The Rise and Fall of Games Online, Part 6: September 1996
Note: I reviewed this article in January 1997. Some inflammatory material has been removed, and will stay removed until I no longer live and work in Singapore. Revisions are in parenthesis, and marked “Rev.”
I pressed her nipples and go into her vagina!
She asked me not to take out my cock from there
Her sperm never stops flowing
I fuck her thoroughly!
Bathroom graffito, Plaza Singapura mall. I’ve always admired the expository climax, as it were, of this work.
Rock and Roll Music to the World
It has been one year since I first set foot in Singapore.
On September 5, 1995, during Labor Day week, Joe Pantuso and I climbed on aSingapore Airlines flight. We spent five busy days in Singapore, hammering out the deal that would lead to the creation of Games Online. The whole thing was a huge, exotic adventure. We were in Singapore, man. And we didn’t have to pay for it!
On that trip (recounted in the first Report from Singapore), Joe and I had time for just a little tourism and exploration. Oh, the sense of wonder we felt. It was intimidating and fascinating at the same time. The city was hot and busy and glitzy. English was everywhere, and yet it was so obviously an Asian city. We were torn between the familiar and the exotic, too adventurous to eat at McDonald’s, yet too shy to dare order for ourselves at a hawker center. Even the plants growing in the city were fascinating, giant specimens of Jungle botany.
Much of that feeling of excitement and wonder persisted when we moved to Singapore in November, ten months ago. It took us time to acclimate, and the novelty of living in Asia was exhilarating, even for the three weeks that we were living in an hotel on Orchard road.
What a difference a year makes.
The sense of wonder, although not gone, is severely attenuated. We have to search now to find facets of Singapore that amaze and delight us. Often we have to leave Singapore altogether to get that feeling, deriving it from regular visits to the more rustic reaches of Malaysia and Indonesia. Life in Singapore is something that we take for granted now. We maneuver easily through almost every facet of city life here. We are comfortable driving or on the bus. We can navigate the most ethnic of hawker centers. We stroll through any neighborhood or HDB block without the self consciousness that dogged us last Winter. We arecomfortable here.
We aren’t mistaken for tourists anymore, even on Orchard road. I find this interesting. Part of this is that we don’t go to tourist locations anymore. We have seen what there is to see. But we also don’t walk or behave like tourists. When Joe and I first got here we were often cornered in the seedier malls by merchants who pegged us for tourists as we gawked at the unfamiliar. Now we move purposefully through those same locations, and we are seldom pitched. We have seen tourists and recent expats wandering the hawker centers with that same dazed look we once had. It is a world apart.
I like being comfortable here. I like not feeling awkward, touristy and confused. I like having a comfort zone. I also miss that sense of wonder I used to have here. I miss feeling the sense of novelty that so much of Singapore used to evoke. But I like feeling like I belong here. I like being able to interact with locals, and navigate the side streets, and prowl the hawker centers and markets. It makes me feel like I am at home.
And I am.
It has been a long, strange year. As always, living and working here is never less than a challenge. Yet we have adapted. Once I thought I was moving here for six months to a year. Now we plan on being here at least until a year from this Christmas. I wonder how I will feel then.
An Evil Mastermind
On June 13th, Rob turned evil. He announced this to a stunned GOL staff, before skulking back to his cubicle to Perpetrate Evil on the World. Naturally, we were all taken by surprise. Rob had never expressed or displayed any evil inclinations. Naturally, we were all worried about how this might affect our work and lifestyles.
We were in a period of deep stress at that time, mired in the computer controversy, and worried about the eventual fate of Games Online. Rob, already pessimistic by nature, took the uncertainty quite hard. We all have ways of dealing with our internalized stress. Some of us a have hobby, some of us lift weights, or keep a journal. For Rob, the answer to dealing with his unmanageable internalized stress was to renounce his morality and turn to a life of evil.
Being evil hasn’t actually changed Rob all that much. He is still fun to hang out with, and he still works hard on iPower. He hangs out with the staff, and is cordial and friendly. He doesn’t kick small animals (other than the cat), or push old ladies into traffic, or give out poisoned candy at Halloween (this is conjecture on my part as we have not been here for Halloween, and they don’t celebrate it here anyway). And yet, lurking in the back of my mind is the certain knowledge that Rob has declared his evil. I can expect him to do no less than to follow through. Consequently I am sure that Rob is nursing an evil plot. After all, we all know that, when they are not committing evil acts, evil geniuses like to nurse evil plots. Anyway, I spend a lot of time flattering and humoring Rob, in case he actually does take over the world. I ought to be in line for a good fiefdom. Or I’ll be the first up against the wall for being a shameless kiss-ass.
Rob isn’t the only one who felt the psychological fallout of that rough period. Mike dealt with the stress in his own way. He went mad. Much like Rob, Mike declared one day that he was going to go mad, and he set about doing just that. He would cackle to himself, and make a lot of darting eye movements, and speak in tongues. It turned out that it didn’t make a lot of difference.
Mike explained that he made a conscious decision to become mad rather than evil, as it entailed less responsibility. We all live in dread of Mike and Rob forging an unholy alliance.
Fortunately for the fate of the world, they work on different projects.
When Joe and I first came to Singapore we came to sell iPower. That was the game we were going to do in our spare time, and the game we thought could be a hit, and it was the one we had a presentation for. Chris and the others from Sembawang Media were much more interested in the Minion engine, however, and it soon became clear that developing a game on the Minion engine would be a part of any plan we came up with for Sembawang.
The Minion engine already existed, having been developed by Joe and several of his friends over the course of several years. The engine was functional, but not great. There was a lot of jumbled, inefficient, undocumented code. But it was a starting point. We decided to develop Breaking Glass and Year of the Rat on the Minion engine.
A lot of evolution happened in the time since we made that decision. Originally we were going to modify and update the original Minion UNIX C code and design a front end in VB and C++. No longer. Time delays and changes in the technology and industry have changed our plans vastly.
The first victim was Year of The Rat. In July we had a meeting to discuss our scheduling in light of the massive computer delays. It was obvious that there was no way we were going to get three games done. We decided to consolidate the Minion teams. Year of the Rat, considered to be riskier than Breaking Glass because of somewhat more esoteric content, was shelved as a second-year Minion II project. Paul Deisinger was moved into a co-producing job on Breaking Glass, along with Mike MacDonald. The rest of the Rat staff was also moved over to Glass, effectively doubling the available art and writing staff. A lot of research that had gone into Rat was shelved. It will all be used, but it will be a while. There was some disappointment among the Rat staff, but no one argued with the soundness of the decision. It helped everyone’s morale to know that Joe and I still intended to do Year of the Rat.
The integration has gone pretty well and the whole team is steaming ahead on Glass, but Glass itself, and the Minion engine, have not come through this process unscathed. We have changed our strategy on Minion completely. We finally got to the point where we were adding and changing so many things on the original engine that we decided to work from the ground up, stealing what we needed from the old code, rather than adding to it. This meant some more work for the server programmers, Jimmy and Vince, but it allowed us to create a much more streamlined and efficient engine. (Rev: it also created a headache that had Excedrin written all over it.)
We also had to codify Breaking Glass itself. Based on the pre-existence of the Minion engine and the source material for Breaking Glass we had been working without a full design document. Part of the increased emphasis on Glass involved a vast upgrading of the interface. There had also been a lot of jockeying around the overall art style, particularly for characters. Our plan had ranged from manga style illustration to bitmap avatars to retouched photos of actual people before a final style was settled on (rev: and eventually changed). Object and location art went through similar though less traumatic changes. So the last two weeks have been a combined effort by everyone in the office except for Florence and the iPower team to create and finalize the Glass design document. By the end of next week (Friday, 27 Sept.) Breaking Glass will be completely codified in a comprehensive design document reflecting all of the upgrades and changes in the engine and presentation. It has been a tortuous path, but the mood around the office is that the path has been much better charted, and the game we are now creating is far better and more flexible than that envisioned in our previous plan on the old engine.
Dissent in the Ranks
Well, of course we had to have some personnel problems eventually. In that respect we have been pretty lucky, and the problems we’ve had have been pretty minor. We did scandalize one or two of the more conservative members of our staff at times (special nod to Joe here), but it was nothing that couldn’t be smoothed over with a little one-on-one chat and apologies for boorish American behavior.
The problem that has been most pressing has revolved around the iPower staff. As withBreaking Glass, iPower became mired in a period of directionless inactivity in the wake of our hardware problems and the resultant psychological and morale issues. Bert and Ernie (rev: I have changed their names in revision to protect their privacy concerning this issue) are a 3D artist and programmer, respectively, and they are half of Rob’s iPower staff. They also appear to be like minded, and they collude a lot. Bert and Ernie want to design their own games.
Normally this is exactly the kind of behavior that I would foster and encourage. Unfortunately there has to be a time and a place for everything. Bert and Ernie want to do their own project now. This neither the time nor the place.
The two of them have come up with two game proposals. Joe and Rob and I had a meeting with them to discuss the first proposal, which was an original idea, but one that was a bit impractical, and totally impossible for us at the moment. The second idea was closer to where iPower is heading, but, once again, was nothing that we can develop now.
As I said, under any other situation I would encourage the staff to be coming up with game ideas, and I would be looking for gems to target for development. But the cold fact is that at this moment we have two complex games under development, scaled back from three. There is nothing we can do until these games are completed. Bert and Ernie are using the wrong technique to persuade us to indulge them, however. Bert, in particular, was dropping a lot of vague comments about how he wanted to be working on a project that interested him, and design for something that he felt he had a personal stake in.
I am of two minds about this. I agree. He should be working on a project that he is interested in, and he should feel that he has a stake in it. However, his job title is also 3D Artist, not Game Designer, and he was brought on to do a specific job: work on iPower. He is going to be working on iPower until it is done, and if he can not come to terms with that, then he needs to move on. That would be a pity, because he is a very good 3D artist, and he has done some great logo and animation work for us. I would like to keep him on, and let him develop his own projects down the line. But if iPower and Glass don’t get finished and do well there won’t be any future projects. (Rev: more information concerning this period has since come to light. There was a great deal of turmoil concerning Bert and Ernie’s relationship with Rob, and face issues concerning Bert’s traditional, Chinese nature.)
At any rate, we are attempting to take the constructive solution here, trying to make Bert feel more involved with the game design (although he is already solely responsible for its look), and leaving open possibilities for the future. He is creative, and he has goals which he should be allowed to meet. But so do we. So far it looks like everything will work out well. Refocusing the projects seems to have helped, and Rob has been more liberal in the assigning of work related to iPower, so there has been less time for woolgathering.
It is interesting how this development is at odds with my initial impressions of Bert. I wonder what else will develop with our staff over the next year.
More Computer Hell on Wheels
I wish to preface the following rant by saying that, at this time, we have all of the correct computers and everything works.
But it was a long friggin’ road getting here.
Yes, much as we would have liked, the whole computer odyssey did not end with the incidents detailed in installment 5. Whole new chapters had yet to be written. So read on, if ye dare.
Where do we start? Perhaps I will handle this chronologically.
The nominal delivery cutoff date for the computers was Friday, June 21. As you will recall, the contract for the computers went to local Digital agent Chartered Computer Idiots (CCI) rather than Intergraph, whom we favored. (Rev: Yes, of course I have changed the name of the DEC reseller for the public version, because I am going to slam them. E-mail me if you want to know who they really are.) You may also recall that the penalty to be enforced for late delivery was 25% of sale cost.
On Thursday, June 20th CCI called and told us that no computers would be delivered until “early the next week.” Since we were already firmly in “believe it when we see it mode,” this came as no surprise. Needless to say, no penalty was assessed. CCI also pushed back delivery of an Alpha workstation they were supposed to loan us as a trial machine. Our fears about their service level (based on our pre-purchase experience) were beginning to come true.
