Monday, October 30, 2006

One More Week To The Term Break

My head hurts. We endured through an extended four hour long lecture on economics from 4 to 8pm. Enuff said. And my knee hurts too, following the long run I had yesterday. I'm making final amendments to my presentation tomorrow, and it's not easy. I'm tired, and Tuesday promises to be a long day. To make things worse, I miss my cat. I hope she's doing well back home.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

After The Play, Comes The Work

With the end of Daylight Saving summer time, the clocks were adjusted back to GMT overnight, and we're now again eight hours behind Singapore. The sun was glorious today, but it set pretty early, with darkness sweeping over the city just after 5.00pm.
Yet it's been a very fulfilling though hectic day, with good food, great company, a trip to Chinatown, plus another long run up to Regent's Park and Primrose Hill - this time with a new jogging partner. Another work week begins very soon, but instead of turning towards the bed - arrrrrgh! - I need now to sit here at the desk, making sure that I'm well prepared for my presentation on Tuesday. Well, I did have my fair share of fun today. The room's stocked with adequate cups of coffee and cans of midnight oil. I'm ready for a long night ahead.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

In Praise of the Local Lingo

Since I’ve been in London, I’ve continued to tune in frequently to the mrbrown show. We all know who mr brown is – he was given a slap on the wrists by the government for a podcast he made earlier this year during the Singapore elections, and for a column he contributed later to the Today newspaper.

But let’s be honest as well. Many of his podcasts are hilariously funny, tinged with sartorial wit, and before coming here, I had some nice moments back in the office listening to them along with my colleagues. The quality of his output can vary, with some definitely more pedestrian, but among my favourites are this, this and this.

It’s been fun downloading his podcasts here in London. They remind me, just for a while, of home, and of how people speak at home. And by that, I mean Singlish, of course, which is used liberally throughout the mrbrown show segments. Often, I think the humour, even if it may be slapstick in nature, is achieved mainly through the use of Singlish. And that’s why so many of us enjoy them, because it presents settings and situations to us that we can readily identify with.

I was reminded last night of the bonding effects Singlish has, when I gathered in the Singapore Doctor’s room with two others – one from Singapore and the other from Malaysia – for an extended evening of gentlemanly conversation. Or, to put it more precisely, we had a long talk cock session.

We chatted about various issues – about the pressures we’re facing in school, about the plans we had for the year-end break, about what brought us to London for studies. There was wine and whisky and cheese and crackers. But we chatted exclusively in Singlish – well, Malaysians are equally adept at speaking Singlish – which made the evening all the more comfortable.

For me, at least, it was this use of Singlish that allowed us to relate to each other immediately, enabling us to hit the right nuance, to grasp at the exact connotation, without having to resort to any linguistic exertion. I felt entirely at ease in my identity as someone from Singapore, and happy to be with others from home, who were able to understand me equally easily. And so, there were very few barriers between us. If we had spoken in standard English, it just wouldn't have been natural. Instead, it would have been downright weird.

I know what the official government arguments against Singlish are – that we must make ourselves intelligible to the rest of the world, that many of us are not able to distinguish Singlish from proper English, that English represents the key to success, and so forth. These are valid points.

And indeed, I do realize that the four of us gathered there last evening are fortunate in being able to code switch effortlessly when dealing with non-Singlish speakers, where we revert to standard English. This blog post, too, is composed in standard English, not Singlish. Generally, being in London, we have no problems with communication at all. And we know not everyone might be similarly equipped.

But far beyond its obvious functional and utilitarian purposes, whether here or back home, Singlish serves as a strong marker of identity which distinguishes us from other people in other countries. It confers a sense of who we are and where we’ve come from. It’s not so much that we should celebrate Singlish, or even venerate it. Rather, we should recognize that Singlish represents one of the few organic attributes that makes us Singaporean. It is a living verbal language that symbolizes the people we are.

