Where I continue my tour of major cities around the globe. Life imitates art, and some people have no sense of humour. It’s not a good time to buy a house. Nor to sell an apple.
I’m trying this new thing: Write shorter blog entries, but more frequently. Time really does fly, and with every month without posting, the task of finding, remembering, researching and writing (not to mention translating) interesting things to talk about becomes more and more daunting. So here I am, after only two months, with updates from all over the planet.
Literally from all over the planet, because, like last year, I decided to flee our southern winter and visit my family in Germany. This time, I went for two weeks in July, and like last year, the summer had been pretty mediocre in the weeks leading up to my visit. Also like last year, as soon as I got there, a heat wave hit central Europe, and I got to enjoy hot temperatures for pretty much all of my visit.
A good part of this year’s holiday wasn’t spent in Germany, but on a family trip to Vienna. I’d been there before, but the last time had been a long time ago, sometime in the 90s, and the city is always worth a visit. It’s a large, very cosmopolitan place, very European (history at every step), and quite Eastern-European at that. And their coffee is the only one that can seriously compete with Wellington’s.
Aside from this trip, it was mostly a relaxing visit that, as usual, passed too quickly. However I almost didn’t make it out of the country! In true Simpsons-fashion (“Due to our policy of overbooking, this flight is now overbooked”), Lufthansa told me when I got to the airport in Frankfurt that I was on a “waiting list”. This came after very mediocre service and, even for economy class, a cramped and uncomfortable trip there. I won’t bore you with all the details, suffice to say that I spent several quite nervous hours waiting in the crowded hallway (no boarding pass = no gate access) before they finally let me only the plane after all, 4 minutes before the official take-off time. Very lame to do this to people with several connecting flights. However, when I sent them a politely disgruntled email when I was back home, all I got was a lot of waffle along the lines of “Lufthansa prides itself in being a top quality airline and is constantly striving to achieve service levels that are consistent with this image…please accept our sincere apologies for the inconvenience”. Bla.
A fine city
The reason why I didn’t want to miss my flight was because I had planned to spend some time in Singapore before continuing on to New Zealand. Last year, during my stopovers in Hong Kong, I really wished I had taken the time to spend a day or two to see the city, so this time I booked a night in a hotel and picked my flights so that I had a full day to explore Singapore.
Where to start? I had a very interesting time; a full-on day if there ever was one. It was also one of those strange experiences that linger and stay in your mind long after you’ve moved on. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my trip since my return, remembering this, appreciating that. And yet, strange, because while I was there, it also was a somewhat stressful experience. Overwhelming, intense, fascinating—sure, all of these things, and at the same time, maybe a bit much. Of course, trying to pack a lot of things into a single day will do that. But then I’m a sucker for intensity and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
One of the things that interested me most about Singapore—not hard to guess for those who know me—was the food. Singapore is a bit like a mini-version of Asia (with Chinese, Malay, Indian as the largest ethnicities) packed into only 700 square km. Anthony Bourdain, mad and wonderful chef-turned-food writer, has two chapters about Singapore in his latest book, The Nasty Bits, and as usual is spot on when he says “Singapore is probably the most food-crazed, lunatic-eater’s paradise on the planet. We’re not talking about ‘gourmets’ here. [...] Singaporeans are not gastronomes. They simply eat.”
It’s true. Food is everywhere. I wish I could have simply eaten my way through the city for 24 hours. I especially loved the ubiquitous Hawker Centres—open air food markets that house large numbers of stalls where you can get an unimaginable variety of inexpensive meals. The stalls are along long rows, with tables and seats in the middle. You select your meal and then sit down wherever you like; sharing tables is common. Or you simply walk along and stare in amazement at the sights and smells. The Hawker Centres were my favourite Singapore experience.
Aside from last year’s stopover in Hong Kong Airport, this was my first-ever visit to Asia. I don’t really have anything to compare, but Singapore is how I imagine Beijing in 10 years. It feels very Chinese, and you definitely stick out as a Westerner (for one, it doesn’t happen a lot that I’m among the tall people). One impression I got during my short visit was that everybody was very helpful (when I was too dense exhausted to figure out how to scan my subway ticket, it took all of a few seconds for a local to walk up and help me), although not so much in a warm and friendly way, like in New Zealand, but always politely reserved.
I spent my day following a number of walking tours suggested by my travel guide. They led me through Chinatown and Little India with their temples and markets, to Kampong Glam, the Muslim heart of Singapore, to the glitzy shopping district along Orchard Road, and finally through the colonial Singapore around the Singapore River. I hope my photo album gives a bit of insight into the variety of sights and impressions, despite the overcast sky. My favourite part was Little India with the insanity of Tekka Mall, its little shops, and the alleys and back ways that didn’t quite fit the image of neat, clean, well organised Singapore but seemed very organic, and, well, human.