On Monday, June 24, our three DEC servers arrived. Now these were servers, mind you. P-166 machines with eight gigs of hard drive space and 128 MB of RAM apiece. Normally you would expect servers, particularly servers nursing four heat-producing, high speed, 2 GB AV hard drives each, to be in server cases (full towers).
Wrong! The drones at CCI built these machines into mini-towers. We were astounded when we opened these machines and saw that the profusion of cables from four hard drives had totally blocked any air flow from the one puny fan. They were industrial servers built into consumer cases.
But wait, the best is yet to come! (Including the fallout from the above).
On Tuesday, the 25th of June, we got the rest of the machines. At long last! It had been five months since we first tried to order computers. They didn’t come from the company that we wanted, but at least they were computers. Something that our staff could work on. Unfortunately what should have been a semi-joyous occasion turned into another debacle when we discovered what we like to call “the kicker.” The Kicker was this: we had specified six Pentium Pro (P-6) 150 MHz machines for our programmers. They were identical in every respect to the standard Pentium (P-5) 166 MHz machines that were our normal desktops except that they had the faster and considerably more expensive P-6 chips in them.
CCI delivered six P-5 150s instead of P-6 150s. We now had six machines that were identical to our normal desktops in every sense except that they had slower CPUs, and were $3000 more expensive each.
Joe and I have to take a little, and I stress a little blame for this. Let me explain. We had been kicking and screaming for Intergraphs for a number of reasons (quality, reputation, and service), and had been rewarded for our noisy efforts by being essentially forcefully removed from the entire process. We were pointedly excluded from all of Chris’ meetings with DEC and Intergraph, and from the evaluation of the allegedly sealed bids. So we had no time to check the specifications returned by the vendors, and had to assume that everything had been communicated correctly by both parties.
But after all the screaming was over with, and the contracts had been awarded, we did manage to come by copies of the bids submitted by all of the vendors. We had asked CCI about four times to provide copies of their specs to us so that we could review the and check for errors. They had ignored every request. Finally we saw them, but only by accident. Someone actually faxed a copy of their bid and specs to us by mistake. So Joe and I took a look at the bids. We noticed that the computers that were supposed to be our P-6 machines were listed simply as “Pentium 150″ machines. That made us a little concerned, but we saw that the prices were clearly P-6 prices, since they were $3000 apiece more than our P-166 machines. Plus after all the bids and our very detailed specs there was no way they could be wrong about that.
I am here to report that crow is best eaten lightly sautéed in butter with ginger and a light sprinkle of cumin. We should have double checked.
CCI did, in fact, deliver P-5s instead of P-6s, causing us to fly into disbelieving rage. After all that, how could they fuck it up so badly?
We refused to sign for the machines, but we did keep them. We did not uncrate them. The next day we were on the phone to Anthony at SembMedia finance and CCI sales manager and all-around jerkweed K.L. Wong (no longer with the company). CCI essentially told us to get bent. Needless to say, that was unacceptable, no matter how politely delivered. Anthony also was no help at all, offering no explanation as to how the bidding and sales process could be blown so badly. Meanwhile, there was no way we were going to eat $18,000 on the markup for P-6s without having P-6s. It would take us another month to sort out this problem.
(Rev: I have gutted this section for public release, because the original version would have gotten me in trouble, I think. If you are curious about the details, mail me.) This entire incident raised some pressing questions for which there are no satisfactory answers. (Rev: It is my theoretical –and incendiary– set of answers that I have deleted here.) First, if CCI was doing their own math, how the hell could they have come up with charging us $3000 per unit more than our P-5 166s for machines that they thought were P-5 150s? That has never been answered..
- Why didn’t they check the hardware or the manifests from the manufacturer and catch a discrepancy. Either they were sloppy (totally possible) or thought that there had been no discrepancy, for some reason.
- Why didn’t the manufacturer in Taiwan catch the error? Either they thought it was correct, or they have nothing to do with figuring prices, and never reconcile sale costs with the specifications of the machines they are being asked to produce. Seems unlikely
- Why didn’t they beat down the door to fix the problem when we brought it to their attention? If it was a mistake, they should have been at our office within 24 hours, assuring us that the correct machines were on the way, unless they believed that the P-5 150s they had delivered were the correct machines. It took us a month, and an onsite visit from the GM of DEC Asia’s PC division (an American) to get the problem worked out, after CCI refused to admit that there had been any mistake.
What would you make of this?
I am willing to concede that it was all a gigantic screw up, but in the face of what we already believed, it did a lot to stoke the fires of our ire.
This is Joe’s angry e-mail, written the day the computers arrived.
Comments: Authenticated sender is email@example.com
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Joseph John Pantuso)
Organization: Games Online
To: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Date: Tue, 25 Jun 1996 21:34:46 +0000
Subject: Problem with computers
We have a serious problem here.
We specified Pentium PRO computers for bid configuration 3, Programmers Workstation.
This means an Intel “P6” computer, not the much older Pentium. The bid specifically states this. The computers delivered tonight are 150Mhz Pentiums. No PRO. They are in fact a lesser computer than those we ordered as our ‘standard’ workstations.
This is completely unacceptable.
Chartered Computer Idiots bid incorrectly. Whether this was deliberate or merely incompetence I will not speculate.
Games Online (and specifically myself) were kept ‘out of the loop’ during the bid acceptance process. Because of this as predicted things have gone awry.
We requested repeatedly (at least a dozen times in the last three weeks) that CII verify the hardware that they would be providing us. We asked that they send us a list of the specific hardware they had on order for us. They *never* complied, even to today.
We must have P6 machines. Blame for this error seems to fall evenly between CII and SM finance. If CII agrees to remedy the situation (by providing correctly configured machines at the price they quoted) I can accept this. We will retain the computers that they have delivered incorrectly until they are able to deliver the correct machines (I can’t have people sitting here without computers).
If we have no recourse, i.e. we cannot return these computers to CII and get a full refund then we will do one of two things;
a)Distribute them elsewhere in SM
b)Replace the Dell computers we currently have with these machines and use the Dells immediately for debugging purposes (it was already planned to replace these machine approx. Six months from now, we would just be doing it sooner)
I would highly recommend that if we are in this situation that we order the new P6 machines from a different vendor. We have been really unhappy with the service (or lack thereof) we have received from CII and the Digital computers just really aren’t very nice, particularly when compared to others in the same price range.
The following weekend we decompressed with our visit to Tioman, and the mantra of the Giant Hairy Bats was created. Go back and reread the Report from Tioman (or read it for the first time if you haven’t read it yet), and maybe having read about what transpired before that trip will explain why it was so wonderful to get away that weekend.
Ominous Rumblings and Serious Grindings
By the time we got back from Tioman we needed to do something. Our programmers still had no computers because we had not wanted to uncrate the P-5 150s and then end up stuck with them. Chris, however, recognized our situation and gave us his blessing to crack ‘em open and use them for the time being.
We were feeling particularly gloomy in the wake of this episode, and were seriously wondering if it what we were doing in Singapore was worthwhile. We still enjoyed the experience of living in Singapore, but the computers were turning into such a huge, productivity sucking debacle that our work was beginning to seem a bit futile. Joe and I began to wonder what we might do for plan-B. It around then that I told my mom not to make reservations to bring herself and my brothers out to Singapore for Christmas because I seriously doubted that I would still be here. I began to consider each paycheck my last, and wonder how much money I would have left to live on after I paid to move myself back to the States.
It was during this time that Joe and Rob and I got together with Pierro, an Italian friend of Paul Naylor’s who lives in San Francisco, but who was stopping over in Singapore for a couple of weeks. Pierro had a great deal of experience in venture capital circles, and Paul had suggested that we talk to him and find out what our venture capital options might be if we had to leave Singapore. Paul, Pierro, and the rest of us got together for a nice Thai dinner at a restaurant in Tanglin Mall. Pierro said that we would have some options, and that we were at the right place at the right time (technologically speaking), and he said that he would put us in touch with the appropriate people in the States if necessary. He didn’t say anything that made us want to jump ship, but he did give us a clearer idea of our options, and the realities of finding alternate funding, if things didn’t work out with Sembawang.
I would like to point out that the mood has since improved dramatically, and we have all committed to making GOL work in Singapore. But we certainly didn’t always feel that way. June and July were very depressing times for us. (Rev: Things have since degenerated again. Pierro has recently commented to Paul Naylor that our only mistake was “not leaving Singapore right after talking to me.”)
And here’s one reason why June and July were depressing. We continued to have problems with the Digitals. Here are a few of the problems that we faced.
- All if the internal SCSI chains in the DECs were incorrectly terminated, requiring our programmer/emergency sysad Ooi to open up every machine and put the terminator at the correct end of the chain so that $5000 worth of hard drives per machine didn’t cook themselves.
- In order to expedite delivery of the machines we told CCI not to install the CD-ROM drives into the computers. We would do it ourselves. So they delivered the drives, but without mounting screws. Joe phoned them up and told them we needed 24 screws, and they send out 20 mismatched screws of which onewas the correct size.
- Apparently no one at CCI ever learned that heat is bad for hard drives, particularly high-RPM A/V drives like we use. In badly cooled mini tower cases the CSN engineers had stacked half-height Seagate Barracuda drives one right on top of the other, causing the hard drive casings to become painfully hot to the touch, and far exceeding their operational temperature. We investigated this problem after two hard drives in our servers burned out less than a week after they were delivered. We had to open up every machine in out shop and move the hard drives around so that they had space between them which is how they should have been set up in the first place. We managed to get our machines configured just in time to avoid a wholesale hardware disaster. When we complained about the configuration to CCI, they said that our specifications had not been detailed enough. Pure bullshit. Our specifications were exacting. It is the job of their engineers to know how to configure systems (such as putting servers in server cases).
- Nikto, our third server (our servers are Klatuu, Barada, and Nikto), imploded with a BIOS hardware failure shortly after going operational. This problem was corrected by CCI’s third party service contractor.
- The P-5/P-6 mix-up was only resolved after over a month (seven weeks, I believe). No one wanted to be accountable for the problem, which is totally understandable by local cultural standards, but also no one wanted to rectify it, which is unacceptable. SembFinance and CCI were totally unable to resolve this situation until Bill Kuch, General Manager of DEC Asia’s PC business division stepped in personally. The P-6 machines were delivered without sound or network cards. They were also delivered with 4x CD-ROM drives, requiring us to swap all the CD drives. At leastthey were in mid-tower cases. Plus we were instructed not to open them until CCI could send a representative out to be present when we unpacked them. And would we mind waiting as the woman in question was out of the country for a week? I told Florence that, in my opinion, they could go fuck themselves. Florence, who is superb at translating Joe’s and my rants into diplomatic bureaucratese, reworded that impolitic statement into a polite fax saying that we could not afford to wait.
- L. Wong, the sales manager of CCI, who should have worshipped our huge purchase, was the invisible man. This guy did nothing to advance the smooth resolution of our problems, and, in fact, went out of his way to avoid us. Once, he dropped a service representative off to check out our machines. He waited in his car right outside for a half an hour. When he heard that we wanted to talk to him he called us on his cellular phone from his car. You can imagine the fantasies I entertained when that happened. I still think that I have never seen his face. He no longer works for CCI, which overjoys me.
And so it goes. The outcome with Digital machines and their vendor CCI validated all of our worst fears from when we were forced away from Intergraphs. CCI was inattentive, unresponsive, and unprofessional. They delivered consumer machines. They were totally unhelpful in helping us to resolve our problems until Bill Kuch from DEC Asia visited our office and got a firsthand tour of our woes, and sat on CCI. It was everything I feared.
