Yawning Bread. July 2007

Unintended consequences




Singapore prides itself as a place where everything is planned and made to work. Few things go off in unexpected ways. Frankly, such a utopia would be unlivable. I am pleased to report that things quite often do not come out as planned.

Sure, with awesome efficiency, roads and buildings are finished, laws are enacted and diseases fought. The primary objectives are met, but then secondary consequences roll in. Sometimes, these are the result of tunnel vision on the part of the supremely task-oriented planners, failing to foresee side-effects of their ideas; other times, it is the ingenuity of the average Joe who finds a way to circumvent the rules and regulations of the state, not that it's necessarily for the better.



They looked quite satisfied. The paving was dry, the grass was cut and there was very little litter that might collect water. Mosquitoes would not have anywhere to breed, the inspectors nodded to each other.

But wait, they're only seeing the visible surface. The eye sees a smooth plane from paving to grating to grassy knoll but in fact, under the grating is a drain. Yes, the gratings look clean and dry, but none of the inspectors lifted a section to examine if water was collecting in stagnant pools below. Perhaps there might be litter or sand in the drains that could have held back a little water, enough for mosquitoes to breed. Perhaps the cementwork in the drain has been damaged thus breaking up the gradient.

We're so easily fooled by the eye that I myself didn't think of this until the team had left.

But then, we have countless miles of gratings all over Singapore. Imagine the physical work involved, lifting a grating every few metres or so to check the drains for mosquitoes.

This of course begs the question: Why have we spent so much money putting gratings over our drains? Here and there they'd be necessary, for example when a path meets a drain and we need to enable the wheelchair-bound to go across smoothly. But why is there a need to have continuous grating (as in the photograph) when on the other side of the 30-cm wide drain, which even a child can step across, is grass which you're supposed to keep off?

Are we so obsessed about keeping our estates neat and tidy that the rulebook says all drains must be covered? At whatever cost?

One possibility I can think of is this they are meant to prevent litter from getting into the drains and choking them up. Singaporeans are inveterate litterbugs. But now we have a dilemma. By covering up the drains, we may have reduced the litter getting in, but we can't see whether they have in fact gone in and choked the drains, unless we do the backbreaking work of lifting miles of grating to check.

Heat sinks

One of the most thoughtless and inconsiderate things my town council has done is to pave over a field in front of the neighbourhood shops. See the picture below. It is now an enormous heat sink making life miserable for the apartments around.

It used to be a field where the neighbourhood boys could kick a ball about. There were trees lining the edge nearest the curved block, providing shade for the shops and balconies.

From time to time, the field was taken over by a getai -- a folk tradition combining Chinese street opera and Taoist idol worship. Even though a marquee would have been put up, the ground often turned muddy when it rained. So they paved it.

But this was a "solution" with many downsides that no one seemed to have thought of. Worse, after being paved, the location attracted more and more getai events, because the prepared ground was now unusually conducive to putting one up. To the residents however, getais are a nuisance. If the shrieking opera is not bad enough, the event is often accompanied by electronically-amplified auctions of donated goods, I suppose, to raise money for (guess who?) the organisers.

The noise goes on into the night. I can't imagine anyone living in the curved block being able to hear themselves speak without closing all their windows and half suffocating within their homes. Most residents don't care for the street opera and Taoist auctions, yet to cater to the organisers, the town council took away the playing field and created that horrible frying pan of a plaza.

One of these days, they ought to spend a bit of money and dig it all up again.

That day is not likely to come anytime soon. Our city planners are still in love with heat sinks, even in this age of global warming. The picture below is of the area in front of Cathay Building, which has recently re-opened after a major reconstruction.

Our bureaucrats decided that they would do their part to "beautify" the public space too, promptly cutting down all the mature trees that once stood here. In lieu of shade, as you can see, is this soulless expanse of pink stone baking in the sun. It offers no shelter to pedestrians neither from the heat nor the tropical downpour.

They might say it's meant for events to be staged. Why? The Cathay Building has a commodious atrium within, air-conditioned to boot. I'm sure the Cathay management would be happy to host events there.





Southeast Asia has been hit by an epidemic of dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease that is potentially fatal. Town councils and the Environment ministry have been mobilising teams of inspectors to look for breeding sites in an effort to control this potentially fatal disease.

Transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, this viral disease tends to be a scourge through the warmest months in the middle of the year, the months most conducive to mosquito breeding. With global warming, we now get more warm months, thus extending the risk period. This is particularly as our warm months are characterised by intermittent rain every third day or so. Pools of water collect, but aren't flushed away by fresh rain till a few days dater. In that time, the mosquito can lay eggs in the stagnant water, eggs which hatch quickly into larvae and grow into an adult to carry the disease further.

Dengue fever is a debilitating fever that really knocks you down for a week or so, usually accompanied by muscle and joint pains, vomiting and diarrhoea. A minority of patients develop internal bleeding which can lead to death.


Smoking ban

Starting this month, smoking will be banned in all bars and pubs. Last July (2006), coffeeshops -- a term that in Singapore means a cheap non-air-conditioned food court -- were brought within the ambit of the law.

Coffeeshops were allowed to mark out 20 percent of their outdoor dining area (not their total dining area) as a smoking zone. In practice, that usually meant fewer than 10 percent of their tables could be marked as "smoking" tables.

Health inspectors went around to enforce the rule for a while, when the public pointed out within a month of the ban, that people were still smoking while seated at other tables.

From a market perspective, 10 percent of tables is insufficient, especially as puffing is more common among the lower classes than among the elite. By my observation, perhaps 25 - 30 percent of male coffeeshop patrons have the habit. Moreover, smokers tend to stay longer at their tables, enjoying their beer with their tobacco. Beer is good business, and the coffeeshops would hardly want to lose those clients.

So what has happened one year on? As you can see from the picture above, more tables have been added, but outside the coffeeshop's area. You can see 5 tables (there were more, outside the picture's bottom edge) located in a small park, about 15 metres away from the frontage of the coffeeshop. Are these tables covered by the law? Can the coffeeshop proprietor be held responsible for them if the inspectors come by?

Here's another consideration: If the tables are in a public park, who is responsible for cleaning up the mess? The municipal cleaners? And who pays for the municipal cleaners? Also, what about residents who are deprived the amenity of the park, e.g. little girls who want to play hopscotch?


Have you noticed that the majority of the ambulance paramedics are Malay males, not just among the crew of the public Civil Defence ambulances, but also that of private ambulances?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this as criticism; it's just an observation. I've been riding in ambulances a few times with my mother and I appreciate the efficiency and courtesy that I have often encountered. In fact, I sometimes feel that it's a good thing that they are mostly Malay. Chinese social attitudes in Singapore are often unsuited to service industries; males especially, tend to be brusque.




Here's another coffeeshop with tables set up outside its defined area (which is the roofed-over part). There are 3 extra tables indicated by the white arrow, and another 3 along the public path in the foreground, obstructing people who need to walk along that path.


How did Malays come to dominate this industry? Perhaps as an unintended consequence of the discriminatory National Service policy. Chinese and Indian male citizens are mostly drafted into the army, navy or air force, but Malays are typically sent to the National Service Police or Civil Defence. In the latter, they learn to fight fires, rescue people and aid and transport the injured. These are useful skills which stand them in good stead, especially if their academic results aren't much to boast about, when they are demobilised and have to look for a job. If they had been infantrymen, their 2 years of National Service would prove less valuable commercially.

Sometimes, unintended consequences turn out all right.

Yawning Bread