Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Dear MM (Part 2) Another rejected letter

For some reason I didn't have time to read the MM's message on (not) retiring till late last week. I drafted a response to his comments and sent it off to The Straits Times on Sunday. Today I received their unusually prompt reply that they are not running it.

So this is it: a view from the social anthropologist who researched ageing for her PhD thesis. I also made reference to my stint as a factory worker when I was working on my Master's degree. Us social anthroplogists do a lot of 'participant observation'.

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If we push the argument that ‘retirement means death, don’t stop working’ to the limit, a possible result would be people won’t start working in the first place.

In my research I found that the happiest old people are those who are able to ‘age gracefully’. They accept that their bodies age, their eyes grow dim, their hearing deteriorates, and strength seeps away, little by little.

They are always finding a new ‘equilibrium’ as they go through these last stages of life. If I were T/Daoist, I would call this ‘the Tao of ageing’. As I’m not, I call it my ‘equilibrium theory’.

Unlike the MM, many people work for years in jobs requiring physical labour and/or mindless tedium. For these, it is the goal of retiring with a little nest egg, when children are grown, educated and married, when grandchildren are forthcoming, that life and work remain meaningful.

How can the labourer who has to lift heavy loads, say, at age 23 be expected to do so till age 85? What about the bus, lorry, taxi or crane driver whose reflexes slow as age advances? Do I want an 85-year-old driving a public bus?

Do readers here know what it feels like after 8, 10, 12 hours of mindless work on one’s feet in a factory? I do. It feels exactly like excruciating pain shooting through your feet, upwards to your knees. Your mind feels it’s been detached from your body. You’re too tired to even comprehend whatever is being said on TV.

People in ‘intellectual’ jobs can unwind with a game of squash, perhaps even attend a SSO concert, doing something ‘opposite’ to their sedentary work routine.

People who labour are too tired physically and mentally just to be, full stop.

One of my thesis supervisors worked till she dropped, literally. In the same department another retired professor is still teaching, and is probably only paid pocket money to do so.

One did not have any retirement. The other is blocking the career progression of young PhDs.

The issue of late/early/healthy/purposeful/affordable retirement cannot be divorced from the need to ensure that young people are also given their chances. Somehow, we must find that healthy balance.

In some cultures older people can look forward to retire to a time of quiet reflection, and where they might have caused wrong, seek to right those wrongs while they still have a chance to do so. That way they can leave this world with a happy and rested soul. I look forward to that.

And at what age do we retire our SIA air stewardesses now?

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I believe SIA air stewardesses are retired at 35 or 40 at the latest, but don't quote me.

This is a response to the following report in The Straits Times:

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Jan 11, 2008

Retirement means death, don't stop working: MM Lee

By Clarissa Oon

A SEDENTARY retirement will sound the death knell for anyone, said Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who is determined to keep active for as long as he can.

'With nothing to do, no purpose in life, you'll just degrade, go to seed,' he said on Friday at a dialogue session at which he shared his experiences of active ageing with participants at the Silver Industry Conference and Exhibition (Sicex), held at Suntec Convention Centre.

The four-day conference, which ends on Sundaym explores ways to grow the seniors' market in Singapore and the region.

Mr Lee said that an active life, regular exercise and frequent travel were his secrets to ageing gracefully.

'I would not be able to speak to you in this way if I had not led a very active life, connected with many people throughout the world and tried to interpret it to make sense for Singapore,' said the elder statesman, who turns 85 this year.

'I'm determined that I will not, as long as I can, have my horizons slowed on me.'

He added: 'We got to educate those about to retire: Don't retire, work. Retirement means death.'
And he meant every word of it.

He said those who believed they could stop work at 55 to drink wine and play golf were 'done in'.
'Research has shown that those who lead a sedentary life tend to die quickly,' said MM Lee, who started jogging regularly in his 50s and now also keeps fit by swimming and cycling.

He maintains a packed schedule of international travel, including at least one official trip a year to regional powerhouses China and India.

The biggest punishment a man can receive, he said, is 'total isolation', which he defined as 'if you're not interested in the world and if the world is not interested in you'.

'If the mindset is that I'll reach retirement at age 62, I'm old, I can't work anymore, I don't have to work, I just sit back, now is the time I enjoy life, I think you're making the biggest mistake of your life,' he said.

'After one month...two months, even if you go travelling with nothing to do, with no purpose in life, you would get degraded, you go to seed. The human being needs a challenge.'

