What the payphone taught me

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A public telephone in Kuching, Sarawak

Today, not for the first time, my phone died on me – not surprising, considering that I’m using an iPhone 4…I know. Probably an antique by today’s standards – where were we, iPhone 8S or something?

Technology and I are not the best of friends, and I definitely consider myself more of an old school person who would rather live in the 80s or relive the 90s of my childhood. Definitely not the typical millennial you can think of.

Tonight, I was supposed to meet my boyfriend after work and after his night class, and we hadn’t arranged a meeting point or time. So when my phone died on me, I resorted to…the good old payphone. And guess what I hadn’t even realised (and probably very few people know) that every MRT station in Singapore has a payphone (I think)!

So I was at the MRT station near my workplace, clumsily trying to put a 20 cent coin through the coin slot, all while attracting curious (mortifying) stares from the security guard and the staff at the control station. My boyfriend, who was still in class, did not pick up the call.

You see, unlike the mobile phone, the person who received a missed call from you can’t just call you back. There’s also no caller ID. You can’t text the person to tell them you called either.

So I took the train in the direction of home, hoping that he won’t end up blindly waiting for me somewhere, only to receive a text from me when I got home and managed to revive my phone with the charger.

When I arrived at my stop around 40 minutes later, I located another payphone and called again. This time, my call got through. I was so happy and relieved. Suddenly, it seemed like he was so far away. Someone whom I’d held close every day, reached easily and effortlessly with a text or a sticker on Telegram, was suddenly so unreachable.

Tonight I learned for the first time (or maybe remembered what I’d forgotten from my childhood), that every 10 cents gave you 2 minutes of call time. Because I had 20 cents, I could speak with him for 4 minutes.

Suddenly, those four minutes, usually so easily passed and idled away with a few mindless scrolls on Facebook, watching Insta-stories, and refreshing my Inbox, became so precious and so genuinely felt. I literally saw the passing of time on the payphone timer, and hours and minutes, taken for granted as part of each day, became reduced to the split second. Suddenly, I recognised time again, like an old friend I’d long forgotten.

In this digital age where technology and smartphones reduce everything to mindless routines and effortless endeavours, we take time for granted. Everything is sped up, passing by, convenient and half-hearted at the same time – you could be talking to someone while dealing with a few other screens, or checking your social media feed.

We’ve managed to speed life up, do more things with less time. But are we really making the most out of the time we have now?

The meaning of design

A design studio is not a factory. Design – whether a website or app, a packaging or visual – is not a cookie-cutter product.

Design is a visual manifestation of something that is deeper – a belief, an idea to communicate, or an extension of a company’s values.

A design has to say something and mean something to the client, for the client, and to the end user.

Been doing some self-reflection recently. Reading through my past journal entries, I find a passion burning in me that cannot be extinguished.

Perhaps my biggest strength (and sometimes weakness) is that I question everything (deeply), and have a strong set of beliefs. Sometimes, that just doesn’t sit well in society. I have learned to tone down my passionate self-expression, but I am still trying to find the balance between living true to myself, and making a valuable contribution to the world I live in.

So much has changed over time. The core in me has never left, but my thoughts and mindsets have matured through a lot of weathering. Which can be a good thing I guess.

 

It takes two to Tango

Every weekend, I am torn between the desire to do nothing and the desire to do everything. The weekends have been reduced to two precious days we can call our own, and sometimes, the cryptic in me wonders if the expression ‘desk-bound’ actually has a connotation of imprisonment. Besides the fact that I’m struggling with a career that clashes with my core beliefs and personality (had no idea it’d be so bad when I started), I guess most of life is mundane drudgery, and we have to constantly seek ways to go beyond the constraint of our selves, whether it is art, religion, spirituality, love or friendship.

I have to remember that nothing revitalises and uplifts my soul more than a good dose of art – whether it is watching a film or a play, reading a good book or a great piece of writing, and then the lengthy discussions that overflow with passion afterwards.

On Friday night, I went to see the play Tango by Singaporean playwright Joel Tan (whom I just followed on WordPress lol).

tango

Photo credit: Bakchormeeboy.com, who also wrote a great review on the play

Tango is a play centred around a gay couple Kenneth (Singaporean) and Liam (British) who have returned to Singapore to care for Kenneth’s ailing father, bringing along their 12-year-old adopted son Jayden. The main conflict in the story involved a confrontation with an elderly waitress at a Chinese restaurant in Singapore, who refused to serve them because they were “not normal people”. This incident, recorded by a bystander on video, went viral on social media, sparking outrage at the elderly woman’s homophobic behaviour, and triggering the long-contained anger of the LGBT community in Singapore.

