Streetart Straße

Everyday when I open up a taxi or ride-share app to book a ride to work or a meeting, I have noticed one detail that sticks out on my map: there are several points near my home that are labelled “Streetart Straße”. Indeed, beautiful murals on shophouses is a common sight in the area that I live in, but why on earth are these points being highlighted to me above other actual landmarks here?

Why is it in German? And why is it that it seems that this map item has been set to show even at the highest zoom levels where most other details are filtered out? (Map zoom levels refer to how at the lowest levels, you might only see continents and broad country labels, but at the highest level, you see cities and their details. Data is selectively shown at different zoom levels, so that the map remains readable).

So I decided to google it a bit…

Contributions by Clara95 on OpenStreetMap

The answer is mundane. It appears that a (likely born 1995, female) German traveller toured through Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam and decided to create a half dozen map points of Street art, fast food, pizza places, and bus stops on Openstreetmap.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Not gonna lie when I remembered that OSM was editable that my response to seeing this (and it being that I’ve lived here for years and still haven’t left my mark on Openstreetmap unlike a traveller through these parts…) it immediately led me to this… reactivating my account…

I’ll report back when I’ve finally managed to make a positive or interesting dent in the REAL MAP OF THE WORLD…

* Oh but also not this kind of dent. I found this when browsing in editor view. Por… whoever you are, er… we don’t need to know your exact house unit!!!

Singapore Art Week 2021: Where to see Debbie’s Works

For those in Singapore at the moment, I have a couple shows ongoing/upcoming during and beyond Singapore Art Week. I’m showing them as digital works and video works, so technically your location won’t matter once I have properly uploaded all the works later in the year…!


Void is a small game that’s available for download on (Mac currently / Win coming soon) and you could say it is a translation of my current reality into game form. Since I work full-time but also have a toddler who doesn’t quite go to daycare, I spend my days shuttling between void decks, waiting for taxis to take me between my own house, my parents’ house, and the office. There’s usually anywhere between 5 to 12 minutes of waiting where I don’t know what to do and for the fun of it I began scanning the various spaces in a very ad-hoc fashion. I rather liked the bad scans more than the good scans, and I ended up using this material to make an interactive experience in which you’re a little boat drifting between ruins, with the pillars looking a bit like the pali da casada (the poles that stick out of the water in front of buildings) in Venice.

If you’re in Singapore, its also in an awesome CAVE for just 4 days only at Gillman Barracks (9 Lock Road, #03-21, in the former unit of Arndnt), made by the amazing team from DUDE.SG. What this means is that you can navigate through the otherworlds inside it by raising a hand, squatting, flapping your hands wildly in front of you, and swiping. The entire show is a labour of love by INSTINC and altermodernists and all the artists involved, and the CAVE experience is truly seamless. Go and see it!

Otherworlds: non/digital realities

Organised by Instinc @instinc_space

Co-organised by @altermodernist

Curated by @hilda_hiukwan

Opening Hours: 28 Jan 2021 – 7 to 10pm 29, 30 Jan 2021 – 12nn to 10pm 31 Jan 2021 – 12nn to 7pm

Venue Gillman Barracks Block 9 Lock Road, #03-21


8 artists 2 cities

Digital and physical works

Facebook Event Link:

Debbie’s “Void” on Itch:


My vision for this work was to mine myself for material and create a gallery in which all my artworks were magical wormholes into alternate realities where I would tell you ridiculous stories that were both believeable and unbelievable and you would see various crazy visual representations and reinterpretations of my old work. We always talk about digitisation lately especially during covid – but are we really and truly exploring all the possibilities in a new interactive format like a 3d video game? I had some pretty tight time constraints (only working on this on weekends when I’m off work – I mean I do have a full-time job too), and being a one-woman developer team reined in my wild ambitions for this work (initially wanted to make a crazy ragdoll puppet of myself, which I scrapped due to having difficulties with ragdoll physics and rigging and lipsyncing, none of which is my speciality). I definitely feel this work is not even close to its final form and I imagine slowly improving it over time…

State of Motion:

Curated by Syaheedah Iskandar & Thong Kay Wee

Marina One

20 Jan – 21 Feb 2021

Exhibition open 12pm — 8pm daily (Except Public Holidays)

7 Straits View, Singapore 018936


In the basement of the National Gallery Singapore, I have a project called MOTHER. Try to visit it on Thurs-Sunday when there are helpful little elves to guide you through using the kinect-based interaction. Visually speaking this work is indeed a departure from what I usually make – i guess because of the involvement of form axioms’ dev team and my own limitations in Unreal (specifically: having tried to make my part of it on my own without any experience with Blueprints or having watched a proper tutorial or course on it – woops! Yes as it turns out one cannot transfer skills of one game engine to another haha). The background environment for MOTHER was also contributed by the development team; I described it and they translated it in their own way into what you see there. I suppose I imagined in my head something more brutalist and weird and oddball – but what came out was a bit more scifi alien in the end, a bit like walking into a basement lan cafe and you’re deafened by the ambient sound of nonstop clicking and shooting. So… yeah, not entirely what I expected, in case anyone is confused how this strange thing is a “Debbie Ding” work. Nevertheless I do feel like I learnt a lot from the progress of making it, especially experimenting with vocaloids.


I guess this was my first video work, which I shot in Berlin over a summer, and made foley sound for in the dark scary basement of the ZKU building. The writing that accompanies the work was written about an anonymous city but there are glimmers of other very real cities in it. I’m just showing the video work for this exhibition at SEED space and it opens this weekend Saturday – and I am humbled to be showing alongside the amazing video work by Martha Atienza, Charles Lim, Lim Sokchanlina, Perception 3, Christina Quisumbing Ramilo, and Tromarama.

Images above from when I showed the work in Maison Salvan in Toulouse. Will update the pic of the show in SEED space when I can get a better picture!

Documentation for the works coming soon!

RENOVATION FOR THE D’OUTH HOUSE – Part 1: Flat Viewings, Online Research, HDB Resale Flat Purchase Process, & HIP Options

The documentation on this blog makes a beeline towards the domestic! For we have begun works on what will probably be two very major long-term projects in 2018/2019 – the first of which is the HOUSE PROJECT, which I thought I should document for the benefit of others who have come after us since we too relied a lot on the power of INTERNETS to find out how to do all this.

The cost of renting a well-located 3-room HDB flat in Singapore actually exceeds that of the cost of a HDB Loan / Mortgage on a 3-room HDB flat (Public Housing), so it was a no-brainer for us to stop renting in Singapore and simply buy a flat here. Naturally, I will start from the very beginning of our search for a flat in Singapore…

Table of Contents:


  1. Renovation Budgeting
  2. Appointing Renovation Contractor
  3. House Design Layout
  4. Windows Installation
  5. Kitchen Appliances and Sink
  6. Tiling Selection
  7. Aircon Installation
  8. Lighting Design
  9. Electrical Layout
  10. Paint Scheme
  11. Doors
  12. All the rest of the Non-built-in Furniture
  13. Soft Furnishings


1. Flat Viewings

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We began our house search by doing viewings in earnest. Or sorta kinda. The first few random estate agents whom we had called up also seemed to know that we were NOOBS/NOT YET FULLY FORMED/NOT ACTUALLY VERY SERIOUS BUYERS because they were as awkward as we were. But the point of flat viewing was to accrue an understanding of the public housing flat formats available in Singapore. In order to ease us into the business of flat viewing, the first flats that we viewed were also in the same block that we were renting, so it was like looking into a duplicate or mirror image of the flat we were in – at least this was something we were a little familiar with and could comment on. (Looking into strangely depopulated duplicate husks of our own flat…)

Source: HDB Website – Types of Flats
Fun fact: Our flat is an older 3A model which is 796sqft (74sqm), meaning our flat is actually larger than the standard 3-Room or 3-NG flat.

