Saturday, February 27, 2010

Of Sommeliers, Singapore, and Slip-ons

So there I was, just browsing the Internet one day last October when I randomly stumbled on a job listing for a regional director position with a multinational wine investment company that was looking to expand its operations into Malaysia. Though I wasn't at all looking for a job, after reading the job description and qualification requirements, it sounded tailor-made for me, so I sent in my résumé. To make a long story short, something I almost never do here, after a lengthy process involving multiple interviews and written assessments, I was offered, on November 30, an even higher position within the company. The offer, coupled with the fact that the job wouldn't begin until January, is what prompted me to book my flight home for Christmas, which I had not initially planned to do because of the cost.

In any event, after a few discussions, the company decided to make my job title "executive director" and I indeed took up the post in mid-January, going to Singapore for two weeks for orientation and, as I found, really to just be thrown into the deep end. Fortunately, that's just the way I like it. Though I'm not at all a sommelier in the traditional sense, this job will let me put my wine knowledge and my passion for fine wine to good use. (I can add now, upon finally posting this write-up, I've been on the job for nearly four months and have been made head of Malaysia operations in addition to my executive director duties... quite a change from teaching English in a little learning center this time last year!)

So my journey south back in late January wasn't my first time to Singapore, but it was my first time to visit there as something besides a very short-term tourist (I think the longest I had stayed previously had been three days), so I thought I'd have the chance to explore and get to know the city more. As it turned out, I was so preoccupied with work (and after-work socializing with my new colleagues), that there wasn't much time to play tourist. However, one of my good friends from KL took the train down during my first weekend, and we met one of my other friends who had just recently moved from KL to Singapore so we had a really good time that weekend wandering around. The weather couldn't have been any better. It was sunny, clear, and hot. Singapore is a beautiful city and at only 1° north of the equator, it's understandably a near-explosion of green: lush, tropical foliage abounds everywhere and the city-state has done a remarkable job of preserving the trees and plants amidst all the shiny glass skyscrapers and the concrete jungle. This building here is the School of the Arts and it's truly a fantastic edifice from an architectural standpoint. The city has no shortage of impressive buildings.

Singapore gets a somewhat deserved bad rap for being a "nanny state" and implementing an almost social-engineering degree of control over its population, but in exchange for the citizens' abdication of some of their personal rights, Singapore enjoys a standard of living unprecedented in any country in the tropics. And it's awash in money, too -- indeed, Singapore's "purchasing power" wealth per capita is, depending on the source, in the top three or four in the world... several notches ahead of America's. It far and away sets the quality of life standard in the region and as close as it is to KL geographically, it could scarcely be more different. Everything is organized and efficient to the point of disbelief. Their MRT trains run on time, with great frequency, the train lines cover almost every point of the small island, and the stations are famous for their scrupulous cleanliness. Crime, particularly violent crime, is all but non-existent. The network of underground passages is mind-boggling: A shopper can, by way of vast underground store-lined walkways and MRT stations and lines, visit a weekend's worth of malls without ever being exposed to the sun.

Of course, like most things in life, this degree of wealth and efficiency comes with a trade-off. Singapore is one of the most expensive places in Asia to live, there's a certain sterility present everywhere, and the degree of government control is well-known, though it appears to be easing, if only slightly. In an effort to capture more tourist dollars, the city-state has permitted two casinos to be built. One, pictured here behind Singapore's iconic symbol, the "Merlion," is the Marina Bay Sands, owned by the Las Vegas-based Sands corporation. It's three 55-story towers, topped by a cantilevered "Sky Park" with gardens, a pool, and restaurants. Seeing it in person was amazing. The side of the towers that you can't see in the photos is even more impressive as they each bulge gracefully outward and to different extents (based on feng shui guidance) at their bases. It's a very impressive and ambitious project, all set to open (at least partially) at the end of April. The other casino is on the island of Sentosa, immediately south of Singapore's main island. It's owned by Malaysia's Genting Group and opened last month. Having casinos in Singapore at all is a huge deal, but to stem the tide of any social ills that may befall its population, the government is levying a steep entry fee for locals -- S$100 per visit. The idea is that it's supposed to discourage locals from the evils of gambling, yet still invite tourists to come and lose their money. So any local gambler will be "down" a hundred bucks by the time he first sits down at a table to play. Interesting concept, just one quite foreign to my American brain where charging one group of people for entry to a legal, legitimate business while admitting another group free of charge would never even be considered, let alone allowed.