This rant would not be complete if I could not put in a good word for Intergraph, and our Intergraph representative, Lee Hon Chuan. Intergraph busted their balls to make us a deal, and stuck by us even after the bulk of the deal went to DEC. In the end, we ordered my audio workstation from Intergraph, and four high-end dual P-6 200 MHz Windows NT 3D workstations. Even after losing the bulk of the order, the guys at Intergraph have been very attentive. The machines were wonderful, and well configured. My audio machine is a full tower with enough cooling for a nuclear reactor. The 3D workstations are desktops with external SCSI chains, so there are no cooling problems. We have had no technical problems with the Intergraph machines other than my workstation’s incompatibility with the Mark of the Unicorn MIDI driver. Lee Hon Chuan calls us regularly to see if there is anything we need, and drops by occasionally to check in. When we have needed service personnel to attend to installation and reconfiguration, they have been dispatched instantly. They have responded to our problems and questions with efficiency and good humor. They recently sent a guy around to clean our machines.
My appreciation for Intergraph is in no way relative to CCI. Based on Hon Chuan’s treatment of us when we were forging our original deal with them, we always thought that they would be good. And they have lived up to our expectations. We don’t know what to say other than “we told ya so.” Joe and I both plan on dealing with Intergraph in future.
Ramblings and Scramblings
Joe was voted the man in the office most in need of a vacation after the entire computer affair. He had taken point in dealing with the bureaucratic hassles surrounding the CCI/Digital debacle. Joe had heard all of our wonderful stories about Tioman, and decided that he would take Akiko and Emily there one weekend early in July. His parents were out for a fourth of July visit, so they were also included. Joe had experienced rising stress all week, and was really looking forward to the trip, and a stay at the plush Berjaya resort.
Naturally there was a disaster.
Joe and Akiko and the kid and the folks got down to the ferry terminal early Friday morning to catch the regular Auto Batam ferry to Tioman. Everything went fine until they hit immigration, where the bomb dropped. Joe and Akiko had thought that an infant as young as Emily (who was only a few weeks old at that point) could travel on her parents’ passports. Not the case. It turned out that Emily not only needed her own passport, but that she needed a dependent pass as well. The hospitals do not routinely register the birth of expatriate babies with the immigration authorities, so as far as immigration was concerned, Emily did not exist. That meant that they would not allow her to come back through immigration on the return trip (baby smuggling is apparently a problem in this part of the world, so they are sensitive to children without papers). Unfortunately Joe was not interested in the rational explanations. He was forced to stand and watch in frustration as the ferry pulled away without him.
The rest of us didn’t learn until the next day that Joe hadn’t made the trip. We had been cracking jokes about what fun he would be having in paradise, and Emily, the bat girl of Tioman, and we were all thunderstruck to hear that the trip had collapsed. Joe holed himself up in his apartment that day to burn out his sulk, and didn’t emerge until later in the weekend. Although Emily has a passport now, she doesn’t yet have a dependent pass, and so she is still not on the record of the immigration authorities. The Sembawang human resources people are dealing with this now. Joe has still not been to Tioman, although he did make to Pulau Aur a few weeks later when he and Mike and I went diving.
The diving was something else that developed in July. Mike had caught the bug during our snorkeling trip to Tioman, and he and Joe had finally bit the bullet and decided to get certified (I already was; I ended up doing my advanced there). So they went to the store in Holland Village that Yu Min had recommended to us months before. The owner there was a very pleasant man by the name of Michael Lim, and Joe and Mike signed up for a NAUI Openwater 1 certification course, and qualification dives up at Pulau Aur. I signed up as a recreational diver to accompany them. (Rev: Michael has since gone out of business and mysteriously vanished.)
There were some stress-inducing false starts as the class was postponed twice. That caused Mike to become very frustrated and angry as he was really looking forward to diving and a general de-stress trip. Fortunately, everything resolved, the Mike and Joe did their classroom work with Michael, and then we all went diving at Pulau Aur. All the details and photos of that trip are in the Report from Pulau Aur and Redang.
Rob had also wanted to join the class, but all three of them had to get clearance from a doctor before they could dive with Michael’s class. Rob has a heart murmur, and the Singaporean doctor, unfamiliar with the specifics of Rob’s condition, would not clear him to dive. That was a grave disappointment for Rob, who had bought a wetsuit and other gear in anticipation of being able to join the fun. Rob missed the Aur trip, but when he was back at GenCon in August he visited his own cardiologist, who cleared him to dive. So Rob took classes the last couple of weeks with our dive master, and we all returned to Aur last weekend (the 20th) where Rob did his basic qualification, Mike and Joe took their advanced, and I snapped lots more underwater photos.
As we were expanding our local horizons with a selection of nautical adventures, we continued to face the usual problems and irritations back in GOL country.
We had kept one of the temporary rooms we were using at Ngee Ann Polytechnic while our permanent offices were being built. We were using it for storage since we needed someplace to put the boxes that come with thirty computers and thirty 21 inch monitors, as well as miscellaneous printers and peripherals. Unfortunately the Poly finally decided that it needed to reclaim that room, and they threw us out despite a great deal of hand wringing and pleading.
So we carried seventy huge boxes across the street and put them the only place we could. In our visiting manager’s office. Mike MacDonald, former warehouse manager for RTG, folded space and time to get all those boxes into one small office. Needless to say, being confronted with a wall of NEC boxes when opening the door did not do a lot to make Chris or Seng Hon happy when they came to visit the GOL studio, although they both understood that we had no other option. That office was supposedly there for their use when they happened to be out here. And as soon as they come up with someplace better for us to put those boxes, why then we will darn sure move them.
Another bomb dropped on us round about that time as well. Part of Sembawang’s rent agreement with the Polytechnic stipulated that Sembawang Media would provide a certain number of hours per week of instruction to Polytechnic students. We had been assured by Chris and Yu Min that the folks at Boat Quay would pick up the lion’s share of that work, drafting people from Multimedia Studios and leaving us responsible only for two or three lectures over the course of the Fall semester.
How naïve we were. Naturally, we got left holding the entire bag. Joe and I suddenly found ourselves responsible for ten to twelve weeks of instruction on computer games when senior CIS dept. teaching associate Ch’ng Beng Hin dropped by to talk to us about “our” class.
It turned out that the Polytechnic didn’t just want a multimedia class, they had sketched in a class devoted entirely to computer games. And guess who was on tap to teach it. So Joe and I drafted a syllabus, and we are now about halfway through a ten lecture series on computer game design. We have about forty students in our class, and we think that we are doing something right because our class is strictly optional, but we are getting pretty good regular attendance.
I have to say that I enjoy teaching the class. I had some experience teaching and managing a class when I was a graduate student at SF State, and this was an opportunity to build on that. It was just the timing that was difficult. Preparing for and presenting the lecture commands one complete workday a week from Joe and me, which is really more time than we would like to be giving up. But we are having a good time, and the entire process has been made quite tolerable by Ch’ng Beng Hin, our contact at the Polytechnic. Beng has shown a desire to cut through the bullshit and bureaucracy and get things done, for which I admire him. He has been pleasant to work with, and has made sure that we have had all the resources we have needed throughout the process. I shudder at the thought of what this whole experience would have been like if getting the class rolling had been as difficult as, say, getting the permits to build our toilets, obtaining permission for a barbecue at the staff apartments (which reminds me to tell that story), or securing storage space.
Unfortunately, not everything at the Polytechnic has run as smoothly as our class. One experience we had was with the dreaded barbecue police.
Now I am an American, gawd dammit, and one thing we American males have in common is the god given right to barbecue wherever, whenever, and whatever we want. Check the Bill of Bights, I’m sure it’s in there somewhere. Things don’t work the same in the rest of the world as they do at home, though, and now that I am living in the rest of the world this is something that I have to come to grips with on a daily basis. One thing that particularly flabbergasted all of us was the barbecue pits at our apartments.
As you know, we live in the Ngee Ann Polytechnic staff apartments, which are part of the Ngee Ann Polytechnic campus, and under the control of the terrifying Ngee Ann Polytechnic Estates and Development office. We ran head on into this particular bureaucracy on the 4th of July, as we attempted to have our obligatory 4th of July Barbecue (at which we introduced many of our local staff to the American BBQ tradition).
We had our coals stoked in one of the two large pits next to the soccer field, and were roasting up our weenies and steaks when one of the campus security guards came riding up on his bicycle. (The uniformed campus guards are not to be confused with the completely worthless un-uniformed guards who actually man the booth at the driveway to our apartments; you could hire a West Oakland streetgang to drive an M1 Abrams tank doused in flaming napalm past them and not provoke a response.) Anyway Kommander Komet came up to us and asked to see our barbecue permit.
Fer Chrissakes, man the pit’s right here! Nobody is using it! What other permission do we need? Joe was right in the midst of the stress bomb that lead up to his attempted trip to Tioman, and he was going to be damned if he was going to let anyone screw with the GOL 4th of July barbecue. So Joe went striding up to the guard to sort this little matter out. Unfortunately, Joe had also quaffed a number of Foster’s Lagers, so his stride emerged as something of a homicidal, drunken lurch into the security guard’s face, causing the guard to back up so fast he almost tripped over his bicycle.
Anyway, after the ruffled waters were smoothed over, the situation was distilled to its essentials. Apparently we weren’t allowed to simply “use” the barbecue pits attached to our apartments. We had to go to the Estates and Development office, which is on campus, across the freeway, some distance from our apartments, and we had to fill out and submit an official “Request For Permit to Hold a Barbecue Party.” If that was granted, we would have to pay $5, at which point we would be given our official “Permit to Hold a Barbecue Party.”
I was so astounded by this I almost blew an entire can of Foster’s out my nose.
Anyway, we have caved into the system, and now, whenever we want to have a barbecue, we dutifully trudge down to the E&D office and pay our fee and do the paperwork (which has a very nice section where they can fill in the reasons if your petition for a Barbecue Permit is denied!). Check out this scan of the form that we have posted. It pretty much encapsulates the lunacy of the entire situation.
Also check out the used car ad we posted. It says a lot about what it costs to buy a car around here.
The Hammer Falls on SembMedia
In July someone at Sembawang corporate realized that the Sembawang corporationwas having a crummy year. When they figured that out, it was communicated down to through channels to all of the subsidiaries that, if SembCorp is having a crummy year, thenyou are going to have a crummy year as well.
Well, we didn’t need any edicts from on high to tell us that SembMedia was having a crummy year. They are a new company in a competitive, narrow margin business, and they have bet heavily on such suspect sectors as web content development, and ISP services (not to mention a certain rather expensive group of Yankee game designers).
Still, the word came down to all of the SembMedia departments from CEO Wong Seng Hon. Cut costs. A hiring freeze was levied, and everyone was urged to curb purchase orders and to conserve resources all the way down to copier paper. There was no downsizing, however. What we heard was that it was just a level of austerity through the rest of 1996, and that in 1997 things would loosen up again (rev: yeah, sure…). I sure hope so, because Chris is talking about spending a hell of a lot of money on GOL in 1997, including vast amounts of travel and a very pricey Bay Area office for us. Hey, I’m not gonna stand in his way, but I sure it hope it works out the way he envisions it (rev: nope). We are still working for a company where breaking even is good news, and we won’t be profitable for three years even assuming everything follows our business plan.
To gauge the feeling in the trenches, Seng Hon began convening a series of “breakfasts with the CEO.” This was actually a series of breakfasts and lunches that Seng Hon arranged. Eight or ten staff members were invited to each one, fed, and told to speak candidly about their departments, SembMedia, and the industry as a whole. We hosted two of these sessions at GOL, as part of the idea was to invite people to parts of the company that they don’t normally see (SembMedia has offices at Boat Quay, Ngee Ann Poly, Suntech City Center, and Science Park).
