Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Emergency Action Plan - What's yours?

Merry Christmas everyone!!!

A and I aren't the Christmassy or festive sort, even though we have been raised Christians. We are universally somewhat averse to any festive occasion, though we actually enjoy a gathering of close friends and family. That need not necessarily be pegged to any particular occasion though.

Anyway, I digress. This won't be the last digression. "Neurotic Ramblings", you know?

Earlier this year, we did our PADI Divemaster internship in Sabah. As our friends and regular readers know, we are avid recreational divers! One of the things we learned during our course, was the concept of an Emergency Action Plan (EAP).

In short, anyone planning a Scuba trip (that would require the expertise of at least a Divemaster, though DMs as fresh as us typically wouldn't be in charge of trip planning from scratch), needs to have an EAP as well. For those who are midway through or considering a DM course, here's my EAP for your reference, if you wish.

This concept of EAP isn't only applicable to diving. Organisations have a different form of it, for fires or other emergencies. A school chemistry lab would have some sort of EAP for all the mishaps which could occur with the chemicals and students. You need one when you explore the Great Outback on 4WD (or foot, bike, whatever).

Why not at home?

This post was inspired by someone from Melbourne SG Kampung, the Facebook group I joined just before flying here. He posted: 

"How to use our medicare card? Bulk billing? vomiting now at christmas eve. GP?"
Of course, the usual helpful folks in the group chipped in with useful advice. But why wait?

Why not create your own basic EAP so that you know which 24-hour clinics and hospitals are in the vicinity, and program them into your GPS (and ideally drive the route with other drivers in the family to familiarise yourselves if required)?

Of course, in a real emergency, you'd dial 000 (or whatever the number is in your hometown) and wait for the real professionals to show up. But sometimes, it's bad but not that serious, or it's really that serious and you have transport at hand, and it's safe to transport the casualty (no spinal injuries, etc) yourself to save time.

Colourful 'ambos' of Victoria state. They seem really pissed about their pay, and have painted their vehicles in protest....

Your home EAP doesn't have to be elaborate. Last night, I finally stopped procrastinating and programmed the two nearest public hospitals (if it's not dire enough to need an ambulance, I'm choosing public, for Medicare reasons) into my GPS. That's my EAP. I've also bookmarked the URL of the nearest 24 hour clinic. If it's not quite so serious, A or I can fire up our Macbook and find the number and address of the clinic before heading over.

In Singapore, it's a bit more of a no-brainer. Most drivers know how to get to the nearest hospital. If not, taxis are readily available. Your neighbourhood also likely has a 24-hour clinic within walking distance (though "walking distance" diminishes rapidly when one falls ill...).

In Australia, no more spoonfeeding. Think, plan, and be prepared to use it.

- S

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Australia vs SG: Individual autonomy, vs robust systems

Here's a quick one from me. Apologies for the Wall-of-Text format and below-par writing standard but we are actually living a fulfilling life here and thus don't have all that much time for blogging, as compared to in SG.

No, it's not a Singapore-bashing post, or a post to extoll the benefits of Oz. You, my readers, have made your own judgements, and I have made mine, so let's not pretend we can change our minds. I'm just here to share a few observations I have made in the short while we've been in Oz.

In summary, Oz seems to favour individual autonomy rather than rely on a robust system like SG does. Here, individuals have a lot of independence and latitude in solving problems, while things in SG work on the basis of Standard Operating Procedures, and constant drills. In comparison, independent thinking and problem-solving seem to take a back seat in SG.

The weakness of Australia's systems (vs Singapore's)

Is the Aussie way necessarily better? Well, relying on systems alone, SG is way ahead. I just tried to change my details with the Australian Taxman (ATO), and logged into the website only to find out that I couldn't access my account until I had phoned in to provide certain "secret" information only the ATO and myself would know.

So I phoned in, and the nice lady on the phone told me what was needed. As a new resident, I had NONE of the information required to set up my online account to do my own personal updates. So she did it for me.

No biggie. It was less efficient, but more personal. I don't think this is the way to go, but I have time, and I enjoyed talking to her (don't think dirty, she sounded like she was in her 50s, and I don't swing that way...)

There's no equivalent comparison with SG. I wouldn't know as I hardly had to do anything for my tax matters, and MINDEF settled everything for me. When I had to log on, I used SINGPass, which is a one-step login to ALL government websites. Convenient? Definitely. Efficient? Way to go Singapore!!! No kidding!

The drawbacks of a dull/rigid workforce (vs Australia)

I'm sure all of us can remember the major MRT breakdowns of late 2011, which resulted in one major casualty - the window of an MRT train.

Without digging up old articles on that, I recall that the driver basically did nothing for the passengers. He probably didn't know what to do. He didn't reassure them, or provide ventilation, and there was an undue delay before evacuation commenced. Didn't the emergency ventilation system kick in? Perhaps the SOP then had no provision for its failure as well?

