Sunday, 23 June 2013

People on streets

After just under two weeks of haze craze, PSI numbers fall, visibility clears, and the air tastes refreshingly free of burnt rubber. Since no one knows if this recent development is mere respite or remission, I figured I’d grab the chance for a walk in the park.

PSI fell off a cliff, and hopefully never bounces back.
I don’t think much of PSI numbers. I’ll concede it can be a very useful measure of a very specific set of pollutants, but for an individual, there’s an easier way, called sticking your head out and taking a whiff. After all, I live in the East, and work in the South (as per NEA’s geographical definitions). As much as I miss the smell of burnt cocoa at Boon Lay MRT, (thanks Cadbury and ADM cocoa) my lungs can’t inhale that far.

Back in East Coast Park, feet slapping pavement, two items catch my attention.

One; there are a lot of people in East Coast on a Saturday night. Two; more than two aforementioned people are lying/sleeping/passed out on the floor.

By passed out on the floor, I don’t mean curled up with a makeshift pillow and a blanket under the numerous shelters along the park. I mean like this dude below, who looks like he sleep-rolled off the bench and onto the floor.
Sleeping like a baby.
Or like the young indian girl who was sprawled by the overhead bridge. I’m going to risk belaboring the obvious, but if you’re a slim female, with large breasts and a very short skirt, it might be a good idea to be very careful with what you consume. 

For reasons of modesty, I didn’t snap a picture. Her crotch was visible enough that would likely get my blog noticed for the wrong reasons. It was particularly troubling, because she didn’t reek of alcohol, and was fairly young and attractive. My first guess is date rape drug. But I’m no expert in these matters.

Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one who stopped to help. A few good Samaritans, including a rather hot milf in red shorts, a burly Indian man, a homely pinoy woman, and a trio of young NS men came along and started helping in ways that could only be described as random. While I’m trying to rouse indian girl, Burly tells pinoy to fetch some water. She returns, and Burly instructs me to stand back.

Stand back? Dude, how much water are you going to planning to – he pours a handful of water into his palm, and flings it against her face with somewhat more force than I was anticipating. No response.

Somewhere in the background, one of the NS trio goes, ‘fwahlaueh’.

Somewhat startled by Burly’s enthusiasm, I start shaking her with more urgency, lest he decides to douse the entire 1.5L bottle on her. Meanwhile, pinoy and milfy are tending to the delicate task of hiding too much crotch with too little skirt. They settle for placing her handbag strategically between her legs.

Meanwhile, burly has slapped at least three palms of water to the girl’s face, and I’m half-worried she’ll drown before she wakes up. Finally, she stirs, muttering and sputtering weakly. Of course, Burly then proceeds to grab her by the hair and tug her into a sitting position.

I’m convinced Burly is a time-travelling caveman; give him a stone axe and a shopping list that includes mastodon meat and sabre-toothed tiger pelts.

Somehow, we manage to raise indian girl to her feet with no hair loss, although the same can’t be said for her memory; she has no clue how she got here. Troubling to say the least, but at least she’s sober enough to protest against being sent to a police station to sleep off her condition. Round of discussion. 

Burly, clearly a man of action, starts speaking loudly in Tamil. I have no clue what he’s saying, but my sympathies lie with indian girl, who after recently revived, nearly drowned, and barely able to stand, now has to contend with a mustachioed caveman gibbering loudly to her face.

Eventually we decide to get her into a cab. Next issue, she says she has no money - nothing like budgetary constraints to stop a discussion in its tracks. Finally, milfy steps in, opens the handbag, and rummages through indian girl’s belongings.

‘I have no money,’ indian girl murmurs…then somewhat brightly, ‘but I have cigarettes!’

Thanks to milfy, turns out Indian girl does have money ('Oh, I do?' she says), and enough to get her home by taxi. But not before one of the NS trio suddenly swoops into interrogator mode, firing off questions, ‘What do you last remember? Who were you with? What were you doing?’ More than a few of us frowned, including Burly, although it’s hard to tell from his Neanderthal uni-brow whether he was perplexed or thinking of his next meal.

Finally, we get her into a cab, and the entire episode is punctuated by Burly slamming the taxi door.

I hope indian girl is home safe.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Alternatives to big Asia Pac funds

Following a raft of closures of top GEM funds, the next region to see a number of closures seems to be the Asia Pacific region, with at least one top Aberdeen executive providing guidance that the fund’s closure will come ‘sooner rather than later’, while another Aberdeen vet was quoted saying, ‘we wouldn’t be keen on having US$5b flood through the door’.

