Monday, August 29, 2011

Making sense of swelling house prices


Where previously it took about two to three months for a house to be sold, now it is more like a week. And prices have shot through the roof.

LATELY, my favourite pastime is driving around USJ Subang Jaya to look for houses for sale. I’ve no intention of buying a house. I just like to know the market value of the property in my township, which is about 20km from Kuala Lumpur.

A week ago I saw a “For Sale” sign and I punched in the real estate agent’s number.

And I was pleasantly shocked to discover that a link house a few metres from mine was sold for RM390,000.

Yeah, I thought, I’m 39% a millionaire.

Well, maybe 33%, as my link house is at a T-Junction and faces west.

I was also shocked, because I assumed 20 x 60 link houses in USJ 13 were priced around RM250,000 to RM300,000 (depending on whether the owner had extended the unit).

My assumption was based on my immediate neighbour’s link house having been sold for RM218,000 last year.

I was told it went for a song as the market price was around RM250,000.

Yes, I regret not buying that house.

For the rest of my life I will be living next to a symbol of my lack of foresight.

Is my other neighbour’s house really worth RM390,000? Curious, I drove around USJ 13 looking for “For Sale” signs.

And my calls to real estate agents confirmed the RM390,000 price tag was not a fluke, or a “fake” like the RM14.5bil golden yacht.

Each time I call a real estate agent I get a “wow!” moment.

The prices are unbelievable in this award-winning township USJ (UEP Subang Jaya).

For example, an abandoned, dilapidated 3,000 sq ft corner house in USJ 3 went for RM715,000.

A basic one-and-a-half storey house in USJ 11 was sold for RM450,000.

I’ve been making so many calls to real estate agents that I’ve become an adept real estate agent of sorts. I can now size up a unit and correctly guess the asking price.

Now my favourite question is not “how much?” but “why is the price unbelievable?”

One real estate agent told me “the prices don’t make sense”. To make sense of the property market in USJ, I had a chat with M.L. Ho, Property Watch head of operations.

“How’s the market for USJ houses?” I asked the real estate agent with 15 years’ experience in the business.

“Very vibrant – in the sense that there are more buyers than sellers (10 genuine buyers to one seller). In terms of pick-up rate, there has been a sudden surge since the beginning of this year,” Ho said.

“So has the jump in prices. We have not seen this for a long, long time.

“In fact a price jump – some of them 60% – is very unprecedented in the property market.”

Usually, a house is sold around a week after the “For Sale” sign is put up.

Previously, it took about two to three months for a house to be sold.

The jump in prices was “so fantastic” that it caught many buyers as well as the experienced real estate agent himself by surprise.

His 29-year-old software engineer son was looking for a RM400,000 house early this year.

“We were stunned when we found out that the prices (for the size they were looking for) had shot up to 500K,” related Ho, who lives in USJ.

“Unfortunately for my son, the price of houses just keeps going up. There is a rush to buy property in USJ. Buyers are sort of panicking because there is a lack in supply.

“We thought the prices have gone haywire.But, the thing is, if you don’t buy, there are always people who are willing to buy.”

Until now, his son is still searching for a house.

“My advice to him is to slow down and wait for the scenario to change as I think the property price has reached a very, very dangerous level,” he said. However, some may disagree with me on this.”

The surge in house prices, according to Ho, is due to the fact that there is no more land around USJ for development.

It is also because developers are building expensive houses in USJ (a newly-launched link house in USJ Height costs about RM800,000).

The “fantastic” house prices in USJ are reflective of the property market in the Klang Valley.

“There is a surge in prices, especially for landed property,” Ho said.

The property market is so hot that I constantly receive flyers from real estate agents asking if I want to sell my house.

When I read the “invitation to sell” letters, I wonder whether I live in a bubble.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The kiasu and kiasi of being Singaporean

One Man's Meat

According to former Singapore Miss World Ris Low, Singaporeans are always hustling and bustling. Life is very stressful, very ‘kiasu’ (overly-competitive) and very ‘kiasi’ (afraid of doing something wrong).