I was invited to one of the inaugural sessions, which was breakfast held at Boat Quay. Actually, when I was first mailed the invitation we hadn’t yet been told what it was, and I assumed it was department heads. So I was really curious why Joe hadn’t been invited. We did find out what the nature of the meetings was, though. This was one of our high stress periods with Chris, as the computer issue was still in full swing, and so Joe told me to tee off if it came up. Chris was not on the guest list for my session. However he did sit in on it, so I was a good boy and ate my Chinese porridge and syrup and did not tee off on the computer issues. I, instead, played the part of Internet Specter of Doom, telling everyone that the shakeout was coming and they had better grab their ankles (rev: and, surprise, surprise, I was right!). I reserved particularly pessimistic analysis for web content design business, which I feel is best left in the low-overhead hands of talented kids working out of their bedrooms, and the Netscape Asia franchise, which is owned by Sembawang. My points were:
- That the market for half-million dollar corporate web sites is a fickle and possibly transient thing to wager the success of your company on, especially when I can find three cheap kids who can program CGI and run Photoshop for me at any Polytechnic.
- Netscape was going to eat a big one because Microsoft has them squarely in their sights, and the totally free MS Internet Explorer 3 is every bit the browser that the $60 Netscape Gold 3 is. Yes, you can download Netscape for free, but that isn’t the segment that Sembawang is making money on. They are making money on selling the shrink wrapped version.
The rest of our staff all got invited to one or other of these sessions, but nothing seminal emerged.
We heard various things about the budget cuts at Sembawang Media. The first thing we heard through the grapevine was that $600,000 had been cut, but the accuracy of that figure has not been verified. At any rate, all this happened during the period where we were in a deep funk and wondering about our venture capital options, so it did a lot to make us wonder if we should pursue other options.
The good news is that, even though a lot of those cuts came from Chris’ budgets, the furor seems to have died down a great deal, and our hiring and acquisition doesn’t seem to have been affected. We brought a new programmer on a week ago, and we are interviewing more candidates this week. But all of our personnel were allotted when we formed GOL, and we aren’t adding anyone who shouldn’t have been budgeted for. We were very glad, however, that all of our major capital expenditures had been completed when the budget furor erupted.
Late breaking news: Seng Hon has asked us to hold off on new hires until January. We are working on a compromise. (Rev: written at the time of the original posting, so no longer late breaking! And we certainly won’t be hiring anyone now, even though it is January.)
Edicts and Predicaments
The end of July felt a bit like light at the end of the tunnel after the dark days of May, June, and early July.
We began to feel like we were making some concrete progress on the games. With computers finally on every desk the staff got cooking. Paul Naylor became Super-Tools Programmer, working insane hours to get our World Builder 1 tool into service so the writers could begin assembling the Breaking Glass World. He launched into the much more complex World Builder 2 with equal fury once the first version was in service. Arthur and Ooi did work with Direct Draw and Direct3D, stitching together things that will go into the iPower engine. The artists were given a focus and the art style for the games began to come together. The writers launched into the creation of the Glass world, building it from nothing into a large metropolis.
There was still a lot of tweaking to be done, and some task fuzziness, but at least there was work to be done and progress to be made, which was more than we had before the computers were in.
It took a while for everyone to get motivated, though. There had been only so much work we could do before we had computers, and people had grown used to lax schedules and office hours game play. We had a two pronged task adapting everyone to the reality of the next year by plunking some harsh deadlines down and cracking down on office hours game play and web browsing.
There was some controversy surrounding Joe’s original Less Screwing Around edict, which was delivered as a rather impersonal e-mail. Mike seemed to think that many of the staff might feel it inappropriately harsh, especially when delivered by e-mail from a boss who spends only half of the work day actually in the office (Joe does a great deal of work at home, which I will vouch for). So we convened a general staff meeting at which Joe and I and the other producers made it clear that no one was being singled out, and that it was a policy that applied to all of us from the top down.
Most of the staff have dealt well with the Game Play Edict and general refocusing, although some of them have had a rough time of it. I still have to occasionally loom over people’s shoulders when a lunch time Command and Conquer game starts to stretch into work hours. The staff have picked up on the message though, and they know that all of our fortunes ride on us shipping on time. The general sense of restored purpose has done a lot for office morale which needed a boost from the utter low point of the computer purchase. And we still manage to keep the loose atmosphere going with lunch time movies and after work Quake fests. Reality has set in though, and the group seem to be coping. Chris is floating the idea of a stock option deal for the general staff, which Joe and I have been asking for since the beginning. That should aid the coping.
As we have moved through September I have felt increasingly good about our direction, both in terms of the games we are making, and the responsibility demonstrated by most of the staff. I think that we can finish these games by the end of next Spring, although there will be some heavy work between now and then. (Rev: If I knew then what I know now…)
August and Everything After
August was a very busy month. First, Joe, Rob, Mike and Paul all went to the States for two weeks to attend GenCon and to get some R&R at home. Rob, Paul and Joe all have family in Wisconsin. I got the duty (budgetarily enforced, I am afraid) of staying in Singapore and minding the shop while the rest of the American staff was in the States. (Koji stayed here, but Koji is not a manager.) It was actually a good thing that I stayed, since it was necessary to have at least one senior staff member in the house. Originally we had planned to take several local staff members to GenCon, but the budget cuts made that impractical. Mike was also dropped from the official trip, but he paid to send himself out. So, much like Al Haig, I was in control.
It was an eventful two weeks. While the others were gone, two interesting things came to pass. The first was that I took my wonderful diving trip to Redang, which you can read all about in the Report from Pulau Aur and Redang. The second thing that I had to deal with was not so wonderful. I had to work on what we call “The Paul Crisis.”
The Paul in question here is Paul Naylor, our New Zealander programmer. In the several months that Paul has been with us, he has become very important. First, he is a star programmer on our staff. Paul was hired as a C++ programmer, but learned Visual Basic after joining us so that he could do tools programming for us. He has been, in a nutshell, a wonder worker, putting in amazing hours to make sure that the Minion writers have the tools they need to design the world. He has worked until late in the evening, and on many weekends, probably amassing more hours at the keyboard than anyone else in our office.
Paul has also become a very good friend to all of us American staff. He is a fellow expatriate, a very friendly guy, and pleasure to hang out with. He lives with his brother and his friend Tom, whom we also tried to hire, but couldn’t lure away from the National Computer Board. Paul almost always participates in GOL social events, and Joe and Mike and I also hang out with him regularly on weekends. I sometimes jam with him and his brother, Andy, as Paul plays drums and Andy plays guitar. (Tom plays bass, so I use his axe and rig). In short, Paul is valuable to us, personally and professionally. He is on the short list to come back to the States with us next year, which is attractive to him for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is his girlfriend, who is studying in San Francisco now.
The problem is that Paul is having serious trouble with Sembawang Media’s human resources division.
Here is the story.
There is something in Singapore called CPF, “Central Provident Fund.” Essentially, it is social security. 20% of your paycheck is paid into your CPF account, and is made available to you when you retire, or for certain specific investments. You have to check when you are looking into a job here whether the pay is before or after CPF payments.
For a long time, CPF was optional for expatriates. You could get it waived, or you could pay in, and collect the money upon leaving Singapore once you intended never to work there again. But the rules changed, and CPF payments are no longer made for expatriates. You have to be a permanent resident of Singapore if you are not a citizen.
Paul was receiving CPF at his old job at United Overseas Bank, and took the job here at Sembawang Media after being assured twice by the human resources that they would pay CPF for him (which, when all was said and done, was the equivalent of about $500 a month). Unfortunately, after Paul signed his letter of appointment and joined us, the CPF payments fell through for reasons that are not entirely clear. I have heard explanations ranging from Sembawang corporate policy to a new law that prevents CPF payment for non-PR expats.
Well, that was a sizable chunk of change that Paul was not getting, all of a sudden. So Paul embarked on a two month odyssey, trying to solve this matter himself through calls and e-mails to the SembMedia HR department. He got nowhere, and became increasingly upset about the treatment he was receiving. He felt that he had been assured that he would get CPF or an equivalent amount included in salary, and now he was being stonewalled.
Paul had become quite upset before he brought this issue to Joe and me. This was right before Joe went to GenCon. Paul had even been entertaining leaving SembMedia, especially since he had job prospects in San Francisco where his girlfriend was moving to. Joe asked him not to do anything rash until he got back from GenCon. In the meantime I was handed the ball and asked to deal with the problem as best I could in the intervening two weeks.
Paul was –and is– absolutely essential to us (rev: and will now be leaving us before Easter, ’97, even if we survive). As I described earlier, he now plays a central role here. In a land where programmers who are useful to us are few and far between we can not afford to lose Paul, especially over $500 Sing a month. It would cost us far more than that monthly amount, even over a couple of years, in lost productivity, late shipment, and wasted time if we had to replace him. Furthermore, as far as Paul is concerned, he is only asking for what he feels he was promised.
Unfortunately, the brass don’t see it that way. I had a meeting with Seng Hon and HR manager Josephine Goh to discuss the situation with Paul. I got resistance from Josephine, who said that no guarantees were made to Paul (which I find hard to believe as I reviewed his old e-mails concerning the problem, and there was clearly some kind of understanding), and that nothing could be changed now with regards to CPF due to corporate policy. Seng Hon said that he felt like Paul was trying to blackmail us. That made me mad because Paul’s centrality in our projects was something that Joe and I brought up, and Paul never did. All that aside, I said, it was worth adjusting his salary to keep him, and to keep him happy. We had made no other requests of this nature for any other staff member, and it wasn’t something we took lightly. Chris tried to deflect us by telling us that it was our problem as managers if one employee was so central that his leaving would cause us such trouble.
Well, let me simplify this as much as possible. We have interviewed what seems like every programmer on this island and, at last report, have found six that we felt were worthy of hiring (rev: and of whom three or four are genuinely good). We have had one programming position unfilled since December because we haven’t found anyone else we feel is qualified for the job. We would love to be in a position here were there were plenty of (or even a few) other qualified people that we could plug in. But they just don’t exist here. The only games programmers on this island are the ones who are learning how to do it here, and we don’t have the luxury of a talent pool to draw from, at any price. We have to keep the people we have, at least until the current products are done.
Despite that, I met a vast amount of resistance, but finally we achieved some sort of compromise. Unfortunately the compromise left Paul in a very shaky position, as it required him to stay with SembMedia for eighteen months to collect the money (and Paul refuses to be indentured–my words, not his), and allowed Sembawang Media to fire him at any time before then and not pay him. Two negotiating sessions later we have made some progress, but Paul’s adjusted deal is still not signed. I don’t think Paul is going to leave, and I hope he doesn’t. He is important enough to be at the top of the list for inclusion in the American office, and we have even considered cutting him in on the Silkworm deal. We’ll see how it all shakes out. In an office where we have desktop computers worth more than the annual salary of many of our employees it will be a great tragedy to our fledgling company if we lose our most talented programmer over $350 US a month.
Speaking of which, Paul is not the first employee to approach us about his salary, although he was the only person where it was an issue that required us to go to bat for him. Joe and I have no control over salaries. They are decided by Chris. Chris has a philosophy under which he offers people a couple of hundred dollars a month less than their current jobs on the assumption that they should be enthusiastic enough about coming to work for us to not mind. That runs counter to the philosophy that Joe and I would like to practice, which is that you pay talented people what they are asking for in order to keep them happy. The salaries we pay are much lower than salaries for comparable jobs in the States (and cost of living here is not cheap, this is not a Third World country). I don’t mind paying people on the local economic scale, It’s only fair. But if someone we need is asking for a salary that is appropriate to their experience and talent, then we should pay it. All we get with the nickel-and-dime program is depressed employees and squandered opportunities when talented people pick other jobs (yes, we have lost people that way).