The play, while filled with funny and heartwarming moments, is only made more poignant because of how real and realistic it is. An example is the continual allusions to the Singapore government’s decision to ban foreigners from attending Pink Dot, an annual LGBT rally and event at Hong Lim Park, a venue allocated for public protests in Singapore.

Although Tango is a play centred around LGBT issues, it is more than just a play about LGBT issues. Through the central conflict in the story and the perspectives of different characters, the play addresses social and cultural issues in our society.

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endangered sounds

Museum of Endangered Sounds

A museum of sounds we have lost, or will soon lose with the passage of time. I love this project because it is a refreshing way of documenting history. Certain sounds of our daily life can form memories that are so personal, yet shared in a collective nostalgia.

I’ve always thought that sounds are really important, and easily taken for granted – until we realise we’ve stopped hearing them. For example, the sounds of activity at a local coffee shop kopitiam in Singapore – the clinking of teaspoons and glass cups of kopi or teh. The rapid stirring motion of the drinks stall uncle as he makes various concoctions of local drinks. The buzz of the ventilators and stoves in the zi char kitchen, turning out plate after plate of comfort food like sambal kangkong or sweet & sour pork.

What if one day, the hot, greasy and unglamorous stalls of the hawker centre or kopitiam are forsaken, in the face of chain restaurants in the endless sprout of new malls?

And then there are the friendly uncles and aunties running little shops selling provisions or hardware, or a fascinating array of household items we need at home for cleaning, organising, cooking or repairing.

Or the heartland or market stalls selling golden tins of gem biscuits, the sound of coffee beans being ground, and the bargaining and banter of the butchers and fishmongers at the wet market every morning.

And the wrapping of chicken rice, fried kway teow, Hainanese curry rice or roti prata in a square of brown paper, tied up with a red rubber band.

As the sounds of the present become obsolete with new development trends and technologies, will they all be forgotten?

Singapore

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The iconic but now defunct “rainbow buildings” in Rochor estate, which has been scheduled for demolition to make way for a new expressway

 

Some time ago I followed a website called Teleport, which is a community of people interested in travel and living abroad. It has a forum for people to ask each other questions about their respective countries. I received several notifications regarding a similar question: “What is it like to live in Singapore?”

I did not respond to any of them, because it is a difficult question to answer. What it’s like to live in Singapore depends on whose perspective you take – a Singaporean citizen, an expat, or a blue collar foreign worker, among many others.

We’ve all heard about how infamously expensive Singapore is. And considering that it is a city and country at the same time, there is not much choice for citizens in terms of lifestyle and preferences, unless, blatantly speaking, you are wealthy or of the upper class.

The class system may not be as apparent as in class-obsessed Great Britain, but it is an insidious one. And as in any society, people living on the lower frontiers of society are the ones that are struggling the hardest.

 

So whose position am I taking? I am a Singaporean citizen, but due to some unfortunate personal circumstances, I do not belong in the normal ranks of Singaporeans who register their marriage, apply for a Build To Order (BTO) flat, and plan their wedding for three years.

By the way, you have to be legally married to be entitled to purchase a Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat in Singapore, or else wait till you are 35 years old if you’re single. Also because Singapore does not legalise same-sex marriage, people from the LGBT community are not eligible to buy a house. They will usually wait till 35 years old to apply for a flat as “Single”.

Of course, what I’m talking about is public housing, of which more than 80% of Singaporeans live in. If one is lucky enough to belong to the elite minority (which also applies to foreigners coming to work in Singapore as white collar expats, because their companies would usually sponsor accommodation), then private housing options such as condominiums and landed property are widely available on the market.

 

To summarise, buying a HDB flat in Singapore is expensive (a minimum average of S$200,000 for a decent sized flat for two in a super off the beaten track location at the far ends of the MRT aka metro lines), you have to register your marriage, and the general waiting time for construction to be completed is 5 years as of now.

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Screenshot of Build-To-Order flat prices in 2016, from the HDB website

 

I am 24 this year and I have seen many friends of this age rushing to get married and commit to a flat because of the long waiting time, before which they have to live with their parents. Majority of Singaporeans live with their parents until they get married, some as late as their thirties.

This is because the cost of living in Singapore is really high, and renting, which I have personally tried and tested, is really unaffordable. The rental market prices are crazy because most if not almost all people who rent are foreigners. Most rental transactions between owner/landlord and tenants have to go through property agents, who charge exorbitant agent fees on top of deposit and 1st month rental payments.

Thus, renting for a Singaporean citizen is highly disadvantageous.