We haven't been in a public transport breakdown yet in Melbourne. But little service disruptions occur every day, it seems. On the tram, we heard numerous announcements over the network PA system about diversions and disruptions. Trams would divert from their usual routes to take alternative tracks, if there are issues. There is redundancy in the system. It shouldn't come to a complete standstill, unless there is a Melbourne-wide blackout or something.

On one tram ride, we have had an exuberant and spontaneous driver who used the tram P.A system to shout at other inconsiderate road users. "GET OUT OF THE WAY!!" Or something to that effect. This same driver gave a running commentary of the CBD, much like a tour guide would. And no, this was on the regular route, not the free tourist tram that also plies the CBD area. He also announced that he was going on a long holiday and that his usual passengers would not be seeing him for a few weeks. After that, he wished everyone a Merry Christmas, and the passengers broke out in applause!

None of this is relevant to our lives. I mean sure, if people got out of the way of the tram, that helps because the tram moves that little bit faster. But it's not too significant IMHO. I sure didn't need to know his holiday plans.

But being on that tram made me feel like I had a connection with the driver, and with the other passengers around me. Sure, I wasn't a regular passenger, but that warm feeling was there.

This feeling is what tells me that I am home, even if I don't have a nice climate-controlled SBS transit bus with a driver that doesn't say anything unless spoken to.

Now imagine in SG, such a driver would probably get "Stomped" and ticked off if he had tried to scold other errant road users. I know that there are good bus drivers, cabbies and probably even train drivers in SG, but it's the stifling environment which discourages us from making human connections like this. Individual autonomy is what gives me the confidence that Australians are more likely to be able to solve problems as they come, rather than looking to SOP or "drawer plans" which would work well if the problem was anticipated, but totally useless otherwise.

If we could have independent-thinking people like the Australians (or many other First World countries), and robust systems like in SG, what a perfect place that would be!

- S

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Milestone 2: Our car-buying process

Hey everyone!

A and I have been really busy over the past month that we've been here. It's been exactly 31 days since we touched down in Melbourne. And by the grace of God and loving help from our friends, we have come a very long way since we first arrived as two blur Singaporeans with our three bike boxes, two SAF duffel bags and other luggage.

I will do my best to respond to all the comments that we haven't adequately addressed. Truth be told, we don't have most of the answers and we are still learning about life here.

Buying a car

This isn't going to be much of a guide, it's more of the process we went through while car-hunting. This was done simultaneously with house-hunting, and it's very important that you have a decent mobile plan which covers the usage that you need. Lebara's Unlimited plan (running on Vodafone network) as mentioned in an earlier post has been good, though the coverage is inferior to Telstra's prepaid service Boost. I simply used to search for the model of car I wanted, and shortlisted the vehicles which fit my desired age and mileage range.

Useful steps for car buying:

1. Know what you want.

Sounds duh. But if you are considering between a brand new Ford Fiesta ST and a used Subaru Forester XT like I was, you have some serious issues. I eventually got the Forester, but I'd still like the Fiesta ST. And a BMW M3, Mazda MX5... 

Ok so I'm a petrolhead. But think through your needs and wants and budget, then decide on the make and model you are shortlisting.

Do note that driving in the city is a MEGA PAIN IN THE ASS whatever car you drive. You do NOT want to drive in the city on a regular basis. Cycling is the best form of transport, followed by public transport, IMHO. Bear that in mind when choosing your vehicle.

You'd probably want to spring a little more for a model with cruise control for the occasions you see an empty road in built-up areas. Think about what you want to do on weekends as well. Attack winding country roads? Camping? Light off-roading?

Just buy a Forester XT like I did. Unless you have a big budget, then the Volvo, BMW, and Porsche SUVs are awesome too (good luck with servicing). Or the Range Rover Sport (again, good luck with servicing). But then you'd probably be able to afford brand new and not need this rubbish guide anyway.

If you must have a small Automatic city car, then you have my condolences. Just avoid anything with a CVT transmission. If you have to ask what a CVT is, then I don't think I can help you at all (not because I expect everyone to know what a CVT is, but because there's this thing called Google...)

2. Shortlist.

I can't give a number. I bought the third Forester we viewed. I also viewed two WRXes, before coming to my senses and realizing that the mighty Rex wasn't going to cut it for our planned outback adventures. More about our first adventure in some future blog post. I had also shortlisted another five to six Rexes, and five more Foresters. I didn't feel the need to view all of them once I had viewed the first few cars. It also helped that I am a former Subaru owner, having had a WRX STi when we were living in SG.

3. Spam

The more the merrier. You will want to add all  shortlisted sellers to your contact list. Since I was looking at multiple models, my contact list looked like this: "Elias Carsales Forester", "Jim Carsales WRX", Marina Gumtree Forester"... Etc... Ok, I admit that I didn't hunt for cars on Gumtree, but they are advertised there too.

