My overseas friends are always asking me what I do in my spare time. And they ask this with such serious fascination – a concerned frown creasing their forehead the way one mother might look at another mother if the latter announced that her 15-year old kid was still breast-feeding.
And I usually hesitate, because I’m never quite sure what to say. All my local friends like to joke that there’s nothing to do in Singapore except eat, shop and go to the movies. Well, now they can also go gambling, provided, of course, they can get past the queues of people outside, slowly baking in the hot sun. You’d have thought that they’d also be having sex, but judging by the recent surveys of Singapore’s falling birth rate and abysmal condom sales, apparently, that’s not happening either.
Which brings me back to my original source of embarrassment. I mean, you don’t really want to tell people that all you do on the weekends is eat, shop and watch movies, do you? What kind of an impression will that create in the minds of these impressionable foreigners?
But then, should I lie? Should I tell my American friends that on the weekends, I can be found abseiling down the Marina Bay Sand casino building? Or jet-skiing around Punggol? Which, in turn, gets me depressed because I can’t help but think how much more fun my life would be if I actually did any of these things. Nothing is more sobering than being forced to see your life from the perspective of a big fat lie.
The truth is, I just like to do nothing. Even when I’m meant to be busy. I could never do what Barack Obama does, for instance. All that stress of running a country and then having to make all those long boring speeches. In fact, I would never have run for office in the first place, let alone get out of bed.
But the one thing that I really like to do is to get free things. Now, I realise that some people may object to this on the grounds that this isn’t exactly an activity as such, but I like to think that seeing as the physical act of accepting the free thing requires actual effort, that’s got to count for something.
Recently, my flatmate Saffy returned home from what appeared to be a very successful shopping spree. ‘You’ll never guess what I’ve been doing!’ she announced immediately as she dropped what looked like ten Mustafa shopping bags.
‘You’ve been shopping. At Mustafa!’
‘Well, yes, I have,’ Saffy admitted, her impressive bosom deflating a little. ‘But that’s not all. I am the proud owner of a Mustafa loyalty card! Look!’ she said waving the little laminated card in my direction.
I sat up with interest. ‘What does it do?’ I asked.
‘I have no clue,’ Saffy replied. ‘I was just buying some toothpaste and shampoo and the girl at the counter asked me if I wanted to be a member, so I said yes.’
‘Did she say what the benefits are?’
‘She didn’t know either. She said the programme wasn’t going to launch for another couple of months.’
I eyed all the bags on the floor and wondered aloud how much toothpaste and shampoo Saffy had bought.
'Well, that’s the thing. I got so excited about my new card that I figured I might as well get more things while I was there.’
‘You get points with this card?’
‘I have no idea!’ Saffy repeated. ‘The girl didn’t know either, but we both figured it couldn’t hurt to start racking up the Mustafa dollars. Otherwise, what’s the point of a loyalty card?’
‘That’s what they’re called? Mustafa dollars?’
‘No, it’s what I’m calling them. They better be worth something,’ Saffy threatened, ‘otherwise I’ve just bought a lot of flavoured condoms for no reason!’
So here’s the thing. It’s mindless consumer behaviour like this that makes me love this country. People just willy-nilly giving away their private NRIC number to complete strangers in the vague hope that the little piece of plastic they’re given in exchange might one day get them something. Like a packet of sweets, or maybe a desk calendar, if they’re lucky.
When she heard about Saffy’s retail adventure in Little India, Amanda announced that it was women like Saffy that were causing the country’s falling birth rate. Saffy said privately that this was really rich coming from someone who had just dropped $13,000 on a stupid handbag that didn’t even have a zip. And, of course, first thing tomorrow, I’m heading out to Mustafa to get my card.