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New Year Resolution for 2008: Swim faster, Run longer, maybe return to cycling.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Rwandans Came, and We Learned...

Almost a year ago, I read the book 'An Ordinary Man' about the genocide in Rwanda. I wrote in this blog in April 2007 about my feelings towards such atrocities; my disbeliefs and horror as to how such terrible things could happen to fellow human beings. To think that genocides have been part of history seems unimaginable, but to know that it might happen again because of history and the extremist radical thought of some people is just scary to say the least. The most unfathomable thought that keeps ringing in my head is: How can ordinary citizens be so easily influenced to hate his fellow mankind? As we speak, such atrocities are happening in Darfur, Sudan.

And so it happened in Rwanda in April 1994. Apparently, genocide had been going on in the African nation even before 1994, but that fateful year was the worst: about 1 million people were murdered in just 100 days. Between then and now, it's been almost 15 years.

I met up some young officials from Rwanda a couple of weeks ago. They were here in Singapore to learn about urban planning and how Singapore has progressed as a nation for the past 40 years since independence. I lectured on transportation planning in Singapore. The initial template presentation on our ERP systems and uber high tech traffic systems was reviewed. I insisted that the gameplan was to focus on Singapore's growth through the years; a rags-to-riches story to put it loosely.

Through the entire process of preparing my presentation slides to the time the Rwandans left, I learned several things:

1. Singapore's history of her built environment can be understood by the chronological progress of urban planning. In a short span of 40 years since independence, her struggles and overall stability can be traced to good governance and political willpower to survive.

2. The Rwandans have the willpower and yearning to progress. They have seen it all and some have experienced the tumultous genocide times (the others who escaped to neighboring countries before 1994 have returned as Rwandans instead of Hutus or Tutsis). They want to make positive things happen to their country. I understand they have a young and pragmatic President in Paul Kagame.

3. The Rwandans practice the Gacaca (pronounced "gachacha") Court System, which is a traditional judicial system that was reinstated by the new Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) as a means to justly try the atrocities of the 1994 genocide. I understood from one of the Rwandan delegates that he is the guardian of 2 children whose parents are in prison for genocide. And these were the very parents who killed his family. I know, it's another unfathomable thought, but that's how the Rwandans want to reconcile and move on. Apparently it is part of the Gacaca system and our delegate friend has taken the liberty and responsibility to take care of his 2 charges, in the move to progess with the nation.

4. According to the delegates, Rwanda is now the safest country in Africa. Apparently 'one can walk in the middle of the night without fear'.

Well, the delegation (including some mayors and top officials) has left and I reckon they've also learned alot from their experience in Singapore. The questions they posed to us were very real and one could sense a tinge of hope in their eyes after they've realised that Singapore could progress to today's current state in just 40 years. I actually managed to relate their current GDP status, which is almost to the GDP that Singapore had in the early 1970s. To put that in perspective, that's about the time when Singapore was at the infancy of her independence and nation building. Perhaps that's why the Rwandans have the glimmer of hope.

I guess it's now up to them to make it happen.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Tackling the Dharavi Problem from the Planner's point of view

I've been thinking and reflecting for the past couple of days since returning from Mumbai. The trip to Dharavi has certainly opened my eyes to another dimension in my career as an infrastructure/transpo engineer. It's not as simple as it seems, and surely not a simple masterplanning exercise. The planning for the rehabilitation and redevelopment of Dharavi involves more than just planning expertise.

First of all, let's ask ourselves these questions:
1. Is it just about moving/relocating the slum dwellers to vertical slums?
2. What are the social implications?
3. What do we need to consider in the overall design so that we have the edge over the other bidders?
4. Do we understand the dynamics of slum dweller thinking versus the developer (Mukesh Mehta) who might have vested interest in redeveloping Dharavi?
5. The idea of relocating slum dwellers in Dharavi has been going on for at least 10 years, so why are the slum dwellers reluctant to move?
6. Are our designs socially acceptable in terms of practicality and functionality?
7. What needs to be considered so that private developers are able to maintain good living conditions for at least 15 years?
8. How will our designs complement the rest of Mumbai, in particular Bandra-Kudra Complex (BKC)?