This isn’t an entirely fresh or new insight. And my aim here isn’t to launch into some sustained defence of Singlish. State sanction against Singlish will persist, and perhaps rightly so. Yet, I think that so long as there are Singaporeans around, I have no concern that Singlish will not continue to flourish. Meanwhile, I'll continue to speak Singlish whenever I'm with other Singaporeans. It's an eminently natural thing to do.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

I Can't Wait For Sunday

Gosh, what a boring day this has been. Stayed indoors, and at my desk, working on a seminar presentation next week for my Theories and Actors of the Policy Process class. I’m examining the role of the judiciary and courts in public policy. Under what conditions can the courts induce significant policy changes? What are the motivations behind judicial decisions? Very thrilling. This blog is certainly going to go downhill, if I have many more of such days to write about…

Took some time out in the middle of the day, however, to head out for a run with two Singapore ladies from across the road. Goodenough College actually comprises a few units, including two permanent halls of residence. I’m in London House, while there’s also the William Goodenough House – where the two of them are – located a short walk away, with a nice garden separating both Houses.

Perhaps it’s just typical of Singaporeans that we were chatting about food even as we were running. We ended with one of them issuing a invite to me for a home-made laksa dinner on Sunday that a few of them were planning. I said yes in an instant. Laksa’s one of my favourite dishes from home. I can’t wait.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

What Is To Be Done?

Term time here at UCL is relatively short. You can get a quick overview by clicking here. By 15 December, Term One would be at an end. I came here fully expecting to be taking exams at the end of the year. But I forgot that universities in this country operate not on a modular system, but on an old-style academic calendar which sees exams only at the end of the academic year, typically in May/June each year. That's the system Singapore used to have, before the universities there became increasingly Americanized.
So, in a sense, there's less pressure this term, with the pain and pressure deferred to next Spring. I would have much preferred to finish a set of exams this year, rather than wait for months, but it's not something that can be helped.
Meanwhile, many in class have already made plans for the three week Christmas/New Year term break. Most from Europe and North America are travelling home. I don't know what I'll do. I don't plan to fly all the way back to Asia, given that I've only been away for a few mere months. And I certainly don't plan to spend all the time in a bleak, drab and dreary wintry London. What's clear, though, is that I do need to cook up some plans very soon...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Unmistakably Miró

These were among the many paintings by noted Catalan artist Joan Miró which I managed to view in Barcelona over the weekend. They're really appealing, aren't they? I've always liked Miró's works, and the trip to gave me the perfect opportunity to tour the Fundació Joan Miró, a gallery and institution dedicated to his works, located in a nice hilly area overlooking the city centre.
Miró was born in Barcelona in 1893, and he took to art at a very young age. But his early compositions were conventionally realist in nature, such as this piece:

It was only in his later years that Miró formed an increasingly personalized style, moving more and more into surrealism and abstraction, as typified by the three examples at the top of this post. To me, this developmental process was similar to what his near contemporary from the Netherlands Piet Mondrian went through. But whereas Mondrian located art in the form of straight black lines at right angles, Miró's style was much more expressive and free flowing, although both displayed a penchant for using bright primary colours.

In Miró's art, you typically see a bland single-tone background, with no depth and no sense of perspective. There are certain recurrent elements, such as representations of birds, insects, faces and even individual letters, all rendered with a whimsical, almost childlike playfulness. But they all stemmed from the hands of a true master - someone able to translate visually a dreamlike world we can only imagine. And with rare exceptions, the sense you get from is works is that of charm, innocence and fun.

In his later years, Miró experimented with other media, such as sculpture and textile-making, examples of which were also displayed at the museum. I certainly enjoyed myself thoroughly, so let me end with two more examples of his works - or what I'd call "Paintings I'd like to hang in my bathroom if I were rich enough":

Sunday, October 22, 2006


Hola! I've just returned from a nice weekend trip to sunny Barcelona. And what a lovely couple of days it has been. I was there to attend the wedding of DB, a good friend whom I've known for many years, and I took some time out as well to check out what the city had to offer. This meant, naturally, that little studying was accomplished, but the weekend was certainly worth it.

