Where tragedy is seen as lucky - for someone else

SINGAPORE DAYS
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The Independent Online
Singapore - Whenever a car crashes on the clean, futuristic streets of Singapore, crowds run to the wreckage. Some go to help, but many stop only to scribble down the registration of the smashed-up car. Then they race off, not to call the police or an ambulance. They head for the nearest lottery vendor, to buy the ticket that corresponds to the crash victim's car number.

The belief of many Singaporeans is that bad luck, like lightning, never strikes the same place, or number, twice. A number linked to a tragedy (flight numbers of air crashes arefavourites) can turn out to be incredibly lucky, I was told.

Traffic accidents don't happen often in Singapore. Including taxes, an ordinary car can cost upwards of £60,000, so Singaporeans drive as cautiously as mice. There are a lot of punters and, with a scarcity of car crashes, these gamblers are always on the prowl for someone else's bad fortune they can stick a number to. Whenever anyone dies, people pass by to offer condolences. Invariably, the visitor asks: "Exactly how old was he? No? Impossible. I'd have said 10 years younger. And he died when? Saturday? Hmm, that was the 10th. Well, I'm so sorry for you and your family. I must be going."

If anyone has had bad luck in Singapore lately, it has been Barings and the trader Nick Leeson, who brought the merchant bank crashing down. I imagine that the Barings collapse has prod uced a stack of new lottery numbers for Singaporeans.

What number might they choose? The amount Mr Leeson lost, more than £900m, is too large for a lottery ticket. A betting friend said he was toying with the so-called secret account number, 88888, used by Mr Leeson, or even with the trader's age, 28. I suggested a combination of age and waist measurement, since Mr Leeson seemed fond of removing his trousers in discos, but my friend was not amused. Choosing a lottery number is a serious science.

"Maybe I should wait till Leeson's brought back and convicted," my Singaporean friend said. "Then I could bet on his jail-cell number."

Singaporeans do not not feel vindictive towards Mr Leeson, far less so than his fellow countrymen who were aghast that someone from a working- class background was trusted to handle vast amounts of cash.

To the meritocratic Singaporeans, the class aspect of the Barings disaster was very English and alien. For them, what counted was Mr Leeson's skill as a gambler. Losing billions of dollars made them wonder whether Mr Leeson was brilliant or incredibly dumb.

Very smart, thought many Singaporeans, who say his bosses were the stupid ones, blinded by the hope of fat bonuses the boy from the Watford council estate would earn for them. It was pointed out to me that the Barings catastrophe might not have arisen if Mr Leeson's superiors had not put their offices on the 24th floor of the Ocean Tower skyscraper in Singapore, a very inauspicious number to the Chinese, who associate numbers ending in four with death.

I mentioned the barbaric practice of hanging around road accidents and taking registration numbers to an acquaintance. "Yes," she agreed. "It's shocking, profiting from others' misfortunes, and so illogical, too. I prefer using frogs.

"Frogs are lucky for me. Whenever I dream of frogs, I buy a lottery ticket," she said, taken aback that I was not familiar already with her frog-betting scheme.

She explained her frog formula. A dead frog was equal to a zero, while an ordinary frog was worth a four. "Sometimes I'll dream of a frog with a broken leg, that's a number three. It can get pretty difficult, I tell you, when they're all hopping like mad," she said. How many times did she dream of frogs? "Not many. Two or three times a year. But," she added with a satisfied smile, "I always win." Take note, Nick Leeson. Next time, dream of frogs.

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