One would do better following the system and do things in the preset manner as mentioned above. It is not uncommon to find young people troubling over housing costs on top of repaying their student loans and supporting their parents upon graduating from university.

However, some are lucky enough to have relatively well-to-do or at least middle income families who have sponsored their education. I certainly wasn’t one of them, and paid my way through 10 years of secondary and tertiary education with scholarships and a study loan.

After all, you should know that Singapore is a meritocratic society, which values hard work and encourages individual achievement. This of course has also made our society very competitive, such as the shocking phenomenon of parents going for tuition classes so as to help their children excel in their studies. However, that is a story for another time.

 

This is a society that values structure, order and social norms. I have a long term stable partner whom I intend to marry, but not for housing purposes. We applied for a flat in November last year, and received the news in February that we were unsuccessful in getting a queue number.

Despite the government’s efforts to increase the supply of flats, land in Singapore is scarce. When we apply for a flat, our chances are not guaranteed as we have to first secure a queue number through a ballot system. We have heard many friends around us who have been unsuccessful in getting a queue number or at least one that is favourable enough to select a decent unit, despite repeated attempts.

My partner and I did not like the way getting access to housing is literally equivalent to a gamble. The uncertainty about the future was suffocating. His parents are ageing and approaching retirement, and we are staying with them at the moment. I have moved out of my own family apartment due to personal circumstances.

 

In Singapore, housing is inexplicably tied to family. This is unlike in other countries like the UK and the US, where young people move out of their house very early, especially so if they have to change states to attend college or university, which is fairly common.

This is undeniably due to the fact that Singapore is a small country, and there is not much opportunity for mobility or even cultural awareness about mobility as a personal choice. Most people don’t think about it, and people who apply for HDB flats do so with the intention of settling down in Singapore, working and raising their children here.

There are situations where people lose their housing and become homeless due to social reasons such as family disputes. Sometimes it is not their choice, or at least we are not in the position to comment for we do not know what happened exactly. I have seen homeless people sleeping on cardboard pieces near the toilets at the food centre in harbour front, just a stone’s throw away from the renowned tourist attraction Resorts World Sentosa.

Yet there are still many people who think that homelessness doesn’t exist in Singapore.

 

Wealth and poverty coexist in Singapore, but poverty is often overlooked in a first world country where survival is assumed to be guaranteed, and government responsibility in ensuring the basic standard of living is expected and assumed to be well taken care of. However, if you fall out of the norms that are expected of you by the system, you are left alone.

Some of those people sleeping on cardboard outside the public toilets were using iPhones. Some Singaporeans might immediately condemn them – “they aren’t really poor, are they?” But who would want to be in this situation, especially so if they can afford an iPhone? Why then are they here? These are the questions that are not asked.

But sometimes I feel the society doesn’t have time for compassion. It is human nature to assume that the “accepted norm” applies to everyone. There are, unfortunately, many people who fall through the gaps, and there is no safety net to catch them.

 

I have been through such falls. But this time round, I am making a choice, an unusual one at that, one that would be questioned and doubted if shared with Singaporeans who are in the “get married, buy a flat, organise a grand hotel wedding” league.

My partner and I have a dream of working and living overseas in a few specific places after he finishes his work bond in Singapore in 2019. Even when I travel, I do not enjoy tourism. I like to experience local life in different places, and imagine all the lives I could not have lived if I stayed in one place all my life.

When we applied for a flat last November, we did it out of desperation because we wanted a place to call our own. It was lucky in a way that we did not get it, because we would never have the courage or ability to pursue our dreams, if we were weighed down by a huge financial commitment that would last us the next 25 years (repaying housing loans).

 

Every choice has its consequences, and sometimes even choosing to do nothing is a choice.

We chose to do something different from the cookie cutter life that the system put in place.

We are unable to use the mandatory savings scheme, Central Provident Fund (into which 20% of monthly income is deducted and channeled), to pay for our housing for the next three years.

We have to rent and pay out of our pockets (on top of CPF contributions that we cannot touch until we retire or give up our citizenship), and have a proportion of our monthly disposable income deducted.

In exchange, we get mobility, freedom and the chance to go out there and pursue our goals and dreams together. The uncertainty, of course, is killing us at times. But you can’t have everything in life.

If people are like boats, then they are either anchored in the harbour, or sailing out at sea.

Is it worth it? In the short term, it may seem costly. It would take at least 10 years to know if our endeavours would pay off. But what I know is, I would regret it in future if I didn’t take the chance.

To understand more about homelessness in Singapore, check out this article by The Straits Times.