I left London early on Friday for an easyJet flight departing from Stansted airport. This is one of those budget airlines that now dominates short-haul flights to Europe. It's pretty okay, the long lines at the check-in counters notwithstanding. But the passenger screening process at Stansted was extremely tedious, with all the new security arrangements in place. I was glad when the plane finally touched down in Barcelona. Fortunately for me, this wasn't my first visit to the city, and it was quite easy getting around. Barcelona's a really modern, well-developed and tourist-friendly destination, and one hardly feels any sense of culture shock getting around.
But first, who's DB?
Well, I met him when I went to Saarland in Germany in the 1990s for a brief exchange stint with the local university to study the German language. We were also paired up with local host families. By the luck of the draw, I stayed with DB and his folks in the tiny hamlet of Kirkel. The home stay was meant to allow us to learn the language in a natural setting.
Of course that was the theory. Unfortunately for me, however, although DB's family had been in Germany for many years, they had actually emigrated from Czechoslovakia, and the language they spoke at home was, in fact, Czech. DB himself was born east of the Iron Curtain. So there I was, a student of German, heading for an immersion course in Germany, being hosted by a family whose members spoke Czech with each other. Looking back, I've always found that rather hilarious.
DB later moved to London to pursue his tertiary studies, and has remained in the UK since, acquiring for himself a PhD in Derivatives, which is mightily impressive. Why did he leave? I guess he found life in Saarland - one of Germany's smallest states - just too provincial and parochial for him. We've kept in touch pretty regularly. He's been to Singapore once, and I've also made it a point to call on him whenever I'm in London. However, given that it's been three years since I was previously in the UK, it's thus also been three years since we met. It's been a long time. When we last got together, I recall he took me for some good Bengali food in Brick Lane, followed by beer at a pub in the Whitechapel area.
And I understand it was during his time in London that he met his other half at the London School of Economics, where she was pursuing studies in history. She's originally from Spain, however. Hence the Barcelona wedding. And when it transpired that it was to be held in October, when I'd be in Europe, I happily agreed to attend.
We began with a pre-wedding cocktail reception, which was held on Friday evening at the Parc Güell, located just to the north of Barcelona's downtown core. How do I even begin to describe this place? For those from Singapore, think of it as a sort of a Spanish-styled Haw Par Villa, but eminently more classy - a private retreat created by noted Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi for a rich local dignitary.
It's a delightful and whimsical place, with attractions at every corner, and a wonderful upper level promenade which offers visitors a good view of the city and harbour beyond. But my favourite is what greets visitors as they enter the park grounds - this large, multi-coloured dragon, covered in mosaic, which has come to serve as some sort of icon for Barcelona.

I met the Missus for the first time at the reception. A very lovely and charming lady. And although I'm still getting used to it, I can say that I'm now getting pretty good at exchanging continental greetings. Heh. That's something for which you really don't get much practice in Asia.

The actual wedding ceremony was held the following morning at the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar, an amazing Catalan Gothic structure located in the middle of Barcelona's Old Town. The interior was rather sparse and austere, except for panels of resplendent stained glass works, but that added to the rather hallowed atmosphere.

The wedding mass was pretty novel. Because the bride was Spanish, the groom German, and with quite a few of the guests from the UK, the ceremony was conducted - amazingly - in three languages. I believe the priest spoke mostly in Catalan. At least, I think it was Catalan, and not Castilian Spanish; I can't tell between the two. At times, the priest branched out into the other languages. The groom's sister delivered a reading from the Bible in German. Other readings were done in Catalan. Most interestingly of all, when it came to the actual wedding vows, the groom said his in German, while the bride did hers in Catalan.

It was very inclusive, and I'm sure all went well, and this was the sight we all beheld as they walked out of the church at the conclusion to the event.

Thus ended my first experience of a European wedding - posh, elegant and genteel. I was certainly glad to have made the trip to Barcelona, not just to celebrate with DB and his new Missus - we've promised to meet up for a beer back in London later this year - but also to take some time out exploring the city. So watch this space. I've only quickly described the wedding related proceedings. I'll write again with more on my impressions of Barcelona.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

This Is Not A Food Blog

But let me make a quick mention of the Busaba Eathai restaurant, which serves contemporary Thai cuisine in a pretty modernist and stylish setting. There are three outlets in London, and I dined this evening at the Store Street branch, located at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and within walking distance of Goodenough College.
I had been thinking for some weeks about having some good pad thai and curry, and was happy to join the Singapore Doctor and the Canadian Couple for the outing tonight. These were also the same three persons whom I accompanied to the Thames cruise some days earlier. Always nice to hang out with them. And this will be the first of many visits we'll surely make, individually or together, to other Thai restaurants in London.
The place was absolutely packed, and the four of us shared a large table with about six to eight others. I'm told this is the Wagamama-inspired concept. Definitely, it was a noisy place, and certainly not somewhere one should head to for a romantic date. The food was alright - not fantastic - but definitely rather yummy, given the price, and the service was pretty decent too.
The problem, though, with places that try to be too trendy is that sometimes, things can go wrong. Take the strange inscriptions on the doors to the Ladies and Gents. One wouldn't know which was which. I managed to find my way into the right one, and proceeded to conduct my business, whereupon I heard an uncomfortably loud female voice outside, asking "Which one is the ladies?" The door then swung opened, a blonde girl stepped in, and I think I shall end this post on that note.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