Type/Size of flat: Based on our MINI budget we decided to look for 3 room and 3.5 room HDB Resale flats (public housing in Singapore). (This is equivalent to a “2 bedroom flat” in the UK, is usually around 60 to 65 sqm, and has 2 bathrooms). Private/condos were out of the question because I didn’t have that amount of savings and also that would be pushing ourselves into a hard financial position. But a very modest HDB flat was definitely within our means.

In my personal experience, I’ve always felt that the quality of public housing in Singapore exceeds the quality of private housing in London! During the first year I lived in London, I developed the misconception that the housing stock in London was on the whole extremely ancient and backwards because all the rental flats (private flats, bedsits, House of Multiple Occupation types) I had seen and visited were all incredibly run-down compared to the average Singapore flat, featuring interesting details like holes in the stairs, holes in the exterior boundary walls, rickety and unlevel floors, broken windows, cabinets that were falling apart, and rats the size of beer cans. I didn’t know any better at the time, so I very joyfully accepted whatever I could get, leg through the stairs be dammed, nothing could dampen my enthusiasm for living in these weird houses!

And then at some point I visited a friend’s council flat (bought with a generous gift of a deposit paid by parents – a financial feat otherwise impossible in this lifetime for someone working in Design/Advertising in Shoreditch at the time ahem…) and I was surprised as to how similar it was to a normal Singapore flat. SO, NORMAL FLATS EXISTED IN LONDON. But then, there aren’t really a lot of council flats to go around. So people are just being screwed by the awful private rental market in London, where the price of rental is extremely high and what you get is very little. It also feels like part of UK government welfare goes straight into subsidising private landlords because of the housing benefit payout, which doesn’t go towards really solving any of people’s problems. I suppose it would be more accurate to describe London housing as possessing both extremes – a wide range of extremely nice and architecturally interesting flats (aspirational Georgian front rooms! eco-homes! historical houses! art deco! or industrial/warehouse conversions???) and extremely terrible flats (a lot wider than the range of flats you would get in Singapore). Somehow, although the diversity of types of housing in London is so much wider, this also has somehow meant that the average standard of the affordable London flats is far lower than the average standard of the affordable Singapore flats…)

For public housing in Singapore we had the option of either BTO (Built-to-order) or Resale. It would take an estimated 3-5 years to wait for a Build-to-Order (BTO) flat because you would have to register first and wait for the flat to be built! That also would mean 3-5 years more of interminable renting, plus I was only eligible for a 2-room BTO under the Singles (Non-Citizen Spouse) scheme, so we went straight into focusing our energies on looking for a 3/3.5 room Resale flat (I’d be ‘sole owner’ under the Non-Citizen Spouse Scheme, George would be my ‘essential occupier’, and we would still receive a housing grant of S$25,000).

Agent/No Agent: Next, there was the question of whether we would work with an estate agent or not. The good thing about an agent is that they can do all the leg work and arrange for multiple viewings in one evening. However, you run the real risk of it being a sort of psychological game, where the highs and lows of the tour experience may have been designed by the agent to convince you of the virtues of a particular flat, by contrasting different elements, such as seeing a flat with strange or extreme modifications, followed by a normal boring flat, and then another strange flat with a crazy saxophone player outside it who toots away every evening [REAL INCIDENT] – by contrasting an ordinary flat with a TERRIBLE FLAT it obviously helps to make even the most ordinary flat seem a little better than it really is. But hey, we aren’t really wanting to see the worse case scenarios here when searching for that dream house…

Criteria: After many viewings, we devised our own criteria for what we were looking for. We liked things like the old terrazzo that often came with old flats, but not TOO CRAZY COLOURED. We were also very particular about the view. We liked either a city view, or a nature view, but not really a suburban view. It also seemed that some people liked being able to see their cars from their flat, so they enjoyed seeing a view of a carpark, but we were not those people. A lot of the “FULLY FURNISHED MOVE-IN IMMEDIATELY” type flats were not our style, so their fully furnished nature was not a plus point for us either.

Big Terrazzo!

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So many different Terrazzos in HDB Flats!
* George also pointed out that it was quite odd to him that both me and Dingmother always started talking about visibility of ANTS whenever we looked at surfaces and that maybe people in other countries did not have “VISIBILITY OF ANTS” as a criteria for flooring/countertop colours. But we have so many different ants here in Singapore. CAN WE SEE THE ANTS WHEN THEY ARE WALKING OVER THE FLOOR? THAT IS A SERIOUS QUESTION! [And for those living in cold non-tropical ant-less countries who have never thought about whether ants will be visible on your floor or countertop, the answer is: Yes, yes, I would actually like to be able to see the ants. I do want to know where the ants are. I WOULD LIKE MAXIMUM ANT VISIBILITY!!]

Seeing a lot of the same size of flats gives you an idea of the possible fittings, layouts and modifications of that type of flat. For example, we viewed a lot of 3.5 room flats in the AMK area and these were always the ones that received an upgrade of an additional room at the end of their flats. A lot of them had reconfigured their walls in different ways, such as by knocking down the store or hacking down walls and erecting different walls to make different shapes, which gives one ideas about the possible iterations on the same template…

On our individual efforts, as well as the help of an agent for some part, and the Dingfather (our honorary agent for a while), we saw a grand total of 22 flats before finding the ROWELL FLAT.

What we chose: See a lot of flats on our own with no fixed agent

2. Online research


The view from the only flat that we really liked in AMK…

Unfortunately, all of the flats that we ‘kinda’ liked in Ang Mo Kio were on the pricey side (nearly 400k / over 400k) which really could not really be justified because it was just so far away from Fun Things in Town and it might result in us having a very socially isolated existence. Some other flats we saw had red flags, such as CCTV cameras being installed everywhere (for what reason did the owner justify to HDB on the installation of CCTV? loanshark? private dispute? etc), weird looking doors and doors which could not be unlocked (was this really a home? why were rooms inaccessible to potential house viewers? why had these unusual office/industrial/shop doors been installed into the residential apartments?), very low floors (potentially affected by smoke from the incessant burning of taoist offerings, and noises from roads, funeral trumpets, construction sounds, schools, etc). All in all, its just not that cheap to buy a flat in the heartlands! And more crucially, some of these flats were older than me (a few were over 40 years old), which could result in loan issues (if you buy or take over a flat with less than 60 years, the housing loan may be disallowed) – and in the distant future, by getting an extremely old flat, we might deprive ourselves of the option of being able to sell and buy a different flat if we so wished to…

George found Edgeprop’s website which had a useful map detailing the per square foot cost of all the public housing in Singapore – Edgeprop Analytic Heatmap – which gave us a better picture of the prices in different areas of Singapore, and which areas tended to have the lowest per square foot pricing. AMK Central was far from being the the cheapest zone despite being so far away from the town area.

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Inspired by a visit to a friend’s house in Little India (an area that both me and George were extremely fond of) we began looking at the lowest price per square foot that could be had in the Jalan Besar District. And to our surprise, there was a unit on the market that seemed to fit all our criteria! It even seemed to overlook my old flat in Rowell Road!

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Source: Edgeprop Analytic Heatmap

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FUN FACT: Our transaction is reflected on this list (screenshot taken in May 2019), and yes we did get the best per square foot price for our size of flat. Singaporeans familiar with the square footage of flats here can probably easily guess which one was our transaction…

FUN FACT 2: The HDB flats on Kelantan lane average about 450 upwards psf to even 500+. As for Rowell Road, the road that I have the most emotional attachment to, it turns out it is the cheapest price per square foot in the whole Jalan Besar area. Well fancy that!…

Thanks Singaporeans with your racially suspect CMIO policies which has resulted in the Indian enclave near central becoming less popular with Chinese buyers – thus giving us (I’m classed as a Chinese buyer) a chance to find the most favourable price! Your loss is our gain!