Part of this problem may be rectified soon as Chris seems to be warming up to our request that we make stock options available to employees as a way of keeping staff on board. Continuity is very important on our business, especially within a product cycle, and stock option is a good, productive way to build loyalty. It would also be totally standard in software industry in the States, but it is still progressive here.
Show and Tell
Two events were on the horizon for late August that were going to cause a fair share of headaches and hair pulling. The first was our official opening party, which was really an excuse for us to give SembCorp Chairman and all around Mighty Big Honcho Philip Yeo a tour of our offices. There was supposed to be a press conference attached to that event, but it got pushed back into October (rev: and eventually cancelled altogether…a symptom of later turmoil). A week after the opening was the second of the dreaded Sembawang Company Seminars (which we call “love fests”). We had our work cut out for us.
We didn’t find out about Love Fest 2 until a week before it happened. We had plenty of warning for the chairman’s visit, however. Getting a visit from the Chairman is like getting a visit from the President. His publicity/advance people contacted us and they came down so that could discuss schedule (down to the minute), itinerary, details, and so on. Everything was plotted. Nothing was left to chance. There would be “x” minutes for the presentation of plaques and commemorative pens. There would be “y” minutes for a presentation on what we were doing. There would be “z” minutes for a tour, and then, whoosh, out he would go. The Chairman is a busy guy.
Joe and I like Chairman Yeo. He is the man who green lighted SembMedia’s creation, and he knows his computer stuff. It was his enthusiasm for the GOL project that helped to get us off the ground. Joe and I had met with the Chairman for an hour on our first visit to Singapore (detailed in installment 1), and been quite impressed with him, although trying to talk to him is like trying to talk into the teeth of a hurricane.
The rest of the guys were back in the states, so I did a lot of worrying about the opening party, with the help of Florence. Joe and I had discussed the idea of doing a promotional video explaining our company and our projects, and this seemed like a good excuse to do one. Since we had recently added motion-JPEG based desktop video capabilities to my audio workstation, the timing was good. I set about writing and producing a twelve minute long promotional video for the visit. I had two and a half weeks.
Little did I know what task I had created for myself.
The first week and a half that I worked on the video I proceeded at a deliberate pace. I came up with an outline, I videotaped interviews with the staff using Joe’s Sony digital camcorder and a light borrowed from the polytechnic. (Technical note: the crummy microphone on the camera forced me to tape all interview audio to my DAT deck and then resynchronize in post production, which was a pain, but not as much of a pain as you might imagine.) I digitized movie and cartoon cuts to use as bumpers and punctuation. I videotaped work around the office, and computer screens, and knick knacks, and equipment.
I spent the last week in hell. Everyone had come back from GenCon, and Joe was around to help at this point. Nonetheless, I spent fourteen straight days in the office, the last seven working from 10 AM to 2-4 AM every day. I edited, re-shot, re-edited, hassled the 3D artists for rendered animations so I could do sound and editing, did sound effects, hassled the artists some more, picked music, banged my head, etc. the day before the chairman’s visit Joe and I discovered that I was working in slightly too low a compression ratio, and we could only stream two minutes of video (what my computer could hold in RAM) before dropping frames and losing audio synch. So we were in the audio studio until 4 AM playing with the VCR and tweaking until we got a watchable version on tape. It was not complete, however. We had found out a day or two before that we were scheduled to present at the upcoming lovefest a week later, so the video presentation at the Chairman’s visit officially became a work in progress.
Technical problems weren’t the only trouble we faced. The vice principal of Ngee Ann Polytechnic heard that the chairman was coming and that we had scheduled a press conference to talk about what we were doing with GOL (generalities only, no specific product announcements). He got his nose all out of joint that the Polytechnic was not included officially in the festivities. Because of our cooperation agreement he wanted Ngee Ann Poly’s PR people to be included at the event, and he felt snubbed. He delicately timed his ire to coincide with his request that prepare quarterly reports (he wanted monthly until he was deflected by Chris) on what we were doing to fulfill our part of the cooperation agreement. Naturally I went into one of those classic expatriate stomping fits. First, this was supposed to be an internal Sembawang Media event. Our chairman coming to visit our office. Second, anyone who has read the Reports From Singapore knows what I think of the cooperation agreement. The nominal deal is that they give us the office space, and we teach a class and will provide industrial attachments (internships) for their students. Any further cooperation is obfuscated by the vast bureaucratic resistance we meet any time we ask the Polytechnic for some favor like a storage space, or use of an auditorium for two hours. Nonetheless we caved in. We extended the ceremonies to include the presentations of tokens of our esteem to two Polytechnic personnel, and we pushed back the press conference by six weeks so that the Poly could participate.
We still have to do the quarterly report. Here, submitted for your consideration, is our first quarterly report in its entirety. Don’t panic. It’s a short read.
Games Online/Ngee Ann Polytechnic MOU
Quarterly Cooperation Status Report, Fall 1996.
What we did for you:
- Taught your students the realities of game industry business and technology.
- Taught your students more about the realities of game industry business and technology.
- Accepted some of same students for IA.
- Did not fly into psychotic rage when charged extra for use of lecture hall.
What you did for us:
- Gave us place to stay.
- Hired security guards totally incapable of coming to grips with the fact that we work late every night, thereby forcing us to send them a fax every evening at 10 PM to remind them of our continued presence on campus.
No, it isn’t what I am submitting. Just what I would like to submit. (Rev: Our relationship with the Polytechnic has actually been better and more cooperative recently, which is nice. I just hope we can perpetuate it now.)
The day itself went well. Yu Min was back to receive a token of our appreciation for his work in helping to set up GOL (an engraved pen). Another pen went to Lim Peng Heng, the person from the Polytechnic who took point on the deal with Sembawang Media for our office space. An engraved silver plate was presented to Mr. David Chan, chairman of the Center For Computer Studies, our host here at Ngee Ann Poly.
Yours truly got the pleasure of making the speeches for these little presentations. I whipped one up for Yu Min that was a true froth of superlatives and misty recollection. I came up with something suitable for Peng Heng, although, based on our experiences with the Poly there were some on our staff who felt that a more accurate token of our appreciation would have been a dead hamster with a nail through its head. The fault for our earlier Poly troubles lay not with Peng Heng himself, however, but with the bureaucracy as a whole, so it would not have been fair to stick him with the un-coveted GOL Dead Hamster award. We are in sunnier days now with NP, I am pleased to report.
A typo on Florence’s original itinerary for the event had us presenting David Chan with the plague, rather than the plaque.
Then we showed the video. It went over very well even though it was a rough cut. We had our animated Sembawang Corporation logo, which was a big hit (SembCorp’s corporate video department requested a copy from us, along with our other computer animations), we had the new AV-4 animation, replacing the very unadorned version we showed around during my last visit in the states for E3. We had the GOL logo. We had humor, erudition, cool shots of Softimage. It all came together pretty well. I was quite proud. It ends on a big finish with a classic out-take of Rob (not in the version shown to the chairman), and, of course, our motto: “We Don’t Suck.”
It was a good thing we had the video, too, because it was hell-on-wheels trying to get a word in with a razor blade while the Chairman was getting his tour. He talked a mile a minute. We had several stops around the office where employees were supposed to explain what they were doing, but our staff must have gotten in about one sentence among the group of them. Still, the Chairman seemed pleased with what he saw, so that was the important part.
Once the visit was over, everyone could relax a bit. Except for me. I had to recut the video, and reshoot Rob’s segment. When I had first interviewed him he had literally just climbed off of the plane, and he looked it. He acted and sounded like a total zombie, and he was dissatisfied with his performance. So we got a much better take of him. And I did some hacking until we got a svelter, smoother flowing version of the video.
And that is the version that we showed at the second Love Fest. It was a hit.
Love Fest II
On the 23rd of August, one week after the Chairman’s visit we went to the auditorium at Science Park for the Sembawang Media Love Fest II. Of course, that is just our name. The official name was the Second Sembawang Media Seminar. We had experienced the first love fest last Winter (’96) at the plush but underused Sembawang Media shipyard corporate offices (someplace else that was considered as a home for GOL, but rejected as being too remote). The second one was equally lethal. My appreciation of Love Fest II was diminished by fatigue. I had been to a diver’s party at my friend, Jim Myran’s house the night before, and then been at the office until 4 AM with Joe finishing the tape. (Rev: I must remark here that this love fest should not be confused with our Polytechnic love fest as reported in installment 4. Also, I never wrote about the first SembMedia seminar, at the shipyards. It was thoroughly stultifying, although the tour of the shipyard itself was cool. I guess I just use the phrase “love fest” too much.)
Love Fest II was held at Science Park, which is where Pacific Internet is based. PI is the Internet service provider that SembMedia owns a big share of. Once upon a time GOL was supposed to be based there, sharing the office space with PI, but PI expanded and told us to shove off. This turned out to be fortuitous as it was one reason we avoided the skanky Normanton Park apartments which you read about in Report 2. What the seminar amounted to was all of the SembMedia department heads making speeches about their department’s quarterly performance and plans for the future, and giving ossified presentations with either MS PowerPoint or black and white overhead slides. Into the molasses-like torrent of ennui that was the second love fest came the quicksilver of GOL.
The first thing we did was to all show up in our GOL t-shirts in a dazzling display of unity and team spirit — the only people to do so except for five or six of the PI people. (All right, I didn’t wear mine, but it had a stain!) We all sat together in the troublemaker section in back. We waited through an hour and a half of dull dull dull presentations by Seng Hon, Chris, and a few others. No one had put any serious effort into their presentations’ appearance. Seng Hon took us all for an inadvertent trip into Dilbert-Land by sprinkling his presentation with such corpo-jargon as “paradigm” and “synergy,” causing those of us who read that strip to stifle giggles. I like Seng Hon a lot, and he is pleasant and supportive, but not a master public speaker.
And then it was our turn. The auditorium had a fifteen foot wide screen and a ceiling mounted television projection system, all hooked up to a dazzlingly good public address system (there had been a brief panic the night before when it broke just after Joe and I tested the GOL promo tape on it, but it was fixed in time). Joe mounted the stage and spent exactly thirty seconds introducing us, and then they killed the house lights and rolled our tape. I think we had the audience’s attention the moment our 3D animated SembCorp logo animation faded in, accompanied by some flaming guitar rock. I think I can say with some confidence that we had the only presentation during which all 250 attendees paid attention for the whole time.
We got a very gratifying round applause when the tape was over, and a lot of good feedback at lunch, after the seminar. Joe and I are waiting to see how many people show up with video presentations at the next seminar, most likely sometime in the Spring.
Where Are We Now?
So it has been one year since we first set foot in Singapore, and ten months since we moved here. It has been only three months since we got computers and really started production. Where are we? Not as far along as we would like to be. There was a time when Joe and I thought we might have a finished game by now. Instead we spent six months building the office and recruiting the staff and another month after that before we had the bulk of out hardware. It has been only six weeks or so since we got our 3D machines. In that time one game has been pushed back a year. Rob continues to work on iPower, and a 3D display is beginning to come together. The complete design docs for Cyberpunk will be done this week. The art is already in production and the tools are assembled. There is progress, but sometimes I wonder if it is enough. When we were setting up the GOL deal last September I felt out of my depth, and I still sometimes do. Sometimes it seems like things are going well, and sometimes it seems like our games will never come together in time. For a while the sources of our problems came from without, as we struggled for the tools and resources that we needed. Now we have all the tools, and the only remaining obstruction will come from within (rev: wrong). There are plenty of challenges ahead. It remains to be seen if we can rise to meet them.