At Midweek

Dinner tonight at the Gourmet Pizza Company, located on the south bank of the Thames, at Gabriel's Wharf, near the landmark OXO Tower. It sure is good to get out of the Bloomsbury/Russell Square area, where both my hall and my school are located. I've already become familiar very soon with the local surroundings, with the walk I make each day to classes, with the routine of lessons and studies. I really don't wish to be trapped there too often, for London offers so much more for me to discover.
The weather these past weeks has been much warmer than average. The only time I'm not complaining is when I go for a run. Other than that, I'd say that I'd much rather wish we could have a real autumn soon. One hardly gets any fall colors here. And it seems summer's refusing to go away. I walked home from the restaurant, and returned flushed in sweat. For London isn't a place to be enjoyed when the weather's warm. Many places don't have interior air conditioning, including the entire Tube system, and frequently, conditions on the inside are quite bad. What I dislike about winter isn't so much the cold, but rather, the shortened daylight hours.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

I Think I'm Gonna Be In Deep Shit

Why? Because it's finally happened. This week, I had my first class for the Public Policy Economics and Analysis module. It started a couple of weeks later than the rest, because the lecturer had been out of town. I was dreading this module. I don't exactly have a background in economics, and I do have to discount what I learnt for the 'A' Levels, as that happened way too many moons ago.
So there he was, at the first lecture, happily telling us that he was going to cram a year's worth of microeconomics into one session. Terms and concepts like isoquants, marginal rate of substitution, indifference curves, production possibility frontier, budget lines and externalities were brandished around liberally. Help! Someone please tell me what they all mean.
Because at moments like these, I begin to wonder why I'm here in London...

Sunday, October 15, 2006

My Running Soundtrack

Another dreary Sunday. Stayed in the entire day, fighting a losing paper war. I called a ceasefire in the afternoon and headed out for another run up to Regent's Park. I'm now getting pretty familiar with the route to take. On my first expedition there just a couple of days after arriving in London, I actually stuffed a map into my back pocket, fearing that I might get lost. Now, I feel like a virtual local.
Accompanying me on my runs has been the trusted iPod, on which are loaded several pieces of music that serve as a literal running soundtrack. I've got a much wider collection, but the usual few tracks I listen to are performances by Coldplay, U2 and Dave Matthews:
  • Coldplay - Politik
  • Coldplay - The Scientist
  • Coldplay - Clocks
  • U2 - Pride
  • U2 - Where the Streets Have No Name
  • U2 - One
  • U2 - All That You Can't Leave Behind
  • Dave Matthews: Grey Street
  • Dave Matthews: Crash
  • Dave Matthews: Bartender
Is it the particular tempo of the pieces? The sublime music? The simple fact that all three are fantastic bands? I don't know. What I do know, is that without the music in my ears, I probably can't execute a proper run anymore. It's really that important.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Winchester and Beer

Well, I had a very nice excursion today to Winchester on a trip organized by the hall. The city's about two hours southwest of London, and once served as the capital for the ancient kingdom of Wessex and also as the headquarters of the early Anglo-Saxon kings, until the Norman Conquest of 1066.
Indeed, the entire town is replete with history. Winchester Cathedral was the main draw. Built on top of an earlier church, the cathedral is said to have the longest nave of any in Europe. The present building was begun in 1097, and you can still see the original Romanesque structures in the two transepts. But unlike, say, Canterbury or Salisbury cathedrals, it lacked a notable tower or spire, and as such, does not dominate the town's skyline or landscape.
We were treated to a nice hour-long tour of the cathedral by a very patient and elegant senior guide, who introduced us to the various gems of the complex, such as the various chantry chapels, the old baptismal font, and the history behind some of the more notable stained glass pieces. Interestingly, the cathedral also contains the tomb of noted English author Jane Austen.