FOR someone who can’t wink, former Singapore Miss World contestant Ris Low sure can think.

Or that was the impression I got from the Singaporean who was named as one of Asia’s 25 most influential people by CNN’s affiliate website CNNGo in 2009.

The 21-year-old beauty queen sure had a lot of things on her mind when I interviewed her to get the low-down on her nation.

Singapore, a five-hour drive from Subang Jaya, has been my second home as I’ve got in-laws living there.

I enjoy my weekend stay in the island republic. But each time I’m in the Little Red Dot (as former Indonesian President B.J. Habibie described Singapore) I wondered what makes our southern neighbours tick.

Even though I’m on holiday, there’s always something stressful about the island republic. Is it because its parking space is narrower than in Malaysia or drivers love to honk when you’re a tad slow to respond to a green light or the “ticking” ERP (Electronic Road Pricing, an electronic system of road pricing based on a pay-as-you-use principle)?

And, I thought, who was better to explain Singapore than Miss Singapore World 2009. Low, according to CNNGo, is “singularly responsible for giving Singapore its catchphrase of the year (2009) – the infamous ‘Boomz!’”.

Life as a Singaporean, said Low, was “very competitive.”

“We are always hustling and bustling. Very fast pace. Very kiasu (overly-competitive). Very kiasi (afraid of doing something wrong). Very stressful,” noted the beauty queen in an interview at a McDonald’s in a suburb of Singapore.

An example of kiasu behaviour, according to Low, is Singaporeans will queue up when they see a long line.

“They don’t know what they are queuing up for but they assume if there is a queue there is something good at the end of the line,” she explained.

Low’s definition of kiasi is “everybody covering their own backside”.

“For example, Singaporeans like to talk about politics among themselves but they will not voice it out at another level (publicly),” she related.

Curious to go beyond the clichéd description of Singaporeans being kiasu and kiasi, I asked “What’s the big advantage of being a Singaporean?”

“Our passport is very good that we don’t need visa (to visit another country),” Low said, with a look that could be described as “Boomz”.

The disadvantage of being a Singaporean, according to Low, is “you can’t afford to have a past”.

“Once you have a past, Singaporeans are very unforgiving,” she revealed.

“My case is the perfect example,” she said, referring to her conviction for credit card fraud. Eventually, about two months after being crowned Miss Singapore World 2009, she had to give up her title.

Low continued: “I hope Singaporeans will stand up for their own people. Almost every beauty queen in Singapore has been put down by these cowards who sit behind their computer and bully us by saying we are ugly.

“It is very sad that they are stepping on us to make themselves taller,” she added.

“What’s a distinctive Singaporean character?” I asked.

“When you need help, everybody just stares at you,” she noted.

“For example, I witnessed an accident and I gave first aid to the victim. Then I asked the uncles and aunties who were watching to call 911 but nobody came forward to help. All they were interested in was to take down the car’s plate number.”

It was the same when a man pulled down Low’s strapless dress while she was in a taxi queue last year.

“I asked for help. But nobody helped me and the man managed to run away. I felt like a fool. I felt like digging a hole and burying myself so that I would just die,” she revealed.

“Singaporeans are too caught up in their own world – always vying for money and status. They have lost their heart.”

But Low also admitted there are Singaporeans who did not appreciate help.

“I once tried to help an old lady cross the street. I offered to carry her shopping bags because they looked heavy and she looked frail,” she related. “But she scolded me because she thought I wanted to steal her shopping bags. It was so embarrassing.”

Turning philosophical, Low noted: “In Singapore nobody has pure intention. Everybody has an agenda. So I understand why the older you are, the more you lose hope in life.”

At the end of the interview, the beauty queen attempted to wink and failed. Smiling, she apologised, saying “my facial muscles are not trained to wink”.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Lost in one’s own country

One Man's Meat

Despite the nation’s ‘mid-life crisis’ and often feeling like a stranger in his own land, Mr Brown and many of his fellow countrymen are still proud to call Singapore their home.