What we chose: Little India with per square foot prices as low as SGD 420-440 psf

3. HDB Resale Flat Purchase Process

Buying Resale Flat Steps

Here is a record of our timeline. It took 5 months & 6 days (159 days, not including end day) from start to finish – calculated from the date we applied for the eligibility letter, to the date we completed the purchase.

20 April 2018 – Applied for HLE (HDB Loan Eligibility) Letter
27 April 2018 – Received HLE Approval (which will also tell you what is the max loan possible / what is your max budget)
18 May 2018 – Registered Intent to Buy
13 June 2018 – First viewing of the Rowell Flat
14 June 2018 – Second viewing of the Rowell Flat. Made offer.
15 June 2018 – Obtained Proof of Ownership from Owner.
25 June 2018 – Owner issues the OTP (Option to Purchase) Form
26 June 2018 – Request for Value Submitted
15 July 2018 – Exercise Option to Purchase (Seller completes portion of form)
16 July 2018 – Submission of Resale Application (Buyer completes portion of form)
20 August 2018 – Acknowledgement of Resale Documents (Confirmation of Purchase of Resale Flat, Housing Grant Agreement, Application of Housing Loan), Payment of Conveyancing and Caveat Fees. [Additional: in our case the seller wished to bring forward the date for Completion of Sale due to travel plans so we also arranged for an earlier date]
26 Sept 2018 – Completion of Sale at HDB Hub, Opening Utilities, SLA Caveat, Property Tax

* I wish to also add the note that when you go down to HDB Hub for the final completion, you don’t really have to bring any other documents previously submitted, besides your original IDs. Its a formality in which buyer and seller just sign the final papers in each other’s presence, the seller get a cute little HDB tote bag full of papers and HDB branded keychains and magnets and swag, and then you go off with the keys. Unfortunately, about 5 minutes before I was to leave the house to attend this momentous event, I became convinced that I needed to bring the original copy of some document that I couldn’t recall whether it should be in my possession or the seller’s possession. The result is that I tore through the house like a mad person tornado of flying papers (I realised later that the original was with the seller), and I went to HDB Hub in a nervous wreck – only to slowly realise that the completion was more a formality of signing and shaking hands and smiling at each other and receiving the keys… OH WELL NOW WE KNOW.

On hindsight, there are also three other VERY IMPORTANT things that you’ll need to do as a new home owner (but no one is going to remind you to do these):

  • Conservancy Charges: Set up giro/direct debit for conservancy charges to the town council (you’ll have to contact your town councils after 2 weeks, or in my case, if you forgot to contact them, they will send you a bill for your overdue conservancy charges ho ho ho)
  • Renovations: Start your house renovations so you can move into the flat! DUH. But because I was so busy with my PYT show and the ‘accidental commencement of MAJOR LONG-TERM PROJECT #2’ I admit that I was unusually slow to start the renovation process….


4. HIP Options

We were extraordinarily lucky in that the HIP timing coincided with the time we were purchasing the flat, meaning that I had taken ownership of the flat in time to make the decisions on what HIP options I wanted.

HIP stands for Home Improvement Programme (HIP), and HDB flats of a certain age are all slated for this programme in which their 30+ year old plumbings and toilets are replaced, spalling issues and leakages are fixed, and safety features like anti-slip coatings, handlebars and mobility ramps are installed for the elderly who need them – all for what is a mere token sum (if you are Singaporean the costs are almost negligible and can be paid through CPF in a few years time). You also get a new front door and front gate (optional Ease items)

The HIP contractor will erect a toilet showroom that looks like this masterpiece below (with a bow on the toilets), and you get to choose from a few inoffensive colour themes such as grey, blue, or sand…



The HIP works are usually accompanied by great upheaval in the block itself, with everyone taking advantage of the chaos to embark on their own noisy renovation projects as the HIP works sweep through the block for the duration of the better part of a year. I must admit that I subconsciously ended up delaying the renovation of our flat because of the knowledge that HIP was coming soon and it would have been ideal to move in after HIP had been completed for our flat, otherwise we would have to endure another round of having to trot down to the common toilets during the shock of the 10-day disruption.

5. HIP Works & Bathroom Fixtures

In Feb 2019 the HIP Works finally commenced! We received a one month advance notice letter and a two week advance notice letter before the date, and someone came around to check the condition of the flat before we started, and where they pointed out to us a few weird parts of our flats.

Seems like all the flats in the block have a slightly un-aligned kitchen toilet door. But no big deal… *TWITCHES*

Based on the option form given back in October 2018, they printed out the list of works to be done in the house. With the works commencing, we also had to ensure we had all the new fixtures present for them to install during the process. We visited all the usual megastores for bathroom fixtures in Singapore such as Bathroom Warehouse, Hoe Kee, Sim Siang Choon, but ultimately decided to try the smaller bathroom fixture stores on Geylang. After doing a price comparison with HomeOne and Universal Union, we eventually bought our fixtures from Heritage Bathroom Gallery (we were served by a lady called Irene Chong).

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As the sink and WC were provided by HIP, we just had to supply the rest of the basic fixtures found in a bathroom. Here is a breakdown of the unit prices for which we got our basic fixtures (after comparing at least 6 different shops):

  • Mirror Cabinet with Internal Shelving – $118 (we chose one that was big enough to hold an entire Listerine Bottle)
  • Instant Heater with Rain Shower, Standard Shower, and DC pump – $249
  • Foldable Towel Rack with additional hooks – $88 (we had seen similar units for over $100 elsewhere)
  • Two way Tap – $33 (we had seen the same unit sold elsewhere in Geylang for $45)
  • Hooks in a row – $42 (we had seen the same unit sold elsewhere in Geylang for $53)
  • Toilet Paper Holder – $28 (we had seen the same unit sold elsewhere in Geylang for $39)
  • Bidet Sprayer – $39

Other things we got separately from Ikea:

  • Glass shelf – $12.90 (We didn’t fancy any of the designs we saw in the bathroom shops – too fancy! – and we wanted something even simpler. We also weren’t sure if this was absolutely necessary, so we got a cheap backup one with an extremely simple design in case we changed our minds about not having a simple glass shelf)
  • Toilet Brush – $9.90 (Don’t really need a fancy branded toilet brush considering that its something we’ll use and replace over time!!!)

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HIP usually finishes within 10 days and the owner just has to be present on the 1st day, 9th day (when the fixtures go up), and last day (where the entire construction team will come up to take a congratulatory picture with you upon the completion of your brand new TOILETS.

In Part 2 of this post I will continue with how we figured out a budget, design layout, and the all important task of appointing a main renovation contractor!

My Mother’s Sewing Machine & The Meaning of “Mahjong Paper”


This is going to be a post about Mahjong Paper…


…but where the story actually begins is last weekend, when my mother handed down her old sewing machine to me!


This was the sewing machine that my mother had used to sew everything well before I was born, and on which she had honed her amazing sewing skills to this point where she pretty much can make anything to an extremely precise, professional level. She also makes new strange mashups of things all the time. (Once, I came back home and found that she had sewn my old baybeats shirt into a crescent shaped pillow? And she made me a proper quilt from all the School CCA t-shirts I had worn in the past!) Factory-made clothing and sewn goods have got nothing on my mom’s skillz! My Mom’s expectations of proper standards of workmanship is so critical and precise that clothing from most ‘fast fashion’ shops feel like cheap bits of cloth carelessly tacked together in comparison to her workmanship.

My father said it cost a small fortune back in the day. This was years before I was even born, and my parents were very much younger, barely out of school and my father had only just begun working at that point in time so purchasing such an advanced machine at the time took years of instalment payments. But of course it proved to be a great investment towards my mother’s incredible skills in sewing. If you know me in real life you will know that just about all the clothing that you see me wearing on an everyday basis was actually sewn by my mother. And all of it looks better and works better than store-bought fast fashion! She puts in huge pockets and even replicates the cuttings which I love the best.