In just under two months I will have been living here a year.
Yes, it’s time for the best part of any Report From Singapore, the end. This is where we collect all of the odd bits and pieces that don’t fit into the regular narrative.
We have just concluded one of the more interesting local festivals, which is the Hungry Ghost Festival. Ancestor worship is very important in Chinese society, and this festival probably started as a means of remembrance of the family ancestors. The story is that for a couple of weeks every fall, the gates of the afterlife are opened and the spirits of the dead are allowed to walk the Earth. During this time people can make offerings to their ancestors to provide them with comfort and sustenance in the afterlife. Offerings are made by burning. Originally the offerings might have been made by burning real food, real money, real clothing, and so on, all providing the appropriate comfort to the spirits. Now the offerings are symbolic, generally paper. You can buy paper food, paper clothes, paper “hell money,” and even paper houses and cars to burn for your ancestors. For the two or three weeks of the ceremony the smell of burning offerings and joss paper is on many street corners in Singapore. People burn in braziers in front of their houses. Those who live in giant HDB blocks often burn on street corners or at the local temple. Mass ceremonial offerings are burned at tents and along some streets. It is an interesting thing to see.
Don’t Drink and Eat
I have written at length about durians in this space before. You may recall durians as the spiky, notoriously stinky Southeast Asian fruit considered a delicacy by many Malays and Singaporeans. My inaugural durian experience is covered in installment 2. Now I want to add this piece of invaluable intelligence which comes from our UNIX programmer, Vincent Phua. Vince reports that one must never eat durian and drink alcohol, especially hard alcohol, at the same time. This isn’t just because you might get drunk and make the ego-crushing mistake of trying to pick up some chick (or dude) while carrying a killer case of durian breath. It is because the combination can be lethal. Apparently some constituent of durian reacts with alcohol (or one of its metabolic products) in the body to form a potent toxin. People have been killed by this reaction, I am told. You have been warned.
Censorship is a fact of life in Singapore. Broadcasting and news in Singapore are heavily government controlled, and the importation of films and books are regulated. Movies are cut before they reach the theaters, and even home video versions are purged of undesirable sexual, violent, or political content.
Private citizens are not exempt from scrutiny. Any importation of printed or video material is subject to inspection and censorship, even personal mail. We have been importing videotapes of American TV shows once a month without any incident, and Mike MacDonald and I have both brought laserdiscs into the country without any incident (nothing objectionable by Singaporean standards, though). We have never had our mail inspected. Apparently it is pretty random. Sometimes they zap you, and sometimes they don’t. When they do zap you, you get a bill for the censorship inspection, even if there is nothing wrong.
We just got our inaugural zapping.
Mike MacDonald had a parcel sent out by his old roommate, Derek Quintanar. The parcel contained books for research for one of our games, and some miscellaneous material. The first Mike heard of the delivery of the parcel was when UPS contacted him and told him that he had a parcel, but that he had to pay a $50 censorship fee. UPS brought the parcel and Mike paid the fee, and we opened the box, curious to see what had invited so much scrutiny.
It was fifteen issues of “Skin Diver” magazine, sent by Derek now that Mike is Scuba diving. How provocative.
The most priceless part of the incident was the invoice included by the censorship board. It bears the proud standard of the Singapore “Controller of Undesirable Publications.”
We have some suspicion that certain parcel carriers are more susceptible to inspection than others, but we have been unable to prove that, as yet.
The Games Online crew all went down the NTUC resort a couple of weeks ago. Vince had rented the Sembawang Corporate room at the resort, and we got together for a barbecue and some beach strolling and bike riding. It was quite a lovely afternoon. It would have been nicer, however, if the local family, who’s room had the patio nearest our barbecue pits, had not decided that the perfect complement to their own barbecue would be an evening of karaoke played at brain boiling volumes. We had to tolerate two hours of amateur warbling to Hokkien (a local Chinese dialect) pop music blasting at top volume from tinny speakers.
It was the best argument for capital punishment I have ever been subjected to.
It Can Happen To You
For those of you who wonder if we have tropical illnesses here: Paul Naylor, our Kiwi VB programmer, went to the East Coast beach with Rob and Joe. Five days later he came down with an official case of mosquito borne Dengue fever, which laid him up for a week. Apparently the East Coast beach is notorious. Dengue is a true, tropical hemorrhagic virus.
We took delivery of four Intergraph 3D machines. These are true brutes, dual P-6 200 MHz processors, 128 MB RAM, 20 MB of 3D accelerated, texture mapping EDO video RAM, 14 GB of hard drive space. They are faster than our SGI Indigo 2. The 3D guys were understandably excited when these machines came in, and they could move theirSoftimage and 3D Studio off of the P-166s and onto these sledgehammer NT machines.
But there was a great deal of weeping and gnashing of teeth when, after installing all our expensive 3D software, these $40,000 machines refused to deliver the much anticipated speed boost. They were, if anything, only incrementally faster than the regular P-5 desktops.
After a great deal of panicky hand-wringing, the culprit was discovered. Microsoft Windows 95 Plus Pack animated mouse pointers. These cute little doodads, which were in favor among our 3D guys, were causing something like a 60% video processing hit on our machines. There was much smacking of heads, and the animated mouse pointers are no more.
We have had a couple of other technical coups since the computer issue got straightened out. In June our leased line finally became active, which was a welcome relief. With the delivery of the computers we were staring down the barrel of thirty people trying to access the net through one 28.8 dialup line. The leased line is only 128 kb, a lot less than the T-1 we would use back in the States, but it beats the heck out of one modem!
Also, in September our gamesonline.com.sg domain name came online, allowing us to start running our own mail and web servers. We first requested Sembawang to secure the gamesonline.com domain names for us way back last January. Unfortunately, the usual bureaucratic delays proved costly. By the time they motivated the US gamesonline.com domain had been taken (by Engage), leaving us with only Singaporean .sg version of that domain. That means that our company will have to operate under a different name when it moves to the States next year. In the current Internet climate, it would be really silly for us to have different company and domain names. But with the domain name competition becoming ruinously intense, we may have our work cut out for us.
The Very Latest
Chris is working on getting our very substantial budget for next year approved. If it is approved, that means that there will be a US office, and we will come home at the end of next year (some of us possibly sooner). If it is not approved, then the future is murky. There is pressure now to seal the Silkworm contract and nail down all the loose ends. Updates as they develop. Chris is very anxious. (Rev: It’s all a crater.)
Ask Dr. Vincent
Our programmer, Vince Phua, read through reports from Singapore 1-4 and had a few comments to make. Here are his comments, clearing up some of my errors, and expanding on some points I have raised.
- On Philip Yeo (installment 1): Chairman Yeo is Permanent Secretary for Defense not Minister. PermSecs are the CEOs of the various ministries, ministers are the policy and decision makers.
- On Used Cars (installment 4): There are used car dealers. Hopefully I’ll be able to consider visiting them one day. Main reason for COE is to keep the number of cars on the roads down. As is, the roads, including the expressways are operating at capacity during peak hours. This island has no space for many more roads.
- On the Mandarin Make Babies Campaign (installment 4): There was a time, just after I was born when there was a “Two is Enough” campaign. That was the time when the birth rate was higher than what the economy could support. That campaign encouraged families to limit the number of children they had to 2. “Encouragement” included withdrawal of tax and other child support incentives for the third child and beyond. Of course, a time came when the population started to age and people started preferring less than 2 children, which resulted in the reversal of policy. Now extra incentives are given for third and fourth children but not more then that.
- On Gwai Loh(installment 4): I think I can speak for the local staff in GOL about the phrase gwai loh. Don’t feel shy about it. Using it around us will not implicate us as racist. Heck, locals will be amused to hear you use gwai loh. Only worry around the really old crowd, like the sixty, seventy year olds and above, especially the ones that hang around very native places like the hawker center along Bukit Timah road. Still, I wouldn’t worry too much.
Amanda Faye Tan is an eighteen year old Singaporean girl who was sent the public Reports from Singapore by a friend. She sent me a rather amazed e-mail that turned into an introspective discussion of post-colonial attitude and expatriate life in Singapore. Here is our e-mail exchange. Her last, long message reveals some very interesting feelings that I think are shared by many young Singaporeans.
Note: I have deleted her login name and changed her name to preserve her privacy.
Her first mail:
Date: Sun, 15 Sep 1996 16:42:33 +0800 (SGT)
From: Amanda Faye Tan (deleted)@pacific.net.sg
Subject: Are you for real?
Hi Will/ D.Moss,
Please reply this mail if you really do exist. I was forwarded 4 installments of your “Report from Singapore” series from a friend of mine(without prior warning), and its contents kept me up the whole of last night doing doubletakes in disbelief. (Not to mention the occasional convulsions of laughter). This is despite the fact that I’m in the middle of my prelims, which if I do badly in will severely screw my chances of ever going overseas next year, but that is besides the point. Anyway. If you would be so kind as to answer the following questions:
1) Does anyone in Singapore, (specifically your local colleagues/Chris/PI people) know about these “reports”?
2) Are you still in Singapore in the first place??
3) Are you still living in the Ngee Ann service apartments?
4) Do you still have long hair?
5) Are you sure that your phone lines/email account/fax machine etc. aren’t bugged?
6) Are you aware of the general lack of humour among Singaporeans who find themselves at the unkind end of the butt of jokes?
As incredible as this mail might seem, humour me and answer these questions when you find the time.
My reply (her material is >commented out):
>Thank you for replying so promptly to my mail.
>You know, I’m simply delighted that you exist.
>it’s the reaction to the wonderful knowledge
>that someone can speak so frankly and about the
>hallowed corporate culture in Singapore without
>getting into trouble.
Well, I definitely didn’t set out to attack Singapore corporate culture in my writing, but I have to call them like I see them (which is an American sports analogy meaning that I have to write what I observe regardless of my opinion of it, or anyone else’s).
One reason that I can get away with this is that my Internet web page is located in the United States, so it doesn’t get scrutinized by, say, the SBA, who do have authority over our web server here at work.
Everything I wrote was based on my own frustrations, and those of my friends at dealing with the Sembawang corporation. And we had some very bad times. Partially this was our fault; as Americans we were ignorant about many things in Singaporean culture, especially Singaporean business culture. It is also the very nature of our business, though. We are young American computer game designers, hailing from an industry where everything moves very quickly, and nimbleness is the key to survival. We were recruited by Sembawang because of those very characteristics, so they have to anticipate our expectations and reactions to those parts of their own corporate culture that are at odds with our success, and therefore, with their own success within the games industry.
Anyway, it is all working pretty well now. Hopefully I’ll have another couple of installments for you to read in a week or two.
>I must apologize for my short mails but I’m
>in the middle of my exams and can’t really afford
>to write long ones now. Usually I’m notorious for
>writing really long mails to people.
Nothing to apologize for. Your mails are longer than those of many of my friends from the States! (note: no offense, friends!)
>I live very near you actually, in Toh Tuck Road
>(next to Toh Yi Drive). I’ve been to the Ngee Ann
>apts before – an art teacher of mine, David
>Barrow (British), used to invite me over to his
>house to paint and exchange books. He’s
>left for home now.
Oh yeah, I know exactly where Toh Tuck Road is. We pass by it all the time. Well, I do like living in this neighborhood. The Ngee Ann staff apartments are pretty good, and there is plenty of shopping and some fairly decent restaurants in this neighborhood. It would be nice if it was a bit nearer an MRT stop, although that doesn’t affect us too much because we can drive (which wasn’t always the case).
