Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Oxford Days/Daze

16th August 2018, the third Thursday of August, was when the 'A' Level results were announced. Imagine my excitement when my son sent me a message to confirm that he had got the grades (and better) to get to Oxford to study Classics.

I probably danced a jig and punched the air a few times. I was alone, in postgraduate accommodation at a Russell Group university in the East Midlands, having decided to take up a contract job teaching English. The years of staying at home to give him the best start in life, and subsequently to manage the son's issues ... vindicated at last! Woohoo! 

Son and husband arrived the following afternoon and we had a great time celebrating at a lovely Thai restaurant. Sadly, the following day, the husband was taken ill, but that is a different story.

On 30th September we dropped the son off at Oxford. Almost literally. We were allowed to stop on a narrow one-way street, unload his gear, and the husband drove off to the Park-and-ride. Meanwhile a couple of second-year students, including the president of the JCR, appeared to help him carry his gear to his room.

Within minutes I was told by the son that it was OK for me to leave. But I could not. I had to find out where the husband was to decide the next step. In the end we decided that it was pointless for him to bus back to the college. I crossed the road to a waiting bus and hopped on it to get to the Park-and-ride.

That was it.

Eighteen years of preparing our child for what he wants to do. He decided that he wanted to go to a boarding school; we created opportunities to get him there. He worked out the scholarship system and got himself there.

Then he decided to get to Oxford, and he's there now. OK, so he wants to be a stand-up comic ....

Over the summer he's learned to cook and proved himself when he became nurse, cook and housekeeper when his dad fell ill and I could not get home. Even after I got home he was keen to show off his cookery skills. (I think God's timing was perfect in this: son did not have a choice but step into the breach.)

Officially he's an adult. He signs all his own contracts. I am now officially redundant from my parenting duties. Though I won't stop being a mother. This was why I decided to get a paid job, even if only for the summer, in the hope that it might open doors to other jobs.

Coincidentally I was at Oxford the week before 'drop-off' to present a paper at an anthropology conference. I sat in a number of sessions which were hugely boring. Ironic, as I had just been teaching incoming postgraduate students how to make effective presentations and here I had numerous PhDs/post-PhDs personify the cure to insomnia.

Anyhow, it was from running around the high street at Oxford that I learned precisely how the 'drop-off' was going to happen, having spoken to a porter at son's college.

Feeling vindicated.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Help from NTUC Enterprise can be a way to ease poverty

PUBLISHED in The Straits times
OCT 3, 2018, 5:00 AM SGT

Singaporeans of my generation associate the NTUC with supermarket chain FairPrice, which, as the name suggests, was started to ensure that ordinary citizens do not have to pay over the odds for staples such as rice.

Should NTUC Enterprise acquire food centre operator Kopitiam, I hope it can exercise its not-insignificant economic muscle to scale up social enterprise via the latter.

For those of us who are unaware or have forgotten, getting a licence to sell cooked food was, for many, a dignified way out of poverty.

Many hawkers and canteen stallholders were often disadvantaged people who worked really hard to provide people with cheap food and, this way, feed their own families.

Families who might have, in another economy, become dependent on welfare benefits, have nurtured doctors, lawyers and other professionals through such hard and sweaty work.

This platform for alleviating poverty disappeared when the Housing Board started awarding coffee-shop leases to the highest bidder. I wonder if the same fate has befallen stallholders in school and university canteens.

The NTUC Enterprise can reverse this trend by setting aside a significant portion of future Kopitiam contracts for Singaporeans who are undergoing financial hardship to operate food stalls or provide related services in their food outlets at affordable rents. They could even be given interest-free loans to start up food stalls.

I have read of single parents who have to make the choice between working several jobs and caring for their children. Running a food (or dry goods) stall is a very good alternative. In many developing countries microloans to widows to start small businesses have helped them cut this Gordian knot.

Such help to these families will not happen if financial profit remains the sole objective. I urge the NTUC Enterprise to consider social enterprise as a way to combat poverty and unemployment.