I hung around with a group of four through much of the day, comprising the couple from Canada with whom I had attended the Thames cruise earlier, plus two other ladies - one from Singapore and the other from Hong Kong. We also checked out other attractions such as the Hospital of St Cross, an old "almshouse", which we reached after traversing through lovely water meadows, and also the remnants of the old Winchester Castle, including the Great Hall, where a large 18 foot illustrated table could be seen hanging on the wall. Ahh, that's said to be the Round Table dating from the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Heh. I certainly don't buy that.
In all, it was a lovely day out, despite the fog in the morning, and the overcast skies that prevailed through much of the day. Saturday marked my one month mark in the UK, and Winchester represented my first time travelling out of London. It's important not to be trapped in the city, for the UK offers just so much more than London, amazing though the city is.
In one sense, however, it was a comfort coming to Winchester. It resembles so many other middle-sized market towns in English that I'm familiar with - with a nice, pedestrianized High Street, an ancient cathedral nearby, other scattered historical attractions around, plus nice bakeries and tea houses. Before leaving Winchester, we had a good cup of tea, and I also met up with my old friend, the Cornish Pasty. One day, I will compose an Ode to the Cornish Pasty, surely. For those unfamiliar with it, think in terms of a giant curry puff, stuffed with minced meat, potatoes and onions. An earthly offering, but hey, to me, it's positively heavenly.
We left Winchester in the evening, and arrived back in London and back at the hall at just after 7pm in the evening. I headed upstairs, dumped my things, and went out again for drinks at the flat of this lady from the Massachusetts who's in my class. She's one of those who has garnered some professional experience before coming to UCL. And having worked as a legislative analyst before, she's rather familiar with Washington DC, and thus, I've been having nice occasions over the past weeks chatting with her about our common love for the city. I don't think I would ever get another chance to work there, assuming I remain on my current career trajectory. So, unfortunately, the memories of DC will, for me, become ever more distant.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Three Cantatas and an Opera

There was quite a bit of music last night and tonight. Yesterday evening, I attended a performance by the Feinstein Ensemble at the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields at Trafalgar Square. They presented three of J.S. Bach's gorgeous cantatas - Numbers 94, 107 and 78 - and rounded off the evening with his Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. I adore Bach's cantatas, and it was certainly rather atmospheric to hear them being presented by candlelight in the settings of a nice baroque church.
But I can't be too charitable. The performance wasn't exactly staggeringly first class. I don't usually mind period instruments, but I felt the delivery yesternight was rather dry and crusty. The sound wasn't brilliant. One certainly didn't get the sense of being enveloped in the music. I spent much of the evening staring at their lovely lady cellist instead.
The Ensemble did redeem itself - or at least the two singers did - in its rendition of "Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten" from Cantata No. 78, "Jesu, der du meine Seele." This is a lovely, lyrical duet for soprano and countertenor, and listening to it, one couldn't help but be moved by how uplifting both the music and message were.
I have to make special mention also of the Brandenburg No. 5 which ended the evening. Some out there may know that this work features the harpsichord in all its glory. And I do have a thing for harpsichord music. The No. 5 has been described as the forerunner of the full-fledged piano concerto that emerged in the 19th century. Unlike the other keyboard concertos of it day, the No. 5 includes a long cadenza in the first movement which someone once called the most exciting five minutes of harpsichord music ever written. I think he's right on mark there.
Then this evening, I went for a performance of Verdi's La Traviata by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum. Performing exclusively in English, the ENO is the modern incarnation of the former Sadlers Well's Opera Company and perhaps a poorer cousin to the most august Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. But it was a very good performance nonetheless, and my enjoyment was probably aided by the fact that as a student, I managed to get a good dress circle seat for less than a quarter of the full price. It's amazing what benefits my new identity brings me.
I would readily admit that this was the first time that I had attended a full-scale opera performance. My love for classical music had been centred mainly on instrumental works, with Bach's set of cantatas as a notable exception. I hadn't paid much attention to vocal music. So it was quite an eye-opener, and a fun evening at that, learning about the tragic tale of Violetta and Alfredo. La Traviata is definitely one of the more popular and accessible works on the standard operatic repertoire. I certainly don't mean to be flippant, but what they say of the art form is also true. The heroes and heroines take a long time to die. Instead of keeling over, as they're supposed to, they strut around the stage and sing. It can be unwittingly hilarious, but that's opera for you.