I like how Hugh Young probably evokes envy and annoyance by speaking plainly. Many an Asia Pacific and Asia Pacific ex-Japan equity fund love a US$5b flood like a desert in search of a fire hose. But investors, oh fickle souls they are, will tend to seek funds with the potential to turn their bucket of liquidity into a monetary oasis, from which springs forth the fruits of no labour. Or so they hope.

Besides, I could use a little practice with new software.

Pulling up a list of funds sold in Singapore, with a minimum 5-year track record and focused on the Asia Pacific/Asia Pacific ex-Japan region, I rank them based on their calmar ratio.
Not to be confused with the calamari ratio: the ratio of sauce to squid. 
Cal-what? Good question, prior to writing this article, your humble writer had no clue either.

The calmar ratio divides the average compounded return (of at least 36 months) by the maximum drawdown over the same period. I like it because it’s simpler than the Sharpe ratio, and the calmar ratio doesn’t muck about with nefariously misunderstood terms like volatility.

So from end-May 2013 to end-May 2008, the top 20 funds ranked by calmar are:

5/31/2008 to 5/31/2013
Calmar ratio

Schroder ISF Asian Total Return A Acc
Value Partners High-Dividend Stocks Fund A1
First State Asian Equity Plus I (Distributing)
First State Dividend Advantage SGD
Aberdeen Pacific Equity SGD
Lumiere Value
First State Asian Growth I Accumulation USD
Schroder Asian Growth SGD
First State Asian Growth SGD
Legg Mason WA Southeast Asia Special Sits Trust
Aberdeen Global - Asia Pacific Eqty A2 USD
Old Mutual Pacific Equity A USD
Henderson HF Asian Dividend Income A2 USD
Schroder ISF Asian Equity Yield A Acc
Schroder Asian Equity Yield A
Barclays GA - Pacific Rim (ex-Japan) M Inc
Fidelity Funds - Asia Pacific Dividend A-USD
Invesco Pacific Equity A
Schroder ISF Asian Opportunities A Acc

Now, bearing in mind this is nothing more than a ranked list based on a ranking criterion selected more for simplicity than convention, there are obvious limitations to what you can draw from the list.

But safe to say, there are options.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

For posterity #FreeMyInternet@Hong Lim Park

Yes, I did this. None of the photos belong to me.
I’m planning to be at Hong Lim Park from 4pm today. It’s a three hour investment, which I’d much rather spend in many other ways, so I guess I better pen down for posterity, ‘what was I thinking?’

#FreeMyInternet (#FMI) protesters in Singapore tend to get lumped into all sorts of different categories.

The government, or at least the ones that are publically quoted, seem to think #FMIers are either
a) overreacting and upsetting the status quo (i.e. the shit stirrer image), or
b) just need an outlet to vent (i.e. the cry fathermother image)

The participating online community, and there’s no shortage of comments posted online, are either
a) bastions of the freedom of expression (i.e. unrealistic idealist image)
b) protesting the absence of engagement (i.e. I’m angry because you didn’t invite me to the meeting!)

The mainstream media thinks the whole protest doesn’t exist. I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. SPH and Mediacorp’s absence is can only be explained by a) coercion (bor ji), b) cowardice (hum ji), or c) incompetence (pua ji).

To be fair, the government clearly has mainstream media’s balls in an ice-kachang machine. Cheong Yip Seng’s memoir explains it way better than my balls-in-a-dessert-machine analogy.

So why will I be there?

I’m not sufficiently annoyed to be angry, not sufficiently idealistic enough to think the protest will actually achieve much, nor sufficiently symbol-minded to think I’m making some statement about the state of freedom in death-penalty Disneyland.

Still, I think it’s important as Singapore’s online community negotiates its relationship with the world offline. If you take a global view, it’s a continuation of a trend that includes Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring, Gezi Parki, and more relevantly, SOPA and PIPA.

Incidentally, Singapore signed the pending ACTA treaty, so it’s not like there was no foreshadowing of the approach of the MDA. The difference is ACTA was done on a global scale, with no consultation with international civic groups, yet there was little global outcry. So it’s an established trend: governments are finding ways to legitimize their claim to the internet staking out their domain, so to speak, and the law is a key tool to mark boundaries.

The key question for me is how the interaction between these two communities will play out. So I’m curious at best, which is a nice way of saying I’m bloody kaypoh.