A few of the dresses she made for me


Most people are familiar with other brand names but according to the mother she had done a lot of research on the machines at the time and determined this to be the machine she really wanted. Looking it up it seems that Riccar was at one time the largest sewing machine brand in Japan and peaked in the 70s around the world, but went bankrupt in 1994 so the name is not heard so often today. Now this machine from the 70s is a VINTAGE machine.


The entire body and all the parts are made of solid metal and it looks like a machine that could last for a lifetime if carefully maintained and oiled every year – unlike the plastic feel of many cheap sewing machines today.


I did a bit of sewing practice with my mother’s newer machine (she got a newer one with more button hole stitch functions and fancy stitches) and back at home with the Riccar I also did some sewing practice – but I soon realised I was very far off the mark and I’d need to put in a lot more practice to sew something of professional quality…


But the thing I really wanted to write about is actually this. The mahjong paper.

It has occured to me that readers from outside of Singapore may have never heard this term “mahjong paper” which I had taken for granted was used universally to refer to a large white sheet of paper for art and craft purposes, or for wrapping books to protect their covers when you go to school.

My mother bought a lot of this white paper in rolls so she could cut out patterns for the dresses and clothing she would sew.

I asked my mother if she could give me a few sheets from her extensive collection of papers – but at the same time I wanted to know what size it was.

The Ding Mother: “Its the size of the mahjong table.”


The Ding Mother: “The aunty who sold me this must have thought I’m a real big gambler buying them in rolls of 50. Little does she know I am just making clothing…”

A Totally Unrepresentative Poll of the First 10 People I Could Randomly Message on Whatsapp immediately showed that 9/10 Singaporeans I asked did not know that mahjong paper is produced, marketed, and sold named as such because of the superior tile sliding properties that the ‘mahjong paper’ affords the mahjong tiles!

I think I’ve carelessly referred to any large white sheet of paper as “mahjong paper” my entire life without knowing why “mahjong” was tacked onto the front of the word “paper” and I suspect this probably applies for many Singaporeans – that the term “mahjong paper” has come to mean “generic white paper” without any knowledge of its connection to mahjong. The ‘mahjong paper’ is bandied around in schools as it is cheaply used in so many art and craft purposes – and weirdly enough it is used without explaining the origin of its name.

If you google for “Mahjong Paper”, you will see that all of the hits are from Singapore or Malaysian websites.
Google Trends states that a majority of searches for the phrase “Mahjong Paper” are from Singapore. (Quite a few of them must be from me)

The phrase “mahjong paper” does not appear in Google ngram searches, meaning that the term “mahjong paper” is not used in any books in the Google Books corpus.

And for all the all important question: What size is mahjong paper?

– Mahjong tables are always square, and around 81/82/86cm (playing surface).
– Most of the mahjong paper is around that size: 86cm x 86cm.

“Tanah Goreng”: Residual granite soil sample

This weekend I wanted to conduct an extremely controlled and orderly soil sieving and drying process to obtain the raw material for the work that I’m currently building. (I mention orderly and controlled, but as you will see, it was anything but orderly in the end…)

You see, earlier this year I decided that I would build a work about soil. Long has soil been a material used in art as pigment, or in the production of clay and sculpture. It is depicted in landscapes as the all important horizon line, it is so ubiquitous that it is almost invisible, and for some reason we hardly have any reason to handle soil directly today. Everything is about sand sand sand. No one talks about the soil. So I wanted to study more about soil.

So I read up on the process for the wet preparation of soil samples. Got all the gear ready, collected and measured a cup of residual granite soil (ie: that ubiquitous red soil which you see everywhere in Singapore), added clean water to it, and sieved the material through a food sieve into a stainless steel bowl (which was somewhat disturbingly similar to the same type of stainless steel bowl I used to eat my food). After that, I heated it on an infrared cooker which I placed at the end of the “yard”.

I used a food sieve although I had spent quite some time researching on test sieves – I really wanted to use a set of sieves of different sizes to enable me to determine the particle size within the residual granite soil I had collected and I had even gone as far as investigating whether I could build my own sieve shaker rig with a stepper motor. But then I fell off my chair when I looked at the prices of scientific grade test sieve sets. Perhaps I was looking to the most expensive brands (eg: Endecotts) but I hadn’t realised how pricey the equipment would be. I know they are important for determining the size of particles, and that the type of weave and small details about how it is made and tested are also reasons for it retailing at a very ‘specialist’ price – but can accuracy of sieve size truly justify the over-tenfold increase of the price of a single scientific grade test sieve as compared to a domestic flour sieve/food masher? I mean, is the test sieve made of gold??

Anyway, as an approximation – here I have used a discount flour sieve I bought from the humble AMK Fairprice. In any case, my main purpose here was to sieve out large rocks and other organic material from the collected soil, in order to obtain a fine dry sifted soil material.

Aaaand after I mentioned that I was reverting to using kitchen equipment in lieu of lab equipment… Zaki joked that it sounded like I was making “Tanah Goreng”. WELL THEN FOLKS, HERE IS RESIPI TANAH GORENG:


287g Tanah (soil)
500ml Air (water)

Add water and agitate with a spoon to loosen smaller sediment from larger sediment.
Strain different sized sediments into different pans.
Cook separate pans over low heat until completely dried.

Soil mixed with water forms a liquid which has a high viscosity meaning that when the water underneath reaches boiling point, the steam pressure begins to build up. First the steam pressure begins like a murmur on the surface, like a fluttering heartbeat; the soil slowly showing signs of life on the surface.

For quite some time the muddy soil soup simply sort of quivered in the pan, as if it were a blob of congealing Teh C in giant custard pudding form. Thoughts such as “AW, HOW PRECIOUS” and “Should I be photographing its first moments of life?” came to mind. But because it was taking so long to come to a boil I lost interest in watching it. I was not about to spend all evening watching a pot come to a boil. So I went away.

Next thing I knew, it had progressed to a whole new other level of horror…

What the…

What is this, splatter gore horror?…

Certainly a key lesson to be learnt from this is either to use a deeper or bigger pan – or boil a smaller quantity of mud if you do not wish to return to a red splattered scene like this (and a lot of cleaning work to be done).

The wild mud cook out continued the next morning, this time in more manageable smaller batches.

The soil was heated until it was dry and could be collected in large flakes.

A miniature martian landscape naturally emerged on the surface of each dry pan of soil.

For a moment I imagined that maybe Mars had also secretly boiled over when we weren’t looking at it, in order to get all these craters.

About 175g of material was recovered from an original 287g of collected raw material.


The Difficulties of Walking


Mysterious Fevers

It is funny that once upon a time I complained that it was the cold that stopped me from walking in London. Now that I’ve managed to get over the cold of the UK, it is the heat and other environmental factors that are stopping me from walking in Singapore!

The first problem is the weather in Singapore. The unbearable heat! The sweat running into one’s eyes! The tissues one must carry to stop one’s glasses from fogging up during a walk. The sudden rain, or even passing thunderstorm that is sure to follow after a spell of intense hot weather. But the heat and unpredictable weather, to be honest, is but a trifling matter. The second and more pressing issue is… unexplained fever!