How Terrorism Ends

Each Thursday afternoon, my school organizes a talk by an external speaker as part of an ongoing seminar series on international public policy issues. The series began last week with a presentation on George Soros' Open Society Institute. Yesterday, Dr Audrey Kurth Cronin from Oxford University spoke on "How Terrorism Ends." Attendance at these sessions, our lecturers intone - frequently and none too subtly - is mandatory.
So there I was, at the back of the seminar room, thinking to myself: okay, given where I used to work, I think I do know a little bit about this area. Let's see what she has to say.
Dr Cronin's thesis, in essence, was that in dealing with the current threat posed by Al-Qaeda, we should cast our conceptual net wide, and critically examine how other terrorist movements of the past were dealt with, or how they were eventually ended. Perhaps governments could learn something. Typically, the trajectories followed one or more of the following seven formulas:
  • The decapitation of the top terrorist leadership
  • The failure of the terrorists to pass on the underlying ideology to the next generation
  • The attainment of the cause
  • Negotiations with the government
  • Loss of popular support by the terrorists
  • The use of military force against the terrorists
  • Transition from terrorism to other aims

I took no issue with many of her arguments, but I felt she wasn't very convincing over some key points. For instance, in applying the first formula on Al-Qaeda, Dr Cronin criticised the apparent obsessive focus on capturing and killing Osama bin Laden. His death, she stressed, would not end Al-Qaeda terrorism.

So far so good. Everyone nodded in agreement. No one can dispute that. But it was interesting how she chose to use the passive voice in presenting this view. Because what I felt she did was merely to conjure up a false phantom. I can't recall any serious political leader, certainly not President Bush, who is on record arguing that by the death of Osama bin Laden would rid the world of Al-Qaeda terrorism. Of course there are good reasons to focus on killing him - both symbolic and substantive reasons. And of course it makes for good media airtime and copy to personalise the struggle. I may stand corrected on this point. But it's a pretty safe bet that no notable political figure has actually asserted publicly that the decapitation strategy would serve to end terrorism as we know it. And therefore it was rather unproductive of Dr Cronin to have criticized that viewpoint.

She also acknowledged that the Al-Qaeda had many regional affiliates, and that the network could be weakened if governments focused attention on dealing with those groups at the local level, many of which held separate nationalist-political objectives. But the only example she could cite was the case in Morocco. Applying her tenet to Southeast Asia, I wonder how Jemaah Islamiyah could ever be classified as a nationalist group, with negotiable aspirations. For their vision of a Daulah Islamiyah Nusantara stretching across much of the regions is maximalist in nature, just as Al-Qaeda's notion of a reconstituted global caliphate is. There is, undoubtedly, no easy solution. Except that I don't think what Dr Cronin proposed was tenable at all.

I got the sense as well that Dr Cronin was seeking to draw too many parallels between the Al-Qaeda terrorist threat of today with the disparate and diverse forms of terrorism yesterday. To be sure, policy makers need to open themselves up to competing perspectives, before deciding on the course to take. Indeed, we should learn from history. But by focusing so much on what has happened in the past, we run the risk of being blinded to the unique danger that Al-Qaeda presents - an unprecedented global threat that is deeply ideological in nature, sophisticated in method, catastrophic in outcome, and sustained in duration. Techniques of old may not necessarily work right now.

I'm just getting this off my chest now because I don't think I was in a good position to speak up yesterday. The event wasn't really interactive in nature. I think both the chair and the audience preferred that only questions were posed, without any pontificating, although quite a few did manage to sneak in comments disguised as questions. But generally, it's a good rule or norm - one that I would endorse, except that it constrained me from challenging the speaker's assertions openly. Heh.

The talk next week also focuses on terrorism. A professor from Georgetown University is coming to speak on "The Preventive Paradigm in US Counterterrorism Policy: Why It Has Made Us Less Safe and Less Free" Let's see how that goes. From what I've observed so far of the questions yesterday, it's a mostly left-wing and liberal crowd here at UCL, one which is critical of the current administration in Washington. Therefore, I don't expect his talk to go down negatively.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


A certain sort of tedious and tiring drudgery has set in. A sad pattern to the days is emerging. Readings, readings, classes, library, readings, classes, readings and more readings. You get the picture. Very fascinating indeed. The literature load for each course is pretty staggering. I don't think I'm that many years removed from studies, yet I can't remember having to consume more than a hundred pages a day, just to stay up to date with the compulsory readings, much less the optional titles. On occasions, I wonder how those who are not that familiar with English might be faring. I'm sure a few of them must be having an even tougher time.
I don't plan on being just a chao mugger here. That would defeat the purpose of studying in London. I'll need to plan my time well. I've got a few interesting appointments lined up later this week, and I intend to enjoy them fully.
In the meantime, it's back to more readings, alas...