A response:

NTUC has lost sight of original purpose

Friday, 13 July 2018

Hawker culture reducing people's ability to cook

UPDATE: I'm amused by the interest generated on the Straits Times FB. In answer to questions raised: I do try to grow my own food. Not always successful, but I experiment, any way. My son is trying to cook as much as possible for the family before he starts university in September (see below). I am officially unemployed but I do run a hobby business from home and do a lot of unpaid work for the local community.

What's come out of this discussion is that couples and families are too caught up in jobs. Why? To fund their property. If HDB flats are zero-valued after 99 years, and we live much longer these days, is it worth working so hard, missing precious family times, not eating properly and thus storing up health issues, so that we could … what? I have a vision of guinea pigs in their spinning wheels. Why do we bother?

That said, we have not been on a family holiday for several years.

Maybe we need another model for family life. Perhaps a few mothers or families gather together to provide 'co-operative' childcare, and parents can rotate working so that their skills do not get too outdated. Thinking outside the box ...


A funny thing happened on the way to the ST Forum page.

My original letter:

Hawker food is not the root of the problem

When I get home to Singapore I binge on hawker food.

It fills me with sadness to learn that hawker food is being ‘nutritionally sanitized’.

On the rare occasion that I eat cheese I want full-fat cheese, not ‘skinny’ or ‘reduced fat’ cheese which tastes awful and is chewy.

The operative word is ‘rare’.

Hawker food was not designed for everyday consumption. It was a treat for me to have a bowl of wanton noodles, for example.

The growing trend however is for individuals and whole families to eat out most days of the week, and then stuff themselves with even more store-bought confectionaries on others.

The effects of this trend?

(1) Kitchens are shrinking. When trying to buy a property in Singapore I found flats with only galley kitchens, with two gas rings.

“How does one cook a proper meal for a family with only two gas rings?” The agent’s “most Singaporean eat out” did not help.

(2) The ‘variety’ of eating outlets is wider because people are tired of eating the same hawker foods.

My issue with such newer foods is they are not ‘authentic’, but made-up and expensive, capitalizing on the punter’s desire for something different.

Economically, no real money is being generated. It is just shifting money from one pocket (yours) to another (owners of these eateries) who then cry out for more cheap, foreign workers, with which the electorate is unhappy.

(3) Young people have lost the ability to cook. People ‘ooh and aah’ at the fact that I cook rice on the hob. No rice cooker. Because I’ve learned from the best: my mum.

It is not difficult to cook a balanced nutritious meal from scratch. When parents do not cook and/or leave this to a maid, reducing cooking to ‘service’ work unsuitable for young sirs and madams, children stop learning.

What better opportunities for ‘enrichment’ then using a cooking experience to discuss maths (fractions, division, multiplication) and science (states of water, physical and chemical change, esters and aldehydes) with our children?

[For me, this is the most important line.] So please do not ‘skinny’ my lardy char kway teow. I want fat on my Hainanese chicken and oodles of coconut milk on the nasi lemak.

Thanking you in advance.



It fills me with sadness to read recent discussions on making hawker food "nutritionally sanitised" (ST looks at healthy hawker eats in first part of series on diabetes; June 19).
Hawker food was not designed for everyday consumption. It was a treat for me to have a bowl of wonton noodles, for example.
The growing trend, however, is for individuals and whole families to eat out most days of the week, and then stuff themselves with even more store-bought confectioneries on others.
One effect of this trend is that kitchens are shrinking.
When trying to buy a property in Singapore, I found flats with only galley kitchens, with two gas rings.
There is also a wider variety of eateries because people are tired of eating the same hawker foods.
My issue with such newer foods is they are not authentic, but are made-up and expensive instead, capitalising on the punter's desire for something different.
Young people have also lost the ability to cook. It is not difficult to cook a balanced, nutritious meal from scratch.
When parents do not cook or leave this to a maid, reducing cooking to "service work", children stop learning.
What better opportunity for enrichment than using a cooking experience to discuss maths, like fractions, division and multiplication, and science, such as states of water, physical and chemical change, with our children?