ON Tuesday afternoon, popular Singapore satirist Mr Brown reminded his wife not to lose sight of their kids in the MRT train.

“Our two kids were wearing red and white and I was worried we could not find them as everyone else’s children were wearing red and white, too” related Lee Kin Mun, whose childhood nickname is Mr Brown.

Like most Singaporeans on the MRT, the Lee family – minus nine-year-old Faith, their eldest child – was on their way to watch the National Day parade at Marina Bay waterfront in Singapore.

That evening, while his wife and kids watched from the stands, Mr Brown was working – taking photographs of the island republic’s 46th birthday celebration.

“Is Singapore facing a mid-life crisis?” I asked the 42-year-old blogger who describes himself as “the accidental author of popular Singapore website that has been documenting the dysfunctional side of Singapore life since 1997”.

Fresh from his 10km bicycle ride from his Tampines HDB flat to his office in Kampong Glam, Mr Brown wryly said: “We are starting to want to look for other women. We just had five new members of parliament from the opposition. We are not so loyal anymore. We want some variety in our life.

“As a nation, we are looking for something more than just that one person, that one party. We want to party more.”

The “woman” Mr Brown is talking about is the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) which has won every general election since 1959.

How is Singapore 2011 compared with Singapore 2001?

“I don’t think people feel very well off. We are still well provided for, but the Singaporean dream of owning a car, a house and maybe private property is kind of out of reach for most people in the middle class. Wages have not kept up with the rising cost of living,” the satirist lamented.

“Ten years ago we did not have that many foreign workers here. And while most Singaporeans don’t have anything against foreigners, the rate at which they come in and their lack of integration are causing lots of friction in society.

“You walk into an MRT carriage and sometimes you are the only Singaporean surrounded by foreigners – you can tell by their accent.”

Foreigners, according to the blogger, need to change their behaviour and become more integrated into Singapore society.

For example, he said, workers from China must realise that the island republic is not “Little China”, and they should not assume the other races in multi-racial Singapore spoke Chinese.

“But the football team that whacked Malaysia are made of...” I started.

“Foreign talents. You must use the right term,” Mr Brown interjected with a mischievous grin.

Are you proud that Singapore kicked Malaysia out of the World Cup?

“It is with mixed feelings. On one hand, yeah, we won. But on the other hand, it is the same feeling as when we won an Olympic silver medal in table tennis. Most Singaporeans went ‘it would be nicer if somebody born and bred here had won it,’” he explained.

But aren’t they Singaporean?

“Yeah, right. They are...on paper. But maybe 10 years from now people will accept them as true Singaporeans,” he said.

“But still, that victory against the Malaysian football team was sweet.”

“When we beat Malaysia it was like we won the World Cup. That is the way we are, as we will never win the World Cup in my lifetime,” he explained.

“Are you the voice of dissent in Singapore?” I asked Mr Brown, who used to write a column in Today newspaper from 2003 to 2006 but was “suspended indefinitely” when the government did not find his comment – “the price of goods went up after the 2006 polls” – funny.

“Dissent is a strong word. I think I am the voice of satire,” said the blogger, who produces multimedia content for corporate and government clients.

“I am like most Singaporeans. We sit at home and we complain. We agree that there are good things about Singapore, but at the same time we are quite quick to point out where the gaps are. In my case, I just say it louder than most people.”

Where is Singapore heading?

“Hell knows. Everybody is giving me doom and gloom stories. I think it is going to be more competitive for us,” he said.

“But adversity is healthy. I think we will do okay, as we are not strangers to reinventing ourselves.”

Monday, August 08, 2011

Johor’s own Iban heartland

One Man's Meat

There are thousands of them at Ground Zero' for Johor-based Ibans Taman Megah Ria in Masai. Six out of 10 of those patronising the shops there are Ibans.

ON Wednesday, I went headhunting for Ibans in Johor.

“Huh?” a peninsular Malaysian friend said, when told of my plan. “Ibans and Johor don't equate,” he said.