Plus, I like my Youtube unfiltered please. 

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Cambodia, Siem Reap: Temple Run

No, that's a different sort of temple run.

This sort of temple run:
That's a lot of temples.
Siem Reap is known for many delights and from a USD perspective they’re all cheap; massages, food (I’m not a fan, more on this later) and if you fancy taking a 34% chance of catching HIV, sex.

For me and my travel buddy, Cambodia was one long temple run. They all look magnificent, they all inspire awe, and four temples later, they all. look. the. same. Law of diminishing returns applies here – every additional temple/child/dessert/indulgence is increasingly less satisfying than the last.

Still, memorable moments aplenty.

Angkor Wat is immense, gargantuan, and every superlatively sized noun you can think of.  According to this site,
The outside perimeter of Angkor Wat measures 5,500m. Dimensions are gigantic forming a rectangle of about 1500m by 1300m with 200m wide moats.
For purpose of scale, the tallest buildings in Singapore are restricted to 280m tall. In other words, the dimensions of Angkor Wat are somewhat larger than a field of five by four UOB Plaza Ones, all at the golden era of 1125. 

We walked down the stone path leading to the outer gardens of Angkor Wat. Groups of monks loiter around. In truth, they weren’t steeped in prayer, and looked slightly out of place, like JC students doing community service. It didn’t stop at least one tourist from taking a really awkward looking photo with the monks.
What exactly did the tourist on the top left think he was doing?
Ta Prohm is ancient Khmer for ‘Tomb Raider Temple’. And if you believe that, then here’s the link to nominate me for (online) sainthood (Call me Saint Nick, ho ho ho). Ta Prohm is entirely overrun by nature. Tree roots forced their way into the crevices of the walls, grew into the mortar, and fused tree with temple. Because tree roots make lousy mortar, some areas are structurally unsafe as a result and are held up by metal support beams and wooden planks. We only found this out after wandering into the aforementioned structurally unsafe areas, taking pictures of metal support beams, directly underneath several hundred kilograms of stone and tree. Who knew.

I swear, we had no idea how we stumbled into the restricted area.
 Rounding off the temple run (for me at any case) were Bayon and Bantey Srey. Bayon is famous for its 196 faces of Buddha, which archeologists seem to agree is Jayavarman VII, a Mahayan Buddhist. As for why he felt the urge to have 196 images of himself in a temple, one can only guess. Bantey Srey is easily the most modest of the four and the prettiest. Carved out of red sandstone, it’s a welcome change from the grey stone walls that make up other temples. Trivia: Bantey Srey means ‘Citidal of Women/Beauty’. Guess modest women were prettier back then.

Smaller = less walking = much appreciated.
And then I got struck by food poisoning. I don’t know what caused it, although the fried noodles are Al's guess. There are few things more paralyzing than feeling a gurgle in your stomach move rapidly south towards your sphincter, and you stumble weakly to the bathroom. I’m just glad they didn’t have images of Jayavarman staring at me in the toilet.
That's me under the blanket. I might not have been wearing pants.
Thus endeth the holiday.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Cambodia, Phnom Penh: Toul Sleng and Ecstatic Pizza

After the killing fields, we were feeling pretty somber. By the end of Toul Sleng, we’d be downright depressed.

While Choeung Ek is around 12km from the Phnom Penh, Toul Sleng sits Phnom Penh city, nearby the Olympic Stadium. 

View Blog post Cambodia in a larger map

Arriving at the the Toul Sleng genocide museum, Al murmured, ‘it looks like a school,’ as we walked past 4-story cell blocks surrounding a central courtyard. The blocks are weathered, badly peeled, and riddled with holes, while the courtyard looked pretty well maintained. ‘What a waste’, said Al.

Doesn't look like the same compound, but it is.
The overall atmosphere is as tired and hopeless as the worn paint jobs peeling off the walls. And if that wasn’t enough, there are signs that say ‘no laughing’. I kid you not, some tourists (invariably American for some reason) managed to giggle, which probably says more about their nervousness than their sense of humor.

Don't need to read Cambodian to know what that means
An estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned in Toul Sleng, including men, women and children; old and young; local and foreign; an equal opportunity hell. Unlike the killing fields however, each prisoner was carefully documented, and rows upon rows of photographs are displayed in the exhibits.