>A quick summary of myself, seeing that I know
>so much about you already (actually I
>don’t – it just seems as though I do! – )
Well, if you can get your access to my web site working you will learn more!
>I’m 18, a 2nd year junior college student
>in [one of the junior colleges] hoping to
>get to university next year(to major in
>Phil/Art History). I’m taking Lit, History,
>Econs and Art as my A’level subjects.
Sounds like you are pretty busy. Philosophy and Art History; that is a very literate set of studies, and quite esoteric. Where do you hope to be able to take that background professionally? I’m curious.
>mind, I’ll chat blindly to you everyday about
>the exams I’m going through…you don’t have to
>reply, but it might be interesting
>for you to know what the life of a typical student
>is like in Singapore.
Actually, I am quite interested. It gives me a perspective on Singapore life that I don’t get much of because most of my friends here are in there mid 20s or early 30s and working for Sembawang Media. So I get a pretty skewed perspective. Feel free to shoot any observations you like to me. Also, it reminds me a lot of when I was going through the same thing (called the SAT’s in the States), eleven years ago, and busting my butt to get into college. It all pretty much turned out to be worthwhile.
>Today, for instance, I had my Paper 4 Lit exam.
>Paper 4 consists of writing 4 essays in 3 hours
>on 4 set texts – Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan
>Swift, The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope,
>Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake,
>and Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge.
>Very British 18th century, very Cambridge indeed.
It seems like a very Eurocentric selection of reading material. Do you feel like you get a big Western bias in your literature studies, or is this just one class that is having you work on all of these books?
>text you’ve read to answer them. This is supposed
>to be an additional paper for students who read
>widely beyond the required syllabus, but in
>true S’pore-education style we have _lessons_ for
>S-paper. After that, I have
Well, that’s alright. We have college entrance prep courses in the states too, that cover every kind of exam and essay question you can imagine. It gets very competitive in many circles, as I’m sure it does here as well.
>Well well. Bored yet? Do tell me. I’ll reply your
>mails the Monday the week after, I promise – and
>tell you exactly why I found your journals so
>gripping (in true Prac Crit style). In the
>meantime, take care.
I am interested to hear why you liked the journals. Anyway, I am glad that you did. It makes me feel like the writing is worthwhile when people discover it and read it. And I am not bored at all.
Good luck with the studies,
And her very interesting reply to that (minus the Industrial Attachment stuff, which is not really relevant:
Date: Thu, 19 Sep 1996 02:05:14 +0800 (SGT)
From: Amanda Faye Tan (deleted)@pacific.net.sg
Subject: format is terrible – converted from WinWord
The following article was written by a friend of mine. He intends to submit it for publishing in his college newsletter, but we’re not sure if it will get approved. He’s a 3rd-year student in NTU (Nanyang Technological University), majoring in Computer Engineering. This article is about his IA – Industrial Attachment – stint, which is part of the course whereby students get to work for a while in a corporate environment to get some hands-on experience. Well, this article was a result of his experiences – which weren’t very nice, from what he told me at the time. (I’m understatinghere). But I’m sending it to you, because Will – I think – I think that as an expat, you get treated a lot better than us locals (even with our own people) and your idiosyncrasies are a lot more tolerated because foreigners are supposed to be crazy and individualistic anyway. And they have a predilection for dragging things to court, and blowing things up, and speaking up too loudly, and having no qualms about embarrassing everyone. This is the stereotype of the expat, unvoiced but felt very strongly. I know because I’ve been taught by expats all my life.
Will, Will, I don’t even know why I’m telling you this, but you seem so ignorant of the fact that the colonial hangover still exists in Singapore. And the fact that most people – ordinary people, not your colleagues perhaps – treat you guys with more than ordinary respect. Like my History tutor – a U grad and a very intelligent woman – asked us:
“Don’t you feel _funny_ when you see a foreigner working in a menial job? Like promoting things or doing hard labour? I do, you know…I mean, you’ve been brought up to believe…” Bullshit. I know it isn’t true. But it happens. And it intrigues me, because most of the time – not all – most of the foreigners themselves don’t seem to realize it, or if they do, they don’t say anything.
Singapore used to (now still, but to a lesser extent) depend a lot on imported intelligence. I can only speak for the education system here – every talented child gets sifted out at a very young age through all kinds of tests at every level for any kind of outstanding ability. There are special programs like the Gifted Education Program (GEP), which you get tested for as early as 8; the Music Elective Program (MEP); the Language Elective Program (LEP) for French, German and Japanese; and the Art Elective Program (AEP), which I was selected for. And my teachers have been expats. Expats are employed to cultivate the human resources that Singapore badly needs. When I entered NJC and was shortlisted for the Humanities Scholarship, you guessed it – all the tutors are double MA holders from Britain, all of them. They are employed at huge cost by MOE to teach a single _class_ of shortlisted students in a college – and there are five top colleges that have the Humanities scheme. The Humanities students and teachers, like all scholars and Very Outstanding Students, are an elite bunch – we get two separate air-conditioned classrooms, the teachers have their own staff lounge, photostating machine, fridge, the department gets a balcony to themselves, they are tucked away in an elite corner of the college and have the autonomy to set their own exam schedules, own papers, and conduct their own classes/syllabuses separate from the rest of the college.
Look around where you live – it’s notorious for being an expat enclave. The terms AEP, LEP etc. should be familiar to some of your neighbours…but I doubt there are Humanz tutors around. They earn enough to afford their own condos and cars.
Maybe you know all this, or you don’t like what I’m saying, or something. Frankly, I have no idea why I’m telling you all this at all. I’m just so sad, because there are Chinese teachers who look at me and shake their heads and lament about how the young suffer the delusions cast by the American cultural shadow, how everyone speaks English but Chinese is an exam they have to pass, how we don’t remember our roots anymore because we were brought up in a post-colonial country where the only way to succeed was to do business with the foreigners who came from all over the world. And these people were our parents. _My_ parents were educated in England, and though they would never admit it, they still suffer this “foreigners are better/more advanced/culturally superior to us” mentality. I know because they take wine lessons and send me to Europe and eat yoghurt and cheese and drink Italian coffee, like so many Singaporean yuppies. And it hurts.
It hurts when I know the complete works of Shakespeare but can’t even name five Chinese classics. It hurts when I see the privileges my tutors get. It hurts when most of my friends tell me they hate Chinese lessons because they always flunk it. It hurts when I see locals (SPGs, whatever) fawn over expat men and laugh at every lame joke they make. It hurts when I realize I’ve never seen or touched the rare type of jade I was named after by my grandfather. It hurts when I feel angry at all this yet cannot blame anyone because you people are so naive, you think everyone likes you….
Enough said. If you still want to talk to me after this…well, I’m being honest now. And maybe a little incoherent, or even a little immature, but this is what I think, that’s all.
And my reply to that, just sent yesterday (again, minus the IA stuff):
Sorry it took me a few days to reply to this. I was gone over the weekend, Scuba diving. I was pretty busy the last half of last week, as you might imagine.
First things first. What you wrote was neither incoherent, nor did it make me feel ignorant or insulted. Actually, it was pretty refreshing. You are giving me an interesting window into attitudes and thoughts that I don’t get in day to day life. Actually, this note was interesting enough to me that I filed it in a collection of material that I would like to use to write a book about this entire experience (starting a game software company in Singapore) once I return to the States. I hope that doesn’t bother you.
>here). But I’m sending it to you, because Will
>- I think – I think that as an expat, you
>get treated a lot better than us locals (even
>with our own people) and your idiosyncrasies
>are a lot more tolerated because foreigners are
>supposed to be crazy and individualistic
>anyway. And they have a predilection
>for dragging things to court, and blowing things
>up, and speaking up too loudly, and having no
>qualms about embarrassing everyone.
Yes, we do have that reputation. Actually, we take advantage of it, to a certain extent. I think I mentioned in my last mail that we are working in a business that is by nature dependent on some of those qualities. It is very fast, brutally competitive, and revolves a great deal around young, bizarre people with large talents and huge egos (even here). Our local staff are Singaporeans who, besides being quite talented, have indicated or shown that they can tolerate us and our indiosyncracies, and even enjoy that milieu themselves. We are kind of the misfit outfit of Sembawang Media. We *are* cut slack by SembMedia. We can dress weird, talk loudly, go off on zany tangents, and operate like a bunch of renegades. We are also held to a very high standard. The career of our GM and a great deal of SembMedia’s fortune rest on whether or not we can do the job we were hired to do, and we work eighty hour weeks and most weekends to make sure that happens. That we have the task of creating from whole cloth an industry that didn’t exist here before (in any internationally competitive sense), using staff who have no experience in this business. There is a trade there. We can’t just be a bunch of crazy expats. We are a bunch of crazy expats with a monumental task that depends on the creativity that is part and parcel of our behavior and identity.
That doesn’t mean that we walk around taping silly signs to our CEO’s back, bear-hugging people we don’t know, or belching out loud at company lunches, or trashing meeting rooms. There is a time for us to be bizarre expats (in our own office, for instance), and there is a time for us to be respectful, courteous, quiet, and formal. Part of our learning curve has been knowing when it benefits us to be one, and when it benefits us (or SembMedia) to be the other.
>This is the stereotype of the expat, unvoiced
>but felt very strongly. I know because I’ve
>been taught by expats all my life.
Like many stereotypes there is a kernel of truth there. In America it is considered admirable to prove your independence, to be assertive, and, in some situations, even eccentric or arrogant. It is very much a part of our culture, which is very different in some fundamental ways from Singaporean culture and, by extension, some other Asian cultures.
>Will, Will, I don’t even know why I’m telling you
>this, but you seem so ignorant of the fact that
>the colonial hangover still exists in
Well it is hard to judge from my perspective. In many ways the colonial history shows through very blatantly. In fact, the city I was most reminded of when I came here the first time was London, where I have spent a great deal of time.
As far as people’s perceptions of us as expatriates, that can be very hard to judge. What preconceptions can we operate on? We read up on local culture, but that is only the most general, academic overview. Everything else has to come from day to day experience. From the behavior of our friends and colleagues, of our bosses, and of the people we deal with on a day to day basis down at the corner store.
The experience of an expat isn’t all Mai Tai’s being served up on sterling silver trays at the Raffles Hotel, you know. Under some circumstances we might be rewarded with more respect than we have earned or deserved, or given an unfair amount of slack for eccentric behavior, or given perks by our company. But being an expat in any country, particularly (for a westerner such as myself) in an Asian country, is an intimate dance with the unfamiliar. It is immersion in a culture based on 4000 years of history with very little (until recently) in common with my own antecedents. It is not knowing how to talk to people in different situations. It is seeing women cross the road to avoid walking past you on the sidewalk at night. It is never being quite sure if you are being ridiculed when the shopkeepers you are dealing with burst out laughing and you catch the phrase “ang moh” being traded. It is not knowing when my latitude for eccentricity is about to run out. It is always being one step removed from your local friends no matter how much they may look up to you (in ten months I have been to the home of one non-expatriate friend). It is being too nervous to date anyone locally because I am scared of transgressing some social boundary (and I am not interested in sycophancy –i.e. SPGs). It is having my job, apartment, green card and entire existence here revocable on a whim of my employer with no safety net. It is being 8500 miles from everything that has been a support structure for me all of my life.
Now I enjoy living here a great deal, and I am thankful for all the experiences good and bad (the bad experiences are the ones from which you learn the most, I think). And I do think that we get many privileges, whether because of lingering colonial hangover, or because of the very nature of our position (recruited specialists). But there are many sides to the experience of being an expat.