Send them all a generic SMS, but make sure you update the model of the car (if you are shopping for more than one), offer price (because their asking prices are different and you may want to offer more for lower-mileage), and their names. Once you come up with your own SMS template, you can reuse it for as many cars as you like, without sounding rude or anything.

4. Look, listen, smell, drive

Short of taste. You are buying a secondhand car here, and unless you have the cash to splurge on fairly new cars still under warranty, you are on your own.

Look for uneven panel gaps. Look for weird stains on the exhaust. Any oil or carbon stains? The engine might be an oil burner or be poorly-tuned. My car had both, suggesting that it was possibly an accident vehicle and is running slightly rich. But it's turbocharged, so hopefully... Well, you, dear reader, can learn from my mistake.

Smell. Does the exhaust smell bad or abnormal once the car is warmed-up? A cold engine will emit more unburned hydrocarbons (basically bad smells, or good smells if you have a substance abuse issue) until the catalytic convertor has warmed up, so that's normal. Does the interior smell bad? If it smells very strongly of something you don't like, factor in the cost of steam cleaning. Or simply, pass.

Incidentally, you can buy your own hand-held steam cleaner for about $30 brand new, but I digress.

Sound. Does everything sound ok? Open and close the doors, windows, flick the signal indicators, turn the steering wheel when the engine is on. Do everything. Listen.

For me, the drive mattered above all. Having excluded two very delicious Rexes, it was a fight between three Forester XT manuals. The third one with weird gaps, spoilt drivers's window (possible impact there?) and black exhaust tip drove the best of all, and had the slickest gearshift. It also had the lowest mileage by far.

5. Dealer or private owner? Ex-fleet vehicle?

In Oz, there are many agencies which buy vehicles in bulk for their employees' usage. My Forester started its service with some Tasmanian water services company. Of course, I didn't manage to find this out until today, about three weeks after getting the car. Did it matter? One of the two "reject" Foresters was an ex-fleet vehicle as well, and I didn't reject it on that basis.

Any vehicle which is purchased in 'bulk' is likely to be of a more reliable model. Of course, it's less likely to be driven with care and taken care of diligently, as compared to an enthusiast like myself.

On the plus side...

- It's likely to be serviced regularly at an authorised dealer
- It's highly unlikely to have been illegally-modified
- It's not likely to have been driven by the ex-owners' teenaged son or daughter
- Not so likely to have pets or babies and their associated residues...

Anyway, I was looking for a Forester XT of a certain mileage and price range, so I didn't have much choice.

I also swung towards buying from a dealer, as opposed to two prior private owners. A dealer gives three months and 5000km warranty. Not much, but certainly better than NONE. Of course, in the worst case scenario, I could have got a shit dealer who wouldn't honor it. But Pierre Collet Motors along Burwood Highway does. I discovered my foglights and rear wiper weren't working sometime after collecting my car, and popped by one day when it was one the way. Drew Collet (the founder's son) was apologetic about it and got everything sorted in about 20 minutes.

Of course, these niggles should have been settled before handing over the car. But it was also my fault for not doing my due diligence.

A dealer also settles all the paperwork for you. Short of car insurance which I decided to get on my own.

If you think about it, while many horror stories of dishonest dealers abound, there must also be dishonest private owners, and dealers have a lot more to lose. But I must say that I think I was pretty lucky to have found a decent dealer. Your mileage may vary....

6. Mileage

As my good fellow migrant friend told me, "High mileage is not an issue. In fact it may mean mostly highway kms".

My take on this is: Look for milestones. Is the car due for a Timing Belt change in 10,000kms? Has it done say, 170,000km on its original clutch?

Signs like this indicate expensive major servicing is coming up. Factor this in when you bargain.

7. Documentation

Receipts, service logs, anything. You can learn a lot about the service history. My car was serviced at slightly erratic intervals (up to 16,000kms between servicing). Not a good thing, but the dealer was honest about it. The timing belt was recently changed with full receipts, at a Subaru dealership. That's a good sign. The comprehensive receipt also lets me know exactly what I need to change at the next round, and what can last a bit longer.

Incidentally, I know Subaru owners in SG think that turbo Subarus need to be serviced every 5000km. The interval stipulated in Oz for the Forester is 12,500km. And that's with 5W-30 oil.

I guess that's why I'm getting about 10km/l for my typical urban mix and 11km/l for extra-urban, including mountainous roads (I believe the downhills compensate fully for the uphills, no fuel consumption penalty at all!)

Now that's pretty decent for a fully-loaded SUV with full-time AWD and with me boosting the turbo occasionally (pedal floored, second gear to redline when entering freeway).

Not bad at all...

- S