I told him arguably the largest number of Ibans living outside of Sarawak is in Johor.

The number depending on who you speak with ranges from 40,000 (Dr John Brian Anthony of to 10,000 (Datuk M.M. Samy, the MIC assemblyman for Permas, a state seat under the Pasir Gudang parliament constituency).

The Ibans crossed the South China Sea to berjelai (an Iban word for journey) to Johor (and nearby Singapore) because of limited economic opportunities in their home state.

Ground Zero for the Johor-based Ibans is at Taman Megah Ria in Masai, Pasir Gudang.

Six out of 10 people patronising the 40-odd shops in the housing area about 22km from Johor Baru are Ibans.

If you walk around the four blocks of shops, you'll get a clue as to why the place attracts Ibans.

There's Panggau Libau Paradise restaurant (serving ayam pansoh, chicken cooked in bamboo, and kolo mee, a famous Sarawakian noodle dish), the Apai Jamming Studio, Gereja Methodist Iban Johor, the Gagasan Dayak Iban Malaysia Bersatu (GAIU or Iban Dayak United Malaysian Organisation) office and a shop selling CDs of singers from Sarawak and Sabah.

The main attraction is the Tamu Dayak (some call it Pasar Borneo) on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons.

At the wet market at the car park boxed in by the four shop blocks you can find popular Sarawakian products such as fresh and salted terubok fish, live sago worms, midin (wild jungle fern which is stir fried in belacan) and wild boar.

Tamu Dayak, according to GAIU Johor president Sai Malaka, started around 1998 when Sarawakians attending three churches, Calvary, Methodist and Sidang Injil Borneo, located at Taman Megah Ria town sold vegetables such as midin along the shops corridors.

Then in 2005 the Johor Baru City Council “chased away” the vegetable hawkers because they did not have permits.

“We needed local backing to obtain a licence to open a market,” recalled Sai, an Iban who is a Johor People's Progressive Party (PPP) exco member.

“And we approached PPP to help establish a farmers' market.”

In 2007, the Pasar Pagi PPP (PPP morning market) was born. It evolved into an afternoon market and became known as Tamu Dayak.

The wet market, noted Johor PPP chairman Datuk Dr Siva Kumar, offered a unique Borneo experience to Johoreans.

“When you go to a local market it is all business.

“The hawkers do not have time to speak to you.

“The guy selling the vegetable will say How much do you want? One kilo? You don't want? Ok, you can go',” Dr Siva related.

“With the Sarawakians, no doubt they are there to do business. but I find them to be humble and simple.

“When you ask them about a vegetable from the forest in Johor which I've never seen, they will tell you how it should be cooked.”

Interestingly, I thought the produce sold at the Tamu Dayak was indigenous to Sarawak.

But when I did my “marketing”, the Iban hawkers told me the bamboo shoot came from Batu Pahat, the sago worms from palm oil estates in Kulai and wildlife from the jungles in Pasir Gudang.

“The locals have limited knowledge of what they can harvest from the jungle,” noted Sai, the owner of Panggau Libau Paradise restaurant.

“However, the market has made many aware and interested in this produce.”

The back of Panngau Libau Paradise faces Tamu Dayak and next door is an Iban restaurant, Randau Ruai.

There, 25-year-old kindergarten teacher Elise Lapik, an Iban who could easily win a Kumang Gawai (Dayak Harvest Festival Queen) contest, together with her mother and aunt were ordering Sarawak laksa.

“We are here because of the market,” explained Elise, born in Kapit, a town in Sarawak only accessible by boat via Malaysia's longest river, the Rajang, or by helicopter.

When she was eight, her family moved to the greener pasture of Johor. For her, Taman Megah Ria is like a mini Sarawak.

“I love this place. So many Sarawakians here. Whatever we want from Sarawak we can get here,” she enthused.

Monday, August 01, 2011

From ‘so what’ to instant fan


Soulful singer Amy Winehouse has joined the exclusive “forever 27 club” – troubled musicians who die at that age – ending her struggle with substance abuse.

