Say this aloud: “Putting Green First”.

Now, you may have pronounced the first word as “poo-ting” – meaning to place something in a particular spot – and think the phrase might mean to give priority to environmental concerns.

Or you may have said “putt-ing”, imagining a space of closely trimmed grass with a small hole into which you are trying to sink a dimpled white ball using a club called a putter.

That’s one way to distinguish between golfers and the rest of humanity. This dividing line can be a chasm. Golfers and naturalists have quarrelled about priorities in allocating scarce land in Singapore, especially around the reservoirs.

Those who play say the game is difficult and compulsive, and yet can also be calming, meditative. Many also extol its benefits, saying that golf lubricates business and networking by allowing prolonged, informal exchange during some four hours per game, not counting drinks and chatter afterwards at the so-called 19th hole.

Take, for instance, the America-Singapore free-trade agreement. This was first discussed during a round of golf, played past midnight in Brunei on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit. As then prime minister Goh Chok Tong recounts, the decision was reached only 20 minutes after the game (not known is whether he or Bill Clinton won).

Ever more Asians are taking up the game. This growth is driven (pardon the pun) largely by India and China, despite the fact that Mao Zedong himself had banned golf and made it illegal to build private courses.

The one exception is Japan, where spending on the game has steadily declined since the country’s property bubble burst. Today, despite the boom of Abenomics, some idle courses are being converted to generate solar power. Golfers are indeed putting green first and finding a “fairway” to make money.

Golf or chilli?
For me, although friends rave about it, I just don’t get golf (let alone the way-too-colourful trousers). But it’s not ideological. There are quite a few things that many think obvious that leave me puzzled.

Take chilli. To some, the red in our flag is a chilli red and the sickle-shaped moon and stars represent the chilli’s shape and its seeds. Singapore is a chilli nation. So let me say quickly that as a Peranakan, and on behalf of just about everyone who likes to eat, I am certainly not in favour of bland food.

But I do worry that chilli is becoming a singular obsession. More and more is being put into our food and some boast of how high they can go on the Scoville heat scale that measures chilli intensity.

Even Thai food, which is certainly fiery, seems more chilli hot in Singapore, whereas in Bangkok, there seems to be more balance with other flavours and spices.

So, are our taste buds becoming one-dimensional? Our language betrays us. The word “spicy” should mean that the dish combines some of the many types of spices, ranging from the A of anise to the Z of the Za’atar blend of thyme, sumac and sesame seeds used in many Middle Eastern dishes. Instead, when we say something is spicy, most just mean that the dish is chilli hot.

This can irritate and, indeed, in extreme cases, make your blood boil and you gasp for air. Such reactions are the natural response to chilli. Its chemical base constituent – the capsaicinoid – stings our tissues and can make the mouth and lungs swell. There are also urban legends that one can die from a chilli overdose. Maybe not, but too much can certainly make you feel miserable – whether immediately or the day after.

Moreover, chilli is not even native to Asia. It first came from the Americas with the Portuguese navigators who circumnavigated the world by sea and, while their empire did not last, chilli became a permanent feature in the Asian kitchen – ironic, since Europeans came out to Asia to look for spices.

Spice of life
So, if we don’t want to get into these obsessions – golf and chilli – what alternatives are there?

For chilli, get a spice rack with the widest range of spices. Also add a copy of the Dictionary of Cuisine by Alexandre Dumas. Yes, the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo was also a formidable gastronome and masterful cook in his day, and his book tours the alphabet, “from absinthe (and how to make it) to zest (and how to use it)”.

The dictionary spans some 150 years and intersperses recipes with meditations on the art, science and psychology of cuisine. Dumas even created a taxonomy of appetite – distinguishing hunger that cares little about quality, to that feeling when we eye or smell something delicious, and finally to seductive indulgence, like that irresistible dessert, when we logically know we have had more than enough.

One word that his dictionary does not cover is “umami”. This borrowed Japanese word describes a rich, savoury taste which has now been accepted as a fifth taste – distinct from salty, sweet, sour and bitter.

Yet, while the scientific recognition of umami is recent, it has always hovered as an unnamed delight. Fish sauce, rich in umami, is not just a Thai thing – the ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed garum (or liquamen), a fermented anchovy sauce.

Since they say variety is the spice of life, perhaps we can agree that variety in spice can be part of our lives. Alternatives to golf, however, may be harder to find, especially when you consider its social and networking opportunities and charity games.

Putting green first, how about going on a cycling trip, along the new park connectors around Singapore. Along the way, we can see how urban planning means more than skyscrapers and expressways, and that our city is also a tropical island.

When I chaired the Government’s National Environment Agency, some organised bike rides went into catchment and green areas normally reserved for army training. There was also a charity jog-run on Pulau Semakau, which is filled by incinerated ash from our rubbish and yet is a verdant island.
It’s easy to say that this won’t catch on. Certainly, nature walks a la Wordsworth belong to a cooler, drier clime, and that some might get hot and swollen from mosquito bites in our forests.

True luxury
Trace the origins of the modern golf game, and many will hark back to Scotland and the near-mythic course of Saint Andrews. It is about as far north as Moscow, and the weather can feel near zero deg C even in spring and early summer, especially when the wind effect is factored in.

So transplanting golf to Singapore and the tropics should, at first, have seemed every bit as alien as the countryside walk-jog-cycle. If one habit can catch on, perhaps the other might too – and if, at the 19th hole, we don’t eat something that’s too chilli-laden, perhaps we won’t get too hot and swollen.

Whether it is golf, chilli or whatever else that seems obvious today, the norm that many people accept wasn’t always so. Nor was the habit always native. That doesn’t mean you should turn away from these pastimes and habits.

But it does give us space to explore choices and alternatives. Only when we don’t get the things that are obvious and normal might we find that special something else that we personally treasure as a true luxury.