Son's first attempt at stuffed peppers (with some help from Mum)

UPDATE: 19th July 2018. Son and I made pizza from scratch. I started a dough early this morning. Son had done the shopping yesterday and he chopped everything that needed chopping today. Took turns to cook the pizza sauce. End-result? Delicious pizzas although one got stuck on the tray as I forgot it is not a non-stick tray. With husband, we had such a great meal (plus apple crumble from leftover apples) and we thought hmmm, we must do that again. Now we are left with chopped up vegetables. These will go into a stir-fry with leftover rice from yesterday. Husband is left with a lot of washing-up to do. :)  

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Boosting Singapore football has to start with fans (or does it?)

The title to this letter seems completely incongruent to what I had originally written, below:

Everyone has hypotheses about Gareth Southgate and the way he had/s brought success to the England football team.

I had stopped watching football for a long time, sick and tired of the thuggery on the pitch.

The last time I saw ‘intelligent’ precision football being played by the England team was a long time ago, under the management of Terry Venables. Southgate was a member of Venables’s team and he famously missed a penalty kick in the UEFA Euro 1996 semi-final against Germany.

Commentators seem to agree that the current young England team have been playing intelligently and with discernible teamwork. My view is that Southgate has managed to transfer some of this intelligent playing learned from the venerable Venables to his current young team.

At post-match interviews after beating Sweden I found the goal-scorers completely without airs and who spoke in good standard English, quite the opposite to the prima donnas that dominated English football post-Venables.

These were young men, intelligent, respectful and skilled, wanting to make the country proud, and they know that the only way to do this is to work as a team, something the aforementioned prima donnas seemed to have forgotten.

What this team has shown is that a game like football (or any equivalent organization) requires not team members that are paid so much money that there is no reason to get out of bed. For so many years, being called up to play for England was an inconvenience to Premier League footballers, not an honour or even duty.

A national team needs a vision (winning the World Cup, or close, as I write), and what could a lowly-paid manager offer players who make so much more money then you?

England had experimented with paying over-the-top incentives to ‘foreign talent’ managers with abysmal results.

Southgate was considered ‘inexperienced’ when he was picked, and he himself pushed the envelope when he picked the current ‘inexperienced’ team.

Southgate’s failure in his Euro96 spot-kick broke him, but unlike Humpty Dumpty, he and those who believe in him were able to put him together again, stronger.

Others who know him better speak of his kindness, compassion and ability to empathize. For me, Southgate is the personification of tenacity, reminding me of an English politician who famously said, “Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man.”

What lessons might we in Singapore learn from this England team?

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Main aim of orientation activities is to help newcomers settle in

This letter published here. The original (hastily written) was:

What is, or should be, the objective of student orientation?

With reference to the recent criticism of errant student activities, let me recount how one young man successfully resurrected a school tradition that was “allowed to go extinct” for good reasons.

This young man observed that to thrive in his school, it was critical that newcomers learned certain basic facts such as locations for various school activities, the names of the other school houses, trivia about the seniors (the best person to go to for specific types of advice), and so forth.

A previous tradition of testing newcomers on these facts had been banned as it had, due to ‘mission creep’, descended into bullying without checks and balances in place.

Having studied the history of this banned practice, he saw the benefits of a good orientation programme. He worked to revive this banned tradition, or at least the good bits of it.

He felt that old-timers and newcomers could enjoy a good orientation not just by having fun at the expense of the newcomers. He proposed modifications to this tradition which has at its core ‘fun at the expense of everyone’.

In translation, both old-timers (the mentors) and newcomers have rights and responsibilities, with the ultimate aim of helping newcomers settle and giving both new and old the opportunities to learn about one another.

After all, these students have to live in close proximity in surrogate sibling groups during term time.

‘Orientation’ is not about humiliation, nor is it bullying. It is about helping newcomers find their feet. It should be measured by how well it prepares them for a successful life in the organization (school, university, office, etc) they are joining.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Time needed to build up a school's brand

The original How to make every school a good school was published here. My original text below:

As an anthropologist, I am intrigued as to why old boys and girls of ‘branded’ schools maintain ties and traditions (rituals, songs, ethos) wherever the school is re-located, whilst those from neighbourhood schools don’t, or can’t.

