Saturday, August 29, 2009

Vexations to the spirit.

Yesterday, my key fan supplier, Fiona from KDK, was sitting at my desk when I received a call from an irate customer. This customer had ordered a Samsung refrigerator from the recent Megatex trade show last weekend at the Singapore Expo. He was supposed to receive the fridge the day before but it didn't turn up. Failed delivery as our store terms it.

Within the next 30 minutes, which I promised to return a call to the customer, I had to retrieve a copy of the order from the computer which showed "Delivery not yet authorised ". Worst still, the fridge on the order showed a Panasonic not Samsung. ??? Calls to the head office to retrieve the original document indicated a Samsung display unit sold. That meant I had to get someone to physically walk to the warehouse to confirm that the display unit was still there 'cos the inventory on the computer showed zero. Once all these were done, I had to correct the order from the Panasonic to the Samsung fridge and set a new delivery date for the customer and return a call to him all within the half hour promised. Phew!

Fiona was watching all these happen and she remarked that I was really very patient and 'steady'. I only replied to her that I always refused to let all these get me down. These things are simply vexations to the spirit.

"Vexations to the spirit"
is a phrase from the poem "Desiderata" by Max Erhmann. You probably know it from the 70's song "Child of the Universe" by Les Crane. The beauty of the poem is its rich morals and the guidance it inspires. Here it is in full.


Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.

Max Erhmann, from Indiana USA, wrote this poem around 1926 and copyrighted it in 1927. Around 1959, the rector of St Paul's Church in Baltimore used this in a compilation of devotional material. It became widely circulated without attribution to Max Erhmman and thus a misconception came about that it was found in Old St Paul's Church and written in 1692, the year the church was built. The copyright was renewed in 1954.

The customer is always right? #1

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A few recent incidents in my profession on the front-line for my store sadly reminds me that there are still people in the world whose morality and ethics are, what I would say, still in the stone age.

An entire Indian family trooped down to my store and demanded to see the manager.
As their complaint was on an electrical product, it became my responsibility to attend to them.
In their hands they had an electric oven toaster which they bought the day before.
"My house almost burned down because of your stupid oven"
"How can you sell us a defective oven?"
"How are you going to compensate us for the damage?"
"Who is going pay for my medical treatment?"
They all screamed and shouted in a loud chorus of blame and threats at the same time.
Seeking out the most 'reasonable' person in the group, I asked if only one person please explain and she went on like this.

They had bought the oven toaster the previous evening and she used it for the first time to re-heat some curry puffs. The oven caught fire and she had to throw water at it which then shattered the glass door. Pointing to the burnt-out ruin, she said the oven almost burnt down her kitchen and she got burnt and cut by the flying shards of glass.

From my experience I knew that new electrical appliances won't catch fire that easily unless there were some mitigating factors. So I began to probe gently.
"You were heating your curry puffs?" "Did the curry puff catch fire or did the oven itself caught fire? Metal ovens don't usually catch fire unless something inside it is burning like your curry puffs"
"The curry puff was on fire and the oven started burning la!"

"So you were heating the curry puff and wasn't watching it when it caught fire? Miss, in order for food to burn it must be heated till it becomes like charcoal, then the carbon will burn with the oil vapours! How long did you set the timer on for?" "About 10 minutes", she said.

"That means it was your food that burnt the oven and not the oven itself caught fire. Did you know that unattended cooking is the #1 cause of household fires in Singapore? The glass shattered because you threw cold water on it , which you shouldn't have anyway because you are throwing water on a live electrical equipment!"

At this stage it was apparent to all around now that they had a lost cause.
Still out of courtesy as a store customer, I did an exchange of the burnt oven for a new one.

Though I believe the situation came out all right for all parties, I am really saddened at the attitude of some customers who simply refused to acknowledge their own faults and failings. sigh.

I'll write about a few more incidents in my next article. bye.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Alfred Russel Wallace

If someone asks who founded the Theory of Evolution, most people would say Charles Darwin. And rightly so. Ever since he published his "On the Origin of Species", the scientific world has never looked back. Today, nobody questions if man evolved from apes, even though scientists are still looking for that missing link.

Yet Charles Darwin credits himself only as a co-founder of the theory of evolution. And he readily admits that his conclusions were remarkably similar to that of his contemporary, the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace.

Independently, Alfred Wallace had, from his explorations and scientific studies, developed his own theory of natural selection. He spent 8 years exploring and studying the flora and fauna in the jungles, mountains and regions of the then Dutch East Indies. Today we know this region as Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, New Guinea or collectively as the Malay Archipelago.

When Charles Darwin received Alfred Wallace's scientific findings, he was amazed at the remarkable coincidence and similarity of both their conclusions. At the urging of the scientific community, Charles Darwin presented both their findings to the world. But because he did this, Charles Darwin somehow got the better recognition and became known as the 'father' of the evolution theory. However, this in no way diminished the importance of Alfred Wallace's contribution.

I first heard of Alfred Wallace in 1972, when my then parish priest, Fr Rene Challet, MEP (d.2003), told me that Alfred Wallace had stayed at St Joseph Church in 1854, right in the very building where we were having our conversation. From then on, my interest in Wallace grew and I started digging all the facts I could about this man who co-discovered the theory of evolution.