Upon my return to Singapore I had heartily jumped back into walking all over the place, poking around for snails and termites, observing waterfowl and early morning joggers, encircling all of Bedok Reservoir and merrily trotting all up and around Fort Canning. And then I was unexpectedly felled by a high fever that lasted for a ridiculous seven days…

The primary symptoms were debilitating joint and body pains and a high fever that kept returning even after panadol or ibuprofen. The body aches reminded me of the time I had contracted dengue around 2005 (wherein there was a dengue cluster at the block of the uni hall I was staying at), and I really didn’t want to jump to conclusions just because I was misdiagnosed repeatedly the last time I had dengue – BUT THEN DATA.GOV.SG SAID WE LIVED IN BEDOK NORTH #1 DENGUE HOTSPOT OF SINGAPORE, and then all manner of wild conclusions were instantly jumped to.

“But I had only been in Singapore for 5 DAYS!” I whined, looking at my mildly bug-bitten legs. “How could I have contracted dengue so quickly??”

Fortunately as it turned out, after a trip to the A&E it was confirmed I did not have any of the three particular strains of dengue which are currently trending on this island. Which was great but still very mysterious. My final diagnosis was suspected ‘tonsillitis’, but I could not see any reason to begin a protracted 7-day course of antibiotics for an extremely mild (and basically non-existent) sore throat. As mysteriously as the high fever had come, it slipped away quietly a week later…

Well. And there went an entire week of my life. Without any reason or explanation…

The “Obscure Disease”, Beri Beri

See: British India and the “Beriberi Problem”, 1798–1942

Whilst holed up in bed it seemed apt to begin reading up on the disease of beri-beri, the vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency which has retained its oddly exotic name through the ages. Every account of life in the early 1900s as well as WWII and the Battle of Singapore will invariably mention the problem of beri-beri, a disease which had great socio-economic and political impact, incapacitating and killing citizens, soldiers, workers, everyone alike in the rice-eating countries throughout Southeast Asia.

Most narratives of diseases in the early 20th century tend to read as a narrative of man’s discovery and victory over disease – but arguably the story of beri-beri in these parts reads more as a story of a disease introduced by colonial technologies – unnecessarily prolonged by complex commercial interests and colonial shortsightedness. Somehow what annoys me is that to retain the exotic sounding name seems to suggest that the tropics or far east was the dangerous place or climate manufacturing the ‘beri-beri’, justifying the intervention of western medicine.

Its frustrating to read that the affliction of beri-beri was necessarily prolonged by complex commercial interests (rice exports!) and such shortsightedness, as seen through the continued misconceptions of beri-beri being a ‘tropical disease’ or ‘place disease’ and refusal to believe it was nutritional, exacerbated by logistical problems during the war years. What seems tragic is that by 1911 the cause of beri-beri is already established as a diet of overmilled white rice, yet helplessly little is done to dissuade or stop people from subsisting entirely on overmilled white rice and other foods which are deficient in vit B1 or worse, thiaminases that leech thiamine from one’s diet…

Opisthotonic death pose / Star-gazing

Studies on beri-beri were often done on birds and I realised that pictures of the symptom of beri beri in animals were… rather alarming. As a human, you’ll be glad to know that humans don’t exhibit this symptom, but as for my pigeon and avian readers, the following pictures may be quite disturbing. In certain animals like birds especially, thiamine deficiency tends to produce a star gazing effect – a retraction of the head known as opisthotonus.

Source: David A Bender’s page notes that in Peters RA’s Biochemical lesions and lethal synthesis (Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1963), pigeons “show a characteristic head retraction when they are fed on a high carbohydrate diet with no thiamin, and restoration of the vitamin leads to rapid normalisation.”

The internet also has no lack of stargazing chickens, pigeons, and other unfortunate poultry:

The opisthotonus caused by thiamine deficiency extends also to other livestocks. The following book on animal nutrition has a table listing the different symptoms of thiamine deficiency in different animals.

“Sheep with thiamin deficiency. characteristics of condition are head bent backwards (opisthotonos), cramp-like muscular contractions, disturbance of balance, and aggressiveness.” Source: Vitamins in Animal Nutrition: Comparative Aspects to Human Nutrition By Lee Russell McDowell

Interestingly, you’ll notice this ‘star-gazing’ pose is quite like the pose in which most dinosaurs are found. An article in NewScientist (“Watery secret of the dinosaur death pose”) mentions studies in which a lot of quails and dead birds were dipped in cold water to see if they too would adopt the dramatic dinosaur death pose. Results were mixed but it was believed it was the water that did it…

Either way, a head pointed perpetually skywards would make movement and walking very difficult…

Casadastraphobia / fear of falling into the sky

…which brings me to a new bizarre symptom that has been mildly impeding my enjoyment of long distance walking, which also has something to do with looking up into the sky…

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been unable to lie down on the ground outdoors and look up into the sky for the fear of falling into the sky. As irrational as it might sound, I always refused to do situps during PE class because the teacher would ask us to do it in the school field (such that we would be forced to face the sky!) and god forbid the gravity should turn off and we’d all fall into the sky! Even the school hall was no better. School camps in the school hall and having to sleep facing the high ceiling? Forget about it!


A new troubling symptom emerged as I was warming up for my Capital Ring walk. Whilst walking alone on a disused, empty path near the Angel Road Superstores, hearing the distant roar of the North Circular, I was genuinely enjoying a delightful walk in what felt almost like wilderness when I suddenly realised I was in a big open area with nothing else to hold on to! I blame the pylons for leading me to look upwards into the sky, alerting me to the desertedness of the spot, a true attack of the triffids horror moment!

Struck by sudden and urgent panic, I felt like taking off my shoes and even looked for any grass to hold on to but was forced to run back and take cover under a nearby bridge. Unfortunately, the rest of my walk home involved walking several miles along the River Lea towpath completely exposed without any cover, which felt quite traumatising at the time. Now, snug and safe in a house with a solid roof, we can sit back clutching the solid furniture laughing about it. But it is almost the definition of madness I tell you! Even a momentary glance skywards that lasts a moment too long is enough to provoke terror, although I know it’s physically impossible to fall into the sky! AH!

Fortunately (or unfortunately), most of urban London and Singapore do not have open landscapes which trigger this irrational fear so I have rarely had to deal with it before…

Pulau “Funtasy”: The Maritime Dispute between Singapore and Indonesia that Wasn’t

Perhaps this is old-hat news to all folks with their ears pressed to the ground here, but of late I haven’t kept up with the news and I’ve only just heard of the story of Funtasy Island and its curious case of cartographic confusion which happened a few months back in June 2016.

A little sleuthing (actually just some common sense in extrapolating the possible file name of the previous map) resulted in this find:

Hold on to your flags, it’s not a land grab, it’s just a problematically coloured map produced by a marketing team!

So this was the map that started the misunderstanding…

“Funtasy Island” is described on its website as “328 hectares of pristine tropical islands” which “will be home to a limited number of villas carefully designed to sit harmoniously with the unspoiled natural environment”. Formerly known as Pulau Manis, the Singapore-based developer, Funtasy Island Development (FID), had renamed it as as “Funtasy Island” when it recently unveiled its resort map to the world in June earlier this year. Located 16km from Singapore, its “artist impressions”/promotional pictures also depict a very visible Singapore Skyline in the distance and it is advertised as soon to be having a direct ferry service from Singapore.

Funtasy Island developers thought they were highlighting its proximity to Singapore by producing a map for marketing purposes which depicted the cluster of islands coloured in the same blue colour as Singapore, but the image went viral after first being covered in the Jakarta Post and the colouring was immediately interpreted by Indonesians as being Singapore’s attempt to claim the island as Singapore territory, resulting in a knee-jerk reaction from Indonesian media and amongst Indonesian politicians.