What was the guy in the bottom left smiling about?
Among the hundreds of mugshots, one stood out. It’s a picture of a man, looks about 20 or 30, with one eye. There is no story about him I can find. He stares weakly out of his one eye into the camera, and unlike so many other shots, I don’t see fear, just grim resolve.

'Do your worst, punk,' he seemed to say.
I don’t think it’s necessary to inflict the photos of dead bodies on my gentle readers, suffice to say, they’re rather gory, and you can easily find them online if you’re into that (you sick puppy you). But the gore-free holding cells are equally creepy. The wooden cells on the second floor especially.

Less light filters into the wooden cells, and the cells themselves are tightly packed to maximize holding space. In the 38 degree heat of the Cambodian afternoon, wood creaks, and standing alone in the middle of a dark claustrophobic space with knocking sounds from empty cells is unpleasant at best.

An elderly couple shuffled in and out of the cells silently.
And if an old Cambodian couple sneaks up on you, try not to scream like a little girl.

After leaving, we desperately needed a shot of happiness. And according to Trip Advisor, one of the best places to get highly happy is ecstatic pizza. (Artistic license: we actually went to a swanky restaurant called Latin Quarter, and didn’t hit Ecstatic Pizza until Siem Reap. But it makes much better story sense.)

The pizzas tasted good enough, the crust was good, the toppings generous, and the chef went a little overboard with the herbs. No pink elephants or rainbows, but certainly a few moments that made us go ‘hmm’. All washed down with a couple of banana/mango shakes. Life is a holiday again.

Things that remind you life is still a holiday.
On the way back to our hotel, a freelance prostitute grabbed our crotches a little too enthusiastically for comfort. ‘I want to make you cum’, she said, in a low hoarse voice. I still shudder thinking about it.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Cambodia, Phnom Penh: Cheoung Ek Killing Fields

Cambodia, Phnom Penh in the middle of May; 38 degree weather slaps layers of sweat onto my face, before it trickles down my rapidly darkening shirt.

Having spent the last two weeks running from one corporate event to another, I figured it’d be a good idea to get away from skyscrapers and concrete, and spend some time on the other side of the world. After some thought, Alex and I decided the other side of the world would be Cambodia, home to human atrocities, monumental temples, and happy pizza.

Our first stop: a merry jaunt down the killing fields, followed by a hop and a skip to the Toul Sleng holding prison. Until recently, I only had a very vague notion of what Cambodian went through under the Khmer Rouge, I mean sure, people talk about it, but it’s not the sort of thing one actively goes out looking for, unless you’re writing a paper on human genocide. So while we were merrily scammed by our tuk tuk driver on the way to the killing fields, we did a little research into the regime.

The Khmer Rouge was the Communist Party of Kampuchea, a political party which ran Cambodia (then named Kampuchea) from 1975 to 1979. I’m not particularly interested in their ideology, other than it being xenophobic and insular.

In 1975, the population of Cambodia was approximately 7mi. In 1980, the population was 6.5mi. Various studies estimate the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of between 1.4mi to 2.2mi Cambodians.

By and large the leaders of the genocide have walked free. Most went on to live long and healthy lives, and have only recently apologized inMay 2013. They still maintain they were doing the right thing.

Little from the original killing fields is left standing; most of the buildings were razed for scrap material and the major building is a 12-story high mausoleum and a single story museum, which houses images of the camp. 

Visitors get a Walkman with a programmed audio tour, chock full of survivor testimonies, and disturbing stories.

Creative deaths were a recurring theme in the tour. When bullets were scarce, people were executed by their captors with farming implements, DDT, and in a few cases, sugar palm. The stems of the sugar palm are lined with serrated bark edges, sharp enough to cut through human skin. So captors, presumably dissatisfied with conventional means of death and with a lot of time on their hands, dragged the throats of prisoners across the serrated stems of the sugar palm. The edges themselves are sharp, but short, so I imagine it would take quite a few tries before the gash was large enough to be fatal. Like I said, they had time.

Another is the baby tree. Babies and toddlers, being conveniently sized, were brained against a particular tree in the compound. There’s nothing really imaginative about this, just brutishly cruel.

Baby tree, sugar palm, shudder.
The only other item that stood out to me was the Buddhist stupa, which houses more than 5000 skulls in the lower 7 levels, while the upper 5 levels house the ribs and other assorted bones. It stands out in an open field, stark, imposing, and severe, almost like a morgue.

Buddhist stupa, 12 floors of bones

Next merry monument - Toul Sleng Genocide Museum