Is it because ‘neighbourhood schools’ lack a ‘creation myth’? Or a sense of achievement, of history, or continuity?

All my schools had been flattened.

Falling enrolment, as will happen in any maturing estate, means that schools that had educated generations of locals are forced to close.

Tiong Bahru Primary, with its unique architecture, is now a power station. My classmate wept the day he watched the buildings come down.

Raffles Girls has a totally new set of buildings on prime land.

Ironically, we are now fundraising again because it is moving to Westlake, where I had spent a year as a pioneering Nanyang Junior College student.

I’m actually pleased that new architecture has replaced the original aesthetically-challenged Nanyang buildings.

How sad it must be for JC pioneers down the years when it was announced that their JCs were going to close or be merged.

A lack of ‘creation myth’ notwithstanding (other than one of need), each batch of JC pioneers had striven to ‘make tradition’.

But why would students and teachers in neighbourhood schools bother to become the good or even elite schools of tomorrow if these schools could be closed at a whim (‘bureaucratic convenience’)?

Large countries have to deal with rural-urban migration. Singaporeans migrate from older to newer estates because of the HDB 99-year lease.

A falling enrolment is the perfect opportunity to extend the JC environment and facilities to secondary and even primary school pupils: show (non-)aspiring children the pathway to higher education.

Why not let neighbourhood schools and JCs age in place and grace?

Instead of closing them, I will reduce class sizes. 

Achievement (not the same as exam results) will improve as children are given their due attention. A ‘brand’ develops.

Previous pupils will send their children there, close to the grandparents, strengthening old school ties. New families moving into the catchment area will rejuvenate the neighbourhood.

If we can have ethnicity-based quotas, we can also have ‘family-age’ quotas, and perhaps even monetary incentives to move into ageing estates.

Schools are not factories. Tradition in schools can happen if there is political will to let it.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Value, develop each child's unique talent

Published in Straits Times here.

The original To dream (too) big:

Until I saw framed photos of people in ‘funny gowns and square hats’ in the Tiong Bahru home of a Christian family hosting local school children in the 1970s, I did not know there was such a thing called ‘university’.

Years later while conducting fieldwork in a factory, Mary asked if ‘big school’ (‘university’ in Mandarin) is the same as ‘secondary four’.

‘O’ levels were beyond the imagination of this incredibly gifted seamstress. How was she to inspire her children to ‘dream big’; aspire to university?

The converse is also a problem: parents forcing their children to dream ‘too big’; aspirational parents who are ignorant of a wide range of careers that their children could aspire to (podiatrists, phlebotomists, paralegal, product designer, personal shopper).

When we insist that anything less than becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer is ‘failure’, we condemn children to a stressful and unhappy childhood.

We need just as much – and therefore appropriate rewards and respect should be accorded – people with excellent service skills to give customers a memorable shopping or dining experience.

But let us not throw out the baby with the bath water. Exams can open doors to ‘poor children’.

Take my English (for speakers of other languages) student Hunta, a refugee and cleaner.

Her sons could have gone to a secondary school assigned by the local council. Instead these aspirational young men chose to sit gruelling exams which gained them admission to possibly the best free grammar school, where 20 boys compete for each place.

Hunta’s older son is already in a Russell Group university. Her younger has been offered a place at Oxford. As a ‘poor’ household, both qualify for substantial financial assistance.

If we view each child as a ‘gift to the nation’, each should be valued for the totality of their natural talents. We need smaller class sizes where professionals (teachers, careers advisers, psychologists) can identify these talents (academic, sporting, artistic, relational or otherwise).

Then, working closely with parents (eg signposting to opportunities and funding), we invest in developing these talents to the fullest.

Only then can we (again) get children of factory workers to top schools and universities, the athletes and artists that make our nation proud, and the service staff who will make it pleasurable for everyone to spend their hard-earned money.