Indonesian Army Personnel from Kodim (Dandim) 0316/Batam were even being dispatched to go down to plant the Indonesian flag on the islands, and a ‘deeply puzzled’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Singapore issued a statement:

Red. The Colour of the Indonesian Flag.
Now totally no one is going to mistake it for Singapore, that little red d- oh wait…

Certainly this belies the many sensitivities between Singapore and Indonesia and its other close neighbours, bubbling just beneath the surface. Perhaps for some it might have brought to mind the prolonged Ligitan and Sipadan dispute – when Indonesia and Malaysia had a territorial dispute over the Indonesia-Malaysia maritime boundary and the two islands – which the International Court of Justice (ICJ) later determined to be Malaysia territory. Or the case of Nipah Island, which has been one of the agreed basepoint for Indonesia’s maritime border with Singapore – over the years millions of cubic metres of sand were dredged and sold to Singapore for its own reclamation works, eventually triggering Indonesia concerns about Nipah Island becoming submerged below sea level during high tide, prompting extensive reclamation work on the island in order to preserve it as the agreed basepoint for Indonesia’s maritime border with Singapore.

The Treaty between the Republic of Indonesia and the Republic of Singapore Relating to the Delimitation of the Territorial Seas of the Two Countries in the Eastern Part of the Strait of Singapore was signed again for the second time in 2014 – extending the part of the line that has been previously agreed upon – but so far only some portions of the maritime border between Singapore and Indonesia has been defined and agreed on. Apparently some of the remaining parts yet to be determined may also require Malaysia’s involvement – since at some point Singapore’s waters do meet with both Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s!

Despite its technical trickiness, surely the only outcome desired by both Singapore and Indonesia would be a peaceful agreement that would be in the mutual interest of both countries. So people, be careful with how and what you map! For as it has been proven, it’s not all fun and fantasy, these maps wield power…

Image Source:

VATMESS: The Mini One-Stop Stupidity Shop

It seems appropriate to begin the first post breaking my long hiatus with a post about virtual entities being in Singapore whilst not being in Singapore. Hello! I’m still here! But where is here? I’m not in Singapore, but soon I will be. At times my location almost seems arbitrary; I am neither here nor there, but I’m online, which may as well be everywhere.

After a grueling 2015 and returning to London, I shrank away from the relentless public exhortations of social media, grew unreasonably incensed at the constant burden of interactivity, and even began a series of (incomplete) writing on my hatred for infinite scroll and other modern scourges of online interactivity. The benefit of withdrawing myself from the clatter of social media was that I found time to teach myself how to use tools like Unity, three.js, Blender and Meshmixer… so there’ll be more on those in upcoming posts…

But now! I recently read this page by Ghost Foundation moving to Singapore. The article sounds like it must be related to Singapore, but it is really not about Singapore. Singapore may as well not exist, except on paper as some almost-mythical stable benevolent friendly-tax offshore island. Ghost makes no real impact on Singapore by having been incorporated in Singapore, for it is merely a virtual marriage-of-convenience. I found it funny to see it was even reported as news by Channel News Asia (what passes muster for “news” in these parts… zzzz), and a little funny to read comments from Singaporeans getting excited and “welcoming” them to Singapore, when they have clearly stated on their post that they won’t be in Singapore (and therefore their virtual presence does not contribute directly to the tech startup scene in Singapore). They say they’re not doing it for tax avoidance but it basically sounds like tax obfuscation to me!

VAT rules however do seem completely obscure and confusing to consumers and small businesses owners/startups. I briefly entertained the thought of incorporating myself as a business in the UK the same way DBBD is registered as a company in Singapore (as a designer and builder of various curious interactive things). But after reading up on the VAT MOSS situation, it makes absolutely no sense to do so. I’m not even sure how many small business owners know about this.

VAT MOSS (Mini One-Stop Shop) was rolled out on 1 Jan 2015. This means now if a small/micro-business wants to sell an electronically supplied service (eg: electronic download, software update) to a consumer (non-business customer) within the EU, it needs to charge VAT at the rate applicable in the consumer’s location and remit this on quarterly returns via MOSS.

Yes, MOSS is the real name, so cue the GATHERING NO MOSS jokes and #VATMESS. They’ve named it MINI ONE STOP SHOP. With such a ridiculous name, it makes me feel as if the person who named it probably thinks the internet is a series of tubes and that you just press a button to turn on the tubes.

The implication is that small companies which may not have reached the taxable threshold are going to go from not paying VAT to filing for VAT MOSS 4 TIMES A YEAR all of a sudden, and are expected to collect a host of personal information from all its customers in order to determine which ones are from one of the 28 countries in the EU, and then they need to magically manage to apply the correct VAT rate to the purchase (there are apparently 81 different VAT rates??). And if that is not confusing enough, the proof of customer location (personally identifiable information) and must be securely (??) stored for 10 years by the company which is also required to register as a data controller (£35/year). (Additionally, not registered as a data controller when required to is a criminal offence… a provisionary glance I took at the ICO site suggests that the fine could be up to 5000 euros)

(For more facts see: EU VAT ACTION)

The key term here seems to be ‘electronically supplied’ as opposed to having “human intervention”. The European Commission’s explanatory notes (Annex on Page 86) writes:

‘Electronically supplied services’ as referred to in Directive 2006/112/EC shall include services which are delivered over the Internet or an electronic network and the nature of which renders their supply essentially automated and involving minimal human intervention, and impossible to ensure in the absence of information technology.


From HMRC: VAT MOSS – So apparently if you “manually” attach a PDF, it is not covered under VAT MOSS. But if you “manually email” an upload link, it’s covered under VAT MOSS?? Looks like these people have never attached a document and found it too big so you have to upload it elsewhere and send someone a link.

The directive which the definition is taken from is from 2006. How seriously outdated is that? In the last 8 years, a lot has changed about the internet, and the range of electronic products and services offered. To put things into context, I first started learning programming 7 years ago and in those 7 years in my role as an interactive designer/developer all the technologies have changed, the modes of distributing information have completely changed, internet selling/services have totally changed.

VAT MOSS rules currently lack a nuanced understanding of how quickly the internet changes and grows, and this is causing senseless confusion because there is no logical line on what constitutes sufficient human intervention in a lot of new scenarios that are emerging.

To me this sounds a lot like this:

Who wrote the rules for VAT MOSS? What are their credentials, or interests, and do they know anything about how the internet works today??? Human intervention is a stupid criteria in small digital businesses where people ought to be working smart and automating processes even at the smallest level. Were the views of online businesses represented in the discussion, or at least to provide the commission with an adequate understanding of the likely future of electronic businesses? And how on earth do you draw the line on what constitutes sufficient human intervention? There is really no difference if I do it or I script up something which automatically sends that email on my behalf. Is my human intervention as author of the automated script not counted?? I still wrote the script, letter by letter, intervening with the letters on my keyboard.

Another question that came to mind was – HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE PAYING THROUGH VAT MOSS? Surely all the companies worth taxing are already taxed normally for being over the threshold. I’d like to find out, what amount of VAT MOSS is actually being paid from the small/micro businesses who are now newly affected from the 1 Jan 2015 ruling for the first time?

The Internet has many stories of people paying ridiculously exorbitant amounts in accounting software and services only to find out they have to pay insultingly low VAT on their digital business.


Just filed my first #VATMOSS return with @HMRCgovuk – cost me GBP700+ in software and accounting to calculate that I owed 18.74

— Cory Doctorow (@doctorow) April 14, 2015

So if the VAT being collected is so insultingly miniscule for many individuals and incurring so much unnecessary administrative problems and additional business expenditure, the question is – was it really worth implementing? If the goal was to target big companies like Amazon, why is the fallout affecting small businesses and forcing them out of business (and correspondingly, pushing customers towards the big companies). If this is all a matter of proving success of a scheme by numbers, then how much VAT in total is actually being paid between UK and EU countries on digital business under VATMOSS since 2015?