We also found a wonderful dim sum restaurant... short on ambiance, but long on deliciousness. It's called Victor's Kitchen, it's at Sunshine Plaza, and two people can eat a pretty substantial amount of dim sum there for about S$20-25. I ate there twice and loved it both times. Their siew mai and fried prawn salad dumplings were fantastic and I definitely plan to return there on my next visit.

I stayed in a furnished condo near the Little India neighborhood of Singapore, right next to the Farrer Park MRT station and a new eco-mall called City Square. Getting to and from the office was easy and cheap on the trains. The condo, called City Square Residences, was brand new. It was small, clean, efficient... a microcosm of Singapore itself, really. The condo itself, a studio unit with a "bedroom" partitioned off by opaque sliding glass panels, was only about 600 square feet, yet had four air-conditioning units installed, so there was no chance of me ever getting hot, that's for sure. Everything was new, not just the condo -- I spent most of the first evening there unboxing things, unpackaging sheets and pillows, peeling shipping tape off of everything from the refrigerator to the flat-screen TV. Then I had to run over to the adjacent mall and buy some towels because I didn't have any. It was an interesting experience staying in an actual residence rather than a hotel or long-stay hotel/apartment.

Singapore is a relatively short distance from KL, particularly by Asian standards, where anything within a 4-to-5 hour flight is considered "nearby." It's about a one-hour flight, but with all of the headaches involved with traveling by air, and in light of KL's airport being an hour away from the city to begin with, I elected to take the bus, an executive double-decker coach with very nice seats, full meal service, personal TVs, and no airport security hassles or restrictions. The bus also picks up very near my condo in KL and I can park for any length of time for only RM1, so it really is a no-brainer. It's an easy, comfortable 4.5-hour trip down the peninsula and across the causeway into Singapore. One of the coach lines even has free Wi-Fi on its buses! Here's a nice shot of the sunset over the strait separating Singapore from Malaysia on the return journey.

And what's the slip-ons part about? Well, here in Asia, removing one's shoes at the door is almost universally common, so for me, taking my dress shoes off was always a pain, since I had to unlace them, loosen them, and pry them off. So last month, I bought my first-ever pair of dress shoes that can just be slipped on and off, a nice brown leather pair of traditional Oxford-style shoes, just sans laces! Such shoes are obviously incredibly common here -- I was recently waiting in line at the post office and there were 14 people waiting with me, 13 of whom had on slip-on shoes of some sort or another. Laced shoes are simply not common in a place where you have to take your shoes off and put them back on several times a day!

So I'm going to finally get this entry posted -- I wrote it weeks ago but have just neglected to arrange the photos and post the thing. I'll write another one soon about the past six weeks or so of my crazy life in Malaysia.


Anonymous said...

I would say the new job would be another remarkable turning point in your life... Keep it up, it must be challenging

Steve K. said...

Great post, as always! Sounds like your new job is keeping you busy, but in a good way. The executive bus from KL to Singapore is an interesting touch. Looking forward to more reports on life in that part of the world.

barbmerchant said...

Finally...I have been waiting and waiting for you to post about the new job! I am very excited for you in this new phase of your life! Way to go! Loved the photos and comments in your blog! As always a good job!

barbmerchant said...

Question: Why is your blog dated February 27th?

Chad M. said...

The date is fixed when I start writing the entry (the site saves my edits as works-in-progress), not when I actually publish it. So I actually began that entry at the end of February but didn't complete and publish it for another two months, thus making me completely pathetic!

barbmerchant said...

Oh...that makes sense. All my friends who have read your blog love it! And it explains your new job much better than I can! Moms tend to embellish their kid's accomplishments so it is better coming from you! Good work!