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gather together to provide 'co-operative' childcare, and parents can rotate working so that their skills do not get too outdated.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.

===

became:

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.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Let children from all backgrounds have access to opportunities to nurture talents

This was published in Todayonline Voices on 14th June. Not possible to give the specific (deep) link. Neither Straits Times nor Todayonline was prepared to use the word 'Marxist' and the guiding light to my social analysis was reduced to nought.

The original here:

According to the “French Marxist* sociologist” Henri Lefebvre, binary oppositions do not always help in social analysis. (*Lefebvre, a scholar of Marxist theory, was expelled by the French Communist Party.)

Instead he formulated a system of triadic dialectics. Like a tripod that holds your camera steady, a triad of concepts – a heuristic tripod – allows us to investigate relationships, causes and effects.

In debating inequalities, the question of whether it is ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’ that brings about social mobility is missing a third leg: ‘opportunities’.

This is what middle-class parents do: buy opportunities (tuition, enrichment, moving into school catchment areas) to maximize opportunities for their children.

I wish for a Singapore where children from the poorest families can access those opportunities.

Take my English (for speakers of other languages) student “Hunta”, a refugee and cleaner who works split shifts starting at 4.30am.

Her sons opted to sit gruelling exams and gained admission to one of the best grammar (free) schools in Britain. Every year, 20 boys compete for each place at this school.

Hunta’s older son now studies in a Russell Group university. Her younger has been offered a place at Oxford. After means-testing, both are eligible for substantial fee reductions and other bursaries are required to pay only one-third of the usual fees.

But not every child is academically-gifted.

Our misplaced emphasis on academic brilliance as the only culturally-acceptable path to success has meant that we have lost some two generations of people who could have been trained to be skilled, well-paid AND RESPECTED artisans, technicians, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, designers, print-makers, chefs, specialist craftsmen (and women) in all areas of life.

Instead we now import people to do this work while our own languish. We had been trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

We have sacrificed the futures of these people at the altar of academic prowess and what parents thought – hoped – it could bring. The cycle repeats, and we wonder why our children are distressed.

My job as a parent is to seek out the opportunities to nurture the natural talents that my child has. The role of the government is to ensure that such access to opportunities is not blocked by the accident of one’s birth or gatekeeping interest groups.

We need a new mindset where we seek to discover – and accept – the natural gifts of our children – academic, sporting, technical, relational, or otherwise – no matter what their background might be, and then supply them with the opportunities to excel.

We need a (Swiss?) school system where small class sizes allow (teaching) professionals to identify talents in children.

How else might a cleaner’s son get to Oxford, or a gifted athlete to the Olympics?

==

The published version:
I refer to the report, "Government aiming for 'best of Singapore and Swiss' education system: Ong Ye Kung (June 7), and the recent discussions about tackling inequalities in our society.

In debating inequalities, the question of whether it is "nature" or "nurture" that brings about social mobility is missing a third leg: "opportunities".

This is what middle-class parents do: Buy opportunities (tuition, enrichment, moving into school catchment areas) to maximise opportunities for their children.

I wish for a Singapore where children from the poorest families can have access to those opportunities.

Our misplaced emphasis on academic brilliance as the foremost, culturally acceptable path to success has meant that we have lost some two generations of people who could have been trained to be skilled, well-paid and respected artisans, technicians, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, designers, print-makers, chefs, specialist craftsmen (and women) in all areas of life.

Instead, we now import people to fill these positions and more. We had been trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

We have directed people to chase after academic prowess and what parents thought or hoped it could bring. The cycle repeats, and we wonder why our children are distressed.

A parent's job is to seek out the opportunities to nurture the natural talents that their children have. The role of the Government is to ensure that such access to opportunities is not blocked by the accident of one's birth or gatekeeping interest groups.

We need a new mindset where we seek to discover and accept the natural gifts of our children — be they academic, sporting, technical, relational, or otherwise — no matter what their background might be, and then supply them with the opportunities to excel.

We need a school system where small class sizes allow teaching professionals to identify talents in children.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Teach disadvantaged families how to help themselves

Published in Straits Times here.

Original as follows:

From my infrequent visits back to Singapore, it appears that the meritocratic system my generation benefitted from has all but disappeared. Boundaries have become entrenched. Upward social mobility has become increasingly difficult.

I agree with Prof Teo You Yenn that we need to understand the individual personal and familial circumstances of those at the bottom of our social hierarchy before we can help them.

In my voluntary role in Greater London I have had to deal with too many clients whose families are trapped in a vicious circle of debt (it usually starts with a small high-interest loan or credit card debt), unemployment (uncompetitive because of their low skills), poor health (depression arising from unemployment, other health issues from abuse of drugs or medicines) and a lack of education which means they did not even know where to start looking for help.

As a result, children suffer from poor housing/homelessness, poor nutrition, poor attendance at school (they do not dare open the doors to bailiffs chasing legitimate debts), and ultimately a lack of qualifications.

Despite all the resources thrown at them by schools which get a ‘premium’ for disadvantaged children, free health (NHS) and free education, these children still fail to thrive.

Meanwhile taxpayers are disbursing huge benefits payments for unemployment, housing, health issues (mental and physical) that seem to offer an abysmal ROI (return on investment).

And we haven’t even touched on the issue of crime that results from such dire circumstances.

In my ideal world, I will send in a mentor – not necessarily a social worker, retired management consultants may apply – to identify what their skills and resources are, why these are under-utilized, and arrive at a holistic 12-/18-/24-month plan to get both the adults and children back onto a level playing field (debt-free, employed, in good physical and mental health).

From my perspective as a social anthropologist, such families cannot be freed from such ‘benefits traps’, ‘poverty traps’ or ‘inequality traps’ until they have been helped to help themselves (ie NOT to reproduce these cultural patterns).

Sometimes it could as simple as knowing how to discipline children, what to feed them, or perhaps even learning how to cook.