This is where UK’s FOIA sounds like some black voodoo magic to a Singaporean like me – almost unbelievably it is a land where you can ask for information and public authorities are legally required to give a proper reply! (How sad that I have to be so excited about this…) A quick gander on brings up user john_117’s fascinating FOI correspondences with HMRC. It reveals that since it is collected quarterly, in john_117 first correspondence in March they didn’t have the data yet, but then in July they make a turnaround by mentioning that “Under section 22(1) of the FOIA, we are not required to provide information in response to a request if we intend to publish the information in the future” and that they won’t be providing a country-by-country breakdown so as not to “prejudice relations between the UK and other Member States” by “disclosing tax revenues of other Member States”.

It is now 2016 and searching the site does not turn up any publication of statistics. A little disappointing. Perhaps I just don’t know where to search.

More disturbingly, I tried to find what panel or commission was responsible for making decisions on VAT MOSS, but so far haven’t figured it out. The question I wonder is: in the process of making these decisions, did they include anyone or any groups representing the interests of small digital businesses which will be affected by VAT MOSS?

The only way out of VAT MOSS seems to be to block all EU buyers or (virtually) move out of EU. Or use VAT MOSS and raise all your prices by 20% or more to include VAT (or allow it to cut significantly into your own profits), collect at least two of the following information from each your customers and securely store it for 10 years:




Don’t even get me started about the potential complications when you have to deal with people with foreign billing addresses who spend equal parts of time in more than one country. I realised recently that I wasn’t charged VAT for an digital service which I use in both Singapore and London – a scenario that seems to be in a grey area. I paid for the digital service with a credit card registered to a Singaporean bank with a Singapore billing address and the printed matter was to be mailed to my Singapore billing address – but I physically reside in London and my order would have come from a IP address in UK – and I use only a +44 UK phone number. The unnamed supplier in this case obviously had to made a blanket presumption on my location based on billing address and bank address, rather than IP address or SIM address. But this really shouldn’t be made into a confusing guessing game for business owners.

In 2016 they released some half-baked simplification, citing that business owners are allowed to exercise their best judgement. How on earth can one exercise their best judgement on what appears to be a poorly thought out scheme?

From HMRC: “There is no registration threshold on cross border supplies of services and businesses of all sizes fall within the scope of the changes. However, this only applies where supplies are made in the course or furtherance of a business. If activity is carried out as a hobby (ie only on a minimal and occasional basis), HMRC does not normally see this as a business activity for VAT purposes. HMRC’s analysis of the VAT MOSS returns submitted by UK businesses so far indicate that some of those registered for VAT MOSS may not be in business for VAT purposes.

HMRC will contact those already registered for VAT MOSS whose returns suggest they may not be in business.”

OH NO, IS MY BUSINESS A LIE? IS MY ENTIRE PRACTICE ACTUALLY ONE BIG NON-TAXABLE HOBBY?? And by extension, are they saying that online sales doesn’t need to be declared as income tax? Or not? Or what? What a confusing message to send to small self-employed business owners.


Creating a “level playing field” through #VATMOSS means programming 6,724 possible tax combinations for a $10 sale.

— Heather Burns (@WebDevLaw) February 17, 2016

Unfortunately, what seems direly shortsighted is that VAT MOSS doesn’t take into account the complexity of international online transactions today. A more updated and intelligently written VAT system is needed to nurture the growth of small and micro digital businesses so that business can be more decentralised and diverse – rather than unfairly taxing even the smallest digital businesses with wildly unrealistic administrative and financial burdens.

But back to the Ghost in Singapore. It is funny that the poorly devised VAT MOSS (which is effectively an injunction against transactions that are virtually mediated) has driven companies to make their operations even more virtual by virtually incorporating in another country.

I wondered where Ghost’s virtual address was, as its not uncommon to see a host of virtual companies sharing the same address in town – you even see the ‘prestigious’ addresses even being advertised at times. It got me thinking how many companies in Singapore use a virtual address – could we find an actual number for how many virtual/ghost companies there are within Singapore, or in Singapore’s CBD?

So I wanted to find a directory of public companies, which led me to ACRA. I also cross checked with – but it only has a table on taxable companies and which sectors they were in. Global OpenData Index (a great resource) also confirms that ACRA doesn’t make this information available. ACRA mainly allows you to “buy information” rather than to obtain it from them for free. Perhaps I can only access a directory of public companies (and their addresses) if I pay for the data? But looking at it so far, they only allow you to buy individual business profiles for $5.50 (£2.70) a pop, and if I remember it right from when I had to get a copy of my business profile, they just generate a flat page of information trapped inside ancient HTML tables – rather than providing you with data in a format that is actually usable.

My circumlocutory search for data ends here for the night, but I’ll continue another time…

Becoming Peranakan

Yesterday night I did a whirlwind tour of the Peranakan Museum during the Night Festival. Halfway through I became very confused at what I was looking at; I had to turn around and go around looking around for the definition of Peranakan. I even went from the top floor to the bottom floor to look through the flyers at the ground floor, but my confusion increased amidst the thick Night Festival crowds.

The most confusing part was the “Great Peranakans” exhibition upstairs. The list of Great Peranakans included Tan Kim Tian (the leader of the teochew community) Tan Kim Ching (president of the Hokkien Huay Kuan), Tan Beng Swee (founder of the Tan Clan temple), Tan Kim Seng (a leader in the Hokkien community), Tan Tock Seng (a leader in the Hokkien community as well), other famous chinese people like Gan Eng Seng, Tan Keong Siak, the opium king Cheang Hong Lim, Seah Liang Seah (leader in the teochew community).. the list goes on.

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From the exhibition guide to “Great Peranakans”
It is noted that Peranakans refers to “locally born” straits chinese who retain their chinese names and some cultural elements – but who have also embraced malay culture and hybridised it into their own at home. It is also noted that Peranakans were “differentiated” from the rest of the China-born chinese in Singapore because most peranakans tended to be from a higher socio-economic class, and were favoured by the british for their loyalty and fluency in English.

This baffling and preposterous list seems to suggest to me that one becomes a Peranakan by being an ethnic chinese who has many business connections and is very rich and influential and is adaptable to both malay and british culture. The long descriptions for the influential Singaporean Chinese who have been considered “peranakan” shows that whilst some married in or were the descendents of the initial group of 15th century Straits Chinese, many others simply became peranakan just by being really rich and powerful in their dialect communities, and most importantly also were validated by the British authorities as being community leaders.

Our general confusion in what constitutes the definition of “peranakan” seems to have been foreshadowed by the British confusion and difficulty in defining chinese hybrid identities, yet formally requiring some “name” or term to differentiate the original straits chinese (whom they could trust and give power to) from the newer chinese migrants (whom they thought of as being poor, transient, less loyal and more ideologically dangerous).

Before this, I must confess that I knew very little about who was Peranakan in Singapore. The day before I had been at NUS Library (still undoubtedly the best library in Singapore) and I had picked up a paper by mistake about the decline of the babas (babas refer to peranakan males, nyonyas refer to peranakan females). The title was very long and poetic so it attracted my attention and I skimmed through it quickly. I took a picture of one of the pages because the lines jumped out at me:

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…their culture culminated in their unwitting rejection of their culture as they waved the “banner of modernity” at their elders… The question of money too played an important part in phasing out of the old-style baba wedding….

If the identity of the peranakan is defined by its flexibility and adaptiveness in hybridizing the chinese and malay cultures, then why isn’t it more prominently mentioned everywhere that this same adaptiveness also involved money! Being rich allowed one to ostentatiously spend on cultural objects, and fund the creation and design of hybridised cultural objects. And another thing is that it clearly involved becoming modernised, or in some part perhaps even being an anglophile? What

What I am disturbed by is: why does the Peranakan Museum seem so fixated on displaying the aspect of it being an asian fusion of malay and chinese? What of their westernisation, and their willingness to embrace modernity? Isn’t this foresight and embracing of modernity something which predisposed these ‘peranakans’ to becoming shrewd businessmen and community leaders? Is the notion less marketable as a ‘cultural attraction’ if the peranakans are also seen as being ethnic chinese who basically modernised and absorbed BOTH malay and british culture?