>History tutor – a U grad and a very intelligent
>woman – asked us: “Don’t you feel _funny_ when you
>see a foreigner working in a menial job? Like
>promoting things or doing hard labour? I do, you
>know…I mean, you’ve been brought up to
>believe…” Bullshit. I know it isn’t true. But
The cure for that is to send people overseas. A few days in any major American or European city and the picture of a westerner doing menial labor will never seem odd again. Of course, not everyone gets that experience.
>Singapore used to (now still, but to a lesser
>extent) depend a lot on imported intelligence.
That is why we are here. It seems particularly prevalent in teaching, though. I have met several expat teachers. I have heard that teaching is a somewhat stigmatized career in Asian society though. Is that true? I have noticed the teacher recruitment ads are running full steam on local television right now.
>their own staff lounge, photostating
>machine, fridge, the department gets a balcony
>to themselves, they are tucked away in an elite
>corner of the college and have the autonomy to
>set their own exam schedules, own papers, and
>conduct their own classes/syllabuses separate
>from the rest of the college.
Interesting. The amount of privilege they are accorded makes anything we get seem pretty paltry (although we have had some concessions, as I am sure you have guessed). But do the perks awarded to that department have anything to do with the nature of the teachers, or is it simply attached to overall academic prestige?
>Look around where you live – it’s notorious for
>being an expat enclave. The terms AEP, LEP etc.
>should be familiar to some of your neighbours, but
>I doubt there are Humanz tutors around. They earn
>enough to afford their own condos and cars.
It sure is expat central. That is something else I didn’t mention about being an expat; being ghettoized. It became obvious that this was an expatriate locus within a day of arriving. I don’t think that I have encountered a Singaporean family living in these buildings yet.
>they would never admit it, they still suffer
>this “foreigners are better/more advanced/
>culturally superior to us” mentality. I know
>because they take wine lessons and send me to
>Europe and eat yoghurt and cheese anddrink Italian
>coffee, like so many Singaporean yuppies.
>And it hurts.
Well, I will tell you something as an outsider here. The western cultural shadow looms very large over Singapore. It is wider than infatuation with foreigners (which is pretty selective, I think…more below). But the reason I knew that it touched deeply here is that it didn’t take me long to become comfortable here. If I can assimilate easily into a culture, that means that western influence is pretty tangible. In everything. Language, food, fashion, pop culture and entertainment. All I have to do is look at the television broadcast schedule to see that in microcosm.
Let me state for the record that, as easy as it may have made my personal experience, I don’t think that it is a good thing. This is not a condescending post-colonial remark, or indicative of any personal infatuation with Asian/Singaporean culture. I think cultural pollution is a serious problem, because the death of cultural diversity both within nations and without leaves us vulnerable as a species. Much like the genetic bottleneck that results when a species of animals is culled to just a few individuals, and then grows back (for instance all the cheetahs in the world are nearly genetically identical, and thus all susceptible to the same diseases and defects), I think that the human race is heading towards a cultural bottleneck that will leave us all vulnerable to the same prejudices and influences. Not a good thing.
Just a theory.
>It hurts when I know the complete works of
>Shakespeare but can’t even name five Chinese
>classics. It hurts when I see the privileges
>my tutors get.
It should hurt. But at least you recognize the problem. That puts you ahead of many people.
You said that we (expats) were all so naive that we thought everyone loved us.
Never the case. Sometimes we can be made to feel that way. Sometimes we (I speak for myself here) feel barely tolerated. There is still authority we will never be given. My uncle worked in Hong Kong for many years. He distilled his business experiences there down to this statement: “White people aren’t allowed to handle the money.” That is an oversimplification, but behind every expat smile is some doubt. How do they see me?
Have I embarrassed myself? Am I an imported, trained monkey? What responsibilities are withheld from me?
>Enough said. If you still want to talk to me
>after this…well, I’m being honest now.
>And maybe a little incoherent, or even a little
>immature, but this is what I think,
You think I am offended by what you have written? Not at all. You are the first person I have communicated with here who has voiced any of these thoughts. You have answered questions that I have wondered about since the day I got here, and provided me with some interesting insights.
Respect and regards,
I have not yet received a reply to that one. I hope I do.
Some of you may (or may not) wonder what kind of a diary I keep to remember the events that go into this journal. It is actually pretty sketchy. There is a text document that lives under my Win95 “Start” button called singpad.txt. This is my day to day notepad for things that I think are worthy of mention in the report from Singapore. I don’t have an archive of all my Singpads, I tend to erase them and start fresh when I begin a new report from Singapore. Here, for your edification, and so that you can see the process in action, is the Singpad from which this report was derived. Typos and asides all included. Until next time, when we celebrate one year of living in Singapore, hasta.
Rob turns evil. Driven by stress.
We experiment with character design for Cyberpunk.
Mike resists Joes abstract idea strongly at first (in
meeting), but immediately changes his mind upon seeing
Alfred’s experimental work, which is
extremely cool. If we use this art syle,
the NPC illos should be distinctive and cool.
Our 128 kbps leased line goes up. Thank Ghod.
Arthur and Isaac have been colluding. Now they
approach Rob and Joe and me with an idea for a game
they want to do, swinging froma buildijg and rescuing
hostages in a city. Some good ideas, not thought
through all the way. We had to quash their fragile
hopes with vague promises for the future. Need them
focussed on I power. Their idea not viable anyway,
with a year produciton cycle.
Digital was supposed to deliver computers thu/fri
June 20/21. But they called and said “no computers
until early next week.” Will they delay again? I don’t
know. They keep pushing back delivery of the
Alpha loaner. All our fears about their service are
Also remark on Chris policy for paying new hires and
the trouble it caused us.
Vince says: Hard alcohol and durian combine to
form a poison that has been known to kill people if
they eat durian and then drink.
Also; Superb graffito in bathroom stall at centrepoint
mall on orchard road:
I pressed her nipples and go into her vagina!
She asked me not to take out my cock from there…
Her sperm never stops flowing!
I fuck her thoroughly!
Three DEC servers came today! In mini tower cases!
But at least they are here.
Big trip planned this weekend if our construction
approval comes through.
Next chapter in the digital adventure was writ large.
We got our machines at long last, last night after
business hours. Great monitors (XP 21s), but all the
machines are 16 MB short on RAM, with the
remainder to be delivered over the next two weeks.
Plus, the P-6 150s are actually P-5 150s! What a
gargantuan fuckup! EC bid on P-5s! No wonder they beat
Intergraph! We were taken out of the loop,
and, naturally, they fucked it up. What a disaster. Now
we need to resolve what we will do with all of
these underpowered, overpriced P-5 150s. Furthermore,
since the 150s are clearly not superior to the P-
166s, but cost 3k more, we consider it indication
that the bid was rigged. See Joe’s fiery e-mail.
Saw in Next Generation that someone now has US
gamesonline.com domain. We tried to get
sembawang to secure this for us six months ago.
They failed. Now we have to change the name of the
company. More dithering.
Tioman trip return two days ago. Great. The
great vanishing e-mail trick where our acocunts all got
reasigned with no notice. Plus, no one takes accountability
for the computer fuckup. We may have to
3/7 4:37 PM:
Chris said uncrate ’em if you need em. his exact words. -WM
Meeting with Paul’s friend Pierro, who talked to us about
Venture capital. Interesting stuff. First
sembawang/seng hon love in at GOL. I meet next week
at BQ. Audio studio trials and tribs with
Intergraph machine. Talk about art development
ands\ some tech design stuff in next Singnote.
Happy 4th. The DECs ar eincompetently set up. The
SCSIs are temrinated wrong, and wil eventually
burn out. We need to connect them correctly. Plus we
have no screws for our uninstalled CD ROM
Oh yeah, Joe called them and told them that we needed
the screws (24) and they sent 20 random
screws of which one fit. Yeeeeeesh.
Are our hard drives in the DECs running beyong
heat tolerance? Ooi thinks so. He is going to get a
thermometer to check.
Well, Ooi just checked, and we’ve lost three
server hdds already. We are checking the staff machines
now. This is another colossal bungling.
Nikto is dead with BIOS problems. Session-8/Intergraph
problems. Joe Tioman disaster. SCUBA
lessons. Emily raised as the bat girl of Tioman.
We just go thrown out of the msall room. now we have
forty computer boxes to store… where?
Meeting with Ch’ng Beng Nin about course material.
We start in two weeks. Plus breakfast wthSeng
Hon this morning. Chris was there. To keep a lid on me?
Paul says: His world is crumbling around him.
Leave him alone. (As I hassle Joe about updating his
Rob fails SCUBA physical
Saw ID4 at last. Still dealing with Session 8
hassles. KL Tan from CSN showed up with his technician.
When we said we wante dot alk to him he talked
to us form his mobile phone form the car outside. he
didn;t dare come in. Apparently he told the digital
rep that our specs were not detailed enough, which
Joe seriously considering venture capital pursuit.
Sembfinance cuts very worrisome. I am officially off
the trip this August. No dollars. SembMedia budget
cut 600,000 bux. Good thing we have everything
already. Joe really doesn;t want to sign a cotnract.
Joe dropped the bomb and banned game playing
during non lunch hours. Too much lollygaggin under
our time pressure. And web browsing too. Oh well,
give ’em too much rope.
SCUBA class started.
Work progresses. It begins to feel like actual progress
around here as the Cybeprunk world comes
together, and the iPower programmers are swingin.
Still some Isaac/Prima Donna concerns. Plus big
meetings with Chris and Seng Hon today, as the Digital
and Financial stuff comes down.
Back from big Scuba trip. It was great. Lecture #2 today.
I had ameeting today with Seng On to fight for
Paul, who has threatened to quit.
Plus we discovered that ou rmighty 3D machines
were being humbled by animated cursors.
Got back from redang diving. usual chain of chaos.
Got the P-6 machines form digital. With no sound
or network cards. The Poly vice principle is scandalized
about Chariman Yeo’s viusit and thinks the
poly should have been included, involved their PR
people, etc. (my ass). Plus he wants reports evry
quarter on what we are doing for the collaboration.
So now the press is not coming to Chairman Yeo’s
visit, we are having a spearate press conference.
Something elsoe to prepare for. Plus we now need to
give the Polytechnic a token of our appreciation.
Florence’s itinerary for the chairman;s visit has
us presenting the chairman and NAP VP with “plague”
rather than “plaque.”
Lovefest II. We rule.
Write about hungry ghosts.
More game redesigns.
A few notes about singnotx
o Already brought up. Chairman Yeo is Permanent Secretary for
Defense not Minister. PermSecs are the CEOs of the various
ministries, ministers are the policy and decision makers.
o The durian and liquor thing
o There are used car dealers. Hopefully I’ll be able to consider
visiting them one day.
o Main reason for COE is to keep the number
of cars on the roads
down. As is, the roads, including the expressways are operating
at capacity during peak hours. This island has no space for much
o There was a time, just after I was born when there was a “Two
is Enough” campaign. That was the time when the birth rate
was higher than what the economy could support. That
campaign encouraged families to limit the number of children
they had to 2. “Encouragement” included withdrawal of tax
and other child support incentives for the third child
and beyond. Of course, a time came when the population
started to age and people started preferring less then 2
children, which resulted in the reversal of policy. Now
extra incentives are given for third and fourth
children but not more then that.
o Where are our speakers?
o SPGs – Sarong Party Girls, not Singapore
Party Girls. Due to the wraps they used to wear in
the early days.
o Some SPGs claim that White men are more romantic.
o I think I can speak for the local staff in GOL about
the phrase gwai loh. Don’t feel shy about it. Using it
around us will not implicate us to be
racist. Heck, locals will be amused to hear
you use gwai loh. Only worry around the really old crowd,
like the sixty, seventy year olds and above,
especially the ones that hang around very native
places like the hawker center along BK rd.
Still, I wouldn’t worry too much.