Monday, October 09, 2006

Into Regent's Park

Summer made a spectacular return today, with mostly sunny skies, and the temperature nudging above 20 degrees, it seemed. It was a truly delightful day. And with no scheduled classes in the afternoon, I returned to Goodenough, changed into my jogging gear, and set off for another nice long run up to Regent's Park.
Regent's Park must surely be one of the loveliest park spaces in London. With its well-landscaped gardens, this former royal garden and its leafy surroundings offer visitors a glimpse into the courtly and genteel image of England that many around the world are familiar with. Step into the residential area around Primrose Hill, at the top of Regent's Park, and you'd think you're a world away from the bustle and grime of central London.
This time round, I made sure I took my cellphone camera along, and was able to capture these pretty scenes around the park, including the remarkable view of the city which one gets on top of Primrose Hill. The face was flushed with sweat, the legs were weak, the heart pounding. But the satisfaction was amazing.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Another Sunday

It's the middle of another quiet Sunday here. I'm at my desk, looking out to the greenery of the trees outside, set against a nice blue sky on a cool and still autumn afternoon. Scattered chatter around. Other than that, one hears just the rustling of the leaves. I think this is how the weeks are shaping out. Lessons on weekdays, relaxing on Saturdays and then a sobering-up on Sundays. I've noticed, among those I've spoken with, that they've mostly reserved Sunday for schoolwork. Makes perfect sense. For me, I think I've got hundreds of pages to plough through today. Boring, verbose, turgid academic writing. What are the authors trying to prove? Can't complex ideas be expressed with simple and straight-forward language?
Yesterday was pretty good, however. Found a cheap barbershop in Chinatown, which was curiously named Marx. So I guess I got a Marxist haircut? Anyway, a giant bangers and mash meal at the White Lion pub at Covent Garden followed. And later in the evening, a gathering in a flat at the Finsbury Park area with the new mates whom I've been hanging out with over the past two weeks. Lots of alcohol around, though no one passed out...

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Friendships Old and New

Awful weather yesterday. It was cold, bleak, rainy and gloomy. But I was in a pretty good mood, nonetheless. One of my best friends from home was back in town. In many ways, I'm following in her footsteps. She had received the same scholarship as I did, she stayed at the same hostel as I, and she also pursued a course in public policy, but at the LSE, not UCL. We've known each other for quite a few years, and she was among those who were at the airport in Changi, sending me off.
We had a pretty good time hanging out over a cup of camomile tea for her, and a coffee for me at the local Starbucks. (Brief digression - there are very many Starbucks joints around London. They're everywhere! Not that I'm complaining...) It was fun updating each other on how we've been, exchanging gossip, and generally enjoying the afternoon.
Dinner later at the Blackfriars area, in Refettorio, a curiously empty Italian restaurant, where we were joined by her sister and many of her friends in London. A rather convivial evening. Good food, good conversation, great cheer. But for me, I was just very happy to have met a very dear friend yesterday.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Perspectives on Leadership

Major-General Andrew Ritchie is the newly appointed Director of the Goodenough College. Last evening, as part of a series of activities for Welcome Week, he delivered the inaugural Port Talk, speaking on "Perspectives on Leadership". It drew a capacity crowd, with most - myself included - having just come from enjoying the first Dining In night at the College. No one turns down a free meal.

I had broadly understood the concept of after dinner seminars, but had also been wondering what Port Talks could mean. Yet it was a no-brainer, really. Plenty of port was served. The only thing missing was some good cheese.

The General was able to draw upon his vast and long experience in the British Army. With a very approachable manner, he shared many anecdotes and stories, but he sought also to present what he considered were the five key principles of leadership:

  • Integrity
  • Loyalty
  • Humanity
  • Communication
  • A Sense of Fun

I enjoyed the talk thoroughly. To illustrate these principles, Gen. Ritchie brought up many examples from his military background. The five qualities he cited are certainly worth emulating, on both an abstract and a practical level.

But I think what's difficult is how one then interprets and translates these principles into reality, applying them across different contexts. Take loyalty, for instance. What does that mean? Loyalty to whom?