MM Lee also defended the Central Provident Fund scheme and argued against pensions for the elderly, which have to be supported by tax revenues.

The CPF scheme, he said, helps Singapore to remain competitive, as it aims for 'minimum tax rates and maximum self-sufficiency'.

'This way you are not passing the burden (of caring for the elderly) to the next generation,' he added.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

How to shop without buying anything

I have a problem most other women would like. When my husband comes shopping with me – in real life, via catalogue or online when I really need to have something replaced – and I chance upon something nice and have difficulty deciding between one colour or another, his response is always, “Have both. Or all three.”

As a result there are a few things in my wardrobe and coat cupboard which I have not yet been able to wear because of this.

But things are getting better. I have learned to arm myself with some useful phrases when I shop with husband, or to remind myself when shopping alone.

For clothes shopping, useful anti-buying mantras are:

1) “Do I really need another of those?”

When one coat could see me between or over two seasons, just the one will do.

If there is a very similar item in the wardrobe, just the one will do.

Do I need another hat, another pair of gloves, another this or that?

Do I really, really need another one of those?

2) “There’s no room in my wardrobe.”

For a long time I have operated on a ‘one in, one out’ policy. Or rather it is ‘one out, one in’. If I haven’t thrown something out first, then there is no need to buy a replacement.

If there is no room in my wardrobe that means I have enough to wear. If I have enough to wear, there is no need to buy another one.

3) A veritable selection of “It is not my colour”, “It is not my size”, “It’s not my style”, “It’s made from petrochemicals/poisonous cotton”, and so on.

Often I come across items that I kind of like, but can’t really make up my mind about it. Sometimes these are well-tailored clothes, a well-designed bag, or whatever.

The truth is often they are of the wrong colour for my skin tone, or it does not fit exactly. Never succumb to the temptation that “I’ll lose enough weight to fit”. Actually skinny me have the opposite problem – I should be able to pad it out. (Never!)

I have learned that these things only sit unused until I have the heart and guts to find another home for them.

4) “Just because it looks nice, it does not mean I want it.” Quite often I am flipping through the newspapers and I see a pair of shoes, a handbag or a dress that is really well-designed. If my husband notices this he would ask, “Would you like to have this?”

Just because I admire something that is well-designed it does not mean I want – or need – to own it.

5) “How could it be so cheap?” Having been a completely skint student, I loved bargains. But I’ve also noticed that some things are getting to be so ludicrously cheap. Other follow-up questions to “Why so cheap?” are: “How much was the worker who made this paid?”, “How were the raw materials for this made/grown/mined?” and “What possible damage to the environment was done?”

On those occasions when one really does need a new item, here are a few buying strategies.

1) Never buy anything that is strictly “fashionable”. Very seldom would I buy an item of clothing that is ‘in fashion’ because the chances are it will not be in fashion three or six months down the road and one would feel a complete fool wearing that. So think, which variation of this fashionable item would take you through the next few years (yes, years).

For example a few seasons back short, pastel check/tweedy jackets were in vogue. I knew I would look silly a few months down the road if I wore a baby pink or mint green version. My husband spotted a brown one which fitted me nicely and as I had no similar jacket I agreed to buy that. It is still serving me well.

2) Know your colours. Don’t forget our colours change, with the seasons, with age.

When I first came to this country I was very dark-skinned. So wearing black was OK. But the lack of sun, or diet, or plain ageing, whatever, caused me to lose colour (yes the hair has gone grey) and I realized that I looked a bit sad in black.

I used to have lots of black in the wardrobe. These have been gradually replaced by the browns, greens and olives and a few more vibrant colours (some say this is another sign of ageing), as well as grey.

Whenever I have to buy clothing – I recently made a couple of purchases after a year or so of not buying new clothes – I am mindful that it should fall well within this new colour scheme. So little black dresses are nice and those tailored skirts look really smart, but if they just don’t go with the general colour scheme, they don’t go into the shopping basket.

3) Buy clothes to last, not disposable ones. Of course some supermarkets would have us believe that it’s easier to buy multiple copies of cheap clothes rather than washing them after use. Don’t fall for that.

I remember growing up with Mum fishing out frocks out of a metal trunk. I wore only hand-me-downs from my cousins for the first 10 years of my life. So wearing cast-offs is not an issue with me. Well-meaning friends at church gave me very nice cast-offs when I was at university.