So what’s the deal with the stuff that people typically associate with Singapore? The heat? The chewing gum ban? The excessive fines for everything and the authoritarian rule dubbed “Disneyland with Death Penalty” in Wired Magazine’s famous 1993 article? Well, as with most prejudices, they are pretty well founded in reality.
First, the heat. I may have mentioned once or 500 times that I love heat. I’m someone who even shivers in the sauna during first 5 minutes, so in my mind, the hotter, the better. Especially now that I live in a place where it’s basically never hot. Everyone complains about Singapore’s heat, and admittedly it’s very humid so I can see that it can get quite exhaustive. I had no problem with it even though it does hit you hard like a hot wet blanket. What got to me was the ubiquitous air condition that chills your wet, sweaty bones every time you step inside a building. I hate air condition almost as much as I love heat, so unlike the other several million of people in the city, I spent as much time outside as I could.
Chewing gum itself is not illegal any more thanks to lobbying by Wrigley’s (no joke) and the Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Singapore that came into effect a few years ago. However spitting out your chewing gum on the street is still an offence and incurs a $1000 fine. I have to say that I felt ambiguous about Singapore in that respect. On the one hand, it’s very pleasant to visit a city where everything is clean and safe and where I felt that I could walk around alone day and night without any worries. But when you remember that this safety and neatness is achieved by serious restrictions of personal freedom and draconian punishments for even petty misdemeanours (in our Western eyes at least), it seems a damn high price to pay.
What really gave me the creeps was this video they showed in an endless loop (and in multiple languages) on the subway. It was titled “Terrorism is Real”, and it started with this shifty looking guy on a train, who put a bag under his seat and then got up to leave. You see him walk out of station, take out his mobile phone and punch in a few numbers, and the picture returns to the train which explodes into a ball of fire. The gory details of the explosion obviously not being strong enough, they then switched to images of the Madrid and London bombings, along with the message to “be vigilant and report everything to the authorities”, before starting over. Macabre.
Pretty as a picture
It must be so hard doing satire today. Imagine you write for The Onion, and your job is to invent absurd, over-the top headlines and stories, only to read the day’s news and finding them even more comical and ludicrous than anything you just came up with. The lines are getting blurrier, and no one should be surprised that the satirical Daily Show, the “most trusted name in fake news”, as they advertise themselves, has indeed simply become the most trusted name in news, full stop.
And the media aren’t exactly trying hard to convince us to believe them. For example, in early July, several tornadoes hit the town of New Plymouth (about 350 km north of Wellington, on the West Coast), doing a fair amount of damage, uprooting trees and blowing the roofs of several building and the like (although when you look at the construction of most buildings here, it’s kinda surprising that it would take a tornado to make them fall apart…but not that topic again). Anyway, a local woman had some fun with Photoshop and overlaid a picture of the town with that of a twister, and sent it to a few people as a joke. Sure enough, the fake image quickly spread around the whole country via email, including the media. And so not one, but two major TV stations ended up using it for their coverage of the story. Nope, they didn’t even try to find out if it was genuine. Said the surprised photoshopper: “It took two minutes to make and was so fudged it wasn’t funny.
We are not amused
“Not funny” was also the attitude of politicians who don’t appreciate seeing unflattering pictures of themselves in newspapers. Lucky for them, they are the ones making the rules, and so, in late June, Parliament voted in rare unanimousness (115 to 6) for a new provision that prohibits newspapers from printing “journalistic satire or coverage that ridicules or denigrates” them. Photographers can no longer take still images during sessions (although TV cameras may record), and if media that use footage in a satirical way they could be charged with contempt of Parliament. “New Zealand bans satire”, the rest of the world, or at least those who paid attention, cried out, laughing hard. Of course, the ban immediately prompted the photographers of the local newspaper to snap a number of soon-to-be-illegal photos, and within less than an hour they had shot a funny, or from a taxpayer’s standpoint, depressing series of MPs TXTing, reading (and not just the newspaper either but stuff like fashion magazines), yawning, making rude gestures and generally doing anything but pay attention to the actual session.
Somehow this reminds of when back in the day, the then chief comedian of the Bush administration Donald “Old Europe” Rumsfeld tried to convince the world that the problem with torture and abuse in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison was not the horrifying actions themselves, but the digital cameras that allowed the pictures to get out and be seen around the world. The solution: ban digital camera, of course. Now of course, the offences of New Zealand’s sleepy, unruly Members of Parliament are negligible compared to that, and still, it’s rather a blow for those of us who don’t believe that censorship has a place in a free society (and who are not allowed to sleep or read the glossies during *our* jobs). But then, it’s kinda funny too—a joke that writes itself. (The Daily Show’s take is here.)