I am reminded of this scene from Yes, Minister, one of my all-time favourite classic British comedies. In the episode A Question of Loyalty, the Minister Jim Hacker is caught - as he always is - between the civil service department which he leads, and the political Cabinet, to which he also belongs. In short, evidence of civil service waste has surfaced. A parliamentary select committee's breathing down his neck. Should Hacker defend his department? Or should he take a more contrarian approach? You can get a brief synopsis of the episode here.

Midway through the episode, Hacker is summoned to Downing Street, where he meets Sir Mark Spencer, special advisor to the Prime Minister. They discussed the concerns raised by the Select Committee. What course of action should I take, Hacker wonders. Spencer replied that the answer was obvious. "There's only one course open to you. Absolute loyalty."

Hacker agrees immediately. On the surface, it seems an easy principle to agree with, a platitude, almost. But then he freezes. "Who to?"

"That's your decision," Spencer responds tersely.

And therein lies the problem. Loyalty to whom? We all have multiple roles and identities. When we're faced with a problem in the office, perhaps even an ethical issue, it's easy to proclaim the need for loyalty. But does that mean loyalty to oneself? Loyalty to one's family? Loyalty to one's department? Loyalty to one's superior? Loyalty to the political leadership? Loyalty to the public interest? It's never an easy decision. Perhaps, a true leader is one who'd be able to make the correct judgement.


The latest Times Higher Education Supplement rankings of top global universities has just been released. And I guess it's good news, surely, that UCL has been ranked No. 25 on the list, which is led by Harvard and Oxbridge, and which is dominated by US and British universities. Check out this brief article from the Times. NUS has done pretty well, I'm glad to see. It's slipped back into the top 20, with a ranking of 19. NTU, alas, where I completed my other degree, has fallen to the 61st position, from No. 48 last year. What happened? According to this report, however, the top brass there doesn't seem too concerned.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Down the River

Well, I had a very nice time last evening, cruising down the Thames from about 9pm to 1am. This was a "freshers" event organized by the UCL Singapore Society for students not just in UCL, but from across London. The vast majority were Singapore undergraduates, many dressed to impress, but there were the one or two odd non-Singaporeans, or Singapore graduate students. In fact, I went for the cruise with the Singapore doctor from down the corridor, plus two new Canadian friends we've just met who are also at Goodenough College.
The river looks remarkable at night. Starting from Temple Pier, which is located behind Somerset House, we passed by all the famous bridges - Lambeth, Westminster, Waterloo, Southwark, Millennium and London, among many others - and sailed as far downstream as Canary Wharf, the Greenwich Naval College, and the Millennium Dome. It rekindled memories of The World is Not Enough, Pierce Brosnan's third outing as James Bond, which opens with a pretty spectacular chase sequence along the Thames, and which ends with Bond falling from a helicopter onto the Dome, the lady villain having escaped by blowing herself up
Along many parts of the river front, in the docklands and East End area, beginning eastwards of Hay's Galleria, you could see new office and residential developments - spanking, all-glass complexes that offered a wonderful view of the water. Very very nice. Perfect for rich city gents - probably the only ones who could afford such properties - who could then zip across to the many banks located at Canary Wharf.
The cruise begin late at night, and with hands shivering, I wasn't able to get many good images, except this delightful picture of my two new friends from Canada - a married couple, both of whom are taking a year off work, like I am, and pursuing graduate degrees at the LSE.

Monday, October 02, 2006

I Guess It Was Partly My Fault

It sure ain't very fortuitous or prudent to begin one's learning journey here in London by missing the very first class on the schedule. But that's what happened today anyway. Let's not even begin to discuss the reason. The miserable one or two loyal readers of this blog might have also noticed that yesterday, Sunday, was the first time since it began that no entry was posted. Well, nothing much happened, really. I was at my desk virtually the entire day, going through all my course outlines in detail, downloading reading materials from the Internet, and generally sighing quite a bit. No one said it was going to be all fun and games.
So there I was today, groping around campus, a freshie definitely, trying out for the first time wonderfully compelling attractions such as the library, the computer clusters, the photocopy room, even the university stationary shop. Much of what I did today really did bring memories of those days in NUS, way too long ago, although the places I see and the faces I meet now are different. Yet I feel very much to be the same person - older, hopefully wiser, weathered by some adversity, and perhaps, I think, more self aware, more self conscious than before. If anything, that's what experience confers on you.