In fact they were still giving me cast-offs when I made enough money to buy designer clothes. I used those, too, if they suited me.

When I first arrived in the UK it was in the charity shops that I found clothes that fitted me better with trouser legs and sleeves that have already been taken up by the previous owner, but in very good condition. Then the ‘Petite’ sections appeared in department stores. What a blessing!

Now I think of how long the clothes I buy would last before buying. I don’t mind paying a bit more for those well-made, ‘seasonless’, classic pieces. (I can do this from all the savings I make from not buying thoughtlessly.) When they become too big, too small, too baggy for me, there is still life in those for others.

Non-clothes shopping

Apart from shopping for clothes, kitchen utensils are another area that galls me. Tea-bag squeezers, tea-bag holders, spoon stands, disposable baking trays, etc. Do we really need these?

Kitchen appliances that promise to do everything, apart from washing themselves out and putting themselves away, well, I stay away from those.

How many of us have the luxury of a whole pantry at home dedicated to storing utensils for all manner of cooking, like some TV chefs do?

So I buy appliances which can ‘multi-task’ or be put away easily (eg, a food processor which does cake mixes as well).

But not a citrus fruit squeezer. My husband has one of those, left over from his bachelor days. I’ve seen him use it once. Can’t believe the number of attachments that needed washing after that.

What’s wrong with squeezing oranges by hand, and simply putting the squeezer in the dishwasher? (Helps prevents ‘bingo wings’ as well – at least on the arm you use to squeeze those oranges!!)

Many things in kitchenware catalogues are so pretty and seem really useful – but only at first. Most of the time, they only add clutter to our homes, which gets shifted somewhere else, and eventually end up in a landfill.

What I find most interesting is finding the heavy granite mortar and pestle being advertised in kitchenware catalogues these days. No household with a decent cook could do without one of these back where I come from in Singapore, before the days of the food processor.

So we pounded and blended using a bit of elbow grease and sheer gravity (and a telephone directory underneath the mortar so that neighbours in the downstairs flat do not get headaches).

With the advent of the food processor, the mortar and pestle went out of fashion, though some super-tasters will insist that certain spice combinations taste better when ‘pestled’ in a mortar as the action presses out the oils and essences, whereas in a food processor spices are just chopped very small.

Would we now rush out to buy this fashionable kitchen tool only to find it too much of a hassle to shift and therefore leave it languishing in a pantry/cupboard/shed somewhere?

Who knows?

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Dear MM (Part 2)

Another letter has been prepared in response to the MM's comment on retirement.

It will be interesting to see whether it gets published, and which platform it might land on.

It goes onto this blog if the papers refuse to run it.

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Party plan exploits

Outside my door sits a catalogue for some household products left by 'Ian' two weeks ago. Looks like Ian has forgotten to collect his catalogue or he has given up on selling.

I was first introduced to this form of selling/buying when I first came to this country, O, some 15 years ago.

This chap dropped off this catalogue. I found some things useful in there and ordered. He delivered. I paid by cheque. We chatted and he told me that his wife was expecting and he wanted to make some extra money.

These catalogues kept coming, but they were never from the same person. I quickly figured that while the big company will always make a profit from what it sells, the little persons dropping and collecting the catalogues cannot be making enough money to make this a worthwhile second income.

But it does not matter to the big company. So long as there are people out there hoping to make some commission and doing the legwork for them, products will be shifted.

I've been thinking of trying to expand my business via the party plan route: Women (they are usually women) host parties to give friends and neighbours a chance to view products. Orders are placed through the party agent (who may also be the host), and the host distributes the products. The party agent gets the commission, the host gets a gift.

My research, however, indicates that there is more to this. Like the catalogue droppers, party agents only make a tiny commission. In order to get a decent return, they have to recruit more party agents, from whom they earn a second tier of commission, and these party agents need to recruit other party agents, et cetera.

In the end this is nothing more than multi-level marketing. Like the catalogue droppers, party agents will leave the system because they are not making enough commission to bother any more. But it does not matter to the big company. All these 'little people', the ones who are reaching new markets all the time, are shifting the goods and the company will continue to make a profit.

Looking at this scenario in the unkindest way, the people at the end of the chain are merely being used (or abused?). Once their usefulness is exhausted, the company doesn't even have to sack them. Such people go on their own accord.

