

I think at this time he knew I had done my homework. He told the kid in the white polo who had mysterious managed to not utter a single word since Steven appeared to raise the matter to the residents' committee chairman in my group of blocks, and to emphasise that the issue needed escalation from the grassroots, again. Apparently it hadn't been important for a while. Cast aside while I moved in and became perpetually hungry. The end, till my stomach led me to this meet-the-MP venue.

I shook Steven's hand again when I left. I didn't see my MP Teo Ser Luck but it was an enlightening visit nonetheless. I learned that there is still a good deal of hierarchy, process and assumption on the part of my government officials. And they don't often expect an educated oddball to come in to dig up old issues and need them to blow the dust off some closed, forgotten chapters. Still I think most of the people running these sessions do it with good intentions, and in all earnestness, they want to help their fellow Singaporeans.

Let's wait and see what happens next - on the coffeeshop and moving out of Sengkang fronts. 

Friday, 11 November 2016

Good Luck America

From joke to reality, the unimaginable has taken place. A businessman made infamous by a reality TV show has become the leader of the free world.

This term 'leader of the free world' came about when life was simpler, when the lines drawn were hard and opaque like the Iron Curtain, not murky or mired, when the United States of America was the light of hope, freedom and opportunity. The funny thing about the past year though is that these descriptors were turned on their heads by the very man who is now going to take office in January.

He arguably won the election because he flipped the political checkerboard, threw the game, rules and decorum out the window, didn’t care where the pieces landed and who got hurt. Donald the Disruptor. Advertising agencies are going to be using this example for years to come when trying to sell new ideas to clients. Kudos for winning I guess, albeit by electoral college system rather than actual numbers.

Those final results were so so close though, separated by less than 0.2%, less than 250,000 votes from the total of 120 million ballot papers counted. The American people were clearly split down the middle. I don’t know how many spoiled ballots there were but at least 11,000 votes were for Harambe, the gorilla that was shot and killed at Cincinnati Zoo in May. These votes could have perhaps made some difference in the results for states where the percentage fell a stone’s throw on either side of 50-50. Six states had their fates sealed by margins less than 1.5%. These states had 89 electoral college seats up for grabs, enough to swing the situation and to have kept my gag reflex at bay.

Just 20 states gave Trump a clearer mandate, based on a 10% or more margin. That’s only 20 out of 51. In my opinion, if someone’s going to be voted in for a job so important, with an electorate so diverse and multi-intentioned, first-past-the-post judgements can’t apply. It’s got to be at least be 60% of the people who give him or her the thumbs up, else there’s going to be enough discontent mice with emotional sour grapes among the losers that could spark off protests and fights.

Trump did turn things into a unstable powder keg after all. He used his fame well, to sell himself as the saviour businessman who’d solve the country’s woes. It became easy to fan the flames of anger to those who felt they had been left behind, who now think someone is listening and can relate to their troubles and seemingly solve their problems. What’s scary though was that Trump picked on people to blame for lost jobs and low economic growth. With hurtful and unkind words, he blamed foreigners and immigrants, and countries to where these jobs went. Those who paid attention him had nothing to lose because they had lost so much already. It's easy for a media-savvy braggadocious character to fill that void with ideas, scary, dangerous ones even. People with nothing to lose often do stupid things. We’ve seen so many videos of racially insensitive behaviour that’s come to the fore of late. The perpetrators likely believe that it’s ok now since Trump is behind them, egging them on to manifest their hate as verbal and physical violence. Now that he is president, I expect more of such trouble.

Those who voted with their riled up emotions for Trump are wrong though. It may take a day to change the leader of a nation but it’ll take years or decades to get the gears of a nation's economy turning again. Not quite the way things change split-second on TV but how sobering reality works in real life, not behind a camera and video editing booths. Nothing will be instant. That’s when the anguish of slow, frustrating progress, if any, will sink in. In fact, if Donald cancels existing trade agreements, makes enemies with China and the rest of the world, forces US companies to relocate back home to pay high manufacturing costs, keeps taxes low for the wealthy, nothing’s gonna change. It might even get a whole lot worse for the common man. If he continues with his mad rhetoric, expect an isolated, introverted America. Only their movies and music will make money abroad.

No one’s really clear how big American businesses will need to pander to his whims and fancies. Disruption is good when the outcomes change things for the better, including profits. Not so great for businesses when their costs are going to skyrocket. Trump said in January “We're going to get Apple to build their damn computers and things in this country instead of in other countries.” Let’s say this does happen and Apple is expected to pay fair wages to employees at new factories in the US, it’s clear the prices of their products have to go up to meet these new operating expenses. Their stuff isn’t cheap to begin with and if prices go up some more, consumers would simply say no and move on. How would Apple’s bottomline look like then? If he imposed taxes on American companies which don't comply, they might just move out of the US to keep their margins going. That'll be a shame, a tremendous shame.

I predict by the end of 2017 the voices of discontent will come from his own support base who is probably expecting a lot more than what the new president can deliver. They’ll tear down the facade he’s created when he goes on television with excuses, delays and political hangups. No more business guru who’ll save the day. Just a p*ssy-grabbing loudmouth on stage exposed, cold and shivering from the shame of being finally caught out. Perhaps I’m being dramatic. Maybe he’ll get lucky and survive an impeachment.

What I am not looking forward to is the collateral damage, the victims of Trump’s plans, the ones who believed in the American promised land, who will have to deal with shattered dreams for themselves and their children. The fallout of people. I am unsure, unclear and slightly afraid to find out what’s around the corner. He’s talked so much shit and been such an arse to so many people, I wonder how he could ever make things work much less get the respect of his colleagues and peers. I hope he gets back his Twitter access because I’ve missed his midnight rants.

Good luck America.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

A Matter Of Time

Or rather, putting some aside to get some writing done. A timetable, that's what I need, a routine to ironically be less routine. Routine writing. The rolling of the r's in that has a positive ring to it. Wring even, to twist out all the dormant juices. Like a quiet volcano, just murmuring and one day spewing noxious gas and vomiting glowing lava. Yup, that's me. Noxious and glowing.