(picture of the 2nd St Joseph Church at Bukit Timah that was demolished in 1963)

From his seminal publication, The Malay Archipelgo, I learned that not only did Alfred Wallace stayed at St Joseph but that he did all his research within the vicinity of the church and that this area was the starting point for all his future research into the region that would ultimately lead up to his theory of evolution by natural selection. He mentioned in his work about the rich productive area within a square mile of the church.

Bukit Gombak, across the valley from St Joseph, where surely Wallace had explored.

Thus whenever, I am in the Upper Bukit Timah area, my thoughts always return to that of how Alfred Wallace had moved about looking for his insect specimens in the very same area where I used to run around in my younger days - today's Chestnut Drive, Gombak, Hillview, Bukit Timah & Bukit Panjang. And more importantly, the contribution this area of Bukit Timah made to the Theory of Evolution.

You might be interested to know that it was Alfred Wallace who gave the title "King of Fruits" to the durian, when he first described it in his scientific writings in 1858.

Alfred Russel Wallace has always been my hero. His life as an explorer scientist in the 19th century and his writings about all the places in the malay archipelago should qualify him as the pre-eminent travel writer of the 19th century! The earliest blogger perhaps? He deserves a place with the likes of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, other great travel writers from the past.

I append below an extract from "The Malay Archipelago" which contains the pertinent description of the St Joseph Church area at Bukit Timah in 1854. If you would like to read the entire book, just click on the link above.

"In the interior of the island the Chinese cut down forest trees in the jungle, and saw them up into planks; they cultivate vegetables, which they bring to market; and they grow pepper and gambir, which form important articles of export. The French Jesuits have established missions among these inland Chinese, which seem very successful. I lived for several weeks at a time with the missionary at Bukit-tima, about the centre of the island, where a pretty church has been built and there are about 300 converts.

The island of Singapore consists of a multitude of small hills, three or four hundred feet high, the summits of many of which are still covered with virgin forest. The mission-house at Bukit-tima was surrounded by several of these wood-topped hills, which were much frequented by woodcutters and sawyers, and offered me an excellent collecting ground for insects.

In about two months I obtained no less than 700 species of beetles, a large proportion of which were quite new, and among them were 130 distinct kinds of the elegant Longicorns (Cerambycidae), so much esteemed by collectors. Almost all these were collected in one patch of jungle, not more than a square mile in extent, and in all my subsequent travels in the East I rarely if ever met with so productive a spot. This exceeding productiveness was due in part no doubt to some favourable conditions in the soil, climate, and vegetation, and to the season being very bright and sunny, with sufficient showers to keep everything fresh.
In the same place, and during my walks in other directions, I obtained a fair collection of butterflies and of other orders of insects, so that on the whole I was quite satisfied with these—my first attempts to gain a knowledge of the Natural History of the Malay Archipelago."

For his contributions to scientific studies, the Singapore NPark has set up a Wallace Education Centre at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve Visitor Centre. I believe it just opened in May 2009 but I have yet to visit this. I'll tell you more after my visit there.

Related links:
St Joseph Church Bukit Timah
The French Connection

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Upper Bukit Timah

When I was younger, literally at a time when the policemen wore shorts, I lived in the Upper Bukit Timah area. From the mid-50s till late 60s, I lived at a small estate called Princess Elizabeth Estate and then later a a nearby development called Fuyong Estate. PE estate is now demolished and Fuyong Estate is better known as Rail Mall.

Growing up in those lean years meant activities were all self made. Our playground ranged from the hills of Bukit Gombak, Bukit Batok, Bukit Timah and all the way to Bukit Panjang. Exploring the area, hills and jungle was the main activity for us gangs of schoolboys since places like amusement parks, shopping centres were all but non-existent.

View My Kampong area - Upper Bukit Timah in a larger map

From the old British radar station on Gombak to the quarries at Bukit Timah, the farms at Cheng Hwa and the dairy farms were the places we 'explored' in our free time. All these places were within a 2km radius from Hillview. And yes, there really were lots of cows at Dairy Farm, where now condominiums have replaced the farms.

Old pictures of the dairy farms at Upper Bukit Timah

I remember after Singapore gained independence and started its industrial development, the Hillview area was chosen for light industries. Factories like Union Carbide, Hume, Gammon, Malayan Guttas, Kiwi Shoe Polish, Lam Soon Oil, International Spinning Mills, Cycle and Carriage and Castrol all began to change the quiet rural area into a busy industrial hub.

But perhaps central and most important feature of this area was St Joseph Church. Being Catholic, this was my parish church and it played a big part in life. I was baptised there, had catechism lessons and later taught religious classes, was an organist there and eventually also got married at this church.

(Picture is of the current St Joseph Church, the 3rd rebuilding on the same site. It was re-built in 1963 under Fr Joachim Teng)

St Joseph Church BT c.1963

St Joseph itself has a long history that is very closely related to the development of the area which few people nowadays know. It was built in 1846 and is the 2nd oldest Catholic church in Singapore. In its 163 year history, it has seen the the history of Singapore literally passing with its own history.

But to me, the one event that makes the St Joseph and the whole Upper Bukit Timah area significant was a quiet event that took place in 1854. An event that was to have a big impact on the entire human history, and it all started here with a visit by a naturalist named Alfred Rusel Wallace.

Related links:
Alfred wallace and St Joseph Church