Now allow me to state down what I understand about Dharavi from these past few days of site visits, research and reflection:
1. Dharavi is not 'poor'. The people of Dharavi are not living in 'poverty'. Why? It is only perceived as 'poor' because of the ubiquitous bamboo and tin roofed structures and the way-below-WHO-standards of sanitation and hygiene. Beyond the physical outlook (and accompanying stench), Dharavi is a unique vibrant and thriving cottage industry complex. Production and process of raw material and final product are carried out at the same location, sometimes all under the same roof the people live in! Slum dwellers and families have refined their trade over some generations and it has become a self-sustaining, self-sufficient 'village' community, albeit an economically very low income one. Everyone seems to be doing something, earning that meagre amount of rupees to survive. But we did not encounter any beggar or children pestering us for candy or spare change.
2. In this aspect, we're not just looking at simply 'relocating' the slum dwellers into vertical slums. We are in effect, disturbing their very established and orderly means of livelihood.
3. Do we then just plan and design for new and funky vertical slums?
4. We ought to provide enough liveable space for them to operate their trade as well, besides providing them with a roof over their heads. How to consider? There needs to be more than sufficient community space for them to 'replant' their operations. The dwellers of Dharavi (and most Indians I know) are very organised people. They are also a very social community. Whatever they do, they will do it as a community. This includes how they live, work, and play. This was very evident during our observation trip there. This is precisely the mindset that will prevail and will go against all planning initiatives if our design does not suit them. We therefore need to apply several conditions planned in tandem with our design:
a) Bear in mind that infrastructure must be improved no matter what. Currently, the ratio stands at 1 toilet seat to 800+ inhabitants. That's why there's human defecation and urine all over the sidewalks and public space. We also need to suggest for implementable (practical) methods of waste disposal, water treatment, etc.
b) Building and development guidelines must be in place and enforced. (e.g regular repainting programmes, boundaries to ply trade & industry, etc.)
c) Private developers must assure the authorities that policies and guidelines are implementable for at least the next 15 years. This would require our mindset to keep things simple and implementable. We have the expertise to apply our Singapore example to them.
d) Keeping things simple also means using tried and tested models such as HDB townships: self-contained, self-sufficient, social / community areas, good governance, good infra facilities, etc. Anything 'extra' in terms of aesthetic design is a bonus but we need to convince the authorities by helping our clients achieve implementable results.

Finally, our architects and planners need to realise and understand this social implication aspect of our design and planning. For infrastructure, it is certainly a major overhaul - an extreme makeover - but we must think of practical and functional ways.

I see purpose and real challenges in this project.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Yamato MTV - Shrimp of the Rings Dance Mix

This video was taken on a 'lazy' afternoon in the office. There weren't anyone around and I needed a break from writing and researching on Dharavi. The Yamato (Amano) shrimp were only bought a few hours prior to the 'MTV' shoot. I just hope they don't get eaten up by the German Blue Rams over the remaining Easter weekend! (the smaller cherry reds were gobbled up by the Rams... dang it!)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Dharavi Dreaming

If a picture speaks a thousand words, then perhaps the smell of Dharavi would tell the entire story. No amount of words and photos can express the level of filth and uncontrolled living conditions in Asia's (2nd?) largest slum.
Dhobies (laundrymen) stand barefoot and do their laundry in pools of wastewater outflow.
Slums and shanties are built dangerously below high-tension power cables and alongside busy railway tracks. The dhobies dry their laundry by laying the large pieces of cloth next to the tracks - the only place that is almost void of every imaginable type of trash.
The ubiquitous old-fashioned taxi cabs that ply Mumbai are sometimes decorated. In a predominant Hindoo society, some cab drivers also have faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Dharavi is always busy with scores of people. I'm told the majority come from al parts of India seeking work and 'a better life' in Mumbai. It's terrible, yet the colours of Dharavi portray the spirit of India.
And barebodied and barefooted children roam the streets playing with their makeshift toys. Funny how they did not beg from us, perhaps they're not used to foreigners in the area. They pee and shit everywhere, yes... even the adults. Yet they are a happy bunch.
And that's why it'll be a challenge for us urban planners in relocating them. That's only part of the story......

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Mother-of-all News Report on Mas Selamat

Talk about anti-climax!

Please tell me it's an excuse for media blackout. First, the authorities only released information - a crucial 4 hours later - that Mas Selamat escaped from a 'high-security' detention center. The information given then was that 'Mas Selamat Kastari walks with a limp'.

So all responsible citizens of Singapore, pledging themselves as one united People, regardless of race, language or religion, got all hyped up about the search for the fugitive leader of the JI terrorist group. Everyone peeled their eyes for any limping suspect.