AMY Winehouse is dead. And I’m now a fan. I found out via Twitter that Winehouse died at about 12.23am (Malaysian time) on July 24.

@asianbeaver retweeted: “Police sources have confirmed that Amy Winehouse is dead. Found at her North London home at 3.54pm. Drink and drugs overdose suspected.”

So what? I thought. Another singer dead. What’s new? I was clueless about Winehouse’s reputation.

She was a name and face that I was hazily aware of. When she was alive, I had little curiosity about a singer whose trademarks were her beehive, heavy eyeliner, tattoos, six-inch stilettos and micro-dresses.

After reading (a Malaysian website designed to add sizzle and spice to your life), I knew that she was a troubled young woman.

Her trouble had something to do with substance abuse.

I was also clueless about her music. I assumed that with her druggie image she was a punk rock or an emo artist (emo is a style of rock music typically characterised by melodic musicianship and expressive, often confessional, lyrics).

Now, don’t give me that dirty look. I’ve been ignorant of contemporary music since I got tired of watching MTV about a decade ago.

Probably the last music video I ever watched on MTV was Madonna’s Music.

Minutes after her death, my Twitter timeline (a real-time list of tweets on Twitter) was swamped with tweets about Winehouse’s tragic death.

The one tweet which changed me from “So what?” to “Who is she?” was from @imfionaho: (Winehouse) is the singer who sang “They tried to make me go to rehab. I said no, no, no.”

(According to, the song Rehab – about her refusal to attend an alcohol rehabilitation centre – generated huge publicity with Winehouse frequently being photographed drinking on stage and in pubs.)

And – because I am now part of the generation that doesn’t watch CNN or BBC on TV – with a quick tap of my right middle finger on the iPad I googled “Amy Winehouse”.

I watched a BBC breaking news video clip.

The announcer said the singer was found dead by ambulance crews at her London flat. He continued: “In an era of synthetic music, she was a singer-songwriter. The stuff that she sang was her own.”

Winehouse, was also described in the BBC report as one of the most talented and soulful artists of her age. That was a ‘huh’ moment for me. Talented? Soulful?

Curious, I clicked YouTube to watch her video Back To Black. And I became an instant fan.

The lyrics were so sorrowful: “We only said goodbye with words. I died a hundred times. You go back to her. And I go back to black.”

Her voice was so soulful.

It was her break-up with boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil (a former video production assistant and fellow drug user) that inspired Back To Black, a single in her million-selling album of the same title which was released in October 2006.

“One of the secrets of the singer’s success,” according to Fiona Sturges of British newspaper The Independent, “was that her pain was real, born from her much-publicised drug abuse and heartache.”

Her out-of-control personal life made her the Lindsay Lohan of soul music.

Winehouse shocked a journalist from Spin (a US magazine) when she carved Fielder-Civil’s name on her abdomen with a shard from a mirror during the interview.

In May 2007, she secretly married Fielder-Civil in Florida, United States. They divorced in 2009.

You can watch YouTube clips of her disastrous final performance in Belgrade last month.

Winehouse cancelled her Euro-pean comeback tour after she – in the words of Sturges – “appeared drunk, mumbling into the microphone, clutching members of her band and at one point, sitting on the floor and removing her shoes.”

She was booed off stage.

Winehouse died at the age of 27. The soulful singer joins an exclusive club – “forever 27” – of troubled musicians to die at that age.

Musical legends such as Janis Joplin (Queen of Rock and Roll and the Queen of Psychedelic Soul), Jimi Hendrix (one of the greatest electric guitarists in musical history), Jim Morrison (The Doors frontman) and Kurt Cobain (lead singer in grunge band Nirvana).

When you do the math, Lady Gaga (born March 28, 1986) has two more years to go, while 17-year-old Justin Bieber will be luckier, as his singing career will probably be dead before he reaches the “forever 27” mark.

Winehouse may have died, but her music lives on.