Singapore, 12 April 2011
Walking into Republic Plaza at Raffles Place on the first day was a daunting experience. The office is on the 53rd floor of one of the many steel and glass fabricated skyscrapers that protrude out of downtown Singapore’s horizon. (On the other side of the city towards Clarke Quay, one can tell the buildings were constructed in the 1980s due to the art deco style and distinct lack of reflective windows, h/t: Jian.) Once you navigate past the three security guards in the lobby and through the endless stream of office workers, then comes the elevator ride. Riding to the 53rd level, not only do your ears block but one is also often left in awkward silence with a group of strangers for two minutes, which is a lot longer than one thinks.
Entering the actual office, the first and last thing one notices is that IISS-Asia has its own climate, which is the polar opposite of outside. Despite Michelle’s attempt to block all of the air-conditioning ducts, the room temperature is at least ten degrees below that of the temperature outside, with zero humidity and zero heat. Future IISS-Asia interns be warned, bring a jumper or pack thermals. Interns work on IISS’ Armed Conflict Database which is run out of the head office in London. Those that are based in the Asia office contribute to the East Asia and Australia section by authoring weekly timelines and monthly updates on ethnic clashes in Xinjiang, the internal conflict in Myanmar, border clashes in Southern Thailand, Southeast Asian Islamist terrorist movements in Indonesia, ethnic violence in West Papua, and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASF), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and New People’s Army (NPA) insurgencies in the Philippines. My other primary responsibility is also adding the Cambodian-Thai dispute surrounding their conflicting claims of sovereignty for Preah Vihear temple and its adjoining territory. This involves writing a historical background, a conflict summary and a timeline dating back to the instigation of the conflict, as well as researching and compiling statistics for fatalities, casualties and internally displaced persons. For anyone that enjoys trolling through BBC, The Economist, and propaganda-ist websites, such as yours truly, the research is extremely rewarding.
The major distraction of the day is lunch. Conveniently, Jian and Michelle are experts on not just IISS affairs but food – telling them what food I am craving is always immediately followed up with an action plan. From noon onwards, hawker centres and sidewalks are converted to open air food courts serving infinite varieties of cheap and cheerful foodstuffs. Finding a table is often near impossible as people reserve seats by leaving small packet tissues on tables and chairs, which is widely respected as a customary form of ‘dibs’. Once a seat is secured, then there comes the choice – from Hakka Thunder Tea Rice, Malaysian curry chicken and pratah, Japanese katsu-don, Singaporean kaya roti to Hong Kong roast duck noodles (just to name a few) – which often proves to be the most difficult decision in a day. Lunch is then downed with glasses of tangy lime juice, 1001 Plus isotonic water or Taiwanese bubble tea. In the evening, my personal favourite hawker centre, Lau Pa Sat, takes over not just the footpaths but car lanes, as an army of staff set up plastic chairs and table while others set up portable grills to mass-barbeque satay sticks of chicken, duck, mutton and prawns. There are even satay donuts.
But I digress. On Thursday, Dr. Rod Lyon from ASPI will host an IISS seminar to discuss the growing multipolarity of Asia and the strategic implications of Asia. Something the office is quite keen on hearing given Singapore’s failed effort to buy the Australian stock exchange. More of which will be the subject of the next post.