100 hours later (or just about 4 days after the infamous Toilet Break), the authorities revealed that the Mas Selamat dude only has a limp when he walks briskly or when he runs. Well, thank you very much Mr Policeman, now our 4 days worth of the Elimination Process does not work anymore! What ever happened to our first glances and quick scans for limping people? Don't tell me the authorities received a telephone call from Mas Selamat saying, "Oi, idiots. You set people to look for a limping man? HAHAHAHAHA... bladdy imbeciles! I only limp when I run or walk briskly lah! Please try again!"

Back to the drawing board, and every Singaporean who's building a democratic society that's based on justice and equality, is trying damn hard to remember and recall if they encountered a non-limping person that vaguely might be 1.6m tall and perhaps donning a moustache and/or goatee.

Meanwhile, someone from up there in the public sector confidently says that Mas Selamat is still in Singapore. Yet even the Malaysian and Indonesian police are already hot on his trail. Oh... and the Interpol is involved too. How globalised. Probably tipped off by Mas himself on another phone call, "I'm still in Singapore lah. Try Bukit Batok Nature Park. You may find me feeding the monkeys."

Couple of days later, another piece of news from the police to the public. Man, this is becoming like a 10-course wedding dinner! What's the news after 1 week since Mas escaped? Geez... it was on the clothes he might have worn. Reason for releasing the news 1 week later? So that the public can look out for his discarded clothes. Does the police think we are so damn free to ransack laundromats, the Sharity donation box, and my neighbour's lingerie drawer? WHAT IS THE BLOODY USE?!?!?! I wonder if the authorities have tried searching for his underpants in the deep jungles of the Amazon. After all, 1 week is all it takes to get there, right? (or maybe they could just try more luck there)

I have this strange feeling that the police doesn't want us Singaporean citizens achieving happiness, prosperity and progress for the nation. It reminded me of the time when I had the accident in M'sia which left my hand broken in pieces. The doctor there told me, "You have compound fractures on your left hand and we need to work on it immediately..... but our operating theater is closed today. You might have a slot tomorrow depending on the queue." Indeed... WHAT'S THE POINT!?!?

So what's the latest news on Mas? Someone still says he's in Singapore. But we haven't heard any more news of Manhunt 2008 for the past few days. So silent.

Perhaps it's because of the Mother-of-all News Reports here: Mas Selamat can hold out indefinitely: experts. Win already! It's like saying he'll be on the run forever, so no need to report anymore.... now let's get back to news on Edison Chen (or something like that). In any case, what 'experts' are they referring to? Someone who claims that we can eat IGUANAS in Singapore? I've said it before and I'll say it one more time: THERE ARE NO IGUANAS IN SINGAPORE!

Experts... yes... just like the 'expert' fugitive sniffers from the police. Maybe they're thinking of hiring foreign talent to search for Mas (hint: get the cast from CSI Miami). I'm sure they'll know more about Bukit Batok more than any heartlander in Singapore.

Monday, March 03, 2008

What's the Difference Between Benedict Goh and Mas Selamat Kastari?

Benedict Goh won the Manhunt Singapore first (back in the 90's), then went to jail for drink-driving in 2007.

Mas Selamat Kastari went to jail first, and now is in the running for Manhunt 2008 (if he gets recaptured, that is)

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Singapore Biathlon 2008 - Same Course, Better Timing

My 'virgin' Olympic distance biathlon at the 2005 Singapore Biathlon took me 2 hours to complete. I missed the 2006 edition, and got back into the Singapore Biathlon circuit in 2007 with an improvement, finishing strong at 1hr 53min.

Yesterday's timing was even better, coming in at 1hr 47min.

I came in at last year's NIE Biathlon in 1hr 40min, but the route was slightly different from the usual Singapore Biathlon route. While I set a PB in the NIE Biathlon, I reckon the improvements made at the Singapore Biathlon would be a slightly better gauge.

All things equal for the Singapore Biathlon races, my timings have improved. I'm contented despite the lack of training put into the race and the marked increase in the number of newbies in the multisport scene. It was a fact that the currents were strong on the return leg, and that there were plenty of breaststrokers and lots of open sea punching and pulling. I admit to 'defending' myself as well.

The run was shiok. It rained and it was a welcome respite. I was enjoying the run with ease, although I could have gone a tad faster (and forego a shiok shiok run in the park?- no way!)

exiting the open sea ahead of some white cappers who started (15 minutes) a wave before mine.

at the start of the run, looking relaxed

at the end of the race, still looking bloody relaxed! Damn could do another OD!

one more finisher's medal to my collection!