Like the rest of the world, New Zealand has been affected by the global finance crisis or whatever you want to call the breakdown of the US sub-prime market and its resulting domino effect on the world economy. The financial markets have been a major topic for a while though: Over the past five months, the Reserve Bank has increased interest rates four times in a row, with the official cash rate going up to 8.25% which is the highest in the industrialised world. Yikes! They did this in an attempt to stop people from borrowing and to slow down the economy and the steady increase of the Kiwi Dollar, which kept climbing steadily towards, and eventually crossing, the US80c mark.
A scary development for anyone with a mortgage or trying to enter the property market. (If I had a penny for every time I thought housing can’t possible become more unaffordable than this…well, it wouldn’t do me any good. I still couldn’t afford the average down payment aka deposit.) On the other hand, it was a good time for those long overdue orders from Amazon.com, and for travelling overseas and supporting the German economy with my loads of Euros instead. Now, at the end of August, thanks to all those banks collapsing in the States, the dollar has tumbled back to where it was, the stock market’s limping (although not as badly as those in the big financial centres) and instead of the exporters, now the importers are complaining. Almost business as usual.
When I’m 64
All those interest rate hikes have shown limited success at best in getting people to buy less on credit and save more. And I don’t quite get why the target is the housing market anyway, because what’s happening is that normal and even relatively well-to-do people can’t afford to buy houses to live in any more. If you really wanted to put breaks on the market, why not tax property investors who buy up heaps of housing and sections for investment purposes (often with foreign money, so for them, still a good deal) and then sell after a relatively short time with large, tax-free profit? But as usual no one has asked me, and this is not what I was going to write about anyway.
Instead I was going to write about Kiwisaver, which is a new government scheme that encourages people to save for their retirement. It was introduced with the 2007 Budget and its first phase went into effect in July. Kiwisaver contains a number of components: contributions from the employee’s salary (4% or 8%), contributions from the employer, a tax credit and a $1000 kick-start gift, as well as possible help with a first home deposit. A number of financial institutions offer schemes, i.e. investment funds, and you get to choose which one to join. There’s a lot of effort from the government to spread the word and get people to join.
It remains to be seen how well Kiwisaver gets adopted—there hasn’t been much awareness about it at my workplace for sure, but if I understand it right, anyone starting a new job will be automatically enrolled (although they can opt out), and I guess that numbers will also go up next year when employers start to contribute. Of course next year is also an election year, and there is some speculation as to what might happen if the National Party wins —they’ve made some noises about changes although said that they would generally keep it; not the most confidence-instilling thing to say.
Overall, I think Kiwisaver is a good thing. It’s certainly a good idea to address retirement planning in a country where most people’s savings for retirement consist only of their house, which in the current market (see above) is neither guaranteed to grow in value, nor is something that can easily be converted into cash if we’re talking about your own home. So while the details may or may not be sorted yet, in my opinion it’s a step in the right direction.
What comes to your mind when you read the headline, “Apple battle escalates”?—”What’s Steve Jobs up to now?”, right? I’ve been noticing this and similar headlines for a while now and finally read enough about it to realise that it’s not about the latest news from Cupertino at all, but the fruit-kind of apple. Turns out that we’re having a row with our neighbours because they won’t let us export New Zealand apples into Australia. Since 1921! This has been going on for 86 years! So sometime between the First and the Second World War, fire blight, an apple disease, was discovered in New Zealand’s orchards. Ever since, the Aussies have refused to let our fruit enter their country, even though we have had a Free Trade Agreement with them for for nearly three decades (quite substantial too: both ways combined, trade amounts to ~ NZ$16 billion), we’ve said pretty please again and again, and anyway, most people believe it’s highly unlikely that the disease can spread through commercially grown, ripe fruit.
So: No more Mr. Nice Guy. Now we have taken them to court, more precisely, to the World Trade Organisation, to settle the dispute this way. And while we were at it, we also told them to shut up and stop interfering in New Zealand domestic affairs. (The Australian Government had commented on recent revelations of the fact that Air New Zealand was used to fly Australian troops to Kuwait on their way to Iraq—a war which New Zealand openly opposed. Oops.) Feisty. But then, they don’t like our apples so I guess they deserve it.
“We will vigorously defend our position and fight the case to the bitter end, arrrr”, the Australian Government already responded with regards to the WTO case. We’ll find out, although it’s probably going to be at least another 5 years. Till then: No more koalas!
(Well. My plan to do shorter blog posts didn’t quite work out. I better skip the details about the as usual fantastic Film Festival, another recent trip to wine country, this week’s lunar eclipse, and a bunch of other stuff we’ve been up to. Has it really only been two months?)