No fear of any legal comeback on that even. The company has nothing to lose. Even the catalogues and demo products have been paid for upfront by new agents.

That leaves me with a dilemma. How could I adopt the party agent route without 'exploiting' these agents because that is not, I sincerely feel, an ethical way to do business?

I have some ideas, but they need developing.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Dear MM

My latest 'claim to fame' is 'taking on' the former Prime Minister of Singapore (now known as 'Minister Mentor') on the issue of graciousness.
A funny thing happened, really.
I sent a response to the MM's comment to The Straits Times Forum page.
I was contacted by someone from my paper, a new bi-lingual newspaper within the same Straits Times stable.
I was told that The Straits Times will not be running my letter, would I like to see it published in the new free newspaper with a 'circulation' of 300,000?
The letter was published, edited of course, and which you could read here (reproduced below) not in my paper, but in asionone, another publication in the of Straits Times stable, yes. My letter was reproduced in another paper without my permission. (I'm editing this on 24th January 2008: The edited letter was in fact first published in my paper but I cannot insert a link here, and chanced upon my letter in asiaone. Hope this makes it clearer.)
What is even more interesting is The Straits Times has a 'Discussion Board'. Readers write in with their comments. The thread on 'graciousness' sort of suddenly disappeared without reason.
When I emailed to ask why, I was told it had been removed. I said, yes, I noticed, that was why I emailed in the first place, but why.
Another email back, please contact the Moderator (no name).
All I can say is some of the readers' comments were personal attacks on the MM, but they are not any worse than those on other writers to the Forum.
This censorship (or self-censorship) is worrying.
This is not very gracious, is it?
Back to Organic-Ally.
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Towards a gracious Singapore
One reader points out that graciousness is little more than the golden rule of "Treat others as you wish to be treated". Tue, Jan 15, 2008My Paper
TO SAY the least, I am very disappointed by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's comments on the state of graciousness among Singaporeans.
MM Lee is a man of great foresight; he is highly perceptive and a man of influence.
If only he would say "Yes, we must work towards a gracious society", I am sure we will find the wherewithal to do that.
Many years ago, I wrote in a company newsletter that one day the best graduates would flock to companies that embrace environmentally friendly practices, and that clients would demand green solutions and the world would 'turn green'.
My point here is on sustainability.
MM Lee is right.
When the issue of the environment and its sustainability are at stake, which could result in our economic well-being coming under threat, we must all do something about it.
Likewise, I believe the issue of graciousness - or lack of - among Singaporeans is also one of sustainability; but it is sustainability of the ideological kind, which ultimately has an impact on economics.
Can the Singapore economy continue to grow when we become bankrupt of the ability to be gracious to our neighbours, workers, customers, tourists, the elderly or our own family?
Can the democratic (or any other) process flourish when we are unable to entertain alternative views?
When we become bankrupt of graciousness we also become bankrupt of principles and ethics. The most likely candidates to fill this moral and intellectual vacuum are violence and anarchy.
What then of the economy (bar the 'black' economy)?
Graciousness is little more than the golden rule of "Treat others as you wish to be treated". It applies to a wider scope of our lives, whether you are driving, using the public transport, interacting with your parents and children, or in shared spaces in general.
When we read of wars and civil unrest, how much of this is due to one group of people not treating others as they themselves would like to be treated - when they have the chance to do so?
Is there an urgent need and should there be political will, for us to strive towards a gracious Singapore?
I shall be gracious and let others give their views.
Dr Lee Siew Peng
Middlesex, UK

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Bucking the trend

It has been a busier than expected year-end for me. I am not complaining. In fact it was very exciting and rewarding.

I did notice that in the real shops, prices were being slashed before Christmas and I wondered what the effect that would have on the profit margin. According to M&S: not so good.

Anyway the crazy sales continue and I must confess that I have taken the opportunity to buy a few things that I need, thinking ahead.

So for customers who do read this blog my apologies for not being able to offer a massive post-Christmas sale at Organic-Ally.

What I've done was to keep prices low BEFORE Christmas, knowing that I would need to put up prices after that.

My Canadian supplier has put up both retail and wholesale prices by 15%, but my wholesale discount has gone down instead of up. In other words I have to pay more for less. The currency exchange rate also means I am being further disadvantaged.

Other overheads are also going up all the time.

I hope to remain economically viable so that this business can carry on.

Many thanks to customers, especially those who return again and again. We won't be here without you.

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