I mean, I am a locally born ethnic Chinese; I only speak English with my parents; I cannot speak Hokchew dialect and feel no direct connection to my Chinese heritage; I can speak a smattering of functional malay words; I often eat and cook malay/indo/chinese fusion dishes at home; I’m self-confessed anglophile who spent four years studying English Literature and another four years (so far) living in London; perhaps if I tried I could pull off the outward pretense that I’m somehow becoming richer and more influential and more upper-class (hur hur hur).. so..


On next week’s reality tv episode:
Debbie has announced that she has decided she is becoming Peranakan and tries to get George (British Person) to validate her Peranakanism so she can design and throw a lavish peranakan wedding. But George has other ideas. And where will they get all that money? What will happen in the next episode of the Great Peranakan Dream? Stay tuned to find out…

In Praise of Insignificant Details

The other day I had a dream in which I wandered into a room and there was a white table with papers flying off into the sky. Behind it, there were shelves in which the books of all of Singapore’s literary pioneers were arranged, as if these books had been magically plucked out from the shelves of the library and lovingly collected into one room for our easy access…

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Oh wait! I’m kidding, it wasn’t just a dream, it was real, and you don’t even need to wait a moment longer to experience the exact same thing in person if you’re in Singapore, for this very exhibition has actually been up at the National Library for the last ten years at Level 11. (Wait, what? Ten years??)

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Some of the books on these shelves lay in a disarray, as if others had also picked them up and flipped through them recently before replacing them back onto these shelves. So I picked up a book…

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It was at that point that I realised it was not a book! It was just a solid block of foam with a scanned reproduction of the book cover printed on top of it! A bizarre Cronenburg-esque moment, all around me, what seemed like regular National Library books with the distinctively colour-coded stickers on their side turned out to be nothing more than hollow blocks of foam, devoid of words or detail on the inside!

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Curious as to the origins of this exhibition, I looked it up and found records which show that the “Singapore Literary Pioneers” exhibition originally opened in November 2005, along with the National Library’s move to Victoria Street. Perhaps at some point during the past, these shelves in this exhibition actually held the original books, yet by this point they had all been put back into the collections, leaving nothing more than the skeletal, hollow foam board simulacrums of themselves behind…

The National Library has now been at its Victoria Street site for ten years now! Prior to that, the National Library had been at Stamford Road behind The Substation since 1958. In 1953 the rubber and pineapple king Lee Kong Chian donated a large sum to set up a national library which would be open to the public; in 1957 he laid the foundation stone for that iconic red-bricked building. But in 2000 it was announced that the building was to be demolished for the construction of a road tunnel and the new SMU campus. So the site of the former red-bricked NLB building unfortunately became a vehicular tunnel; a cruel twist which seemed almost emblematic of the denigration of people’s fondly remembered cultural spaces in the process of urban redevelopment – the library’s architectural and historical merits apparently insufficient for it to be have been gazetted as a national monument.

There was also a practical reason for the NLB’s move; I was reading the 1989 report of the advisory council on Culture and the Arts, which noted that book holdings in the National Library building in Stamford Road had already “exceeded the space available” – which was to the detriment of Singapore’s cultural development. So moving to a new building on Bras Basah would in theory allow for much more space – space for more collections, more books and more exhibitions.

I’ve graduated from RCA and I’m back in Singapore now! I have lots of things to document from the last few months (which I will document here in due course), but right now I’m working on something in September, on behalf of The Substation. I’ve been spending a lot of time at The Substation and the National Library building of late, constantly pondering the dilemma of writing text for an exhibition that is about an art space – but the exhibition will be held in a site other than its own – it will be at a library!

Mind you, I’ve also basically spent two years at a design programme being reminded that the gallery is not a library, and that the number of words in a gallery and museum should be kept as few as possible, because people came to look at things, not to read! But even now, when I’m preparing an exhibition to be set in the library, where the words should be more plentiful, where we shouldn’t need to be shy about shoving books in people’s faces, the caveat about not overwhelming the reader/viewer with too many words still exists.

I wonder, if that is why there aren’t words inside the books in the Level 11 exhibition? Would the presence of so many words in the space make everyone less likely to engage with the content fully? Perhaps it was feared that putting the actual books on show would induce viewers to get stuck at the first book they came upon, rather than skimming through this condensed history of Singapore’s literary landscape.

Maybe this is a matter of exhibition design. Let’s talk about in numbers, since most Singaporeans seem to understand things better in terms of numbers. How many words can we realistically hope that the average person will read at an exhibition? The average reading speed of a native English language speaker is said to be between 250 to 300 words per minute. Let’s give it a bit of wiggle room and assume that the bilingual Singaporean (in a moment of idle distraction!) reads only 200 words per minute.

If an average visitor spends half an hour in our exhibition space, but only spends 50% of his or her time actually reading the text on the wall (the other 50% being spent on talking to people, looking at the pretty pictures, looking out of the window at the skyline, or watching the videos), then perhaps we can hope for 15 minutes x 200 words or about 3000 words to be consumed during an average visitor’s half-hour long trip to an exhibition – if we are so lucky!

This means that if I write more than 300 words for each of the 10 sections of the exhibition, then maybe most people won’t be able to read everything I’ve written in an average visit to the exhibition.

But how can I possibly tell you the 25 year history of The Substation within 3000 words – scarcely more than an essay’s length? Would it be better if I put more shiny pictures on blocks of hollow foam? But the photos are so few. And all I have are so many of these texts, quotes, paraphrased rumours, and snippets – surely this amounts to more and more words being packed into the show!

But maybe the most important thing is not just the big, beautiful, totalising statement that will sum up everything within my 300 word count. The things I want to tell you come in the form of almost insignificant details. Maybe there isn’t anything metaphorical about it.

I’d like to believe that what seems like textual fluff, the description of events and people and programmes and objects and their seeming insignificance in relation to the larger narrative, actually is key to our understanding of it. In his essay The Reality Effect, Barthes argues that these small insignificant details, when put together, signify the real, the l’effet de reel.

For me, there is something so important about all these insignificant, longwinded details. In La Nuit des prolétaires: Archives du rêve ouvrier (which was published in English as “Nights of Labor”, or “Proletarian Nights: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France”), Rancière presents a series of fragmentary, seemingly insignificant details and contradictory accounts of a small group of worker-intellectuals in the 1830s and 1840s. I like his seemingly anti-sociology, anti-historicising approach in digging through the archives to excavate these accounts. In the introduction, Rancière writes:

If the protests of the workplace are to have a voice, if worker emancipation is to possess a human face, if workers are to exist as subjects of a collective discourse which gives meaning to their multifarious assemblies and combats, those representatives must already have made themselves other in a double, hopeless rejection, refusing both to live like workers and to talk like the bourgeoisie.

This is the history of isolated utterances, and of an impossible act of self-identification at the very root of those great discourses in which the voice of the proletariat as a whole can be heard. It is a story of semblances and simulacra which lovers of the masses have tirelessly tried to cover up.

The night forms the grey area where poor workers unexpectedly double up as clandestine intellectuals; Rancière chooses to give significance to quotes from hybrid figures, painting a much more incongruous picture of the digressions, distractions and conflicting motivations behind each individual that is often taken to be part of a whole, giving significance to the words and stories which could have easily dismissed as meaningless since they were hard for us to process or to summarise into a ‘pure’ or neat theory.

In choosing to structure an exhibition around “spaces”, I feel that the goal of my role as ‘curator’ or ‘mediator’ of the archive would be to position these hundreds of extracts from the Substation’s archive in a space between a conventional confinement to their “place” in time and space – and a completely utopian or metaphorical abstraction of the spaces…